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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew describes a series of
1. Cleansing of a leper. An interesting thing: touch a leper and
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
2. Centurion’s servant (contrast of Centurion’s servants with
Jesus hasn’t found this kind of obedience in Israel!
3. Peter’s mother healed (and she arises and ministers to them),
stilled. Waves obey: oh ye of little faith (obedience).
4. Then there is the paralytic in Chapter 9 (Jesus says “Thy sins
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.
*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!!!!