The Gospel According to Matthew

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The Gospel According to Matthew


A gospel, or ancient biography, set in the first 30 years or so of the first century c.e. in Roman-controlled Jerusalem and Galilee; written in Greek In the 80s c.e.; first translated into English in 1382.


The words and actions of Jesus, an artisanpeasant from Nazareth in Galifee, attract a group of followers and challenge the ruling elite. The elite crucifies Jesus, but he rises from the dead.

Events in History at the Time the Gospel Takes Place

The Gospel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Gospel Was Written

For More Information

A form of ancient biography, the gospel of Matthew proclaims the “good news” of God’s salvation of the world manifested in Jesus. The gospel does not identify its author. Second-century Christian writers associate it with the name “Matthew,” but their reason is unclear. Twice the gospel identifies a Matthew as one of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 9:9; 10:3); however, he is probably not the author since the gospel was likely written after his death. One theory proposes that the name symbolically evokes the similar Greek word for “disciple” or “learner” (mathetes) to suggest that the gospel’s ideal reader is a disciple learning to follow the ways of Jesus. Another theory argues that indeed the name honors the disciple Matthew, who played an important role in teaching and leading the community of followers from which and for whom the gospel was written after Jesus’ death. Similarly the gospel does not identify its place of writing. Most scholars locate its origins in Antioch, capital of the Roman province of Syria, though some suggest Galilee. Support for Antioch comes from references the gospel itself makes to Syria in Matthew 4:24; the prominence it gives to the disciple Peter, who was influential in the Antioch church (Galatians 1–2); and the gospel’s influence on later Christian writings from Syria. Finally, the gospel does not state its date of writing. Two clues point to a likely window. First, a couple of Syrian Christian writings from around 100 c.e.—the letters of Ignatius and a teaching manual (Didache) —cite material that appears only in Matthew, which indicates that it was written before 100. Second, since Matthew refers to Rome’s catastrophic burning of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. (22:7), it must have been written after 70. Supporting this last deduction, Matthew reworks the gospel of Mark, which was written around 70 c.e. Allowing time for Mark’s gospel to circulate and to be rewritten, a date in the 80s c.e. seems likely. Given this date of composition, some 50–60 years separate Matthew’s story about Jesus from the time in which Jesus lived.

Events in History at the Time the Gospel Takes Place

Roman imperial rule

Matthew’s story of Jesus takes place in a world dominated by Roman rule. The Roman general Pompey took control of the community of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory of Judea in 63 b.c.e. Some three decades later (in 37 b.c.e.), after a series of conflicts, the local ruler Herod, fiercely loyal to Rome, emerged as king. As Rome’s puppet king until his death in 4 b.c.e., Herod maintained power by allying himself with elite figures. He appointed the high priests to Jerusalem’s Temple, exercised control over the army, ruthlessly eliminated opposition, and levied harsh taxes that, along with income from seized lands, financed an extensive building program in Jerusalem. Chapter 2 of Matthew narrates Herod’s attempt to kill the newborn Jesus by murdering males under two years of age in Bethlehem. No other sources verify the historicity of this story but such murderous behavior is consistent with Herod’s character. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod used the death penalty extensively against opponents and his own family members, including his wife (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 15.231–36,284–91, 365–68).

When Herod died in 4 b.c.e. (an event referred to in Matthew 2:15, 19–20), his territory was, with the approval of the emperor Augustus, divided among Herod’s three sons. One son, Archelaus, ruled Judea and Samaria until Rome replaced him in 6 c.e. with Rome-appointed governors. Matthew identifies fear of Archelaus as the reason for Jesus’ family not settling in Judea but moving to Galilee (Matthew 2:21–24). Jesus’ death by crucifixion, narrated in chapters 26–27 of Matthew, occurs around 30 c.e. in Jerusalem at the hands of the Jewish elite and their ally the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who governed from 26–36 c.e. Governors represented Roman interests and used the power of life and death against those who threatened them.

Herod’s second son, Herod Antipas, ruled Galilee and Perea to the north until he was exiled in 39 c.e. His policies of urban expansion and taxation caused widespread hardship for peasants and provided the context for Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew’s gospel, Herod Antipas beheads John the Baptist after John criticizes Herod’s relationship with Herodias, his brother’s wife (Matthew 14:1–12). Earlier, John has the role of preparing for Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 3:1–12).

Domination and resistance

Understanding Matthew’s story of Jesus requires awareness of the dynamics of Roman rule, the type of society it created, and the forms of resistance that developed. The Roman empire was hierarchical and vertical in structure. A small governing elite in Rome and throughout the empire secured for itself great wealth, power, and status by exploiting the population, which consisted mostly of peasant farmers and artisans. The elite lived extravagantly at the expense of this peasant-artisan majority, to which Jesus belonged.

