Matthew probably wrote his gospel around the year 90. That’s about sixty years after Jesus; sixty years from the time of the life of Jesus to the time of Matthew’s telling of the story. Have you ever thought about what happened during those six decades that may have shaped Matthew’s version of the gospel?
None of us knows for sure, of course, but scholars do a good job of uncovering clues and offering helpful theories about how the writings of Scripture were composed and edited and placed together to form the Christian Canon. Here are some very broad brushstrokes:
- Jesus walked and talked and lived and died as a Jew in Palestine around the year 30, and even while he was alive, stories about him began to circulate. After his death, Jesus’ people were passionate to continue to tell the stories and share their faith that Jesus was, in fact, the one whom God had sent: the Messiah, the Christ. Some of these faithful Jews told stories of his teachings, some told about his miracles; some people repeated his parables and some made sure the story of his martyrdom was well known near and far.
- It was around the year 35, that Saul the Pharisee (while persecuting these Jesus people) was encountered by the Risen Christ on a road to Damascus. Then Saul-turned-Paul began a significant and far-flung mission to non-Jews, the “Gentiles.” Paul traveled extensively and wrote letters that reflected the understanding of the meaning of the Christ event from his Pauline perspective.
- Around the year 70, Mark wrote the first gospel. Mark may well have created this genre, this type of writing that communicated the good news about the Christ in a manner very different from the isolated stories of the oral tradition and the letters from the Pauline tradition. Mark gathered together many of the various stories of miracles, parables and teachings and wove them into a chronological narrative.
- Also around the year 70, the Jewish people in Palestine were embroiled in a war with Rome. The land was devastated and Jerusalem was leveled. This is when the great Temple was destroyed and still has not been rebuilt to this day. Because of the destruction of the Temple, Judaism was in turmoil. The Temple sect (the Sadducees, previous movers and shakers of Israel) lost power and the Pharisees stepped into the leadership void. Jews who did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah were increasingly in tension with their fellow Jews who did accept Jesus as the Christ. In some cases, Jewish Christians were ousted from their synagogues and the bitterness grew.
- Around the year 90, Matthew took Mark’s gospel with its basic outline and chronology and added other Jesus stories from the various oral traditions. There is a birth narrative and a Sermon on the Mount, for example (both rendered quite differently between Matthew and Luke, by the way). Probably Matthew and his community came from Antioch in Syria far to the north of Jerusalem. Probably Matthew and his tradition were closely aligned with Peter and possibly at odds with the tradition advocated by Paul. It’s likely that Matthew and his community continued many Jewish practices as they accepted Jesus as their promised Messiah.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…Matthew 1:1
Thus Matthew begins his story. From the opening words, Matthew places Jesus squarely in the middle of his Jewish tradition. Jesus is Messiah, Christ, the One Anointed by God to speak and act definitively in God’s name. He is son of David, the great king. He is son of Abraham, the father of all nations. From the opening to the close of Matthew’s story, Jesus is the faithful Jew living totally in God’s will.
Besides placing Jesus within the tradition of Abraham and David, Matthew also fixes Jesus firmly in the line of Moses. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, there are numerous comparisons between Moses, the Law Giver, and Jesus, the one who fulfills, completes, affirms and accomplishes the Law. (Some of those associations are discussed in another Living in The Story blog: The Law of the Lord.) Just as there are five books in the Pentateuch (the Books of Moses) so there are five major discourses of Jesus in Matthew. Just as Moses experienced significant events on mountaintops, so Jesus is pictured on the mountain of the great sermon, on the mountain of transfiguration and on the mountain of his farewell in the final verses of Matthew’s story. The coupling of Jesus and Moses gives a telling insight about Matthew’s Christology, his understanding of the Christ.
Besides seeing Jesus as the one who fulfills the Law, Matthew also sees Jesus’ whole life as fulfilling the whole of Scripture. Some 61 times in 28 chapters, Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures directly. Numerous other times, he paraphrases and alludes to sayings and images that come from the Old Testament: 294 allusions, more than ten in each chapter. Since Matthew is steeped in his tradition of Judaism, as he reflects on the life of Jesus and the meaning of the Christ event in light of the ancient Scriptures, he cannot help but see connections. This is the framework within which Matthew tells The Story.
And it is a story beautifully told. The fact that this gospel is placed first within the Canon of the New Testament says something about the way it was honored by the early Christian community. The Gospel according to Matthew bridges the gap between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. Matthew introduces Jesus as the one who continues the tradition of Abraham, Moses and David while at the same time transforming the tradition, opening it up to non-Jews. Now the call for Abraham’s descendants to become a “blessing for the nations” has become – in Jesus Christ – a reality.
Besides being our most “Jewish” gospel, Matthew also is the most “churchly” gospel. Mark and Luke and John say nothing about the ekklesia, the called-out community that came to be known as “church” but Matthew uses the word twice. Of course all the gospel writers are telling the story to their various congregations from within their various traditions, but it’s interesting to see the way Matthew places the later reality of his church community within the story of Jesus a generation earlier.
That’s a good reminder that all of the gospels are written with a kind of dual vision: both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus can be recognized in the telling of these stories. The Jesus of the gospels is always both the 30 A.D. Jesus and the Crucified and Resurrected Christ.
It’s also a good reminder that none of these gospels was written to offer objective history. Matthew (and the other writings of the Bible) are confessions of faith, written by believers for believers. Instead of objective history, think of them as theological history or historical theology. In this way of understanding canonical sacred storytelling (whether some of these events happened in time and space or not), the stories still speak deep and profound truth. The stories tell us something immensely true about the God made known in Jesus the Christ and something very true about ourselves.
Matthew ends his story on a mountain with the resurrected Jesus giving final instructions to his disciples:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
- The Jesus who fulfilled the Law is now the final authority in heaven and earth.
- The Jesus who emerged from a particular people and a specific tradition is now the Christ for all the nations.
- The Jesus who died is now with us always – to the end of the world.
- And for Matthew, the Spirit of the Risen Christ continues to speak within and to the church.
My thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. M. Eugene Boring. His commentary on Matthew in The New Interpreters’ Bible (volume 8) has been very helpful. (Abingdon Press, 1995).