Random Bits on Matthew's Gospel


Since it’s Cycle A, why don’t we do something timely - look at some elements peculiar to Matthew’s gospel? (Note: much of these have already been posted once or twice before)

"Rabbi" and "Lord"

In Matthew’s version of the Last Supper, when Jesus announces to His disciples that one of them will hand Him over, they begin to ask Him: “Is it I, Lord?” After giving a clue as to who the betrayer would be, Judas quips: “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus then gives an oblique answer to Judas, abruptly ending the scene. (26:20-25)

Notice something odd here? In Matthew, only Judas calls Jesus ‘Rabbi;’ the other disciples refer to Him as Kyrie (vocative of Kyrios), ‘Lord.’ This is a unique characteristic of Matthew: he has different characters address Jesus using different titles, depending on whether they have a positive or negative role in the story. Those who willingly follow Jesus address Him almost always as “Lord” (8:2-8; 9:27-31; 14:28; 17:4; 20:30), which emphasizes the authority of Jesus and the divine power at work in Him. By contrast, those antagonistic to Jesus address Him as didaskale “teacher,” which in Matthew is a designation never used by Jesus’ true followers (8:19; 12:38; 17:24; 19:16; 22:16).

In fact, if you’ compare Matthew to, say, Mark’s gospel (where ‘Rabbi’ is used of Jesus indiscriminately), you’ll find that where Mark has Peter and Bartimaeus saying “Rabbi,” Matthew has Peter and the two blind men (his analogue to Bartimaeus) address Jesus as “Lord” (17:4; 20:33; cf. Mark 9:5; 10:51). The other instance where Peter calls Jesus “Rabbi” in Mark (when he finds the fig tree withered; 10:51), meanwhile, is simply not found in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew has thus provided a clue for his audience as to where a given character’s loyalty lies. To a discerning ear, Judas has basically ‘outed’ himself by his noun choice: “Rabbi,” which also happens to be one of the titles which Matthew’s Jesus had condemned the scribes and the Pharisees for accepting (23:7-8).

It is as if Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t need to exercise any supernatural ability to read Judas’ intentions; his words serve as code language that signifies his treachery. To the arrest party at Gethsemane, Judas gives a kiss as an agreed-upon sign, but for Jesus (and by extension, the audience) he gives no less a sign - the word “Rabbi.” Judas is the only character in Matthew to use either one. In other words, Judas speaks like the enemies of Jesus, failing to perceive his Master’s true identity.

While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.


Thanks for sharing. I love stuff like this.


Matthaean Dualism: Reward and Punishment

Matthew really likes to make things crystal-clear and to neatly divide things into categories. His narrative has a penchant for dualisms, and these divisions accomplish what Judas’ question does - separating Jesus’ followers from His opponents. This division literally pervades the whole gospel: for instance, you have the parables of the narrow and wide gates (7:13-14), the wise man who built his house on the rock and the fool who built his on the sand (7:24-25), the wheat and the weeds (13:24-30), the wise and foolish maidens (25:1-13), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). In each of these cases Matthew segregates humanity into two pairs: the wise ones who listen to Jesus’ words, and the foolish ones who do not.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

For Matthew’s Jesus, it was not just enough to point out the obvious (building a house on a shaky foundation such as sand is less desirable and - to put it bluntly - stupid), He intensifies the difference by pointing out the destruction of the sand-based house. This is another common theme in Matthew: punishment and reward reinforce one another, and Matthew rarely includes one without the other. This is much more clearly spelled out in the final parable in the gospel: the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

Matthew’s obsession to make things clear might come as a bit of a culture shock if you’re coming from Mark’s gospel. Whereas Mark is the gospel of ambiguity and mystery, Matthew is the gospel of certainty and clarity. Where Mark often blurs the line between ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’, Matthew neatly keeps the two in their place.

A particular pet phrase frequently used by Matthew is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which appears six times throughout the gospel (8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). This phrase ties in perfectly with Matthew’s dualistic worldview and emphasis on reward and punishment. Oddly enough, however, one of the instances in which this phrase appears is at the end of a story that does not easily lend itself to punishment - the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14; cf. Luke 14:16-24). In Matthew’s version of the parable, the ones who rejected the king’s invitation meet a nasty, if somewhat disproportionate, end for their refusal: not only were the ungrateful guests killed, their city was also burned to the ground (!) In fact, the disproportionate response goes both ways: whereas in Luke, the guests simply offer different excuses for not going to the banquet, in Matthew the guests kill the messengers (just for inviting them to a wedding feast?) which prompts the king to slaughter them in turn. The Matthaean version also ends in a rather odd note, about a man who was bounced out of the party “into the outer darkness” (another Matthean pet phrase, which accompanies “weeping and gnashing of teeth” at least three times; 8:12; 22:13; 25:10) for not following the party dress code.

