History of Christianity—Lecture 6: The Gospel according to Matthew (part 2)

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.

This post covers the second part of the lecture; see the previous post for the first part.

10. Matthew’s editing of the Genealogy according to 1 Chronicles

Why would Matthew change the genealogy that he inherited from 1 Chronicles? Apparently because he wanted to show that something significant happened every 14 generations. If he included all the generations between Joram and Uzziah, then he would no longer have the sequence of 14 generations.

There are other problems with this sequence of 14 generations, one of which being that the final sequence of 14 actually contains only 13 names. Matthew, though, is trying to make a point, and the point is not really about the historical accuracy of his genealogy; the point is about Jesus. He’s trying to say that Jesus really was the Jewish Messiah descended from the venerable Jewish line of David. His genealogy is constructed in order to show that there was divine Providence behind the appearance of Jesus at this particular point in time.

11. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth

Jesus’ Jewishness continues to be at the forefront in the stories that come next in Matthew’s Gospel, stories that again are not found in Mark, stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth.

Probably the most striking thing about these stories as found in Matthew is that they mirror the accounts of the birth of Moses in the Hebrew Bible. You can compare the accounts of Luke and Matthew about Jesus’ birth because they both give narratives of Jesus’ birth, but they are both very different from one another. The stories found in Luke are not the stories found in Matthew and vice versa. In Matthew’s account, there is no word about Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, taking a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem because there is a tax that Caesar Augustus has levied, and the entire world has to go register for a census, and so they just happen to be in Bethlehem that weekend. In Matthew’s account, Mary and Joseph are just in Bethlehem and Jesus is born there. There is no account in Matthew of the shepherds coming to worship Jesus. In Matthew’s account instead there are the wise men who come to worship Jesus.

The way the story goes in Matthew’s Gospel after the recounting of the genealogy is that Jesus is born in Bethlehem, there are wise men who are following a star who eventually come to Bethlehem apparently some months later, because we find out that King Herod learns that these wise men have come, and he decides that he wants to kill this child who has been born. And so he sends his soldiers out, and they kill every child two years and under in Bethlehem. Well, why two years and under? If Jesus was born just last night, surely the soldiers would recognize that some toddler running around in the yard wasn’t born last night. It’s because these wise men in fact have taken months to come to Bethlehem.

Joseph learns in a dream, though, that Herod is sending out the troops, and is warned to flee, so they flee to Egypt. We are told that they flee to Egypt, so that God can fulfill a scripture about Jesus, “out of Egypt have I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). When Joseph and Mary learn then that King Herod has eventually died, they return. Where are they going to return? In Matthew’s Gospel, they want to return to Bethlehem, presumably because it’s their home town. But they learn that the ruler now in Bethlehem is Archelaus, Herod’s son, who is even worse than his father, so they decide to relocate in Nazareth. And so the reason Jesus is raised in Nazareth is because his parents have to relocate there after fleeing back out of Egypt.

These stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew, unlike in Luke, are interesting because they mirror the accounts of Moses’ birth. With Moses, again a child is born under a hostile regime, Egypt rather than Rome. In Moses’ case as well, the ruling power wants to destroy him. In Moses’ case too, he is divinely protected. He sojourns in Egypt. He leaves Egypt. He goes through the water. In Moses’ case, of course, it’s the water of the Red Sea during the Exodus. In Jesus’ case, immediately after the stories of his birth, he is baptized. In other words, it skips all of those years from his infancy and his adulthood. The next story is that he goes through the waters of baptism. And then, he goes out into the wilderness to be tempted, just like how Moses and the children of Israel went into the wilderness. In their case, it was for 40 years; in the case of Jesus, it was for 40 days. And then , Jesus comes from the wilderness and goes up onto the mountain to deliver his teaching, his new Law, just as Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s law.

12. Matthew’s Jesus: The New Moses

Matthew has told the stories about Jesus’ birth precisely in order to call into mind the birth of Moses. Why the birth of Moses? Because for Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a new Moses, a new Savior of the people of Israel. Not one who stands in contradiction to or in tension with Moses himself, but a new Moses who fulfills the Law of Moses and delivers its correct interpretation. Matthew doesn’t understand the choice for people in his day to between Moses and Jesus. Matthew, as we are going to see, is not propounding that followers of Jesus have to reject Judaism. On the contrary, followers of Jesus, according to Matthew, have to affirm Judaism. But it is Judaism as interpreted by Jesus. It’s not a choice between Moses and Jesus; it’s a choice between Moses without Jesus and Moses with Jesus. And according to the Gospel of Matthew, it’s only Moses with Jesus that is the proper interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Some people have pointed out the striking fact that in Matthew’s Gospel, unlike Mark and unlike Luke, there are five major blocks of Jesus’ teaching, the first of which is the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 through 7. Much of this material is not found in Mark; most of it is found in “Q”. But why are five blocks of his teaching? Is it to make a parallel to the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch? It’s a possibility.

13. Jesus and the Fulfillment of Jewish Law

It’s important further to recognize that these stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel are all explicitly said to fulfill the Scripture. We’re told by Matthew that Jesus was born of a virgin and we’re told why, because according to Isaiah 7:14, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a child and you shall call him Emanuel.” There’s a question of whether Isaiah itself was referring to the birth of a child through a virgin. When you read the text in Hebrew, it doesn’t in fact say a virgin will conceive and bear a child, it says a young woman will conceive and bear a child, but the Christian quotation of it in Matthew indicates that she was to be a virgin; Jesus’ birth therefore fulfills Scripture.

