Contact Us

The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary

30 November, 1999

Fr Michael Mullins lectures in Scripture in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He has already produced commentaries on the gospels of John and Mark. Again this commentary on Matthew gospel is a thorough and scholarly, but written in a readable style.

pp. 661. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



Mt 1:1 – 4:16


1. Who, Whence and How? Mt 1:1-25 
A. The Superscription/ Title 
B. The Genealogy 
C. The Birth of Jesus Christ 

2. Whence and Whither? Reception by Jew and Gentile Mt 2:1-23
A. Herod and the Magi 
B. The Flight into Egypt 
C. The Mourning in Ramah 
D. The Return from Egypt 


1. The Mission of John the Baptist Mt 3:1-12 
A. Call to Repentance/ Prepare the Way 
B. Condemnation of Pharisees and Sadducees 
C. Baptism in Water/ Baptism in Holy Spirit 

2. Jesus comes from Galilee Mt 3:13-4:16 
A. The Reaction of John 
B. The Baptism of Jesus 
C. The Testing in the Desert 
D. Jesus Returns to Galilee

Mt 4:17 – 11:1


a. Call for Repentance. Imminence of the Kingdom 
b. Calling of the First Disciples 
c. Summary of Jesus’ Mission 
d. Response of the People

2. THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: ‘Jesus: Mighty in Word’ MT 5-7

Introduction to the Sermon
A. Beatitudes and Metaphors
B. The Greater Righteousness
a. The Law / Torah
b. Acts of Piety
c. Wisdom Teachings
C. Warnings about Judgement

3. MIRACLES AND CHALLENGES: ‘Jesus: Mighty in Deed’ MT 8-9

A. The First Triad of Miracles Mt 8:1-17
a. The Leper
b. The Centurion
c. Peter’s Mother-in-Law
d. Summary. Citation from Isa 53:4
B. The Second Triad of Miracles Mt 8:18 – 9:17
a. Rebuking the Wind and the Waves
b. Exorcising the Demons
c. Forgiving Sins and Healing
d. Controversy: Call of Matthew; Dining with Tax collectors and Sinners; Fasting
C. The Third Triad of Miracles Mt 9:18-34
a. The Two Daughters
b. The Two Blind Men
c. The Dumb Demoniac
d. Response: Awe and Accusation. Summary
D. Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles Mt 9:35 – 11:1
a. Jesus’ Compassion on the Crowd
b. Jesus’ Appointment of the Twelve
c. The Mission/ Apostolic Discourse

Mt 11:2 – 13:58

1. JESUS AND JOHN MT 11:2-19

a. John’s Question about Jesus
b. Jesus’ question about John
c. Hostile reaction to John and Jesus


a. Woes on the Cities of Galilee
b. Thanksgiving Prayer for Revelation
c. Wisdom-Style Invitation


a. Sabbath Disputes
b. Jesus Withdraws/ Citation from Isa 42:1-4
c. Healing by Power of Beelzebul
d. Seeking a Sign


a. ‘He told them many things in Parables’
i. Parable of the Sower
b. ‘Why do you speak to them in Parables?’
i. Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower
ii. Parable of the Weeds/ Darnel
iii. Parable of the Mustard Seed
iv. Parable of the Leaven
c. He spoke to the crowds only in parables
i. Interpretation of the Parable of the Weeds/ Darnel
ii. Three Parables/ Similitudes: Treasure, Pearl, Dragnet
iii. The Scribe trained for the Kingdom


 Mt 14:1-19:2
The Petrine Section / Building on Rock

1. PART 1: MT 14:1-33

a. John and Herod
b. Feeding the Five Thousand
c. Jesus and Peter on the Water

2. PART 2: MT 14:34-16:20

a. Healings at Gennesareth
b. Dispute with Pharisees and Scribes
c. The Canaanite Woman
d. Healings along the Sea of Galilee
e. Feeding the Four Thousand
f. The Pharisees and Sadducees seek a Sign
g. The Pivot of the Gospel Mt 16:5-20
i. Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees
ii. Peter’s Confession of Faith
iii. Jesus’ Triple Response

3. PART 3: MT 16:21-17:27

a. First prediction of the Passion
i. Reaction of Peter
b. Teaching on Discipleship
c. The Son of Man Coming in Glory
d. The Transfiguration
e. Elijah and John the Baptist
f. The Disciples’ Failure to Heal
g. Second Prediction of the Passion
h. Peter and the Temple Tax


a. The Little Ones Mt 18:1-14 
b. The Sinning / Offending Member Mt 18:15:20 
c. Peter’s Question and Jesus’ Response Mt 18:31-3 
i. No Limits to Forgiveness 
ii. Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Servants’Appeal to the Master 

Mt 19 – 20

1. THE WAY TO JERUSALEM MT 19:1 – 20:34

a. The Pharisees’ Question about Divorce 
b. Jesus and the Children 
c. Riches and Poverty 
i. The Rich Young Man 
ii. Teaching on Riches/ Poverty 
d. Reward of Discipleship 
i. The Labourers in the Vineyard 
e. The Third Prediction of the Passion 
i. The Mother of the Sons of Zebedee 
ii. The Son of Man: One who Serves 
f. The Two Blind Men in Jericho

