This week I begin with some general biblical observations and then turn to Matthew’s Gospel.
Each of the four gospels was carefully crafted to present the message and person of Jesus to a specific socio-religious audience. Depending upon the audience and its background and specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one gospel are minimized or even ignored in another.
Last week we saw that the Gospel According to Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or of Jesus’ infancy. The gospels of Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth. Are they reporting historic fact or their own creative suppositions? Certainly their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are creative and quite different in some details. It is very difficult to determine Jesus’ actual birthplace.The evangelists Matthew and Luke, who alone speak of it, contradict each other. Many contemporary scholars presume Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. I don’t get into this debate.
Matthew has Jesus’ family go to Egypt and then return in order to portray Jesus as the new Moses. The gospels, again, are about the meaning of the Christ-event. They are anchored in the life and meaning of the historical Jesus of Nazareth and belief in him. They do have historical elements but, strictly speaking, they are not historical accounts. Just about all scholars of antiquity agree that a human Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the biblical accounts. The gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus.
Translations of the scriptures are necessary, of course, because people in different places and times speak a variety of languages. Most contemporary scripture readers are not fluent in biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Perhaps I am a bit unconventional. I can squeak by in Hebrew, but my Greek and Latin are really quite good.
Ideally, people who want a more comprehensive understanding of biblical texts should use a good biblical commentary, because all translations are filtered through the vision and vocabulary of the translator. Sometimes this creates problems in correctly understanding a passage.
In recent years, for example, scholars of the New Testament have suggested that we seriously reconsider how one translates the Greek term ioudaios, originally translated in English as “Jews.” Ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.” The Greek ioudaios and the Latin iudaeus come from the biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning “from the Tribe of Judah.”
Please note: Up until the year 1524, there was no letter “J” in the alphabet, just the letter “I”. The letter “J” was invented by Gian Giorgio Trissino, an Italian author and grammarian who lived from 1478 to 1550. By way of example, the initials INRI so often seen on crucifixes, represent the Latin words: Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum) the Latin inscription (found in John 19:19), which in English translates correctly to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.” But not “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. There were Hebrews, anchored in the Abrahamic religious tradition. And the word “Jew” did not appear in the first English translations of the New Testament. The best known early editions of the New Testament in English are the Douai Rheims edition and the King James Authorized Edition. The Douai Rheims translation was first printed in 1582; but the word “Jew” did not appear in it. The King James Authorized translation was first published in 1611. The word “Jew” did not appear in it either.
For the very first time the word “Jew” appeared in both of these well-known editions in their 18th century revised versions. “So, what?” a friend asked. Well, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries the word “Jew” has been used increasingly in a pejorative way and has greatly contributed to antisemitism. Expressions like “Jew someone” or “Jew lawyer” or “Jew down” have been common negative terms. Antisemitism, unfortunately, is once again showing its ugly face on both sides of the Atlantic.
Antisemitism arose because over the years, a great distortion grew up around “Jews,” linking them with the death of Jesus and with evil and avarice. One can recall Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 CE play “The Jew of Malta” and its demonic image of Jews. And in Shakespeare (1564 – 1626) we find the “Jew” moneylender Shylock and his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh.” Today, some people try to avoid using the word “Jew” and use “Jewish” instead. Nevertheless, in the days of Jesus there were no Jews. There were Hebrews, who belonged to the Abrahamic religious tradition. Jesus grew up in that Hebrew tradition.
Jews did not condemn Jesus. Judean religious leaders in Jerusalem condemned him. Jews did not kill Jesus. Judean religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea; and the Romans crucified Jesus. Pontius Pilate called Jesus “King of the Judeans” to anger the Judeans and to stress in a demeaning way that he saw Jesus as a trouble-maker, promoting rebellion against the Roman Empire.
Now to focus more directly on Matthew:
Last week I stressed that the Gospel According to Mark was designed for Gentile- Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile-Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities; but they also had to live with discrimination from Hebrew-Christians living in Rome. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, was actually written for Hebrew-Christians.
