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The Composition of Matthew, Its Message and Relevance Today — Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri

August 23, 2012

Detail, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew

The question of how Matthew composed his Gospel embraces a study of its sources as well as its structure. Scholarship devoted to these issues considers both the raw materials that went into the work as well as the shape of the final product after it left the hands of the evangelist.

Research aimed at uncovering the sources of Matthew’s Gospel is within the domain of source criticism, a modern discipline that seeks to identify what written or oral materials were utilized by the evangelist at the time of writing. A small number of scholars, in agreement with early Christian tradition, contend that Matthew was the first of the four Gospels to be written. [See Basil C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951); Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke, and Mark, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Koinonia Press, 1977); John Wenham,  Redating Matthew Mark, and Luke (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992).]

On this assumption,  it is uncertain what sources Matthew may have utilized, from written accounts to oral traditions to his own eyewitness memories. The belief of most New Testament scholars, however, is that Matthew’s Gospel was not written until after the publication of Mark. Based on this chronology of composition, it is commonly said that Matthew drew material from at least three sources. The first is the Gospel of Mark, more than 80 percent of which is paralleled in Matthew.

The second is a hypothetical document called Q (an abbreviation for quelle, the German word for `source”). This is said to be a lost collection of predominantly “sayings material” that is reconstructed from the teachings of Jesus that appear In Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. The third is called M, which stands for those episodes found only in Matthew. The evangelist’s M source may have been a written document, a pool of oral tradition, or a combination of both.

Enormous effort has gone into source-critical research in modern times, and yet the uncontested conclusions gained from it have been relatively few. This is not to say that investigation along these lines is misguided or unprofitable. It is only to say that the conclusions so far advanced about the sources of the Gospels remain hypothetical. There is yet no evidence supporting the independent existence of a Q document; interpretive judgments about the extent of any given oral tradition are difficult to verify; and even the question of how the synoptic Gospels are related to one another on a literary level continues to be debated.

For these and other reasons, we think it best to build an interpretation of Matthew on the final form of the text as it has come down to us. In our estimation, the canonical Gospel we possess is a more secure starting point for theological and pastoral exegesis than a theoretical reconstruction of how its pre-canonical parts came together. It is the canonical text that the Church recognizes as the inspired Word of God.

Investigation of the structure of Matthew’s Gospel is the search for an overall plan of composition that provides clues as to the meaning and flow of the whole. Modern books do this type of work for us by providing a “Table of Contents” page. Ancient books are generally less transparent in their structure, yet these too are capable of revealing their underlying framework. Often the structure is indicated by the repetition of formulas or phrases that a reader, or hearer, will easily note and remember. Matthew appears to utilize such a technique in making the outline of his Gospel open to detection.

Most scholars today accept either a threefold or a fivefold division of Matthew. Proponents of a threefold outline find its structural clue in the formula, “From that time on, Jesus began;’ which appears in 4:17 and 16:21 and which serves to introduce new phases of the story. The claim is that Matthew, in marking off his text in this way, draws our attention first to the person of Jesus (1:1-4:16), then to the proclamation of Jesus (4:17-16:20), and finally to the passion and resurrection of Jesus (16:21-28:20). [See Jack D. Kingsbury, Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 1-37] The simplicity of this scheme is attractive, and it does take note of important transitions in the storyline. Nevertheless, many scholars object that a short phrase that appears only twice in the entire Gospel lacks the prominence necessary to serve as a structural indicator.

More popular is a fivefold outline that finds the structure of Matthew revealed in the refrain, “When Jesus finished these. ..” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This formula occurs five times in the Gospel, each time after Jesus delivers a major sermon.

It thus marks five transitions from speech to storyline, indicating that Matthew has given us five discourses of Jesus separated by story reports focusing on his actions. Add to these an initial Infancy account (chaps. 1-2) and a climactic passion account (chaps. 26-28), and what emerges is a gospel made up of alternating blocks of narrative and discourse. It is clear on the basis of this observation that the Gospel of Matthew is a well-crafted piece of literature, a book with an organizational scheme that was carefully thought out in advance.

