Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew
Author: Unknown, most likely written between 33 and 100 CE
This essay will reference from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament.
Trying to read any portion of the New Testament as a work unto itself is, in some ways, a thankless effort. In reading The Gospel According to Matthew, we are inevitably tempted to wander off into queries on how this account of Jesus’s life mirrors and contrasts with the other gospels and how those similarities and differences might reflect on the somewhat murky chronology of their assembly. That and other conversations, fascinating as they may be, could and have filled the pages of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of books; some of them, very long. In the interest of providing meaningful commentary on Matthew’s gospel that does not overtax a casual reader, perhaps more interested in headlines than details, we shall restrain our scrutiny to the text itself.
The Gospel According to Matthew opens with a genealogy that traces a line from Abraham through David and directly to Jesus, “who is called Christ” [1:16]. This is an easy bit of the text to gloss over as it employs a very static formula that turns into “unfamiliar name was the father of another unfamiliar name” except when one or more of those names is already familiar to us from a conspicuous appearance in the Torah. While repetitive, the section does emphasize the plausible historicity of the Jewish tradition, especially considered in contrast to other oppressed peoples throughout that same region. In having established writing as one of the central elements of their culture very early, the Jewish peoples were able to maintain a core identity that is on display here across forty-two generations of human existence. It also neatly divides that timeline into three eras; from Abraham to David, from David to the first Diaspora, and, from there, to the birth of Jesus. Forty-two generations also carries a specific weight in relation to the question of Jesus’s divinity as it is the product of six, the number of man, and seven, the number of God.
Matthew’s Gospel is characterized by a number of tonal shifts that take place in its narrative. The first section, starting from the birth up through the family’s return to Galilee, is mythic and referential. It begins with a problem.
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [1:18-21]
Second, a group of wise men from the East arrive at the court of Herod the Great, asking as to the whereabouts of the king of the Jews that had recently been born. Matthew’s account is interesting in that it assumes Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem as happening before the arrival of the wise men and omits many of the details of the Nativity as it is commonly understood. It is Herod, through the knowledge of his scholars and scribes, who deduces the location of the child and sends them directly to Bethlehem to find him and then report back so that he, too, might worship him. Matthew then backtracks a little, indicating that when “they had heard the king, they went their way; and, lo, the star they had seen in the East went before them” [2:9]. Upon their arrival, there is no mention of a manger but describes them as “going into the house [where] they saw the child with Mary his mother” [2:11]. After worshipping the child with gifts, the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod’s court and left the country on the downlow.
Immediately, after, it is Joseph, again, who is visited in his dreams by an angel of the Lord, telling him to go to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intent. After they flee, Herod orders that all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem be murdered to ensure that no king should emerge from their number and threaten his authority. After Herod dies, Joseph is visited yet again in a dream by an angel of the Lord who tells him to return to Israel and then, upon their arrival, clarifies his instructions in another dream that they should dwell in Galilee to avoid the influence of Herod’s (Herod Archelaus) son.
This is where Matthew’s account of Jesus’s childhood comes to a close. In comparison to what Luke (a masterful writer with a more evolved agenda) has to say about Jesus’s birth and childhood, Matthew’s vision has the narrative depth of a View-Master reel. No effort is spent on sculpting character development as the players are moved from point to point by stars and dreams. It also makes no apologies for the improbability of its plot, but, instead, points to each element as the fulfillment of a specific prophecy; as if to say, “If it seems implausible, it is as the prophets had decreed it would be.”
With the introduction of John the Baptist in the third chapter, Matthew’s Gospel makes its first strong tonal shift from dispassionate myth-building to a supernatural realism enriched by physical and behavioral details. John’s central message (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) brought many out to the river Jordan where he would baptize them and allow them to confess their sins. Matthew gives us two really rich descriptions of John the Baptist that bear consideration.
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey…But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [3:4,7-9]
The first description of what John was wearing is notable because nowhere before it in the text are we treated to a description of someone’s outfit. This indicates awareness within Matthew’s intended audience of who John was and, perhaps, some latent memory of his actual time on Earth. Secondly, the author(s) of Matthew is not known for rhetorical flourishes when supplying dialogue for someone so it is tempting to believe that his reproach of the Pharisees and Sadducees may have lived beyond his untimely death and that some small portion of it wound up here. It is also worth noting that the Gospel of Matthew begins early laying out a case for the legitimacy for Gentile conversion with statements like these.
Then, Matthew tells us, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” [3:13] and, John is ultimately deferential to Jesus, suggesting that he needed “to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [3:14]. Indicating that his own spiritual journey need follow a certain path, Jesus persuaded John to baptize him. The result was noteworthy in what it does and does not say.
And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” [3:16,17]
The fact that the Spirit of God is now making personal appearances instead of offering guidance in dreams is a shift from the earlier tales of Jesus’s childhood. What is remarkable about Matthew’s account of this story is that Jesus alone is implied to be privy to this vision. If there was a visible reaction from either John or the crowd around him as to the profundity of Jesus’s baptism, no mention is made of it.
From there, Jesus was “led by the Spirit” (presumably the same one that descended upon him at his baptism) “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” [4:1]. Much like his experience with John the Baptist, Jesus’s trials are to be fought within his own mind and spirit and away from the eyes of others. In line with Matthew’s focus on the Torah, Jesus rebuts each temptation presented to him with scripture and, in time, banishes the devil from his presence and is “ministered to” by angels sent to aid him. These experiences and external events would soon come together to launch Jesus’s ministry in a fashion more public than these initial, more personal revelations.