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Composition of Matthew's Gospel

Composition of Matthew's Gospel

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The final author of ‘Matthew’s’ Gospel was, in all likelihood, a hellenised Christian scribe in Antioch. Following scholarly convention, we will simply refer to the Gospel’s author as ‘Matthew’.

When we study this Gospel, we find that much more than Mark Matthew has shaped ancient traditions into a well thought out presentation. Mark followed more or less a geographical pattern (Galilee, journeys, Jerusalem). Matthew devised a theological scheme. For him Christ is first and foremost the Teacher, the new Moses.

Matthew’s planning can be illustrated by:

The structure around five sermons

Just as Moses had presented the Old Testament law in five books, in the Pentateuch, so Jesus is made to present his teaching in five major sermons that form the backbone of the Gospel (see diagram ):

  • chapter 5-7 the sermon on the mount (in Galilee)
  • chapter 10 the sermon for the Apostles
  • chapter 13 the sermon of parables on the Kingdom
  • chapter 18 the sermon for community leaders
  • chapter 24-25 the sermon on the mount of Olives.

Each of these five sermons ends with the same phrase: ‘And when Jesus finished these sayings . . . .’ (Mt 7,28; 11,1; 13,53; 19,1; 26,1.) See B.W.BACON, `The "Five Books" of Matthew against the Jews’, Expositor 15 (1918) pp. 55-66; id., Studies in Matthew, London 1930.

Matthew starts with infancy narratives (chapters 1-2) and concludes with the passion and resurrection (chapters 26-28). In between, he intersperses series of events and words of Jesus that establish Jesus as a teacher.

The sermon on the mount

While respecting the traditional texts, Matthew was not afraid of moulding them into new logical frameworks. Take, for example, the sermon on the mount. Here Matthew has brought together 35 originally distinct passages. Some of these he may have found as `clumps’ in oral tradition or in the written document Quelle, but it was Matthew who re-arranged them and joined them in new combinations. He shaped it all into a powerful display of the new morality, the new `law’ required in God’s Kingdom.

To bring out the contrast with the old law even sharper, Matthew created the setting on the mountain:

Jesus went up on the mountain. When he sat down his disciples came close. He opened his mouth and taught them with these words: `Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . ’ (Mt 5,1-3).

We know from Luke that Jesus actually spoke the beatitudes when he was‘in the plain’, ‘in a low-lying place’ (Lk 6,17; see 6,20-26). Matthew deliberately made Jesus deliver his sermon on the mountain to compare him with Moses who had proclaimed the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20). Jesus’ laws of love complement and transcend the old Law.

On the question: ‘Did Jesus really preach the sermon on the mount?’, the answer is simple. He never preached it in the way Matthew presents it now. What Jesus taught on many different occasions, Matthew moulds into one coherent lesson. Matthew tells us: ‘This is Jesus’ teaching on Christian morality’. By editing the text, welding it together and presenting it as one unit, Matthew interprets the traditions for us. Of course, he does so under inspiration so that we have a correct, representative picture of Jesus’ teaching on this point.

For scholarly literature, see: W.D.DAVIES, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount, Cambridge 1964; J.BLIGH, The Sermon on the Mount, Slough 1975; D.A.CARSON, The Sermon on the Mount, Grand Rapids 1978; H.D.BETZ, Studien zum Bergpredigt, Tübingen 1985.

Editorial cut-and-paste

Similar editorial work by Matthew can be demonstrated for the series of ten miracles (chapters 8 and 9), for the sermon of parables on the Kingdom (chapter 13) and for almost every section of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew was a real ‘editor’ in the sense that he trimmed the text or enlarged it, cut or pasted, as he thought best.

Read: J.MOISER, ‘The Structure of Matthew 8-9. A Suggestion’, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 76 (1985) pp. 117-118. J.D.KINGSBURY, The Parables of Jesus in Matthew 13, London 1969; D.WENHAM, ‘The Structure of Matthew 13’, New Testament Studies 25 (1979) pp. 516-522.

John Wijngaards

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