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Vespasian died in 79 and was succeeded by his elder son Titus, the conqueror of Judaea. Titus died in 81, and was succeeded by his brother Domitian, who reigned until 96. In Gentile history Titus comes down as the good honest brother and Domitian as the mean crafty brother. In the Jewish tradition, the estimate of Titus is naturally not so favourable; or indeed of the Flavian emperors as a whole.
It was during the reign of Domitian, 81-96, that the schools of John and the other elders were flourishing in Asia Minor, and doubtless there were similar schools in Palestine and Syria; for these were the lands of the older and better-equipped churches, from which the Gentile west had received the faith; they were the sources from which the apostles and elders and prophets and teachers came. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about them, because they had no literary tradition; or at any rate no literature has survived, except for the Gospel' according to Matthew', which was made in some centre of Syrian Hellenistic Christianity where the pressure of Jewish Christianity was strong. It made use of a number of sources, including Mark and Q; but the author had no knowledge of Luke or John. It follows that it must have been produced about the same time as Luke or not very much later, and in a distant region; in Alexandria, or Caesarea, or Antioch, for instance. It cannot be placed earlier than Luke, since time has to be allowed for the Gospel of Mark to arrive from Rome and make its impression. And the Matthaean gospel was not written in a hurry;
|313 it may have gone through several stages. We may place its composition in the reign of Domitian without fear of serious error one way or another.
There is little if any reason for thinking of Alexandria as the place where Matthew was composed; but the deficiency of evidence about Alexandrian Christianity leaves us in the dark. It produced no literature at all, so far as we know.
There is no strong reason for connecting any New Testament book with Alexandria. Scholars have found some evidence for the influence of Alexandrian thought in the Epistle to the Hebrews or the Gospel of John, but the influence, such as it is, looks very remote. Only the mysterious Apollos, who preceded Paul at Ephesus and intervened in his mission at Corinth, can be claimed for Alexandria. The early reviser whose work appears in the Western Text of Acts says that he learned his Christianity in his native land; and he may be writing out of his personal knowledge. If this additional information is correct, then we can say that there was a form of Christianity in Alexandria which had a close connexion with John the Baptist, and was defective in some way when judged by the Pauline standards. We are not much farther advanced.
There is of course the legend, not to be dignified by the name of a tradition, which Eusebius was the first to place on record, that Mark was the founder of the Alexandrian church:
Now it is said that this Mark journeyed to Egypt, and was the first to preach there the gospel which he had also written; and that he was the first to form churches in Alexandria itself.
(Eusebius, E.H. ii, 16, 1.)
Eusebius may have received this legend from the tradition of the great Alexandrian scholar Origen, with which he was familiar; but he does not say so; and he is not supported by the oldest Alexandrian writers such as Dionysius, who fails to mention Mark in his discussion of the travels of apostles and evangelists. On the other hand, if we take the reference to Mark's Gospel to be the main point of the tradition which Eusebius had received, it does fit in with certain indications which suggest that this Gospel had a strong position in the early Alexandrian church. The first clear statements about Alexandrian Christianity which
|314 are of any historical value have to do with the activities of important heretical teachers and the first of these is Cerinthus, whose peculiar views about the descent of the Christus into the man Jesus would seem to require a Gospel like that of Mark, which began with the baptism of Jesus by John. The school of elders or teachers in Egypt where Cerinthus received his training, may therefore have used Mark.
We must pass by the churches of Caesarea and southern Syria for the moment, so far as Gentile Christianity is concerned; for no contemporary evidence about them is to be found. Later Palestinian legend, in the romances attributed to Clement, fills up this void by giving Caesarea a bishop named Zacchaeus, appointed by Peter, accommodating other cities of the sea-coast in a similar way. Peter goes on, and fixes his own headquarters at Antioch. This may be taken to represent the second-century tradition.
About the year 115 we have the Epistles of the martyr-bishop, Ignatius, which enable us to make some inferences about the kind of development which had taken place in his lifetime. It is not likely that Ignatius was born any later than the sixties, and a study of his thinking suggests that he was a convert from paganism rather than a born Christian. In any case his Christian education and spiritual development must have taken place in the reign of Domitian, when the Gospel of Matthew was in the making. During this period, and later, he saw the church in Antioch achieve a high degree of unity which was focused in the 'assemblies' and the acts of worship; the one altar, as he calls it; the one bishop with his council of apostolic elders; and the one gospel, which was that according to Matthew. Tradition gives him a single predecessor as bishop: his name was Euodius.
