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MATTHEW - Introduction

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Matthew - Introduction

Supplemental Commentary:



Throughout the Christian ages the Gospel according to St. Matthew has probably been the best known and the best loved of all the four Gospels.  When the same words of our Lord are found in this and another Gospel, they are undoubtedly quoted more often, both by preachers and by the faithful, in the form in which they occur in this Gospel.  Almost half of our "Sunday Gospels" are selected from this Gospel.

While this popularity may be explained in part by the leading position of the First Gospel at the beginning of the New Testament, still it must be rather the very nature and character of this Gospel that have endeared it in a special way to all Christians.  The spirit of St. Matthew's Gospel is so typically Palestinian and the Semitic character of its original language is still so clearly seen beneath the veil of its Greek or Latin or even English translation, that the reader naturally feels quite close to the very days when our Savior went about the hills and fields of Galilee doing good.

The Author.  Such a Gospel must have been written by one who lived in the same country and during the same time as Christ Himself.  Catholic tradition has always been unanimous in ascribing its authorship to the Apostle St. Matthew.  Our First Gospel was known, and indeed used as inspired Scripture, by the Fathers of the post-apostolic Church at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second---Clement of Rome, Pseudo-Barnabas, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp and Justin.  We also have the testimony of the second-century Fathers, Papias, Irenaeus and Pantaenus, as well as that of Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian of the third century, explicitly ascribing our First Gospel to St. Matthew the Apostle.

Among these St. Papias is the earliest and therefore the most important. Eusebius of Caesarea, the Church historian of the fourth century, to whom we are indebted for almost all that we know of Papias, has preserved for us a few quotations from this early ecclesiastical writer.  From these passages we know that Papias was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and that, about the year 120, he wrote a commentary on "The logia of the Lord."  Concerning this latter work Papias said, "Matthew composed the logia of the Lord in the Hebrew language and each one translated it (into Greek) as well as he was able."

From this statement some critics have concluded that Matthew was indeed the author of a work called "The Sayings of the Lord," but that this contained nothing or very little of the life and miracles, etc., of Christ.  According to them Matthew's work on the Sayings of the Lord was later on, by some unknown writer, combined with the life of Christ as recorded in St. Mark's Gospel, to form our First Gospel.

This theory has been condemned by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  And rightly so.  For there is not the slightest evidence that the early Church knew of the existence of such a work consisting chiefly, if not solely, of the words or discourses of Christ.  All the early Fathers who were acquainted with this statement of Papias understood it as referring to our canonical Gospel according to St. Matthew.  Moreover, the word logia, as used elsewhere in Greek literature, does not mean merely "sayings" but also "oracles, sacred records," whether of someone's words or deeds.  Thus, Papias himself, in describing the origin of the Second Gospel, uses the expression, "the logia of the Lord" as synonymous with "what was said and done by the Lord."  (For his full statement see the Introduction to the Gospel according to St. Mark.)  Finally, even if one insist that logia means "sayings, discourses," the term would not be inaptly used for our First Gospel, since, as a matter of fact, it is largely made up of the sayings and discourses of Christ.  (For numerous examples of the use of the word logia as the technical term for "Scripture, Gospel," in the early Church see Biblica, VII [1926] pp. 301-310.)

St. Matthew.  Of St. Matthew's own life we know very little.  His father's name was Alpheus (Mark 2, 14), certainly not to be identified with Alpheus, the father of St. James the Less (Matt. 10, 3 and parallels).  He was probably a native or at least a resident of Capharnaum, for he held the position of publican or tax-gatherer in that town.  Called from the tollbooth to the apostolate by our Lord's simple command, "Follow me," Matthew celebrated his call with a feast at which many "sinners and publicans," his former friends, were present.  Christ's presence at this banquet gave occasion to the accusation of the Pharisees that he ate and drank with sinners and publicans.  As a tax-collector, a minor public official whose office called for some knowledge of writing, he may have had more literary culture than any other of the Twelve.  He was thus well fitted for the task of drawing up the first written account of the Master's life and teachings.

A comparison of Matthew's own account of his call (9, 9-13) with the parallel accounts in Mark 2, 14-17 and Luke 5, 27-32 shows that he also bore the name of Levi.  It was quite usual for the Jews of this time to have two or more names.  Possibly Mark and Luke wished to conceal the identity of the chosen publican by calling him here by his less known name.  In all the lists of the Apostles, except his own, he is simply "Matthew."  In his own list he is "Matthew the publican" (10, 3).  In all three lists of the Synoptic Gospels his name is coupled with that of Thomas; in Acts 1, 13 with that of Bartholomew.  His name in its original form of Matthai probably means "gift of the Lord."  Some, however, explain it as equivalent to the Hebrew name Amathi, "faithful."