Mt 21 – 25


a. Royal Visit Mt 21:1-11 
i. Preparing to Enter the City 
ii. The Royal Entry 
b. Prophetic Visitation Mt 21:12-22 
i. The Cleansing of the Temple 
ii. The Barren Fig Tree 


a. The Authority of John and Jesus 
b. Parables 
i. The Two Sons 
ii The Wicked Tenants 
iii The Wedding Guests 


a. On Tribute to Caesar
b. On Resurrection 
c. On the Greatest Commandment 
d. On the Son of David 


a.’ They occupy the chair of Moses, but 
b. Five Logia 
c. Seven Woes 
d. Persecuting the Messengers 
e. ‘Jerusalem that kills the prophets’ 


a. The Beginning of the Birth Pangs 
b. The Great Tribulation 
c. The Sign of the Son of Man 
d. Be Alert 
i. Observe the Fig Tree 
ii. The Example of Noah 
iii. The Thief in the Night 
e. Be Prepared 531
i. The Conscientious Steward 
ii. The Wise and Foolish Maidens 
iii. The Talents 
f. The Last Judgement Mt 25:31-46 

Mt 26 – 27


a. The plot to kill Jesus 
b. Jesus anointed for burial 
c. Judas facilitates the plot 


a. Jesus prepares the Passover Meal 
b. Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal 
c. Jesus shares the Passover Meal/ the Eucharist 

3. GETHSEMANE MT 26:31-56 

a. Jesus predicts the disciples’ flight and Peter’s denials 
b. Jesus in Gethsemane 
c. Jesus’ arrest and the disciples’ flight 


a. Peter follows at a distance 
b. Jesus before the High Priest: The Jewish ‘Trial’ 
c. Peter denies knowing Jesus and being a disciple 
d. The Morning Assembly 
e. The Remorse of Judas


a. ‘Are you the King of the Jews
b. Jesus or Barabbas
c. Mocking the King of the Jews


a. The King of the Jews is Crucified
b. Mockery of the Crucified
c. Darkness over the Earth/ The Cry of Jesus
d. The Death of Jesus
e. Signs and Portents/ The Romans’ Reaction
f. The Watching Women


a. The deposition
b. The women watching the burial
c. The Guard at the Tomb



a. The Women and the Empty Tomb
b. The Women and the Risen Jesus
c. The Reaction of the Guards
d. A Historical Note on the Empty Tomb


List of Abbreviations
Select General Index
Index of Modern Authors



The gospels do not give us a single monochrome picture of Jesus. Each gospel has its own rich perspectives as it tells the story of Jesus in changing times and differing circumstances. Matthew’s gospel tells the story of Jesus to a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles at a very difficult time. On the one hand, there was the problem of growing tension between Rabbinic Judaism and the Jewish Christian movement. On the other hand, there was the growth in numbers of Gentile members in the church and the Jewish Christians’ fear of losing sight of their roots and their Jewish identity. Matthew assures his Jewish Christian audience that Jesus is the authentic interpreter of the Torah as he calls for ‘the greater righteousness’. He assures them also that they can experience in Christ and his church the presence of God and the forgiveness of sins, two of the major functions of the temple and its atoning rituals, the loss of which had been a devastating blow to the Jewish people.

By using the history of Israel as a paradigm or archetypal experience, Matthew aligns the story of Jesus and his followers with the literary, historical and theological perspectives of Israel’s religious inheritance. At the same time, he deals with the fact that his church, now including many Gentiles, is facing a whole new and uncertain future in the Gentile world. The need to adapt is crucial. Significantly, he points to Jesus’ comment on the wise scribe who stands out as a model of the kingdom. Such a scribe is at one and the same time rooted in God’s work in history and open to God’s new initiative in the present and future: ‘Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasury things new and old’ (Mt 13:53).

I offer this commentary on St Matthew’s Gospel at a time when many people are taking a serious interest in the scriptures and looking for reading material to deepen their spiritual understanding of the inspired word and broaden their knowledge of biblical scholarship. I offer it as an aid for students of theology and as a guide for serious readers in the hope that it will deepen their spiritual and theological insight, and bring them to an initial level of academic competence. I offer it also to those many preachers who wish to underpin their preaching with serious reading and to the many people who practise lectio diving and other forms of spiritual reading. No prior technical knowledge of biblical scholarship is assumed and I explain technical terms and translate important Greek and Hebrew words and expressions as we meet them. Since the general reader may wish to read the book in stages, and the student may wish to consult or revise a particular section, there is an element of recapitulation throughout. For the same reasons, I refer to books and articles in the notes relating to each section, in addition to the bibliography at the end of the book.

I owe a debt of gratitude to many scholars who have written on St Matthew’s Gospel and related texts and whose contributions greatly influenced my understanding and approach. Their contributions will be obvious from the quotations and notes.

My thanks are due to my colleagues in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, to Frs Seamus O’Connell and Brendan McConvery CSSR in the Scripture Department for their support and encouragement, and to Frs Thomas Norris, Oliver Treanor, Padraic Corkery and Edmond Cullinan for reading and making helpful suggestions on sections of the text.

My thanks extend in a special way to Seán O Boyle and the staff of The Columba Press for their encouragement and for their professional competence in bringing this book to its readers.

