History of Christianity–Lecture 6: The Gospel according to Matthew (part 1)


This is a summary of the sixth part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company. The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament. For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

1. Introduction: Jesus, the Jewish Messiah

At this point in our study, we have begun to examine the individual Gospels of the New Testament to see how they each portray Jesus. Our assumption has been that each Gospel is distinctive, and that it is important to see how each author individually portrays Jesus.

We began with Mark, since by common assent it was the earliest of the Gospels to be written. Mark portrays Jesus as the powerful but almost universally misunderstood son of God who, despite common expectations, had to suffer and die.

2. Matthew—One of the Synoptic Gospels

We can now move on to Matthew, a Gospel widely thought to be the most Jewish in its understanding of Jesus. In many ways, both Matthew and Luke are very similar to Mark. In fact, there are entire passages that the three Gospels share, sometimes telling the very same stories word for word the same. For this reason, scholars have long called these three books the Synoptic Gospels. The word “Synoptic” comes from two Greek words which mean “seen together”. It’s possible to lay these Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke–side by side and see them together. They tell many of the same stories, often in the same words.

As we will see, this is not the case with the Gospel of John, which has very few stories in common with the other three Gospels. For centuries, scholars have agreed that the Synoptic Gospels have so many stories in common because they used the same sources for their information about Jesus. The reason why they tell the same stories, and the reason why these stories are sometimes word for word the same, is because they are using the same sources. More specifically, it’s now generally thought that Matthew and Luke both had a copy of Mark available to them, and that they borrowed from Mark many of the stories that they give, while changing the stories as they deemed desirable. The stories are often told in the same sequence, but sometimes Matthew will relocate the story to another part of the Gospel, sometimes Luke will do that, or sometimes either one of them may change the words. Often the three Gospels will agree with one another, sometimes two of the Gospels with one another, and sometimes all three are different, depending on who changed what.

3. The Hypothetical “Q” Document

Matthew and Luke, however, have a number of stories in common between themselves that are not found in Mark. Obviously for these stories Mark was not the source. For the most part, these stories involve sayings of Jesus, for example, the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, which are found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. These stories, that are shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark, come from a Gospel document that no longer survives, which scholars since the 19th century have called “Q”. The “Q” Document is a hypothetical source, in other words, it no longer exists, and scholars have to reconstruct it, that provided Matthew and Luke with many of their traditions about Jesus, especially the sayings of Jesus. The document is called “Q” because the scholars who devised this theory in the 19th century were German scholars, and, somewhat lacking in ingenuity, they called this special source for Matthew and Luke the “Source“, which in German is “Quelle“, and hence gave it the short designation of “Q”. So when people talk about the “Q” source, they are referring to this hypothetical source of Matthew and Luke.

4. The Special Sources “M” and “L”

For stories that Matthew and Luke have that are unique to each Gospel, scholars hypothesize additional sources. They like Matthew’s special sources “M” and Luke’s special sources “L”. And so, for example, Matthew alone tells the story of the wise men following the star to the baby Jesus; that story would have come from “M”. Luke alone tells the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Both parables are found only in Luke, and they would have come from “L.”

As a result, behind our three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in the opinion of most scholars, there were 4 sources, only one of which, Mark, we still have, the others being “Q”, “M”, and “L”.

5. Redaction Criticism

Since it appears that Matthew used Mark as one of his sources, one of the ways to study Matthew’s gospel (and Luke’s as well, when we get to it) is by seeing how it differs from its source. This is a way of studying the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which is sometimes called “redaction criticism.” Redaction criticism tries to look at how an author has redacted or edited his sources. And so, if Mark was one of the sources, we can see how Matthew has changed Mark. The idea behind redaction criticism is that if an author likes the way a story already was, he wouldn’t change it. If he has added something to it, taken something away from it, or changed its wording, then it’s because there’s something about the story he wanted to change. So by looking at the changes, you can see what the author’s vested interests were. That’s the approach we’ll take in this lecture towards the Gospel of Matthew, trying to see how Matthew differs from Mark in order to see what Matthew’s distinctive emphases were.

6. Authorship of the Gospel of Matthew

By way of background, Prof. Ehrman reminds us that this Gospel has been attributed traditionally to Matthew, the disciple of Jesus who was known to be a tax collector. We don’t actually know what the actually identity of the author was. He doesn’t appear, though, to have been an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. This book was written anonymously. There are no first-person narratives in this account. And if scholars are right to say that the author used Mark for many of his stories, it’s hard to imagine that the author himself was an eyewitness, if he had to rely on somebody else for recounting what Jesus had done. Scholars are fairly unified in thinking that, whoever the author was, he was not one of the disciples. He appears to have been a Greek-speaking Christian writing around 80-85 AD, about a half century or so after the events that he narrated.

7. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus—the Jewish Messiah

Matthew’s Gospel provides a distinctive portrayal of Jesus. On the one hand, as you might expect, Matthew has a view that is similar to Mark. Here too as in Mark, Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, whose entire life looked forward to his death, which was necessary to bring about salvation. Matthew has many of the same stories and therefore much of the same theology as Mark, but there are different emphases in this Gospel as well. It becomes apparent at the very outset. In brief, the distinctiveness of this Gospel has to do with its stress both on the Jewishness of Jesus and on his opposition to Judaism as he found it. This Gospel emphasizes far more than Mark that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish scripture. He gathered Jewish disciples and taught them that they had to follow the Jewish law. At the same time, Jesus opposed the Jewish teachers of his own day and condemned the way that they practiced their own religion. It’s this combination of a strong affirmation of Judaism as it ought to be, and a vitriolic condemnation of Judaism as it was actually practiced, that makes Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus so distinctive.

8. The Beginning of Matthew—the Genealogy of Jesus

Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ own Jewishness can be seen in passages that are found in Matthew that are not found in his earlier source Mark. Prof. Ehrman stresses again this methodological point. By adding stories to his source, Matthew has altered somewhat the overarching perspective. We saw that Mark began his Gospel with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Matthew doesn’t begin his Gospel that way. Instead, Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that traces the descent of Jesus.

Genealogies are not the most favorite readings of students of the Bible. However, the genealogy in Matthew, which is only 16 verses long, doesn’t compare at all with some of the genealogies you get in the Hebrew Bible, like 1 Chronicles which begins with 9 chapters of genealogy.

The 16 verses in Matthew are well chosen and are a key to understanding Matthew’s own emphasis as comes clear at the very beginning: “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He begins his Gospel by stressing the intimate connection between Jesus and David and Abraham. David, of course, was the great King of the Jews who lived a thousand years before Jesus, the great King whose descendant was supposed to be another King, a ruler of the Jews, commonly known as the “son of David,” the Messiah. Abraham was the Father of the Jews, from whom all Jews trace their lineage.

In other words, the very first verse is stressing that Jesus, because he is descended from Abraham, and that he is the Messiah, descended from David. The genealogy itself goes on then to establish Jesus’ credentials as standing in the Messianic line of the Jews, and it does so in a striking way.

The genealogy begins: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, Jacob begot Judah and his brothers, then it goes on down to Jesse begot David the King, David begot Solomon through the wife of Uriah, Solomon begot Rehoboam, etc. It goes on down to Jeconiah, who was begotten along with his brothers by Josiah at the time of captivity to Babylon. After the captivity to Babylon Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel, etc., on down to Matthan, who begot Jacob, who begot Joseph, who was the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, the Messiah. It’s who begot whom from Abraham to David to the captivity in Babylon down to Joseph, who is married to the woman who begot Jesus. It doesn’t say that Joseph begot Jesus.

9. Key Events in the Genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew

But then comes the most striking verse of all, verse 17. “So, all of the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations.” Those from David to the captivity in Babylon were 14 generations. And those from the captivity in Babylon to the Messiah were 14 generations.” 14 generations between the Father of the Jews, the great King of the Jews, the Babylonian captivity, and the Messiah. This genealogy seems to be showing that at every 14th generation a significant event happened in the history of Israel: its greatest King, its greatest disaster, the Babylonian captivity, and then its Messiah. 14 generations separated all of the key events in the history of Israel; this almost sounds too good to be true, as if the Messiah had to come precisely when Jesus was born.

The problem, though, is that in order to make the sequence of 14, 14, and 14 work, Matthew had to do some creative editing. A comparison with the Hebrew Bible shows in fact that Matthew has dropped out some of the names from his genealogy. Mark 1:8 says that Asa begot Jehosephat, Jehosephat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. According to this then Uzziah was the son of Joram. But when you read the Hebrew Bible, according to 1 Chronicles, the nine chapter long genealogy, you find Joram and Uzziah again, but in that case it turns out that Joram was not Uzziah’s father, but his great-great-grandfather.

The next post will give the second part of the lecture.

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