[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.