That is all that we know of him from the New Testament.  Later traditions concerning his apostolic labors and his death are uncertain and in part contradictory.

Original Language.  Matthew wrote his Gospel in "Hebrew," according to the constant tradition of the Church.  The testimony of Papias to this fact is given above.  St. Irenaeus states, "Matthew published the writing of his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language."  All the later Fathers agree on this. It is possible, but not very probable, that this "Hebrew" was the Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Rabbinical neo-Hebrew of the Talmud.  It is much more likely that the original language of St. Matthew's Gospel was Palestinian Aramaic, the ordinary language of the Hebrews of that time and therefore not inaptly called "Hebrew."  Thus, according to Acts 21, 40, St. Paul addressed the people of Jerusalem "in Hebrew": but he certainly used Aramaic on this occasion or they would not have understood him, as they did (Acts 22, 22).  Moreover, the few words left untranslated in the Greek text, as raka (5, 22), mamona (6, 24), and korbona (27, 6), are all Aramaic.

The text of this Gospel in its original language is completely lost. Apparently it disappeared at a very early date.  Perhaps it was still in existence at the time of Papias.  (Cf. his words cited above.) The so-called "Gospel according to the Hebrews" or "the Nazarenes," which a few of the Fathers, as St. Jerome, believed to be the original Aramaic Matthew, was perhaps a badly corrupted form of it.  In any case, the few fragments of this strange Gospel that have been preserved in translation, show a text that is quite different from our Greek Matthew.

Greek Translation.  Concerning the Greek translator, even St. Jerome confessed his ignorance: "Who later on translated the First Gospel into Greek is not quite certain."  We must admit our ignorance on this point. But it is certain that this translation was made before the end of the first century, for several quotations from our Greek Matthew are found in the writings of this period---the Didache, Pseudo-Barnabas, Clement of Rome.  Judged by the standard of the classics, the Greek of the First Gospel is quite good, better in fact than the original of Mark or John.  But that does not prove that our Greek Matthew is not a translation.  For the translator need not have followed the original too slavishly, even though we hold, according to the decision of the Biblical Commission, that his translation is "identical in substance" with the original Gospel of St. Matthew.  Moreover, even in the Greek the sentence structure and rhythm are typically Semitic.  The great similarity between the Greek of the First Gospel and the Greek of the other Synoptic Gospels may be explained by supposing that in his work the translator followed a Greek oral catechesis parallel to the Aramaic oral catechesis used by Matthew and similar to those followed by Mark and Luke, or that he used the Gospels of Mark and Luke as his guide, or that this translation is older than these two Gospels and was used by these Evangelists.  (See article on The Literary Relations of the First Three Gospels.)

Time of Composition.  The tradition of the Church from the time of the earliest Fathers is that our four canonical Gospels were written chronologically in the order in which they appear in the Bible.  Now it can be demonstrated that St. Luke wrote his Gospel not later than the year 63.  (See the Introduction to the Gospel according to St. Luke.)  St. Matthew therefore must have written his Gospel some years before that date.  The intrinsic evidence shows that it was certainly written before the capture and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D.  On the other hand we cannot date it too soon after the Resurrection, for the author presupposes that the Church is fairly well established, and such expressions as "even to this day" (27, 8), "even to the present day" (28, 15), point to a considerable time after the Crucifixion.  Some scholars have proposed the year 42 for the Aramaic Gospel and 62 for its Greek translation.  The statement of Irenaeus, that "Matthew published the writing of his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul preached the Gospel and founded the Church in Rome," was probably meant to contrast the difference in method and locality between these Apostles rather than give the time when the First Gospel was written.  At any rate, "this testimony of St. Irenaeus, the interpretation of which is uncertain and controverted, must not be considered of such authority as to necessitate the rejection of the opinion of those who consider it more in conformity with tradition that the First Gospel was completed even before the arrival of St. Paul at Rome" (Biblical Commission.)