The ending of that parable raises a few intriguing, rather nitpicky, questions. If “many are called but few are chosen” as Jesus says, why then invite them to a party where they are going to be thrown out? Where was this person supposed to get a garment? Did he even know that he needed to wear one? We cannot answer these questions right now, but simply raising them indicates the general framework of Matthew’s storytelling. Even if the narrative logic does not call for a clear delineation of outsider from insider, Matthew crafts his episodes such so that the dualistic framework remains intact.

Matthew’s gospel, stylistically speaking, creates a taxonomy of good and evil. For Matthew, there is no middle way: you either follow Jesus (in which case you are blessed) or you don’t (which means bad luck for you). This viewpoint makes his gospel different in tone from that of Mark, even though they share much of the same content. Whilst Mark thrives in enigma and ambiguity, Matthew emits earnestness and certainty.


The ‘Good’ Disciples


If you’re like me who’s more familiar with Mark than Matthew or Luke among the synoptic gospels, another case where one might experience some ‘culture shock’ would be in Matthew’s treatment of the twelve disciples. Where Mark shows us thick, idiotic, blind (the adjectives are quite harsh, but I could go on) disciples, Matthew, by contrast, due to his desire for certainty, has an overall more positive portrayal of them. Let me show you one example of this: the parable of the sower.

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that

“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”

[INDENT](Mark 4:10-13)

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

(Matthew 13:10-17)[/INDENT]

Whereas Mark simply writes that the disciples had been given “the mystery of the kingdom of God,” Matthew, true to form, clarifies it to further his neat, dualistic worldview: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” While Mark’s Jesus asks His disciples if they understood the parable (with an implied and understood “No” on their part), Matthew’s Jesus by contrast commends them: “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Not only that - they also confidently reply to Jesus that yes, they totally understood what He was saying (14:51-52).

For Matthew, solid knowledge is a necessity, and he gives clear instructions on how to achieve it. Whereas Mark puts into question the easy categorization of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ Matthew leaves no doubt as to who ‘gets it’. The Matthean Jesus requires no less devotion than the Markan Jesus, but He requires less puzzling. To go back to the example of the two houses, in Matthew’s mind at least, Jesus’ reputation as leader rests upon those who hear His words and those who act on them. It is as if he could not risk tarnishing and calling into question Jesus’ legacy by showing the disciples as ignorant hearers.

There are other two episodes where we can see this difference between Matthew’s and Mark’s disciples, both coincidentally involving the sea. In the calming of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41), Mark’s disciples seem to ask a blunt, somewhat petulant question to the sleeping Jesus: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Matthew’s disciples, however, they give out a more certain cry for help: “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” (Note here Matthew’s use of “Lord” instead of Mark’s “Teacher!”) The impact of Jesus’ rebuke is also a good deal softer in Matthew: rather than saying outright that the disciples have “no faith” as Mark’s Jesus does, the Matthaean Jesus simply says that they have “little faith.” Maybe not enough, but faith nevertheless.

As for the walking on the water pericope (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52), compared to Mark’s somewhat grim ending (“And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened”), Matthew’s version ends positively: the disciples “worshiped” Jesus and confessed Him outright as “Son of God,” a title which in Mark no human character ever uses for Jesus until the centurion at 15:39 (but which in Matthew is liberally applied to Jesus every once in a while). Mark’s bunch were too thick and hard-hearted to comprehend the miracle they just saw, but Matthew’s disciples worship Jesus - thus leaving no doubt that they do understand Him and are thus true and worthy carriers of His legacy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Matthew’s disciples are incapable of failure. He has his own version of the disciples’ failure, which often comes across as being more harsher than Mark’s - precisely because he has a more upbeat view of them. For instance, Matthew’s version of the walking on water has Peter asking Jesus to let him walk on the water as well, which ultimately fails. Also when Peter denies Jesus in Matthew, it is written that “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear,” ironically adopting a form of speech which Matthew’s Jesus had explicitly condemned (5:33-37).


Matthew, the Church, and Tradition

Another episode where Mark and Matthew show their respective thematic differences would be Peter’s confession in Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30). Jesus’ identity is not so much of a secret in Matthew as it is in Mark (where the so-called ‘messianic secret’ is a key theme); where Mark’s Peter confesses Jesus to be “the Christ,” Matthew’s Peter goes all the way: “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (If you’ll remember, no human character in Mark except for the centurion at the end ever recognizes Jesus to be “the Son of God.”) True to his reward-punishment motif, Peter’s declaration in Matthew prompts this glorious celebration of it by Jesus, which should be familiar if you’re Catholic: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

This brings us to the issue of Matthew being the gospel which lays a lot of stress on “the Church.” For Matthew, the Ekklēsia is something that is highly important. In fact, it is Matthew’s Jesus which advises that:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”