We are not free to say that the episcopal order or the Matthaean gospel originated in Antioch. They probably have a longer history. They seem to be based on Jewish-Christian precedents or antecedents, and may have been received from Palestine or South Syria. In Acts and in Galatians the church in Antioch receives one mission after another from Jerusalem, and there is no reason at all to suppose that this pressure from Jewish Christianity ceased. Indeed, the adoption or production of the Matthaean gospel, with its strongly Jewish-Christian content, |315 is a proof that it was welcomed; and it is interesting that it appears in Matthew as a tradition of Peter.
The church in Antioch was the oldest of the great Gentile churches, and the mother-city of Gentile Christianity. It had been the scene of many conflicts. Its elders and teachers could tell Ignatius the whole truth about the historic occasion on which Paul had resisted Peter face to face; and it would seem that extreme men still carried on the argument. Ignatius had to deal with irreconcilable champions of what he called Judaism, and with equally irreconcilable 'docetics', who believed in a Jesus who was an angel or spirit. They may have been ardent followers of Paul.
Samaria, too, was sending out its evangelists and teachers, and among these was a certain Menander. Justin Martyr, who was a native of Samaria, is our oldest authority on his teaching, and Irenaeus, who made use of lost works of Justin, is our second. Menander belonged to the school of Simon Magus, the opponent of Peter. Justin can name the birthplace of both men; Simon came from Gitta, and Menander from Cappareteia. He is said to have announced himself as the Saviour, who had come down to earth from invisible realms to overcome the angels who hold this world in bondage. He had a magical knowledge by which they could be vanquished, which probably means that he was an exorcist. Those who received his baptism became recipients of the resurrection and were incapable of death. They grew not old but became immortal, Irenaeus said. He made Antioch his headquarters, and founded a school there. His date cannot be precisely determined; he followed Simon Magus and preceded Satornilus. Justin had met adherents of his who still cherished their faith in him in their old age.
It is possible that Justin and Irenaeus took the words of Menander too literally. He may have taught a mystical and spiritual doctrine along the lines of the Pauline sacramentalism; for Paul spoke constantly of baptism as a new creation or moral resurrection. A resurrection in the sense of a spiritual regeneration may have been all he cared for, like Hymenaeus and Philetus in Asia, who held that the resurrection was already past. Similar language is used by Ignatius about the eucharist; |316 he calls it the elixir of immortality, and the antidote against death, which is the language of poetry, not of theology.
The story of the Menandrian sect in Antioch, with its Samaritan background, reminds us of an important fact. The medium in which the gospel spread was the omnipresent Jewish diaspora, which radiated from Jerusalem and filled the world; 'Every land is full of thee, and every sea', as the Sibyl had said; but there was an eastern dispersion as well as a western; for Judaism was an oriental religion, which had affinities with other oriental religions. Jewish ideas had been combined in certain circles with the monotheisms or near-monotheisms of the Syrian kingdoms and the Parthian empire; the high 'dualistic' monotheism of Iran for instance, and the astrological monotheism of the Chaldeans, and the polymorphous spirituality of the Syrians, which had already blended into various mixed forms, which could express themselves either as myth or philosophy. Simon and Menander were mystics and philosophers who took the gospel of Jesus into union with such 'syncretized' versions of the higher paganism of their time.
The Syrian Gospel appeared in the church at large and won its way to the premier position among the four, under the name of Matthew; but it does not lay claim to apostolic authorship in the actual text. Ignatius refers to it simply as 'The Gospel', and that may have been its original name; and if it was intended to provide the whole available evangelical material, for church use, in one volume, no further words would be required; but they would become necessary so soon as Luke and John appeared as competitors, or when it became apparent that it would not supersede Mark. Perhaps the words 'according to Matthew' were added to the title as it moved westward into Asia Minor.
These words do not imply that the book was written by Matthew himself; they would be sufficiently accounted for if it was believed that it faithfully preserved the tradition of Matthew as it was carried on by him or by his school. The existence of a Matthaean tradition of teaching can hardly be disputed. It is mentioned in the Mishnah and in the church tradition, and is suggested by the name of the Gospel itself. The oldest extant authority to refer to it is probably the Elder John, according to a statement of Papias which is preserved by Eusebius. |317
(Eusebius) And Papias delivers in his book accounts of the words of the Lord by the aforesaid Aristion, and traditions of John the Elder, to which we refer the student; but we are bound to add to the words of his which we have already quoted, a tradition which he set forth concerning Mark who wrote the gospel, in these words:
(Papias) And this is what the Elder said : Mark, who had been an interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately what he related [or remembered?], though not in order, of things which were said or done by the Lord; for he had not heard the Lord or followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he followed Peter; and Peter composed his teachings to meet the needs [or requirements], but not with the idea of making an orderly arrangement of the oracles of the Lord; so that Mark made no error when he wrote certain things down as he remembered [or related] them; for there was one point to which he paid attention, not to omit anything that he had heard, and not to make any error about it.