Destination.  The teaching of the early Fathers, that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Palestine for the people of that country, is amply confirmed by the intrinsic evidence of the book itself.  Matthew generally supposes that the morals and customs of the Palestinians as well as the topography of the Holy Land are well known to his readers, as will be evident to any one who compares the First Gospel with the other two Synoptic Gospels.  Thus, while Mark describes at length the frequent ablutions of the Jews (7, 3 f) and explains the meaning of any Aramaic word or typically Jewish expression that he may use, as "Corban" (7, 11) and "the Preparation Day" (15, 42), in all the parallel passages of the First Gospel (15, 1 ff; 27, 6.62), such explanations are omitted as unnecessary.  In like manner Luke inserts geographical notes on Nazareth (1, 26), Bethlehem (2, 4), the country of the Gerasenes (8, 26), Arimathea (23, 51) and Emmaus (24, 13).  Matthew, in similar passages, considers such notes as superfluous.  He alone uses the expression, "the holy city," as synonymous with Jerusalem (4, 5; 27, 53).  Unless the customs and history of Palestine at that period were known to the readers, many things would not have been understood which occur in the Sermon on the Mount (5, 22-26.34 f; 6, 2.5.16), in the parables (22, 11 ff; 25, 1 ff) and in the narratives, as "the flute players" at a funeral (cp. Matt. 9, 23 with Mark 5, 38 and Luke 8, 52), the magnificence of the temple structure (cp. Matt. 24, 1 with Mark 13, 1 and Luke 21, 5), etc.  Finally, the special emphasis in this Gospel placed upon the relation of the New Law with the Old, as in the Sermon on the Mount (5, 17-48) and the frequent citations from the Old Testament (more than seventy in this Gospel against scarcely fifty in all the other three Gospels together) show clearly that the readers whom the Evangelist had in mind were either Jews or Christians of Jewish extraction, whether in or outside of Palestine.  Although St. Matthew undoubtedly hoped that his work would be read by the unconverted Jews, still he must have intended it directly for the Christians converted from Judaism.

Purpose of the Gospel.  This special group of readers also determined the scope that the Evangelist had in mind in writing his Gospel. He intended to provide for the religious needs of the Christians in Palestine.  The first and most important of these was the defense of the Faith against the attacks and falsehoods of the unbelieving Jews.  St. Matthew's Gospel is therefore the first apologia of Christianity. The Evangelist fully achieves his purpose by proving that:

1.  Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messias foretold in the Old Testament.  The First Gospel mentions explicitly the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning His birth and infancy (1, 22 f; 2, 5 f.15.17 f.23), His precursor (3, 3; 11, 10), His Galilean ministry (4, 14 ff), His use of parables (13, 14 f.35), His miracles (8, 17; 12, 18 ff), His triumph at Jerusalem (21, 4 f.16), His rejection by the Jews (21, 42), the flight of the Apostles (26, 31) and the blood-money of Judas (27, 9 f).  Implicit references to Old Testament prophecies are also numerous, e.g., 9, 36 (cf. Ez. 34, 5); 11, 5 (cf. Isa. 35, 5 f; 61, 1); 12, 40 (cf. Jon. 2, 1); etc.  Consequently the Kingdom of Heaven preached by Jesus is the spiritual Kingdom of the Messias promised in the Old Testament.  The First Gospel therefore offers numerous descriptions of this Kingdom in the parables of Christ and gives much of the teachings of Christ concerning the spiritual qualities that the members of this Kingdom must have.

2.  The New Law, promulgated by Jesus, does not really abolish the Old Law of Moses but fulfills and perfects it; the interpretation of the Law, however, belongs no longer to the Scribes and Pharisees---"the hypocrites," but to Christ. ("You have heard that it was said to the ancients . . . But I say to you . . .". Cf. especially 5, 17-48 and 23, 1-36.)  Therefore the Evangelist recounts the frequent conflicts between Christ and these false teachers concerning the observation of the pharisaical traditions, which were based upon their wrong interpretation of the Law.

3.  Christ's sufferings and death on the Cross, "to the Jews indeed a stumbling-block" (1 Cor. 1, 23), were preordained by God and foretold in the Scriptures (16, 21; 17; 12.22; 26,, for the Messias had to "give his life as a ransom for many" (20, 28). The Jews were indeed to be the first to share in this Redemption (10, 5; 15, 24); but the fact that the majority of the Jews failed to accept Jesus as the Messias was due to the false ideas that the people had of the expected Messias ("They took offense at him;" 13, 57), and especially to the conceit of their leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees, "blind guides of blind men" (15, 14), who spread false rumors concerning Christ's resurrection "even to the present day" (28, 15).  For rejecting their Savior the unbelieving Jews themselves are rejected by God (11, 20-24; 21, 18 f.28-32), and indeed they called down upon themselves and their children the blood of the Messias (27, 25).  Therefore it is clear why the Gentiles are to be admitted so freely into the Kingdom without the necessity of observing the Mosaic Law (8, 11 f; 28, 19), because the Kingdom of God is taken away from the Jews and given to a people yielding its fruits (21, 43).

4.  The Kingdom of Christ is a true society, a Church, having authority to correct abuses even with the power of excommunication (18, 17); its government is committed to the Apostles, to whom Christ gave special instructions (10); their decisions are ratified in heaven (18, 18).  This Church is founded upon Simon Peter, "the Rock," to whom alone Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (16, 17 ff).