Although a second-century tradition had held that the author was Matthew, a former tax collector and one of the Twelve Apostles, contemporary scholars maintain that we have no direct evidence of that Matthew’s authorship. The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by an anonymous Hebrew-Christian scribe between the years 80 and 90 CE. He was not an eye-witness to the Jesus events but collected various traditions and sayings by and about Jesus and put them in one long essay. Some scholars say the final edition could even have been written as late as 110.
The author of Matthew wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew-Christians located in Roman Syria. The largest city in Roman Syria, Antioch, is often mentioned. Its ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. There were Gentile-Christian members in the community, but they were expected to obey Hebrew religious norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17).
For Matthew, Jesus was the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. Matthew’s author constructed a Jesus infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of fulfillment passages that relate Jesus to prophetic Hebrew Scripture texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.
The Gospel of Matthew includes some 600 of the Gospel of Mark’s 661 verses but it adds about 220 additional verses, shared by Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark.
Matthew contains five discourses by Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which symbolized, for the evangelist’s Hebrew-Christian audience, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
- In the first of these, the Sermon on Mount, the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about what it means to be his follower. Jesus, in Matthew, is the great teacher. Notice how Jesus so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Hebrew Scriptures and then intensifies and expands on it.
- In the second, Jesus commissions the Twelve Disciples, symbolic again for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
- In the third discourse, we see opposition to Jesus coming to a head and accusations that his deeds are done through the power of Satan. Jesus in turn accuses his opponents of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and challenges his disciples to understand his teachings.
- In the fourth discourse, we see that the increasing opposition to Jesus will result in his crucifixion in Jerusalem and that his disciples must therefore prepare for his absence. The instructions for the post-crucifixion community emphasized responsibility and humility. In this section we read as well that Simon, newly renamed Peter (from Petros, in Greek, meaning “rock”), calls Jesus “the Christ, the son of the living God” and Jesus states that on this “bedrock” (petra in Greek) he will build his “community.” The Greek word in the text is ekklesia which is often mistranslated as “church.”
This Matthew passage has become the text traditionally cited by Roman Catholic Church authority as the scriptural basis for its concept of the authority of the papacy. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the uniquely Matthean material (Matthew 16:16–19) has been widely discussed and has been challenged on the basis that verses 16–19 are found only in Matthew and that the inclusion of the word “church” in most translations suggests a level of organization acquired only at a later period. Nowhere in the New Testament is Peter described as being supreme over the other apostles. And as I wrote two weeks ago, we know that Peter did not establish the Christian community in Rome and Peter was never a bishop of Rome and certainly not “the first pope.” The Roman Catholic theologians Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier (1942 – 2022) were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983).
- In the fifth discourse, Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, and the opposition intensifies. When he arrives he is soon in conflict with the Temple’s traders and religious leaders. The disciples ask about the future, and in his final discourse Jesus speaks of the coming end. Jesus warns that there will be false messiahs, earthquakes, and persecutions. His disciples must prepare themselves for ministry to all the nations. Matthew notes that Jesus has finished all his words, and attention now turns to the crucifixion.
(Thinking about Jesus’ warning about earthquakes, the author of the Gospel of Matthew was no doubt aware of the first century earthquake history of the ancient city of Antioch, near today’s Antakya, Turkey. And we are certainly very aware of it today! On February 6, 2023, much of the cultural heritage of ancient Antioch was destroyed by an earthquake. The downtown area of today’s Antakya was devastated by the earthquake that killed at least 40,000 people across the country and in neighboring Syria.)
The central message of Jesus’ preaching in the Gospel of Matthew is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the need for repentance, and a complete change of heart and conduct, on the part of those who are to receive this great gift of God (Matthew 4:17). The Kingdom of Heaven is both a present reality and a future hope. It is dawning already. The ethic that Jesus lived and taught, exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount, was essentially a “Kingdom ethic.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Galilee is the setting for most of Jesus’ ministry. He leaves there for Judea only in Matthew 19:1. And Jesus’ ministry in the Judean city Jerusalem, the goal of his journey, is limited to just a few days (Matthew 21:1–25:46).