Some would posit a theological purpose behind this structure, saying that the five units of narrative and discourse are deliberately reminiscent of the five Books of Moses. [See Benjamin W. Bacon, Studies in Matthew (London: Constable, 1930).] At the very least, Matthew’s back-and-forth movement between story and speech underscores the dual significance of Christ’s works and words as the means of our redemption. An outline illustrating the fivefold structure of Matthew’s Gospel follows this introduction (see page 29).

The Message of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew is preeminently the Gospel of the kingdom.
The first indication of this is statistical: the word “kingdom” appears over fifty times in the Gospel, with its keynote expression, “the kingdom of heaven;’ accounting for more than thirty occurrences. [Matthew's "kingdom of heaven" occurs twelve times where parallel passages in Mark and Luke read "kingdom of God.”]

The biblical world was no stranger to the concept of a kingdom but this leading motif in Matthew points us to something radically different from the normal fare of historical monarchies to Matthew’s theology, the kingdom of heaven is the divine perfection of the ancient kingdom of David. As such, it answers the ancient expectation that Yahweh, in fulfillment of his oath (Psalms 89:3-4), would establish the kingdom of David forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16) by sending a royal messiah, a new and “definitive David” [The expression is that of Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 10] to reign forever as the heir to his throne (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Hosea 3:5).

This prophetic hope has at last become a reality in Jesus. He is the royal Davidic Messiah who reigns as king, not in Jerusalem, where the descendants of David once sat enthroned, but high above “at the right hand of the Power” (26:64), where he wields “all power in heaven and on earth” (28:18). The new and everlasting covenant established through Jesus Christ is thus a transcendent fulfillment of the Davidic covenant of kingship, raising its rule from earth to heaven and extending its reach over the entire creation. [See Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), 15-16.]

Matthew’s kingdom motif radiates throughout the Gospel and colors his presentation of its main themes: Christ, the Church, and the Christian vocation.

  1. Christology in Matthew. Matthew’s vision of Christ can hardly be captured by any one title or theme in the Gospel. It is simply too rich and multidimensional. But since the dominant theme of the Gospel is the kingdom of heaven, it is no surprise that Jesus is frequently portrayed as a king. He stands in the royal Davidic line (1:1-16); he is born a “king” (2:2) in Bethlehem, the hometown of David (2:6); and two of his most prominent titles in the Gospel are “Messiah” and “son of David.” [France notes that "the title 'Son of David' occurs more frequently in Matthew's Gospel than in the whole of the rest of the New Testament"(Matthew, 284).]The first means “Anointed One” and was a title once borne by the Davidic kings of Israel (see 2 Sam 22:5 1; Psalms 2:2). In fact, the royal messianism current in Jesus’ day was tied to the hope that the Lord would raise up one of David’s descendants (12:23) to restore the glories of his kingdom (Mark 11:10). The second was also a royal title that brought to mind the original son of David, King Solomon. He stands out in the Gospel as a type of messiah inasmuch as Jesus declares himself “greater than Solomon” (12:42) and stages his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to recall Solomon’s entrance into the holy city as king of Israel (21:1-11; 1 Kings 1:32-45).

Other Christological portraits in Matthew are similarly rooted in the Old Testament. For instance, Jesus is the “Son of Man” envisioned by the prophet Daniel (24:30; 26:64; Daniel 7:13-14) as well as the “Servant of Yahweh” foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (8:17; 12:18-21; Isa 42:1-4; 53:4). Typological links between the great figures of Israel’s history and Jesus also combine to present him as a new and greater Moses (4:2; 17:1-7), as well as a new Jonah (12:38-41; 16:4).

