Transitioning into the Gospel of Matthew

 

Guido Reni, St. Matthew and the Angel (1620-1630)

The one constant in my writing over the past seven years has been the practice of reflecting on this strange and wonderful book of scriptures that have been handed on to both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Over this time, I’ve worked primarily with books I had less familiarity with even if I had some general knowledge and skills honed both in education and years of interpreting scripture. This has been an instrumental part of my personal growth and has helped both my appreciation and love for the scriptures grow. The past seven years have seen me work through (in order of appearance in the Bible, rather than date they were worked through) Exodus, Deuteronomy, Esther, Psalms 1-51, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Haggai and Revelation. Until this time I have not worked through any of the gospels or Pauline letters since these were areas I invested in heavily in both my education and early in ministry and which as a pastor I preached on more frequently but my work in both the Hebrew Scriptures and recently in Revelation has made me reconsider this approach due to some new insights.

The Gospel of Matthew is often described as the most Jewish of the four gospels and I would agree with this statement but not with what scholars and readers have often implied from this statement. For much of the history of Christian interpretation of scriptures had been plagued by readings that are at best unfair portrayals of Judaism and at their worst strongly anti-Jewish. Although the church continued to recognize the Hebrew Scriptures as a part of the Christian cannon, their usage was often either used for constructing a salvation history in which the election of the Jewish people is merely one step along the process of God’s eventual creation of the church or the Hebrew Scriptures became places where the interpreter of scriptures looked for prophecies (in the sense of telling the future rather than the way prophesy often works in the Hebrew Scriptures) that pointed either to Jesus or helped interpret the words of Revelation to help the diligent student predict the end of the world. When people have referred to Matthew as being the most Jewish of the gospels what is often understood by this term is it is the most judgmental or legalistic of the gospels. This fundamentally misunderstands both Judaism (both ancient and modern) and the Gospel of Matthew.

One of the gifts of spending much of the last seven years engaging both Christian and Jewish scholars on the Hebrew Scriptures and being engaged in dialogues with multiple faith traditions is that it has given me a number of insights into the way the New Testament in general, and the gospel of Matthew in particular engages the language, stories, poetry and the law of the Hebrew Scriptures. For me the gospels and Paul’s letters have become much richer documents as I’ve seen how they attempt to use the language of the scriptures (and at the time the New Testament is written the only scriptures they have are the books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament as many Christians know them.) The God that the gospels and Paul point to is the same passionate God of Israel.

People who come to these reflections are coming from different levels of familiarity with the study of scripture and particularly to some of things that are helpful in approaching the gospels. The introduction will talk about some of the perspectives I will be using in this reading. There will be times throughout this work where I will retranslate certain passages because their current translation encourages us to read Matthew in a way that is more judgmental than the Greek is: for example at the end of chapter five of Matthew, during the Sermon on the Mount, the NRSV states: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48) but the word translated perfect does not mean perfect, the word telios is a word that means having attained a goal or completion. To translate this as perfection takes most people into an accounting or courtroom like usage but what Matthew is probably attempting to communicate is something closer to: “Be complete like your Father in heaven is complete” which fits the context better, even if it may be a little harder to comprehend and force us to think about things differently. Another phrase that I will change throughout occurs most famously in Matthew 14:31 when Peter attempts to come to Jesus on water. This is Jesus’ response to Peter in the NRSV, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” which in English sounds judgmental, its hard to say ‘you of little faith’ in a kind and compassionate way but the Greek oligopistos behind this term is simply an adjective with an implied second person object. I will render this ‘little faith one’ which seems to me a term of endearment, especially when you realize that the object of this adjective is always Jesus’ disciples in Matthew.

I am heavily indebted to those who have studied Matthew and the gospels across the history of the church. There are several passages in Matthew that I will suggest a reading that goes against the grain of many interpretations of Matthew. I will also be building on the work of different scholars who at different points have seen some of the things I am seeing. For those of you making this journey with me welcome to this experiment to test out some of the theories I have about how to read this witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. I am not sure at this point whether the reflections will continue to follow the pattern of one reflection per chapter, since they may become quite lengthy at times, or the more common pattern of breaking down the individual chapters into pericopes (smaller sections like those frequently read in worship).

If you are reading these reflections, I pray that they can help give some insight not only in the Gospel of Matthew but also to the object of Matthew’s description: Jesus. I will occasionally be writing about things debated among academics, but I am attempting to write in a matter that can be heard by people in the congregations that I’ve served. I do this out of a sense of love for the gospels and the witness they bear to both Jesus and the life he attempts to direct us to. The name Matthew means disciple, and Matthew’s gospel attempts to call the readers to engage with the first disciples as they attempt to follow Jesus through his life and beyond his resurrection. Generations later may we continue to come to take Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves and learn from him for rather than being heavy and hard to bear it is light and intended for us to find rest for our souls.

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1 Response to Transitioning into the Gospel of Matthew

  1. Alex says:

    Your analysis of what people usually mean when they say Matthew is the most Jewish Gospel is spot on. It’s of critical importance that we recognize that Matthew read and used his scriptures not as prophetic proof-texts but as a vast story of pattern and repetition and resonance.

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