Lesson 1 “Introduction and Background to Matthew’s Gospel”

Posted on January 17, 2015. Filed under: Daily Journey |

Bryan E. Walker

Title: Greek- kata Maththaion, According to Matthew, The Gospel According to Matthew, or just Matthew. In the earliest manuscripts the name Matthew was not given as a part of the text; in other words, this Gospel, like the other three, was technically anonymous and had no title. “The title, kata Maththaion was probably added no later than A.D 100, likely when it was combined with the other three canonical Gospels for circulation.” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels by Joel B. Green, ed. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, IL 2013, p.574) The early church always attributed this Gospel to the Apostle Matthew. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Merrill C. Tenney, editor, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI 1967, pp.516-517) says, “…in the early Church Matthew was the most highly valued and widely read of the four Gospels. This is revealed both by its position in the canon- it is found in first place in all the known lists of the Gospels except two,- and by its widespread citation, for it is by far the most often quoted Gospel in the Christian literature before A.D180….Matthew’s name was associated with it from at least the early second century.”

The word “Gospel” comes from the Anglo-Saxon Godspell, meaning Good News or good tidings, which is a translation of the Greek word for good news, euanggelion. It came to mean the story of God’s redeeming man, and is the message of Christ’s life, teachings, and atoning death for sinners on the cross, his resurrection and ascension. “In the NT the word Gospel never means a book (one of the four Gospels), but always the good tidings which Christ and the apostles announced. It is called ‘the gospel of God’ (Rom.1:1; 1Thess.2:2,9); ‘the gospel of Christ’ (Mark 1:1; Rom.1:16; 15:19); ‘the gospel of the grace of God’ (Acts 20:24); ‘the gospel of peace’ (Eph.6:15); ‘the gospel of your salvation (Eph.1:13); and ‘the glorious gospel’ (IICor.4:4)….It was not until c. A.D.150 that the word Gospel was applied to the writings concerning the message of Christ.” (ZPBD, p.318.)

There is a Hebrew word in the OT that means good news, bisar/basar, to proclaim good news. In 2Sam.4:10 the word is used in reference to someone telling David that Saul was dead. David had him executed! “Because the Israelites believed God was actively involved in their lives (including battles and wars) bisar came to have a religious connotation. To proclaim the good news of Israel’s success in battle was to proclaim God’s triumph over God’s enemies.” (Holman Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, editor, “Gospel” P. Joel Snider. Nashville: TN 1991 pp.567-568).

Basar is used in Isaiah 52:7 “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’”. “This concept of the messenger fresh from the field of battle is at the heart of the more theologically pregnant usages in Isaiah and the Psalms. Here it is the Lord who is victorious over his enemies. By virtue of this success, he now comes to deliver the captives (Ps 68:11-12; Is.61:1). The watchman waits eagerly for the messenger (Isa.52:7; IISam.18:25f.) who will bring this good news. At first only Zion knows the truth (Isa.40:9; 41:27), but eventually all nations will tell the story (Isa.60:6). The reality of this concept is only finally met in Christ….” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol.I, R. Laird Harris, editor. The Moody Bible Institute: Chicago,1980 pp. 135-136.)

What we have with the Hebrew concept of basar, good news, is a military term that gradually came to point to the good news of the hoped for Messiah. In our day of Islamic jihad and terror, and living in a post-Christian secular wasteland that is increasingly anti-Christian in every way, we tend to shy away from anything that remotely resembles a link between a military concept and our faith. We no longer sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. However, this word that we love, gospel, is unmistakably a militant word not just in its OT roots, but in the theology of its NT usage. The gospel is about the grace, love and mercy of God but it is also about the Satan being defeated, humiliated, and judged; it’s about saving sinners, but it’s also about judging and conquering sin, death and the grave. And those who reject the gospel…in the end they will be forced to bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord, and then be cast into hell for eternal judgment. There is clearly NO mandate for us to ever us coercion to force people to become Christians, which is theological absurdity, but the Good News is certainly bad news for those who reject Christ. Paul often uses military language in his descriptions of the gospel. The cross offends; it is a scandal and a stumbling stone, so as we study the gospel let us remember this side of the gospel too.