(Eusebius) So this is what is recorded by Papias with regard to Mark; but with regard to Matthew, this is what is said :
(Papias) ' Matthew, however, made a written arrangement of the oracles of the Lord in the Hebrew [i.e. Aramaic] language, and everybody interpreted them as best they could.'
(Eusebius, E.H. iii, 39, 14-16.)
Naturally there has been considerable discussion among the learned about these important extracts. How much of the first paragraph comes from the Elder, for instance, and how much is explanatory matter by Papias? And is the statement about Matthew intended to be a quotation from the Elder or not? Since no agreement exists on these points, it will be best to take the whole of it as the fruit of the researches of Papias made at this period.
Papias knew of a collection of the 'oracles' of Jesus which Matthew had written in Aramaic; he remembered about the difficulty that there was in getting it translated in the Gentile churches. The memory of it was not lost in the church, some confusing it with the 'Hebrew' gospel which was written early in the second century, and some even with the canonical Matthew;
There has also been a great deal of discussion about the meaning of the word logia, which has been translated 'oracles'. It used to be rather widely held that it meant sayings of Jesus, and therefore, it was argued, the Aramaic Matthew could not have included his acts; and this led to the rather unscientific habit of referring to an isolated saying of Jesus as a logion. Another theory which has been advanced from time to time is that it referred to a collection of extracts from the Old Testament.
The meaning of the word logion which is given in the dictionary is 'brief utterances or oracles'. The word was in regular use in Christian writers in connexion with the Law of Moses, which Stephen called the living logia, and Paul the logia of God. Now the Law of Moses contains the whole story of the patriarchs, as well as the narrative of the Exodus and the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, so that there can be no justification for the exclusion of acts of Jesus from the logia of Matthew. Indeed, the word suggests that it was a Christian counterpart of Genesis and Exodus. Furthermore, the Aramaic Matthew and the Marcan Gospel, in the Papias quotation, are referred to and compared as books of the same type. The difference lay in the fact that Peter had a translator who produced a report of his teachings in Greek, whereas Matthew produced his arrangement of the logia in Aramaic, which everybody had to translate for himself. Mark's book had a less satisfactory order than Matthew's, but Matthew's was less accessible to the Gentile churches for language reasons. And this is the state of affairs which Papias knew about through his personal researches.
A number of scholars take the very natural view that the Aramaic Matthew was one of the sources which was used by the author of the canonical Matthew, and that the title' according to Matthew' was given to it because it preserved in an acceptable Greek form the contents of the older book. It was customary at one time to identify it with Q; but this is not satisfactory, since Q was written in Greek and is even better preserved in Luke than it is in Matthew. The element in the canonical Matthew which gave it its name should be looked for in the material which is peculiar to it, or the special character which it possesses.
The most striking feature of Matthew is the fact that it collects into five distinct masses or blocks of teaching the sayings of Jesus which were given to Israel, or through the apostles to the church. In each case the material is woven into a continuous dramatic discourse and given an appropriate narrative setting. The author takes in material out of Mark or Q, when it is relevant, and blends it freely with material from his own special tradition or from other sources.
The first of these is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is presented as the supreme teacher in Israel. His function was to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, not to destroy them as was apparently supposed by some. The Law of Moses was eternally valid, but not in the sense in which the scribes and the Pharisees expounded it. The righteousness of God's kingdom was implanted in the heart; a pure heart; a heart devoid of anger or malice or lust or fear or even anxiety; a heart full of faith and love; a childlike heart trusting implicitly in the Father in the heavens, and showing forth its relation to the Father by gentleness and goodness and love even towards one's enemies; for he makes his sun to shine on the unjust as well as the just, and sheds his rain on the evil as well as the good. A sublime spiritual monotheism is here revealed which is concentrated in the word 'Father'. It teaches a simple childlike heaven-and-earth mysticism in which the sons of God are the middle term; and a conflict with evil in which those who suffer for righteousness' sake inherit the kingdom of heaven.
The second discourse concerns the founding of the apostolate, which is a Marcan theme; but it gathers the various stages into one; the choice of the Twelve, their names, their sending, the counsels for the journey, the warnings of persecution, and the command to confess the Messiah even at the cost of martyrdom. It stands well within the historical framework; their mission is limited to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; but the material is so arranged as to serve the needs of the church at a later time.