Michael Mullins.
St Patrick’s College,
Feast of St Benedict,
Patron of Europe
11 July 2007




The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are first and foremost gospels, euaggelia, ‘good news’ in narrative form, the literary genre which early on in the life of the church became the preferred paradigm by which to communicate the mystery of Christ. The writing of the gospels was the third stage in the handing on of the gospel or ‘good news’. It represents the transition from oral, liturgical and epistolary proclamation and instruction to written gospel. The first stage was the historical ministry of Jesus in which his person, words, actions, death and resurrection impacted on the original witnesses. The second stage in handing on the traditions about Jesus consisted of a sustained period of oral and epistolary instruction,mission preaching, theological reflection and liturgical celebration, all carried out in the light of the resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit. The third stage was the committing to the written gospel form of the tradition(s) thus built up, reflected on in the light of the Old Testament and applied to pastoral situations over a considerable period of time.

Though the written gospels drew on earlier traditions, they are not simply a series of units loosely strung together like beads on a string, even though the sayings, parables, miracle stories, pronouncement stories, controversies and other elements already existed in the oral tradition. Each gospel is a meaningful whole. The elements are arranged in an overall pattern like the panes of a stained glass window or the pieces of a mosaic which are arranged together to present a single overall picture. Each section of a gospel is therefore understood in the context of the whole work.

The gospels tell the story of Jesus within the framework of a ‘biographical sketch’. There is no evidence, in fact it is most unlikely, that anyone went around with Jesus writing down an eyewitness account of his words and deeds so the ‘biographical sketch’ is largely a created framework for relating the remembered and interpreted story of Jesus. The post-resurrection insights, experiences and problems of the church communities play a major part in shaping the telling. Reflection on the Old Testament also plays a major part as it enables understanding and provides a dictionary of religious language, categories and literary genres for the task of writing the gospels.

How original and how influenced by the contemporary literary genre of a bios or ‘biographical sketch’ was the proclamation and explanation of the good news in narrative form? There were many examples of biographical writing in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds on which the evangelists could have drawn, although they were very different to our twenty-first century understanding of biography. They were not comprehensive, detailed ‘objective’ or uninterpreted accounts related in strict chronological order. They did not speculate on inner motivation and engage in psychological analysis. They focused on the typical characteristics, teaching and actions of the protagonist and had a clearly defined didactic character and purpose. They worked on the assumption that actions reveal good or bad character and emphasised the necessary consistency between values expressed in word and carried out in deed. They focused on the broad framework of a public life between birth and death. They arranged the material around memorable episodes and gathered teaching Together in themes. Noble ancestry and birth in high society or honourable birth in obscure circumstances combined with heroic or honourable death crowning a life’s achievement were of particular importance in a bios. Of particular importance also was the outcome of one’s life, especially in leaving behind a body of teaching and a following of disciples and admirers to be guardians of one’s legacy. The beginning (arche), the flowering (akme) and the final end or outcome (telos) of such a life were important points around which to organise the material for a bios. Usually Hellenistic biography focused on ‘ideal’ or single dimension characters. Plutarch followed a process of synkrisis, a comparison and contrast between different people’s lives. The Roman writers Sallust, Suetonius and Tacitus differed from this Hellenistic genre of bios as they focused more on complicated character descriptions and events. They could be quite critical and at times bitingly cynical of their subjects.

Within the Jewish world there was the tradition of the prophetic writings, produced by the disciples and schools of the prophets, but apart from the story of Jeremiah the prophetic writings for the most part show little interest in the biographical details of the prophets themselves. In New Testament times Philo wrote biographical sketches of the Patriarchs in which he associated each individual with a particular virtue. He wrote on Joseph as a model Politician. His two books on Moses focused respectively on Moses as leader and Moses as lawgiver (1).

The gospels and the ‘bios’ genre
The question must now be asked: ‘How do the gospels relate to the bios genre? Rudolf Bultmann, and others following his lead, saw in the gospels an original Christian creation entirely at the service of the faith, cult and pastoral concerns arising from and illustrating the Christian kerygma with little or no connection to such secular biography (2). The kerygma, a Greek term meaning a ‘public proclamation by the keryx, the herald or town / city crier, refers to the public proclamation of the victory of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and, by extension, it refers to the influence of the public proclamation on the written word.

The earliest preaching seems to have been presented around a ‘two point proclamation (kerygma)’, reflected in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles, which could be summed up as: ‘You (or they) put Jesus to death, but God raised him up.’ The speeches of Peter at Pentecost, in the Portico of Solomon, to the council following the healing of the cripple and in the house of Cornelius are built around this two-point proclamation (Acts 2:23f, 3:13f; 4:10; 5:30f; 10:39f). So also is the speech of Paul in Antioch (13:28-30). This proclamation is the bedrock on which New Testament theology builds.

Building on the ‘two point’ proclamation, the language of rejection, betrayal, handing over, envy, murder, and so on, accrue to the first point (‘You/ they put Jesus to death’) while the language of raising up, vindication, victory, glory, exaltation to the right hand of God and the establishment of the crucified one as Lord and Christ, accrue to the second (‘God raised him up’).

