Matthews’ Perspective on The Ethos and Teachings of Christ, His Successors, and The Torah Way

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Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 3974|Pages: 8.5|20 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

The presentation of the way in which Jewish and non-Jewish elements inter-relate within the Gospel of Matthew is a fundamentally significant area of study if the Biblical scholar is to successfully appreciate the aims and values of the Evangelist and gain an understanding of the audience towards which these are directed. This relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish elements becomes manifest through the author's presentation of the relation between the teaching and ethos of Jesus and the way of the Torah, the way of Jewish law; as Tagawa maintains, '...the Law of Moses and accordingly the problem of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies is one of the most important problems for Matthew[1].' And a problem for Matthew translates into a problem for the Biblical critic; how does Matthew present Jesus' relationship to Jewish law? What does this mean for our understanding of the person of Matthew and his sitz in leben? It is these considerations I hope to address throughout this essay; I will examine the presentation of Jesus' relationship with the Torah and the contribution this makes to the overall assortment of pro-Jewish, anti-Jewish, pro-gentile and anti-gentile sentiment throughout Matthew. I will explore what can be gleaned from this in terms of the historical Matthean community and the situation of the early church.

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First of all, then, I would like to offer an examination of the textual references to Torah observance and Jesus' relationship with the law of Judaism. The sheer number of places in which Jesus preaches strict Torah adherence or emphasizes the Torah as a key issue of discussion is testament to its significance for the Evangelist, four of Matthew's five main discourses contain teaching on the Torah. Teachings regarding the Jewish law are also given pride of place throughout the Gospel; the sermon on the mount features a significant period of extended teaching on the Torah, emphasis on the law also occurs during the third discourse on the kingdom of heaven, the fourth discourse and the eschatological discourse. The final, climactic command to 'instruct all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you[2]' can be viewed as a commission to preach and spread the word of the, albeit newly interpreted, Jewish law given the fact that Jesus wishes the disciples to spread all he has taught them and what he has consistently taught them is Torah observance.

5:17-20 is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, prominent and explicit moments of teaching regarding the law; we become aware, within this passage, of some key claims about Torah observance, the first of which being the idea that Jesus does not come to replace or disregard the Jewish scriptural law, he comes to offer a fulfillment of it. Jesus is an integral piece of the Jewish faith, he is an essential fulfilling element of the very scriptural law which his accusers claim he dismisses. This idea of Jesus' fulfilling role will be discussed in more detail later on in the essay. At 5:18, Jesus remarks '...truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished[3].' The word 'truly' might have been seen as significant in terms of validating Jesus' claim here about adherence to the law; 'truly' translates the Greek word, a transliteration of the Hebrew, meaning “it is reliable, faithful, true”. The verse which follows 'truly' seems to be addressing the limits of the Torah in terms of duration; the supposed time-limit imposed upon the Jewish law is, however, widely debated. The phrases 'until heaven and earth pass away' and 'until all is accomplished' are ambiguous. Some have suggested that all will be accomplished at the death and resurrection of Jesus which is to be interpreted as an apocalyptic event, Jesus signals the end of the Jewish law and the ushering in of a new way. It does seem, however, as though this blatantly contradicts the message behind 5:17. If Jesus was to signal the end of the Jewish law, Matthew would not have so clearly stressed the notion that Jesus is not in the business of replacing. Other interpretations suggest that Matthew is attempting to poetically suggest the everlasting nature of the law; the heavens and earth will not pass away (certainly not the heavens, in any case) and, thus, neither will the law. Jewish eschatology and the idea of the accomplishment of 'all things' does seem to suggest some kind of an end however. Perhaps, the Jewish law is to be maintained until the eschaton; 'Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah at the time of his ministry, but it will come to an end when all the eschatological events are accomplished...with the passing away of the present world order[4].' Whichever interpretation we adopt, it is clear in light of 5:19 that the Torah is to be observed in its entirety until its end; Jesus is depicted as incredibly concerned with laxness in terms of faithfulness to scriptural commandments, no small commandment must be compromised; we might understand this emphasis on adherence to seemingly lesser commandments as a reference to the rabbinic distinction between light and heavy commandments. 5:19 also encourages preaching of the Torah; as Sim points out 'it is this verse in particular which demonstrates that obedience to the law was a practical concern of the Matthean community. The readers of the Gospel are encouraged not merely to obey the requirements of the law, but they are also commanded to teach them to others[5].'

