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Navigating the Gospels: Matthew

06 October, 2011

Philip Fogarty SJ is a former Headmaster of Clongowes Wood College and of Coláiste Iognáid, Galway. This is his third book in the series Navigating the Gospels.



Table of Contents

1 Background
2 Jesus’ Origins
3 John the Baptist
4 Jesus begins his Ministry
5 The Beatitudes
6 Alms, Prayer and Fasting
7 Miracles and Would-Be Followers
8 The Mission of the Apostles
9 Opposition to Jesus
10 He Speaks in Parables
11 Feeding the Multitude
12 Controversies
13 The Transfiguration
14 True Greatness
15 On the Road to Jerusalem
16 Jesus Enters Jerusalem
17 Entrapment
18 Denunciations
19 The End is Nigh
20 Darkness over the Land
21 Resurrection
22 Inspiration

125 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



People sometimes think of the gospels as biographies of Jesus, somewhat similar to the biographies of famous people written today. But, unlike modern biographies, the gospels tell us very little about Jesus’ childhood, his family background, his education, or even what he looked like. What all the gospel writers were seeking to achieve can be summed up in the words of John’s gospel: ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

The word gospel comes from the Greek word euaggelion meaning ‘good announcement’ or ‘good news’. Words related to it were often employed in non-Christian circles, especially in speaking of victory in battle. In the imperial cult, the emperor’s birth and presence were said to be good news for the Roman world. For Christians the good news was Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, or God’s reign, as manifested in his life, death and resurrection.

Jesus attracted and convinced a large number of followers who, after his resurrection, went on to proclaim him throughout the known world. Major aspects of the actual life of Jesus, the Jesus who walked this earth, are unreported and thus unknowable. However, if one accepts that the portraits of Jesus in the gospels retain quite an amount of material from his life on earth, and that the missionary purpose of the gospel writers was not alien to his own, these portraits are as close to the ‘real’ Jesus as we are likely to get.

Most of us today cannot remember clearly what happened sixty or eighty years ago, and since the gospel writers were not contemporaries of Jesus, they had to rely on oral and written accounts of what Jesus said and did. Given the strong oral traditions of ancient peoples, such as could be found in Irish oral traditions even up to the last century, it is quite plausible that the evangelists could quote Jesus’ sayings and deeds with some degree of accuracy, even if one allows for the religious and theological interpretations that they later imprinted on those same sayings and doings.

Three stages of development led up to the writing of the gospels. First of all there was what Jesus said and did. Jesus was a Jew who lived in Galilee and moved in and out of Jerusalem in the twenties. The language he spoke, his ways of thinking and acting, the problems he faced were those of a specific time and place. Gospel readers sometimes remove him from time and space, and imagine that he dealt with issues that he never in fact encountered.

For example, people ask such questions as to whether Jesus would have approved of the war in Iraq, or whether he could have foreseen that men would land on the moon. But Jesus, as a Galilean Jew, would not have known of the existence of Sadaam Hussein or of the existence of modern space travel. After all, ‘he was like us in all things but sin.’ What Jesus said and did, however, does have implications for questions concerning war and peace.

The second stage of development of the gospels consisted of the preaching of the apostles, those who had known and walked with Jesus before his death and resurrection. Since Jesus’ mother tongue was Aramaic, and because he lived in a largely village culture, the apostles and other early preachers, like Saint Paul, had to ‘translate’ what he said and did from Jesus’ culture into a wider Greek-speaking one.

After Jesus’ resurrection his disciples came to understand him more fully as the one who most perfectly imaged God and God’s love for Israel and the world. They saw him as the very presence of God in the world, and the resurrection lit up their understanding of what they had seen and heard during Jesus’ ministry.

Now, however, they had to preach that Jesus to urban Jews and Gentiles in Greek, a language that Jesus did not normally speak. This involved adapting the vocabulary and patterns of speech that Jesus used in ways that would make the message alive for new audiences.

The final stage that led to the writing of the gospels was when a member of a particular Christian community (the evangelist) took material from the living tradition about Jesus and shaped it in such a way that it offered a basis of faith and morality to a particular audience, one that was largely Gentile.

