Chapter 9:<B> </B>The Gospel According to Matthew

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 9:<B> </B>The Gospel According to Matthew

The Christian movement had failed in its first campaign. ‘The nation in which it had arisen and to which its founder belonged had disowned it. It was as though the Israelites had refused Moses. This was the more staggering because the gospel had been represented by Jesus’ early followers as the crown and completion of Judaism. Jesus was to be the Jewish Messiah, through whom the nation’s high hopes of spiritual triumph were to be realized. But the Jews had refused to recognize in him the long-expected deliverer, and had disclaimed his gospel. Who was right? The prophets had anticipated a redeemed and glorified nation, but the nation had refused to be redeemed and glorified by such a Messiah. The divine program had broken down.

Yet the gospel was not failing. Among the Greeks of the Roman Empire it was having large and increasing success. Strangers were taking the places which the prophets had expected would be occupied by their own Jewish countrymen. The church was rapidly becoming a Greek affair. The Gentiles had readily accepted the Messiah and made him their own. To a Christian thinker of Jewish training this only increased the difficulty of the problem. For how could the messiahship of Jesus be harmonized with the nation’s rejection of him? The prophets had associated the messianic deliverer with the redeemed nation, but the event of history had disappointed this hope. What did it mean? Were the prophets wrong, or was Jesus not the Messiah? Paul had seen the difficulty, and in writing to the Romans had proposed a solution. It was in effect that the Jews would ultimately turn to the gospel, and so all Israel would be saved. Yet since the writing of Romans the breach between Jews and Christians had widened, and Paul’s solution seemed more improbable than ever.

But an event had now happened which put a new aspect on the matter. Jerusalem had fallen. The downfall of the Jewish nation put into the hand of the evangelist the key to the mystery. Jesus was the Messiah of the prophets. He had offered the Kingdom of Heaven to the Jews, finally presenting himself as Messiah before the assembled nation in its capital at its great annual feast. Misled by its religious leaders, the nation had rejected him and driven him to his death. But in this rejection it had condemned itself. God had rejected Israel and the kingdom it had disowned had been given to the nations. In the fall of Jerusalem the evangelist saw the punishment of the Jewish nation for its rejection of the Messiah, and in this fact the proof that the gospel was intended for all nations.

The vehicle for this trenchant and timely philosophy of early Christian history was to be a book. It may be called the first book of Christian literature, for Paul’s writings, great as they are, are letters, not books, and Mark for all its value is hardly to be dignified as a book, in the sense of a conscious literary creation. This book was to be a life of the Messiah, which should articulate the gospel with the Jewish scriptures and legitimize the Christian movement. For this purpose a variety of materials lay ready to the evangelist’s hand. The narrative we know as Mark was familiar to him. He had also a collection of Jesus’ sayings which may have borne the name of the apostle Matthew, and one or two other primitive documents of mingled discourse and incident. The mere possession of these partial and unrelated writings was in itself a challenge to harmonize and even combine them, just as our Four Gospels have ever since their origin invited the harmonist and the biographer.

With a freedom and a skill that are alike surprising, the evangelist has wrought these materials into the first life of Christ. Perhaps it might better be called the first historic apology for universal Christianity. For it is a biography with a purpose. Jesus, though legally descended from Abraham through the royal line of David, is really begotten of the Holy Spirit, a symbol at once of his sinlessness and his sonship. Divinely acknowledged as Messiah at his baptism, and victorious over Satan in the temptation conflict, he declares his message in a series of great sermons, setting forth in each some notable aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the first of these, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demands of those who would enter the new Kingdom a righteousness higher than that based by the scribes upon the Jewish law, and he follows this bold demand with a series of prophetic and messianic acts which show his right to make it. The Jewish leaders are unconvinced and quickly become hostile. His nearest disciples at length recognize in him the Messiah, and he welcomes this expression of their faith. Soon afterward they gain a new idea of the spiritual and prophetic character of his messiahship through the transfiguration experience, in which they see him associated with Moses and Elijah, the great prophetic molders of the Jewish religion.

Already foreseeing the fatal end of his work, Jesus yet continues to preach in Galilee, and at length sets out for Jerusalem to put the nation to the supreme test of accepting or refusing his message. They refuse it, and he predicts the nation’s doom in consequence. The Kingdom of God shall be taken away from them and given to a nation that brings forth the fruits thereof.. The last discourses denounce the wickedness and hypocrisy of the nation’s religious leaders, and pronounce the doom of the city and nation, to be followed shortly by the triumphant return of the Messiah in judgment. The Jewish leaders, offended at his claims of authority, cause his arrest and execution. Yet on the third day he reappears to some women of the disciples’ company, and afterward to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, when he charges them to carry his gospel to all the nations.

Jesus had expressly confined his own work and that of his disciples, during his life, to the Jews, but since they had refused the gospel, his last command to his followers was to offer it henceforth to all mankind, and the curtain falls on the gospel of Matthew leaving Jesus an abiding presence with his disciples.

The Jewish war of 66-70 A.D., culminating in the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the last vestige of Jewish national life, must have brought what Jesus had said of these things powerfully before his followers’ minds, and shown them a welcome solution for the problem that perplexed them. Jesus had not come to destroy Law or prophets; his work and its fortunes stood in close relation with them. But as between the Jewish Messiah and the Jewish nation, the verdict of history had gone for the Messiah and against the nation, for the nation had already perished while he was coming to be worshipped all over the Greek world.

The obviousness of this solution to our minds is simply an evidence of the evangelist’s success in grappling with the problem, for we owe to him the solution that seems so simple and complete. Few any longer stop to think that a triumphant Messiah apart from a triumphant nation is hardly hinted at in the Old Testament. In this as in other respects the success of the book was early and lasting. As a life of the Messiah it swept aside all the partial documents its author had used as his sources. Most of them soon perished -- among them the Sayings attributed to Matthew the apostle -- probably because the evangelist had wrought into his book everything of evident worth that they contained. Even what we call the Gospel of Mark seems by the narrowest margin to have escaped destruction through neglect, and its escape is the more to be wondered at since practically all that it offered to the religious life of the early church had been taken up into this new life of Christ.

For the probably Jewish-Christian circle for which it was written the new book performed a threefold task. It solved, by its philosophy of Christian history, their most serious intellectual problem. It harmonized and unified their diverse materials relating to Jesus’ life and teaching. And it did these things with an intuitive sense for religious values that has given it its unique position ever since. Forty years after it was written it was quoted at Antioch as "the Gospel," being probably the first book to bear that name. Twenty years later, when the Ephesian leaders for some reason put together the Four Gospels, the first place among them was given to it, and its name was extended to the whole group. A new designation had therefore to be found for it, and it was distinguished as "according to Matthew," probably in recognition of that apostolic record on which it was believed to be based. Of its actual author, however, we know only that he was a Jewish Christian of insight and devotion, who preferred to remain unknown, and cared only to exalt the figure of Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God.