The third discourse is an enlargement of the Marcan parable chapter. It contains several new parables, including the tares and the fish-net, which introduce important new themes, such as the thought of the church on earth as an intermediate form of the kingdom, and the more elaborate eschatology to which this thought is related, and the ' consummation of the age' to which everything moves.
|320 The fourth discourse concerns the household of the church, and is broken by narrative. The figure of Peter is prominent in it, and it follows Peter's confession of faith, which is left in its Marcan position, but has appended to it the famous word, 'Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.' The setting of the discourse is the Marcan conclave at Capernaum, with its teaching on mutual service, and humility, and concern for the little ones, to which it adds the duty of unlimited forgiveness. It affirms the divine character of the church in a new form of the heaven-and-earth mysticism, in which the church on earth is the middle term which links the two.
The fifth discourse is a double one. First come the lamentations over the Pharisees, which balance the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount; for here is the unspiritual externalized religion, which masquerades as the Law and the prophets in action. This long prophetic diatribe ends with the lamentation over Jerusalem and the Temple, which was taken from Q; and this provides a background for the Marcan 'Little Apocalypse' which immediately follows in an extended form. Three parables of judgement are added, the Talents, the Ten Virgins, and the Sheep and the Goats; and this ends the ministry of Jesus to Israel. The Passion narrative follows.
These five long discourses are fitted into the framework supplied by the Marcan narrative, and so successfully was this done that the same system of lection-division could be used for both Gospels in the ancient manuscripts, with a surprisingly small degree of variation.One Gospel could be substituted for the other in a continuous reading course with very little difficulty. They were both built according to the same pattern. But it would be an error to consider Matthew as nothing but an ingenious arrangement of traditional sources for liturgical or didactic purposes in the ecclesia. Our author has his own vision of what he is doing, which appears in his peculiar source-material, his explanatory handling of the text, and his general structure.
Matthew repudiates the Judaism of his day in order to present a new Judaism of superior authority. He does not begin, like Mark, with John the Baptist; he begins with Abraham, who appears in the literature |321 of Jewish Hellenism as the first instructor of the old civilizations of Babylon, Syria and Egypt. He produces a genealogical scroll which introduces Jesus as the son of Abraham and the son of 'David the king'; and this ancient and royal genealogyis divided into six periods of time, thus indicating that a seventh and last era of history had opened with the Messianic kingdom. John the Baptist announces the' kingdom of the heavens', which he does not do in Mark. Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee with the 'gospel of the kingdom', an interesting new phrase.
We turn to the end of the book. The eleven apostles are sent out from a mountain in Galilee to make disciples of all the nations, and the risen Messiah will be with them to the consummation of the age. The oriental mind would have no difficulty about this; the new seventh age had begun; the final age of Sibylline song.
After the genealogy and the birth of the Messiah, Matthew brings in the Magian pilgrims, who are the representatives of the old oriental civilization, to offer their homage at his cradle. They are led by a star and the suggestion is that the heavens belong to God; the stars are good – not evil as the prevailing astral religion declared.
It is a remarkable fact that Matthew uses the phrase 'kingdom of the heavens', not 'kingdom of God'. It recalls the words of Daniel to the king of Babylon, 'that thou mightest know, O king, that the heavens do rule'. The Rabbis often spoke of God by the title of 'the heavens', and no doubt it was done out of motives of reverence to avoid profaning the word 'God'; but it also offset the current suggestion in astral or gnostic religion that there were evil powers in the heavens; a form of thought which is used in the Epistle to the Ephesians for a special purpose. Such gnostic teachers as Simon of Samaria took it seriously. Jesus used the word 'God' with great freedom, as his Pharisee opponents sarcastically observed: 'Rabbi, we know that thou art true, and regardest not the person of man, but teachest the way of God in truth ' (they are mocking at his solemn asseveration, 'Amen I say unto you'). Nevertheless Matthew prefers the word 'heavens' when speaking of the divine kingdom; it makes it perfectly clear which God was meant; it was the Hebrew God.
The Magian pilgrims to Jerusalem and Bethlehem hail Jesus as the one who was born to be king. Egypt affords him a refuge from the evil
|322 designs of the tyrant who had usurped the throne which rightly belonged to him. The Gentile world to which Matthew relates his Gospel is that of the old orient, with Egypt on the one hand and Babylonia on the other. When we read of a mission to the Gentiles, or rather to the nations, at the end of it, we should think of it in terms of this oriental world. The Hellenism of this evangelist is that of a Judaism which was expanding into a Syrian world. He says that people came from the whole of Syria to hear the Sermon on the Mount.
