[Partly Edited January 14, 2015]

The Gospel of Matthew

I hope I made it clear last time that the main focus of this course will be to examine what is probably the greatest turning point in all history, the transition from the polytheistic culture of the ancient world to the very different society of ancient Rome and its successors.  There have been few historical changes of such magnitude and importance.  The change in religion brought changes in every aspect of life.  Art, architecture, and literature all change as a result of this great religious change. Politics changes as a result of this religious change. People’s basic view of the world and their place in it changes as a result of this religious change.  

Now changes of this magnitude don’t happen easily. People are reluctant to change, and they tend to be especially reluctant to make religious changes.  “Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion: it’s good enough for me” says the song--and that’s pretty much the prevalent attitude in almost every society.

So if you are going to get people to change their religion, you better have something pretty good to offer in its place.  The early Christians did—something so good that they called it “euangellion,” “good news” the gospel.  

Now good news is something people are eager to share.  Phidippides ran more than 20 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring the good news of the victory over the Persians.  And the Christians though they had news even better.

Originally, the gospel referred to a spoken message, the message of Jesus himself preached during his three years or so of ministry (roughly 27-30 AD).  The gospel remained at least partly a spoken message through the time of the apostles, perhaps up through 90 AD.  But during this period the gospel was shared more and more through the written word, and today we have four written gospels from the time of the apostles.

Question: why four?  Why not just one?  Partly, I think, it’s because having the gospel message from four slightly different points of view added perspective: just like having two eyes open instead of one gives you a better perspective on things.  I tell my students never to get their history from one source no matter how good.  Two is better.  Three or four sources?  Better still in terms of overall understanding.

Another reason for having four gospels is that each is written for a slightly different audience and for a slightly different purpose.

The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, seems to me to be a gospel particularly appropriate for people who don’t think they need the gospel, for people who think what they have of religion already is all they need.  It is, in some ways a gospel particularly addressed to the Jews, and to Jewish groups like the Sadducees and Pharisees.

[In class, I give at this point a brief synopsis of Jewish history, starting with Abraham and ending with Roman control of Judaea.]
Under Roman rule, the Jewish people were in an uncomfortable situation.  Roman rule was usually pretty good, but the Romans made lots of mistakes. And it was particularly a problem that the Romans used a satellite king to rule Judaea, Herod the Great, and Edomite.

Another problem was that the Jewish people were so divided among themselves, and that the Jewish leaders were divided among themselves.  Among the major divisions of the Jews, one of the most important was the division between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducees were a kind of aristocracy among the Jews.  The name seems to be related to the Hebrew word Zadik: righteous.  Why righteous?  Well, because they got the ceremonies right.  Most of the priests, and apparently all of the high priests, were Sadducees.  They placed a great emphasis on the law of Moses, especially the sacrifices and celebrations emphasized in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.  It’s unclear how much emphasis they placed on the rest of the scripture, but it seems to me that, with the Psalms so extensively used in temple worship, they must have had some regard for Psalms as well.  The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  They didn’t believe in angels either.  What they did believe in was cooperation with the secular rulers, and they were willing to work hand in glove with Herod and with the Romans.

This paid off in spades with Herod.  Herod financed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, and it ended up one of the most magnificent places of worship in the world.  

The Sadducees had plenty of reason for thinking they were on the right track with God.  They were the ones who led the great religious ceremonies the Bible commanded.  Also, they were wealthy and powerful: obvious signs of God’s favor, right?  Riches and power are proof positive that God is on your side, right?  Well, the Sadducees thought so.

Very different were the Pharisees. “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word for division.  The Pharisees separated themselves from other people (even other Jews) by their lifestyle.  The Pharisees were not as wealthy or powerful as the Sadducess, but they also were an elite, an intellectual elite.  They were the real students of the Bible, passionate in their study.  The Pharisees tended to dominate the synagogue, and I would guess that most rabbis of the time were Pharisees.  The Pharisees believed in all the books of the Tanakh (the Old Testament)—plus something more.  In addition to the written law, they believed there was a valid oral tradition passed down from Moses as well, oral tradition eventually written down in the Talmud.

