Gospel of Matthew


Biblical texts create worlds of meaning and invite readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are often strange and complex, they are confronted with theological claims. With this in mind, the purpose of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series is to help dedicated students in their experience of reading and interpreting by providing guides for their journeys into textual worlds. The controlling perspective is expressed in the operative word of the title: interpreting. The primary focus of...
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The Gospel of Matthew: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series

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Biblical texts create worlds of meaning and invite readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are often strange and complex, they are confronted with theological claims. With this in mind, the purpose of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series is to help dedicated students in their experience of reading and interpreting by providing guides for their journeys into textual worlds. The controlling perspective is expressed in the operative word of the title: interpreting. The primary focus of the series is not so much on the world behind the texts or out of which the texts have arisen as on the worlds created by the texts in their engagement with readers.

In this volume, Donald Senior provides an up-to-date introduction to the Gospel of Matthew. The seven chapters of Part One focus on modern biblical scholarship and the interpretation of Matthew, discussing the sources and structure of the Gospel, its use of the Old Testament, its understanding of Jewish Law, its setting as a part of the mission of Christianity to the Gentiles, its Christology, its understanding of the nature of discipleship, and the community from which the Gospel originated. The six chapters of Part Two provide a structured guide to reading and interpreting Matthew's Gospel.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687008483
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1997
  • Series: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.99 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald Senior, C.P., isPresident Emeritus and Professor of New Testament Studies and President of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois.
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The Gospel of Matthew

By Donald Senior

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1997 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-00848-3


The Sources and Structure of Matthew's Gospel

Tracing the sources for Matthew's Gospel and grasping the overall literary design of his work have been subjects of great interest to modern biblical scholarship. Both questions take us deep into the character of Matthew's gospel and help the attentive reader interpret the gospel more responsibly.


One of the first questions considered by the earliest stages of modern biblical scholarship was that of the sources for Matthew's gospel. In the search to find the most historically reliable gospel, scholars as early as the end of the eighteenth century puzzled over the interrelationship of the Synoptic gospels (the so-called Synoptic problem), attempting to decipher which was the first—and therefore likely to be the most "historical." Traditionally, Matthew had been considered the first gospel written. Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century stated the common assumption that the canonical order in fact was the chronological order. Thus Matthew was the first, followed by Mark, Luke, and John. In the late-eighteenth century, a variant to this traditional view was offered by J. J. Griesbach, who concluded that Matthew and Luke preceded Mark, whose gospel was in effect a blend and condensation of these two earlier gospels. Griesbach's theory did not triumph in the nineteenth century but has had something of a revival in the past couple of decades.

The traditional view that Matthew was the first gospel was substantially challenged in the nineteenth century, particularly by German scholarship. For a variety of reasons, scholars concluded that Mark, not Matthew, was the first to be written and that Matthew used Mark, along with a collection of sayings of Jesus, as his primary source. Although not without its critics, this hypothesis, called the "two source" theory, has been the dominant working assumption of modern biblical scholarship on the gospel of Matthew and has some significant implications for interpreting the gospel.

The Data

The question of the interrelationship of the Synoptic gospels arises simply by comparing the three gospels. Matthew, for example, absorbs nearly 80 percent of the 661 verses found in Mark's gospel; about 65 percent of Luke's gospel has verses in common with Mark. In some instances the three gospels are virtually identical, with only small variations and most of these easily explainable by the peculiar style and preferences of each evangelist.

Closer comparison of the three gospels as a whole reveals that the order of events in Mark's narrative is the one that sets the pattern for the other two. In other words, when Matthew departs from Mark's order of events, Luke's sequence will preserve the Marcan order. And in those places where Luke's order of events strays from that of Mark, Matthew will be found to retain the Marcan sequence. This does not prove that Mark was necessarily the first to be written, but it does tell us that the three gospels are interrelated and that Mark is pivotal. Put another way, Mark is either the primary source for Matthew and Luke, or else Mark stemmed from some combination of Matthew and Luke.

On the other hand, Matthew and Luke are both much longer than Mark's gospel (Matthew has 1,068 verses compared with Mark's 661; Luke has 1,149). And these two gospels have nearly 220 verses of material in common that are not found in Mark! Most of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), for example, has no parallels in Mark but has much in common with Luke's Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49). Here, too, in some passages there is often near-literal identity between the two gospels, suggesting some sort of literary relationship.

This proximity between Matthew and Luke in some passages that do not appear in Mark led to the supposition that behind Matthew and Luke stands another literary source, called "Q" (from the German word Quelle, which means "source"). No independent examples of Q exist except where Q is incorporated in the gospels. Because the general order of this shared material is practically the same in Matthew and Luke and because of the number of verbal similarities between the two versions, most scholars conclude that Q had a fairly fixed literary form by the time it was used by Matthew and Luke, having been transmitted in the early community orally or, more probably, in writing. The original structure of Q is much debated, but in general it included the opening scenes of Jesus' encounter with John the Baptist, the temptation in the desert, Jesus' ethical teachings, his conflicts with his opponents, and, finally, warnings of eschatological judgment. There is no passion narrative or any emphasis on Jesus' healings and exorcisms.

