Most New Testament scholars feel that Matthew was likely authored by a "Jewish-Christian." I challenge that notion, though it is true that this author does intentionally use biblical citations and symbols throughout the work to evoke a Judean ‘feel’ to his story. No doubt about that. More than any other evangelist, the author of Matthew relies on matching even the most trivial aspects of Jesus’ life and deeds to what he thinks are prophetic proclamations from the Hebrew Bible, with the aim of painting Jesus as their “fulfillment.” But apart from these superficial Jewish affectations, he is not advocating an outlook that’s particularly Judean in any standout way. Matthew’s continual quoting scripture in this "fulfillment" motif has conditioned generations of Christians to see Matthew as an especially “Jewish-messianic” gospel. He imparts Jewish symbolism into every nook and cranny he can. And yet, though the symbols he uses may be those of the Hebrew Bible; the teaching ain't necessarily so.
There are undoubtedly times when the narrator of this gospel engages in some truly brilliant rhetoric (the Sermon on the Mount, for example, contains some real gems). However, there are other times in the narrative when he seems to use Torah cavalierly, ambiguously—even erroneously—stretching, allowing any and all plausible interpretations that will advance his typological message about Jesus, the new Moses, the son of David. At these times his understanding of contemporaneous Judaism can be shown to be deficient. We will explore some of these instances shortly.
I deduced previously that Mark’s gospel was likely written by a gentile for a gentile audience. An overwhelming consensus says that the Gospel of Mark not only preceded, but was used by, the two other synoptics in the composition of their respective gospels. I'm down with that. Question: Would Matthew, supposedly the most Jewish of evangelists, who supposedly lived in or near Judea (Antioch?), choose to base the version of the Jesus story that he is composing for his own community on the work of a gentile who wrote for other gentiles in the west (probably in or near Rome)? Knowing how resistant to religious assimilation the Jews were, I find it hard to believe that a pious Palestinian Jew would have chosen a flawed gentile text (flawed or at least inadequate—else why amend it?) to be the foundation of his own recruiting manual for this purportedly Jewish sect. In fact, it could be said that Matthew composed his own version of the story precisely as a corrective to Mark’s noble attempt. He used the earlier story as a springboard for his own composition. Mark’s Jesus is not godlike enough for Matthew, however. Mark’s Jesus is not “Jewish” enough for Matthew’s particular didactic needs. Mark needed an update, the author of Matthew concluded. The fact that Mark was used as the model makes any of the allusions to Hebraic scripture in Matthew, however copious, feel like pretense, not just due to the author's appropriation of Mark’s gentile gospel, but especially by its inherent affront to the strict monotheism that was the prime requisite to a Judean faith. In this gospel, unlike in Mark, people actually bow down before, and even worship, Jesus. Jews of that time would have immediately found the christology in the Gospel of Matthew abhorrent, I would argue.
Peter (Cephas—are they the same person?) is a favorite subject of Matthew. There are more stories about Peter in this gospel than in any other. The fact that so much lip service is given to the apostle of the circumcised in this book has led many to suggest that the author was Jewish-Christian, else why put so much emphasis on this character? We gather from Acts and from the epistles of Paul that Peter was the apostle championed by the early Judean varieties of Christianity. It makes sense of Matthew as Judean. But, then I have to ask, why is James never mentioned in this gospel except to repeat Mark’s characterization of Jesus’ family as antagonistic? Is this not a kind of double standard? Was James not the head of the Jerusalem community?
I think that the Gospel of Matthew, instead of supporting Jewish Christian provenance, is the product of a group of well-intentioned god-fearers who had taken to posing as the rightful gentile heirs of the Judean tradition after the Galilee and Jerusalem and its environs had been destroyed and their inhabitants (the few who survived) had dispersed.
I realize the magnitude of the glacier that I am boxing here (i.e. saying that Matthew’s gospel is not really all that Judean a work to my eyes) but I find it impossibly hard to reconcile Matthew’s contents to a traditional Judean authorship. If we make a distinction betweem the form and the content of the gospel, its dissimulating aspect can be more easily seen. This difficulty was in fact the spark that initially set my skepticism in motion and that led me to question the validity of the traditional view of the New Testament as being the work of "Jews."
Discerning the Judaism ...
