Introduction to Matthew

Introductory Information

Author. Nothing definite is known about the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Later tradition associated the work with Matthew, a disciple of the Lord and one of the Twelve. Ascribing works to well-known persons was a common ploy in antiquity, and served to establish credibility.

To support the claim, the point was made that, in Matthew’s Gospel, the tax-collector called to follow Jesus was named Matthew, not Levi, as in the other synoptic Gospels. This was seen by some as an indication of humility befitting a Christian author.

Date of Composition. Scholars generally agree that the Gospel was written in the late 80s or early 90s – fifty to sixty years after the death of Christ, about the same time that the Gospel of Luke appeared.

Place of Composition. Most scholars believe the work was written for a community living in Antioch in Syria. Antioch was one of the three great cities of the Roman Empire, along with Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt. It was home to extremes of social status and wealth. Very wealthy people lived there, in addition to many poor. Slaves were numerous. Like Rome and Alexandria, Antioch had a large Jewish population, who gathered in a number of different synagogues.

Jews continued to practice rigidly their monotheism and moral code. They regarded Roman emperor-worship as blasphemous. Due to their strict dedication to their beliefs, and their importance to the Empire, they were exempted from worshipping the emperor and from other practices of Roman religion.

As early as the 50s, Paul had attested to the existence of a Christian community there. The Antioch community commissioned the missionary journey of Barnabas and Paul. Though mainly Jews, many in the community were Gentiles who had previously moved close to Judaism. Later, Paul fell out with the Antioch community over the demands they made on converts from paganism. 

Peter settled there for some time, before moving to Rome. Interestingly, Peter figured conspicuously in Matthew’s narrative.

The Gospel’s Purpose. Mark’s Gospel already had been in circulation since about the year 70 AD. It had been composed to meet the specific needs of a particular community. Mark’s Gospel had contained little of the oral teaching of Jesus, focussing more on what the actions of Jesus revealed. Over time, that situation and its needs had changed.

Earlier Christian disciples, together with Paul, anticipated an early return of the risen Christ, and the definitive inauguration of the Kingdom of God. They recognised the need to shape their lives in accord with the love shown by Christ, but had not spent much time working out the practical details of that stance towards life, other than the immediate demands of life in community.

That expectation was beginning to change. Christians began to see themselves facing an uncertain future stretching out to “the end of the age” [28:20]. Matthew wrote to help his community face into that future.

  • He developed the implications of living according to the life and teaching of Jesus, “fulfilling all righteousness”.
  • He sought to strengthen the community by tightening its organisation.
  • He emphasised the importance of clear teaching and of practical action corresponding to that teaching.
  • He needed to confirm the faith stance of his community in the face of constant criticism and opposition from fellow Jews.

The Gospel’s Sources. Like his contemporary Luke, Matthew was able to draw on the Gospel already written by Mark. He followed quite closely the order of events as outlined by Mark, with few modifications. He reshaped some passages to clarify the points that he wished to emphasise. 

In addition to Mark’s Gospel, he used another written document - no longer in existence - as his source for the teaching of Jesus. Luke used the same source for his Gospel, as did other would-be gospel writers not recognised by the Church

The Gospel’s Readers. Scholars generally believe that Matthew’s community was composed of people who formerly had frequented one or more of the small Jewish synagogues that dotted the city. Most of them would have been Jews; others would have been Gentiles who had been drawn to Jewish monotheism and strict morality. Though choosing to mix and worship with Jews, they hesitated to adopt some of the external practices of Judaism, particularly circumcision and kosher dietary rules.

Judaism in the Diaspora had previously reflected a variety of shades of faith. It was not a consistent and homogeneous whole. Jews had been reasonably at peace with that, and used to debate in their synagogues, sometimes fiercely, their different points of view. At first, Christianity was accepted as one more of these different viewpoints. 

With the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 AD, a major focal point of Jewish identity was lost. Judaism, as a whole, moved slowly to shore up its identity by means of religious unanimity and conformity under the leadership of devout Pharisees. Christians were seen by many as threats to Jewish identity, and were excluded from some of the synagogues. Consequently, they no longer came under the umbrella of Jewish exemption from the requirements of Roman religious worship. Their situation was dangerous. This gradual exclusion from the local synagogues was not achieved without considerable pain, bitterness and recrimination.

The Tenor of the Gospel. The community’s experience of exclusion coloured the way that it framed its faith and its identity.

  • It sought to accentuate the differences between Christianity and contemporary Judaism.
  • It aimed to strengthen its capacity to argue with the synagogue, by seeking to clarify its faith and to assure doctrinal correctness.
  • It made much of its fidelity to the true spirit of Judaism, and claimed strongly that Jesus fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures. It emphasised Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah, and clearly stated his focus on the mercy of God.
  • It began to highlight the importance of community cohesion and conformity, and to recognise the importance of strong structures of accountability.

The bitterness of the exclusion coloured much of the language that Matthew used in the Gospel:

  • Its tone was often polemical.
  • The faults of the community’s opponents were, occasionally, unfairly caricatured.
  • Whole groups of people (e.g., Pharisees, scribes, etc.) were lumped together, stereotyped, demonised, criticised and then rejected.

The Gospel’s Popularity. Over the centuries, the Gospel of Matthew has become the best known of the three Synoptic Gospels. It contains teaching that Mark’s Gospel omitted. It is more recognisably structured than the Gospel of Luke. Its enthusiasm for either/or choices, for reward/punishment outcomes, and its colourful language made it appealing to those whose minds used such categories.

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