We have already given some account of the strongly Jewish-Christian traditions which were incorporated into this Gospel. When we examine this material we find that the Christians among whom it was formulated were commanded to submit to the scribes and Pharisees who occupied the seat of Moses, though they were not to imitate their conduct. These Christians were still offering sacrifices at the Temple, which shows that it took form before the destruction of the city in A.D. 70; Jerusalem is the holy city, or the city of the great king, in this Gospel; and the Great King was the title of the Persian or Parthian monarch, and was equivalent to 'king of kings'.
A note of irony often creeps into these Jewish contexts. The personal ministry of Jesus was confined to the' lost sheep of the house of Israel'; but this way of putting it was no compliment to Israel. The missions on which he sent his disciples were limited in the same way; they were not to go along the road to Samaria, or enter the Gentile cities; it would take them till doomsday to convert Israel; 'You will not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.' The word 'Gentile' is often used in an ironical context. 'Do not even the Gentiles do the same?' we read; or 'After all these things do the Gentiles seek'; as if no Jew ever gave a thought to the material goods of this world. A powerful intellectual ferment was at work wherever this teaching went. It was no wonder that the rabbis in the Mishnah said that he mocked at the words of the wise.
The controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees is given more space in Matthew than Mark, and is treated in a more dramatic style. They are the principal opponents of Jesus, a point of view which is in marked contrast with that of the Acts, in which we are told that a |323 measure of toleration was secured for the Christians at one time by the intercession of the influential Pharisee, Gamaliel I. But this was before the destruction of Jerusalem, and after that date the policy changed. So soon as the rabbis at Jamnia had consolidated their power, they proceeded to enforce their own interpretation of the Law on all Jews; henceforward there would be only one interpretation of the Law. This unifying policy must have taken some time to formulate and enforce, and the turning-point must have come at some point in the second Christian generation, when the leadership in Israel passed from the broad-minded and scholarly Johanan ben Zakkai to the princely and dictatorial rabbi Gamaliel II. One sign of the accomplishment of the change was the definition of the canon of scripture about the year 95; henceforward there would be no additional creative or interpretative literature which might compete with the oral tradition of the sages. Another was the so-called Blessing of the Minim.
The word 'blessing' was sometimes used euphemistically in the Hebrew language to mean 'cursing', and that is what it means in this phrase. It was actually an anathema, and contained such words as these: 'May the Notzrim and the Minim be suddenly laid low and not inscribed with the righteous'; the Notzrim or Nazareans being the Christians, and the Minim being heretics in general. Wherever this 'benediction' was adopted, the 'Nazareans' would be forced out of the orthodox synagogue; and when we turn to Matthew, we find that they were in serious danger of persecution and punishment. This fact is to be found in Mark and Q of course, and is confirmed by the evidence of Thessalonians; but it is much more strongly emphasized in Matthew.
This historical background helps us to understand why this Gospel sets out in such a dramatic style the lamentations over the scribes and Pharisees, and sets up the gospel tradition as the true interpretation of the Law. Just as we can dimly see a Matthew tradition in the pages of the Mishnah, so we can discern the earliest Mishnaic tradition behind the special tradition of our canonical Matthew. It looks as if they were in touch with one another. We now think of the new conditions in northern Israel; of the rabbinic schools at Jamnia and Lydda and Caes-area; and particularly the patriarchal establishment of Gamaliel II in the capital city. Caesarea and Lydda had Christian churches, as we know from the Acts, and conflict would be bound to occur there.
|324 The production of the canonical Matthew has been assigned by some scholars to this region of southern Syria or northern Israel; it certainly looks as if its special tradition took form there.
The author of the canonical Matthew gave the place of honour in his record to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Whether he mastered it himself in Aramaic or depended upon translations we cannot say. He was a Hellenist and wrote an excellent synagogue Greek. He knew the Law and the Prophets in the Septuagint version and generally adjusted his quotations to agree with it. The combination of his different sources was done with extraordinary literary felicity, so as to form an all-inclusive gospel for actual use in church. It was a sacred text.
His style is powerful, direct and clear. He rounds off, supplements and fills out whatever in Mark was meagre or uncertain or enigmatic. Mark, for instance, speaks of Pilate without saying who he was; and he speaks of the high priest without giving his name. Matthew corrects these omissions. On the other hand, he dispenses with a great deal of Mark's vivid detail, holding simply to what was essential to tell the story. He rolls out a magnificent liturgical prose which is always moving and impressive. His Gospel has become the most important book in the world. When we consider what the influence of his version of the Sermon on the Mount has been, and how often his version of the Lord's Prayer is used throughout the world every day, we can see no exaggeration in this statement.
