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Matthew’s Tendencies (1)

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Matthew’s Tendencies (1) .. § Jewishness .. Torah as Obligatory .. Fulfillment of Scripture .. “Kingdom of Heaven” .. Exclusivism .. § Universalism .. § Anti-Pharisaism
Matthew’s Tendencies (2) .. § Heightening of End-of-Time Expectation .. § Heightening of the Miraculous  
Matthew's Tendencies (3) § .. Theological Tendency: Toward a Higher Christology .. § Toward the Idealization of the Apostles
Matthew’s Tendencies (4) .. § Popular Anecdotal Material .. § Concluding Observations



In the Twilight of Christian Judaism

A close analysis of the editorial practices of the anonymous author of the Gospel of Matthew, especially in comparison with the Gospel of Mark, which he employed in his work, brings to light a number of tendencies or interests. The alert reader of the gospel will find it useful to take these into account when putting together a profile of Jesus, such as we are attempting in these studies.     

  §  The Jewishness of Matthew 

To begin with, Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels. In the present study we are proposing that the author was a major voice in the noble but ill-fated movement which we are calling Christian Judaism, or Jewish Christianity if one prefers. In the earliest days of the church, all followers of Jesus were Jewish, including the apostles and other leaders, and it was in Jerusalem that the largest and most influential congregation resided. By the ninth decade of the first century, when Matthew was written, things had changed: 


The apostles (likely) were dead;  


Jerusalem, the stronghold of Christian Judaism, lay in ruins, at the conclusion of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 C.E.; and 


Most if not all of these Christian Jews were killed or dispersed. Beyond these threats to the viability of Christian Judaism were two other trends: 


The persistent and sometimes dramatic growth and spread of gentile Christianity (formal recognition of which was given at the Jerusalem Conference, at the beginning of the sixth decade), so that Christian Judaism was becoming a minority; and 


The unhappy breach developing between Christian Jews and the Jewish synagogue. Regarding this separation, we know all too little. On the side of the synagogue, there was likely a “circling of the wagons,” in order to rescue what was possible from the Jerusalem disaster of 70 C.E. Ultimately Christian Jews would be obliged to choose Jesus or Judaism. We cannot date the end of Christian Judaism, but the author of Matthew was writing in its twilight years.

We may note that the Jewishness of Matthew is representative of a Hellenistic rather than a Palestinian Judaism, especially in that the author favors the Septuagint, or the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek.

  §  The Jewishness of Matthew: Torah as Obligatory 

In good Jewish style, the author (whom we shall call “Matthew” for convenience’s sake) seeks to maintain the validity of Torah (the Jewish Law), which the follower of Jesus would still be obliged to observe. There are several revealing instances of this point of view:

     1. Though Matthew incorporates material from Mark wholesale into his gospel, he also makes judicious omissions to suit his editorial purposes. In the discussion of clean and unclean in Mark 7:14-23, Mark represents Jesus as declaring all foods clean (7:19b), in contradiction to the explicit teaching of Torah, whether written or oral; whereas Matthew omits this editorial observation altogether (Matthew 15:17). Matthew also omits the argument in Mark 2:27, that the sabbath was made for man (thus, the sabbath as an instrumental value), not man for the sabbath (thus, the sabbath as an intrinsic value). Good Jews might find offensive a view which seemed to relativize the sabbath and diminish its ultimacy.
     2. It appears that Matthew took a bit of Q tradition (Matthew 5:18 || Luke 16:17) and in 5:17-20 built around it a mini-manifesto for Christian Judaism, with Jesus endorsing Torah observance as indispensable for his followers. (Click on Matthew 5:17-20, for further discussion of this point.)
     3. Only Matthew explicitly acknowledges the authority not only of written Torah but of the oral traditions, handed down in scribal circles, which elaborated and applied the texts:  

Matthew 23:2-3  The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

Such an acknowledgement of rabbinic authority seems difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ attack upon rabbinic tradition in Mark 7:1-13. (Apparently without complete consistency, Matthew does take this material over from Mark, in Matthew 15:2-9; perhaps Matthew sees Mark 7:1-13 as an attack, not against rabbinic tradition as such, but against an abuse of the legitimate rabbinic function of interpreting and applying the written text of Torah.)

     4. It is also interesting to speculate that Matthew’s high valuation of Torah might have encouraged him to arrange the sayings material in his gospel into five great discourses, thus representing Jesus as the new Moses; these discourses would then correspond to biblical Torah, the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The five discourses in Matthew are 5 – 7; 10; 13:1-53; 18; and 24 – 25. Indeed the first discourse is introduced with Jesus’ ascending the mountain, or hill (5:1), perhaps echoing Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai to receive Torah (Exodus 19:3).

     5. At the same time, we need to recognize that it is possible to oversimplify the point: Matthew betrays a degree of ambivalence insofar as his editorial hand is at work in the “six contrasts” of Matthew 5:21-47, which update and even nullify Torah.