The word “gospel” has two similar uses in the NT. Jesus uses it in Mark 1:14-15 “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This is the actual message of the good news proclaimed by Christ. The second usage, by Paul primarily, is the story of Jesus proclaimed by the apostles (Gal.1:6-12). Notice that already there are counterfeit gospels in Paul’s day.

The word euanggelion, gospel in the NT always refers to a spoken, proclaimed word. The gospel is preached, not written. Israel, like most ancient societies, depended primarily on oral traditions, oral histories, and an oral gospel. While it was a literate society, books and scrolls were expensive. So the gospel was preached, proclaimed, taught and memorized. But after 20-30 years a crisis was developing in the Church- the older first generation believers were beginning to die off thus there came a need for the gospel to be written down like the other Jewish Scriptures. Also, Persecution by the Jews and the Romans was becoming another crisis and the Church was needing to disperse, therefore, a written record of the gospel was needed.

Author/Date: Matthew means “gift of YHWH” and is very similar to Nathan, “God has given”. “The best evidence from the Gospel itself that Matthew was its author is that only in this Gospel is Levi the tax collector (Mk.2:14; Lk 5:27) identified as the Apostle Matthew (Mt 9:9; 10:3). At the very least, this suggests the author presents Matthew’s witness. The Gospel also contains clear evidence that the author possessed a strong command of both Aramaic and Greek, something that would be a perquisite for most tax collectors. Furthermore, the author of Matthew used the more precise term nomisma for the coin used in the dispute over tribute (Mt 22:19) than Mark’s and Luke’s denarion (Mk 12:15; Lk 20:24). This linguistic specificity strongly implies that the author was conversant in the fine details of money and finance, a point that would lend credence to the proposition that the author was a tax collector.” (Cabal, Ted, Editor. The Apologetics Study Bible. Holman: Nashville, TN 2007 HCSB translation, p.1402)

“Nevertheless, most critical scholars still reject Matthean authorship of the first Gospel….there is no compelling reason to overturn the unanimous external evidence associating the first Gospel with the Apostle Matthew.” (p.1402)

Matthew is identified by Mark (2:14) as “Levi the son of Alphaeus” but in all the lists of the 12 Matthew is NOT paired with James the son of Alphaeus, but rather, by Thomas. Still, it is possible that Matthew is James’ brother. It should be noted also that Simon Peter is not always paired with his brother Andrew (see Mark 3:16-18). Furthermore, at the cross we find Mary, the mother of James and Joseph/Joses (Matt.27:56; Mk.15:40) which could be Mrs. Alphaeus, the mother of Matthew and James. But then why was she not listed as Mary the mother of James and Levi/Matthew?

Since Matthew was a tax collector we can assume a few facts about his character and situation in life. Tax collectors were considered unclean and traitorous as they had allied themselves with the hated Romans in order to make money off the backs of Jews, of if they were toll collectors for Jewish cities they would still be despised on general principles. To become a tax collector you had to be somewhat wealthy because the office had to be purchased or leased, then you had to hire people to work for you. You had to be educated and a good manager and businessman, knowing at least Aramaic and Greek but likely Latin as well. We know from Matt.9:9-10 and Mark 2:13-16 that Matthew/Levi had a house large enough for a big banquet and that includes the staff and funds to feed all those people. I find it interesting that in Jesus band of 12 Disciples he included a tax collector and Simon the Zealot who, politically, might like to kill Matthew. Jesus himself used illustrations of tax collectors in a negative way in Matt.5:44-46 and 18:15-20.

Matthew’s other name was Levi, probably indicating that he was from the priestly tribe of Levi. The name Levi, according to Genesis 29:34, means attached or joined, indicating that Leah felt that having this third son would make her husband Jacob more attached to her.