He’s born in Bethelem. Why? Well, Matthew says it is because it is according to the prophet Micah, who says that the Savior will come from Bethlehem. He flees to Egypt. Why? Because Scripture says in Hosea 11:1: “out of Egypt have I called my son.”

At every point, the events surrounding Jesus’ birth are said to fulfill Scripture. Why this emphasis, which is found only in Matthew? Precisely because Matthew is trying to show that Jesus fulfills everything that God predicted in the Scriptures. Jesus in other words is the Jewish fulfillment of the Jewish law given by the Jewish God. He is the one who, like Moses, will deliver God’s Law to his people. This emphasis on the Law that Jesus gives is particularly to be found in the first block of his teaching, the so-called Sermon on the Mount.

14. The Sermon on the Mount: The Antitheses

Jesus goes up on a mountain, much as Moses went to Mt. Sinai and then delivers his teaching. He begins the Sermon on the Mount, not by espousing an entirely new teaching, but interpreting for his hearers the teachings of Moses in the so-called “Antitheses,” the Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew. The Antitheses come after he has given the Beatitudes, where he begins to interpret what Moses said, and gives his own reading of what Moses means. Jesus says, for example, “you have heard it said that you shall not murder, and that whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who gets angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. I say to you, you should not even lust after a woman in your heart. You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. I say to you, turn the other cheek.”

Jesus gives the Law of Moses and then gives his interpretation of the Law. These teachings are called the Antitheses because Jesus sets his own understanding of his teaching in opposition to other understandings of the teaching. It’s not that Jesus is contradicting what Moses himself says. In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “Moses says you shall not murder, but I say you should.” These Antitheses instead are giving alternative interpretations of the Law of Moses which go beyond the literal level down to the point of the spirit of the Law. “Moses said don’t kill; I say don’t even get angry.” “Moses said don’t commit adultery; I say don’t even lust.” Jesus wants his followers to not only follow the letter of the Law, but it’s very spirit.

Some readers have assumed that Jesus can’t really be serious: Jesus can’t really expect people not to get angry or not to lust. Prof. Ehrman says, however, that Matthew in fact seems to think that Jesus is quite serious. Matthew gives no indication that he thinks that these are impossible commandments, quite the contrary. Matthew indicates that Jesus’ followers are to keep the Law even better than the Jewish leaders of his own day. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, verses 17-20, found only in Matthew, “don’t suppose that I came to destroy the Law and the prophets; I did not come to destroy them, but to fulfill them. Truly I say to you, until Heaven and Earth pass away, not one letter, not even a small part of a letter, will pass away from the Law until it all takes place.” Whoever loosens the least of these Commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Then he concludes by saying “truly I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus insists that his followers keep the Law and keep it even better than the scribes and Pharisees.

Well, how is that possible? Matthew evidently does not think it is possible simply by making a list of do’s and don’ts that everyone has to follow. To some extent, following the Law of God for Matthew is a very simple affair, as we learn later in the Gospel in chapter 22, where a Jewish teacher comes up to Jesus and says to him, “what is the heart of the Law?”, and Jesus quotes two of the Law’s commandments, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Anyone who truly follows those two commandments fulfills the Law and does so better than the scribes and the Pharisees.

15. Jesus’ criticism of Jewish leaders

In fact, in this Gospel, the emphasis on following the Jewish Law and the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus himself is counterbalanced by Jesus’ forceful opposition to the Jewish leaders, whom Jesus does not think follow the Law very well. In fact, Jesus portrays them as hypocrites who demand that people follow the Law but don’t do so themselves. Particularly striking is chapter 23, which shows Matthew’s vehement opposition to the scribes and the Pharisees, where Jesus calls his opponents, the Jewish leaders, “white-washed sepulchers”, meaning they look clean on the outside, but filled with rot and corruption within. He calls them “hypocrites” who don’t practice what they preach. He says that they stress what is picayune, they don’t keep what is central, but keep only little bits of the law, they strain out gnats but they swallow camels. They are portrayed as godless and heartless blind leaders who know the right thing to do, but don’t raise a finger to do it themselves.

Matthew’s Gospel is sometimes thought of as being anti-Semitic because of this harsh opposition to the Jewish leaders. Prof. Ehrman stresses, however, that there is nothing in this Gospel itself that condemns Jews per se, only the Jewish leaders. Even in the most vitriolic attack on the Jewish leaders, Jesus does not condemn the Jewish people per se.

Probably the most poignant scene is at Jesus’ own trial before Pilate, where Pilate claims that Jesus is innocent and he washes his hands of Jesus’ blood, which is found only in Matthew. The Jewish crowds cry out, “his blood be upon us and our children.” Some people have taken this as a condemnation of the Jewish people. But it’s worth noting that in the context, it’s the Jewish leaders that have urged the people to say this. It’s the Jewish leaders who are at fault for leading the Jewish people astray.

16. Conclusion

This Gospel does not condemn Judaism or Jews; it condemns the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. In conclusion, this Gospel is a lot like Mark. Here too, Jesus dies as the son of God for the sins of the world, but the emphasis here is a lot more on the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus here is the Jewish Messiah, sent from the Jewish God, in fulfillment of the Jewish Law. Jesus as the Messiah gives the true interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures to his Jewish followers and he expects these followers to keep the Jewish law even better than the scribers at the Pharisees.


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