This theme - of Matthew being the Church-oriented gospel - is the key to his portrayal of the disciples as the ones who hear Jesus and get things right (and are praised for it). By showing the disciples as bright fellows who know how and when to say and do the right thing, Matthew thus emphasizes the idea of ‘tradition’. His gospel depends upon an unbroken, unsullied chain, the transmission of teachings from Jesus Himself to His disciples to the readers of the gospel. The disciples are the links which connect Jesus and the audience of the gospel. Since for Matthew, knowledge of Jesus’ status as Lord (and not ‘Teacher’) stands as the ultimate goal for his audience, and since the disciples must transmit this knowledge, they understand him quite well. They do so because, ultimately, Jesus’ teaching depends on them. So there’s an agenda, so to speak, in Matthew’s positive portrayal of the disciples: by doing so he is emphasizing that the teachings his audience had received are true and reliable. The disciples had not misunderstood Jesus or His teachings, they had not corrupted the chain of transmission - so Christians can be rest assured that what they had been handed down to them by the disciples is true, authentic Tradition.

The pericope is particularly interesting since it harkens back to the parable of the wise and foolish builders. This episode shows Peter as being like the wise man who builds his house on rock :cool:; in other words, he is the living example of someone who hears and acts upon Jesus’ words. The metaphorical enemy of the house on rock (the wind and rain) is now “the gates of Hades” - the biblical idiom for Death* - but in both cases the rock ultimately withstands the assault. As a reward for this (the reward-punishment theme), Peter is chosen to be the foundation for the Church, which will build upon him. He, and the other apostles, are thus set as the intermediate material between Jesus and the hearers of the gospel.

  • Digression: Traditionally this is translated as “the gates of hell,” but that doesn’t fully capture the nuance of the term, especially if you understand ‘hell’ here to mean specifically the Hell, the place where the damned are punished. The Hebrew expression “the gate of death” denotes the general place were the souls or shades of people go to when they die (Job 38:17; Psalms 9:13; 107:18; cf. Isaiah 38:10 “the gates of Sheol;” Job 17:16 “the bars of Sheol”). Hades is functionally the Greek equivalent of Hebrew Sheol, and the same phrase as here is used in this sense in Septuagint Isaiah 38:10 as well as in 3 Maccabees 5:51, Wisdom of Solomon 16:13, and in Psalms of Solomon 16:2. (Especially note in the latter two passages, there is a parallelism between the terms “death” and “gates of Hades.”)

Remember how many people struggle with the traditional wording of the Apostles’ Creed (“He descended into hell”)? The ‘hell’ in “gates of hell” should be understood the same way: not so much the specific place where the damned go to (which is what the modern meaning of ‘hell’ is), but the underworld/the world of the dead in general (the original meaning of ‘hell’). In fact, something is lost in translation when you simply take ‘hell’ to mean ‘Hell’: there’s a juxtaposition here between “the gates of Hades” (Death) and “the living God.”


Good stuff, thanks.


The Jewish Jesus

Many people have noted the fact that Matthew is the most ‘Jewish’ of the four canonical gospels. In fact, the whole gospel begins with: “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” The phrase biblos geneseōs is often translated as “book of (the) generation,” which certainly does have that meaning; however, anyone who would have read this originally would have been struck by that phrase. It is a rather overt reference to - guess what? - the book of Genesis. In other words, Matthew begins his work - rather properly, one could say - at the ‘beginning’. He then singles out David and Abraham, two important figures in Hebrew history, as the most important forefathers of Jesus, and proceeds to give a genealogy of Jesus (very Jewish of him to do so) that clearly imitates the “begats” familiar from Genesis. The author constructs his list in three sets of fourteen, both highly significant numbers in ancient numerology, including Jewish numerology: David’s name is composed of three letters in Hebrew (דוד, d-w-d) and has a numerical value of fourteen (d-w-d = 4+6+4). In fact, David is the fourteenth name in Matthew’s genealogy!

Also, there is the characterization of Jesus throughout the gospel as a new Moses, somewhat in a midrashic sort of way: both had an evil king seeking to slaughter them; one goes out of Egypt while the other goes into it; Jesus is portrayed as giving His intepretation of the Law from a mountain (Matthew 5-7) because Moses received the Law from a mountain. Not to mention Matthew’s penchant - one could even say obsession - for quoting the Old Testament every now and then, showing how even the slightest of Jesus’ actions “fulfilled what was spoken” by the prophets, as well as his very Jewish avoidance of the word “God” and preferance to use a euphemism (Matthew speaks of “the kingdom of Heaven” in contrast to Mark and Luke’s “the kingdom of God”). Some even see the gospel as being composed of five blocks of narrative alternating with five discourses (which are marked off with the phrase “when Jesus had finished…;” Matthew 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 23-25), which could be a reference to the five books of the Torah.

