The Gospel according to Matthew:
Literary Aspects, Features & Themes by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
I) Composition and History of Matthew's Gospel:
Matthew was a tax collector, one of the twelve apostles (see Matt 9:9; 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Although not all the apostles could read and write, tax collectors like Matthew certainly could.
The apostle Matthew himself may have written an early collection of Jesus' sayings in Hebrew or Aramaic, but probably not the full 28-chapter Gospel written in Greek as found in the New Testament (the "canonical Gospel").
An anonymous second-generation Jewish-Christian teacher used various sources (inc. Matthew's writing?) to create what we call the Gospel according to Matthew.
This author was a trained "scribe" (cf. Matt 13:52), very familiar with the Hebrew Bible and fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Just as for the other Gospels, the title "Gospel according to Matthew" was not added to the text until the second century.
Original Readers / Intended Audience:
Mostly Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
Matthew teaches them more about the significance of Jesus, but without abandoning their Jewish heritage (Matt 5:17-20).
Matthew challenges them to put their faith into action (not just words, but also deeds).
Matthew's community was evidently opposed to/by the Pharisees (Jewish leaders who denied that Jesus was Messiah).
Date of Composition:
For many centuries, most people thought Matthew was the oldest of the four Gospels, but most scholars today believe that Mark was first.
The canonical Gospel of Matthew was probably not finalized until the late 70's or 80's of the first century, although it incorporates older sources.
Its main sources are the Old Testament, the Gospel of Mark, the Q-Document, and other oral or written material about Jesus.
The final composition of Matthew was almost certainly after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 (see Matt 21:41; 22:7; 24:15-16)
Place of Composition:
Possibly in Palestine, but more probably in or around the city of Antioch, the capital of the Roman province of Syria.
An influential early Christian community was there: "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26b).
Early in the 2nd century already, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. 110 AD) quotes passages from Matthew's Gospel.
II) Sources and Contents of Matthew's Gospel:
Main Sources of Matthew's Gospel:
Old Testament: Matthew's Gospel quotes extensively from the Old Testament, especially the prophetic books (see below).
Gospel of Mark: Most scholars today believe that Mark is the oldest surviving Gospel, and that the author of Matthew's Gospel used Mark's text as one of his primary written sources.
Q-Document: Matthew and Luke both supplemented the Markan material with many more stories and teachings of Jesus from another written source, which is now lost, but which scholars call the Q-Document (from the German word "Quelle," meaning "source").
For the possible contents of Q, as reconstructed by some modern scholars, see my Synoptic Outlines.
Sayings of the Lord, recorded by Matthew: The 4th-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea refers to the 2nd-century bishop Papias of Hierapolis regarding the composition of Matthew's Gospel
[see Eusebius on the Four Gospels].
Papias is quoted as saying, "So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able."
This collection is often called the "Sayings of the Lord," but may have been written in Aramaic, the common spoken language of the Jews at the time of Jesus, rather than in Hebrew (the language of the ancient Israelites, in which most of the Old Testament is written).
If Matthew's early document was one of its sources, this would explain why the later Greek text came to be called the "Gospel according to Matthew."
Other Material: Matthew also incorporated some material from other written and/or oral sources.
Five Major Discourses: Most scholars
agree that aside from the introduction (Ch. 1–2: Narrative
of Jesus' Birth) and conclusion (Ch. 26–28: Narrative of Jesus' Passion, Death, and Resurrection), the body of
is structured around five lengthy sermons that Jesus gives to his disciples or to the broader public.
First Discourse: "Sermon on the Mount": Matt 5–7
Second Discourse: "Missionary Instructions": Matt 10
Third Discourse: "Collection of Parables": Matt 13
Fourth Discourse: "Community Instructions": Matt 18
Fifth Discourse: "Sermon on Eschatology": Matt 23–25
This structure is indicated by the Evangelist himself, who at the end of each of these five discourses writes:
"Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching..." (7:28)
"Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities." (11:1)
"When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place." (13:53)
"When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan." (19:1)
"When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples..."(26:1)
The rest of Matthew's Gospel (Ch. 3–4, 8–9, 11–12, 14–17, 19–23) consists mostly of narrative materials (Jesus' travels, miracles, healings, exorcisms, disputes with opponents, etc.), although also containing many shorter sayings and teachings.
