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Essay How Jewish Is Matthews Gospel Notes

Theology Notes > The Gospels of Matthew and John Notes

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'How Jewish is Matthew's Gospel?'

The gospel of Matthew is a text that in many ways reflects and relates to the Judaism of the first-century eastern Mediterranean. The question of 'how Jewish' the gospel is asks us to consider which elements within the text are most directly associated with the Judaism of the period, and in what light Judaism is cast by these associations. To begin to answer the question, then, it is necessary to attempt to understand the gospel in a number of distinct ways. Firstly, it is important to consider the social context in which the gospel was written, considering particularly the status of nascent Christianity within Judaism, and the interrelationships between the two faiths. Secondly, the question demands of us an analysis of the author's theological intentions in writing the gospel, including how and why particular passages from the gospel of Mark have been used in Matthew, and edited in a particular way, presumably with some purpose in mind. These two perspectives, the social and the theological, will give us a platform from which to assess the extent of Jewish influence on the gospel, and what opinions regarding Judaism the author held and the gospel presents. The life of the author of Matthew's gospel itself is naturally important. A number of possibilities present themselves: Matthew was either a Jewish Christian or a gentile Christian, and in each case there may have been more than one reason that inspired him to write the gospel. As a Jewish Christian, it would seem that Matthew's intention with his gospel would be to attempt to inspire fellow Jews to move toward this new, developing Christian sect, still as part of the Jewish whole and attempting to reconcile differences in belief without schism, although one could equally argue that perhaps Matthew's church saw itself as something distinct from, and over and above Judaism. Otherwise, if Matthew were a gentile Christian writing amidst chiefly gentile communities, the history of conflict between Judaism and Christianity might have concerned him less. It seems, however, that it is unlikely Matthew was a gentile. One of the defining features of the gospel is that Jesus repeatedly is seen to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, such as in chapter 1, when the author appears simply to engineer an appropriate setting to fulfil God's prophetic words that 'out of Egypt have I called my son'. It is for a number of reasons quite likely that the gospel of Matthew was written after that of Mark, and indeed Matthew often borrows in no small way from the Markan text, which we might safely suppose to have been written in the mid-60s AD. The gospel of Matthew is also mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch shortly after the turn of the century, and so allowing for time for it to have been developed and disseminated, we can place the writing of the Matthean gospel at least somewhere between 70 and 100AD. These decades were undoubtedly turbulent times for the eastern fringes of the Mediterranean world, in light of increasing tension and indeed all-out war between the Hebrews and their Roman occupiers, and it is into this time of change and conflict that the gospel arrives. Fledgling Christianity was, around this period, beginning to develop theologically away from its parent Judaism, and what we must attempt to decide is whether Matthew's gospel was written prior to any major schism between Christianity and Judaism, and is thus espousing Christianity at this point as a sect of Judaism still a part of, although perhaps a development of, the wider tradition, or after, in which case Matthew's intention might reasonably be argued to have been to highlight the differences between the two faiths, and the ways in which the early Christian church had departed from Judaism, to its benefit. Acts 6 details a division within the Church regarding the Hellenistic Christians and the distribution of food to widows, that is known to have resulted in a number of Hellenists fleeing to Antioch to avoid persecution in Jerusalem, in light of their critical attitude toward the temple institution. Acts 8:1 tells us that Christianity was spreading across Judaea and Samaria as Christians escaped from persecution in Jerusalem, and it is this issue that the gospel of Matthew might well have been written to deal with: to what degree should nascent Christianity renounce its Jewish heritage in light of the persecution Christians were suffering?

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