Most spectacular of all is Matthew’s teaching that Jesus is the “Son of the living God” (16:16). At this level, nothing could prepare us to embrace the full mystery of the man from Nazareth, who is nothing less than God-with-us (1:23). The Son possesses divine knowledge and enjoys an unparalleled intimacy with the Father in heaven (11:25-27); he is worshipped by his disciples (14:33); he is present amid his disciples gathered in prayer (18:20); and once risen from the dead, he wields universal authority over heaven and earth (28:18-20).

2.  Ecclesiology in Matthew. Matthew’s vision of the Church is closely connected with his messianic conception of Jesus. First, it is noteworthy that Matthew’s is the only Gospel to refer explicitly to this ecclesial community. The Greek term ekklesia, meaning “church;’ appears first in 16:18 and then twice in 18:17. The first passage is significant because it forges a link between the Church and the kingdom of heaven. There Jesus promises to build his Church upon Simon Peter, who will serve as the foundation of God’s messianic people, envisioned as a living temple.

From this we recall that the Lord’s temple in Israel was the architectural sign of God’s covenant with David constructed by the original son of David, King Solomon. Now Jesus is cast in this Solomonic role as the builder of the Church. And not only this, but also Jesus entrusts Peter with “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (16:19), an allusion to “the key of the house of David” that the Davidic ruler of Israel would entrust to his chief steward (Isaiah 22:22). Thus the kingdom of heaven not only finds its historical and visible manifestation in the Church but it also implies that the Church is in some respects modeled on the royal government of David and Solomon. The difference is that the Church’s authority is spiritual rather than political; its function is not to manage the earthly affairs of societies and nations, but to transform the temporal order of this world and infuse it with the blessings of heaven.

Ultimately the kingdom of heaven is present in the Church “in mystery.” [Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 3.] The pilgrim Church on earth is its historical manifestation, but not its final realizafion. The coming of the kingdom in its fullness remains the joyful hope of the Church, for which she prays daily to the Father (6:10: “your kingdom come”). Only when the Son of Man returns will his kingdoms unseen glory be revealed to all (25:31-46).

3.  Discipleship in Matthew. Included in Matthew’s vision of the kingdom are the principles, priorities, and imperatives that define the Christian way of life. Throughout the Gospel the discourses of Jesus urge listeners to embrace the demands of discipleship.

The initial summons of the kingdom is a call to repentance (3:2; 4:17). This is a turn from sinful and selfish ways to Jesus, who has come to save us from our sins (1:21; 26:28). From this starting point, the teaching of the Gospel stretches across a broad canvas of moral and spiritual matters. In terms of priorities, disciples are challenged to put God and his kingdom first in their lives (6:25-33) and to pursue a righteousness that surpasses the letter of the Mosaic Law (5:17-42). The goal of Christian discipleship is nothing less than unconditional love, a form of perfection that imitates God’s love for saints and sinners alike (5:43-48). Commitment to these standards will make believers a light shining in the world and a witness to God’s power to change lives for the better (5:13-16).

Of the many specific injunctions in Matthew, we are told that following Jesus means imitating his humility (11:29) and shouldering the cross of suffering as he did (10:38; 16:24). Disciples should be dedicated to integrity of speech (12:36-37), to exercising a generous mercy toward others (18:21-22), and to performing works of service (25:35-36). Spiritual commitments also include fasting (6:16-18), almsgiving (6:2-4), and communion with the Father in prayer (6:5-13; 7:7-11). All this amounts to building a relationship with Jesus, which is the one true necessity (7:22). The disciple who is known by the Lord is the one who does the will of the Father (7:21) and comes to possess the kingdom in heaven (25:34).

The Relevance of Matthew Today
Matthew’s Gospel is as potent today as when it first appeared in the cradle of the ancient Church. Despite the centuries that have passed, its power to change lives and to bring men and women into a living relationship with Jesus has not lessened in the least. For the early Christians, it was the precious first witness to the story of Jesus from the pen of an eyewitness apostle. For us too the Gospel of Matthew is the flagship of the fourfold Gospel canon and the first testimony to Christ that appears in the New Testament. Then as now, it comes to us as the word of salvation.

