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Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles:

Introduction Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus
Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke Interpreting parables
Did John the Baptist fulfil the prediction of Elijah? Understanding Gospels
Unique passages in Gospels The Kingdom of God in the Gospels
Herod Family Jewish Religious Groups
Herod's Temple Annas and Caiaphas
Pontius Pilate Fall of Jerusalem - AD 70
Taxation in Israel


All four gospels in the New Testament are anonymous. Both Mark and Luke, when describing the call of Matthew use his Jewish name Levi (Mk 2:14-17, Lk 5:27-32). Matthew's gospel calls him Matthew at his call (9:9-13), and in the list of the apostles (10:1-4). The author probably wanted to show that Levi the tax-collector, by the grace of God, became Matthew the apostle. The attention to detail and the methodical arrangement of the material, would be typical of someone who had been a tax-collector.

Evidence from Church history

There is a clear, consistent, unanimous witness from church history. There has been no serious doubt over Matthew's authorship. Matthew was not a significant figure in the early church, so there would be no reason for the tradition for his authorship, unless he wrote it. The title of the gospel is very old, perhaps as early as AD 125. Many claim that the gospel was originally written in Hebrew, then later translated into Greek.

These are some quotations from writers in the early church:

Papias: “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could” (Papias Fragments 6:22) - quoted by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3:39:16)

Origen: "And we will begin with Matthew, who is reported by tradition to have published his Gospel before the others, to the Hebrews, those, namely, of the circumcision who believed." (Homilies on John 6:17)

Irenaeus: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.” (Against Heresies 3:1:1)

Eusebius: “For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.” (Ecclesiastical History 3:24:6)

Jerome: “The first evangelist is Matthew, the publican, who was surnamed Levi. He published his Gospel in Judaea in the Hebrew language, chiefly for the sake of Jewish believers in Christ, who adhered in vain to the shadow of the law, although the substance of the Gospel had come”. (Preface to Commentary on Matthew)

Jerome: "Matthew who is also called Levi, and who was changed from a tax collector into an apostle, was the first in Judea to compose a gospel of Christ in Hebrew for those of the circumcised who believed. But who later translated it into Greek is not known." (Lives of Illustrious Men 3)

In spite of the evidence from the writings of the early church fathers, the majority of scholars today do not believe that Matthew was translated from an original version in Hebrew into Greek, but was written originally in Greek.

Eusebius records that Pantaenus discovered a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in India, written in Hebrew: “Pantaenus was one of these, and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time.” (Ecclesiastical History 5:10:3)

Matthew's qualifications

His occupation as tax collector highly qualified him to be the official record keeper of the words and work of Jesus. A tax-collector needed to be fluent in Greek, to be literate, and able to keep good records. To fishermen, pen and book would be a strange thing, but Matthew's work would have made him familiar with the act of writing and recording. It is interesting to note that Jesus called a tax collector (Matt 9:9) in his group alongside a zealot (Luke 6:16). The inclusion of a hated tax-collector among his disciples would have been astonishing and offensive to Jews. For more information about taxation in Israel under the Roman Empire, please see the article on Taxation.

Date and place of writing

The date of writing is unknown. It is probably before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which is predicted in chapter 24. Some scholars have claimed that a manuscript in Magdalene College, Oxford, P64, containing fragments of Matthew’s gospel (ch 26) have been dated by analysing the handwriting to the middle of the first century.

There is great ongoing debate over the relationship between the three synoptic gospels, particularly over which was written first. Modern scholarship normally supports Mark as the earliest gospel, but the witness from the early church is that Matthew was the first gospel to be written.

The place of writing is also unknown. A suggestion would be a place where Judaism and early Christianity existed together, and were in close contact, perhaps either in northern Palestine or Antioch in Syria.

Purpose of book - To prove that Jesus is the Messiah

Matthew’s main purpose was to demonstrate that Jesus was the long-expected Jewish Messiah, showing that all God’s purposes have come to fulfilment in Jesus, so Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament hopes and predictions. To be the Messiah, he would need to be descended from David, completely keep and uphold the law of Moses, and establish the Kingdom of God.

