St. Matthew composed his gospel primarily for the Jews of his day. In all likelihood, Matthew was a despised man. He was a tax collector (Matt. 9:9), which garnered as much admiration then as now. Both his Greek name (Matthew, which means “gift of Jehovah”) and his Hebrew name, Levi (Mark 2:13-14, Luke 5:27-28) rooted him in Jewish heritage. Yet, there he was, a Jew working for the Roman government.
Thick hatred rears up in every account of Jesus’ call to Matthew. For example, Matthew 9:9 says, “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” Jesus then dines at Matthew’s house with “many tax collectors and sinners,” inviting the ire of the Pharisees, who ask, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The scene is repeated by both Mark (2:13-17) and Luke (5:27-32), beautifully answered each time by Jesus – “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Matthew answered that call, leaving all to follow Jesus, and eventually penning the first gospel which would serve to call his Jewish brethren to do the same. I say that Matthew was the “first gospel,” intending both canonical order and chronology. The strange, yet prevalent, idea that Matthew waited two to four decades after Christ’s Ascension (50-70 A.D.) to pen his gospel to the Jews has great problems even on the surface. Matthew was literate (tax collectors had to be), and likely followed the established custom of taking careful notes while his rabbi taught, providing him with the framework for his gospel during the lifetime of Jesus. Interestingly, the major discourses of Jesus do create the framework of Matthew’s gospel. He also had the strong motivation of knowing that his audience had awaited the coming of the Messiah for centuries. Why would he put off its composition a few more decades?
Convincing evidence exists showing that Matthew likely wrote an Aramaic or Hebrew version of his gospel before writing the Greek text that is often assigned the late dating mentioned above.
Eusebius cites Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis (c. 130 A.D.), as saying, “Matthew compiled the sayings in the Aramaic language, and everyone translated them as well as he could.” Around 180 A.D., Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
Eusebius also cites Origen (c. 250 A.D.) as writing, “Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism and published in the Hebrew language.”
Matthew assumed his audience would be quite familiar with Jewish customs, taking no time to explain his references to hand-washing traditions (15:1-9) and phylacteries (23:5), as Mark did when writing to the Gentiles (compare Matthew’s treatment with Mark 7:1-13).
But the Jewish feel of Matthew’s gospel goes far beyond references to customs or the original language of its composition. It even extends beyond his roughly five dozen Old Testament quotations. The gospel of Matthew is the Old Testament retold, loudly and beautifully proclaiming that Christ is all. The whole story of the people of God is told in Christ, it is fulfilled in Christ.
This powerful message resounds from the beginning to the end of the book, indeed, in the beginning and end of the book. Matthew begins his work with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The first phrase, “the book of the genealogy” or “the book of generations” is the Greek phrase biblos geneseos and it literally means “book of beginning” or “book of genesis.” Matthew is writing a new Genesis or a book of the new creation, and it begins with Jesus, the “firstborn” of this new creation (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15-18, Revelation 1:5).
Matthew concludes his gospel in a manner more surprising, telling of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, of His appearance to the disciples, and ending with the Great Commission in 28:18-20: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In this familiar passage, Jesus declares His authority and commands His disciples to go. Now, Matthew’s audience, being predominantly Jewish, would have caught something that is lost on the modern reader. The Hebrew Bible ends, not with Malachi but with 2nd Chronicles (remembering that Matthew first wrote his gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic, not Greek, thus following the order or the Hebrew text not the Septuagint). This means that the final words of their Scriptures are found in 2nd Chronicles 36:23, a proclamation from Cyrus, the Persian emperor – “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’”
Notice the great similarity between the Great Commission from Jesus and Cyrus’s proclamation – declaration of authority, the charge to go, the building of God’s house (or kingdom), and the promise that God’s presence would be with them.
Matthew begins and ends his gospel with the beginning and ending of the whole Old Testament, tying all of it together in the person of Christ, who is the beginning and the end, the fulfillment of all things promised by God. He is the new Genesis, the new Creation, and even the new Cyrus, only greater, as His authority extends over all of earth and heaven.
More Food for Thought:
- What other types and patterns can be found in Matthew’s Gospel? What does the presence of such types and patterns teach us about reading the Bible (and other works as well)?
- How can the realization that Scripture uses such rich patterns and types (mimetic teaching, if you will) affect our own teaching – at home, school, and church?
Next time: More on Matthew’s use of patterns and types throughout his gospel