Brief introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

matthewMatthew’s gospel is the first book in the New Testament, but many modern scholars doubt that it was the first one written. Priority goes to St Mark, and it appears that Matthew made use of Mark at least as an outline. Commentaries differ in suggesting how much more he may have taken; some sections are the same word-for-word. Matthew is considerably longer, mostly because he puts in long sections of Jesus’ teaching. When he narrates a story, however, it usually is less detailed and sometimes less vivid than Mark’s. For an example of this, compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34.

Matthew and Luke also share some material that is not in Mark and probably have got it from the same sources. No written record has turned up for these passages, which are mostly sayings, and appear in differing parts of the two gospels. Some books use the designation ‘Q’ for these shared texts.

Each of the four gospels has its own theological take on the life of Jesus, and each writer shows a distinct personality. Matthew is the ‘most Jewish’ of all four. This is shown even in the language. Where Luke and Mark have ‘Kingdom of God’, Matthew usually has ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – as generally translated but literally ‘heavens’ which is a Semitic way of speaking. Jews tried to avoid using ‘God’ out of reverence and in line with the Second Commandment. All of the gospels use allusions to the Old Testament to show how they foreshadowed Jesus, but Matthew has more direct quotations, ten of them using the formula, ‘This happened to fulfil the words….’ There are many passages which suggest this more subtly.

But while noting the continuity of Jesus to the past, he also stresses that in Jesus there is something entirely new and unexpected. This appears from the opening of the Gospel in which Matthew gives his legal descent though Joseph from David and Abraham, but signals first some oddities in the past with the women in the genealogy. Then we read that Mary is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by a human father.

Matthew sometimes shows Jesus using the rabbinical style of debate and perhaps it is another Jewish feature to argue with other Jews. In his commentary on the gospel, Daniel J. Harrington takes the viewpoint that at the time Matthew wrote, he was contending with the followers of the Pharisees to be the rightful successors to the faith of the Old Testament, and this explains both why he stresses lasting parts of the Jewish Law but does not hesitate to show Jesus at other times making changes. ‘You have heard it said… but I say to you…’ is used a number of times in Matthew 5:17-48. Gentiles play an important part from the visit of the Magi on to the last words of Jesus. Harrington thinks that Matthew had in mind, as the recipients of his work, a mixed community of converted Jews and Gentiles.

Matthew takes a special interest in St Peter. Although he recounts Jesus rebuking him (16:21-23) and the denial during the Passion as does Mark, this is the only gospel with the ‘commission’ that on Peter Jesus will build his church (16:16-19). Matthew is also the only one of the four to use the word ‘church’.

Matthew makes a point of noting geographic locations, often tying them to an Old Testament prophecy, as Galilee in 4:12-16. Thus he gives them symbolic value.

A major feature of the gospel are the five sections of Jesus’ teaching, and these instructions for living as a disciple made it a favourite in the early church. Many of these words have also entered even into common speech. The best known of the five is ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ which takes up three chapters. It is Matthew who gives us our version of the ‘Our Father’ or ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and the ‘Beatitudes’ (5:1-10). Only in this gospel is the Last Judgement which has inspired so much Christian art. Although punishment for sin is part of Matthew’s faith, the parable of the Last Judgement is far more about how Jesus identifies himself with all those in need to the point where anything done for them is done for Jesus himself.

Besides the discourses, we see Matthew’s concern to show the preparation of the disciples and their need for discipline as part of Christian living. In this gospel, immediately after Jesus starts to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, he calls the first disciples (4:18-22). In this passage, which is very close to the words in Mark, we see Matthew’s curious fondness for twos: Mark has noted ‘Andrew the brother of Simon’ and ‘John the brother of John’ – presumably the oldest first. But Matthew while keeping these adds twice, ‘two brothers’. At other times, he doubles the number of those healed. Perhaps this comes from the Jewish Law that requires two witnesses.
The presence of Jesus even after his death is an important point for Matthew. Early in the Gospel, Matthew tells us Jesus is ‘God-with-us’ and the last words are ‘I am with you through all time.’ Also he records Jesus saying, ‘When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.’

Who is ‘Matthew’ the writer? The name comes from early tradition, and could be no more than a deduction from the fact that the name ‘Matthew’ is only in this gospel, in the call to the tax collector to ‘follow’ and as an Apostle, where in both cases Mark and Luke have the name ‘Levi’. It is possible that the tax collector is the author, or maybe the authority, behind the gospel but if so it is odd that so little seems to come from personal experience rather than so much from sources like Mark and those shared with Luke. Although we may not have biographical details, we can sense something of the writer by living closely with his work – he is careful, reverent, reflective and completely dedicated to Jesus and his teachings.

Date and location of the writing of the gospel are educated guesses, often suggested to be in the years 70-80 and in either Palestine or Syria both of which had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. There is some stress on Galilee in the gospel that may come from a community in that area.

For the liturgy, selections are chosen predominantly to fit into the feast structure of Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter season and therefore do not follow the book sequence as it appears in the Bible. At some time during the year I suggest reading it consecutively to have a sense of its form and development. For reflective reading, especially in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ it is better to take short passages, and see how they speak to you. (These verses seem to be collected rather than represent a talk given at one time, so they are not always related in topic or our idea of logic.)

There are numerous guides or commentaries with varying levels of scholarship and comment, and I find it hard to make a recommendation for everyone. There are good notes in the Jerusalem Bible. Books and pamphlets are at the Catholic book shops near Westminster Cathedral and online. I have a number of commentaries which I will be drawing on for the weekly notes, including R. T. France which is over a 1000 pages. It may be a challenge to finish a study in his detail study in Year A but I look forward to living more closely with Matthew in 2014. I hope all of you will also find the experience rewarding, comforting, and inspiring –and also at times challenging as that I believe that is one of the purposes of scripture.

Joan Griffith

You may also wish to look at Joan’s introductions to the gospels of Mark and Luke and her comparison of Mark’s and John’s gospels