[T]he Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
In the second century a.d., the Gospel of Matthew was placed at the very beginning of the New Testament. It was believed to be the first Gospel written, though we now know that the Gospel of Mark dates earlier. Because it is the Gospel most intensely concerned with issues related to Judaism, it provides an appropriate transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament in the Christian Bible. Matthew became the most important of all Gospel texts for first- and second-century Christians because it contains all the elements important to the early church: the story about Jesus’s miraculous conception; an explanation of the importance of liturgy, law, discipleship, and teaching; and an account of Jesus’s life and death. The Gospel of Matthew has long been considered the most important of the four Gospels.
Though second-century church tradition holds that the author of the Gospel is Matthew, a former tax collector and one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles, also known as Levi, scholars today maintain that we have no direct evidence of Matthew’s authorship. Because the Gospel of Matthew relies heavily on the earlier Gospel of Mark, as well as late first-century oral tradition for its description of events in Christ’s life, it is unlikely that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was an eyewitness to the life of Christ. Instead, the author was probably a Jewish member of a learned community in which study and teaching were passionate forms of piety, and the Gospel was probably written between 80 and 90 a.d.
Matthew is arranged in seven parts. An introductory segment gives the story of Jesus’s miraculous birth and the origin of his ministry, and a conclusion gives the story of the Last Supper, Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, and the resurrection. In the middle are five structurally parallel sections. In each section, a narrative segment—interrupted occasionally by dialogue and brief homilies—tells of Jesus’s miracles and actions. Closing each section, Jesus preaches a long sermon that responds to the lessons learned in the narrative section. The Sermon on the Mount, which introduces the basic elements of the Christian message, follows Jesus’s first venture into ministry (5:1–7:29). The Mission Sermon, which empowers Jesus’s apostles, follows Jesus’s recognition that more teachers and preachers are necessary (10:1–42). The mysterious Sermon in Parables responds to Jesus’s frustration with the fact that many people do not understand or accept his message (13:1–52). The Sermon on the Church responds to the need to establish a lasting fraternity of Christians (18:1–35). Finally, the Eschatological Sermon, which addresses the end of the world, responds to the developing certainty that Jesus will be crucified (23:1–25:46)
Matthew traces Jesus’s ancestors back to the biblical patriarch Abraham, the founding father of the Israelite people. Matthew describes Jesus’s conception, when his mother, Mary, was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Matthew focuses very little on Mary herself, and praises Joseph for not abandoning his fiancée.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem, where he and his parents are visited by wise men from the East bearing gifts. The wise men follow a star to Bethlehem. Their king, Herod the Great, hears the rumor that a baby named Jesus is the “king of the Jews” (2:2). Herod orders all young children in Bethlehem to be killed. To escape the king’s wrath, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt. Joseph and his family return to Israel after Herod’s death, but then move to Nazareth, a town in the northern district known as Galilee.
Years pass, and Jesus grows up. A man in a loincloth, who lives by eating wild honey and locusts, begins to prophesy throughout Judea, foretelling of Jesus as the one who will come to “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). This prophet, John the Baptist, who is likely a member of the ascetic Jewish Essene community, eventually meets Jesus. John baptizes Jesus, and Jesus receives the blessing of God, who says, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (3:17). Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days without food or water to be tested by Satan. Jesus emerges unscathed and triumphant, and begins to preach his central, most often repeated proclamation: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). His ministry begins.
Matthew mentions Jesus’s earliest followers: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Once Jesus accumulates this small group of Jewish followers, he begins to preach. His early ministry reaches a peak when he gives a sermon famously known as the Sermon on the Mount, which deeply impresses his increasingly large group of followers (5:1–7:29). The sermon emphasizes humility, obedience, love of one’s neighbor, the proper method of prayer, and trust in God. Jesus says that the poor, meek, and hungry are blessed.
As he travels through Galilee, Jesus continues to attract crowds. Matthew relates ten of Jesus’s miracles, which are also described in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus cures a leper, a paralytic, a hemorrhaging woman, a centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law. He also calms a storm, exorcizes demons, gives eyesight to the blind, and brings a dead girl back to life. Jesus resolves to “send out laborers” to minister to the Gentiles, to whom he refers as lost sheep (9:38). Jesus appoints twelve disciples, telling them that they will be persecuted but they should not be afraid. Jesus instructs the apostles to preach that the “kingdom of heaven has come near,” and to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, all without payment (10:7).
In Chapter 11, Matthew interrupts his account of Jesus and his disciples’ mission to focus on Jesus himself. He gives an account of the opposition Jesus faces. Some people disapprove of his association with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. They call him a glutton and a drunkard. In the face of such rejection, Jesus does not apologize, but, rather, admonishes those who reject him.
Jesus responds to his challengers with a collection of parables. Matthew describes several of the parables—the parables of the sower, the weeds, the mustard seed, and the leaven—that Jesus tells to the crowds that gather to listen to him (13:1–33). Jesus then explains that his disciples are part of his family.