Like the lack of an author’s name, the Gospel of Matthew has no date of publication. Why should we care about the date Matthew was written? In Matt.24 Jesus predicts the total destruction of the Temple. The Temple, and all of Jerusalem, was destroyed in A.D.70 by General Titus of the Roman Army, the son of the Emperor at the time, Vespasian. Modern critics deny the miraculous nature of Jesus’ prophecy in Matt.24 that the Temple would be destroyed and therefore say that Matthew wrote his Gospel after A.D.70.

Ted Cabal continues, “Because Matthew seems to betray knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, any date before A.D.70 is presumed impossible….But besides prejudicially disallowing that Jesus could have predicted Jerusalem’s fall, the evidence for ‘prophecy’ after the fact is not as clear as some suggest. First, the words of Christ (Mt 22:7; 24:15) are so general that one could easily understand them as indicating no knowledge of the actual destruction of Jerusalem. Second, certain episodes in Matthew give pre-A.D.70 perspectives that would at least require clarifying comment from the Gospel writer if the temple had already fallen (e.g. the discussion of the temple tax in 17:24-27). There is no reason, therefore, that the Gospel could not have been written before A.D.70. Irenaeus (c.a. A.D.110) reported that Matthew was written while Peter and Paul preached at Rome, placing at least early versions of the Gospel in the A.D.60’s, assuming Irenaeus had a reliable tradition. The precise date of the writing of Matthew is uncertain, but sometime in the 60’s is not unreasonable.”

Also affecting the dating of this Gospel is the apparent reliance on Mark’s Gospel. While the early Church considered Matthew to be the first Gospel, the textual scholars tend to place Mark as being the first Gospel written because it appears that Matthew, and Luke, quoted liberally and word for word from Mark, who some scholars date as being written in the late 50’s A.D. The arguments go back and forth and can get quite technical but basically some say that Mark wrote a very brief Gospel and then Matthew and Luke used him as a source to write larger Gospels. To most scholars it does not make sense for Mark to use Matthew as a source and condense it down. The early Church also says of Matthew that he wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic first. This comes from Ireneaus who was quoting Papias from about A.D.130 but it could be that the meaning was that Matthew wrote for the Hebrew people, which scholars are in agreement on.

I am in a personal quandary over which came first, Mark or Matthew. The textual evidence for Mark is huge but I do not see why Matthew would have relied so heavily on Mark, who was but a youth at the time while Matthew was with Jesus from the start. I am a big believer in listening to and being inclined to believe the testimony of the early church which placed Matthew first for a reason. Those who say Mark’s condensing Matthew doesn’t make sense seem to me to be forgetting that Mark and Matthew were writing to two very different audiences: Matthew writing to the Hebrew Christians and prospects and Mark writing to the Romans. I am now thinking that Mark did condense Matthew’s account and quoted him verbatim in many places. This is something that we simply cannot answer with the extant evidence.

Background and Setting: Matthew/Levi wrote this Gospel primarily for the Jewish believers in Palestine and for Jews who did not yet believe in Jesus as the Messiah. We see this primarily in his emphasis on quoting from the Old Testament (more than 60 OT prophecies) and showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecies. In Matthew’s opening genealogy he takes us back to Abraham while Luke goes back to Adam. When Matthew refers to a Jewish practice, he does not explain it like the other Gospel authors do and he uses the term, Son of David repeatedly. Matthew at times uses “the kingdom of Heaven” in places where the other Gospels use “kingdom of God” which could offend the Jews. His overall purpose is to show Jesus as the long expected Messiah, a Jewish concept. Some scholars speculate that Matthew was writing specifically for the Church at Antioch in Syria as this church had plenty of Jewish as well as Gentile members and this was where Ignatius (ca.A.D.50-117) served as bishop and he was heavily influenced by Matthew’s Gospel.

