Part 1 –An Introduction
The traditional view of Matthews gospel was that it was an account of the life of Jesus written by the apostle of Jesus called Matthew, also known as Levi. It's earliest and oldest title in Greek reads 'kata matthaion' which simply means 'According to Matthew'. However, in the text itself, the author chooses to remain anonymous. The gospel shares much in common with Mark and Luke, but has its own unique passages.
A tradition grew early in church history to name written accounts after apostles in order to give them authenticity. The verdict of most modern scholars is that we cannot know for sure who actually wrote the gospel. For the benefit of our journey, and following the example of many before us, we shall go with the earliest title and tradition and refer to the author as 'Matthew' ... without speculating on which, when, how or why!
Matthew’s gospel was completed sometime in the first Century, a few decades after the death of Jesus. It was seen by the early church as the most important gospel and is frequently quoted by writers in the first three Centuries.
The audience that Matthew seems to be particularly addressing are those with some Jewish background who have become or are ‘becoming’ Christians. 130 distinct allusions are made to the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament. Jesus is pictured as the Messianic King foretold by the prophets. Matthew talks a lot about the Kingdom of God and identifies that kingdom with the things that Jesus did and said. Whilst Jesus is proclaimed the King, He is also pictured as the suffering servant. In Jesus glory and humility, power and gentleness, are perfectly combined.
But more of that will be seen as we travel throughout its pages!
Some unique things about Matthews gospel.
- of 1068 verses, 644 contain words of Jesus (3/5th)
- there are 35 parables
- there are 20 miracles - 3 of which only appear in Matthew (9:27-31 ‘Blind’, 32-33 ‘Dumb’ and 17:24-27 “The coin in the fishes mouth”)
- 16:18-19 ‘Built on the rock of faith’
- 18:20 ‘Wherever 2 or 3 gather in my name’
- 27:16-20 ‘Description of a worshiping community
We read of various people, places, parties and institutions in the gospel that would have been as familiar to the original readers as Barack Obama, Clint Eastwood, and the Vatican are to ourselves. When we meet them in the gospel their names and titles may sound familiar, but we may not be sure exactly who they are! So before we go any deeper into the gospel itself we’ll begin with a brief introduction to some people who populate its pages and the institutions that held power.
The Gospel speaks of Priests and Rulers, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Galileans and Samaritans. Who were these people. What did they stand for? How did they feel about Jesus?
PRIESTS – “Jesus entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.” (Mat 12:4 NRS)
The priesthood was an Old Testament institution established in the time of Moses. Priests were required to be descendants of Aaron, Moses brother. These priests were the only ones authorized to offer sacrifices and were to instruct the people in Divine law. Originally a religious office, by the time of Jesus they also exerted considerable political influence.
The High Priest was president of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Governing Body) having both political and religious power. The Chief priests (mentioned 64 times in the N/T) were temple officers with seats in the Sanhedrin. They were different from the ordinary priests (like Zechariah in Luke 1:5) who simply carried out their religious functions.
To use an Episcopal illustration from the British Isles (Where religion and state are not separated):
- High Priest = Archbishop of Cantebury
- Chief Priests = Bishops in the House of Lords
- Priests = Vicars and Curates etc...
RULERS - While Jesus spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, "My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live." (Mat 9:18 NKJ)
These were members of the Sanhedrin or others with political influence. They did not necessarily have a religious function, but held political office. Sometimes they are called ‘Officials’. In Marks gospel (5:22) the ruler who has a sick daughter is named as Jairus.
PHARISEES - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. (Mat 23:27 NKJ)
The Pharisees arose during the time of the Maccabees (historically the time between the Old and New Testaments.) They liked to trace their origin to the time of Moses. Their name means ‘The Separated Ones’. It may have come from their resolve to be separate from the political parties in the nation, but more likely from their zeal to separate themselves from sinful practices and zealously follow God’s law.
You could describe them as the ultra-conservatives of their day or compare them to todays orthodox Jews. They held to the authority of the written law and to the authority of the oral traditions that interpreted Mosaic law and how to apply it.
The gospels give the impression that they had a faith that had grown sterile. Again and again Jesus confronts them, showing their piety to be legalistic and hypocritical. In their eagerness to exalt the written law they ignored practicing the love and mercy towards others the law was intended to establish.
They did not like Jesus. He certainly did not fit their preconceived notions of how a Messiah should behave. His interpretations of scripture, which cut through human tradition and exposed original intent, were not in harmony with their rigid structure.
SADDUCEES The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him… (Mat 22:23 NKJ)
If the Pharisees were the ultra conservatives of their day, the Sadducees represented the liberal wing of the faith. They had close links with the priesthood and were well represented in the governing body of the Sanhedrin.
The Sadducees only acknowledged the 5 books of Moses as being scripture. They did not believe in angels, resurrection or the immortality of the soul. They owed their prominent position in society due to their ability to fit in well with the pagan power structure of the Romans. They were not against the secularization of either their nation or their religion. They agreed with the Pharisees only in one thing – their dislike of Jesus, and plotted with them for His murder.
SCRIBES "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:20 NKJ)
The scribes were the seminary professors and intellectuals of the day. They were drawn from amongst both the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were seen as being the authority in interpreting the law and respected by the people for their devotion and learning. Jesus came into conflict with them when He challenged their interpretations.