IV) Literary Features and Themes of Matthew's Gospel:
Matthew's Gospel includes many references to the Hebrew Scriptures, esp. Prophetic Texts:
Biblical Event and Characters: Matthew's Gospel frequently refers to figures from the Old Testament:
Moses (mentioned 7 times), Elijah (9x), Isaiah (6x), Jeremiah (3x), Daniel (1x), David (17x), Solomon (3x), etc.
Direct Quotations: Matthew's Gospel contains over sixty quotations of (or strong allusions to) texts from the Hebrew Bible.
It frequently says that the words or actions of Jesus or other Gospel characters have taken place "to fulfill" the scriptures.
The scripture quotations are sometimes introduced by what scholars call a "fulfillment formula."
Fulfillment Formulas: In over a dozen texts, the evangelist/narrator (Matthew) says, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet" (or something very similar), often followed by a specific OT quotation:
In most references, the particular "prophet" is not named; but several times Matthew explicitly names Isaiah (3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 15:7), Jeremiah (2:17; 27:9; see also 16:14), and Daniel (24:15)
Jesus himself says something very similar in several texts:
Matt 5:17 (Sermon on the Mount, speaking to the crowds) - "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."
Matt 15:7 (in Galilee, speaking to some Pharisees) - "You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said..."
Matt 26:54 (at Gethsemane, speaking to one of his disciples) - "But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?"
Matt 26:56a (at Gethsemane, speaking to those arresting Jesus) - "But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled."
Complete list of OT quotations and allusions in Matthew's Gospel:
Matthew's Gospel improves the Portrait of Jesus' Disciples:
Mark 4:13 – They don't understand Jesus' parables
Matt 13:51 – "Have you understood all this? They answered, Yes"
Mark 8:29-30 – When Peter says Jesus is the Christ, Jesus tells him not to tell!
Matt 16:15-20 – Jesus responds much more positively to Peter
Mark 10:35-40 – James and John request places of honor for themselves
Matt 20:21-24 – their mother makes the request for them
Matthew's Gospel worsens the Portrayals of Jesus' Opponents:
More focus on "scribes and Pharisees" as Jesus' main opponents (see Matt 5:20; 9:11, 34; 12:2; 23:2-3; 27:62)
Use of phrases "their synagogues" (4:23; 9:35) and "their scribes" (7:29) emphasizes the separation.
Matthew's Jesus calls them "hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools" ("Woe to you..." Matt 23:1-39)
More focus on the conspiracy between Judas Iscariot, the Jewish authorities (esp. Caiaphas), and Pilate in the plot to kill Jesus
Role of Judas is highlighted more than in Mark (see Matt 26:14-16, 47-56; 27:3-10
Role of Caiaphas is heightened, who is never named in Mark (see Matt 26:1-5, 57-68)
Role of Pilate is also stressed, form the trial to the burial (Matt 27:1-2, 11-31, 62-66)
Chief priests ask for a guard to be placed at Jesus' tomb (Matt 27:62-66; 28:4, 11-15)
Matthew's Gospel has many Pairs/Twos: (phrases in bold are found only in Matthew's Gospel)
Jesus calls two brothers (Simon Peter & Andrew) and then two other brothers (James and John) to be his first disciples (4:18-22; a story taken from Mark 1:16-20, which lists the four names but does not use the phrases "two brothers" or "two other brothers")
Jesus declares, "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and mammon" (6:24; parallel to Luke 16:13)
Jesus exorcizes two demoniacs in the region of Gadara (8:28-34; the parallel stories in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39 each involve only one demoniac)
Jesus gives sight to two blind men in Galilee (9:27-31; story only in Matthew)
Jesus tells the apostles not to take along two tunics (10:10; also in Mark 6:9)
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?" (10:29; parallel in Luke 12:6 has five sparrows sold for two pennies)
Evidence of two or three witnesses (18:16-20; teachings only in Matthew)
God created male and female; the two shall become one flesh (19:5-6; taken from Mark 10:7-8; quoting Gen 1:27)
Zebedee's wife asks a favor for "these two sons of mine"; the ten other disciples are angry at "the two brothers" (20:21, 24; story parallel to Mark 10:35-45, which mentions James and John, but does not use the two phrases in bold here)