Resulting from the proclamation of the victory manifest in the Father’s vindication of Jesus, the first Christians came to realise that ‘in his name’, that is, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has given us salvation. There follows, therefore, the call to repent and to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness of sins, not the destruction of the sinner, and not only the cancellation of past wrongs but the promise of new life in the Spirit, are offered to those who repent and are baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the ‘two point proclamation that he had received as tradition and was in turn handing on, was furnished with an interpretation explaining the salvific nature of Jesus’ death, ‘for our sins’. It also emphasised that Jesus’ death and resurrection were in accordance with the scriptures (that is, in fulfilment of God’s plan). In addition two ‘apologetic’ points are in evidence. He was buried, so he was truly dead. He appeared to witnesses, so he was truly risen. Paul wrote:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared … (1 Cor 15:3f).

For Paul and other New Testament writers, the term ‘good news’ was particularly apt for the offer of salvation revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He used the term euaggelion, ‘good news’ more than sixty times both as a proclamation and a theological synthesis of the revelation and salvation brought about through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament the equivalent Hebrew term for good news, bsr, was used especially in the Psalms and in Deutero-Isaiah with special reference to the gracious act of God in effecting the return of the exiled or scattered people to Zion, the ending of punishment and promise of new beginnings. The proclamation of the kerygma was regularly prefaced, as in the examples quoted from the Acts, with a summary of ‘salvation history’ showing how God prepared the people over a long period of time for the coming of the Christ / Messiah.

The gospels are a presentation of the origins of this good news in the ministry of Jesus. They present the messenger of the good news, announce the good news, portray Jesus as the embodiment of that good news and proclaims Jesus the Risen Lord as the vindication by God of the good news. This is a very different task to that of writing history in the conventional sense, whether according to ancient or modern norms of historiography. For this reason Bultmann and his followers saw in the gospels an original Christian creation entirely at the service of the faith, cult and pastoral concerns arising from and illustrating the Christian kerygma, the proclamation of the good news, with little or no connection to such secular biography.

Contrary to Bultmann, however, it must be said that even though there is a very clear distinctiveness about the gospels, they reflect some of the trends of the Hellenistic bios in so far as they endeavour to capture the essentials of the ideal character and teaching of Jesus and present it in a general ‘biographical sketch’ or loose overall framework of his life, dealing with the origins of his person and mission, the flowering of his public life and the outcome of his endeavours. Furthermore, this bios genre can be adapted relatively easily to cater for the theological and pastoral concerns of the evangelists.

However, in agreement with Bultmann it must be stated that the gospels are very distinctive and differ in a number of essential aspects from the Hellenistic bios or Roman vita. They are theological productions and not just interesting or entertaining accounts of great, good, interesting or wicked persons who for some reason should be remembered by future generations as heroes or villains from the past. The gospels are narratives about a person whom the writers believe to be alive and active after his execution and death (3). They are designed to spell out in narrative genre the identity between the crucified and risen one, that is, between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ living at the heart of the primitive Christian communities. They are narratives about someone whose words and deeds, whose life and death, whose earthly life and glorified presence are as relevant to the reader or hearer today as they were to the characters in the story and the original intended audience / readership. The gospels, therefore, should be seen as a special type or sub-genre of the broader bios genre, a bios Iesou.

Not alone did the ancient writers conform to the norms of a literary genre but the readership / audience (4) had definite expectations in approaching a bios. Warren Carter in his recent study, Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist, devotes a large portion of his book to the authorial audience (the intended audience that can be reconstructed from an examination of the text) in an endeavour to bring the modern audience as close as possible to an understanding of the background and expectations of the audience for whom the gospel was originally intended (5). He quotes the works of C. Talbert and R. A. Burridge in reconstructing the expectations of such an audience, before giving his own summary. He points out that according to C. Talbert the authorial audience expected to find in a bios a pattern to copy, a correction of false information about the master or founding figure to ensure a true image, an exposing of a false teacher, a legitimation of the authentic teaching and tradition after the demise of the master or founder figure and the provision of the key for interpreting his teaching (6). According to R. A. Burridge there are seven possible functions of the bios. These he describes as eliciting praise, providing a model, informing, entertaining, preserving memory, instructing and providing material for debate and argument.? Having considered these, Warren Carter then gives his own succinct summary:

The ancient audience thus expects a biography to present the figure’s teaching and life as a possible model for its own living. The paradigmatic actions and words of the hero legitimate or discredit important cultural and community values and practices. Biographies function to shape identity and guide the audience’s way of life (8).

A gospel is not, therefore, just an interesting story about a great person of the past. Neither is it an academic theological treatise. It is the committing to writing of a narrative born from the faith-filled vision, theological perspective and pastoral concerns of the evangelist. The purpose of the evangelist in creating the narrative is not just informative. It is also performative and transformative because it aims to secure, influence or transform the lives of the readers or listeners by engaging them in the story of Jesus and calling them to be his disciples. Warren Carter sums up the matter very well:

In reading Matthew’s gospel, the authorial audience expects to find legitimation for its identity and way of life, its past and future in relation to Jesus … Matthew is an ancient biography or story, which functions as a vehicle for proclamation about Jesus. Though it contains historically accurate material, this gospel proclaims the significance of Jesus for the purpose of shaping the identity and lifestyle of a particular community of faith … the author uses the genre of an ancient biography to express his theological and pastoral concerns. The recognition of this genre denotes a set of expectations that guide the authorial audience in its reading. The audience in turn expects a biography to portray its hero’s life in a way that shapes its own identity and lifestyle (9).


