Does the Gospel of Matthew present Jesus as a specifically Jewish messiah or as a universal savior?
Matthew, a Jewish author writing for a Jewish audience, is keenly interested in representing Jesus as the promised messiah of the Jews. At the same time, however, Matthew’s Gospel was written sometime in the last two decades of the first century a.d., when the Jesus movement was spreading faster among Gentiles than among Jews. Therefore, as Matthew depicts Jesus as messiah to the Jews, he must also be careful not to alienate the growing population of Gentile followers. He accomplishes this by depicting Jesus as initially concerned only with Jews, and developing an interest in Gentiles only after it becomes clear that mainstream Jews do not view him as their messiah.
In his Gospel, Matthew links Jesus to Jewish tradition in multiple ways. When he reconstructs Jesus’s genealogy, he explicitly traces Jesus’s lineage all the way back to Abraham, the founding patriarch of Judaism. Additionally, Matthew alters Jesus’s genealogy (in comparison to Luke) so that he can group Jesus’s ancestors into sets of fourteen, a point to which he explicitly calls our attention. While the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Greek, its Jewish audience would have been familiar with Hebrew, and in Hebrew the number fourteen is also the proper name David. Thus Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is both a direct descendant of Abraham and a new David, a messianic figure who has arrived to return the Jews to the glory of the Davidic Monarchy.
Matthew goes on to connect Jesus with another great Jewish figure, Moses. In contrast to Luke, Matthew claims that the infant Jesus was taken to Egypt to protect him from Herod. This allows Matthew to depict Jesus as coming up out of Egypt to lead his people, just as Moses did. Similarly, Matthew has Jesus perform ten healing miracles to parallel Moses’ ten miracles (the plagues) in Egypt, and Matthew depicts Jesus wandering in the wilderness for forty days, an allusion to the way that the Book of Exodus shows Moses wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Matthew also shows Jesus to be the new Moses in the way that he is depicted as a lawgiver. Whereas Luke writes of Jesus delivering the beatitudes on a plain (the Sermon on the Plain), Matthew represents Jesus as climbing a mountain to receive laws from the deity and deliver them to the people (the Sermon on the Mount). This depiction is an echo of the way that Moses climbed the deity’s sacred mountain to receive the commandments in the Book of Exodus. With all of these connections, Matthew leaves little doubt that he wants his readers to see Jesus as another link in the chain of great Jewish leaders.
Jesus’s status as the Jewish messiah is underscored by the fact that Jesus explicitly states that he has come only to help “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus’s mission to the Jews is derailed, however, by the way that mainstream Jews, the Pharisees in particular, reject his teachings. Jesus has several confrontations with the Pharisees, who never bend in their opposition to him. These tensions are heightened by the fact that Jesus not only attacks some of the Pharisees’ practices but also goes so far as to alter the commandments given to Moses, claiming, for instance, that the prohibition on adultery extends to lustful thoughts, and that the prohibition on murder extends to feelings of anger. In making these changes to the sacred laws, Jesus offers a much stricter and more demanding form of faith than the Pharisees were prepared to accept.
Matthew solves the problem of how Jesus can be both the Jewish messiah and a universal savior by having Jesus use his rejection at the hands of the Pharisees as a basis for broadening his mission. After a particularly strident dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus has an encounter with a Gentile Canaanite woman. The woman asks Jesus to help her daughter, but Jesus initially refuses, saying that he was sent only to Jews and comparing Gentiles with dogs. The woman persists, however, and Jesus sees that her faith in him is great (and much greater than that of the Pharisees), so he changes his mind and heals her daughter. This switch from an exclusively Jewish mission to a more universal one foreshadows the final movement of the Gospel. In its closing moments, Matthew’s Gospel shows Jesus returning from the dead to tell his followers to “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus’s transformation into a universal savior is complete.