Rome established control in several ways. It exercised its military muscle—through acts of warfare, intimidation, and a reputation for ruthlessness that deterred antagonists. Also Rome formed alliances with local elites, such as Herod Antipas in Galilee or the high priestly families and the leading Pharisees (a Jewish group), scribes, and Sadducees (another Jewish group) based in Jerusalem. In Matthew all these groups conflict with Jesus. These elites shared a mutual interest in maintaining the status quo. Another way in which the Romans secured control was through taxation—on property, products, and people. Often paid in goods, taxation confiscated much of the peasant’s output. Estimates of the percentage of peasant production removed by taxation range from 25 to 40 percent in Galilee, and the practice proved generally destructive. The taxes imposed by various levels of the elite—local landowners, the Jerusalem Temple, local kings such as Herod, Roman tribute—diverted resources from the rural Jewish populace to elite urban centers such as Rome and Antipas’s cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias. Peasants suffered the consequences—food shortages, malnutrition, breakup of households, poor health, anxiety, and overwork. The gap between rich and poor grew wider. Large landowners, including high priestly families, amassed larger property holdings in first-century Judea and Galilee as subsistence peasant farnmers defaulted on loans, rents, and taxes. Not just a material matter, the paying of taxes was seen as a test of loyalty. Matthew includes two scenes about paying taxes, including one in which elite figures try to trap Jesus into denouncing it (Matthew 22:15–22; 17:24–27). His response artfully seems to express both support and criticism: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Aside from their material hold on the people, Rome and the local elites exerted ideological control. Rome promoted itself, through personnel, coins, buildings, and festivals, as the chosen agent of Jupiter—the chief Roman god. With divine legitimization for its domination, Rome claimed to manifest Jupiter’s will and to be the channel through which various divinities bestowed blessings of victory, peace, social harmony, wellbeing, and abundance.

At the same time, residents of Judea and Galilee encountered another set of ideological claims elucidated by the Jewish elite. The priestly rulers, based in Jerusalem and allied to Rome (the chief priest was appointed by Rome’s governor), described the tithes and offerings/taxes necessary to maintain the Jerusalem Temple, its personnel, and festivities, as religious obligations of Judaism. The fulfillment of these obligations, said the priests, procured divine favor. They furthermore taught observances that, although accepted as part of divinely ordained instructions from God to Moses, nevertheless hurt many of the peasants materially. One such practice was the offerings of animals to maintain Temple operations; a proviso allowed for the poor to bring in substitute offerings (e.g., smaller animals, grain), but the practice exacted a material toll nonetheless. Studies of peasant societies show the ideological justifications for such practices to be the “public transcript” that expresses an elite view of the world. For the Jewish elite, the justification was the survival of the Temple in Jerusalem, seen as crucial at this point in history, to the survival of the Jews as a people of God.

Typically, pervasive domination by the elite and its sustained exploitation of the majority arouse resentment, which, in turn, inspires resistance. Resistance in first-century Judea and Galilee was sometimes violent. Small bands of peasants led by self-anointed kings or bandits would attack elite property and personnel before succumbing to the inevitable elite retaliation and death. Wide-scale war broke out in 66 c.e. There was also nonviolent resistance. People acted in calculated and self-protective ways, committing anonymous acts of pilfering or sabotage, or hiding production to avoid taxation.

Resistance, as shown in the studies of peasant societies, can be expressed in dignity-restoring actions, such as those Jesus teaches (Matthew 5:38–42). Or it can be expressed in ambiguous sayings—such as Jesus’ references to “the reign or empire of the heavens,” whose seditious meaning is known only to insiders (Matthew 4:17; 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47). In their response to public transcripts, peasants develop a hidden transcript or a little tradition that describes the world in vastly different ways. It contests the elite’s claims, imagining different societal structures and the end of the elite. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching serves as a hidden transcript of this kind. Central to it is Jesus’ assertion that Rome and its elite allies do not rightly claim sovereignty over the earth—God is asserting God’s rule through Jesus’ ministry, the empire or reign of God (Matthew 4:17).

Jesus also refers to the imminent “end times,” when God’s reign will eventually remove everything, including Rome, that resists God’s purposes and God will be established as supreme over all (Matthew 24:27–31). While the hidden transcript often remains invisible to the elite, direct confrontations occur in which the hidden and public transcripts collide. Jesus confronts the ruling elite based in the Jerusalem Temple, pitting his truth against their power, denouncing them, says Matthew, for acting contrary to God’s will (chapter 21). Jesus predicts the downfall of the Temple and consequent eradication of the Jerusalem elite’s power base and way of life (chapter 24). For this direct attack, he is put to death.


