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Introduction to the Gospel Of Matthew

Roger Hahn

For as long as the four gospels of the New Testament have been collected together the gospel of Matthew has been the first gospel. Even before there was a New Testament, there was a collection of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That was usually the order and Matthew was always first. There have been several explanations for why. The most common explanation through church history was simply that Matthew was the first gospel to be written. This view is no longer widely accepted as true. It is more likely that Matthew appeared first in the collection of the gospels for two reasons. First is that Matthew is structured as a teaching gospel. More than the other three gospels Matthew presents the great blocks of teaching by Jesus, collected and organized in a way that could be easily learned and remembered. Second, and most important once the New Testament was formed, Matthew provides a bridge from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

As the first gospel in the New Testament, Matthew has always exerted great influence in the Christian church. Much of the traditional view of Christ and his ethical teachings has come from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus and his message. The story of the wise men who visited Jesus at his birth is found only in Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of teaching in Matthew 5-7. The Great Commission forms the climax of this gospel. The only gospel to use the word "church" is Matthew and twice the power of binding interpretation is given in this gospel. In the history of the medieval church Matthew was especially important for it provided the scriptural foundation for those who taught the supremacy of the pope as Peter’s successor as bishop of the church at Rome. In the area of Jesus’ teaching no other gospel has been as influential as Matthew.

With the rise of modern understandings of history in the last two hundred years certain questions have become important for the study of biblical books. These questions include: Who wrote the book? When? Where? Why? What kind of literature is the writing? Knowing the answers to these questions can increase our understanding and appreciation of the message of each book of the Bible. Unfortunately the answers to such questions are not always clear not easy to discover. Scholars often disagree about the answers and some are ready to give up the search. However, what we can learn will be helpful.

Author - Who wrote Matthew?

As far as we know the original copy of Matthew had no indication of who the author was. Sometime during the second century AD the ascription, "According to Matthew," began to appear at the beginning of the gospel. However, nothing in the body of the gospel tells us who the author was.

The earliest reported claim that Matthew was an author was that of Papias, an early church leader who died around AD 130. We do not have the writings of Papias, but the church Eusebius from the fourth century quotes Papias. This quotation states that Matthew compiled the sayings in the Hebrew dialect and everyone translated them as best they could. Whether the "sayings" Papias was talking about were the gospel of Matthew as we now know it is debated. Some scholars believe that Papias’ "sayings" were a collection of teaching by Jesus that were used by the author of the first gospel.

The bottom line is that we do know for certain that Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple, was the author of the first gospel. Neither do we know that he was not the author. The authorship of Matthew is an issue that we cannot answer with certainty. The evidence is too slender and it can be interpreted in more than one way. Whatever benefit might have come to us by knowing for sure about the authorship will not be ours.

However, there is so much we can profitably learn from the first gospel that we will hardly miss that benefit. Whatever we might think about the authorship of Matthew we will continue to refer to him (or her) as Matthew because of the long tradition of the church. Whether it was Matthew the disciple or another Matthew we can not know.

Date - When was Matthew written?

Two centuries ago, when people began asking about the date biblical books were written, the question often had implications about the reliability of the information in the book. People assumed that the closer to Jesus’ own life that a gospel was written the more likely it was to be historically accurate. The longer the time between Jesus’ life and the gospel, the less accurate the story would be. With such thinking people who argued that Matthew was written in AD 90, say, were seen as attacking the reliability of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus by those who thought Matthew was written in AD 50.

Such a concern no longer dominates the discussion about the date of the gospels. We now recognize that an author writing in AD 90 who had correct information could easily be "more correct" than an author writing in AD 50 who had poor information or who wanted to distort the picture of Jesus. As a result the effort to establish the date of Matthew is now built on historical evidence rather than on theological bias.

The most common view of the date of the writing of Matthew is that is was written between AD 75 and 90. This conclusion is based on the evidence of interest in Jewish issues in the gospel. As will be mentioned below there are many aspects of Matthew that indicate it was written in the context of Jewish people. It appears that the author wants to address Jewish believers in Christ who were finding it hard to maintain their faith in Christ and their own Jewishness. That would not have been a problem early in Christian history. Up until at least AD 60 or 65 the majority of Christians were Jews rather than Gentiles and all the leaders of the church were Jewish. "Persecution" of Christians by Jews was a matter of one group of Jews persecuting another group of Jews (which happened frequently in that period of history). At least four major religious groups co-existed (however, uneasily) in Judaism at that time. Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Nazarenes (as the Jewish followers of Jesus were called) all considered themselves to be the true Jews, but they tolerated the existence of the other groups. There was no conflict between being a Jew and being a follower of Christ also.

