To begin with, Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels. In the present study we are proposing that the author was a major voice in the noble but ill-fated movement which we are calling Christian Judaism, or Jewish Christianity if one prefers. In the earliest days of the church, all followers of Jesus were Jewish, including the apostles and other leaders, and it was in Jerusalem that the largest and most influential congregation resided. By the ninth decade of the first century, when Matthew was written, things had changed:
We may note that the Jewishness of Matthew is representative of a Hellenistic rather than a Palestinian Judaism, especially in that the author favors the Septuagint, or the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek.
§ The Jewishness of Matthew: Torah as Obligatory
In good Jewish style, the author (whom we shall call
“Matthew” for convenience’s sake) seeks to maintain the validity of Torah
(the Jewish Law), which the follower of Jesus would still be obliged to observe. There are several
revealing instances of this point of view:
Such an acknowledgement of rabbinic authority seems difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ attack upon rabbinic tradition in Mark 7:1-13. (Apparently without complete consistency, Matthew does take this material over from Mark, in Matthew 15:2-9; perhaps Matthew sees Mark 7:1-13 as an attack, not against rabbinic tradition as such, but against an abuse of the legitimate rabbinic function of interpreting and applying the written text of Torah.)
4. It is also interesting to speculate that Matthew’s high valuation of Torah might have encouraged him to arrange the sayings material in his gospel into five great discourses, thus representing Jesus as the new Moses; these discourses would then correspond to biblical Torah, the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The five discourses in Matthew are 5 – 7; 10; 13:1-53; 18; and 24 – 25. Indeed the first discourse is introduced with Jesus’ ascending the mountain, or hill (5:1), perhaps echoing Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai to receive Torah (Exodus 19:3).
5. At the
same time, we need to recognize that it is possible to oversimplify the
point: Matthew betrays a degree of ambivalence
insofar as his editorial hand is at work in the “six contrasts” of
Matthew 5:21-47, which update and even nullify Torah.
| § The
Jewishness of Matthew: Fulfillment of scripture
The Jewishness of this gospel also shows through in Matthew’s insertion of some fifteen fulfillment texts into the narrative, without parallels in Mark or Luke. (To be sure, Mark and Luke are also interested in showing the fulfillment of scripture, but the introduction of proof texts in Matthew is more frequent and seems more contrived.) It is evident that the author has left his “fingerprints” on these passages (click on scripture fulfillment). He usually introduces them with the characteristic phrase, “. . . to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet . . . ” (. . . hina plęrôthęi to ręthen dia . . . tou prophętou legontos), or with a variation of this phrase. In his zeal for prophetic fulfillment, to make his strongest case for Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish scriptures, he goes so far as to accommodate details of the narrative to the prophecy, as in having Jesus enter Jerusalem upon the donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:1-7).
We may also note that in 4:13-16 Matthew has anachronistically
located Jesus’ early work in Zebulun and Naphtali, in order to make the
fulfillment fit the prophecy.
| § The
Jewishness of Matthew:
“Kingdom of Heaven”
Matthew clearly prefers “Kingdom of Heaven” to “Kingdom of God.” “Kingdom of Heaven” is a circumlocution for “Kingdom of God,” and thus the two terms are identical in meaning. Jews of this period would have used “Kingdom of Heaven” to avoid pronouncing the divine name, and thus to help observe the third commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:7).
§ The Jewishness of Matthew: Exclusivism
Without stereotyping first century Judaism, we may suggest that for five or six centuries Judaism, in part for the sake of its very survival, had tended to emphasize those aspects of its practice and cultus which separated the Jewish community from their neighbors: sabbath observance, dietary regulations, circumcision, and laws of clean and unclean. It is perhaps not coincidental that the two most exclusivist texts in the synoptic gospels occur in Matthew alone:
Matthew 10:5-6 5These twelve [disciples] Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Matthew 15:24 [In response to the Canaanite woman, whose daughter was tormented by a demon, Jesus said,] “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
To be sure, these texts might be regarded as a tactical restriction upon the energies of Jesus and of his disciples, but it cannot be denied that a phrase like “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” would have resonated positively with the author and Christian Jewish readers.
Taking all of these considerations into account, we may safely conclude that the Jewishness of Matthew is well established. If he is representative of a Hellenistic Judaism that might have been found in a major center such as Antioch, we can imagine that he would have been perfectly at home eating at the Jewish Christian table which may have survived there into the ninth decade of the first century, a relic of the famous Antioch Episode reported by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. Following the lead of Peter (Cephas) and Barnabas, Christian Jews could continue to enjoy a Torah observant practice, along with their Christian faith.
In view of what has just been observed about the exclusivism of Matthew, it may seem strange that other texts occur in the gospel which are more inclusive, most notably the so-called Great Commission.
Given the Jewishness of Matthew, and his evident recognition of scribal authority (23:2-3), we may naturally feel some surprise at the exceptionally sharp attack upon the Pharisees in that same chapter (23:13-36). This anti-pharisaism is present already in the Q material of this chapter, but Matthew seems to go out of his way to sharpen these attacks where he includes his own material, whether traditional or editorial.
One suspects that Matthew, for all his loyalty to Torah and respect for scribal tradition, stood in opposition to the rabbinic establishment of his time, as much for their failure to practice what they preached as for the fact that he was on the outside looking in. We can only speculate that his bitterness toward the Pharisees might have been heightened by his being put out of the synagogue along with other Christian Jews for his refusal to disown Jesus. We may speculate that the author would have been pleased to identify himself also as a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven, . . . [bringing] out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52), offering his scribal learning as well as his access to Christian traditions and texts.
February 15, 2003
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