What is the Gospel of Matthew? – Author, Date, and Themes

The author of the Gospel of Matthew is anonymous. It is a text written around, according to consensus, 80 to 85 CE to a Jewish Christian community or communities, or to Jewish Christians generally. Some scholars view this community as being located in Antioch of Syria. The author’s motive for writing is to present the story of Jesus in a way that appeals to Jews and assists Jewish Christians to understand and promote their Christian faith to the Jews. The author provides a kerygmatic account of the life of Jesus and can be described as a “community book” written to meet the needs of a particular readership, such as helping readers better understand their new faith.

Authorship  

The author is anonymous and the title “according to Matthew” was affixed to the text in the second century CE. From the second century, church tradition (in the form of Papias, Pantaenus, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius) supports Matthew, who was one of the original disciples of Jesus, as the gospel’s author, although most scholars today do not accept this. 

There are various reasons scholars do not accept Matthean authorship. First, the author relies heavily on other accounts to write his gospel, which is odd if he had himself been an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry. In addition, the gospel makes no claims about who authored it, which means scholars must view it as anonymous.

A great deal has been said, largely in favor of Matthean authorship, concerning Papias’ ascribing the gospel to Matthew. Papias writing in the early to mid-second century says that “Matthew compiled the oracles in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated them as best he could”.

But scholars are doubtful about the accuracy of this statement for a few reasons. First, Matthew‘s author wrote in Greek and not in Hebrew or Aramaic. Further, the author used Greek versions of Mark and Q to compose his account. In contrast to what Papias states, Matthew’s account, although containing sayings, is itself not a collection of sayings (such as we find with the Gospel of Thomas or Proverbs, for example). R. T. France finds that the statement from Papias is too ambiguous to count as evidence for Matthean authorship (1). 

It is perhaps even the case that what Papias is referring to is not the Gospel of Matthew but some other unknown composition. Moreover, the other patristic references of Matthean authorship derive from the same tradition Papias was recording, so it is doubtful we can put much weight on them at all. 

Although anonymous, France believes that we can state with some certainty the author was “a Jewish Christian, with an extensive knowledge of and a strong interest in the Old Testament, familiar with scribal traditions and with the methods of Rabbinic debate, and capable of writing in good Greek, even though his own cultural background was clearly Semitic.” Unfortunately, it seems that many of Jesus’ early disciples could fit this description, given the increasing recognition that Greek was widely used in first-century Palestine, particularly in “Galilee of the Gentiles”.

Date  

We are certain that Matthew’s author uses the Gospel of Mark for much of his content, so Matthew’s date must be no earlier than 70 CE. Moreover, key to dating Matthew is determining whether or not it was written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The gospel does refer to the destruction in 24:2 where Jesus states: “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Jesus is here interpreted as predicting the destruction, which has led most to date Matthew post 70 CE. Others criticize this as it seems to rule out the possibility of foretelling the future, whether by chance or through divine revelation.

The parable of the king in 22:7 is also thought to show Matthew’s knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem. In this parable, the king is angry because those he invited to the marriage feast did not come and some of them murdered his servants. He then “sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Although the reference to “troops” who “burned their city” is consistent with an event like the destruction of Jerusalem, the language of the parable is hyperbolic rather than literal, so it should not be interpreted as referring to a historical event. 

Others have argued that Matthew’s gospel must have been written post 70 CE because he used Mark and that it would have taken some time to compose the account. A post-70 CE date is also suggested by the gospel’s developed doctrine such as its Christology (11:27-30), ecclesiology (16:18-19; 18:15-20), and trinitarian formula (28:19) (this point has been challenged as some scholars cite Paul’s developed Christology, despite Paul writing several years before the destruction of Jerusalem). Although we can agree to a post-70 date, there is little reason to suspect an entire decade was needed before Matthew could make use of Mark and complete his account. In other words, it is possible Matthew was written before 80 CE.

Themes in Matthew 

Matthew shares much of his theology with the earlier Gospel of Mark since he makes use of Mark’s account. There is also unique material in Matthew and we find Matthew‘s author also redacts the Markan material, which allows us to gain insight into his particular interests. 

Essential to all Matthew’s theology is fulfillment. Everything is related to Jesus. In particular, the Old Testament points to him. This is apparent given how many times this gospel quotes the Old Testament: there are more than sixty explicit quotations from the Old Testament which exclude the many allusions the author makes to it. The Gospel of Matthew has a particular interest in fulfillment quotations as he wants to make Jesus the fulfillment of messianic prophecy.

