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Summary Article: Matthew, Gospel of from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The Gospel of Matthew opens the New Testament canon with its story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Gospel designates as the Jewish messiah (Greek: Christos; Matt 1:1). Though early church tradition took this Gospel to be the work of Matthew, the tax collector who became one of Jesus' twelve disciples (Matt 9:9, 10:3; see Eusebius Hist. eccl. 3.39.16), it was originally written anonymously, and questions about authorship remain speculative. The traditional view (held by Augustine and others) that Matthew was written first among canonical Gospels is no longer widely accepted, since most scholars believe Mark's Gospel was written first and used as a source by both Matthew and Luke (see Mark, Gospel of).

Several themes distinctive to Matthew shed light on its occasion and purpose. In the first place, the writer emphasizes the Jewish nature of Jesus' messiahship. The Gospel's opening genealogy traces Jesus' lineage to the Israelite patriarch Abraham (Matt 1:1–2) through the messianic figure of King David (Matt 1:6). Throughout the Gospel, the writer uses "fulfillment citations" to explain events from Jesus' life and death in light of prophetic passages from Jewish scripture (e.g., Matt 1:22–3, 2:5b–6, 15b). Moreover, Matthew depicts Jesus as a new Moses, whose mountaintop teaching (Matthew 5–7) offers an authoritative interpretation of Torah (Matt 5:16–20), and the Gospel's structure, which includes five major sets of Jesus' teachings, may echo the five books of Moses. The Gospel, then, seems to presume the Jewish roots not only of Jesus as its central figure but also of its original audience.

On the other hand, the Gospel treats Jewish religious leaders rather harshly. Matthew's Jesus promotes a righteousness that surpasses that of the "scribes and the Pharisees" (Matt 5:20), a group he roundly denounces for misappropriated religious authority in Matthew 23 (see Pharisees). Both the tone and content of Jesus' critique of Jewish leadership probably reflect dynamics in Matthew's community; after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE), Jewish-Christians affirming Jesus' messiahship seem to have found themselves increasingly at odds with leaders in mainstream Judaism.

As Matthew promotes Jesus' messianic mission, then, this Gospel stresses the inclusion of the Gentiles and other disenfranchised groups within the kingdom of heaven Jesus heralds. According to Matthew, Jesus' lineage includes Gentile women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah). Moreover, just as Jesus' disciples would assume judging authority over Israel in the coming age (Matt 19:28), so too would the coming Son of Humanity judge the "nations" (Greek: ethne, or Gentiles) based on their deeds of mercy toward the "least of these" (Matt 25:40). Thus, Matthew's Gospel depicts a messianic age of salvation that is universally available, a feature that may suggest ethnic and religious diversity among the original audience.

A final emphasis worthy of note concerns the community of followers established within the Gospel story. Among canonical Gospels, Matthew alone uses the word "church" (Greek: ekklesia), Matthew alone affirms Peter as preeminent disciple (Matt 16:19), and Matthew alone ends with a Great Commission charging Jesus' followers to make disciples "of all the nations" (Matt 28:16–20). In all of these distinctive features, this Gospel firmly establishes Jesus' disciples as heirs to his authoritative witness to the kingdom of heaven and, in turn, lays important groundwork for church conduct, apostolic succession, and the missionary nature of the early Christian movement.

Taken together, this evidence from Matthew's Gospel suggests that it addressed a predominantly Jewish-Christian community living outside of Palestine sometime after the Jewish War (66–70 CE). The fact that the bishop Ignatius of Antioch seems to allude to this Gospel around 110 makes Antioch a likely provenance, especially since it was a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant Jewish community. At any rate, this Gospel quickly emerged as a favorite among Christian communities throughout the Greco-Roman world and assumed a place of preeminence among the New Testament Gospels.

SEE ALSO:

Apostolic succession; Christology; Eschatology, Jewish; Messianism, Jewish; Papias.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Allison, D. C. (1993) The new Moses: a Matthew typology. Minneapolis.
  • Edwards, R. A. (1985) Matthew's story of Jesus. Philadelphia.
  • Levine, A.-J. (2001) A feminist companion to Matthew. Sheffield.
  • Meier, J. P. (1992) Matthew, gospel of. In Freedman, D. N. , ed., The Anchor Bible dictionary, vol. 4: 622-41. New York.
  • Overman, J. A. (1991) Matthew's Gospel and formative Judaism. Minneapolis.
  • Senior, D. (1983) What are they saying about Matthew? New York.
  • Sim, D. (1998) The gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism. Edinburgh.
  • Suzanne Watts Henderson
    Wiley ©2012

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