The Jewish historian, josephus, an ally of Rome, refers disparagingly to various insurrectionists or “social bandits” in the first century c.e. These figures are usually rural peasants severely impacted by deteriorating socio-economic circumstances. Leading small bands of peasants, they attack elite figures, steal property, and disrupt the social order. When such leaders are captured, they are executed. For instance, Josephus narrates the execution of a leading insurrectionist, Tholomaeus, and the efforts of the Roman governor Fadus (44–46 c.e.) to eliminate them all. Later, after some “bandits” rob one of the emperor’s slaves traveling to Jerusalem, the Roman governor Cumanus (48 c.e.) orders retaliation by plundering villages and arresting leaders (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.5, 113–14).

The Gospel in Focus

Plot overview

The gospel story unfolds chronologically, from Jesus’ conception to his death and resurrection. We must remember as we read that the gospel is not primarily a historical record of Jesus’ life. We have no such record. Rather the gospel tells the story of Jesus from a particular theological perspective (what God is doing through Jesus) for a particular purpose (to help readers be better followers of Jesus). This is not to suggest that the story has no historical basis. Scholars have sifted the material in Matthew (as well as in the other gospels) to recognize a basic outline of Jesus’ life, including

  • His birth in the time of Herod
  • His baptism by and association with John the Baptist
  • A prophetic preaching ministry in Galilee
  • Healings and exorcisms
  • Followers
  • A confrontation with the Jerusalem Temple-based authorities
  • Crucifixion by the Roman governor Pilate around the year 30 c.e.

Written some 50 years after these events, Matthew was produced by employing various traditions and sources about Jesus, which had been developing in communities of Jesus’ followers (see “Sources” below). The gospel keeps the story riveted on Jesus, but its structure is episodic, as is typical of ancient biography. Instead of covering every aspect of Jesus’ life, the story includes selective episodes to instruct Jesus’ followers about living faithfully with respect to his teaching. In the gospel are five major collections of Jesus’ teaching (Chapters 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 24–25). These five collections not only instruct, they also contribute to Jesus’ characterization by showing consistency between his teaching and actions. Throughout the gospel, God’s perspective controls and evaluates the action. Indirectly, through an angel, God names Jesus at conception and gives him his life’s work of saving from sin and manifesting God’s presence (Matthew 1:21, 23). Twice in the story God speaks directly, expressing approval for Jesus (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Matthew also sprinkles his story with references to Jesus’ “fulfilling” or enacting the Jewish scriptures to show Jesus doing God’s will (e.g., Matthew 8:17; 12:18–21; 21:4–5). Three groups of characters interact with Jesus in the text: elite figures who oppose his teaching; crowds who show interest and benefit from Jesus’ actions; and disciples who follow him, albeit imperfectly. The story divides into six sections.

Plot summary

Section 1 defines Jesus’ life work within the purposes and will of Israel’s God (Matthew 1:1–4:16). First, to review Israel’s history with God, there is a genealogy or family tree organized around three major figures or events:

• Abraham (c. 1800 b.c.e.; receives promise from God that through him “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed”—Genesis 12:1–3)

• King David (c. 1000 b.c.e.; Israel’s king chosen by God to represent God’s reign in a line of descendents that will last forever—2 Samuel 7:13–14)

• The experience of exile in Babylon (587–39 b.c.e.; end of David’s line of kings and of Israel’s political independence)

God’s purposes of blessing the world (Abraham) and establishing God’s rule (David) continue in Jesus the Christ, a Greek word that means the same as the Hebrew-derived “Messiah.” The term literally means “anointed” (usually with oil), an act that designates someone is chosen and commissioned by God for a particular role. Kings were anointed to rule (Psalm 2); priests were anointed to offer sacrifices on the altar on behalf of the people (Leviticus 4); prophets were anointed to speak God’s word (1 Kings 19:16); the Persian king Cyrus, God’s anointed, was unknowingly selected to set Israel free from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 44:28–45:1). Matthew designates Jesus as “the Christ” to show that he is anointed or commissioned by God. The question to be answered is “anointed to do what?”

The narration of Jesus’ conception answers this question by elaborating his commission (Matthew 1:18–25). Mary, betrothed to Joseph, becomes pregnant not by Joseph but by God’s action through the Holy Spirit. An angel from God instructs Joseph to name the child “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name Jesus, a Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, means “God saves.” With his naming, the baby Jesus is commissioned to his lifework, to carry out God’s saving purposes. A citation from the prophet Isaiah (spoken centuries previously in a situation of danger from the Assyrian empire) adds a further name, “Emmanuel,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Thus, Matthew’s gospel claims, God commissions Jesus to manifest God’s saving presence in a world dominated by Roman power and its death-inducing effects. This commission, both Jesus’ performance of it and the resistance to his performance of it, frames the whole story.

