The study of some books, like Revelation, involves the review of a lot of controversy due to the presuppositions of various eschatological options. As we approach the study of Matthew, however, we may think that there may not be controversy since we should be able to interpret this book based on its more straightforward language. But interpreting plainly is often confused with interpreting simply. And to assume that Matthew requires no more than a superficial read to understand it is a presupposition that could do harm to our study.
The Bible is a book written by God intended for all generations throughout this interadvental age. But this does not mean that any generation may bring its current worldview, culture, and sociological understanding and apply that to the Bible. The Bible is relative, but application comes from Bible to generation, not the other way around.
We also have to have some kind of literary awareness as well. The lack of literary awareness has caused many to try to fit any part of the Bible in the same interpretive box. But different genres have to be understood differently. Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Hebrew imagery in that writing, for example, has to be related to quality rather than form. The beauty of the Psalms is that the poetry helps convey the emotion of the message more quickly and fully to our hearts. The Song of Solomon is almost impossible to understand fully unless coming to it with the realization that it is written as a drama—a play. It’s sudden starts and stops with speeches, ideas, and scenes makes much more sense after realizing that construct.
But what of Matthew? It is not apocalyptic. It is not poetry. But care must be taken not to assume it is merely a chronicled account of events of Christ’s life along a timeline of his ministry. Matthew and the other Gospels present the history of Christ’s earthly ministry each arranged for particular thematic and purposeful messages. Confusing that with the idea that the Gospels are simply a march along a timeline relating one event and then the next would result in shaking our belief in inerrancy since the Gospel writers often rearrange and disregard timing in determining their message construct. Calvin commented on this in his Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Referring to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 he notes the following:
“Those who think that Christ’s sermon, which is here related, is different from the sermon contained in the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, rest their opinion on a very light and frivolous argument. Matthew states, that Christ spoke to his disciples on a mountain, while Luke seems to say, that the discourse was delivered on a plain….For the design of both Evangelists was, to collect into one place the leading points of the doctrine of Christ, which related to a devout and holy life. Although Luke had previously mentioned a plain, he does not observe the immediate succession of events in the history, but passes from miracles to doctrine, without pointing out either time or place: just as Matthew takes no notice of the time, but only mentions the place. It is probable, that this discourse was not delivered until Christ had chosen the twelve: but in attending to the order of time, which I saw that the Spirit of God had disregarded, I did not wish to be too precise.”
Tertullian also notes, “Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith so far as relates to the one only God the Creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfill the law and the prophets. Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of their narratives, provided that there be agreement in the essential matter of the faith.”
One event recorded in all four Gospels may help illustrate this point. The “Cleansing of the Temple” is an act by Christ which Matthew, Mark, and Luke place early in the passion week, following the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This, of course, is at the end of Christ’s public ministry. As we begin the Gospel of John, however, the second chapter notes Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana and then immediately moves to Christ’s overturning the tables in the temple. It is not that John got the chronology of events wrong, and it is not, as some have suggested, that there are two instances of Christ’s temple disruption. John simply brought together Christ’s last public act with his first public act to show the similarities of message purpose in how Christ was putting away the old covenant and instituting a New Covenant.
Understanding purpose, therefore, and not simply timeline is our concern as we study Matthew. We will take as a presupposition the idea of inerrancy, which Norman Geisler defines in the following manner: “When all facts are known, the Scriptures, in their original autographs and properly interpreted, will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences” (Inerrancy, p.294).
Who wrote the Gospel According to Matthew? Most conservative scholars will answer that Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel that bears his name. However, the Gospel did not bear his name when originally written. In fact, the earliest referenced source of the Gospels with their associated names is in AD 125. And the Greek rendering of “according to” in the titles has the connotation of “following the teaching of,” which certainly does not solidify that namesakes were the actual authors.
However, a little investigation of some of the things we do know can lead to a logical construction of events that seems to indicate Matthew was the author. The church father Irenaeus who lived in the 2nd century had this to say:
“For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
Eusebius, quoting Origen (around 182-188AD) told us this:
”Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language”
Eusebius goes on to give several other related statements:
“Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity. For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.”
“[T]here were still many evangelists of the Word who sought earnestly to use their inspired zeal, after the examples of the apostles, for the increase and building up of the Divine Word. Pantaenus was one of these, and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time.”
Finally, Eusebius quotes Papias who lived from before the destruction of Jerusalem to the 2nd century (60-135AD):
“Matthew compiled the Sayings in the Aramaic language and everyone translated them as well as he could.”
From this evidence it appears that Matthew originally produced certain writings of Christ’s in a Semitic language (either Hebrew or Aramaic), although we have no manuscript evidence of it. Most probably, Matthew, an educated man (taxgatherer liaison for Rome), kept a journal in his travels during the three and a half years of Christ’s earthly ministry. That compilation of notes is the document probably referred to in the quotes above. Considering the fairly widespread knowledge of them, the notes probably became one of the source documents that Mark relied on (other than Peter’s testimony) when writing his Gospel. Luke, no doubt, also made use of them. And it would seem that Matthew, in determining to write a fuller, complete story of Christ’s mission used his notes as well as the other Gospels to come up with the original Gospel According to Matthew written in Greek.
There are many passages in Matthew that make more sense when read with an understanding of Aramaic expression. The Matthew 19:24 analogy Christ uses to show the obstacles of the rich in submitting to God involves a camel going through the eye of a needle. The Greek kamelos (camel) is similar to kamilos (the word for a camel-haired rope). But in Aramaic it becomes even more problematic since the word for camel and the word for camel-haired rope is exactly the same—gamla.
Another example is in Matthew 24:51. Here the expression “cut in pieces” is probably not literally meant, although the Greek would so imply. But a secondary (idiomatic) meaning of the Aramaic palleg means “appoint to him his portion,” which fits the context much better.
Matthew begins with a genealogy. Abraham is first mentioned and then the line travels down to David through the deportation to Babylon and then on to Christ. Matthew makes a point of stating that this genealogy is in three groups of 14 generations each. However, the last grouping appears to have only 13 mentioned. It appears that Matthew includes Mary as one of the 14 since Christ comes directly from her, but not from Joseph. So although the genealogy travels down to Joseph to show Christ’s legal right to the throne, his physical descent is connected with Mary.
Matthew skips over several generations (Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, and Jehoiakim are all fairly well known names that he leaves out). But it appears that his main point in this genealogy is to connect to David and Abraham, those to whom covenant promises were made for Messiah and King. But Matthew does mention Jeconiah of whom the Lord said in Jeremiah 22:30, “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah.” It is interesting that Matthew takes pains to provide a genealogy for Christ that proves his right to rule on David’s throne, but includes one whose prophecy eliminates his offspring from the throne. Of course, we see the satisfaction in Jesus, who is of legal lineage from David, but not physical lineage from Jeconiah.
The four women mentioned in the genealogy are all foreigners. Rahab and Tamar are Canaanites. Ruth is from the Moabites. And Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite. Yet, Matthew intentionally includes in this strictly Jewish genealogy other nationalities seemingly hinting at the change of covenant that would be effected under the Messiah. Additionally, many of those mentioned of the men as well as the women were known for their sin. This genealogy, then, provides a good starting off point to discuss Jesus who would fulfill the OT prophecies, become the only Covenant-Keeper, end the old covenant, and institute the new as the Messiah. This is Christ’s mission, and this is Matthew’s purpose in writing.