The world-wide scope of its influence was anticipated in the book itself, in the commission given to the eleven apostles after the Resurrection. They are to go out and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all the things which had been commanded by the Lord, meaning of course the teaching contained in the book. The gospel teaching thus breaks out of its original Jewish limitations, and a world-wide expansion begins from the mountains of Galilee. The Jewish-Christian tradition of the teaching of Jesus, in which the Law and the Prophets have been spiritually interpreted, is promulgated as a spiritual law for all nations. The apostolate is the power-line through which this gospel was transmitted.
It would be a very crude interpretation of our documentary studies |325 to suppose that this presentation of the gospel was effected by making a few additions to Mark and Q from some later stratum of documents or from the inner consciousness of the author himself. He is drawing upon an oriental form of the gospel tradition which was independent of Mark and Q and had its own pedigree and history; he does not hesitate to interpret Mark and Q in the light of it.
It would also be a mistake to suppose that the presentation of the Messiah as the supreme exponent of the Law involved some lower view of his person or function; in oriental thought the teacher of heavenly truth was a being with divine authority. Matthew retains and strengthens the evangelical theology of Mark, if we may call it a theology; but he has a theology of his own, or rather of the school which he represents. His Messiah is the Son of God; a middle term in a heaven-and-earth mysticism; and also a middle term between the past and the future, between the first beginnings of the historical revelation in Abraham and Moses and its final consummation when the Son of Man appears again to sit on the throne of his glory and judge the nations.
In the meantime he is present in his church through the ministry of his apostles, who are to be received as himself. He is with them to the end of time.
There is one point, however, where the author seems to reveal a personal interest; it is a little change which he introduces into the text of Mark. In that gospel there is a story of a 'publican' named Levi the son of Alphaeus, who is called to follow Jesus; and his house becomes a centre of evangelism and teaching for the 'publicans and sinners'; but there is no Levi in Mark's list of the twelve. In Matthew there is no Levi at all; his name has been altered to Matthew, and the Matthew in the list of the Twelve is distinguished as the 'publican'.This change clarifies the Marcan text. Many Jews had two names, and it is recorded that Jesus conferred new names on his disciples. It would be perfectly natural if Levi, the exactor of taxes, preferred to use a new name when he went about as an apostle of the Lord. Simon had denied his Lord, Saul had persecuted, Levi had exercised an offensive profession; under the new names of Peter and Paul and Matthew they redeemed their past |326 and won praise in the church. This identification connects the master of the special tradition of this Gospel with the ministry of Jesus to the non-religious or non-respectable classes; and the extension of the gospel to these classes was regarded as a first stage in its extension to the nations of the world.
Our author does not name Matthew as the master of his special tradition. It is Peter who occupies this place. The Matthew tradition, therefore, was not simply the Matthew tradition; it was the Matthaean form of the tradition of Peter and the Twelve. This, in turn, clarifies the statement of Papias. Matthew and Mark both made arrangements of the oracles of the Lord, and these oracles turn out, in both cases, to be the tradition of Peter. And what else could they be?
In Mark and Q, the word 'house' or 'family' is in very frequent use for the circle of disciples who accepted Jesus as their Lord and master. Jesus is the 'master of the house', and the Twelve are his trusted servants who are given authority in it. In Matthew, however, we twice find the word ecclesia or 'church'. It may be that Jesus used the Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent, kahal, which was in common use for the whole assembly of Israel in the desert or in the Temple; but it is thought that Matthew may have introduced the word in order to clarify the situation, just as Mark may have introduced the word euangelion or gospel. The word 'ecclesia' is used once of the local group of disciples, and once of the whole household or new Israel, which Jesus was bringing into being.
In the fourth discourse, this household or church is the principal theme, and it is stated that what they bind on earth is bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Jesus himself is with them when they meet in his name, and what they agree together to ask of the Father the Father will do for them. There is nothing ambiguous about these sayings. Binding and loosing were terms of the Rabbinic tradition, and referred to the interpretation of the Law. The 'house' of Hillel might bind; the 'house' of Shammai might loose; the one permitted, the other forbade. The authority to make these binding interpretations no longer belonged to the scribes; it had been committed to the disciples of Jesus meeting in his name, that is to say with him in their midst. In particular it had passed to the Twelve, who formed a san-hedrin of judgement, 'sitting upon twelve thrones'; and among them a high position of responsibility was conferred upon Simon Peter, with the new name of the Stone.
