Authorship. In contrast to, say, Paul’s letters, attributions of authorship in the Gospels are generally based on church tradition rather than evidence in the biblical text itself. Although this tradition is usually trustworthy, in the case of Matthew it may be less reliable (since the same tradition also claims that the original Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew, which is not true of our First Gospel). The authorship of the First Gospel is thus debated, but we will speak of “Matthew” for convenience’s sake and lack of a better designation.
Date. The date of Matthew is debated. Some conservative scholars, like Robert Gundry, date Matthew before a.d. 70 and attribute its authorship to Matthew; other equally conservative scholars date Matthew around 80 and are less certain about authorship. Because Matthew addresses the emerging power of the Pharisaic 1 rabbis 2 considerably more than Mark (but still recognizes the power of the Sadducees 3 and the priesthood), and these rabbis began to achieve some political power in Syria-Palestine mainly after 70, it is reasonable to surmise that Matthew was written in the seventies, although this date is not certain.
Where Matthew Was Written. The most likely locale is in the area of Syria-Palestine, because that is where the rabbis exercised their greatest influence in the seventies and eighties of the first century. But again certainty is not possible.
Setting, Purpose. Matthew addresses the needs of his Jewish-Christian readers, who are apparently in conflict with a Pharisaic religious establishment (cf. 3:7 with Lk 3:7; Mt 5:20; 23:2–39). Members of the early rabbinic movement, mainly successors of the earlier Pharisees, never achieved the power they claimed, but they began to consolidate as much juridical and theological influence as possible, especially in Syria-Palestine, in the years following a.d. 70.
Matthew presents the traumatic destruction of the temple, which had probably occurred recently (see the previous discussion on date), as judgment on the previous Jewish establishment (though it was mainly Sadducean) in chapters 23–24. He wants to encourage his community to evangelize Gentiles 4 as well as their own people (cf. 1:5; 2:1–12; 3:9; 8:5–13; 15:21–28; 24:14; 28:19). Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings (especially chaps. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25) is to be used to make other disciples 5 for Jesus, just as other Jewish disciples passed on their rabbis’ teachings to their own disciples (28:19).
Genre and Sources. Most scholars think that when Matthew wrote his Gospel, Mark was already in circulation. (Not all scholars accept this position, but it is widely viewed as the consensus.) In line with the standard literary practice of the day, Matthew followed one main source, which he regarded as highly reliable—Mark—and then wove in material from other dependable sources around it. Due to space limitations in this commentary, much of the material found in both Matthew and Mark receives more detailed treatment only under Mark.
Biographies were written differently in Matthew’s day than they are today. Biographers could write either in chronological order (e.g., Luke follows the order of his sources as carefully as possible) or, more frequently, in topical order. Matthew arranges the sayings of Jesus according to topic, not chronology: the ethics of the kingdom 6 in chapters 5–7, the mission of the kingdom in chapter 10, the presence of the kingdom in chapter 13, church discipline and forgiveness in chapter 18 and the future of the kingdom in chapters 23–25. Some commentators have argued that Matthew grouped Jesus’ sayings into five sections to parallel the five books of Moses (other works were divided into five to correspond with the books of Moses, e.g., Psalms, Proverbs, the rabbinic tractate Pirke Abot, 2 Maccabees and perhaps 1 7 Enoch).
Matthew’s Message. This Gospel or one of its sources may have been used as a training manual for new Christians (Mt 28:19); rabbis taught oral traditions, but Jewish Christians needed a body of Jesus’ teachings in writing for Gentile converts. Matthew repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus fulfills the Jewish Scriptures, and argues from those Scriptures the way a trained scribe would. He portrays Jesus as the epitome of Israel’s hopes for his Jewish audience, but also emphasizes missions to the Gentiles: outreach to the Gentiles is rooted both in the Old 8 Testament and in Jesus’ teaching. Matthew is quick to counterattack the religious leaders of his day who have attacked the followers of Jesus; but he also warns of the growing dangers of apostate religious leadership within the Christian community.
Commentaries. W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, ICC 9, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,1988-), provides some Jewish background. John Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1981), is good on literary issues, although he would not agree with my emphasis on the specifically Jewish context of Matthew. Those most familiar with Matthew’s milieu, however, will recognize that my commentary is less dependent on other commentaries and more indebted to primary sources and to older scholars such as Joachim Jeremias, T. W. Manson, Gustaf Dalman and, more cautiously, Josef Blinzler and J. D. M. Derrett; and to more recent scholars such as E. P. Sanders, Geza Vermes and Martin Goodman. One helpful specialized study is Marshall D. Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, SNTSMS 10 8, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), whose treatment includes Matthew 1:2–16; see also C. S. Keener, … And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992), which addresses Matthew 5:17–48 and 19:1–12; and Carl H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), on John the Baptist.
1Pharisaic *Pharisees. A movement of several thousand pious Jewish men who sought to interpret the law carefully and according to the traditions of previous generations of the pious. They had no political power in Jesus’ day but were highly respected and thus influential among the larger population. They emphasized their own version of purity rules and looked forward to the resurrection of the dead.
2rabbis *Rabbi. Jewish teacher. Sometime after a.d. 70 the term became a technical one for those ordained in the rabbinic movement, which probably consisted primarily of Pharisaic scribes. (To accommodate customary usage this commentary sometimes applies the term to Jewish teachers of the law in general, although such common usage may have technically been later; it also applies the term to the teachings of Jewish legal experts collected in rabbinic literature.)
3Sadducees *Sadducees. Most belonged to the priestly aristocracy that had prospered due to its good relationship with the Romans; they pacified the people for the Romans and the Romans for the people. They controlled the prosperous temple cult, were skeptical of Pharisaic traditions and supernaturalistic emphasis on angels and other spirits, and most of all were disturbed by talk of the resurrection of the dead and other end-time beliefs. Messianic beliefs about the end time could—and ultimately did—challenge the stability of their own position in Palestine.
6kingdom *Kingdom. This term means “rule,” “reign” or “authority” (not a king’s people or land, as connotations of the English term could imply). Jewish people recognized that God rules the universe now, but they prayed for the day when he would rule the world unchallenged by idolatry and disobedience. The coming of this future aspect of God’s reign was generally associated with the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. Because Jesus came and will come again, Christians believe that the kingdom has been inaugurated but awaits consummation or completion. “Kingdom of heaven” is another way (Matthew’s usual way) of saying “kingdom of God.” “Heaven” was a standard Jewish way of saying “God” (as in Lk 15:21).
71 Enoch 1 Enoch. An apocalypse whose five sections may drive from different authors, 1 Enoch is mainly (excepting the Similitudes) from the second century b.c. Probably written in Aramaic, it circulated especially in Essene circles and survives in part in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in full in later Ethiopic manuscripts.
8Old Testament *Old Testament. The common modern term for the Hebrew Bible (including Aramaic portions) as defined by the Jewish and Protestant Christian canons; Jewish readers generally call this the Tenach.