The Pharisees placed a great deal of attention to personal observance of the law—all 613 commandments.  Plus, the Pharisees built an extra hedge to protect their adherence to the law, extra rules and regulations designed to make sure that they never violated any of the laws precepts [in class, I give some examples].  Much of this eventually is written down in the Talmud.

The Pharisees also had very good reason to suppose that they were on track with God, doing everything he commanded and more.

Many elements in the Gospel of Matthew would appeal to Jews, helping them to accept the Gospel message.  Other elements are a challenge to Jewish groups like the Pharisees and  Sadducees.  In addition, Matthew's Gospel helps transform and explain Jewish tradition in such a way that the gospel message can be expanded beyond the Jewish community and include the gentiles.

Matthew, of course,  begins with one of the of the gripping introductions in the history of literature, an opening chapter that makes sure you’ll go right on turning the pages until the end…

Well, sort of.  The genealogy at the beginning of Matthew is a turn-off for most contemporary readers: but it would not at all have been a turn-off for the Jews.

Why does Matthew (who is a master story teller and a man with lots of fascination things to say) begin his gospel as he does?

1.    The genealogy connects the story of Jesus to Jewish history and to the promise of a Messiah coming from Abraham and from the line of David.  It was typical of the apostles and their contemporaries that, when preaching the gospel to the Jews, they began with a history of Israel.  Note Stephen’s message in Acts 7 and Paul’s message in Acts 13:15 ff.  Note also that, in addressing gentiles, the approach is different (cf. Acts 17:16 ff).  For a reader who knows the OT well, there is a kind of summary of Jewish history in the genealogy, a reminder of certain key figures.

2.    The genealogy has many things that would hook the Jewish reader.  First of all, they would notice the gaps in the genealogy, figures left out.  Jewish scholars were used to speculating on such features.  For instance, there are twelve tribes of Israel.  But the division of Joseph into two tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh) means there are 13 tribe names.  All OT lists of the tribes leave one or another out.  Maybe it’s Dan missing.  Maybe it’s Levi missing.  The Rabbis engaged in extensive debates about the reasons for any seeming anomalies.  A learned Jew would have noticed the omitted names in Matthew’s genealogy and he would have asked question like, “Why is Manasseh included, while Jehoiakim is left out?”

3.    More important, the learned Jew would begin thinking about the women mentioned vs. the women left out.  Why include Ruth, Bathsheba, Tamar, and Rahab while leaving out Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah?  Is it because the included women are foreigners?  Because their sexual behavior is an important contrast to Mary? Or is there another reason?

4.    The learned Jew would also notice the 3 groups of 14 generations and do a bit of gematriya, thinking about the numerical value of certain words.  God gave Moses the Torah, says scripture.  Torah has a numerical value of 611 (Tav=400, Vav=6, Resh=200, Heh=5) so God gave Moses “the 611”. Add to this the two commandments all the Hebrews heard, and we have 613, the number of commandments in the law.  In this passage, David has a numerical value of 14 (Daleth=4, Vov=6, Daleth=4).  So the 14’s are basically saying “David, David, David.”  A Pharisee would have caught this: probably few others.  Many Jews might have seen another message.  Three groups of 14 is six groups of seven.  We should anticipate (soon) a 7th seven.  Seven sevens calls to mind Leviticus 25:8ff, the year of Jubilee, the proclamation of freedom.

There's lots of stuff in this genealogy for a learned Jew!  Much less for anyone else.

Another way in which Matthew meets Jewish expectations and interests in his handling of the scripture.  He quotes Jewish scripture again and again, far more often than other gospel writers.  But he does it an unusual way.  He quotes a portion of a passage when he really wants the reader to think of the passage as a whole.

For instance, in Matthew 2:6,  Matthew quotes Micah 5:2’s words about a leader going out from Bethlehem that would “rule my people Israel.”  Micah continues “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”  Matthew doesn’t quote that part of the verse!  Why?  Well, probably because he doesn’t need to.  Sticks and stones may break my bones…and we don’t need to say any more.

This makes Matthew a bit trickier for us since very few of us (maybe none of us) know these passages as well as the Pharisees.  But, by looking up the OT passages, we can get a pretty good feel for the ideas Matthew wanted to bring to mind.