The stone symbolism is connected with the ideas of building a house or raising a family; for the Hebrew word bdndh had both meanings; and there was a well-known play on words as between banim which means 'children', and abanim which means 'stones'. 'Out of these stones God can raise up children to Abraham', John the Baptist says; and raising up children means building a house.
Peter had been, at times, a man of little faith. He had been swift to speak and slow to understand, though never harsh or ambitious like the sons of Zebedee. He had opposed the doctrine of the cross, and would deny his Lord. He was a skandalon, the Lord says in Matthew, a stone on which a man might stumble and fall; he impeded progress; and yet, when he confessed Christ as Messiah and Son of God, he could be described as a 'petra', a stone on which a house might be built.
Thou art Petros, and on this petra I will build my church, and the gates of death [hades ] shall not conquer it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
(Matthew xvi. 18 – 19.)
It is true that the powers of binding and loosing had been conferred by Jesus on the Twelve as a whole already, or possibly on the whole household of disciples acting in his name; but they are now conferred personally upon Peter as the leader of the Twelve and the first exponent of their faith. He is the chief steward in God's kingdom, for the keys were the symbol of the authority of the chief steward in the house. They also symbolized the office of the scribe.
We are bound to infer that in the tradition from which these words were received, and in any church where they were accepted or taught or recorded, the brethren looked back to a time when, as they believed, Peter had occupied such a position, and had presided, with the college of the Twelve, in the Jewish-Christian church and pronounced such decisions. Certain other evidence from Palestine falls into line with this. Paul calls him the apostle of the circumcision, that is to say of the original Jewish churches; and in the first half of the Acts, he is the leader of the Jerusalem church, and forms the first Gentile church at Caesarea, under its wing so to speak. He enunciates the policy of |328 freedom for the Gentiles in the council of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. Among the Hellenistic Jewish-Christians of the second century, and in eastern Christianity generally his position of leadership among the Twelve was increasingly emphasized; and the Gospel of Matthew must have contributed to this view of the gospel tradition.
On the other hand, it says nothing to support the claims of James the Just or of the family of Jesus. We can see where it stands in relation to the Palestinian tradition. It is not a tradition of the old Jerusalem church. It is not promoting the claims of the Lord's family.
There does not seem to be any considerable body of new narrative in Matthew. Apart from the stories of the nativity, which must have been derived from the tradition of the brethren of the Lord, it appears mostly in the form of additions and appendages to the narrative of Mark. It is distinctly secondary. This leads us to wonder what this church in Syria had before Mark's Gospel reached it from Rome; and the most reasonable hypothesis is that they had something not unlike Mark's Gospel. They could not have possessed the story of Pilate's wife's dream, or the remorse of Judas, without any Passion narrative to attach them to. They must have had a Passion narrative very like that of Mark, that is to say a Petrine Passion narrative. Many scholars think that the Passion narrative was one of the first things to be written down, and that it circulated separately before any of the surviving Gospels were written. There was other material available, of course; Luke had access to non-Petrine Passion sources, but Matthew shows no sign of them apart from what is plainly additional and secondary material; that is to say there is no sign that the Passion narrative which he was familiar with before the Marcan Gospel arrived differed from it much in order or substance.
How far these arguments could be applied to the rest of the Marcan material is a matter of speculation.
Some of the additional material in Matthew is thought to be of a symbolic or apocalyptic character, reinforcing the spiritual significance of the original tale; Peter's walking on the water may be an example; or the sentence in the transfiguration story, 'His face shone like the sun'; or the earthquake at the Crucifixion and the opening of the graves. They may be poetry rather than factual reporting, many scholars think.
|329 Some are local tales. The Jerusalem stories seem to be of this type; the story of the death of Judas is connected with a site that was pointed out; in another case a story was told among the Jews 'unto this day'. Perhaps he gives these stories for what they were worth. There must have been many of them about in his time; disciples, and disciples of disciples, were still telling their memories, and he seems to have gathered up the fragments that nothing might be lost. Perhaps he gives a miniature portrait of himself in one of his minor parables: 'Every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of the heavens is like the master of a house who can bring out of his storeroom things new and old.'
It would appear that the special tradition which he followed was mainly Galilean, and that its contact with Jerusalem was slight. In Luke the risen Lord appears to his disciples in Jerusalem, and Matthew must have known that such appearances had occurred; nevertheless he concentrates upon a single resurrection appearance in Galilee, and leaves the impression that the presence of the risen Lord was in the church continually everywhere. It looks as if the glory has departed from Jerusalem.