Like all the Gospels, Matthew is designed for proclamation and instruction. It presents us with Jesus the Teacher and allows us to hear his voice in all of its thunderous wonder. Sometimes we are privileged to eavesdrop while he schools his disciples privately and challenges them with the demands of Christian faith and life. Other times we observe the Lord reaching out to sinners and the “un-churched” of his day with a call to repentance. Given this dual focus in Matthew, the First Gospel is uniquely suited to catechetical instruction and evangelical proclamation.

Catechesis has traditionally made extensive use of Matthew, earning it a reputation for being “the catechist’s Gospel” [John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 11] One thinks of the Sermon on the Mount, where so many essentials of Christian living are brought together into an inspiring vision of the new life made possible by Christ (chaps. 5-7). So too the ecclesial discourse stresses that humility and mercy are the hallmarks of authentic Christian leadership and service to others (18:1-35). One also finds teachings on prayer (6:5-15), celibacy (19:12), marriage (19:1-9), children (19:13-15), and keeping the commandments (19:16-19). At its core, Christian formation involves modeling our lives on Jesus, who says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (11:29). Now as always, the way of the disciple is the way of imitating the Master.

Of the many catechetical gems in Matthew, one that is often underappreciated is its instruction in reading the Old Testament. Too many of us read the New Testament in isolation from the Old. As a result, we have little sense of how God’s plan of salvation developed to reach the point of fulfillment in Christ. Matthew teaches us to read and ponder the whole Bible with reference to Jesus, for he recognized that our understanding of God and his ways are deeply enriched by discovering the unity of the Father’s plan as it unfolds in the pages of Scripture.

Evangelization is also at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel. Not only does Jesus set the example by his actions, but this is also the subject of his final words in the book: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit” (28:19). This missionary mandate still has the force of marching orders for the Church today. At one level, Jesus calls us to engage in personal evangelization, which means sharing the good news with friends and family members, coworkers and business contacts, neighbors and new acquaintances. However, it is also a summons to transform entire nations by inculturating the gospel and shining the light of Christian truth into every corridor of human society and its institutions. This is what it means for disciples to be “the salt of the earth” (5:13) and “the light of the world” (5:14).

Finally, a word should be said about Matthew, evangelization, and the Jewish people. It is a regrettable fact of history that some Christians have invoked the authority of the First Gospel to accuse the Jews of perpetual bloodguilt for the murder of Jesus Christ (on the basis of 27:25). In reality, this is anti-Semitic slander and a serious misreading of the Gospel.

It is true that Matthew portrays Jesus engaged in heated polemic with the Jewish authorities of his day (e.g., 23:1-39) But this is precisely what the prophets had done when denouncing the transgressions of Israel and summoning the people to repentance and faith in the Old Testament. The Church therefore insists that responsibility for Jesus’ death must not be laid on the Jewish race or religion, as though it followed from Scripture that the Jews are now a rejected or accursed people. [See Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 4). Other statements of the Church pertinent to this issue include the Catechism 597-98, the Pontifical Biblical Commission document, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document, God's Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching (1988).] On the contrary, the New Testament considers them “beloved” by God to this day (Romans 11:28).

In point of fact, Matthew’s Gospel should lead us to appreciate the spiritual heritage that Jews and Christians share in common. Clearly a profound reverence for the Torah shines through the pages of the First Gospel (5:17-18). Its moral commandments are as binding on the followers of Jesus as on their fellow Jews (19:16-19); so too are its demands that we love God and neighbor with our whole heart (22:34-40). Most of all, to affirm the messiahship of Jesus is to affirm the messianic hope that was nourished for centuries among the chosen people. In this respect, the faith of Israel has become the faith of the Church now centered on the Jewish man from Nazareth.

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