Matthew uses these devices to demonstrate how, in his view, Jesus did not just fulfill, but also interpreted the Scriptures. The Sermon on the Mount makes His relation with the Mosaic Law explicit: Matthew’s Jesus has come not to annul Torah but to fulfill it. The righteousness Matthew’s Jesus demands of His followers is not less, but more than that demanded by the Law. In a series of antitheses (“you have heard it said…but I say to you…”), Matthew shows how Jesus’ interpretation of Torah yields a greater righteousness “than that of the scribes and the Pharisees,” and how (rather paradoxically) it is more demanding than what the Mosaic Law stipulates. Jesus quotes a particular commandment, only to give a more stringent and more harsh interpretation of it. He does not get rid of the laws of Moses; He retains them, but also teaches that they must be completely internalized - which makes it all the more difficult to follow. If killing is a temptation, how hard is it to avoid anger? If adultery is hard to avoid, how much more lust?

‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is something that is misunderstood by many Christians. It is not a kind of harsh system of retribution as it is often imagined, but an attempt to moderate retributive systems so that they would not spiral into greater violence: “if you must retaliate, do not retaliate to any extent greater than you have suffered.” If your eye gets hurt, you may exact retribution by hurting an eye, but not two eyes. If you lose one tooth, you could make the other lose a single tooth as well, but not any more than that. Jesus, however, raises the hurdle, making it more demanding. While the Law did allow for some retribution, His intensification of that Law meant that His disciples could not even exercise that privilege. On the contrary, they are to “turn the other cheek,” give all of their clothes when only a single item is demanded of them, and to walk two miles when the Law requires only one. Jesus in Matthew thus teaches that people should not just obey the Law of Moses, but even more than that - they are to walk the second mile, to go beyond what the Law requires and internalize its intent.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Unfortunately though, there had been and is a tendency to read the Matthaean antitheses as a Christian rejection of the Mosaic Law. What often happens is that Matthew’s Jesus is read as substituting the ‘good’, superior law of Christianity for the outdated, ‘bad’ law of the Jews. This is a dualism that Matthew may have never intended to make: to juxtapose and contrast the supposedly harshly legalistic ‘old’ law of Moses with the more merciful ‘new’ law of Christianity. This mentality has been so dominant in Christendom that even non-religious people could invoke the old stereotype about “the Old Testament God” being a cruel, temperamental judge contrasted with the merciful Father of the NT.


The Jewish Jesus, Continued

Matthew also seems to suggest by way of allusion that Jesus is the Torah personified. According to the traditional Jewish understanding, the Torah was eternal: some rabbis believed that it existed in the mind of God long before it was even revealed to Moses - the Torah created long before the world was created, it is said - and will endure forever, in the “world to come.” Torah was wisdom and the fulfillment of its commands. Study of Torah was as righteous as the performance of sacrifices in the Temple, and the reason for the sabbath rest. The divine presence (the Shekinah) dwells upon those who gather to study Torah as it does upon the righteous. To become a Jew is to take on the yoke of Torah: in fact, Israel and Torah are two inseparable concepts.

Matthew, in turn, has Jesus associate Himself with wisdom (11:19) and declare Himself to be even greater than the temple (12:6). He invites those heavily burdened to take on His “yoke” so that He could give them “rest” (11:29-30). He promises His disciples that He will forever be with them (28:20), and He tells them, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (18:20). For Matthew, Jesus is thus the medium of the divine presence.

This characterization of Jesus ties in with Matthew’s portrayal of the disciples as intelligent hearers and the gospel being Church-oriented. In the Septuagint, the “congregation” of Israel is sometimes described as an ekklēsia. The word occurs about a hundred times in the protocanonical books of the Septuagint, and where the Hebrew original is available for comparison, it always translates the word qəhal “a gathering” (i.e. an assembly) or words from the same root (although qəhal are sometimes also translated using other words such as synagogē). In effect, Matthew’s Jesus brings to life a new, reconstituted Israel: just as those who gathered to hear Moses speak to them from God were His ekklēsia, so too those gathered to hear Jesus speak from God comprise a new ekklēsia, with the disciples taking on the role of the scribes.

To get a feel as to just how ‘Jewish’ Matthew’s Jesus is, compare his version of the handwashing incident (15:1-20) with Mark’s (7:1-23). When Mark’s Jesus explains how it is not what goes into people’s mouths that makes them unclean - or to be more literal, makes them “common” - but by what comes out of their hearts, Mark inserts a parenthetical aside: “Thus He declared all foods clean.” This might be read as the Markan Jesus going so far as to get rid of kosher laws entirely. Matthew’s version, however, doesn’t have the aside; not a very big difference at first, but it puts things into a different perspective. Matthew, in his version of the story, establishes first that hand washing was simply a custom and not a commandment (and thus does not have any real binding force), and secondly, that what goes on in someone’s heart and mind is more important than outward ritual. There is no breaking of the Law, or anything that lessens the commands of the Law.