Matthew introduces his gospel with a genealogy, showing that Jesus Christ was Son of David and Son of Abraham (1:1), the fulfilment of the two great promises in the O.T. The Messiah had to be a son of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), and Son of David (2 Sam 7:12-16, Ps 89:29-37). The Messiah had to be a descendant from David (Is 11:1; 9:7), so Matthew shows that 'Son of David', was used as a title to address Jesus (1:1,(20), 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9,15).

Jesus continually upheld the law, saying, “not an iota, not a dot would pass from the law until all is accomplished" (5:18), and "those who did the commandments and taught them would be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (5:19). He said that the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, who sat on Moses' seat should be practised and observed (23:2), and that the Jewish temple tax should be paid (17:24-27). He also taught his disciples to fast (6:16), and to bring their offerings (5:23-24).

Matthew has a great emphasis on the Kingdom, using the phrase 'Kingdom of Heaven' thirty-eight times, to avoid the phrase 'Kingdom of God' which would be more offensive to Jews. The Messiah was coming to set up his Kingdom. This kingdom is both here now, as well as not yet here. We enter into the Kingdom of God when Jesus becomes King over our lives, but still await its consummation. Matthew continually uses the phrase 'The Christ', meaning the Messiah (1:16, 1:17, 2:4, 11:2, 16:16, 16:20, 22:42, 23:10, 26:63, 26:68, 27:17, 27:22).

He also shows that Jesus came in fulfilment of O.T. prophecy. He uses a standard formula quotation, "This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet....". This appears five times in the birth narratives: (1:22-23 - fulfilling Is 7:14; 2:5-6 - fulfilling Mic 5:2; 2:15 - fulfilling Hos 11:1; 2:17 - fulfilling Jer 31:15; 2:23 - fulfilling Is 11:1). It also occurs five times through the rest of book, (4:14-16 - fulfilling Is 9:1-2; 8:17 - fulfilling Is 53:4; 12:17-21 - fulfilling Is 42:1-4; 21:4 - fulfilling Is 62:11; Zech 9:9; 27:9-10 - fulfilling Zech 11:12-13, Jer 32:6-9)

Matthew is the Gospel of the King, showing that the prophetic hope that the Messiah would unite in himself the three important offices of prophet, priest and king, has been fulfilled. The lengthy discourses given by Jesus show his prophetic ministry. His atoning death on the cross shows him to be both priest and sacrifice. Jesus is frequently described as being a king: his genealogy is the kingly line (1:6-11), the Magi ask for King of Jews (2:2), Jesus calls himself king (17:25), the king rides on a donkey into Jerusalem (21:1-11), Pilate asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (27:11), and the sign over cross reads , "Jesus the King of the Jews" (27:37).

The Gospel is very Jewish. The genealogy is traced from Abraham and arranged in three groups of fourteen generations in true rabbinic style (1:1-17). Matthew refers to Jewish customs and phrases without any explanation: the tradition of elders (15:1-2), phylacteries (23:5), whitewashed tombs (23:27-28) and the day of preparation (27:62). He also refers to the Holy City and The Holy Place (4:5, 24:15, 27:53), and to the Mosaic Law (5:17-19,21,27,31,33,38,43, 7:12, 11:13, 12:5, 15:6, 22:36,40, 23:23).

Matthew also shows that the gospel is firmly rooted in the O.T., using many other direct quotation of prophecies. There are also many allusions, echoes, single words and phrases. He quotes almost every book of the O.T., but chiefly from Isaiah and the Psalms.

He then shows how Jesus came to the Jews, but his kingdom was rejected by them, and was opened up to the Gentiles. Jesus sent out the twelve, saying, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go to lost sheep of house of Israel” (10:5-6). However there are confrontations with the Jewish leadership, especially over the Sabbath (12:1-14). In the parable of the vineyard (21:33-43), Jesus warns that, “the Kingdom will be taken away and given to a nation producing the fruits of it". Matthew uniquely records the lengthy denunciation of the Pharisees (ch 23). Then in the great commission (28:19-20), we are called to make disciples of all nations, where before he sent them only to lost sheep of house of Israel (10:5).