Matthew 4:13-16 is a good example of the way Matthew likes to use the OT.  He cites here a portion of Isaiah 9, but he wants us to think of more than just the part he quotes (note Isaiah 9:1-7),

Some Matthew quotes are quite easy.  Note Matthew 27:43.  Matthew quotes directly from Psalm 22:8—but he obviously wants us to think of the whole Psalm.

Other Matthew passages are harder for us.

Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14.  Matthew probably wants us to think of the whole Isaiah, Ahaz, Immanuel passage: Ahaz’s supposed pious refusal to look for a sign, Immanuel (God is with us) even in the midst of calamity.  I think also Matthew may be playing with the whole subject of OT exegesis, the interpretation of the OT.  Think of that “Moses gave us the Torah” thing.  Is that the right way to interpret scripture?  It may be that Matthew is challenging an exegetical tradition that isn’t any good (you have made void the law through your tradition, says Jesus).  

Matthew 2:15 refers to Hosea 11:1.  Maybe Matthew intends for us to be thinking of Hosea 10:25-15.  More likely, Hosea 11:3-4, 7.
The strangest of Matthew’s citations is Matthew 2:23.  What’s the OT passage he is quoting?  What cross-references do you get?  Perhaps Jeremiah 23:6?  Isaiah 11:1-12?  Isaiah 53?  Look at Jeremiah 23:6 first.  Where’s Nazarene here?

What you have here is a pun on the word Nazar, Branch. Nazar=root or branch.  Jews loved puns, and Matthew is making a pun straight out of the Jewish tradition (note, for instance, Daniel’s interpretation of Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparsin….a whole series of puns).  

Look at the Isaiah 11:1-12 passage, and the Isaiah 53 passage.  Certainly, you think Matthew would want to quote Isaiah 53 as evidence of the Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy.  Yet he doesn’t—at least he doesn’t quote Isaiah directly.  What he *does* do plant the ideas of this passage firmly in mind right at the beginning of his Gospel through his pun on Nazar.  Pretty clever.

A last example. Matthew 4:1-4 calls to mind Deut. 8:3.  (And he humbled thee and caused thee to hunger….).  

Matthew also calls to mind OT passages through the images he uses.  For instance, the gifts brought by the wise men would have called to mind Isaiah 60:-15 and Psalm 72.

All this show that Matthew’s gospel is particularly suited to Jewish readers.  Matthew is, even more, a gospel for those who don’t think they need the gospel.

Note the preaching of John the Baptist.  Jews are called a generation (genea) of vipers: ancestry isn’t the key to God’s blessing!  Also, John baptizes.  Nothing new.  But he baptizes, not gentiles, but Jews.  And even Jesus is baptized!

The temptation story is likewise organized as a warning not to use religion in the wrong way.  “If you be the son of God…” use your religion for your self: for your physical desires, for pride, for power.   Jesus replies *from the OT* show that, by their own scriptures, Pharisees were missing the mark.  And, once again, the interpretation of scripture issues comes up.  Satan cites scripture!  Hmm.

The Sermon on the Mount even clearer in its challenge to traditional religion.  

1.  The beatitudes (blessings) at the beginning.  Lets start at the very beginning, a very strange place to start in this case: because the Sermon on the Mount starts with the ending!  Blessings almost always at the end of a message, at the end of a sermon.  “The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his fact to shine upon you…”  Jesus puts his blessing first!!!   Why?  Well, the message of the Sermon on the Mount is that certain things are going to be turned around.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek….

2.    God’s standards are higher than legalistic teaching of 613 commandments.  And Jesus builds his own fence around the law…but a very different kind of fence!!!  Don’t murder?  Don’t be angry.  Limits on divorce?  No divorce.  Keep sacred oaths?  Always tell the truth.  Limit your vengeance?  Repay wrongdoing with kindness.  Love your neighbor?  Love even your enemy .  It’s the heart, not externals that count.  

3.    Chapter 6 continues its challenge to the religious.  Don’t pray, fast, or give alms in public.  And then there is Jesus sample prayer: the Lord’s prayer.  How is this different from the way people typically pray?

4.    Chapter 7 is some ways gets to the heart of the matter.  And the heart of the matter is… well, the heart.  Matthew 7:18  says a good tree brings forth good fruit.  Matthew 12:34-37 reinforces the idea.  A good man out of the good treasure of his heart….