The anonymous early Christian document known as the Gospel According to Matthew was written by a Christian so steeped in Jewish tradition that most commentators believe that the author was almost certainly a Jewish Christian. The gospel does not identify its author and the author makes no specific claim in the work to be an eyewitness of the events recorded. The ascription to Matthew came later. One naturally asks: ‘Who was the Matthew in question and why was the work ascribed to him?’ Is this the Matthew who figures in the lists of the Twelve (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk 6:15)? Is he the tax collector whose call to discipleship is described in Mt 9:9? If so, how does he relate to the tax collector Levi in the parallel passage in Mk 2:4 and Lk 5:27? These questions are not answered directly within the gospel so one has to rely on what can be gleaned from external witness.

External Witness
The first explicit references to Matthew as author of the gospel are found in Irenaeus (c. 180AD). Writing at the height of the Gnostic crisis, Irenaeus was very anxious to establish the apostolic credentials of the four gospels.11 He considered Matthew to be the tax collector called to be a disciple and appointed one of the Twelve, and he considered John to be the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve. He described Mark as ‘the interpreter of Peter’ and Luke as ‘the friend of Paul’. He said Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were actively involved in Rome (i.e. in the sixties of the first century).

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340AD) quotes Papias (c. 60-130) who was bishop of Hierapolis as saying that Matthew compiled (synetaxato, put in order) the logia (sayings or oracles) of the Lord in the Hebrew language (dialect) and each one translated (interpreted) them as well as he could.12 Speaking of the origins of the gospel of Mark, Eusebius quotes Papias’ source as John the Presbyter. Could he be the original source of the Matthew tradition also? Maybe. But it remains only speculation. By logia did he mean a catena of single sayings or an organised body of teaching, and did it have a narrative framework? Speaking of the gospel of Mark, Eusebius uses the expression kyriaka logia in relation to what he has called ‘those things which were spoken and done by the Lord’. This use of logia for the res gestae of the Lord would seem to point to the possibility of a broader use of the term logia. This would concur with the traditional view that Matthew wrote a gospel, some kind of structured narrative’in the Hebrew language/ dialect’ which has not survived. This Papias tradition also lies behind the statement of Augustine that ‘Mark walks in Matthew’s footsteps and abridges him’ (13).

Eusebius also quotes Origen’s commentary on Matthew in which he states that the gospel of Matthew was the first to be composed, that it was composed in the Hebrew language and that it was composed for believers from Judaism (14). What is meant by ‘the Hebrew language (or dialect)’? Does it mean Hebrew, at the time a scholarly language no longer spoken or understood by the ordinary Jewish people, or does it mean ‘the spoken language of the Hebrews’ which in fact was Aramaic? Scholars generally believe that Aramaic is the language in question.

However, they remain somewhat unsure of, and have many questions about the accuracy of the Papias-Eusebius tradition. Keeping in mind the paucity of any really incontestable information, one must still ask how the association of the Greek gospel with Matthew arose. Even if he is not the one who actually wrote the canonical gospel in the Greek language, he may have had a relationship with the community in which and for which the gospel was written. Did the community owe its initial conversion to him? Was he the apostolic patron of the community? Did the community see itself as the guardian of his apostolic witness as it handed on his gospel and, through its evangelist, commit it to writing? Any of these relationships, however tenuous, could be sufficient to associate the gospel with Matthew the Apostle and for the memory of such an association to survive in the tradition. One can only speculate on these questions due to lack of specific information.

It is of some significance that traditionally Matthew’s gospel is placed first in the canonical order in almost all New Testament texts. From early on it required a premier status among the gospels. This may well be because of its rich catechetical potential, its perceived focus on church order and discipline and its influence in the liturgy where, for example, Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer became the standard.15 It may also reflect a residual awareness of a connection with an apostolic figure.

If one accepts the fact that there was an Aramaic Matthew one is left with serious questions about its relationship to Greek Matthew, which, from its Greek style and usage does not appear to be a close translation of an Aramaic (or Hebrew) document. Furthermore, modern scholarship has long been of the opinion that as the canonical gospels now stand, canonical Greek Matthew is later than canonical Greek Mark. This opens up two very big questions. How does canonical Greek Matthew relate to the collection of sayings or primitive gospel (Aramaic Matthew?) referred to by Papias-Eusebius and how does it relate to canonical Greek Mark ? An examination of these questions is beyond the scope of this present work.

Scholars generally regard Matthew’s gospel as having been written in the eighties of  the first century. There are possible but unacknowledged allusions or quotations from the gospel in 1 Peter 2:12 and 3:14 and in other documents such as the Didache and the Letters of Ignatius in the early second century. The destruction of the temple is sufficiently in the past to allow the development of rabbinic, apocalyptic and Jewish Christian responses to reach a point of mutual tension. However, the separation does not yet appear to have been as clear-cut as the separation or expulsion from the synagogue evident in the gospel of John (cf. Jn 9:22). The intensity of Mt 23 has all the marks of a divided community still close enough to generate very heated and bitter ‘in-house’ rivalry and hostility. Scholars for these reasons tend to regard the gospel as having been written in the early eighties of the first century.

