The Gospel According To Matthew
Matthew’s is the first of the four Gospels as they appear in the New Testament. This position is perfectly justified by the fact that it is a prolongation, as it were, of the Old Testament. It was written to show that “Jesus fulfilled the history of Israel”, as the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible note and on which we shall be drawing heavily. To do BO, Matthew constantly refers to quotations from the Old Testament which show how Jesus acted as if he were the Messiah the Jews were awaiting.
This Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus. Matthew traces it back to Abraham via David. We shall presently see the fault in the text that most commentators silently ignore. Matthew’s obvious intention was nevertheless to indicate the general tenor of his work straight away by establishing this line of descendants. The author continues the same line of thought by constantly bringing to the forefront Jesus’s attitude toward Jewish law, the main principles of which (praying, fasting, and dispensing charity) are summarized here.
Jesus addresses His teachings first and foremost to His own people. This is how He speaks to the twelve Apostles “go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10, 5-6). “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. (Matthew 15, 24). At the end of his Gospel, in second place, Matthew extends the apostolic mission of Jesus’s first disciples to all nations. He makes Jesus give the following order. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28, 19), but the primary destination must be the ‘house of Israel’. A. Tricot says of this Gospel, “Beneath its Greek garb, the flesh and bones of this book are Jewish, and so is its spirit; it has a Jewish feel and bears its distinctive signs”.
On the basis of these observations alone, the origins of Matthew’s Gospel may be placed in the tradition of a Judeo-Christian community. According to O. Culmann, this community “was trying to break away from Judaism while at the same time preserving the continuity of the Old Testament. The main preoccupations and the general tenor of this Gospel point towards a strained situation.”
There are also political factors to be found in the text. The Roman occupation of Palestine naturally heightened the desire of this country to see itself liberated. They prayed for God to intervene in favour of the people He had chosen among all others, and as their omnipotent sovereign who could give direct support to the affairs of men, as He had already done many times in the course of history.
What sort of person was Matthew? Let us say straight away that he is no longer acknowledged to be one of Jesus’s companions. A. Tricot nevertheless presents him as such in his commentary to the translation of the New Testament, 1960: “Matthew alias, Levi, was a customs officer employed at the tollgate or customs house at Capharnaum when Jesus called him to be one of His disciples.” This is the opinion of the Fathers of the Church, Origen, Jerome and Epiphanes. This opinion is no longer held today. One point which is uncontested is that the author is writing “for people who speak Greek, but nevertheless know Jewish customs and the Aramaic language.”
It would seem that for the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation, the origins of this Gospel are as follows:
“It is normally considered to have been written in Syria, perhaps at Antioch (. . .), or in Phoenicia, because a great many Jews lived in these countries. (. . .) we have indications of a polemic against the orthodox Judaism of the Synagogue and the Pharasees such as was manifested at the synagogal assembly at Jamina circa 80 A.D.” In such conditions, there are many authors who date the first of the Gospels at about 80-90 A.D., perhaps also a little earlier. it is not possible to be absolutely definite about this . . . since we do not know the author’s exact name, we must be satisfied with a few outlines traced in the Gospel itself. the author can be recognized by his profession. He is well-versed in Jewish writings and traditions. He knows, respects, but vigorously challenges the religious leaders of his people. He is a past master in the art of teaching and making Jesus understandable to his listeners. He always insists on the practical consequences of his teachings. He would fit fairly well the description of an educated Jew turned Christian; a householder “who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” as Matthew says (13,52). This is a long way from the civil servant at Capharnaum, whom Mark and Luke call Levi, and who had become one of the twelve Apostles . . .
Everyone agrees in thinking that Matthew wrote his Gospel using the same sources as Mark and Luke. His narration is, as we shall see, different on several essential points. In spite of this, Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark’s Gospel although the latter was not one of Jesus’s disciples (O. Culmann).
Matthew takes very serious liberties with the text. We shall see this when we discuss the Old Testament in relation to the genealogy of Jesus which is placed at the beginning of his Gospel.
He inserts into his book descriptions which are quite literally incredible. This is the adjective used in the work mentioned above by Father Kannengiesser referring to an episode in the Resurrection. the episode of the guard. He points out the improbability of the story referring to military guards at the tomb, “these Gentile soldiers” who “report, not to their hierarchical superiors, but to the high priests who pay them to tell lies”. He adds however: “One must not laugh at him because Matthew’s intention was extremely serious. In his own way he incorporates ancient data from the oral tradition into his written work. The scenario is nevertheless worthy of Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Let us not forget that this opinion on Matthew comes from an eminent theologian teaching at the Catholic Institute of Paris (Institut Catholique de Paris).
Matthew relates in his narration the events accompanying the death of Jesus. They are another example of his imagination.
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
This passage from Matthew (27, 51-53) has no corresponding passage in the other Gospels. It is difficult to see how the bodies of the saints in question could have raised from the dead at the time of Jesus’s death (according to the Gospels it was on the eve of the Sabbath) and only emerge from their tombs after his resurrection (according to the same sources on the day after the Sabbath).
The most notable improbability is perhaps to be found in Matthew. It is the most difficult to rationalize of all that the Gospel authors claim Jesus said. He relates in chapter 12, 38-40 the episode concerning Jonah’s sign:
Jesus was among the scribes and pharisees who addressed him in the following terms:
“Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you. But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus therefore proclaims that he will stay in the earth three days and three nights. So Matthew, along with Luke and Mark, place the death and burial of Jesus on the eve of the Sabbath. This, of course, makes the time spent in the earth three days (treis êmeras in the Greek text), but this period can only include two and not three nights (treis nuktas in the Greek text).
Gospel commentators frequently ignore this episode. Father Roguet nevertheless points out this improbability when he notes that Jesus “only stayed in the tomb” three days (one of them complete) and two nights. He adds however that “it is a set expression and really means three days”. It is disturbing to see commentators reduced to using arguments that do not contain any positive meaning. It would be much more satisfying intellectually to say that a gross error such as this was the result of a scribe’s mistake!
Apart from these improbabilities, what mostly distinguishes Matthew’s Gospel is that it is the work of a Judeo-Christian community in the process of breaking away from Judaism while remaining in line with the Old Testament. From the point of view of Judeo-Christian history it is very important.
Borrowed from The Bible, The Qur’an and Science by Dr. Maurice Bucaille
26. The fact that it is in contradiction with Luke’s Gospel will be dealt with in a separate chapter.
27. The Samaritans’ religious code was the Torah or Pentateuch; they lived in the expectation of the Messiah and were faithful to most Jewish observances, but they had built a rival Temple to the one at Jerusalem.
28. It has been thought that the Judeo-Christian community that Matthew belonged to might just as easily have been situated at Alexandria. O. Culmann refers to this hypothesis along with many others.
29. An American film which parodies the life of Jesus.
30. In another part of his Gospel Matthew again refers to this episode but without being precise about the time (16, 1-4). The same is true for Luke (11, 29-32). We shall see later on how in Mark, Jesus is said to have declared that no sign would be given to that generation (Mark 8, 11-12).