Chapter 2 narrates three contrasting responses to Jesus’ birth. First, the magi, who are Eastern astrologers, priests, and political advisers, arrive in Jerusalem after following a star and asking where is the newborn “king of the Jews.” They bring gifts to honor this baby king. Second, King Herod in Jerusalem, his center of power, is deeply troubled. He learns from his allies, the chief priests and scribes, that the Christ or Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, where David had been anointed king. His power threatened, Herod plots to kill the baby Jesus. Herod’s plans are frustrated, though, by God, who through a dream warns the magi not to tell Herod where Jesus is. Then an angel instructs Joseph to take the baby Jesus off to Egypt. Herod kills all male babies under two in Bethlehem, but fails to find Jesus. When Herod dies, the faithful, obedient, endangered Joseph, guided by an angel, returns with Mary and Jesus to Nazareth in Galilee in preparation for Jesus’ adult ministry there.

The narrative ignores Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood. Sometime during this period, the prophet John the Baptist warns people to repent and prepare for God’s intervention (Matthew 3:1–12). John does not specify particular wrongdoing that needs to be changed. His language, though, indicates that generally the status quo under the Roman-Jerusalem leadership is not according to God’s purposes. Jesus is baptized by John, an act that denotes Jesus’ embracing of God’s commission. When he is baptized by John, God sends the Holy Spirit and God speaks from heaven, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom 1 am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The image of “son” denotes in Israel’s traditions one whom God chooses for special tasks and who enjoys special relations with God.

Chapter 4 introduces a cosmic context. The devil tempts Jesus to carry out the devil’s will, not God’s. Jesus remains loyal to God. Interestingly, the devil offers Jesus control of “all the empires of the world” (Matthew 4:8). By implication, the devil identifies Rome’s empire as his agent, opposed to what God aims to effect through Jesus. Jesus returns to Galilee to manifest God’s saving presence. Galilee is dangerous since its ruler Herod Antipas, Rome’s puppet, has imprisoned Jesus’ ally, John.

In Section 2 (Matthew 4:17–11:1), Jesus performs his commission to manifest God’s saving presence. “Repent,” he declares, “for the kingdom (or empire) of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus announces that the divine rule or will is present in his life, not in the current societal structures of the Roman/Jerusalem-controlled world. He proclaims God’s saving presence on earth, as God commissioned him to do (Matthew 1:21–23).

Jesus carries out his commission in three ways. First, he disrupts people’s lives, calling them to “follow me” as disciples and form a community living God’s purposes in the elite-dominated world (Matthew 4:18–22: 9:9; 10:1–4). Second, he teaches his disciples to live disruptive and transforming lives, committed not to Rome’s rule but to God’s reign of justice (Matthew 5:20). In a sermon on an unidentified mountain in Galilee (called “The Sermon on the Mount,” chapters 5–7), Jesus outlines what God’s transforming reign looks like. It creates an alternative community, marked by justice, mercy, and the suffering of persecution by its proponents since they challenge Rome’s societal order (Matthew 5:3–16).

Against the teachings of elite scribes and Pharisees, Jesus elaborates a different social experience comprising authentic relationships, the end of male privilege and domination in matters of adultery and divorce, nonviolent resistance, love for enemies, fasting, justice, prayer, trust in God not goods, seeking another person’s well-being, discerning false teachers, and hearing and performing God’s will (Matthew 5:21–48, 6:1–18, 6:19–7:27). Third, in chapter 10 Jesus instructs disciples about their mission. They are to proclaim “the good news, ’The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7–8). Jesus himself has performed such actions (in Matthew 4:23–25 and chapters 8–9); his disciples are to continue his mission of manifesting God’s saving presence.

Section 3 continues to describe Jesus’ mission and identity (Matthew 11:2–16:20). He invites the powerless and vulnerable poor to participate in God’s purposes (11:25–30). As God’s servant, he renounces violence in accomplishing divine justice for the nations (Matthew 12:15–21). He reveals God’s power in calming a storm and God’s compassion by miraculously feeding large crowds (Matthew 14:22–33). These feedings, like his healings, evoke Isaiah’s vision of the establishment of God’s reign as a time of abundant food and wholeness (Matthew 14:22–33; 15:29–39).

Matthew 15:29–31, 37–38

Jesus went up a mountain.… Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. He put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing.… And all of them ate and were filled, and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children.

Isaiah 35:5–6; 25:6

The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.… On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.

Of special importance in Section 3 is the litany of responses to Jesus. The section begins with Jesus’ explaining to some disciples that his actions reveal his God-given commission to manifest God’s saving presence (Matthew 11:2–6). Jesus quotes from a vision of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5–6) in which wholeness and health result when God’s reign orders the earth: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5). In Jesus’ actions, God’s reign transforms the destructive consequences of the imperial system in which food and adequate nutrition are denied to overworked and humiliated peasants. Jesus’ ministry challenges people to recognize him as the one who manifests God’s rule and saving presence.