Another point of comparison between Matthew and the other two synoptic gospels is the scope of Jesus’ mission. Whereas in the other gospels there are some hints that Jesus was open to speaking with gentiles, with His disciples sometimes depicted as having contacts with non-Jews, Matthew makes it clear that in his opinion, Jesus carefully limited His ministry, and that of His disciples, to the “house of Israel” during His lifetime. When He sends out the disciples in chapter 10, Matthew’s Jesus explicitly forbids them to speak with gentiles or even Samaritans (10:5-6; contrast Jesus in John 4:7-22). The other gospels do not have this limitation. Matthew in fact uses the word “gentile” to mean “outsider,” including (Jewish?) members of the church who have been kicked out of the community (18:17 “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector”).* All of this may tie in with Matthew’s distinction between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. This is why Jesus’ final command in the gospel to “make disciples of all nations” is such a big deal: the mission that (in Matthew’s perspective) originally only been limited to Israel is now being taken out into the whole world.

  • For Matthew, it seems, “gentile” is not a very good word, at least at first. So in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Jesus likes to use gentiles as negative examples - as synonyms to ‘outsiders’ or ‘unbelievers’ (5:47; 6:7, 32); in his story of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28; his analogue to Mark’s Syrophoenician woman; Mark 7:24-30), Matthew doesn’t call the woman a “gentile” like Mark does; and in 20:25-26, Jesus says that “that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.

However, as the story progresses, we see a shift towards the direction of the gentiles, something which was already prefigured in 12:18-21 (quoting Isaiah 42:1-4): “I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations (tois ethnesin - ethnos ‘nation’ is the word often translated as “gentile”) … and in his name the nations will hope.” In 21:43, Jesus warns the chief priests and the elders that “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation (ethnei) who will produce its fruit.” In 24:14, Jesus says: “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” And of course, there’s 28:19: “go and make disciples of all nations.”


The Retreating Jesus

Another quirk of Matthew is his portrayal of Jesus as someone who turns back from the face of danger. Repeatedly in the gospel, Jesus is threatened by some force, and rather than confronting the danger head-on, He retreats. The first time Jesus does so could be considered the flight to Egypt (2:13-15), but that action may be attributed more to the agency of Joseph. The motif becomes more obvious in 4:12, where we read: “Now when he heard that John had been handed over, he withdrew into Galilee.” Up to this point Jesus has been in Judaea to be baptized by John (3:13-17) and then in the wilderness battling the Devil (4:1-11), but when He hears about John’s arrest He “withdraws” (Matthew’s term of choice for this is anachōreō, used for a military retreat) from the scene of action to go back into the Galilee. This is a rather puzzling portrayal: Jesus is a hero who does not aggresively charge, but cautiously “retreats.”

In Matthew 12:9-16, we are told that Jesus humiliates the Pharisees by rebuking them and healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. When the Pharisees leave in order to plot Jesus’ destruction (v. 14), Matthew says: “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known.” Under Mark’s hands we would expect this command of silence to be an instance of the ‘messianic secret’ (cf. Mark 3:1-12), but Matthew’s presentation of the episode makes it seem as if Jesus had ran away from the Pharisees because they are plotting to kill Him, and He tells the crowds to keep His activities a secret, perhaps in order to avoid arrest. Two other instances of the ‘retreating Jesus’ are in chapter 14 (when he hears of John the Baptist’s death) and in chapter 15 (just after the handwashing incident). All in all, the word anachōreō appears ten times in Matthew (it shows up only once in Mark, once in John, and twice in Acts); six of those ten times it is used to describe Jesus’ “withdrawal” (2:13, 22; 4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21).

Note, however, that the pattern includes more than just the “retreat.” Going back to 4:12-17, we see Jesus retreating from a threat of danger, but He doesn’t hide. Rather, Matthew says that “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” In Matthew, this is the point at which Jesus’ ministry begins. Jesus withdraws from danger so that He can take His message elsewhere. The same happens in 12:15-23 (Jesus, running away from the Pharisees, cures all those who tag along with Him and begins a more intensified ministry) and 14:13-14 (Jesus hears the death of John and retreats, but also heals the sick and teaches the crowds). Jesus’ retreat is thus a strategic one: it leads not to the end of His ministry but to its beginning or intensification.

The ‘retreating Jesus’ motif colors the gospel as a whole, in fact: at the face of rejection, Jesus retreats from the Jewish people (cf: 23:39) into the circle of His disciples, and then intensifies His mission (which was originally directed only towards the “house of Israel”) by ordering His followers to “make disciples of all nations.” (28:19) In other words, the story of Matthew’s Jesus is the story of the Messiah who retreats from His own people because of their rejection of Him, but extends His mission to cover the whole world.


