The first book in the NT. It was widely held in the past, as by St Augustine, that Matt. was the earliest of the four gospels to be written and that the gospel of Mark was an abbreviation of it. The more usual view now is that Mark was used by Matt., and in the process Mark’s inelegant Greek was polished and Mark’s treatment of the person of Jesus developed in a more devotional direction. In addition to Mark, the author of Matt. prefaced his work with the two chapters about the birth and infancy of Jesus. In the body of the work, Matt. incorporated, in a very orderly fashion, much of Jesus’ teaching that was unrecorded by Mark, whose 240 verses of teaching is expanded by Matt. into 620—much of it including memorable and contrasting images (e.g. moth and rust, 6: 19f.). Since there is close verbal similarity between Matt.’s discourses and the teaching material also incorporated, in a different way, by Luke, it is generally (but not universally) held that both these evangelists were using a common source, designated Q.
Date and place of composition
The Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE seems to be alluded to as a rather distant event at Matt. 22: 7, and this suggests a date of about 85–90 CE. Matt. was written after Mark but was apparently known by Ignatius, c. 107, which both confirm a date of composition before 100 CE. Social conditions reflected in the gospel support the view that Matt. may have been written in Antioch in Syria on the River Orontes, which would be consistent with Peter’s prominence in the gospel (cf. Gal. 2: 11), or for a cluster of urban communities in that neighbourhood. The author seems to have been educated in the tradition of Jewish scribes and he brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Matt. 13: 52). A Jewish background is confirmed by the interest in the synagogue (6: 1–8; 23: 1–30) and in the Mosaic Law (5: 17–20). Possibly Matthew the apostle had founded the Church in the city, which would account for the ascription of the gospel to him from early in the 2nd cent.—but a work so dependent on earlier sources could not have been written by one of the apostles.
Evidently in the area of Matthew’s Church there existed tension between Christians and Jews. From the very beginning of the gospel (2: 1) until its conclusion, the Jewish leaders are branded opponents of Jesus. The gospel shows clear signs of a new confidence in Pharisaic Judaism associated with Jamnia and the editorial compilation of oral laws. Matthew’s community had perforce to confront this renaissance and differentiate itself (23: 7–8). This explains Matt.’s emphasis on the corporate unity of his Church and the obligation of members’ mutual forgiveness (18: 22). Christians could expect to be hauled before a local sanhedrin (Matt. 10: 17), where Jesus might be dismissed as a magician and a deceiver. Controversy with Jews is also the motive for the reply (Matt. 28: 11–15) to current Jewish explanation about the alleged empty tomb. Throughout the gospel the author makes use of his knowledge of the OT to support Christian claims; the genealogy, for example, taken straight from the OT, is designed to show that Jesus belonged, through Joseph, to the royal house of David (Matt. 1: 6, 16). He adopts the philosophy of history that the people of Israel were punished for their sins by the Exile and restored in forgiveness (2 Chron. 36: 17–23). Plainly Matt. was written for careful readers (or listeners) and it presupposes a good knowledge of the OT.
Characteristics of the gospel
Matthew’s rabbinical background emerges not only in his preference for the term ‘Kingdom of heaven’, so avoiding, as Jews did, the use of the holy word God, but also in the careful structure of the discourses in five great blocks, each ending with the phrase ‘When Jesus had finished these sayings…’. The narrative framework echoes the six books of the Hexateuch: the birth narratives with Genesis; the baptism in the Jordan, and Jesus’ temptations with Exodus; healing of a leper and an untouchable woman with Leviticus; callings of disciples with Numbers; the Passion and Death of Jesus with Deuteronomy; the Resurrection with Joshua (the entry into the Promised Land).
