• When and Where
The Gospel is attributed to Matthew, the tax collector (who is also called Levi in Mark and Luke). However, that claim of authorship is not found in the text itself.
The canonical order places Matthew first because it was long considered being an eyewitness account by the named disciple as well as for the 5-fold pattern that presents Jesus as a new Moses leading a new Exodus from a new pharaoh. These echoes of Torah make Matthew a very suitable opening book for the NT. However, a strong scholarly consensus now places Matthew as being written in the 80’s, a decade or so after Mark’s Gospel.
We do not know for sure where this Gospel was written, but Matthew’s community appears to have been predominantly Jewish with perhaps a few Gentiles, and is caught up in the divisiveness and struggle for identity within Judaism in the decades after the destruction of the Temple.
Matthew both deeply affirms and is quite hostile to Judaism. As more and more gentiles became Christ-followers, this new sect looked less and less Jewish to other Jewish sects and was increasingly ostracized. This does not excuse some of Matthew’s invective against non-Christ-following Jews, but it does contextualize it.
• Key Insights
It is clear from linguistic study that Matthew (and Luke) used Mark as a source document, expanding on the earlier text’s framework and timeline by introducing their own particular theological insights and arguments. Matthew uses about 600 of Marks 678 verses. To Mark’s base, this author adds a birth narrative and about 400 verses of Jesus teachings, including commissioning the disciples in a post-resurrection appearance.
About 200 of these added verses are shared with Luke – which has led scholars to suggest a 2nd shared source that we do not have a copy of but which is referred to as Q (from the German “Quelle” or “source”).
Unique to Matthew are parts of the Sermon on the Mount (and that setting) and parables like the weeds, hidden treasure, pearl of great value, unmerciful servant and workers in the vineyard.
The Gospel opens with a genealogy, stylistically going back to Abraham. We often want to skip such lists, but note the quite unusual inclusion of women! Four Old Testament women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” are named; all were outsiders and caught up in scandal. We could easily do a whole study just on their stories (See Genesis 38:6-30, Joshua 2:1-24, Ruth 1-4, and 2 Samuel 11:1-27). Matthew calls specific attention to them, and in so doing, is already making a claim about a new age and how God operates in unexpected ways.
• Big Picture
The birth narrative is undoubtedly familiar, although we tend to read Luke as more primary and to skip over the slaughter of innocents. Note how that echoes Moses’s story, which is not to say there could not a historical event for both, but is to highlight some deliberate parallels’ Matthew’s author uses to make a theological claim about who Jesus is and how the people should respond. Note how “outsiders” are again key to the story and demonstrate faith that some “insiders” seem to lack.
I debated where to break today’s reading. Ultimately I decided to have us to read the whole of the Sermon on the Mount in the context that Matthew places it. Wesley preached often on these texts and centered his social ethic in them. Note how Jesus invokes and expands the 10 commandments and how the Gospel’s movement from temptation, to the beginning of ministry, to this expansive teaching, into Jesus’ healings and then giving the disciples authority) is differently structured from the other Gospels. Likely this “sermon” is a collection of sayings, not a “transcript” of a single event. Consider how the flow helps you understand what Matthew is proclaiming and urging.
Parts of chapter 10 are often troubling to modern readers, here it is important to consider the context of a rapidly dividing society. We’ll focus in more depth on some of the fault lines among various Jewish groups when we get to John’s gospel. Different understandings of Jesus were affecting this small new sect called Christians (and, for that matter, our various traditions today!) Truly following Jesus often brings challenge to us, as well as comfort.
Blessings on your reading!