Jesus the Role Model

Matthew holds up Jesus as a role model for His followers. Being a good example to other is important to Matthew: his Jesus criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees in chapter 23 precisely because they do not practice what they preach. He has emphasized via his portrayal of the disciples how those who follow Jesus must be imitators of Him - to be learned “scribes” who like the master of a household, brings out the new and the old (13:51-52). Jesus is presented as being such a householder, taking the old from the Jewish Scriptures, but also adding what is “new,” namely His own interpretations and teachings. Moreover, Matthew is here saying that his community must have its “scribes” who do the same. The members of Matthew’s church are thus to be imitators of Christ.

Chapter 10 mainly consists of Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples on how to preach. Jesus predicts that they will be hauled before courts, tortured and persecuted for their message. But He also has a curious advice: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (10:23) And just to make sure we know that Jesus is telling His disciples to follow His example: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (10:24-25) Matthew ends the speech with an emphasis on His disciples as the embodiment and the representatives of Jesus: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

Matthew is thus telling that they should follow the example of Jesus and be “good scribes.” Just like Jesus, they will face rejection, persecution and tribulation - something they must endure. But more than that, they should also follow Jesus’ example by retreating from the face of danger, but *retreat in order to carry out the ministry elsewhere. *


Matthew and the (other) Jews

I should say that there is a ‘dark’ side of Matthew’s gospel that we also must pay attention to.

Matthew’s earnestness can pose a difficulty for modern readers of the gospel. Because of his clearly-defined, dualistic worldview, his narrative needs ‘enemies’ in order to draw his Protagonist and His disciples more sharply. Most often, the characters who fill in this role are Jewish authority figures like the Pharisees or the chief priests. Matthew is absolutely certain that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism and makes his case for it (the “Jewish Jesus” motif we have seen earlier); for him, to reject Jesus is to reject the correct understanding of Judaism.

Not all of the people within the gospel, not to mention later Jewish readers of Matthew, are convinced, however. Most people today think that Matthew was probably written around the time when the tensions between Christians and other, non-messianic Jews were reaching to a point: by the time the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism (the spiritual descendant of the Pharisaic schools, all the other forms of Judaism of the Second Temple period having gone extinct), twins of the same womb, have started to go their separate ways. Both laid claim over the heritage of Israel and struggled to define themselves in the context of the turmoil of the era and over against each other. The more Christians argued in the context of the synagogue that Jesus is the Messiah, the more non-messianic Jews found it impossible to put up with them. The end result was that Christians were banned from the synagogues and were labeled by their colleagues as minim, ‘heretics’. In this context, the gospel has been interpreted as reflecting the struggles and conflicts between Matthew and others of his ilk and other Jews.

There are times within the gospel when Matthew’s earnestness and surety could become sharply polemical. Matthew contains some of Jesus’ most virulent statements in all the New Testament: for instance, Jesus’ very pointed haranguing of the scribes and the Pharisees in chapter 23. Judas’ identification of Jesus with the very Jewish title “Rabbi” could even be seen in this light. Not to mention that the gospel contains what is perhaps the most infamous line within the Christian Scriptures: “his blood is on us and on our children.” (27:25)

Another overarching theme throughout the gospel I’ve mentioned earlier is the rejection of Israel’s Messiah. Prior to Jesus’ crucifixion the Jews are mainly called Israelites, the honorific title of God’s chosen people (cf. 8:10; 9:33; 10:6; 10:23; 15:24, 31; 19:28); after it, they are called Ioudaioi “Jews” (28:15), a sign that through their rejection of the Christ the “kingdom of Heaven” has been taken away from them and given instead to the new Israel, the Church, which is open to both Jew and gentile alike.

Matthew’s seeming obsession with the Jewish opposition and rejection of Jesus could generally be explained as him adopting a common rhetoric. The first generations of Christians in general, acting from within a Jewish context, took a page from the OT prophets’ calling Israel out for its sins (e.g. Nehemiah 9:26; 2 Chronicles 36:14-16): as part of their message towards (fellow) Jews, they emphasized the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, coupled with a plea for Israel to repent and accept Jesus as the Messiah (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16; Acts 2:22-38; 3:12-26; 4:8-22; 5:29-32). They cast the Jewish rejection of Jesus in the same light as Israel’s rejection of the prophets in former times.

Unfortunately, the original context of this has become quite obscured as Christianity got more and more distant from its Jewish roots, with the result that people simply took Matthew’s negative portrayal of Jews at face value. The irony is, that the most Jewish of the four gospels (right along with John) was used as a proof-text for many of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews throughout history.


"God with us"

Matthew’s gospel is bookended with a simple declaration: God is with us. When Matthew begins the narrative proper he provides us a quote from Isaiah 7:14, which he links with Jesus’ birth: “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” Matthew will pick up on this theme at the very end of his gospel, where the risen Jesus promises to His disciples: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:20; cf. also 18:20 “Where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.”) For Matthew, God is present in the person of Jesus.