There is strong theme of the Gospel being for Gentiles as well: the Gentile Magi came to worship Jesus (2:1-12), and Jesus' family took refuge in Gentile Egypt (2:13-15). A Roman Centurion, seeking help, showed faith and received Jesus' blessing (8:5-13). The Gentile cities of Tyre, Sidon, Sodom and Nineveh were favourably contrasted with the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Capernaum and with 'this generation' (11:20-24, 12:41). The word about Jesus is for all the world, from east to west (8:11), for the Gentiles (12:21), and will be proclaimed throughout all the world (24:14).


Writings from the early church suggest that Matthew was probably the most widely read gospel, and is the most frequently quoted. It records lengthy teaching (discourses), so it is suggested that it was used to disciple young converts to the Christian faith.

Great prominence is given to the teaching of Jesus, introduced by expressions such as: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying .." (4:17), "And He opened his mouth and taught them saying .." (5:2), "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom .." (9:35), "And when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities .." (11:1), "And coming to his own country, he taught in their synagogue .." (13:54).

Matthew has structured his gospel with five main sections within an introduction and conclusion. The five main sections are each in two parts, a narrative describing what Jesus was doing, followed by a lengthy discourse:

Introduction Birth narrative (ch 1-2)
First section Narrative - Jesus’ early ministry (ch 3-4)
Discourse - Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7)
Second section Narrative - Healing ministry (8:1 - 9:34)
Discourse - Mission of the disciples (9:35 - 10:42)
Third section Narrative - Growing opposition (ch 11 - 12)
Discourse - Parables of the Kingdom (13:1 - 52)
Fourth section Narrative - Jesus with disciples and Pharisees (13:53 - ch 17)
Discourse - Church discipline (ch 18)
Fifth section Narrative - Confrontation (ch 19 - 22)
Discourse - Woes on Pharisees and Olivet Discourse (ch 23 - 25 )
Conclusion Passion and resurrection (ch 26 - 28)

Each of the five sections ends with formula: "When Jesus had finished these sayings...." (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). It has been suggested that the five sections was patterned on the five books of the Pentateuch, that Matthew is saying, "Here is the new Pentateuch, a new law, for the Kingdom of God”.

Apart from the five main discourses, scattered in the narrative are the following teaching of the disciples: teaching following Peter's confession (16:13-28), teaching following the transfiguration (17:1-27), riches and the Kingdom of Heaven (19:23 - 20:16), creatures in the Kingdom of Heaven (20:17-28), example of Faith (21:18-22), and teaching following the last supper (26:20-35).

Matthew is the only Gospel to mention 'church': “On this rock I will build my church” (16:18), “If brother sins ... if he refuses to listen, tell it to the church, if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be as a Gentile and tax collector” (18:17).

Passages unique to Matthew’s Gospel

The following incidents are only found in Matthew: Joseph's dream (1:20), the visit of Magi (2:1), the flight to Egypt (2:13-14), Herod killing infants (2:16), and the return to Nazareth (2:19-23). During Jesus’ ministry and passion, the following incidents are unique: Peter walking on sea (14:28), Judas receiving and returning thirty pieces of silver (26:15), Pilate's wife's dream (27:19), saints raised from tombs (27:52), guards watching tomb (27:64), the bribing of guards (28:12), and the earthquake at resurrection (28:2).

There are two miracles unique to Matthew: the two blind men healed (9:28), and the coin found in the mouth of the fish (17:24).

There are several parables only recorded by Matthew: the wheat and weeds (13:24), the hidden treasure (13:44), the discovery of a pearl (13:45), the net (13:47), the unmerciful servant (18:23), the labourers in the vineyard (20:1), the two sons (21:28), the marriage of king's son (22:1), the wise and foolish 10 virgins (25:1), the talents (25:14), and the sheep and the goats (25:31).

Unique teaching includes: the sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7), "Come to me all you who labour ..." (11:28), and the woes to the Pharisees (ch 23).

Related articles:

Introduction Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus
Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke Understanding parables
Did John the Baptist fulfil the prediction of Elijah? Understanding Gospels
Unique passages in Gospels The Kingdom of God in the Gospels
Herod Family Jewish Religious Groups
Herod's Temple Annas and Caiaphas
Pontius Pilate Fall of Jerusalem - AD 70
Taxation in Israel