Gospel of Matthew
|Light iron-age reading|
|Gabbin' with God|
The Gospel of Matthew is one of the four "canonical" Gospels[note 1] in the New Testament of the Bible. Many editions of the Bible list it first, since Augustine of Hippo and other church leaders after him believed it was the oldest (i.e. the one that was written first) of the four, but it is now thought to be only the second oldest. Like Mark and Luke, Matthew is a "synoptic" Gospel, in the sense that Luke and Mark both repeat similar, in some cases identical, material.[note 2]
Authorship and dating
Matthew was written anonymously in about 70 to 100 CE, evidently by a Jewish Christian. Obviously borrowing heavily from Mark, the author of Matthew often explicitly indicates a prophecy fulfillment where the Old Testament passage was merely alluded to in the parent work. The material from Mark was either supplemented with the Q document (as posited by the dominant two-source hypothesis) or the author of Matthew simply adapted the Markan material to his own theology, adding, subtracting and rearranging as necessary (as in the main alternative to the two-source hypothesis, the Farrer hypothesis).
Contents of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus as traced from David through Joseph (which does not match the one in Luke), and a section discussing John the Baptist. It then moves to a brief telling of Jesus' birth and his baptism by John the Baptist. Quickly the narrative moves to Jesus' time in the trenches challenging Satan, his collection of disciples, and the teachings he passes onto the Jews. Matthew 5 begins the Beatitudes, perhaps the most significant of Jesus' teachings and sayings. Matthew 18 and 19 list out many of the formal moral guidelines Jesus wishes people to live by. Matthew 20-25 are full of rich and vague parables, worthy of study for anyone wanting to understand both Jesus, and his followers. And of course the Passion, where Jesus is tried and killed. When Jesus is resurrected, it is the two Marys who encounter him first.
Matthew, like most of the Bible, is often contradictory. Matthew 5:22 states "Whosoever shall say Thou fool, shall be in danger of hellfire", but later in Matthew 23:17 it quotes Jesus as saying "Ye fools are blind." Of course, Jesus went to Hell for a stay, maybe that was why.
Theology of Matthew
The writer of Matthew represents a church with strong Jewish connections. Matthew grounds his gospel in the Old Testament as often as possible, including the flight into Egypt and the exodus of the infant Jesus from Egypt, making literary allusions to Moses. Matthew's use of language and ordering in the Passion reinforces that this is a Jewish text. The Romans are the "bad guys", the Jews merely onlookers and sympathetic characters, and Jesus is clearly the Jewish Messiah. Emphasis is on salvation through knowledge of Jesus, not through personal heritage or family religion, and unique to Matthew, Jesus here discusses the Kingdom of Heaven, and not the Kingdom of God.
One story in Matthew is as follows:
- Matthew 19:16-24
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ commandment that the rich should give all of their possessions to the poor flies in the face of prosperity theology. Surely if they truly wished to follow Jesus, they would do as He asked, and yet many televangelists have a habit of accumulating and hoarding their wealth. Hmmm….
One way people have tried to get around Jesus’ command is to say that Jesus didn’t really mean what He said. Instead of a literal eye of a needle, they say, He really meant a hole in a wall. According to The Straight Dope, this interpretation “comes from a single ninth-century commentary asserting that in first-century Jerusalem there was a gate called the Needle’s Eye which a camel could only get through on its knees”, but “there’s no archaeological or historical evidence for the existence of such a gate.” Even Got Questions, an openly evangelical site for spreading fundamentalist Protestant propaganda admits that “there is no evidence such a gate ever existing”. Got to commend them for not lying for Jesus.
Another interpretation says that “camel” should really be translated as “rope”, something much more likely than a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. Once again, The Straight Dope weighs in: the first problem with this is that it would mean there is a mistranslation in the Bible (a big no-no for people who believe in Biblical inerrancy), but more importantly, “The word used is "kamelos" (camel) in all of the early manuscripts up to about 400 AD”. What’s more:
There’s a principle in New Testament studies that when ancient manuscripts differ slightly in their wording, the manuscript with the most *difficult* reading is probably correct. We often hear what we expect to hear; so a copyist would be more likely to mistakenly substitute an unsurprising word for an odd one than the other way around. For example, if the original reading were "rope," and a copyist accidentally wrote "camel," that would be a jarring enough mistake to be caught the first time you read it. But a copyist might read "camel" and think, "that can’t be right–they must have meant ‘rope’"–and thus introduce an error, thinking it was a correction. So, while "rope" is more reasonable and more easily understood; that’s an argument against it being the original thought!
Unique in Matthew
Matthew is the only narrative to include the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt (Matthew 2:14). Matthew included this passage in order to create the appearance of a fulfilled prophecy of Jesus returning from Egypt in Matthew 2:15.
It's also the only gospel to mention:
- Guards posted outside Jesus' tomb to prevent the theft of his body
- An earthquake after his death that split rocks
- Many saints rising from the dead, walking into town, and being seen by many people — Zombies?
- A pact between the high priests and the guards to cover up the miracles they witnessed
Of course, the fact that none of the other gospels or secular literature thought a holy zombie apocalypse was important enough to mention does not in any way imply that Matthew just made it all up to sell the story. Nor does his detailed knowledge of a private conversation between Roman guards and high priests.
According to Matthew, the centurion in charge of the death of Jesus witnessed an eclipse and earthquake and was convinced: "Truly this was the Son of God!" However, the guards assigned to his tomb were a bit harder to impress. Despite witnessing an earthquake and a terrifying angel dropping out of the sky and the stone being rolled away to reveal an actual miraculous resurrection, they did not change their minds and become Christians. In fact, they went around lying that they'd fallen asleep on the job and the disciples had stolen his body. (Nevermind that this failure to do their duties would have been punishable by death, and that killing them off to cover up the story would have been a lot tidier and cheaper than paying them off.)
- A Gospel is a work that describes the story of Jesus' life. This is in contrast to Letters (of Paul) and prophecies.
- Gospel of John is the "odd man out", composed apparently from independent sources
- Raymond E. Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament.
- Notes and Queries: Nooks and crannies, The Guardian
- What’s the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about the camel going through the eye of a needle? by CKDextHavn and Diannecar The Straight Dope
- About GotQuestions.org, Got Questions, Got Questions Ministries
- What did Jesus mean when He said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven?, Got Questions, Got Questions Ministries
- More on camels passing through the eyes of needles by CKDextHavn, The Straight Dope
- Bible: Outrageous Resurrection Account — Gospel of Matthew