The Gospel we know as Matthew’s is a great introduction to the Jewish exegetical method known as typology. Typology is a kind of portentous symbolism, where a ‘type’ is a person or thing in the Hebrew scriptures which foreshadows a person or thing in the New Testament. Noah’s flood, for example, has been interpreted as a ‘type’ of baptism in this sense. David is the perfect king. Elijah the perfect prophet. Moses the liberator. These are ‘types’, all relevant to the Jesus legend. Typology is in fact one of the most common hermeneutic lenses through which the gospels are composed and interpreted. Each evangelist had his own favorite typological setting of the Jesus story. Mark liked the book of Isaiah and saw Jesus is the suffering Son. He also drew from the Elijah/Elisha cycle. Matthew uses Jesus-as-Moses as his favored type. Luke also likes Elijah.
Matthew's sketch is highly idealized. An important thing to bear in mind in our analysis of the New Testament is that the typology that an author chooses as her compositional model will affect what her characters must do in order to fit that type. Historical verisimilitude is not the evangelist’s main compositional intention. Following the author's chosen types, everything that Jesus is portrayed as having said and done in the Gospel of Matthew will fit his particular typological mix of Jesus as the new Moses and as the New David— Jesus as liberator and as king. In other words, the concept we've come to know as "Messiah" (Christ).
The 'presence' of God is one of the important concepts for the author of Matthew. In the opening section he talks about “God with us” and he also closes the gospel with a similar bookend, having Jesus say, “I am with you always.” So we see that Matthew reflects a considerably higher christology than the one we previously saw operating in Mark. The author of Matthew understands Jesus to be the "incarnation" more explicitly than does Mark. For Mark, Jesus became Messiah at the moment of his baptism. In Matthew, Jesus was, as Lady Gaga would say, "born that way."
A central theme in the Gospel of Matthew is “fulfillment.” At least twelve times in this gospel the author says ‘this was done to fulfill a scripture.’ Jesus is portrayed as the divine fulfillment of god’s plan for the salvation of Israel, as a christological incarnation fulfilling two very clear types: Moses and David. These two types were (and are) indeed integral to Judean practice and way of thinking. The “prophet unto Moses” image of Jesus in Matthew allows us a glimpse into yet another Jewish method of exegesis at work in the thinking of the early Christians, that of pesher. Pesher is a kind of esoteric, charismatic exegesis. Through pesher one seeks to find not just a deeper meaning, as in midrash, but also the secret meaning of a biblical passage. This approach assumes that the bible is imbued with layers of meaning beyond the literal that are applicable to future times. Pesher can be said to be a kind of “decoding” of scripture. Deuteronomy’s “prophet unto Moses” became a favorite theme in early Christian rhetoric. Jesus is believed to be the fulfillment of this supposed prophecy of the coming of a prophet. But, notwithstanding apologists' tendency to see Jesus in between every line of scripture, I fail to see how this brief verse predicts Jesus specifically. This may be valid "pesher," I suppose, but it is just a vague arbitrary assertion to me, a stretch of fervent Christian imagination, a result of ad hoc quote mining, really, and not much more. It is based on nothing but a wish for scriptures to match a chosen type.
Matthew closely follows the same order (or chronology) in which the story is told in Mark’s gospel. Interspersed throughout are five chunks of additional material that Matthew added, but the general structure and internal timeline is basically the same as Mark's.
The gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus that goes back to David, and, by extension, to Abraham. The author posits three sets of fourteen generations between these figures. It turns out that the number 14 spells “David” in the Hebrew alpha/numerical scheme. Coinquidink? — (answer: No. Typology.)
Though Matthew loves to quote the bible, sometimes he just gets it wrong. One famous blunder from this introductory section is his citation of Isaiah, “a virgin shall conceive.” The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) had mistranslated the Hebrew word “almah” (young maiden) into the Greek “parthenos” (virgin). The early Christians latched on to this oversight and exploited it in their zeal to portray Jesus as an incarnation of the divine. The mistranslation is the least of their problems, though, for the cited passage is not even a messianic prophecy! It describes the Syro-Ephraimite invasion of Judah and the siege of Jerusalem by the combined armies of the Northern Kingdom and Syria (circa 735 B.C.E.). The child that was born to the young maiden here was a sign from God that the siege would be lifted and that Jerusalem would continue to flourish. The “prophecy” was therefore completely fulfilled about 730 years before the birth of Jesus.