Parallels to Mark and Q combined, however, do not account for all the material in either Matthew or Luke. A significant number of passages in Matthew, for example, are found neither in Mark nor in Q, such as the peculiar Matthean content of the infancy narrative, certain parables (e.g., 18:21-35; 25:31-46), the story of Judas' death (27:3-10), and the climactic great commission scene (28:16-20)—to name a few. A similar catalog of unique Lucan passages could also be drawn up. For this reason, most scholars assume that Matthew and Luke either drew on other oral or written sources available to them or, what is probable in most cases, composed such materials themselves.

Proposed Solutions

As a result of these considerations, the prevailing hypothesis among most Matthean scholars is that Matthew depended on two main sources for the composition of his gospel: Mark and Q. Several arguments have been put forward for this theory.

1) A strong argument for Mark's priority is the difficulty of explaining why Mark would have omitted so much of the material found in Matthew and Luke, if in fact Mark used them as a source. In Matthew this includes such key gospel material as the infancy narratives, the Sermon on the Mount—including the Lord's Prayer—much of the mission discourse (chap. 10), many of the parables including the ones on forgiveness in chapter 18, Jesus' critique of the religious leaders in chapter 23, much of Jesus' teaching about the end-time in chapters 24 to 25, and all of the resurrection appearances found in chapter 28.

Although scholars can and do assume that Mark "condensed" Matthew and therefore eliminated this material, it is hard to come up with a convincing explanation of why an early Christian writer would do so.

2) Another type of argument for Marcan priority is based on content. In a number of instances, Matthew's gospel seems to enhance the Greek style of Mark. Although it is conceivable, on the supposition that Mark used Matthew, that Mark was an inferior writer of Greek and simply took Matthew's superior style down a peg, it is more convincing to suggest that Matthew improved upon Mark's Greek.

The same holds true for a number of places where Matthew would appear to upgrade Mark's content or to eliminate passages in Mark that were enigmatic or possibly offensive. Matthew, for example, omits Mark 3:21 where Jesus' family believes him to be "beside himself" or out of his mind. Mark's report that Jesus healed "many" (Mark 1:32-34; 3:10) becomes healed "all" in Matthew's version (Matt 8:16; 12:15). These examples can be multiplied many times over.

The Question of Sources and the Character of Matthew's Gospel

If the two-source hypothesis is correct, then Matthew's gospel is composed from two main sources. On the one hand, Matthew depended on the already existing gospel of Mark. We can presume that this gospel already had a place of honor in Matthew's community, perhaps proclaimed in the community's communal prayer and worship and used to instruct community members about Jesus' life and teaching. Mark's gospel was a lean and powerful narrative, focusing on Jesus' public ministry, his dramatic healings and exorcisms, his mission in Galilee, his journey to Jerusalem, and, above all, the taut and compelling drama of his passion and death and the proclamation of Jesus' victory over death in the discovery of the empty tomb. This story would be incorporated almost entirely into Matthew's narrative, and Mark's account of Jesus would be the backbone of Matthew's gospel.

But Matthew also had access to another source of material, a text that presented Jesus as powerful teacher, as one whose words of truth confronted falsehood and hypocrisy, bringing life and threatening judgment. The material in Q has a strong ethical content, spelling out what it meant to follow Jesus. By blending this material into the storyline of Mark, Matthew added a new dimension to his gospel portrayal of Jesus. In the view of some scholars, by fusing Mark's gospel with Q, Matthew in effect prevented the latter from portraying Jesus purely as a teacher of wisdom or as a prophet who punctured certitudes with challenging parables and sayings. This prophet would suffer rejection and persecution, ultimately giving his life as "a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28). At the same time, the teaching material in Q gave a discernible ethical dimension to the numinous figure of Jesus in Mark's account. In the composite portrait that Matthew has produced, Jesus is both compassionate healer and ethical teacher, prophetic judge and crucified Messiah.

We know, too, that Matthew was not merely a copyist, blending traditional sources into a new mix. He also reworked these sources, giving them the stamp of his own literary style and theological perspective. At the same time, he added material to his narrative not found in either Mark or Q. This special Matthean material is sometimes referred to as "M." Some of this is extensive, such as the stories that make up the infancy narrative (Matt 1–2) or the stories surrounding the resurrection of Jesus (27:62-66; 28:9-10, 16-20). Other additions are more brief such as the chain of events that explodes at the moment of Jesus' death (27:51-53) or the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:21-35). Some of this material may be traceable to oral traditions handed on in Matthew's community which the evangelist put into written form and incorporated in his gospel. But the profusion of typical Matthean vocabulary and themes in other "M" material strongly suggests that the evangelist has formulated much of this material himself. Consideration of Matthew's potential relationship with his sources can make us more alert to the distinctive shape and character of his narrative. A close comparison between Matthew and Mark—even if we are not fully sure about the literary relationship between these gospels—helps the special features of Matthew stand out.