Themes: The major theme is that Jesus is the long expected Messiah, the Son of David, King of the Jews. Matthew opens with a genealogy that begins with Abraham, showing Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Covenant between God and Abraham. Including so many OT prophecies and quotes is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophecies. Being the first book of the NT, Matthew serves as the perfect bridge between the Old and the New. The Great Commission of 28:19-20 is only found in Matthew and serves as the call to missionary activity. The arrangement of Matthew which is built around 5 discourses emphasizes discipleship.

“Whereas Matthew quotes the Old Testament again and again, his book very properly follows Malachi. Although Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, it is firmly rooted in the Old. It was the former publican’s purpose to persuade the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.” (William Hendriksen, Survey of the Bible, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI 1976, p.373).

Special Challenges with Matthew: When you compare Matthew with Luke and Mark you will find that Matthew has things in a different order; this is because Matthew is following topics, not strict chronology. Luke and Mark are much more chronological in their order. Matthew is often misunderstood for taking prophecies out of context and misapplying them; understanding ancient rules for citations and quotes is difficult for the modern reader. However, his practice must be understood in terms of the conventions of first-century citation generally

Key Verse: Matt.16:16-19; 28:18-20.

Outline: There are several different ways to outline Matthew. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI 1992, uses a geographical outline:
I. The Birth and Infancy of Jesus, 1:1-2:23
II. Preliminaries to Jesus’ Ministry, 3:1-4:11
III. Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee, 4:12-13:52
IV. The End of Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee, 13:53-18:35
V. Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem, 19:1-20:34
VI. Jesus’ Ministry in Jerusalem, 21:1-25:46
VII. The Passion Story, 26:1-27:66
VIII. The Resurrection, 28:1-20

While I think the geography of the Gospel is important, and it is a part of the story, I cannot agree that that is the most significant element for Matthew to frame his story. John MacArthur uses a literary outline that I think is the way Matthew intended his Gospel to be understood. I see some similarities between Matthew and Genesis in the literary device used to frame the story and to the use of geography as part of the story. MacArthur points out that Matthew is organized around 5 discourses that all end with something like “when Jesus had finished these sayings” and then a narrative portion follows.
I. Prologue The King’s Advent 1:1-4:25
A. His Birth 1:1-2:23
B. His Entry Into Public Ministry 3:1-4:25
II. The King’s Authority 5:1-9:38
A. Discourse 1: The Sermon on the Mount 5:1-7:29
B. Narrative 1: The Authenticating Miracles 8:1-9:38
III. The King’s Agenda 10:1-12:50
A. Discourse 2:The Commissioning of the Twelve 10:1-42
B. Narrative 2: The Mission of the King 11:1-12:50
IV. The King’s Adversaries 13:1-17:27
A. Discourse 3: The Kingdom Parables 13:1-52
B. Narrative 3: The Kingdom Conflict 13:53-17:27
V. The King’s Administration 18:1-23:39
A. Discourse 4: The Childlikeness of the Believer 18:1-35
B. Narrative 4: The Jerusalem Ministry 19:1-23:39
VI. The King’s Atonement 24:1-28:15
A. Discourse 5: The Olivet Discourse 24:1-25:46
B. Narrative 5: The Crucifixion and Resurrection 26:1-28:15
VII. Epilogue The King’s Assignment 28:16-20

Conclusion: When I study the Bible I do go into detail and I go slowly; I try to be thorough. At the same time I hope to not get lost in the forest and lose sight of the main idea that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills the Old Testament prophecies and that we are take this gospel to all the world, making disciples of all nations. This is primarily a personal and family Bible study not a formal lecture series. My original plan was to also study Isaiah. The way I will break it up perhaps is that when I get to the end of one of MacArthur’s major divisions I will go to Isaiah for a while.

In preparing for this study I have read the book of Matthew over the last couple of weeks and will continue reading Matthew as we go through the first 4 chapters.


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