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The Gospel According to Matthew


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The Gospels
The first important thing to note about the 4 canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is that they are not the only four Gospels in existence; others were written, but not included when the final decisions were made about what texts would be in the "New Testament," or official collection of Greek Scriptures. Nor were they written at the same time: Mark, the earliest, is thought to have been penned circa 70 C.E. (or A.D.); John, the latest of the four, circa 110 C.E. Moreover, they do not tell exactly the same story; not only do different Gospels emphasize and omit different material, but in same cases they contradict each other; compare, for example, the last words of Jesus on the cross across all four:
  • "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27; Mk. 15)
  • "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!" (Lk. 23)
  • "It is finished." (Jn. 18)

What can we make of all these differences? One obvious conclusion is that the Evangelists (i.e., Gospel-writers: the Greek word for "Gospel," to evangelion, meant "good news," and prior to the spread of Christian teachings was mainly used to refer to imperial proclamations) were writing for different audiences who needed to hear different things, or to have things interpreted for them in different ways.

Comparing Matthew and Luke
The reason I asked you to read Luke 1-4 was to get a sense of the kinds of differences in background, education, doctrine, and audience demographics that might have governed the choices each Evangelist made regarding the form and content of his Gospel. I suggest that you make a list of 5 differences between Luke's account of the birth and youth of Jesus (Lk.1-4) and Matthew's (Mt. 1-4), and then try to formulate a hypothesis about what each of them is "up to": that is, how does Matthew perceive his responsibilities as an Evangelist? How does he invest his text with authority? What traditions is he drawing on to lend authority to his texts, and what traditions is he polemicizing with? What about Luke--where is he "coming from," and what's his mission? Use the the comparisons and contrasts between the two Gospels to help you define the individual character of each.

Sources of the Gospels
On Thursday, we will be examining another, even more different Gospel, that of John. Unlike Matthew, John barely made it into the canonical "New Testament" texts, because his style and methods were so unlike those of the other, "Synoptic" Gospels (so called because they take a "similar view" of events, from which John appears to deviate). It's thought the Synoptic Gospels were written in part from the same source, but Biblical scholars are still working on (and probably will never definitively solve) the so-called Synoptic Problem, i.e. what the sources were and how each informed the others. A number of hypotheses have been proposed, of which the most popular is the 2-Source Hypothesis, which posits that Matthew and Luke each drew on Mark plus an additional, unidentified source named Q:

Mark and Q (assuming for the moment that the above hypothesis is correct) were in turn working with a variety of pre-existing sources:

  • oral traditions
  • the letters of the Apostle Paul (not one of the original 12, but a former Jew named Saul who converted to Christianity after being blinded, apparently by the ghost of Jesus, on the road to Damascus....Acts 9:1-20)
  • the Septuagint (see below).

Historical Background

  • 336-323 B.C.E. Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, extends his empire across the Near East, with the result that Hellenism (Greek-derived, Greek-speaking culture) becomes the dominant culture in those lands (which include the traditional habitat of the Jews, as well as a number of other religious cultures).
  • [323-40 B.C.E Judaea successively ruled by Hellenistic Greece, Syria, and Rome, with a brief interlude (ca. 140-135 B.C.E) of independence following the success of the Maccabean Revolt.]
  • ca. 200 B.C.E. the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into vernacular Greek, is created, according to tradition by a collective of 70 translators (hence the name, "Septuagint," from Latin septem [seven] + -ginta (>viginti, twenty). The Septuagint was designed to help Jews who were now using Greek as their primary language to remain familiar with their sacred texts, but it had the side-effect of making Hebrew Scripture available to the Greek-speaking population at large for the first time.
  • 39 B.C.E. Herod (later the Great) declared King of Judaea by the Roman Senate.
  • 4 B.C.E. Jesus is born (according to scholarly concensus) Herod dies. His son Archelaus replaces him as ruler of Judaea.
  • 6 C.E. (="A.D.") The Emperor Augustus exiles Archelaus, replacing him with a Roman prefect. Thus, for the first time since the Maccabean Revolt 150 years earlier, Judaea is directly governed by a foreign, pagan authority instead of by a Jewish religious leader. Taxes are now paid directly to Rome (instead of being filtered through a local Jewish ruler). As a result, the power structure of the region is awkwardly divided among persons, systems, and cultures: the (pagan, Roman) Prefect lives in Caesaria (on the coast), visiting Jerusalem about 3 times a year, for festivals; the (pagan, Roman) High Priest lives in Jerusalem; the population, however, is mostly Jewish (thus it's unlikely that Jesus would have met any Romans in most of his travels).
  • ca. 33 C.E. crucifixion of Jesus
  • ca. 50 C.E. letters of Paul the Apostle
  • ca. 70 C.E. Gospel of Mark
  • sometime between 70 and 100 C.E.: Gospels of Matthew and Luke
  • ca. 110 C.E. Gospel of John.


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