Jesus’s ministry of healing, cleansing, and raising the dead continues as he travels throughout Galilee. But he is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, where his friends and neighbors deride him. He continues to perform miracles, but the people become increasingly resistant and disbelieving. Jesus multiplies loaves and fish, feeding thousands on very little food. He heals the sick and continues to preach the message of spiritual righteousness. Yet Jesus repeatedly finds that his disciples still lack faith in him. When he miraculously walks across the water to them, they assume he must be a ghost. Even after he multiplies the loaves, they fear hunger. Only Simon properly professes his faith, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Jesus renames Simon “Peter,” a name whose Greek form is identical to the Greek word “rock.” Jesus announces, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). Jesus then lays out the rules for communal relations among Christians, emphasizing forgiveness, humility, and obedience to his teachings.
Jesus continues to preach. He forbids divorce and advocates chastity, while expounding the virtues of asceticism. He warns against the pitfalls of wealth, teaches forgiveness, and welcomes children. In Jerusalem, cheering crowds await him. People “spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (21:8). Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus expels money changers from the Jewish temple and defies the chief priests and elders, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers” (21:13). Jesus’s action earns him the support of the crowds. He chastises Jewish leaders, telling them they have been poor caretakers of the temple and that the people have been hypocritical, focusing on technical legal issues rather than “justice and mercy and faith” (23:23). Seeing the wickedness of Jerusalem, and foreseeing God’s punishment of the wicked, Jesus warns his disciples to be prepared for the end of the world. He says that tribulations will precede the final judgment, but that the Son of man—Jesus himself—will come, and that the righteous will be saved.
In Chapter 26, Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with the disciples. Jesus indicates that Judas, one of his disciples, will betray him. Jesus predicts that after his death, the other disciples will flee, and Peter will also betray him. When he breaks bread and drinks wine with the disciples, Jesus initiates a ritual that later becomes known as the Eucharist, the consumption of bread and wine symbolizing Jesus’s body and blood. After dining with the apostles, Jesus goes into a garden called Gethsemane. There he prays, asking God if it is possible to escape the impending suffering. As Jesus is leaving the garden, Judas approaches, accompanied by a mob and a great number of Roman soldiers. Judas kisses Jesus in order to show the angry mob which man claims to be the Son of God.
Jesus is arrested and brought before the Jewish court, where he is convicted of blasphemy. Caiaphas, the high priest, sends him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome, for a final verdict. Pilate looks surprisingly weak and undecided. He turns to the crowd for the judgment and they all chant, “Let him be crucified!” (27:22). Pilate concedes. Jesus is led out, crowned with thorns, mocked, and crucified. On the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then dies (27:46). Matthew notes the presence of “many women” at the execution, including “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (27:56). Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea and a guard is set over the tomb. On the first day of the week, three days after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Mary go to visit Jesus’s tomb in order to anoint his body with oils and spices according to Jewish custom, but they find the tomb empty. Astonished, they see an angel who tells them that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead and that he can be found in Galilee. The women leave the tomb both happy and afraid. Suddenly, Jesus greets them and asks them to tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee. After the women leave, the guards tell the city’s chief priests what has happened, and the priests bribe the guards to report that Jesus’s body was stolen while they were sleeping. In Galilee, Jesus commissions his disciples to teach and baptize nonbelievers as they travel throughout the world.
The Gospel of Matthew is strongly connected to the Old Testament. Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all cite Old Testament prophesies that they regard as having been fulfilled in the person and works of Jesus, Matthew is particularly careful to point out that Jesus’s teachings are compatible with Judaism, and to insist that Jesus’s life fulfills Old Testament prophesies. Matthew portrays Jesus as a second, greater Moses, an important prophet in the Old Testament. Just as Moses gave his law from Mount Sinai in the Old Testament, Jesus preaches his new laws in a sermon he gives from a mountain. Like Moses, the young Jesus hides in Egypt from the wrath of a vengeful king. Finally, Jesus is tempted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, while Moses and his people wandered the wilderness for forty years.
Matthew further emphasizes Jesus’s ties to Jewish tradition by tracing Jesus’s ancestry to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Matthew clearly speaks from within the Jewish tradition to a largely Jewish audience. But at the same time, Matthew’s Gospel contains some of the most vehement anti-Jewish polemic in the entire New Testament. For example, Matthew challenges mere external obedience to religious law, valuing instead an internal spiritual transformation: “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:43). It is also possible to interpret such passages as Jesus’s reinterpretation of Jewish law rather than his rejection of it. Jesus is simply reminding his community what Jewish law already indicates: that God demands absolute obedience and not just the appearance of obedience.
Matthew is the most carefully structured of the Gospels: it proceeds through an introduction; five central segments, each designed with a concluding sermon that responds to the concerns raised in the preceding narrative; and a conclusion detailing Jesus’s Passion. Matthew’s careful construction reflects his Gospel’s concern with rhetorical structure. In contrast with Mark’s spare style and Luke’s formal tone, Matthew’s rhetoric is meant to be stirring. Many readers regard the five sermons in which Matthew conveys Jesus’s teachings as some of the finest prose in the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount is Matthew’s greatest composition, in which he reveals his talent for epigrams, balanced sentences, and rhetorical shifts as he moves the sermon from its graceful and quietly powerful opening, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3), to its tempestuous finale, “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (7:27).
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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