In AD 66 Jewish revolutionaries in Galilee revolted against the Roman Empire. The war spread throughout Palestine. The evidence is not clear, but it appears that the [Jewish] followers of Jesus in Palestine refused to join the uprising against Rome and that they moved out of Jerusalem and Judea to an area east or northeast of Palestine. By AD 70 Jerusalem had been burned to the ground and the temple had been totally destroyed. The Roman Empire nearly destroyed Judaism as it had been known. The only survivors in terms of religion were the remnants of the Pharisees and the Jewish followers of Jesus.

Banned from Jerusalem by the Romans the remaining Pharisees moved to Galilee to rebuild Judaism. These Pharisees concluded that the lack of Jewish unity before the war had caused their problems. They determined to rebuild Judaism without the diversity of religious views that had existed before. Since the followers of Jesus had not supported the war and since that group had accepted so many gentiles into it that they (the gentiles) were fast becoming the majority the Pharisees decided to exclude "Nazarenes" from their synagogues.

They used a variety of methods to accomplish this goal. The most notorious was a re-writing of the synagogue worship liturgy to include a curse on the heretics (which meant the followers of Jesus). Obviously this turn of events between AD 70 and 90 made it increasingly difficult to remain both a Jew and a follower of Jesus. There was pressure on Jewish believers in Christ to abandon their faith in him. It is the match between the historical developments in Judaism in AD 70 to 90 and the concern of Matthew to show the Jewish connections to Jesus that lead most New Testament scholars to date Matthew between AD 75 and 90.

There is also minority of scholars who argue that Matthew was written in the 60’s (usually they opt for the early 60’s). Recently a small portion of a manuscript has been discovered that two scholars studying it claim to be a fragment of Matthew’s gospel. They also claim that it can be dated in the AD 50’s. There is presently considerable debate in the community of New Testament scholars as to whether the methods used by these two were valid methods and whether their conclusions were correct. Should further investigation support their conclusions the argument presented above could not be true and another explanation for the picture Matthew presents of his readers would need to be developed.

The debate about the date of Matthew is not a debate over the historical reliability of the gospel. It is an effort to best understand the circumstances in the early church that this gospel addressed. The better we understand those circumstances, the better we will understand the logic of the book, and the better we will be able to hear and apply its message to our own circumstances.

Place - Where was Matthew written?

The discussion about the place where Matthew was written is much more subdued than that about authorship and date. For one thing, no one has questioned the spirituality of another based on that person’s view of the place where Matthew was written. Such questions have arisen over interpretations of authorship and date. More importantly, there is less evidence internally (within the book itself where the date evidence arises) or externally (outside the book as in Papias’ comments) about the place of writing.

It is generally assumed that Matthew was writing for people who lived near where he wrote. Because the "Nazarenes" who fled Jerusalem and Judea as the Jewish war broke out moved northeast into Syria and because Antioch in Syria was an early center of Jewish Christian faith Syria is the most commonly suggested place for the writing (and audience) of Matthew. Some scholars argue for Antioch specifically, but most feel "somewhere" in Syria is as precise as we can ever determine. There have been scholars who argued that Alexandria in Egypt was the place of the writing of Matthew, but this view has never been widely accepted.

The lack of clear evidence about the place of writing is disappointing. However, as is the case with the uncertainty about authorship, there is plenty of material that we do know about this gospel to keep us occupied with serious study. We will have to do so without certainty about the place of writing.

What Kind of Literature is Matthew?

The story of the analysis of Matthew as literature has progressed through a fascinating history of viewpoints.

The methods of modern historical study began to be used for studying the bible almost two hundred years ago. One of the first goals of scholars then was to learn the exact history of Jesus. They were sure that the last gospel to be written, John, was so full of theology that it could not be accurate history. They carefully compared Matthew, Mark, and Luke trying to determine which of those three would be the oldest (closest to Jesus). These three gospels are called the synoptic gospels because they have a common outline and share considerable material that is virtually identical. (The word "synoptic" comes from a Greek expression meaning to see with one eye or one perspective; see The Synoptic Problem.)