It’s a double whammy— it’s both irrelevant and a mistranslation. I believe that the reason this particular citation became so pervasive in early Christianity is simply because the Christian exegetes, gentiles Greeks who saw nothing unusual about virgin births, just didn't catch on to the incongruity, as there were no Jews around to correct them (again, I think this absence is crucial for the big picture of Christian origins).
As the story start to take shape, we see that the whole birth narrative is essentially a parallel of the story of Moses in Matthew. The astrologers, the slaughter of the male infants, the Egyptian connection— the correlation is inescapable.
Moreover, Jesus’ first extended speaking role in Matthew further confirms that the Moses typology is deliberate. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus speaks on “the mountain” which recalls the giving of the Law to Moses (Ch 5). Curiously, he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law …”. Was someone accusing Jesus of doing this? A Jew? Abolishing the Torah? Jesus' point in this discourse, is, of course, that not only do we need to adhere to the law, we need to exceed the Pharisees in this! It’s not an opposition to Law, it is a gratuitous surpassing of its strictures. This elaborate and lengthy discourse on compassion is an exhortation to righteousness. The so-called ‘antitheses’ that follow, instead of opposing Torah, are a series of allusions to Torah in which Jesus stresses the need to go even deeper in one’s commitment to the Law than merely following its letter. This is to be done by not only eliminating the sins in question, but also eliminating their sources, greed, lust, rage, etc. I get it. This discourse, I would argue, does have the feel of a genuinely Judean midrashic thinking. Some deep thought was given to its composition. It’s the closest that the Gospel of Matthew comes to actual Judaic practice, insofar as it elucidates Torah instead of elucidating Jesus‘ messianic significance. Jesus’ inaugural address in this gospel is beautifully written. It is the pearl of great price. But it's fleeting. It is the exception rather than the rule. More usually, as when a midrash in this gospel involves a prediction of the coming of Jesus instead of illuminating some point of the law, it feels like Christian exultation of Jesus more than it does genuine midrash. To my eyes, that "midrash" looks like little more than an affectation.
Chapter 12 introduces for a moment yet another brief but left-field typological comparison. Matthew has Jesus portray himself as Jonah this time. He is asked for signs. He refuses to give signs. OK ... three days in the belly of a fish ... I get that.
There is one thing in Matthew that has no parallel in the other synoptics, however. This gospel highlights an extreme and pervasive animosity between the Jews and the early Christians. Matthew has Jesus say that people should listen to what the Pharisees teach, but not to behave like them, for they do not practice what they preach.
So, what do the Pharisees do that is so terrible? Well ... They tithe. They are lazy elitists. (“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees. Hypocrites!” is repeated a bunch of times). They prevent people from entering the kingdom of heaven without wanting to go in themselves. (This recalls Paul’s characterization of his Galatian opponents.) They ‘cross sea and land to make a single convert and then make that convert a child of Gehenna.’ I find that last one to be particularly problematic. Did the Jews really cross sea and land to convert people? This is new to me. Have the Jews ever been known to be missionaries? Given the dearth of textual evidence, we can only conclude that Matthew's Jews are but the butt of vindictive name-calling on the part of the author, reflecting the practice of a later, more developed institutional church, which is definitely post-"split."
At the time of composition of the Gospel of Matthew—after the destruction of the Temple—the great variegation that once was Judaism had ceased to exist. By this time it was down to just two choices, each claiming to be the ‘real’ inheritors of the Judean tradition. These two groups had different ways of filling the spiritual/emotional void left behind by the Temple’s destruction. The Christians (if continuity is granted) “spiritualized“ the temple. The remnants of what once was the Phariree party instead devoted itself to the study of Torah once the Temple was conquered, which was what had worked for their forefathers before them, the last time they had been deprived of Temple worship (i.e. during the Babylonian exile). This is, of course, an overly simplistic encapsulation of the differences between these claimants to the tradition, but it is not altogether inaccurate.
One noteworthy misunderstanding of Judaic traditions in the Gospel of Matthew comes from the trial scene before the Sanhedrin.