The effect of this Gospel was to establish the doctrine of an omnipresent spiritual deity who worked continually through human agents in history, and supremely in a flesh-and-blood Jesus who was a descendant of Abraham and David. He came in succession to the Law and the prophets; he fulfilled his mission to Israel; he died on the cross at a place called Golgotha and rose again on the third day; he was the builder of the apostolic church. It would be the answer to the spiritualizing gnostic or mystic who rejected Judaism and thought of the Saviour as an angel or spirit. Such an answer could only be given with the help of the Jewish tradition. Jesus was not only a real human being; he was a Jew, the greatest Jew of them all.
The composer of this Gospel was aware of certain dangers in the church, and draws attention to them by his treatment of the prophetic passages in the Little Apocalypse. The wars and persecutions and martyrdoms are to be succeeded by the appearance of false prophets as in Mark. 'Many shall be offended', he adds, a word which implies a falling away from the faith; 'many false prophets will appear, and will lead many astray, lawlessness will increase, and the love of many will |330 grow cold.' We hear this from every source. 'You have left your first love ... you are neither hot nor cold', the author of the Revelation writes. 'Love shall be turned into hate', we read in the Didache and the Ascension of Isaiah. Strife and envy have broken out among the elders and pastors, Hermas and the Ascension complain. And there are always the false prophets.
The enemy as Matthew sees it is lawlessness, the spirit which rejects the kingdom of God and his righteousness. It assumes a Christian exterior and it wears sheep's clothing; but actually it is a beast of prey. It is a noxious weed, and it is not possible to root it out. Everything must grow together till the harvest. This is an 'eschatological' situation; for the harvest is the end of the 'aeon', the climax of the present historical time-process. He presents his picture in high apocalyptic style in his explanation of the parable of the tares. God will send his angels; he will gather out of his earthly kingdom everything that offends; the evil will go into the furnace of fire; the righteous will shine like the stars in the firmament. He explains his parable with new figures of speech more astonishing still. They are taken from the prophet Daniel.
Matthew underlines apocalypse, for apocalypse is one of the answers to 'lawlessness'. Law and righteousness are great historical principles in Matthew. The book is dominated by the ideas of retribution and maturation. Everybody will get his reward or wages. They will all be paid in full. It is in the grain of God's creation; it is not something to be added to it. Even the 'end of the aeon' is simply a universal harvest or maturation, not an act of violence done to the natural processes. It will be the fulfilment of all divine and natural processes; the sunteleia or maturity.
All the imagery, including the payment of wages, belongs to the harvest-fields and the harvest-festivals. Out of these harvest-festivals of Judaism comes the liturgical and apocalyptic imagery, including the harvest parables,the vineyard parables, the pay-day parables, the judgement parables, and the nuptial parables, in all of which he rejoices. The final scene of this panorama passes into sheer allegory. A king sits upon a throne, but he is not a king; he is a shepherd. All the nations |331 pass before him, but they are not nations; they are individuals. There is no need for any act of judgement; it took place long ago when the poor beggar was turned away from the gate, or the prisoner left to pine, or the sick man to die. It was the king himself who was rejected in that humble form. The eschatology of Matthew takes a strange form; it is incorporated into the time-process. It is going on now. It is God in action.
There is terror in Matthew as well as irony; but it is more than balanced by an amazing tenderness of heart, which is all the more effective because of the contrast. There is a perpetual concern for little children and the little ones, and the 'least of these my brethren', and even for those of little faith. The lastcomer to the vineyard gets as good as the rest; and there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety and nine righteous persons who need no repentance. These passages are sometimes forgotten when critics come to assess the eschatology of Matthew, though they are of the essence of it. What is safeguarded in it is the teaching of Jesus, along time-honoured Jewish lines, about the dealings of God with men, and about his mercy as well as his justice.
The style of Matthew tends to give further definition to the teaching of Jesus, and to strengthen the visual imagery. It is a didactic style at some points, and an apocalyptic style at others; but it is always a dramatic style. We have suggested that the apocalyptic style sometimes breaks into the narrative, or lends more glory and terror to the apocalyptic utterances. The Angel is actually seen descending from heaven and rolling away the stone from the tomb. The coming of the Son of Man, the sound of the trumpet, the sending out of the angels to gather in the elect, the happiness of the blessed and the despair of the lost, are presented in strong and realistic colours. An over-spiritual mysticism, which thought itself superior to common morality, would not be allowed to escape from the full impact and effect of these traditional Jewish concepts, which were taken into Christianity as images of the eternal realities which condition life in this world; representing in dramatic and moving forms the doctrine of an inevitable judgement upon all the works of man, and of a final separation between good and evil, in accordance with a divine law which is operative in history at all times and works continually towards its perfect fulfilment and consummation : the kingship or kingdom of God.
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