Detailed comparison led them to the conclusion that Mark’s gospel was written first and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for their gospels. By the beginning of the 20th century most scholars had also concluded that Matthew and Luke used another source called Q. The view that Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q as sources for their gospels is called the Two Source (or Document) Hypothesis and it is still the most common view.

About 1925 the Four Document Hypothesis was proposed. This view argued that Matthew used Mark, Q, and another written source called M while Luke used Mark, Q, and another source called L. After a brief period of popularity the Four Document Hypothesis has been retained by only a small minority of scholars.

Early in the 20th century some scholars began to focus study on the literary forms of the individual paragraphs of the gospels. This approach was called Form Criticism and was very influential from about 1920 to about 1955. This emphasis on the individual paragraphs led to a loss of interest in the gospels as a whole. Indeed, the gospels were seen as the hap-hazard collection of these important small paragraphs. Though Form Criticism has made some important contributions to our understanding of the smaller units of the gospels, further reflection returned to the obvious truth that each gospel had been written and organized with great care to accomplish a purpose.

This emphasis on the organization and purpose of the gospels has been called Redaction or Editorial Criticism. The first studies of Matthew using this method compared Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of the same events and teachings in Jesus’ life. Assuming Mark to be written first and that Matthew had Mark as a source, these studies discovered patterns in the ways Matthew was different from Mark. It appeared that Matthew had "edited" Mark consistently to produce a different perspective. This different perspective reveals Matthew’s distinctive purpose in writing and shows his theological concerns. This method of study has been extremely fruitful for our understanding of Matthew and we will encounter the results of it throughout this bible study (see The Synoptic Problem: Redaction).

The shift from focusing on the individual paragraphs to the organization of the whole gospel has led to another method of study in the past 20 years. This is sometimes called Narrative Criticism. This approach tries to study Matthew without reference to Mark or Q or any other document. The narrative approach asks how a gospel will be read as a story. How the author develops the characters and the plot is seen as the key to understanding. This approach has also been very helpful in the study of Matthew.

Another issue in the study of the gospels as literature is the question of what kind of literature the gospel writers thought they were writing. Ancient history writers had a certain pattern of writing history. Only a few would argue that the gospels follow that pattern. (Luke comes the closest.) Writers of ancient biographies had several patterns of writing their material. (These were often called The Life of ______.) It is clear that the gospels do not follow the pattern of modern biographies, but many would argue that they were written as ancient biographies. A few scholars argue that gospels were written to be tragedies along the pattern of the Greek tragedies. A few others argue that Greek tragicomedies show us the kind of literature the gospel writers thought they were writing.

The prevalent view in the 20th century has been that gospels are a unique literary form. On this view the gospels are sermons designed to persuade believers to a certain course of Christian action. Some would say that the gospels preach the Gospel. That is the view that will be adopted in this bible study.

The question of the kind of literature Matthew is has also led to studies of the literary structure or outline of the book. There are two main proposals adopted by scholars today. The first has been popular for the past sixty to seventy years. It views Matthew as consisting of five main sections. Each of these sections begins with a narrative section and concludes with a collection of teachings. The final sentence of each section begins, "Now when Jesus had finished . . ." These five sentences become the organizational key. These five sections and the strong Jewish emphasis in this gospel have led to comparing the structure of Matthew to the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch.

The five sections are often called books and are divided as follows:

Book 1
    Narrative - Matthew 3-4
    Teaching - Matthew 5-7
Book 2
    Narrative - Matthew 8-9
    Teaching - Matthew 10:1-11:1
Book 3
    Narrative - Matthew 11:2-12:50
    Teaching - Matthew 13:1-53
Book 4
    Narrative - Matthew 13:54-17:27
    Teaching - Matthew 18:1-19:1
Book 5
    Narrative - Matthew 19:2-22:46
    Teaching - Matthew 23:1-26:1

The major weakness of this view is that it is forced to treat the birth of Jesus as a prologue and the last three chapters as an epilogue. Surely Matthew did not regard the story of Christ’s final night, death, and resurrection as something added on to the main outline of the gospel.

The other major view of the structure of Matthew has been influential for the past 20 years. The organizational key for this view is the sentence, "From that time on Jesus began to . . ." This unique phrase appears only twice in Matthew, in 4:17 and in 16:21. Using it as the key to Matthew’s structure has led to this outline:

The Person of Jesus, Son of God
    Matthew 1:1-4:16

The Preaching of Jesus, Son of God
    Matthew 4:17-16:20

The Passion of Jesus, Son of God
    Matthew 16:21-28:20

The chief problem with this view is that it breaks apart passages that seem to belong together. It is especially hard to believe that Matthew 16:13-20 was intended to be part of a different section of the gospel from Matthew 16:21-23. These two paragraphs are tightly connected to each other.