"And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? What is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death. Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands, saying, prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee? " — (Matthew 26: 63– 68 cf. Mark 14: 60–65)
In this episode, the high priest is seen tearing his garments as a sign of righteous indignation at the audacity of Jesus’ response. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, to start with, the rending of his garments in this way was expressly forbidden to the high priest under the Levitical Laws. Besides this explicit prohibition in the Torah, this supposed biblical allusion is out of context. In every case in the Hebrew scriptures in which this practice of rending one's garments is referenced, it is invariably a display of deep anguish and sorrow. Nowhere in the Bible is rending of one’s garments an expression of the kind of rage or indignation portrayed in Mark and in Matthew (Luke omits this detail altogether, perhaps he realized the faux pas?). One might expect a decidedly gentile evangelist like Mark to overlook that dissonant bit—we're used to Mark getting it wrong on the Hebrew Bible, so a deliberate co-opting of a misunderstood Judean symbol to add drama to his narrative (incorrectly though it may be) to add injury to insult, so to speak, it to be expected—but Matthew is supposed to be the most Jewish of gospels. Surely he knows better. Right?
Another uniquely Matthean feature is the infamous “his blood be on us and our children” nastiness. Some have tried to explain away the apparent anti-Semitism in this passage by appealing to its “Judean” context. The sting of this slur is supposedly lessened if we "realize" and accept that Matthew was a Jew writing for other Jews. The notorious phrase then becomes just an internal Judean spat according to this view. I don’t buy that at all, though. The fact that no one group was being singled out against a competing one in the passage is reflected in the exact phrasing the author has chosen:
και αποκριθεις πας ο λαος ειπε το αιμα αυτου εφ ημας και τα τεκνα ημων
Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’
Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’
One can argue that “all of the people” consisted of just Pharisees, but this would just be a case of special pleading. The passage is not one sect of Judeans blaming another. This is obviously a Christian blaming Jews categorically. It’s an unavoidable fact. Given the animosity between these two groups, it’s little wonder that the Jews rejected the early Christians at every turn like they did, despite the latter's claims that they followed the Torah even more closely than the Pharisees did. The conflict that was only hinted at in Mark is intensified to become a full throated hatred by the time Matthew was writing, repeatedly emphasizing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Chapter 23 has a whole collection of sayings of Jesus about how the Pharisees are all hypocrites.
Interstingly, Matthew commits more clumsy scriptural-citation errors than Mark does. Chapter 27:9 is one example, referencing a Jeremiah verse that doesn’t exist.
Another example is one of the biggest New Testament blunders, as I see it. I highlighted its Markan variant, in a previous post, but it merits repeating, so unconvincing a piece of exegesis do I find it to be:
“While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, ‘What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?’ They say unto him, the Son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.” — (Matthew 22:41–46)
This, as I showed before, is another double whammy. First of all, this is another example of a mistranslation gone wild. The gist of it is that the two Hebrew words translated into the same word “Lord” in Psalm 110 are two entirely different words in the original Hebrew. Therefore, this is an equivocation that could only be made by someone familiar only with the Septuagint. Jesus, reported to have been a highly devout Jew who was versed in the Hebrew language and scriptures (with great "authority"), would have known better than to equate “Yahveh” with “L’adoni” in this way, especially when all the exegesis does is reinforce that Jesus is "the one." But that’s the least of it. This episode not only betrays this mistranslation, it also portrays the Pharisees that were listening as dumbstruck by Jesus’ amazing midrashic skills. This is where the real whopper lies, in my opinion. In truth, had he said such a thing, the Pharisees whom he said it to— fanatical in their study of the scriptures, and prone to long midrashic exposition on this and all other Psalms— would have immediately corrected Jesus' semantic mistake on the spot. Anyone with a even a perfunctory understanding of Hebrew could have done so. Yet, in this gospel narrative, his mere citing of this Psalm is enough to make them all speechless and mute in astonishment. This simply never could have happened in reality, as I have already argued in the post on Mark.