Just as the Matthaean Jesus’ words were heard and enacted upon by His followers, they in turn must now become the bearers of His words. For Matthew, because the disciples proved to be intelligent hearers, they are now to be the new “scribes” and the new “teachers.” Because Israel had turned its back on its Messiah, their mission is no longer confined to it as it had been before (10:15; 15:24); they are now to carry out the ministry to “all nations.” The gospel implicitly connects its own existence to the ability of the disciples to hear, understand, and pass on the teachings of Jesus: were it not for them, Matthew’s gospel would not have existed. They will, we can assume, indeed make more disciples, who will separate themselves from the goats whose houses built on sand are doomed to be washed away. The crucified and risen Jesus, by promising to be with the Church as they move out into history, proves true to the name Isaiah gives Him: “God-with-us.”


Seeing Double

Anyone who has read Matthew will note how he really likes twos. Where Mark has one demoniac (5:1-20), Matthew has two (8:28-34); when Mark has one blind man (10:46-52), Matthew speaks of two men (20:29-34; cf. also 9:27-31 - interestingly the two accounts are so similar to each other that some have also seen it as two versions of the same story!) Where Luke reports a deaf demoniac (11:14), Matthew has a blind and deaf demoniac (12:22) - the person is thus afflicted with two disabilities. There’s also Matthew pairing the disciples into twos when he lists their names (10:1-4), the presence of a donkey and a colt in the Matthaean version of the Triumphal Entry (21:1-10, perhaps based on a literal reading of Zechariah 9:9 LXX, which speaks of “a beast of burden and a young foal” - all the other gospels have one donkey), and the two false witnesses against Jesus (26:60-61; Mark 14:57-59 only mentions “some”). Not surprising, given how this is also the gospel where Jesus says that:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

(Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)


Great posts patrick457. Much useful information here.


Jesus the Healer

Another specific element one could notice in Matthew (especially when compared to Mark) is his choice to cast Jesus more in the role of a healer - compared to the Markan image of Jesus as exorcist. Not only are there nearly three times as many occurrences of the verbs therapeuō and iaomai (both essentially meaning ‘to cure’ or ‘to heal’) in Matthew than in Mark, the way Matthew handles parallel material, he minimizes the exorcistic elements in some stories, making them into more generalized healings; where Mark has accounts of Jesus’ teaching, he has accounts of His healing; and while Mark summarizes Jesus’ ministry as one of “teaching and casting out demons,” Matthew has Him “teaching and healing.”

In two stories, Matthew has substantially curtailed the demonic and ‘magical’ elements found in Mark’s version. For instance, immediately after the episode of the Syro-Phoenician (Matthew: Canaanite) woman and just before the feeding of the four thousand, where Mark has the rather graphic healing of the deaf-mute in Bethsaida (with somewhat magical overtones in Jesus’ use of saliva; 7:31-37), Matthew is content to give a very general summary of Jesus’ healings (15:29-31):

Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him [Matthew likes to have Jesus sitting on the top of mountains and having great crowds follow Him, doesn’t he?], bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.

In Matthew’s version of the healing of the possessed/epileptic boy (17:14-21; cf. Mark 9:14-29), he has omitted almost all the details that make the story an exorcism. So whereas the boy’s father in Mark explicitly describes the boy as having “a spirit that makes him mute,” in Matthew the boy is simply described as an “epileptic.” The graphic description of the spirit convulsing the boy as soon as Jesus comes into the scene (Mark 9:20-24) is also absent. In fact, the only reference to the demon in Matthew’s version is in a single sentence: “And Jesus rebuked it, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed (etherapeutē) instantly.” (v. 17)

Now these are still relatively minor differences (although significant ones at that), as the two types of stories are still formally similar. A more distinctive difference would be Matthew’s having Jesus heal where Mark (and sometimes Luke) has Him teach. The first difference seems the most logical in context, and therefore least indicative of Matthew’s particular interests: in Mark 6:34, Jesus is said to have had compassion for the crowds and so proceeds to “teach” them, which (when you think about it) might seem a bit disjointed and strange a reaction. Both Matthew and Luke here has an arguably more ‘natural’ reaction where Jesus heals the people out of compassion (14:14; cf. Luke 9:11): “When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” The second seems to be a more deliberate difference: instead of Mark’s “… crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them” (10:1), Matthew has “… large crowds followed him, and he healed them” (19:2). Unlike the previous example, nothing in the context would seem to make healing more appropriate than teaching at this point. If anything, the fact that this is the introduction to a controversy story (Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12) would seem to make the Markan context the more sensible in this case. The third instance is during the cleansing of the temple. Where Mark and Luke have Jesus teaching in the temple after driving the moneychangers out (Mark 11:17; Luke 19:47), Matthew instead says that “the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (21:14). This is, in fact, the last time that Jesus heals anyone in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ time in the temple is the climax of His healing ministry.