The evangelists were not eye-witnesses who had walked the roads of Palestine with Jesus. Rather, as members of particular Christian communities that existed somewhere between the years 60 and 110 AD, they arranged the material they had received in order to portray Jesus in a way that people could understand, and come to know, love and serve.

The designations one finds in the New Testament, such as ‘The gospel according to Matthew’, are the result of late-second century scholars’ attempts to identify the authors of works that had no identification. No gospel writer indicated who he was. The closest one comes to that in the gospels is the indication in John’s gospel that an eyewitness, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved,’ was the source of what is written in the gospel (John 21:24), but that gospel never identifies the beloved disciple.

Matthew’s Gospel, written somewhere between 80 to 90 AD, became the church’s Gospel par excellence and served as the foundational document of the church, rooted in the teaching of Jesus. The dominant influence it has had suggests that it was composed for a major Christian community in an important city such as Antioch in Syria, and was addressed in all probability to a Christian community that was once strongly Jewish but had become increasingly Gentile in composition.

The following pages, based on the insights of contemporary scripture scholars, and using the New Revised Standard Version of the gospels, are an attempt to offer some overall insights into the gospel. They are intended for the general reader who wishes to know how the gospel came to be written and what it has to tell us about Jesus who once walked the dusty roads of Palestine demonstrating God’s love for humanity. Jesus is ‘our everyday God’ showing us how to live and die in a meaningful way. As St Paul said of him, ‘though he was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave.’ (Philippians 2:6ff).

Jesus always had the nature of God. He never ceased being God. That would have been impossible. Instead he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. He freely gave up all the prerequisites inherent in the divine omnipotence and the divine knowledge. To quote one author, ‘To use a crude analogy, he became amnesiac so that he could learn and grow just as we do’ (1).

These pages should not replace reading and meditating on the gospel itself. While it is important to understand what the evangelist means, the reader is also invited to let the gospel speak to the heart as well as the head. There is an age-old tradition of contemplating the gospels, and so the reader is invited to undertake an imaginative journey, looking at the people, places and actions of the various actors in the gospel stories, identifying with them imaginatively in the hope of better appreciating each gospel’s message.

We are familiar with the great variety of physical exercises, such as walking, jogging, and sports. These physical exercises are good for tuning up the body, improving circulation and breathing and the general overall good health of the body.

Spiritual exercises such as meditation or contemplation of the gospel stories increase our openness to the movements of God’s Spirit in our hearts, and help us build a closer relationship with Jesus as we respond more fully to the love of God made manifest in him. John’s gospel asks the basic questions that all the gospels put to us today: Do you believe? Do you love? Are you a disciple?

1. God: The Oldest Question, William J. O’Malley SJ, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2000.


To appreciate the gospel of Matthew more fully, it is worthwhile beginning by saying something about the political situation in Palestine as it was over two thousand years ago when a small-town Jew, one Jesus of Nazareth, was born into a family of woodworkers.

It was a bad time for Jews. Their land had been occupied by a succession of conquerors, and these had diluted and even infected their culture. Alexander the Great, the Greek warrior king of Macedon, who ruled over a vast empire that enabled him to call himself ‘Lord of Asia’, conquered Samaria and Judea about 332 BC, and the Jews of the Palestine-Syria area became part of what we now call the Hellenistic world with its mixture of Greek and Roman culture.

By the time of Jesus’ birth Rome was the dominant power. Roman occupation of Palestine began in 67BC. The Romans ruled Palestine by working through subservient high priestly rulers and kinglets. Herod the Great (37-4BC) was subservient to Rome but enjoyed full domestic autonomy. He did not have to pay tribute to Rome, but was subject to it in all matters of war and foreign policy. He was an unscrupulous schemer and a passionate autocrat, deeply influenced by Greek culture, with little interest in Judaism. Though King of the Jews, he was not a truly Jewish King. He was regarded with contempt by many Jewish subjects as only a half Jew. The brutal cruelty, and virtual insanity of his last years, gave rise to Matthew’s account of the massacre of children two years and under in Bethlehem.’