Matthew makes twenty-nine references to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The gospels of Mark and Luke tend to prefer the term “Kingdom of God.” Matthew’s use of the word “Heaven” rather than “God” is often seen as a reflection of the evangelist’s sensibilities to the Hebrew background of his Hebrew-Christian audience and he therefore tried to avoid the word “God.”
The word for God used most often in the Hebrew Bible is the Tetragrammaton: in Hebrew: יהוה, and in our alphabet often written: YHWH. Hebrews traditionally did not pronounce it. This was based on their understanding of the third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take His name in vain.” Many contemporary Jewish people do not write “God” but “G-d” based on this old understanding.
What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. And I will conclude this week’s reflection with my own contemporary reflection based on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount. It is truly a charter for Christian life today.
The Christian Charter Based on the Sermon on the Mount:
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those people, who are humble in spirit. The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are the gentle. The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who have compassion. They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then disappear. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the infirmed, and the impoverished. They stay with them.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who show mercy to others. Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, trans, or immigrants.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are the pure of heart. The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not joke, make fun of, or demean other people. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate “facts.”
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who work for peace. Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase Matthew 25:52, in contemporary language. “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”
The Christian Charter is our examination of conscience this Lent.
12 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Matthew”
Thank you so much for your analysis and “charter statement” based on the Beatitudes. Two questions come up in conversations with some close friends. (1) Using the term “rabbi” has been a stumbling pebble, because we use the term as if some kind of “ordination” occurred that “legitimized” Yeshua as a teacher, albeit heterodox by some lights. Can you smooth the way for how the term came so easily applied when Jesus was addressed by followers of his way during his lifetime in the Roman province of Judaea?
(2) The terms “kingdom” or “reign” seem closely allied to imperium, and the imperial incursion not only into what became Judaea as Roman province in ca. 62 BCE, but also smacking of the Constantinian establishment of the state religion that made Christianity a player in fourth-century politics, usw. Can you think of a better way to express in English what so easily comes out as “kingdom” even in our usual translations of “the Lord’s Prayer”?
Many thanks Dan. In response to your questions:
(1) During the first century CE, the word “rabbi” was used in a more informal sense than later. In Jesus’ day, the title “Rabbi” merely signified that a person had a reputation as a wise teacher or sage. John the Baptizer was also addressed by this title: “They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him’” (John 3:26) So it seems undeniable that Jesus was considered a wise teacher and thus could be properly categorized as a rabbi, as the term was used in Jesus’ time. It wasn’t until after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE that the title of “Rabbi” took on a more formal meaning for those who were ordained in the rabbinic movement.
(2) Yes I struggle with the “kingdom” words. The meaning is probably better expressed by the words “community” or “society.”
Many very kind regards
Another thought…Maybe the best word is “family.”
Thank you for the much-needed historical background on the 1st century CE Hebrews. How so much of this important history has been ignored for two millennia.
Yeshua was a Hebrew, not Jewish. He was born a Hebrew and died as a Hebrew.
“Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans,” a political statement and brutal slap in the face to 1st century Judeans by Pontius Pilate.
When, why, and by whom, was Yeshua’s name transliterated to Jesus?
Why is Yeshua’s name not used to this day? Is it because of the sanitizing of scripture by the Roman Church, or by even Paul in his letters, to eradicate his Hebrew identity?
Was Mary’s husband Joseph a literary construct by Matthew and Luke, if so for what purpose?
Good questions Joe. Very early people translated Yeshua into Jesus. Sometimes I think I would like to shift back to Yeshua but that would be too confusing today. Age question about Joseph is a good one but I have no good answer. I suspect it was a creative way of linking Jesus to Hebrew history.
Holy Smokes, Jack – you just get better with age. You need to put these in a “short” book for a broader audience. Once again, the best brief summary of the scholarship I have ever seen. But then I have not read that field for a few decades. Many thanks. I plan to share this widely.
Many very sincere thanks Carl!
I am enjoying your Lenten gospel examinations and information so very much, Jack..
Many thanks Patti!
Jack, I appreciate your background information on the source of the Gospels.
Also, I agree about the use of the word kingdom and , yet, community doesn’t seem quite adequate either.
I really want to meet Jesus face to face!
Many thanks Sue.
Maybe the best word is “family.”