Structure.  St. Matthew, of course, does not develop his thesis as outlined above.  He presents this teaching mainly as spoken by the Master during His public ministry.  But since the scope of the Evangelist is principally apologetic and polemic, he selects that material which best suits his special purpose and therefore does not intend to give a complete life of Christ.  In a sense, then, his Gospel is not strictly history, although every statement that he makes is strictly historical.  Furthermore, in order to present his thesis in an attractive form, he skillfully arranges the words and deeds of the Savior in certain well-balanced groups, often departing thereby from the strictly chronological order, although retaining the broad outlines of the natural sequence of events.  Hence the particles and phrases which in themselves are temporal, such as "then," "at that time," "on that day," etc., in this Gospel are often not much more than mere indications of transition from one topic to another.

One reason for this artificial arrangement might also have been the desire to assist the memory of the faithful in learning the Gospel by heart.  For in those days of expensive, hand-made books the memorizing of important books played a much more important role than it does today.  This use of memory-aids is found more or less in all three Synoptic Gospels, where often the only link between various sayings or deeds of Christ is some similar word occurring in two entirely different contexts.  The use of different links in different Gospels results in a different order in each Gospel.

Probably to this same purpose of memory-aids is due St. Matthew's fondness for certain definite numbers in his artificial groupings.  Thus, he divides all the generations from Abraham to Christ into three groups of fourteen names in each group (1, 17), even though he realized that his readers knew that this did not correspond exactly with the facts.  So also he groups most of the teachings of Christ into five long discourses, each of which ends with almost the same phrase, "And it came to pass when Jesus had finished these words . . ." (7, 28; 11, 1; 13, 53; 19, 1; 26, 1).  These form the Evangelist's own division of his work, and every true schema of his Gospel must take them into consideration.

Between these five great discourses the Evangelist has drawn up four groups of various deeds and sayings of Christ.  Some of these groupings too are skillfully devised arrangements.  Thus, between the first and the second of these great discourses there are three groups of three miracles each; between each group of miracles there is an intermediated group of two incidents.



Prelude: The Coming of the Savior 1-2

I. The Public Ministry of Jesus 3-25

1. The Preparation 3,1 -- 4,11

2. The Inauguration of the Ministry in Galilee 4, 12-25

3. Second Period of the Ministry in Galilee and Across Its Lake 5, 1 -- 15, 20

4. Ministry Mostly in the Regions Bordering on Galilee 15, 21 -- 18, 35

5. Ministry on the Journey to Jerusalem 19-20

6. Last Ministry at Jerusalem 21-25

II. The Passion, Death and Resurrection 26-28

1. The Last Supper 26, 1-35

2. The Passion and Death of Jesus 26, 36 -- 27, 66

3. The Resurrection of Jesus 28

Confraternity Bible:



St. Matthew, one of the twelve Apostles, is the author of the first Gospel.  He was the son of Alpheus and was called to be an Apostle while sitting in the tax-collector's place at Capharnaum.  Before  his conversion he was a publican, i.e., a tax-collector by profession.  He is to be identified with the "Levi" of Mark and Luke.  His apostolic activity was at first restricted to the communities of Palestine.  Nothing definite is known about his later life.  Tradition points to Ethiopia as his field of labor.  It is uncertain whether he died a natural death or received the crown of martyrdom.  His feast is celebrated on September 21.

His Gospel was written to fill a sorely felt want for his fellow-countrymen, both believers and unbelievers.  It was designed to convince men that the Messias had come in the Person of Jesus, our Lord, in whom all the promises of the messianic kingdom embracing all people had been fulfilled in a spiritual rather than in a carnal way: "My kingdom is not of this world."  His Gospel, then, answered the question put by the disciples of St. John the Baptist, "Art thou he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

Writing for his countrymen of Palestine, St. Matthew composed his Gospel in his native Aramaic.  Soon afterwards, about the time of the persecution of Herod Agrippa I in 42 A.D., he took his departure for other lands.  Another tradition places the composition of his Gospel either between the time of this departure and the Council of Jerusalem, i.e., between 42 A.D. and 50 A.D., or even later.  Definitely, however, the Gospel itself, depicting the Holy City with its altar and temple still existing, and without any reference to the fulfillment of our Lord's prophecy, shows that it was written before the destruction of the city by the Romans (70 A.D.).

The Gospel was soon translated into Greek---possibly during the lifetime of St. Matthew or a little later; certainly before the close of the first century.  The original has been lost in the course of time.  The Greek text, however, is in substantial conformity with the original.