The ethical teaching of Jesus, embodied principally by Matt. in the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5–7) relates the new righteousness in the light of the coming of the Kingdom to the former obligations of the Law. Doubtless Jewish Christians did continue to observe the Laws (as Jesus himself did, 8: 4; 15: 1–20), while Gentiles observed only the general prescriptions. The disciples are to teach what Jesus taught (10: 7; cf. 4: 17); they should live simply, as he did (8: 20), and take up a cross (16: 24). But they would meet opposition; Matt. 13’s parables attempt to explain that there are different responses to the same message. Jesus puts into practice his own injunctions: he shows mercy (11: 29 in the light of 5: 7); he does not resist evil inflicted on him (26: 67); he withdraws to pray (14: 23); he scorns the pursuit of mammon (6: 19); and himself pursues his itinerant ministry without a permanent home (8: 20). The authority which the Law has for Christians (5: 17) has to be interpreted by the overriding injunction to love and therefore stretched out to an ideal not attained in the practices of the Pharisees (5: 20).
Matthew’s theological interests
This gospel became the Church’s favourite—the one most often read in the liturgy. Possibly this is because the primary concerns are pastoral and catechetical rather than theological. Nevertheless, there are important theological affirmations. There is the repeated refrain, ‘that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets’. This is not meant to imply that the event mentioned took place in order that prophecy should be fulfilled, but that things happened with the result that OT scripture was fulfilled—even when the OT question was plucked right out of context, as when Hos. 11: 1 is quoted by Matt. 2: 15 to interpret the family’s flight into Egypt. Matt.’s theology is that what was said of Israel in Hosea could be appropriately applied to Jesus because he was Israel as it was called to be; if Israel was ‘recapitulated’ in Jesus, then what was said of ancient Israel could now be predicated of Jesus but sometimes in reverse: where Israel was disobedient and failed, Jesus was obedient to the transcendent God, and is said to be endowed with the spirit of God (3: 16).
Matt. is an ecclesiastical gospel. There are traces in the gospel which suggest that the Kingdom is beginning to be interpreted as the Church (as in history it later was). The parables of the Tares (13: 24–30, 37–43) and of the Talents seem to have the situation of the Church in mind: and Matt. alone of the gospels mentions the word ‘Church’ (‘ecclesia’) in connection with Peter as the Rock (Matt. 16: 18; 18: 17). But along with the recognition of the Church is the expectation of Judgement and the End expressed in the terms of the later biblical literature (Dan., 2 Macc. 7, 1 Enoch) but instead of their accounts of visions Matt. 24–5 reports Jesus’ prophetic discourse.
The presentation of the Person of Jesus
In Matt., Jesus frequently uses the phrase of Daniel ‘son of Man’ of himself and the demons recognize him as ‘Son of God’, which seems indeed to be Matt.’s most prominent title for Jesus (8: 29), and Matt. takes over the centurion’s confession (27: 54) from Mark, except that in Matt. he is joined by his troops in saying the words. There are several other Matthaean touches in the Passion narrative: Pilate’s wife intervenes (27: 19). He affirms his blamelessness for committing Jesus to crucifixion by washing his hands (27: 24), and he admits Jesus’ innocence of the charge against him, and passes over responsibility to the Jews. Their enthusiastic acceptance of it for themselves and for their children (27: 25), has often been an excuse for Christian anti-Semitism. Jesus’ resurrection is anticipated in Matt. (cf. 1 Cor. 15: 23 ‘the first fruits’) by introducing into the Passion narrative the legend that ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised’ and walked about the city (27: 52), ‘after his resurrection’. Other Matthaean features are the stories of the guard posted at the tomb, and of alarming apocalyptic intrusions. None of the Passion, in Matt.’s account, takes Jesus by surprise. He warned the disciples of what was to come (26: 1–2); he is shown to be perfectly aware who was to betray him (26: 25)—both are subtle alterations of Mark. At the end of Matt. the Risen Lord and the Eleven are on a Galilean mountain. He is the one to whom all authority is given (28: 18) and through his Church he will make disciples in all nations. He is the Son of God, now exalted to the Father, and the unique centre of Christian devotion.