Jesus gives sight to two blind men outside of Jericho (20:29-34; parallel stories in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43 each involve only one blind man)
Entry into Jerusalem: Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey and a colt (21:1-7; in Mark 11:1-7 and Luke 19:29-35, Jesus also sends two disciples, but they get only one animal; cf. Zech 9:9)
Jesus tells a parable about two sons (21:28-32; story only in Matthew)
"On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (22:40; story parallel in Mark 12:28-34, but without this phrase)
Two men in the field; two women grinding at the mill (24:40-41; almost parallel in Luke 17:34-35)
Parable of the Pounds: five, two, and one pound (25:14-30; story in Luke 19:11-27 has ten pounds each)
Two days before Passover (26:2; parallel in Mark 14:1)
Peter and the two sons of Zebedee at Gethsemane (26:37; parallel in Mark 14:33 mentions Peter, James, and John by name)
Two false witnesses at Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin (26:60; parallel in Mark 14:57 says "some" false witnesses)
Pilate asks, "Which of the two [Barabbas or Jesus] do you want released? (27:21; parallel story in Mark 15:6-14 does not have this question)
Two robbers are crucified along with Jesus (27:38; parallel in Matt 27:38; Luke 23:32; John 19:18)
Two women, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary," go to Jesus' tomb (28:1; parallel stories in Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 have more or fewer women)
Contrasting Pairs of Images:
Sayings about serving God & mammon (6:24; parallel in Luke 16:13)
Parable of weeds & wheat (13:24-30; explained in 13:36-43; only in Matthew)
Parables of good & bad, evil & righteous (13:47-50; only in Matthew)
Parable of wise & foolish virgins (25:1-13; only in Matthew)
Parable of sheep & goats (25:31-46; only in Matthew)
Matthew's Gospel uses other Symbolic Numbers:
3: used 12 times, esp. "three days and three nights" (12:40); "three days" (15:32; 26:61; 27:40; 27:63); "three measures of flour" (13:33); "three dwellings" (17:4); "two or three witnesses" (18:16, 20); and Peter denies Jesus "three times" (26:34, 75).
4: only Matthew 24:31 ("four winds")
5: "five loaves and two fish" to feed 5000 people (Matt 14:17, 19; 16:9); parable of ten virgins: "five wise and five foolish" (Matt 25:2); parable of talents: five, two, one (Matt 25:15-20)
10: "ten disciples" (20:24; all but James and John); "ten bridesmaids" (25:1); "ten talents" (25:28)
11: the "eleven disciples" (28:16; all but Judas Iscariot)
12: "twelve years" (9:20); "twelve disciples" (10:1; 11:1; 20:17); "twelve apostles" (10:2, 5); "twelve baskets" (14:20); "twelve thrones" and "twelve tribes of Israel" (19:28); "the twelve" disciples (20:14, 20, 47); twelve legions of angels" (26:53)
14: Jesus' genealogy is divided into three groups of "fourteen generations" (Matt 1:17; since 14 is the symbolic number of the name "David": D+V+D=4+6+4)
30: parable of seeds producing 100, 60, or 30-fold (Matt 13:8; 13:23); "thirty pieces of silver" (26:15; 27:3, 9)
40: "forty days and forty nights" (4:2)
60: parable of seeds producing 100, 60, or 30-fold (Matt 13:8; 13:23)
77: forgiving "seventy-seven times" (18:22)
99: "ninety-nine sheep" (18:12-13)
100: parable of seeds producing 100, 60, or 30-fold (Matt 13:8; 13:23)
4000: feeding of four thousand men, not counting women and children (Matt 15:38; 16:10)
5000: feeding of five thousand men, not counting women and children (Matt 14:21; 16:9)
10,000 (lit. a "myriad"): "ten thousand talents" (18:24)
Note: Matthew's Gospel also refers to various times of day: the "third hour" (9:00 a.m.); the "sixth hour" (noon); the "ninth hour" (3:00 p.m.); the eleventh hour" (5:00 p.m.)
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' Ministry is only to Jews, not Gentiles nor Samaritans:
Jesus sends the apostles out on a mission only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," explicitly telling them "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans" (Matt 10:5b-6)
Only at the end of the Gospel, in the "Great Commission," does the risen Jesus tell his disciples, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. / Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Matt 28:18-19)