The Community of Matthew

by John Wijngaards, in Scripture from Scratch, January 1996.

Scholarship seems to favour Antioch as the setting in which Matthew’s Gospel was composed. This means that the Christian community at Antioch left a lasting imprint on this fascinating Gospel.

The core of Matthew’s Gospel derived from a collection of Jesus’ teachings in Aramaic, which, according to ancient tradition, was ascribed to the Apostle Matthew. This collection of ‘words’ corresponded closely to a documentary source identified by scholarship. They call it Quelle. A Greek speaking Christian scribe in Antioch took this material and another source, Ur-Mark, and composed the Gospel from it. For simplicity’s sake modern authors follow ancient custom in referring also to this final author as ‘Matthew’, and this is what I shall do.

Focus on the work of Matthew, however, might totally overlook the role played by Matthew’s community, the Christians at Antioch. Yes, one author put his personal stamp on style and expression, but only after the text had been refined in discussion with the others. But to understand the contribution of the community, we need to say a word about Antioch.

City on the Orontes

I bet that you may never have thought of Antioch in Syria as a scriptural town, and yet it was. Though lying just north of the Holy Land, it dominated Palestinian fortunes for three centuries (from 333 BC). The story of the Maccabees recounts the dramatic consequences. For it was Antiochus IV, the king of Antioch, who tried to force Greek culture on the Jews. And in New Testament times Antioch featured even more prominently. It was in Antioch that the first uncircumcised Gentiles joined a Christian community (Acts 11,19-24). Antioch became the centre from which Paul launched his missionary journeys (Acts 13,1-3). Antioch was also the place where Peter and Paul clashed regarding the observance of the Law (Galatians 2,11-13).

If the Gospel of Matthew arose in Antioch, as many scholars think, the Antiochean context throws a lot of light on the Gospel. It may explain how the Gospel came about. It will help us recognise the traces in it of the concerns of the local Christian community.

Jesus as the new Tora

With half a million inhabitants, Antioch ranked as the third largest city in the Graeco-Roman Empire. Antioch also contained large Jewish quarters surpassed in size only by those in Jerusalem and Alexandria.

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century AD, tells us that the Jews in Antioch were well organised. They enjoyed full civil rights. They had their own leaders and magistrates. They had built a sumptuous synagogue, decorated throughout with votive offerings made of brass. They often sent magnificent gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Life for these Jews, as for Jews in our own day, revolved around the Tora, the word of God as contained in the five books of Moses. The five books of the Tora were God’s law. They determined worship, ritual practice and everyday morality. Who listened to a reading from any of these five sacred scrolls was listening to God himself.

Now turn to the Gospel of Matthew. You will find that it is totally constructed around five collections of sayings of Jesus: the sermon on the Mount, the sermon to the Apostles, the sermon about the Kingdom, the sermon on Leadership and the sermon about the Last Things ( see Matthew, chs 5-7, 10, 13, 18 and 22-23). This is not a coincidence. Jesus’ five sermons replace the five scrolls of the Tora.

Do not think for a moment that Jesus actually spoke these texts on five specific occasions. We know from a comparison with Mark and Luke that the sermons are each composed of dozens of separate teachings. By his presentation of Jesus’ teaching in five books, the author presents Jesus as the new Moses, no, even more, as the new Tora, the revelation of God.

Rabbinical Subtleties

‘But such a scheme is rather subtle’, you might think. ‘Would the intended readers notice it, leave alone understand its implications?’ The answer is: Yes, they certainly would! For the intended readers were extremely sophisticated.

Matthew wrote first and foremost for the influential Pharisees and scribes in Antioch. They were trained to pay attention to detail. Every letter in the Tora was counted, the position of each word analysed. Hidden messages were read in the numerical value of phrases. Old Testament texts were conflated into instructional meditations known as midrash.

Take, for instance, the table of Jesus’ ancestors. They have been artificially grouped into three lists of fourteen persons each (see Matthew 1,1-16). Why fourteen? Because the name ‘David’ has the numerical value of fourteen. Counting the consonants only, ‘D’ (Daleth) was the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet and ‘W’ (Waw) the sixth. ‘David’ (D + W + D) , therefore, totalled 4 + 6 + 4 = 14. The whole structure proclaims Jesus as the messianic ‘Son of David’. And . . . . Jesus is born in the fullness of time, in the seventh series of seven times seven generations (see also Daniel 9,24).