Here I am reminded of an old Jesus film that I once saw, in which the scene of the woman caught in adultery is depicted in a similarly unfeasible, similarly untenable way. The mob, about to stone the woman, become suddenly submissive and awestruck and drops their stones at once at Jesus' calm "cast the first stone" statement. Jesus speaks and the whole universe falls on its knees, like he's E.F. Hutton or something. Only a naive and pious need to "believe" could convince one to think that people's all-too-human psychological tendency to correct religious error (have you looked at the forums lately?) could be suspended so easily by the rabbis that Jesus addresses. Jesus could certainly have won an argument with his detractors, for all we know, but an argument must have ensued. That’s the point. This simplistic depiction of instant pharisaic submission is completely unrealistic. It's a cartoon. Not only did it never happen as described, it paints the Jews in a polemic light as ineffectual dullards.
What about James? . . . . . . . . . .
As in Mark, so in Matthew.
In this gospel, James is only mentioned once in relation to Jesus’ family’s thinking him mad. That's it. If Cephas’ ubiquity in this gospel is evidence of a Jerusalem-church origin of these traditions, as some have argued, then what does the almost complete silence regarding James evidence of, considering his importance in the pauline epistles? I mean, James was (according to Acts too, and to Thomas), the leader at Jerusalem. Why is he mentioned only once in Matthew, merely in passing in this "most Jewish of gospels"? Seeing Cephas’ importance in this work as evidence somehow for a continuity between James and Paul could only be specious.
In closing, in reflection of all this, my own view of Mathew, I think, is that it is the record of someone who adopted a gentile (!) story about a Jewish hero as the undergirding basis of his own reconstruction of the same story, for the purpose of making it seem more Jewish than Mark had left it. The additions he added vary from the beautifully sublime (the beatitudes) to the clueless (he apparently never met a prophecy he didn't like). But "sounding Jewish" and "being Jewish" are not the same thing. As I've tried to show while surveying Paul's letters, it's one thing to point to the use of Jewish symbols and biblical citations in a work in question to appraise its Jewish pedigree, but the didactic function of the gospel as a whole betrays the superficial quality of this copious referencing of those symbols. In this regard this gospel reminds me of the contemporary evangelical movement we know as the "Jews for Jesus." Like Matthew, they have coopted the symbolism of the Judaic scripture and tradition to promote their own brand of evangelical Christianity. They incorporate these symbols into their services as well as their rhetoric, going as far as even celebrating Passover Seders(!!) in which the homiletical portion of the ceremony is devoted to the re-interpretation of the various elements in the ritual through a definite Christian lens. By now, everyone knows that the Jews for Jesus started out and remain a Christian evangelical enterprise. The unwary might not see the ruse at play—caveat emptor and all that jazz, but that's on them. At any rate, it was after having a discussion with one of these Jews for Jesus that I started to think about the possibility that Matthew's affectations might be an analogous misappropriation of Judaism. It's not just possible to misappropriate Judaism, here was an example right before my very eyes. And there are others who claim to be the true expression of the Abrahamic faith: Islam, Black Zionism, Mormonism, Rastafarianism, but I think the Jews for Jesus surpass them in their overt cooption of the symbolism involved. But, once again, it is one thing to include Jewish symbols in a narrative, and quite another to use such Jewish allusions to argue that Judaism has been superseded by the appearance of a godman. No amount of scriptural citation was going to convince a Jew to follow a godman. The evidence that Jews generally rejected Christian theological innovations at every turn is strong. Matthew may be more rich in Hebrew symbolism than its predecessor, but the godman doctrine it pitches gives it away as the gentile construct that it ultimately, undeniably, is. How can it not be, with Mark as its undergirding wireframe skeleton? Think about it.
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1 - They would have rather died than let Caligula’s standards stand in the Temple, for example.
2 - Matt 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 28:9, 28:17
3 - see Dale Allison's The New Moses.for a thorough exploration of the Moses typology in Matthew.
4 - This seems to me a kind of reverse-pesher at work as well. This kind of mystical numerology is very prevalent in later esoteric, mystical Kabbalah traditions.
5 - Matt 1:23 —cf. Isaiah 7:14
6 - Divine conception was a common attribute of innumerable hero legends. Every divine savior worth his salt had a virgin birth.
7 - See Leviticus 10: 6 and Leviticus 21:10
8 - 1 Samuel 15:22–23, and 1 Kings 11:29–35 are a couple of examples. It is sometimes accompanied by sackcloth and ashes, which are also expressions or symbols of mourning.
9 - The closest parallel to this citation is Zechariah 11:12–13, but even this is not quite a match.