The implied audience (original intended readership) is obvious from a reading of the gospel. The overarching concerns of the gospel show that the author had in view an audience very largely, though not exclusively, made up of Jewish Christians. It is written with a large urban church in mind. It was obviously intended for a community living close to a large Jewish community with which it was in contention. The obvious concern about Gentiles points to a setting where there was also a considerable gentile population. Concerning the language, it can be said that the Greek of Matthew is good Koine Greek, generally regarded as better than the Greek of Mark or Q.

Matthew is usually regarded as having been written in Syria, probably in Antioch, the capital of the Roman province of Syria, which was a large multi-ethnic, multicultural city, the third city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. Josephus witnesses to the presence of a large Jewish community in the city and throughout Syria.16 The Acts of the Apostles and the Letter to the Galatians describe a significant Christian presence in Antioch. The Hellenist Jewish Christians fled there during the persecution, which followed the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 11:18-19). Barnabas recruited Paul to work with him there among the growing number of Christians (Acts 11:25-26). Pointing to the development of an organised church is the fact that the names of the prophets and teachers in Antioch are given and the church there was sufficiently established and self-confident to send Barnabas and Saul (Paul) on a missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). From there the deputation went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter of circumcision and observance of Jewish laws and customs on the part of the Christians of pagan background (Acts 15:2). It was there the followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). It was there also that the dispute between Peter and Paul, referred to in Galatians, took place (Gal 2:11-14). Antioch would therefore fit the circumstances of the implied readers of Matthew very well, with its established urban-based church with a large Jewish membership and an increasing number of Gentile members. Less likely, but other possible centres in Syria would have been Edessa, or Damascus where there was a Christian community, whither Paul was going with intentions of arresting the members, and to whom he preached after his ‘conversion’ (Acts 9:1-25).

Palestine has also been suggested as a possible place of writing. There were large urban areas with mixed populations and considerable Hellenist influence, particularly in places like Caesarea Maritima and the ten Greek cities referred to as the Decapolis (17) and even Galilee itself was referred to as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ because of its mixed population. However, Antioch in Syria remains the most likely place of origin in the opinion of scholars.

There are three main sources or clearly identifiable bodies of material in the gospel, each of which was probably an amalgam of earlier material.

A majority of scholars today maintain that Greek Mark is the earliest of the canonical gospels and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. This opinion is based largely on the fact that the underlying narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke are strikingly similar and wherever all three are not in agreement in the order of events either Matthew or Luke usually agrees with the order in Mark. Therefore in the opinion of very many scholars, Mark is the underlying narrative from which the order in Matthew or Luke deviates at times. Of Mark’s 661 verses 606 corresponding verses (approximately 92%) appear among Matthew’s 1068 verses.18
Matthew put his own stamp on this material. In using sources it was commonplace for authors to employ a number of techniques such as abbreviation, correction, distillation, distribution, elaboration, and synthesis. Matthew’s order of events in chapters 4-11 differs significantly from the order of corresponding events in Mk 1-6, though Luke follows the order in Mark. From chapter 12 on, the order in Matthew follows that in Mark. This appears to be because of Matthew’s distribution of the miracle stories in Mt 8-9 in three triads with short commentaries, and his use of the material relating to the appointment of the Twelve in relation to his Mission Discourse in Mt 10.19

At times Matthew has an expanded version of the Mk/Mt tradition with short dialogues added in the healing stories and at times, especially in the miracle stories, a shorter version, eliminating secondary characters, circumstantial details, and descriptions of Jesus’ emotions. Matthew also has a much more positive approach to the disciples and, where severe criticism of them appears in Mark, Matthew has either no criticism or a rather mild rebuke. Overall, scholars regard his Greek as an improvement on that of Mark.

It is possible in the light of their similarity and differences that both Mark and Matthew followed an established oral tradition or edited an earlier source. Whether Matthew is drawing on canonical Greek Mark or an earlier source on which Mark also relied, for convenience I will refer to the material common to Matthew and Mark as the Markan source/ material.

In addition to the main body of the narrative of Jesus’ ministry which Matthew shares with Mark and Luke, there is a body of 235 very similar or even at times identical verses in Matthew and Luke which do not appear in Mark and which scholars refer to as Q (from the German term Quelle, meaning source). This sizeable body of material, which Matthew and Luke share and edit in their own individual way, consists mostly of sayings of Jesus, but also includes some sayings of the Baptist (Mt 3:5-10; Lk 3:7-9) and the accounts of the temptations in the desert (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13). Scholars wonder if Q was simply a collection of sayings, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Proverbs or the Pirkê Aboth (the ‘sayings of the fathers’). Much has been written about the material ascribed to Q. It is difficult to ascertain the origins of the Q material and whether it represents one or many traditions. Furthermore, there has been a good deal of speculation on the community or communities in which the Q tradition(s) were transmitted, but much of it remains hypothesis. However, the designation Q is a useful way of referring to the verses common to Matthew and Luke and not present in Mark.

