What’s Special about Matthew?

In this Year A of the 3-year liturgical cycle, the Gospel readings at Sunday Mass are taken from Matthew. Matthew is the first Gospel in the bible because at the time when the New Testament was formed it was believed to be the oldest of the four. It is now accepted that Mark’s Gospel was written first. Because Matthew’s gospel refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and is mentioned in documents written at the turn of the century, it can be dated somewhere in the period 80AD to 90AD.

The earliest manuscripts did not identify an author, but for some unknown reason the name Matthew later became attached. For centuries, Christians assumed that this was Matthew the tax collector who became an apostle. However, an eyewitness to the events in the gospel would not have relied on second-hand sources as this account clearly does, so it is unlikely to have been written by the apostle Matthew.

The writer was almost certainly a Jewish Christian because one of the main purposes of the work is to provide consolation to those wrestling with the problem of reconciling their Jewish heritage with their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. At the time this gospel was written, there was a growing controversy between Matthew’s community and Jewish religious authorities. This divide between the two groups is reflected in Matthew’s account of the controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities. Whilst Jesus no doubt experienced conflict with religious authorities, it is important to keep in mind that the issues that Matthew is addressing are those of his own day.

Matthew presents Jesus as the authoritative and definitive interpreter of the Law. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes six times from the Law and in each case adds ‘but I say to you, …’. More than only interpreter, Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. In total Matthew quotes from the Jewish scriptures 61 times. In 40 of these references, the writer indicates that the passage has been fulfilled in Jesus.

The distinctive image of Jesus that Matthew’s gospel presents is that of teacher. This is most evident in the way the writer has arranged his material. Matthew collects the speeches of Jesus into five extended sermons. The first of these is the most famous - the Sermon on the Mount, which we are currently hearing at Sunday Masses. The others are: the Mission Sermon, addressed to the apostles as Jesus sends them out to preach; the Sermon in Parables, a collection of parables all about the kingdom of heaven; the Sermon on the Church, which addresses explicitly the concerns of his latter day church; Sermon on the End Times. Each of these five sections concludes with a similar phrase: ‘When Jesus had finished these words/commands/parables …’.

The evangelist Matthew is depicted symbolically as the figure of a man because of Matthew’s emphasis on the incarnation and on the humanity of Christ. Matthew’s gospel begins with the reassurance that Jesus has come to be with us, and concludes with Christ’s promise to remain with us until the end of time.



Elizabeth Harrington