5.    How do our hearts need to change?  Matthew 7:1-5 says "judge not."  It's our natural tendency to make ourselves feel good and religious by condemning others.  Also important is the idea that our hearts need to be *obedient.*

6.    At the end of the sermon, not the reaction. The hearers marvel because he teaches "as one with authority and not as the scribes."  Listen not to rules and regulations but to—well—God himself.  Be obedient! We all know the kind of kid who says to mom and dad, “I did everything you asked me to do” but hasn’t really obeyed because he knows full well what they wanted him to do and he didn’t do that.  But the Greek word for authority is also the Greek word for power…and we see the power in Matthew’s gospel as well.

Following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew describes a series of miracles:

Chapter 8—

1. Cleansing of a leper.  An interesting thing: touch a leper and you are unclean: but here, Jesus touches the leper, and the leper is clean.  *Why do you suppose this story is right after the Sermon on the Mount?  Is it reinforcing the idea of Jesus power and authority?  Is it reinforcing the turn-around message?  Or is it perhaps showing a different reversal: the leper is cleansed and *then* makes sacrifice: he doesn’t make sacrifice and then finds himself clean.

2.  Centurion’s servant (contrast of Centurion’s servants with Jews.  Jesus hasn’t found this kind of obedience in Israel!

3.  Peter’s mother healed (and she arises and ministers to them), and waves stilled.  Waves obey: oh ye of little faith (obedience).

4.  Then there is the paralytic in Chapter 9 (Jesus says “Thy sins be forgiven thee”: and *then* the (obeyed!) command, “rise up and walk.”  Jesus asks the question: which is easier to say?  Well, which is easier?

After the miracles, Matthew gives us an account of Jesus’ parables (Ch. 13:10-17).

*How does Matthew explain Jesus use of parables?  What’s the purpose of parables?  Not (as we might think) to hide the message, but because hearts are so hard that they can’t handle direct teaching.  A parable sticks in our minds and can work its way eventually into our hearts.

--Parable of the sower (take heed how ye hear=obey)
--Parables of the tares (true and false together and may look alike)
--Parable of the mustard seed
--Parable of the pearl of great price

Great emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, and restoration…

Also, lots of specific challenges to Pharisees and Sadducees.

*Why are Pharisees and Sadducees so often linked?  (Cf. Doctrine of Pharisees AND Sadducees.  What is the doctrine of the Pharisees AND the Sadducees?  Basically, that you can make up your own religious rules.  Any other reason the Pharisees and Sadducees are linked?  Well maybe to annoy them.  Watch out for Jews and Moslems.  Watch out for the Democrats and Republicans.  Watch out for the Calvary Chapel types and the Mormons.

Lots of specific criticisms of the Pharisees in Chapter 23:

•    Make religion burdensome for others (vs. 4)
•    Make a big deal of appearance/dress (vs. 5)
•    Love titles (vs. 6)   WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING CALLED RABBI?  PLENTY!!! WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING CALLED PROFESSOR?  FAR MORE!!! (Politician, professor joke—is no joke!!!
•    Misuse tithing (vs. 7-8)
•    Greed (vs. 14)
•    Majoring in minors (vs. 22-24)
•    Concentrate too much on outward religion
•    Kill those who speak for God (as in Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, where the inquisitor tells a silent figure: you shouldn’t have come here.  We do just fine without you. You mess things up. )

And, from here, Matthew builds to the climax.  Religious people, knowing full well who Jesus is, conspire together to crucify him

•    The scribes, elders, Pharisees, and Sadducees all agree Jesus has to go
•    Jesus’ trusted friend betrays him
•    Jesus’ most zealous follower denies him
•    Pilate wants to let Jesus go, but crowd asks instead for Barabas.  And as for Jesus? Crucify him!!  God’s chosen people: his blood be on us and on our children!!!

And on top of all that, when Jesus rises from the dead, when the Jewish leaders have full evidence Jesus was exactly who he said he was, what do they do?  They bribe the guards to say Jesus stole the body!!

Ah, religion.  What a wonderful thing!!!  We are so religious, that we will kill God!!!!