In addition to the Mark and Q traditions there are 350 verses, which appear only in Matthew. This material, usually referred to as M, was probably assembled from different sources and edited by Matthew. It helps to give Matthew’s gospel much of its distinctive character. It consists of the genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17), the Infancy Narrative (Mt 1:18-23), a number of parables (Mt 13:24-30, 36-50); significant sayings (e.g. Mt 3:13-17; 5:17-30; 6:1-8, 16-18; 7:6; 13:51-5), some elements in the Passion and Resurrection narratives such as the intervention of Pilate’s wife at Jesus’ trial (Mt 27:19), Pilate’s washing of his hands (Mt 27:24), the guard on the tomb (Mt 27:62-66; 28:11-15), the women’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb (Mt 28:9-10) and the final universal commissioning of the disciples on the mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16-20).

An important question about these ‘sources’ or bodies of traditional material can be raised here. How did they function and how did they relate to each other before they were incorporated into the It can be shown, I think, that the Matthean community is relatively close to the gospel? Ulrich Luz, for example, makes an interesting suggestion in his recent book, Studies in Matthew, published in 2005:

It can be shown, I think, that the Matthean community is relatively close to the environment of Q in sociological terms. It is virtually certain that the Sayings Source is strongly influenced by early Christian itinerant radicalism. Itinerant prophets of the ascended Lord founded settled communities, returned to visit them, wrote down Jesus traditions, collected them in a kind of notebook and transmitted them to the communities … The Matthean community, then, appears strongly influenced in its sociological structure and its legal practice by the bearers of the Q traditions. This does not exclude the possibility of Matthew receiving significant theological impulses from the Gospel of Mark … These impulses include the Son of God Christology, the miracles, the overall narrative design, the perspective of mission to the Gentiles and the judgment on Israel … My assumption is that Mark’s Gospel was an external influence on a community shaped by the traditions and Jewish Christian piety of the Sayings Source (20).

Even if Matthew did not use canonical Greek Mark but that they both used and edited an earlier narrative (Aramaic Matthew or some similar document?), still the above comment of Luz makes a great deal of sense. The introduction of a narrative at a particular point brings its significant theological outlook and impulses into a community and shapes, expands and deepens its understanding while providing a narrative framework for the incorporation of earlier and more disparate materials.

What then of the M tradition? Scholars of the Two Source Hypothesis (Mk and Q) traditionally regarded M as a single coherent source providing the material not found in Mk or Q. In their opinion M was written in the 50s or 60s, possibly in Jerusalem, and concerned with obedience to the Law. That opinion no longer finds general acceptance. M is now seen as an amalgam of material. For example, Stephenson H. Brooks in his 1987 study Matthew’s Community: The Evidence of his special Sayings Source, holds the position that M reflects material, not necessarily all written, from three stages in the relationship of Matthew’s community to the synagogue prior to 70AD, periods of inclusion, conflict and separation.21

Comments like those of Luz and Brooks just quoted point to the rich variety of preaching and teaching that took place in the pre-70 period. It is quite possible that Aramaic Matthew with its logic and a possible primitive narrative were not lost but simply absorbed into the developing traditions like those that are now referred to as Mark, Q or M during the early formation of the material.22

In addition to the material peculiar to Matthew, his own redaction of the traditions he shares with the other evangelists contributes significantly to the distinctive character of the gospel. The traditions about Jesus were not handed on, or finally redacted into the gospel genre, in a social, religious or political vacuum. The gospels of Matthew and John, for example, tell their story of Jesus in the aftermath of the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70AD. Both tell it to an audience / readership made up in large measure of Jewish Christian people who have suffered intensely from the war and its terrible outcome. They have suffered the human tragedy of the death and enslavement of many of their people. They have suffered the loss both of the temple with its atoning sacrifices and pilgrimage feasts and of the bonding symbolism of the mother city. They are now more than ever aware of the power and presence of the Roman conqueror. They also have suffered from the internal divisions that emerged among the Jews themselves as they strove to preserve their identity and way of life for a future without the traditional symbols of temple, city and land, which had hitherto given institutional expression to their ethnic and religious identity.

These internal divisions led to the alienation of the Christian Jews from the dominant group and to the stress, exclusion, pain and intimidation one feels when one is involved in a dispute with the power group in a society. This is particularly so when one feels that one still belongs to the group with which one is in serious conflict. Matthew’s gospel represents a reaction to this situation and provides a severe criticism and polemic against those perceived to have caused the division.

By the time of John’s gospel, a decade or so later, the lines have been clearly drawn and some of the heat has gone out of the discussion. The global expression ‘the Jews’ is used in John for the opponents, now seen as a separate group, whereas in Matthew the opponents are still a named group within Judaism, the scribes and Pharisees. K. Stendahl wrote of Matthew’s gospel:

It is clear that the most obvious polemic in this gospel is directed against ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’. In Matthew these are neither the actual opponents of Jesus, nor are they general examples of haughty behaviour, as in Luke. They are the representatives of the synagogue ‘across the street’ in Matthew’s community (23).