There are many negative responses. People defame John and Jesus (Matthew 11:19). Some towns refuse to repent (Matthew 11:20–24). Jesus struggles against the authorities over the requirement to observe the Sabbath. They do not disagree that the Sabbath should be observed. Their disagreement is over how it is to be observed. Should it be honored by not working, as they insist, which harms peasants and so helps maintain the current unjust order? Or should the Sabbath be honored by doing good and merciful actions like producing food and healing others, as Jesus teaches (Matthew 12:1–14)? When Jesus heals a blind and mute person thought to be possessed by a demon, his opponents accuse him of being the devil’s agent (Matthew 12:22–32). His teaching offends his hometown synagogue, or worship assembly (Matthew 13:53–58). He attacks the authorities’ practice of encouraging people to donate money to the Temple instead of caring for aged parents (Matthew 15:1–20). Jesus challenges representatives of the elite, the Pharisees and Sadducees, to discern his identity from his actions (Matthew 16:1–4). The stakes are high. The authorities respond to Jesus’ disregard for their control of the Sabbath by planning to kill him (Matthew 12:14). Meanwhile, John the Baptist meets with a grisly fate as Herod Antipas executes him (Matthew 14:1–12). To challenge the power structure is to lose one’s life.

There are also positive responses. Jesus’ disciples comprise a new community or household that supersedes all birth relationships (Matthew 12:46–50). They receive his teaching and God’s revelation even though, as Jesus explains in numerous parables, God’s reign seems difficult to detect (Matthew 13:10–17). It is worth everything to participate in this reign. His disciples discern Jesus’ identity when he walks on water, declaring, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33). Their declaration agrees with God’s description of Jesus when he was baptized, of being God’s son, the one commissioned to manifest God’s saving presence and rule (Matthew 3:17). A Canaanite woman overcomes gender and ethnic prejudices to secure Jesus’ healing for her demon-possessed daughter (Matthew 15:21–28). In the final scene of this section (Matthew 16:13–20), Jesus asks his disciples the identity question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Peter declares, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus blesses him for receiving God’s revelation and announces that this acknowledgment is foundational for the community of disciples. Strangely, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone (Matthew 16:13–20). Why?

Section 4 provides an answer (Matthew 16:21–20:34). Jesus’ commission has a further dimension. He announces that he “must” go to Jerusalem and die, but God will raise him back to life. This announcement summarizes the rest of the story. Its importance is seen in that not only does Jesus repeat it four times (Matthew 16:21; 17:11, 22–23; 20:17–19), he also travels south from Galilee to Jerusalem (chapters 19–20). God confirms Jesus’ declaration of what will take place. Three disciples see Jesus transfigured with a shining face and dazzling clothes, an anticipatory glimpse of his resurrection glory. For the second time God speaks directly, “This is my Son, the beloved… listen to him” (Matthew 17:5; compare 3:17). God’s exhortation is necessary because the disciples themselves struggle with Jesus’ new teaching. Peter openly declares Jesus will not die on a cross, but Jesus calls him Satan’s agent for opposing God’s purposes (Matthew 16:22–23).

Jesus has more bad news for his disciples. Not only must he die, his disciples must walk the way of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Rome uses crucifixion as a humiliating way to execute violent criminals, rebellious provincials, and unruly slaves who do not conform to its norms and threaten its control. So walking the way of the cross means a life that challenges the elite’s interests. In chapter 18 he instructs disciples about being a community that, in contrast to imperial society, does not exclude and humiliate but welcomes everyone. In chapters 19–20, as he travels to Jerusalem, he instructs them about households that embody God’s reign not by means of domination but in mutual relationships. Instead of the “power over” strategy in imperial society, disciples are to serve one another, imitating Jesus’ life and death (Matthew 20:25–28).

In Section 5 (chapters 21–27), Jesus enters Jerusalem and struggles with the elite’s show of power. His entry on a donkey mocks the ostentatious displays of might in the parades and military triumphs of Roman imperial personnel. He condemns the leaders for making the Temple a “den for robbers” (Matthew 21:1–17). In a series of stories or parables, he condemns the leaders’ violent rejection of God’s just purposes and messengers, including himself (Matthew 21–22). He denounces the power mongers by attacking them with a series of woes or judgments for ignoring “justice, mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). For the last time, he instructs the disciples (Matthew 24–25). He warns them that a time of great distress will precede his powerful and glorious return to overcome Rome and establish God’s just rule and world (Matthew 24:27–31). Disciples must remain faithful in readiness for the judgment of the nations based on whether people heeded Jesus’ admonition to live lives of mercy and justice (Matthew 25:31–46).


