Overview of the Book of Matthew

Question
Overview of the Book of Matthew
Answer

Overview of the Book of Matthew

Author: The author is Matthew (Levi).

Purpose:

To inspire Christians to grateful and faithful service in furthering the kingdom of God by presenting Jesus as the long-awaited King and by presenting the kingdom that he brought as the fulfillment of God's plan of redemption

Date: A.D. 60-70

Key Truths:

  • Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures.
  • Jesus is the promised King (Messiah).
  • Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God while on earth.
  • Jesus' followers must spread the Kingdom to all nations.
  • Jesus' followers will suffer, but Jesus is always with them.
  • Jesus will complete (consummate) the Kingdom of God at his return.

Author:

Although this Gospel was written anonymously, some early manuscripts bear the inscription "according to Matthew," and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.39) tells us that the early church father Papias, writing within the first two decades of the second century, spoke of Matthew as having arranged "the oracles" about Jesus. The subsequent unanimous tradition, including that of Calvin and other early Reformers, is that the disciple named Levi (Matthew) was the author of this Gospel (Matt. 9:9-13).

Not until the 18th century did scholars question this tradition. First, they pointed to Papias's apparent claim that Matthew "arranged the oracles in the Hebrew dialect." This would seem to indicate that Matthew wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic, but modern scholars point out that the Gospel of Matthew does not read like a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic. Matthew's Gospel also has a close literary affinity with the Gospel of Mark, which was originally written in Greek. The solution may be that the word "dialect" did not mean so much "language" as "literary style." Certainly Matthew has many Jewish stylistic features. It is also possible that Matthew wrote in both Hebrew and Greek, much as Calvin wrote works in both Latin and French.

Second, some have objected that Papias did not say "gospel" but "oracles," and they have identified these "oracles" as one of the sources lying behind the canonical Gospel of Matthew. But Eusebius appears to have understood "oracles" to mean "gospel," and Irenaeus (writing about A.D. 180) speaks of a "gospel" by Matthew written "for the Hebrews in their own dialect" (Against Heresies 3.1.1).

Other scholarly objections to Matthew's authorship are more speculative. For example, the first Gospel's supposedly late composition (see below) and its alleged dependence on Mark are adduced to cast doubt on Matthean authorship, but no better suggestion has been advanced. While some say that it was the product of a "school," there is no compelling reason to accept this hypothesis.

There may be subtle confirmation of Matthew's authorship in the way he speaks of himself (Matt. 9:9; 10:3), but this evidence is questionable. Although it is impossible to determine the author's identity with absolute certainty, the book's early association with Matthew points to its acceptance as an eyewitness account of Jesus' life. Moreover, we hear in this Gospel the voice of its primary author, the Spirit of God himself.

Time and Place of Writing:

The earliest external evidence for the existence of Matthew is a probable reference by Ignatius (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 1:1), who died about A.D. 110, and the evidence of Papias, who wrote very early in the second century. Almost no one dates the book later than A.D. 100. But dating the work more specifically than this is difficult. Some scholars have dated it as early as A.D. 50, but most critics believe it was completed after the destruction of Jerusalem, probably between A.D. 80 and 100.

Some reasons for preferring a late date are quite dubious, such as the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the future destruction of the Temple or that a high Christology is Hellenistic, and therefore that the date should be late. Further, there is some internal evidence that Matthew was written before the destruction of Jerusalem (i.e., prior to A.D. 70). For instance, Matthew 12:5-7 and Matthew 23:16-22 imply that the Temple was still standing when Matthew was written. Also, this Gospel warns against the Sadducees, a group that ceased to exist after A.D. 70.

If, in accordance with prevailing opinion, we concede that the writer of this Gospel used the Gospel of Mark, and if we assume that the Gospel of Mark was composed in association with Peter in Rome, we can fix a date for the writing of Matthew sometime after A.D. 64. Even apart from this concession, it seems probable that the Gospel was composed during that decade (A.D. 60-70).

The date of the Gospel of Matthew may be difficult to fix, but it was certainly completed within 50 or 60 years after the events described. Its author could not have invented material freely, for eyewitnesses were still living to refute false claims.

Matthew's Gospel was most likely written in Antioch in Syria.

Original Audience:

The Gospel of Matthew was probably addressed to the Church in Antioch. Ignatius, the first church father to cite Matthew, was bishop of Antioch. Further, the congregation in Antioch was of mixed Jewish and Gentile origin (cf. Acts 15), a fact that could well have given rise to the problems of legalism and antinomianism that Matthew particularly addresses.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The Gospel of Matthew presents to us Jesus - especially Jesus' teaching about himself and the Kingdom of heaven. This Kingdom is the fulfillment of God's plan of redemption and renewal that had been prophesied since the fall (Gen. 3:15). In this plan, Jesus' passion and death are not a regrettable tragedy; rather, they are the means God ordained in order to accomplish his goal. Jesus' resurrection marks the beginning of history's end.

The purpose of Matthew's Gospel is to convey authoritative teaching by and about Jesus, whose coming marked the fulfillment of God's promises. It is not merely a history or biography, a theology or confession, a catechism or teaching tract; it is a combination of all these things. Matthew allows no divorce between narrative and theology or between theory and practice. The history is the only proper basis for the theology, and the theology gives the only proper meaning to the history; so, too, with theory and practice.

Matthew's Gospel is exceptional in its extensive appeal to Jesus' fulfillment of the Old Testament patterns, requirements and expectations. These are presented not simply as "predictions" and "fulfillments," but as indications of the fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament and of the purpose of Israel's existence (Matt. 1:23).

This concern with fulfillment is reflected not only in Matthew's citations, but also in the way certain things in the history are stressed. It is Matthew's Gospel that points out that there were two demoniacs and two blind men, in accordance with the Old Testament principle that testimony be established on the basis of at least two witnesses. It is Matthew's Gospel that clearly shows us the illegality of the Sanhedrin's actions, the perversion of the Old Testament by the scribes and Pharisees and the covenantal nature of God's dealing with his people.

Also distinctive to Matthew is its structuring of Jesus' teaching into five major discourses: (1) ethics, (2) discipleship and mission, (3) the kingdom of heaven, (4) the Church, and (5) eschatology. This structure itself may have been patterned after the five books of Moses in order to present Jesus as the "prophet like [Moses]" (Deut. 18:18) who was even greater than Moses.

Most scholars today recognize these five major discourses as Matthew's key structuring device, especially since each discourse ends with a formula: "And when Jesus had finished " Further, there seems to be a relationship between each discourse and the narrative material preceding it. The following outline reflects this consensus. The narrative sections deal primarily with the question "Who is the King?" The discourse material tends to focus on the King's people.

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Gospels and Acts

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).