The heat of internal division is felt very strongly in Matthew as the Jewish Christians fought to maintain their Jewish identity against the strict reformers who would have seen them as a suspect group reneging on their identity and tradition. It is still at the level of bitter sibling rivalry in Matthew, whereas in John it represents the separation of the group from the mother community. The movement from inclusion through conflict to eventual separation from their erstwhile synagogue is seen in a comparison of Matthew and John. To understand how such division, hostility and alienation came about, one needs to look to the aftermath of the war, which brought about the destruction of the city and temple.


The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the utter despair and disbelief that descended on the Jews on seeing their Sanctuary burned to ashes, their Holy City reduced to ruins and their people killed or taken into slavery.24 For them the temple had been the dwelling place of God in their midst and its sacrifices and rituals provided the ongoing means of holiness, repentance and right relationship with God. What were the surviving Jews to do now that they were gone? What precedent had they to follow in such a calamity?

There was such a precedent and Josephus points out that it was remarkably obvious from the coincidence of date and circumstance:

Grief might well be bitter for the destruction of the most wonderful edifice ever seen or heard of, both for its size and construction and for the lavish perfection of detail and the glory of its holy places; yet we find very real comfort in the thought that Fate is inexorable, not only towards living beings but also towards buildings and sites. We may wonder too at the exactness of the cycle of Fate: she kept, as I said, to the very month and day which centuries before had seen the Sanctuary burnt by the Babylonians.25

On that former occasion in 587 BC the Jews were left to figure out how to understand their identity and re-interpret their religious experience in a completely changed environment. They pondered on the reason for the destruction as they sought the means of survival. The deuteronomistic historian(s) in the editing of the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings traced the history of infidelity to the covenant and explained the destruction of the temple and the Exile from the Promised Land that followed as the result of ‘doing what was displeasing to Yahweh’, especially in the matter of idolatry (cf 1 Kings 9:6-8).

In the wake of the collapse of the religious and civil institutions and the loss of the Promised Land in 587 BC, it was the charismatic voice of the prophets that built on the one foundation that had not been destroyed – the promise of God to be covenant partner to the people. The prophet, known conventionally as Second Isaiah, based his message of hope for restoration on the belief that ‘the word of our God endures forever’ (Isa 40:8) and the exiled visionary, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, prophesying to the people promised new life to the scattered remnant of the nation (Ezek 37:1-4). Now, centuries later, history had repeated itself and after the destruction provoked by the Zealots and carried out by the Romans the people were again asking why it had happened and how they could their religious lives without the temple and its atoning sacrifices. Again they were asking what were the foundations that had not been destroyed. To this fundamental question there were three main lines of response, the Apocalyptic, the Rabinnic and the Jewish Christian. Sadly, former co-religionists now became rivals and bitter hostilities developed as each claimed to be the authentic voice continuing the Jewish identity, tradition and way of life.




1. De Josepho, De Mosis.
2. R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, translated by John Marsh, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968.
3. C. Focant, L’Evangile selon Marc, Commentaire biblique: Nouveau Testament 2, Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2004, 30.
4. Manuscripts were extremely rare and therefore most people would not have access to the manuscript but would hear it read in the assembly. For this reason the skills of public speaking and the use of rhetorical techniques used in public address continue to be of influence after the transition to writing the story of Jesus in biographical form.
5. W. Carter, Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist, Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2004.
6. C. Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, 92-98.
7. R.A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. See also, Aune, D., ‘Greco-Roman Biography’ in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres, Society of Biblical Literature Sources for Biblical Study 21, ed. D. Aune, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
8. W. Carter, op. cit. 41.
9. W. Carter, op. cit., 41,42.
10. The earliest extant manuscripts of Matthew are papyri fragments from the late second or third centuries, and the fourth and fifth century Sinaiticus, Alexandrines and Vaticanus codices.
11. Adversus haereses, 3.1.1, quoted by Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica, 5.8.2.
12. Historia Eccleiastica, 3.39.16
13. De Consensu Evangelistarum, 1.2.4.
14. Hist. Eccles., 6.25.4
15. There were some exceptions. J. Quinlan in ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’ in The New Catholic Encyclopedia points to the order in the inscription from c. 440 in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia near the church of San Vitale in Ravenna in which Matthew follows Mark.
16. Josephus, War, 7:43.
17. The names of the ten cities were given by Pliny the Elder as Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa, and Canatha.
18. This is a much higher proportion than the 350 verses of Mark (approximately 53%) that appear among Luke’s 1149 verses.
19. See the recent study by A. M. O’Leary: Matthew’s Judaization of Mark: Examined in the Context of the Use of Sources in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, New York/ London, T&T Clark, 2006.
20. U. Luz, Studies in Matthew, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2005, 8-9.
21. S. H. Brooks, Matthew’s Community: The Evidence of His Special Sayings Material, JSNT Sup 16, Sheffield: JSOT, 1987, 12-19. See also, for example, W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison in their three volume work, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, ICC, 3 Vols, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998, 1991, 1997. These authors also hold the opinion that M is a symbol for a plurality of sources, vol 1, 121-127.
22. Similarly in the case of L’, the material peculiar to Luke.
23. K. Stendahl, The School of St Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968, xi.
24. Josephus, War, Bk VI, iv, v., 323-325.
25. Ibid.


Tags: ,