To give another example: the story of the Magi is an elaborate midrash composed around seven Old Testament prophecies. It presents Jesus as the Saviour of the whole world (see Matthew 2,1-23; 4,12-17).

In short, Matthew’s Gospel is a carefully crafted document that aims to prove to sophisticated Jewish scholars that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah promised in the Scriptures. The Gospel contains 24 explicit references to the Old Testament, including the frequent phrase: ‘this happened in order that might be fulfilled what has been written in the Scriptures’. But there is more.

God’s universal banquet

The Christian community in Antioch was, as we have seen, from its very beginning a mixed community. It brought together converts from pagan backgrounds no less than converts from Judaism. Such a universalism was a startling departure from generally accepted Jewish conviction and practice. Especially because the Gentile Christians were not required to become Jews by circumcision.

The author of the Gospel had to show that God’s promise of salvation was meant for all nations, and that Jesus was a truly universal saviour. As usual, his arguments are both subtle and all-pervasive.

In the genealogy, among forty-two men, Matthew pointedly inserts four pagan women in Jesus’ ancestry: Tamar and Rahab both Canaanites, Ruth the Moabitess and Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) the Hittite.

In other words: Jesus himself was not purely Jewish. Gentile blood flowed through his veins!

Then, look at his entire Gospel. Employing a rabbinical ‘ring construction’, Matthew begins his Gospel with the nations seeking Jesus in the persons of the Magi and concludes with Jesus sending his apostles to make disciples of all the nations (see Matthew 28,18-20). Remember that the word ‘Gentiles’ was haggoyim, ‘the nations’.

Matthew highlights Jesus’ encounter with Gentiles, usually with a note of praise. ‘Great is your faith, woman!’, Jesus says to the Syro-Phoenician mother. And commenting on the faith of the Roman centurion, he exclaims: ‘ Nations shall come from east and west and take their place in the Kingdom of heaven’ (see Matthew 8,5-13; 15,21-28). There is an obvious reference here to the banquet God had promised to give to all nations of the world (Isaiah 25,6-9).

Shaping the Gospel

The Gospel was not written all in one go. ‘Matthew’, who was one of the local catechists, may have prepared certain texts for special occasions. He composed the sermon on the Mount, for instance, to give a comprehensive view of Jesus’ new moral principles. He gathered seven parables to express Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of heaven. A string of ten miracles proved Jesus’ role as the messianic healer (Matthew 8-10). Such texts were presented to the community, reflected on, discussed and improved upon.
Converted scribes among the Christians would refine the scriptural references. Gentile Christians would sharpen the universal implications. In pastoral instructions and celebrations of the Word, text after text was tested, pointed, approved. Only at the end did the final author sit down and construct the whole Gospel, putting various sections into their present places, linking them, integrating them, weaving them into a tapestry of rich material.

This is the reason why the name of the final author has not been remembered. During the first century AD ordinary writers did attach their names to the texts they wrote. In the case of the Gospels this was not done, because they were community productions. They reflected not one person’s view, but the faith of the Church.

The Gospel according to Matthew was born from the faith, the skill, the pastoral zeal and literary sophistication of the Christian Church in Antioch.

John Wijngaards

John Wijngaards teaches Scripture at the Missionary Institute London. He has written numerous books and articles. His best known publications in the USA are: Experiencing Jesus (Ave Maria 1983), Inheriting the Master’s Cloak (Ave Maria 1985), The Gospel of John (Michael Glazier 1986), My Galilee My People (Paulist Press 1995) and How to Make Sense of God (Sheed & Ward 1995).

Further Reading

G.STANTON (ed.), The interpretation of Matthew, London 1983.

K.STENDAHL, The School of St.Matthew and its Use of the Old Testament, Philadelphia 1968.

J.P.MEIJER, The Vision of Matthew, New York 1978.

J.WIJNGAARDS, Together in My Name, Paulist Press 1995.