Matthew elevates the Christology of Mark by making it clearer (compare Matt. 16:16 with Mark 8:29, Matt. 19:17 with Mark 10:18, and Matt. 9:3 with Mark 2:7). Matthew applies to Jesus the title “Son of God” (8:29; 14:33; 16:16; cf. 3:17; 17:5). That Jesus is the Son of God is also implied: “‘and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (1:23). Matthew further emphasizes Jesus being the Son of God at least twenty-three times. That Jesus is the Son of God is also a mystery: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (11:27).

A second major title in Matthew given to and taught by Jesus is the Son of Man. Jesus often uses this title and it also coincides with Son of God. Jesus also possesses the identity of being the Son of David and thus the Messiah. Matthew 1 identifies Jesus as Messiah, the son of David, and the son of Abraham. The title “Son of David” occurs throughout the gospel (12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9). Peter also confesses that Jesus is the Christ (16:16), a title that Jesus accepts and later affirms to the high priest (26:64).

Arguably the central theme in Matthew is the “gospel of the kingdom” (4:23; 9:35; 24:14), which is the good news that the rule of God has begun through the presence of Jesus Christ. Matthew uses the word “kingdom” much more than any one of the other gospels. The message of Jesus, like that of John the Baptist (3:2), is the coming of the kingdom (4:17). This also becomes the message of the disciples (10:7). Chapter 13 teaches that the kingdom is present but also a mystery. It is, teaches Jesus, something special to perceive: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (13:16–17).  

Matthew speaks frequently of righteousness and discipleship. Personal righteousness is associated with discipleship (5:20; 6:1). In 5:20, Jesus says that “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”. Jesus calls his disciples to a better or higher righteousness (5:20). Righteousness is also a call to do the will of the Father (7:21; 12:50; 21:31). The word “righteousness” is best viewed in a salvation-historical sense in that God’s righteousness is active in the saving of his people (3:15; 5:6; 21:32). Discipleship is also important to the author and this reflects in the noun “disciple” being used far more often in Matthew (73x) than in the other synoptic gospels. The verb “to make disciples” occurs only in Matthew (13:52; 27:57; 28:19). The disciples are referred to as “brothers” (18:15, 21, 35; 23:8; 25:40; 28:10). In 12:49–50, “Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” The disciples are also called “little ones” (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14). For Matthew, discipleship requires following in the steps of the Lord, self-denial, and taking up one’s cross (10:38-39; 16:24-26). Discipleship also involves the suffering of persecution (5:10-12; 10:16-25; 24:9-13) and the humility of a servant (20:26-27; 23:11-12) or a child (18:1-4).

Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ faithfulness to the law. Jesus claims: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (5:17-18). With his Jewish Christian readers in mind, the author presents Jesus as less radical toward the law than we find in Mark. Consider Matthew 15:1-20 (compare to Mark 7:1-23) in which the author avoids the conclusion that Jesus “declared all foods clean” and emphasizes only the issue of handwashing. Jesus agrees with the Pharisees and how they expound the Mosaic law, but teaches not to imitate their hypocrisy: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (23:2-3). Jesus is also said to transcend the teachings of the Pharisees (9:10-17; 15:1-20). The law as expounded by Jesus is not a new law but the “true” or intended meaning of the Mosaic law.

Community is an important theme in Matthew. The Greek word ekklēsia (“church”) occurs only in Matthew (16:18; 18:17) among the synoptic gospels. The church was founded by Jesus. In Matthew 16 where Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus promises to build his new community upon Peter the rock. 

The Nativity Story is a special feature in Matthew (1:1-4). We know little concerning Jesus’ life before his ministry around the age of thirty, but Matthew (and Luke) provides us with a birth account. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary, a virgin married to Joseph and who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Matthew’s account offers several unique details. For example, it mentions the Magi (“wise men”) following the star and visiting Jesus, King Herod’s killing of all the boy babies to make sure he does away with Jesus, and Jesus’ family flight into Egypt to escape Herod. Matthew‘s author likely created at least some of these scenes to shape his story (2).

Jesus is present as a new and improved Moses, which suits Matthew’s aim. The author not only implies that Jesus is important like Moses but that Jesus also transcends Moses. There are various parallels such, for instance, both Moses and Jesus escaping a royal decree of mass infanticide (Moses was placed in a basket in the Nile and Jesus was carried off to Egypt); Moses being hidden in Egypt for three months to keep him alive (Ex. 2:2) and Jesus being hidden in Egypt to keep him alive (Matt. 2:13); both return to be among their people to deliver them; both endure a forty-day fast before ascending a mountain to bring to the people the law of God, etc.

References

1. France, R. T. 1985. The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 31-32.

2. Enns, Peter. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So. New York: Harper Collins. p. 106 (Scribd ebook format).

Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Ada: Baker Books.  

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