The gospels of Mathew and Luke both refer to the birth of Jesus as occurring during the reign of Herod the Great. Assuming that the reference is accurate, it would appear that Jesus was born BC, ‘before Christ’! He was born somewhere between 7 and 4 BC, in the last years of Herod’s reign. Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century monk, who created our dating system of BC and AD (‘Anno Domini’, in the year of the Lord) simply made a miscalculation on the basis of earlier calendar models.

When Herod died, the Emperor Augustus split the realm between his three sons. Archelaus was put in charge of Judea, Samaria and Idumea to the south of Palestine and Herod Antipas ruled Galilee in the north and part of the Transjordan. Philip ruled in the region east and north of the Lake of Galilee. Archelaus was so cruel that his subjects sent a delegation to Rome and had him removed. A Roman Governor, the well-known Pontius Pilate, replaced him.

Such was the political climate when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His mother was called Miryam (Mary) and his Putative father was called Yosef (Joseph) who, it was claimed, was a descendant of King David. Jesus grew up in Nazareth and was so identified with the town that he was later known as Jesus the Nazarene.

Jesus probably spoke Aramaic as his main language, though there is reason to believe that he knew biblical Hebrew and possibly some Greek, which was the language often used in trade in the bigger towns of the time. It is reasonable to suppose that his religious formation included instruction in reading biblical Hebrew.

As the first-born son, Jesus would have learned his father’s trade but would also have been taught the religious traditions and texts of Judaism. His skill, as an adult, in debating with the Scribes, Pharisees and Jerusalem authorities argues for some degree of reading knowledge of the sacred texts. He may even have received some primary education in the synagogue in Nazareth.

If this is so, we can well understand the reaction of his peers and elders when he later returned to teach there. ‘On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him’ (2). In other words, ‘who does he think he is?’

Jesus plied his trade as a woodworker. He would have done work in carpentry making beds, tables, stools and lamp-stands, ploughs and yokes, but he probably did some work in stone as well. While he would have had to work hard for his living, Jesus was probably no poorer or less respectable than anyone else in Nazareth or in the rest of Galilee for that matter. There is no reason to believe that he suffered from the grinding, degrading poverty of the day labourer or the rural slave. He worked as a tradesman, a calling involving a broad range of skills demanding much sweat and muscle power, hardly the weakling often presented in pious paintings.

So for the first thirty years of his life, Jesus lived an obscure life in Nazareth, a hill town of between one thousand six hundred and two thousand people. He was known simply as the woodworker’s son. All in all, there was nothing in his early life or educational background that prepared his family, or his fellow townspeople, for the startling career that he undertook in his early thirties.

Many years later, somewhere between 80 and 90AD, a Greek speaker, probably a Jewish Christian, who knew Aramaic or Hebrew or both, but was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, set out to tell the story of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in Greek probably somewhere in the Antioch region in what is now Syria. In a tradition dating back to the second century, Matthew, the tax collector, who became an apostle, was credited with the gospel’s authorship.

However since the author of the final Greek text seems to have copied, with modifications, the whole of Mark’s gospel, it is now commonly thought improbable that, in its present form, it is the work of an eyewitness apostle. Why would an eyewitness need to copy from Mark who was not himself an eyewitness? Matthew the apostle may, however, have been at the start of the gospel tradition if he gathered Aramaic sayings of Jesus that were later used by the author.

As we begin to examine Matthew’s gospel in some detail, it is worthwhile keeping the political scene that prevailed at the time in mind, as well as the little that we can say with any certainty about Jesus’ upbringing and education.



Things are not always what they seem. The infancy stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are a case in point. They seem, on the surface, to provide a simple and very attractive account of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, and of the events immediately after his birth. But there are very noticeable differences in the two accounts.

According to Matthew’s gospel, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem in Judea, and the wise men come to visit them in their home there (1). After the flight into Egypt they do not return to Bethlehem because the tyrant Archelaus, King Herod’s son, is now ruler there. Instead they go to live in Nazareth in Galilee (2). In Luke’s gospel Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and only go to Bethlehem because ‘the Emperor Augustus decreed that the whole world should be registered’ (3).

The scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown has pointed out that, apart from Matthew’s account, there is no other known historical record of what must have been a most unusual astronomical phenomenon — a star rising in the East leading the Wise Men to Jerusalem, then reappearing and eventually coming to rest on Jesus’ home in Bethlehem. Surely others in Jerusalem or in Bethlehem would have noticed such an unusual event and recorded it (4)?

Luke writes ‘a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria’ (5). However, as Brown again points out, there never was a single census that covered the whole world under Augustus, and the census that took place under Quirinius occurred about ten years after the death of Herod and, presumably, therefore, after the birth of Jesus.

One would expect that what is narrated in the stories about Jesus’ birth would agree with what is to be found in the body of the gospel. In the second chapter of Matthew, when the wise men came to King Herod, and he and the chief priests and the scribes learned about the birth of the King of the Jews, all Jerusalem was disturbed by the event. Yet when Jesus appears in his public ministry nobody seems to know much about him or expect anything from him (6).

According to Luke, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was a relative of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Yet during Jesus’ public ministry there is no suggestion of such a relationship. Indeed in the gospel of John the Baptist says of Jesus, ‘I myself did not know him.’ (1:33)

On the other hand there are points of agreement in the two infancy narratives. In both there is an annunciation: to Joseph in Matthew and to Mary in Luke. Both agree that Jesus was conceived without a human father – an astounding claim indeed. Both agree that Jesus was ‘of the house of David,’ that he was born in Bethlehem, and finally that Jesus’ family settled in Nazareth.

While some scholars think that some of the events described in the infancy stories may not be historical, but are inserted to make theological points about Jesus, the points of agreement between the two accounts would suggest that they do contain some historical details.

So, to fully appreciate the intention of the gospel writers, it is important to remember that their primary concern is not to provide us with historical details. They are trying to sum up, in story form, the basic message of the Old Testament, and demonstrate how the ancient Jewish scriptures find their fulfilment in the person of Jesus.

Let us turn now to Matthew’s gospel which opens with what, to many people, is a very off-putting introduction: a genealogy (7). What Matthew is trying to do is to place Jesus’ birth within the context of all of Jewish history from the time of Abraham up to the birth of Jesus. Using groups of fourteen to make his point, he gives the impression that God made mathematically precise preparations for the coming of the Messiah. The first fourteen names mentioned are those of the patriarchs, the ancestors of Israel, people such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on. The second fourteen are Israel’s kings, especially Kings David and Solomon, and the last fourteen are simply unknowns from Israel’s past who played a vital role in the coming of the Messiah.

Matthew is reminding us that Jesus is the heir to the virtues associated with the great ancestors of Israel. The unknown names in the genealogy are a reminder that the Messiah will preach to those who would not be considered important by the world’s standards.

Going through the list of fathers and sons, the genealogy ends as follows: ‘Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah’ (8). Matthew does not state that Joseph is Jesus’ father but prepares the way for the extraordinary manner of Jesus’ conception.

The genealogy also includes the names of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. The first three women were not Israelites, and Bathsheba was not married to an Israelite. While the marriages of all four women were irregular, nonetheless they played an important part in God’s plan for the coming of the Messiah. It has been speculated that Matthew had two purposes in mind for including these women. In the first place, if some non-Jews had played such a vital role among the
antecedents of the Messiah, so the Jewish readers of Matthew’s gospel might find it easier to accept his mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles. The irregular marriages of the women might also prepare Matthew’s readers for the extraordinary way in which Jesus was conceived.

Mary is engaged to Joseph, but before they live together ‘she is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’ What does it mean to be with child from the Holy Spirit? The Spirit (or Breath) of God was seen as the source of all of creation and of all human life (9). So, just as God created all that exists in the heavens and the earth, now, through the power of God’s Spirit, Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary by a particular, concrete, and special case of God’s creative activity.

Joseph is dumbfounded. Here he is with a pregnant wife who, seemingly, has had an adulterous affair. As an observant Jew, he knows that the full penalty of the law for adultery is death by stoning. However, his sense of what the law of Moses commands is tempered by his compassion that prevents him from wanting to exact the full rigours of the law, so he plans to divorce Mary quietly. But an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream (10), and says, ‘Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ Matthew adds that all this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us” (11).