  §  The Jewishness of Matthew: Fulfillment of scripture

The Jewishness of this gospel also shows through in Matthew’s insertion of some fifteen fulfillment texts into the narrative, without parallels in Mark or Luke. (To be sure, Mark and Luke are also interested in showing the fulfillment of scripture, but the introduction of proof texts in Matthew is more frequent and seems more contrived.) It is evident that the author has left his “fingerprints” on these passages (click on scripture fulfillment). He usually introduces them with the characteristic phrase, “. . . to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet . . . ” (. . . hina plęrôthęi to ręthen dia . . . tou prophętou legontos), or with a variation of this phrase. In his zeal for prophetic fulfillment, to make his strongest case for Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish scriptures, he goes so far as to accommodate details of the narrative to the prophecy, as in having Jesus enter Jerusalem upon the donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:1-7). 

Matthew 21:1-7

Mark 11:1-7

Luke 19:28-36

2 . . . [Jesus said,] “You will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.” . . .  2. . . [Jesus said,] “You will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.” . . .  30 . . . [Jesus said,] “You will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it here.” . . .
4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” . . . 
. . .7They brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.      . . . 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.     
35. . . Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.     

We may also note that in 4:13-16 Matthew has anachronistically located Jesus’ early work in Zebulun and Naphtali, in order to make the fulfillment fit the prophecy.   

  §  The Jewishness of Matthew: “Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew clearly prefers “Kingdom of Heaven” to “Kingdom of God.” “Kingdom of Heaven” is a circumlocution for “Kingdom of God,” and thus the two terms are identical in meaning. Jews of this period would have used “Kingdom of Heaven” to avoid pronouncing the divine name, and thus to help observe the third commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:7). 

When “Kingdom of Heaven” occurs 34 times in Matthew, but never in Mark or Luke, one can appreciate why the term is properly characteristic of Matthew. “Kingdom of God” occurs with great frequency in Mark and Luke, but only four times in Matthew (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43). Also significant is the fact that Matthew six times changes the term “Kingdom of God” in Mark to “Kingdom of Heaven:” 
  Mark 1:15 || Matthew 4:17
  Mark 4:11 || Matthew 13:11
  Mark 4:30 || Matthew 13:31
  Mark 10:14 || Matthew 19:14
  Mark 10:15 || Matthew 18:3
  Mark 10:23 || Matthew 19:23
The exception is Mark 10:25 || Matthew 19:24, where Matthew leaves standing “Kingdom of God” in Mark. (At the same time, we note that there is some modest manuscript support for “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew 19:24.)

  §  The Jewishness of Matthew: Exclusivism  

Without stereotyping first century Judaism, we may suggest that for five or six centuries Judaism, in part for the sake of its very survival, had tended to emphasize those aspects of its practice and cultus which separated the Jewish community from their neighbors: sabbath observance, dietary regulations, circumcision, and laws of clean and unclean. It is perhaps not coincidental that the two most exclusivist texts in the synoptic gospels occur in Matthew alone:

Matthew 10:5-6  5These twelve [disciples] Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Matthew 15:24  [In response to the Canaanite woman, whose daughter was tormented by a demon, Jesus said,] “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

To be sure, these texts might be regarded as a tactical restriction upon the energies of Jesus and of his disciples, but it cannot be denied that a phrase like “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” would have resonated positively with the author and Christian Jewish readers.

Taking all of these considerations into account, we may safely conclude that the Jewishness of Matthew is well established. If he is representative of a Hellenistic Judaism that might have been found in a major center such as Antioch, we can imagine that he would have been perfectly at home eating at the Jewish Christian table which may have survived there into the ninth decade of the first century, a relic of the famous Antioch Episode reported by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. Following the lead of Peter (Cephas) and Barnabas, Christian Jews could continue to enjoy a Torah observant practice, along with their Christian faith.


  §  Universalism

In view of what has just been observed about the exclusivism of Matthew, it may seem strange that other texts occur in the gospel which are more inclusive, most notably the so-called Great Commission.

Matthew 28:19-20  19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

We wonder:  
bulletIs Matthew inconsistent? Possibly; and if so, it is not an unforgivable flaw. 
bullet Or is Matthew exclusivist for the pre-Easter period, and inclusivist for the post-Easter period? Possibly. 
bullet Or is Matthew sounding inclusive, but at heart is he really committed to Torah observance even for the gentiles (in Greek, ethnę, rendered also as “nations”) who are made disciples; and does he then understand “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” to include the words in 5:15-20, about Jesus’ coming not to abolish the law but to fulfill it? Possibly.
bulletOr all (or some) of the above?


  §  Anti-Pharisaism

Given the Jewishness of Matthew, and his evident recognition of scribal authority (23:2-3), we may naturally feel some surprise at the exceptionally sharp attack upon the Pharisees in that same chapter (23:13-36). This anti-pharisaism is present already in the Q material of this chapter, but Matthew seems to go out of his way to sharpen these attacks where he includes his own material, whether traditional or editorial.

Matthew 23:7-10  7[They love] to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. . . .

Matthew 23:15-22, 24  15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. 16Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? . . . 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

One suspects that Matthew, for all his loyalty to Torah and respect for scribal tradition, stood in opposition to the rabbinic establishment of his time, as much for their failure to practice what they preached as for the fact that he was on the outside looking in. We can only speculate that his bitterness toward the Pharisees might have been heightened by his being put out of the synagogue along with other Christian Jews for his refusal to disown Jesus. We may speculate that the author would have been pleased to identify himself also as a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,  . . . [bringing] out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52), offering his scribal learning as well as his access to Christian traditions and texts.


Revised February 15, 2003


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