Often the necessity of Jesus’ death is interpreted as God’s having predetermined his demise, that is, having sent him from heaven to die. In Matthew, God does not send Jesus from heaven, and his opponents first mention his death in 12:14, The question is why “must” Jesus’ death happen? His death is inevitable because violence is the means by which the elite retains power and eliminates challengers. It “must” also happen to show that God overcomes the worst that the empire and its allies can do. Jesus’ announcement about his death and resurrection predicts that they will not be able to keep him dead, anticipating the victory of God’s purposes and a Just way of life.

Chapters 26–27 narrate Jesus’ death against the backdrop of Passover, the festival celebrating God’s freeing the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Amidst the conspiracies of the elite, the handing over of Jesus to the Jerusalem elite by the disciple Judas (Matthew 26:14–16, 47–56), and the flight of all the disciples (Matthew 26:56), a woman pours oil on Jesus’ head to recognize his identity as God’s commissioned one, and to prepare for his death (26:6–13). After eating the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus is arrested. The Jerusalem elite rejects his claim to share in God’s reign (26:57–67). They send him to their ally, the Roman governor Pilate, knowing Jesus will receive the death sentence (Matthew 27:1–27). Pilate understands Jesus to be claiming that he is king of the Jews, a capital offense, since only Rome determines provincial kings and leaders, thereby ensuring their loyalty and cooperation. Pilate condemns him to death after questioning the crowd to see whether Jesus’ death will provoke any unrest. Roman soldiers humiliate Jesus with insults and whipping, and crucify him with two “bandits,” either violent criminals or insurrectionists. His death is accompanied by darkness, the splitting of the curtain inside the Temple that divided the entrance forecourt from the Temple proper, and the raising of the dead from tombs in the city in what seems to be an anticipation of the general resurrection. Rumors of attempts to steal his body cause the authorities to guard his tomb.

In the sixth section, chapter 28, two followers of Jesus—Mary Magdalene and Mary—visit his tomb to witness Jesus’ resurrection as he had taught. Instead, an angel tells them that he is already risen. The women are told to instruct the disciples to go to Galilee. The risen Jesus appears to them and repeats the instructions to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee (Matthew 28:1–10). Meanwhile, the Jerusalem leaders bribe soldiers to say that Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb (28:11–15). The gospel’s final scene occurs in Galilee where the risen Jesus meets the disciples (some worshipping, some doubting). He announces that he shares God’s authority over heaven and earth. He commissions his disciples to a worldwide mission of making disciples who learn and obey Jesus’ teaching. The gospel ends with his promise, “I am with you always to the ends of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus’ death and resurrection

At first glance, Jesus’ death seems to be another victory for the ruling elite, who protect their interests by removing a troublemaker. The empire always strikes back. But Jesus willingly and nonviolently goes to Jerusalem, giving himself up to die because he understands he is enacting God’s saving purposes. In Matthew 20:28, he describes his death as a “ransom for many.” The image of “ransom” appears in the Hebrew Bible when God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8) and from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 43:1). Since Jesus’ death is a ransom “for many,” the setting free does not only involve God’s bringing Jesus back to life. Rather, Matthew (1:21) claims that God sets free or saves many people from sin, from that which is contrary to God’s just purposes.

How does Jesus’ death and resurrection set free or save when Rome is still in power? In part, Jesus’ death reveals the lengths to which the unjust Rome-Jerusalem regime will go to protect its own interests. But his resurrection also reveals the limits of their power. They do not have total power. They cannot keep Jesus dead because, says Matthew, they cannot resist God’s power and life-giving purpose—the achievement of a just world. For Matthew’s readers, followers of Jesus in a world controlled by Rome and its elite, this understanding of Jesus’ death empowers them to resist Rome’s sinful system and live for God’s just and merciful purpose.


Scholars have established several sources for Matthew’s gospel. One source is the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes, Matthew explicitly cites Hebrew Bible texts to interpret events in Jesus’ life, as shown, for example, in the references to Isaiah cited above. Constantly the story employs Hebrew Bible language and images such as the references to Passover and “ransom” noted above. It also borrows ways of thinking about how God uses and judges empires like Assyria and Babylon to interpret Rome’s actions and fate. For example, the two citations from Isaiah 7–9 in Matthew 1:23 and 4:15–16 recall that God used Assyria to execute judgment on God’s people, but God also judged Assyria for not continuing to honor God’s purposes. So it will be for Rome (Matthew 22:7; 24:27–31).

Matthew’s primary source about Jesus is Mark’s gospel written around 70 c.e. Matthew includes most of Mark’s gospel, omitting only about 50 verses. He leaves out some references that do not present Jesus in a very positive light. In Mark 6:5 Jesus is powerless to do a miracle (“he cannot do”) whereas Matthew uses a more descriptive and positive “he did not do” (Matthew 13:58). Matthew shortens Mark’s stories (compare Mark 2:1–12 with Matthew 9:1–8), reorders material, and improves Mark’s style. He frequently omits “and immediately,” a phrase that Mark often uses to join episodes. Significantly, since Matthew is nearly twice as long as Mark, Matthew adds material. He lengthens Mark’s collection of parables (compare Mark 4 with Matthew 13) and Mark’s teaching about the end times (Mark 13; Matthew 24–25). Matthew also adds long sections containing Jesus’ teaching for his followers, such as the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7) or the community discourse (chapter 18). These sections are not in Mark, so where does this material come from?