HERODIANS “And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. "Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Mat 22:16-17 NKJ)
The Herodians were political in nature. They were, as their name implies, linked to the ruling family of King Herod and supported Roman rule. They were against any form of political or religious change that could threaten their power structures. They interpreted the claim made for Jesus as being the Messiah as a political treat and regarded Him as dangerous.
GALILEANS “Simon the Zealot” (Mat 10:4 NAS)
Amongst the disciples was one called Simon the Zealot (also known as Simon the patriot or Simon the Canaanite). Referred to broadly as ‘Galileans’ the term denoted those who were prepared to resist the Romans by force. Maybe we would call them ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘revolutionaries’. Simon was thought to have come from amongst their number, as did Barabbas, who was set free by the authorities in the place of Jesus.
SAMARITANS “These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: "Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.” (Mat 10:5 NKJ)
The Samaritans were descendants of people imported after the Assyrians defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. They were a religious mix, some strictly monotheistic and claiming Jehovah as their God, some sticking to pagan practices, or even mixing the two! They had their own traditions and customs. There existed intense racial hatred between the Jews and Samaritans.
Whilst nowhere mentioned in the biblical text, the Essenes were a monastic desert community that devoted themselves to scripture and prayer. They have historically been linked to both John the Baptist and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
PONTIUS PILATE AND THE FAMILY OF HEROD THE GREAT
Rome was represented in Judea by the procurator (or governor) Pontius Pilate. Pilate features in the passion narrative as the one who releases Barabbas at the demands of the crowd and has Jesus condemned.
Answerable to Pilate were the various members of the family of Herod the Great. Herod named his sons Herod, which means for us… confusion. When you come across ‘Herod’ in the biblical narrative, it is not always the same Herod.
HEROD THE GREAT was appointed king of Judaea B.C. 40 by the Roman Senate. He was brave and skilled in war, and a shrewd scholar; but also extremely suspicious and cruel. He destroyed the entire royal family of Hasmonaeans, put to death many of the Jews that opposed his government, and killed his wife Marianne and the two sons she had borne him. By these acts of bloodshed, his love and imitation of Roman customs and institutions and by the burdensome taxes imposed upon his subjects, he so alienated the Jews that he was unable to regain their favor, even by his splendid restoration of the temple. He died aged 70, in the 37th year of his reign. In his closing years John the Baptist and Christ were born; Matthew (2:1-14) narrates that he commanded all the male children under two years old in Bethlehem to be slain following the visit of the Magi.
HEROD ANTIPAS was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace, a Samaritan woman. After the death of his father he was appointed by the Romans tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea. His first wife was the daughter of Aretas, King of Arabia; but he subsequently divorced her and took to himself Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip. In consequence Aretas, his father-in-law, made war against him and conquered him. He cast John the Baptist into prison because John rebuked him for his unlawful marriage; and afterwards, at the instigation of Herodias, he ordered John to be beheaded (as we will see in Matthew chapter 14). In consequence of accusations brought against him by Herod Agrippa I, Caligula banished him in A.D. 39 to Gaul, where he is thought to have died.
HEROD AGRIPPA I was the son of Aristobulus and Berenice, and grandson of Herod the Great. He gained the favor of Caligula and Claudius to such a degree that he gradually obtained the government of all of Palestine, with the title of king. He died at Caesarea, A.D. 44, at the age of 54, in the seventh year of his reign, just after having ordered James the apostle to be slain, and Peter to be cast into prison, according to Acts 12:21.
HEROD AGRIPPA II, SON OF HEROD AGRIPPA I. After his father died when he was just seventeen, he received ,in A.D. 48, from Claudius Caesar the right of appointing the Jewish high priests, together with the care and oversight of the temple at Jerusalem. He is mentioned in Acts 25 and 26. He was the last representative of the Herodian dynasty.
There were three institutions that governed peoples lives, the Sanhedrin (we have already briefly mentioned),the synagogue and the temple.
THE SANHEDRIN were a kind of glorified county authority. They were the governing body of the Jewish population both politically and religiously. They sought to govern through the laws of the Old Testament which were both civil and religious in scope. As we said earlier the chief officer was the High Priest, below him were the chief priests, then came the scribes and finally the lay members. Their authority extended not only Jews in Palestine but throughout the Roman empire. Kind of like the Vatican!
THE SYNAGOGUE In 586BC the temple had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Jews taken into captivity in Babylon. They continued to meet in small groups on the Sabbath to study the scripture and worship God. After their return from exile, even though the temple was eventually rebuilt, they carried on with their weekly meetings in their local communities. Wherever Jewish people were in the Roman empire, they met together around their scriptures.
In Luke 4:16-30 there is a passage that revolves around Jesus reading scripture in His local house of worship. Paul and the other early missionaries typically would begin their work of outreach by speaking in the local synagogue.
THE TEMPLE The temple at the time of Jesus was a construction modernized by Herod the Great. His 40 year building program, though intended to build his reputation amongst the Jews, was more of a monument to himself than an indication of his devotion to them or their God!
Many gospel events take place in and around the Temple. The Jewish people were required to appear at Jerusalem for several of their important festivals, and Jesus is pictured a number of times preaching to them on such occasions. In AD70 the temple was destroyed by the Romans after a time of Jewish revolt.
Having talked a little about the who, when and wheres of Matthews Gospel we shall next time move onto the text itself, beginning with the begats!