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Book by Book - Matthew

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

Nowhere in the New Testament do you see the word “gospel” used to refer to the four accounts of the life of Jesus which were penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term “gospel” and the verbal form “preach the gospel” are used throughout the New Testament. This term in the Greek, euangelion, literally means the “good news” (eu- good and –angelion news). It is used to denote the message of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Likely, it was Mark’s use of the term “gospel” in Mark 1:1 that led Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century to refer to the work of Mark as, “The Gospel according to Mark.” It is important to note that the Gospels were never seen as a gospel written by Matthew, rather they always referred to one Gospel according to a particular author (e.g. Matthew). In fact, in Greek texts of the New Testament today, the Gospels are titled simply as “Kata Matthaion,” which means “According to Matthew.” The emphasis has always been on the singleness of the Gospel even though there are four different authors. As such, there is a recognition that there is one Gospel, and yet the four accounts recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can collectively be referred to as the Gospels (plural).

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually developed a new form of literature. There were literary biographies of figures written at and before that time. But what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did was unique. Most biographies were anonymous. These were not. The Gospels combined preaching and teaching into their description of the life of Jesus. They are neither strictly a collection of teachings from Jesus, nor are they just a chronological sketch of his life and activities. Among other reasons, this is why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John stand out from other apocryphal gospel writings like, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Truth, and the hypothetical document Q. On style alone, these accounts should be rejected as Gospels.[1]

It may be surprising to you that the Gospel of Matthew nowhere claims to have actually been written by Matthew. But the historical attribution to Matthew is strong. The earliest manuscripts include the title, “According to Matthew.” And there is little reason to question this. Matthew was one of the apostles (Matt. 10:2-4). He was a tax collector on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, he is known as Levi.

The date of the writing of Matthew has been a source of great debate in modern scholarship. Traditionally, the Gospel of Matthew as seen as the earliest of the Gospels. This was likely due to the fact that it was always listed first in the collections of the Gospels. But recent scholarship has questioned this assumption. The broad and generally accepted scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first Gospel written and Matthew was written sometime afterwards, but using Mark’s material. It should be noted that some Christians struggle with the idea that the human author Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as part of his source material. Rest assured, this is no reason for concern regarding the inspiration, inerrancy, or authority of the Scriptures. That Matthew used Mark’s writing as a source for his own in no way diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing of Scripture. In fact, Luke tells us from the beginning that he compiled a variety of sources to write his Gospel account. For a variety of reasons, I take Mark as being written sometime in the early 60’s. If Matthew used Mark, then I would view Matthew as having been written sometime just before 70AD.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different feel from the other Gospels. It is decidedly more Jewish. Matthew more frequently references the Old Testament. Ten times Matthew will use a variation of the phrase, “this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching also focuses on in five major discourses: ethics, discipleship and mission, the kingdom of heaven, the church, and the end time. Some scholars view these categories as mirroring the themes of the Pentateuch.[2] If this is the case, then Matthew is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises given through Moses. Matthew is presenting Jesus as the Messiah and as the inauguration of the Kingdom of heaven. But in this Jewish character, Matthew does not present a Messiah who is only for Jews. In fact, Matthew is the Gospel where the Great Commission is found (Matt. 28:19, 20). “The Jesus of the First Gospel is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Savior of the world, and the Jesus, not of fiction, but of history.”[3]

[1] For a good introduction to the nature of Gospels in general and the Gospel of Matthew in particular, see D. A Carson and Douglas J Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009) pp.77-168.

[2]  R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), 1360.

[3] J. Gresham Machen and W. John Cook, The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Edinburgh [Scot.], Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 194.

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