This material appears to come from two collections of material about Jesus. Scholars identify one of these as Q, short for the German word Quelle, meaning “source.” This reconstructed source that developed through the 40s and 50s is not a narrative, but a collection of sayings of Jesus that both Matthew and Luke employ. Scholarship


Jesus’ strong condemnation of the Jewish leaders has fed a long and tragic tradition of hostility toward Jews. Shaped by such scenes as the Jerusalem crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion (“His blood be on us and our children,” Matthew 27:25), Christians have at times labeled Jews as “Christ-killers,” Awareness of the terrible history and consequences of religious violence is growing as people embrace a multi-religious world. This tragic and hateful legacy is currently being addressed in some Christian churches with the help of recent scholarship that is raising awareness of the issue. Readers of Matthew are coming to understand that Jesus, himself a Jew, is not talking about all Jews for all time, and does not mandate hateful actions from his followers. The attacks are specific to Jesus’ criticism of an unjust imperial world and the Jewish leaders who were allies of Rome’s agenda. Recognizing the gospel’s anti-imperial dynamics acknowledges that Jesus is attacking unjust practices not any ethnic group. Moreover, Christian readers are beginning to understand that Matthew’s account is not objective research, but exaggerated and invested polemical writing that reflects the emotional conflict and struggle between Matthew’s group and other members of a synagogue in Antioch in the 80s. Studies of ancient polemical writing, including studies of how Jewish writers talk about Jewish opponents, show that Matthew uses conventional rhetorical strategies to identify and attack opponents.

has identified another collection of material that is exclusive to Matthew’s gospel (from which, for example, the genealogy and birth stories in chapters 1–2 are drawn). Scholars have (imaginatively) identified this material with the letter “M.”

Events in History at the Time the Gospel Was Written

Synagogue dispute

Written some 50–60 years after the time of Jesus, Matthew’s gospel tells the story of Jesus in a way that addresses the situation of Matthew’s largely Jewish audience. This audience consists of Jesus’ followers, probably in Antioch. Two events in particular appear to shape Matthew’s telling of the story.

The first event is a bitter dispute with a synagogue community in Antioch that seems to have erupted just prior to writing the story. Evidence for this dispute comes from detailed examination of the changes that Matthew consistently makes to his sources. Five times, Matthew distances Jesus from synagogues by adding the term “their synagogues” to material from Mark and Q. This addition often appears where Matthew presents synagogues as hostile to Jesus’ disciples or unreceptive to his preaching (Matthew 10:17; 13:54–58). Matthew furthermore omits positive references to synagogues that appear in Mark and Q and adds negative comments charging synagogues with hypocrisy (Matthew 6:2, 5; 23:6). He increases negative references to Jewish authorities, seven times adding the charge “hypocrite” to other terms of abuse (Matthew 23). Similarly he adds eleven references to scribes, ten of which are negative. He also adds verses to parables to emphasize God’s punishment of the Jerusalem leaders.

For example, in the Q material that Matthew uses (Luke 14:16–24), there is a parable of a wealthy and important man who invites guests to a dinner party but they make excuses and cannot come. The host then invites many poor and physically impaired people to come instead. Matthew changes the story in a number of ways (Matthew 22:1–14). Especially important is the addition of a whole verse (22:7) that describes the host’s response (Matthew has made him a king to be like God) to the refused invitations. “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matthew 22:7). This is probably a reference to Jerusalem burned by Rome in 70 c.e. Matthew, like a number of Jewish writers, presents this event as God’s punishment on the elite’s center of power for rejecting God’s purposes as demonstrated in Jesus (compare also Mark 12:11 with Matthew 21:43).

How do we explain Matthew’s consistent addition of these attacks against these opponents? Scholars suggest that they reflect a dispute with a synagogue community. Followers of Jesus had been part of a Jewish community (a synagogue) in Antioch, but conflict had increased and relationships were very strained. One of the reasons for writing Matthew’s gospel is to explain the deteriorating relationships and to help the followers of Jesus remain loyal in difficult circumstances.

There were reasons for such a conflict. From 66 c.e., Rome and its elite allies in Jerusalem had faced a revolt. After a military campaign, Rome retook Jerusalem, burning the city and destroying the Temple. Some Jewish writers interpreted this event as God’s punishment on the people or their leaders for their sins; Matthew agrees with this view (Matthew 22:7). Post-70 c.e. Jewish leaders and communities set about reconstructing Jewish faith and observance without the Temple and wrestling with important questions. How could people know how God wanted them to live? How could people be sure of God’s presence? How could people make atonement for sin and find God’s forgiveness?