Jesus the Healer, Continued

Matthew shows the same interests and tendencies in his summaries of Jesus’ ministry, which can be contrasted to that of Mark. When Mark summarizes Jesus’ ministry, he focuses on the two activities of preaching and exorcisms: “And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (1:39) These are the same two activities that Mark’s disciples are empowered to do: “he appointed twelve … so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” (3:14-15) For Mark, the ministry of Jesus and His disciples is best characterized by preaching and exorcisms, though he is much more detailed in recounting the latter.

As for Matthew, he has obviously greatly expanded Jesus’ teaching in His five large discourses or sermons, and while he shares with Mark the depiction of Jesus as an exorcist (albeit with some modifications), when Matthew summarizes Jesus’ activities, he adds or substitutes references to general healings, as in his parallel to Mark 1:39, which serves the conclusion of the first narrative block in Matthew: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” (4:23) The second narrative block closes with an almost identical summary: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” (9:35) In his summary of the disciples’ activity, Matthew also refers to their healing activity: “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” (10:1) Matthew has consistently shown that he is more interested in depicting Jesus as a healer than Mark is: he has made some exorcisms into more generalized healings, he has depicted Jesus as healing rather than teaching several times, and he has summarized Jesus’ ministry as one of “teaching and healing” rather than “teaching and casting out demons.”


I just thought I’d raise this thread up a bit.

The 'Son of David’

Matthew begins his gospel by calling Jesus the “son of David” (1:1). In fact, the title appears eight more other times within the gospel (9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; 22:42), in contrast to the three instances in Mark (10:47-48, 12:35) and two in Luke (18:38-39). Matthew makes big use of the title in shaping his portrait of Jesus: four of these instances (9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 21:15) are associated with Jesus’ healing activity (cf. the last two posts about Jesus the Healer). In addition, the instance in 21:9 (“Hosanna to the son of David!”) closely associates with the preceding healing account in 20:30-31, when the blind men twice address Jesus with the title.

Scholars are actually puzzled why Matthew links the title with Jesus’ healings, and many possible origins/influences for Matthew’s peculiar usage have been brought forward. Some have proposed that Matthew arrived with his usage via the Servant passages in Isaiah, such as Isaiah 35, 42, or 53: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” After all, he quotes from these passages (which he interprets as messianic), using them as prooftexts for connecting Jesus’ healings and His messiahship. Others say that the connection was also influenced by popular legends about king Solomon (who is also a “son of David”) which cast him as a healer and exorcist, with the power to subdue demons and make them do his bidding, and there’s still others who would say that there might also be shades of the Hellenistic concept of the healing “divine man” at play here.

Besides the healing son of David motif, there is also another possible theme behind Matthew’s use of the title: the rejected son of David. In at least four passages, acknowledgement of Jesus as the “son of David” provokes hostility from the Jewish leaders. In 2:3, we have Herod the king “being troubled” at the birth of Jesus, who is introduced by Matthew with the title in question (1:1) in his genealogy, where he tries to show just how Jesus was a “son of David.” In the account of the birth of Jesus, Joseph is addressed by the angel as “son of David,” (1:20) and the author takes great pains to show how Jesus was adopted into David’s line, even though Joseph was not his biological father.

While the birth of Jesus is good news to the magi (who were clearly gentiles), it proves to be a problem for the ‘Jewish’ characters: “Herod the king … and all Jerusalem with him,” along with “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.” The interesting thing here is that even at the beginning of the gospel the chief priests and the scribes are already shown as being associated with people antagonistic towards Jesus (in this case Herod); as the story develops, they take over his role as the arch-opponents of Jesus in the gospel. One can say that the story of Jesus in Matthew is bookended by the Jewish authorities: in chapter 2 they quote to Herod the prophecy of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem; in chapters 27 “the chief priests and the Pharisees” appear before Pilate and quote Jesus’ prediction to rise again from the dead. They know their stuff enough to quote them, but in Matthew’s view they are blind to the truth.

In the first account of the healing of two blind men in chapter 9, the blind men’s proclamation of Jesus as the “son of David” and “Lord” is immediately followed by the healing of a man who was unable to speak; Jesus’ healings incite the crowd to marvel and “the Pharisees” to exclaim, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons” (9:34) Their accusation occurs as the climax of an important section of the gospel: after this, Matthew wraps up his string of episodes of Jesus performing various wonders (chapters 8-9), by summarizing of the ministry of Jesus and his introduction of the mission of the disciples (9:35-38). The same reaction again occurs in chapter 12, when Jesus heals a blind and mute man. Following the astonished reaction of the crowd (“Can this be the son of David?”), “the Pharisees” again repeat their charge that “it is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” (12:22-24) Things come to a head when Jesus enters Jerusalem in chapter 21, where once again, the proclamation of Jesus as the “son of David” (21:9, 15) prompted by His healings sparks a fierce reaction among the Jewish authorities:

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise’?”


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