To discover the sources for Matthew's gospel means reading the gospel "horizontally," that is, with one eye on potential parallels in the gospel of Mark or in Q (as detected in parallel passages in Luke). Detecting the structure or literary design of Matthew's gospel, however, means reading the gospel "vertically," from start to finish (or from top to bottom if one imagines the gospel laid out on the page of a synopsis).

This task also has been a concern of recent Matthean scholarship. Our goal here is not to attempt an in-depth analysis of Matthew's structure, since we will be working our way through the gospel in detail in Part 2 of our study. Instead, we will sample some of the structures for the gospel proposed by Matthean scholars in order to deepen our knowledge of the gospel and alert us to new dimensions of the task of interpretation. Tracing the structure or literary design of the gospel gives insight into the intended message and purpose of the gospel. How the story is put together, in other words, helps determine its impact and meaning for the reader.

Traditional analyses of the structure or literary design of Matthew's gospel have generally fallen into three main categories, each determined by features of the narrative: (1) Structures that take the five discourses as their cue; (2) Structures based on a chiastic pattern; and (3) Structures that follow the story line of the gospel.

Matthew's Five Books

The five great discourses of Jesus are a unique feature of Matthew's gospel. Many commentators on Matthew's gospel have found in these discourses the key to Matthew's literary design. One of the most influential proponents of this approach was the American scholar Benjamin Bacon, who wrote in the early part of this century. He noted the presence in Matthew of a transition statement that occurs five times in the gospel (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), each marking the end of a main discourse and the beginning of a narrative section. Bacon surmised that these formulae were the results of Matthew's own editorial work and that the five great "books" of narrative and discourse they set off were evidence that the evangelist had patterned his gospel after the five great books of the Pentateuch. This Pentateuchal structure signaled Matthew's ultimate purpose: Jesus was the "new Moses" replacing the authority of the old Law and offering a new law or Torah to the church.

While most scholars agreed that Bacon was correct in giving the five discourses a place of prominence in Matthew's literary design, his theory that Matthew was modeling his entire gospel on the Pentateuch was less successful. Critics pointed out that it tended to leave to the periphery the infancy narrative of chapters 1–2 and the passion and resurrection narratives of 26–28. Bacon had designated these sections "prologue" and "epilogue" respectively, but such a role does not adequately describe these important blocks of material, particularly the passion story which is so dominant in the overall structure of the gospel. In addition, there are other extended blocks of discourse material in Matthew that do not fall within the framework of the fivefold formula, such as the material in 11:7-30 and the critique of the religious leaders in chapter 23. Adhering too rigidly to Bacon's fivefold structure could become a Procrustean bed in which the shape of the gospel is trimmed to meet the assumption of a fivefold division!

While no recent scholarship has tried to rescue Bacon's Pentateuchal model, others have developed his insight about the alternating pattern of narrative and discourse in Matthew's gospel. Dale Allison, for example, believes that such alternation is the key to the gospel. Matthew builds his story of Jesus with successive segments of narrative and discourse, building to the climax of the passion and the resurrection, with its mission instruction:

Chaps. 1–4 Narrative: Introduction of the main character Jesus
Discourse: Jesus' demands upon Israel
Narrative: Jesus' deeds within and for Israel
Discourse: Extension of ministry through words and
deeds of others

Narrative: Israel's negative response
Discourse: Explanation of Israel's negative response
Narrative: Establishment of the new people of God, the church
Discourse: Instruction to the church
Narrative: Commencement of the passion; beginning of the end
Discourse: The future—judgment and salvation
Narrative: The passion and resurrection

Chiastic Patterns

This approach takes its cue from another feature of Matthew's distinctive style. The evangelist has a penchant for ordering material in his gospel: Many of Jesus' sayings and parables are organized into discourses; the miracles are grouped in clusters of three within chapters 8 and 9; words of judgment and eschatological warning are gathered in chapters 23–25; and Matthew seems fascinated with numbers, as many ancient Jewish texts were.

Commentators such as Peter F. Ellis and H. B. Green took this tendency of the evangelist a step farther by proposing that the entire literary design of Matthew's gospel is chiastic in structure. Chiasm is a pattern used in ancient Greek literature in which a text is ordered around a center, with other segments radiating from the center and standing in balance with one another. Put in letter form this would be: a b c b' a'. With c as the center of the literary piece, the other segments [a and a', b and b'] would be in evident thematic parallel with one another. The basic purpose of a chiastic arrangement was to facilitate memorization of material.


Excerpted from The Gospel of Matthew by Donald Senior. Copyright © 1997 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 13 FINALE (28:16-20),

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