In the debates about these questions, Matthew’s community proposed one answer: Jesus. They claimed that Jesus accurately interpreted God’s will, which had previously been revealed through Moses (Matthew 5:21–48). Jesus manifested God’s reign and God’s presence as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; 4:17; 18:20; 28:20). Jesus saves from sin in giving his life as a ransom and being raised from the dead (1:21; 9:1–8; 26:26). They claimed, after the Temple’s destruction in 70 c.e., that Jesus is the new Temple (Matthew 12:6). Comparisons with Mark and Q show that Matthew adds or heightens these emphases in telling his story of Jesus. Other members of the Jewish community for whatever reasons—their side of the story is unknown—were not convinced. The debate became increasingly bitter. In this context, Matthew wrote the gospel to remind followers of Jesus that, whatever others might say, they are right and they must remain faithful. As Jesus was rejected, so are his followers (Matthew 10:24–25).

Roman power

Rome’s military victory in 70 c.e. starkly reconfirmed its great power and unwillingness to tolerate those who would not submit to its rule. Matthew’s community probably lived in Antioch, the Roman capital of Syria, where troops, the governor and his personnel, buildings, statues of imperial figures, coins, imperial festivals, temples, and taxes exhibited Roman power daily. The war in Judea against Jerusalem had a high profile in Antioch. Rome’s commander (and future emperor) Vespasian assembled troops there. It was Syria that supplied the troops with grain and corn (no doubt at cost to peasants around Antioch). Non-Jewish residents of Antioch rioted against Jews in the city. The victorious general and future emperor Titus visited Antioch in 70–71 en route to celebrations in Rome, displaying captured troops and booty from Jerusalem. Rome minted Judaea Capta (“Captive Judea”) coins that represented defeated Judea as a subdued woman to broadcast the message of Roman victory. The emperor Vespasian imposed an extra tax on Jews after the defeat to mark them as a conquered people. Rome’s world, its power elite and a populace mired in misery, was firmly in place.

In such a world, the followers of Jesus were in a vulnerable position. They devoted themselves to one who had been crucified for criticizing the ruling powers and who had offered a very different vision of human society under God’s rule. Matthew’s gospel guides them to understand the empire: Rome is allied with the devil (Matthew 4:8), Rome serves currently as an agent of God’s purposes to punish Jerusalem, but ultimately God will punish Rome (Matthew 22:7; 24:27–31). Its structures of domination are contrary to God’s purposes (20:25–28). In this context, Matthew presents Jesus’ teaching. His followers are to live an alternative social experience, nonviolently resisting the status quo, enacting mercy in their city, announcing and embodying God’s reign, whatever the consequences (Matthew 5:38–48).


We have no evidence as to how Matthew’s gospel was immediately received by Jesus’ followers in Antioch. We can guess, though, that since it told a story already familiar to them and was addressed to their circumstances, it was well received. Also pointing to a positive reception is the widespread use of Matthew’s gospel in Christian communities for nearly 2,000 years. In Christian writings from the early centuries of the Church’s history, Matthew’s gospel, especially Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, is the most extensively quoted.

For much of the last 2,000 years, Matthew was read as an eyewitness historical account of Jesus’ life written by one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. This view has changed significantly since the eighteenth century. The recognition of Matthew’s use of sources, of consistent and meaningful changes from Mark’s gospel to Matthew’s story, and of the specific circumstances of the community from which the gospel derives, has altered the perception of the author’s role and identity. Now scholars view the author as an astute theological interpreter of traditions about Jesus. He is seen as a sophisticated storyteller whose account provides pastoral support and direction for his distressed community of Jesus’ followers. How much historical information the story contains about Jesus, and how to identify that material from a theologically and pastorally shaped story are issues that scholars continue to debate.

—Warren Carter

For More Information

Blasi, Anthony, Jean Duhaime, and Paul-André Turcotte, eds. Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002.

Carter, Warren. Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996.

_____. Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Hanson, K. C, and Douglas E. Oakman. Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

Harrington, Daniel. The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991.

Johnson, Luke. “The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Rhetoric.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989): 419–41.

Josephus, Flavius. Jewish Antiquities. Vols. 4–9 of Josephus. Loeb Classical Library. Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, R. Marcus, and L. H. Feldman. London: Heinemann, 1926–65.

Lenski, Gerhard. Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Levine, Amy-Jill. “Visions of Kingdoms: From Pompey to the First Jewish Revolt.” In The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Ed. Michael Coogan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Matthew. In The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Saldarini, Anthony J. Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

_____. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University, 1985.