No doubt Joseph is more perplexed than ever, but when he wakes up, he does as the angel of the Lord has commanded; he takes Mary as his wife, but has no marital relations with her until she has borne a son whom she names Jesus (12).

The gospel goes on to tell the story of the arrival of some wise men, or astrologers (magi), from the East, coming to Jerusalem, asking ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage?’ (For Matthew the star was a sort of ‘revelation’ in the natural world, because Gentiles did not have the Jewish scriptures to guide them.) Herod, now in the closing years of his reign, gets to hear about these strangers in the city, and is frightened at what they are saying about a king of the Jews. Potential rivals are not to be tolerated, so he calls together all the chief priests and scribes and inquires of them as to where the Messiah is to be born. They tell him ‘In Bethlehem of Judea’. So he points the wise men in the direction of Bethlehem, saying to them, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’

The star appears once more, and the wise men follow it until it stops over the place where the child is. They enter the house and see the child Jesus at home with Mary his mother, and they kneel down and pay him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – gifts fit for a king. Then, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they depart for their own country by another road.

Matthew sees the magi as representatives of the Gentile world in all its racial diversity coming to Christ from the East, Persia, Syria and Arabia, just as many Gentiles did when they joined Matthew’s community.

Joseph now has another dream (13) in which God tells him to ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. Then Joseph gets up, takes the child and his mother by night, and goes to Egypt.’ Joseph and his family stay in Egypt until the death of Herod. Matthew says that this is to fulfil the prophecy of Hosea, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ (14). The ‘son’, in Hosea’s prophecy, is Israel, God’s people, and the reference is to the Israelite experience of salvation, the exodus from Egyptian captivity. Matthew applies the quotation to Jesus in two senses: to Jesus as an individual and to Jesus as representing the people of Israel as a whole, for in him the people will find salvation, just as they did through Moses.

Matthew often uses Old Testament parallels in his story. Just as Joseph, of multi-coloured dream-coat fame, interprets dreams (15). so does Joseph, Mary’s husband. Pharaoh tries to slay all the male children of the Hebrews, (16) only to have one of them, Moses, escape and become the saviour of his people. The tyrant Herod, not wanting any rivals, orders the massacre of all male children two years and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity, but Jesus escapes and he, in his turn, becomes the new saviour of his people. While the story of the massacre of the children (17) may, or may not, be historical, Herod certainly acts in character. If it is true, the number of children killed may not have exceeded twenty or so, but nonetheless there would certainly have been cause for’sobbing and loud lamentation’ (18) by the children’s parents.

When Herod dies, the angel of the Lord again appears in a dream and tells Joseph to take the child and his mother back to Israel. When Joseph hears that the cruel tyrant Archelaus is ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he is afraid to go back there. Being warned in a dream, he departs for the region of Galilee. There he makes his home in Nazareth’ (19). Matthew again tells us that this is so in order that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

In the opening two chapters of his gospel, Matthew is not simply concerned with historical details but, by using Old Testament references, tries to alert us as to who Jesus is. He presents Jesus as Son of Abraham, Son of God, Emmanuel (God with us), Son of David and the new Moses. In other words, as he starts his story, Jesus is presented as the all-round saviour figure.



1. Matthew 2:16ff
2. Mark 6:1-4


1. Matthew 2:11
2. Matthew 2:22-23
3. Luke 2:1
4. Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown, Doubleday
5. Luke 2:1-2
6. Matthew 13:54-56
7. Matthew 1:1-17. Luke has a different account of Jesus’ ancestry in chapter 3:23-38
8. Matthew 1:16
9. Genesis2:7
10. In the Jewish scriptures, the tern ‘angel’ was a common designation for God communicating with human beings, often in the form of a dream.
11. The quotation is from Isaiah. ‘Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel’ (7:14).
12. Matthew 1:24-25. The name Jesus, or Joshua, means `God Saves.’
13. Matthew 2:13-15
14. Hosea 11:1
15. Genesis 40
16. Exodus 1:16
17. Matthew 2:13-18
18. Jeremiah 31:15
19. Matthew 2:22


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