Other proposals about Matthew’s outline have been made but these two are clearly the most accepted views today. Both have strengths and weaknesses. We will keep both views in mind in this study but will not adopt one or the other. It appears the key to Matthew’s outline has not yet been discovered.

Purpose - Why was Matthew written?

The question of the kind of literature and the structure of Matthew has led to several understandings of the gospel’s purpose. A few have argued that Matthew was written to supply lectionary readings about Jesus’ life and teachings for the worship services of Jewish followers of Christ. The carefully organized paragraphs of Matthew and a pattern that some believe fits the Jewish festivals provide the support for this view. Though it is intriguing it has never been widely accepted.

More popular is the view that Matthew was written to provide a catechetical manual. This way of describing Matthew as a discipleship teaching manual is based on the emphasis on teaching and the large blocks of teachings of Jesus.

The most common view is that Matthew was written to provide correctives to a church in danger of loosing either its Jewishness or its connection to Christ. Problems with false prophets, with how to view the law, and with hypocrisy are seen as the reason Matthew wrote. This study will proceed on the assumption that Matthew was written to a church that was struggling to find and maintain its Christian identity. With a background in Judaism that church’s members needed to discover how Christ fulfilled all the values and hopes for which they had been looking.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.

First Day: Read the notes from this introduction.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?

2. Is there a truth or spiritual issue on which you hope Matthew will provide special help for you? Jot it down and explain why it is important for you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to open his word to you as you begin this study of Matthew.

Second Day: Read Matthew 1:1-25. Now focus on Matthew 1:1-17.

1. Who are the two most important people in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus? Why do you suppose they were important to Matthew?

2. How many women can you identify in Matthew’s genealogy. The mention of any women is very rare in Jewish genealogies. Why do you suppose Matthew included women at all and these particular women?

2. Compare Matthew’s genealogy with that of Luke in Luke 3:23-38. What differences do you see in the two genealogies? What purpose can you see in these differences?

Third Day: Read Matthew 1:1-25. Focus in on Matthew 1:18-25.

1. What picture of Joseph’s character and spiritual life emerges from these verses? What picture of the influence of Joseph on the child Jesus would be consistent with this view of Joseph?

2. Verse 23 contains a partial quotation from Isaiah 7:14. What issues found in Isaiah 7:1-17 reappear in some modified form in the life and ministry of Jesus?

3. What two names for Jesus are revealed in these verses? What is their significance? What is the value of their meaning for you personally?

Fourth Day: Read Matthew 1:18-2:15. Focus your attention on Matthew 2:1-6.

As you carefully read verses 1-6 are there any details that you’ve not known or noticed before. What are they? What is intriguing about them for you?

Why do you think Herod was frightened when he heard the question of the wise men? What would the coming of Christ disrupt in our society? What would it change in your life?

Verse 6 is a rough quotation from Micah 5:2. Study Micah 5:1-4. What other phrases in Micah 5:1-4 seem to fit what you know about Christ?

Fifth Day: Read Matthew 2:1-23. Now focus in on Matthew 2:7-15.

1. What response in the wise men does their encounter with Jesus produce? What response does encountering Jesus produce in you? Is your response appropriate and satisfactory to you?

2. How important are angels and dreams for knowing God’s will in this chapter? Do you think angels and dreams are equally important nowadays to know God’s will. Give at least one reason to support your answer.

3. Verse 15 quotes from Hosea 11:1. What does Hosea 11 reveal about the God who is Father to Jesus? What qualities of God revealed in Hosea 11 are shared by Jesus?

Sixth Day: Read Matthew 2:1-23. Now focus on Matthew 2:16-23.

1. What picture of Herod do you get from Matthew 2? What would you think of the idea that Herod’s character was part of the reason for the timing of Jesus’ birth as the true king of the Jews?

2. What pattern(s) of quoting the Old Testament does Matthew follow in chapter 2? What can you learn about Matthew’s view of the Old Testament? Do you share his view? Why or why not?

3. Verse 18 quotes from Jeremiah 31:15. Study the verses surrounding Jeremiah 31:15. What concepts that apply to the coming of Christ do you find in those surrounding verses? What hope does Christ inspire in you?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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