In addition to this blatant passage of emphasis on the commandments, Matthew also seems to add a wealth of material promoting Sabbath observance, arguably one of the most fundamental laws within Jewish culture and, additionally, one which Jesus is accused of disregarding when he performs miracles on the holy day. For example, 20:24 commands 'Pray to God that you will not have to run away during the winter or on a Sabbath!' 12:8 specifically states that '... the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.' The fact that Matthew redactionally adds these Sabbath references reveals their significance for the Evangelist; there is evidently a desire here to present Jesus as the devout follower of scriptural law.

Some, Blanton for example, have argued that there seems to be an inextricable link between the teaching of the Torah and acts of salvation; Matthew is perhaps illustrating the significance and the power of Torah observance by juxtaposing its preaching with positive effects. Blanton lists the numerous times that Torah teaching acts as a mode of salvation within the Gospel and concludes that it does so in 263 verses compared to a meagre 59 verses in which Healing saves and only four which relate salvation to the Death on the cross; 'as a tally of the number of verses that constitute each category indicates, Jesus' mode of salvation by teaching the Torah far outweigh the other themes[6]...' Although Blanton's list demonstrates the frequency of Torah teaching within Matthew, it isn't necessarily a fair or sensible representation of what Matthew considers of prime importance. The death on the cross, as an example, will obviously have fewer verses attached to it since it is a brief, isolated event, Torah teaching can happen throughout the entirety of Jesus' ministry and there is therefore more scope for verses relating to it. Although we can't necessarily argue that number of verses translates into degree of significance, it is undeniable that there are numerous occasions where Torah preaching saves and, once one adds in the recognition that Matthew has added a great deal of this material of his own accord, his emphasis on it becomes clear. Having said this, Matthew also adds miracles and healings to his Gospel which don't appear in Mark, we can't simply take this kind of statistic as an accurate representation of importance for the redactor. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong, however, with merely suggesting that Matthew had numerous points of emphasis and Torah teaching as a healing mechanism was one of them and, thus, so was observance of Jewish law.

Blanton argues that when interpreting the Gospel in the light of verse 1:21, bearing in mind the definition of 'sin' as deviation from the word of the Torah, it transpires that Jesus' entire purpose is to encourage adherence to scripture. If Blanton's definition is correct then it seems as though this would be how the verse would translate and the prominence of Torah adherence would be further reinforced. It is worth, then, looking into whether any other possible definitions seem sensible thereby rendering Blanton's translation inaccurate. Repschinksi, for example, considers sin to entail the separation of God from human beings; God withdraws himself. However, as Blanton correctly points out, sin often elicits the opposite effect of bringing God closer to humanity for the purposes of divine judgement. Repschinski's idea (derived from his interpretation of 1:21) that the aim behind Jesus' ministry is to heal the void between humanity and God, then, seems to be incoherent since his conception of sin is not fully consistent with other Biblical texts. Carter offers a different definition suggesting that sin can be defined as opposition to the will of God; the Roman imperial rule is the very physical manifestation of sin since it represents a disregard for God's desires, Jesus offer salvation from sin through release from Roman rule. However, 'in no case is 'sin' terminology directly connected with Roman officials or Roman policies, nor is it connected with Judean provincial elite rulers of the status of Herod Antipas[7].' Sin as defined as transgression from scriptural law does seem to have substantial supporting textual evidence. The idea of lawlessness seems closely linked to those who fail to live up to the demands of Jewish law. 7:21-24 demonstrates this well; Jesus states that 'Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do[8]', the will of the Father is what is written in the law. We know this to be true since we learn that 'every one who hears these words and does them will be likened to a wise man who built his house on the rock'. The words being referred to are clearly those spoken by Jesus on the sermon on the mount since we see at 7:28 and 8:1 crowds following him down from the hill. Jesus taught Torah observance on the mount. The connection between sin and Torah observance is also evident when Judas fears that he has sinned for handing over 'innocent blood', a direct violation of God's commandments in the Torah. It seems, then, that there is significant evidence for Blanton's conception of sin as the stronger of the definitions presented. If this is the correct definition of sin then we can interpret 1:21 in light of this fact. 1:21 is placed in a prominent position and relates to wider themes in the Gospel; the verse can be viewed as setting out a 'roadmap[9]' which the rest of the Gospel will follow and the map seems to be setting out a route of strict Torah observance and preaching of Jewish scripture.

Throughout the Gospel, Matthew not only emphasizes Jesus as a conformer to and encourager of adherence the Old Testament scripture, he also presents Jesus as the very fulfillment of scripture within himself. From the very beginning of his gospel, Matthew sets the reader up for Jesus' fulfillment of Jewish scripture; in accordance with Micah 5:2 ('But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel...'), Jesus is born in Bethlehem despite originating in Nazareth, a clear indication of prophecy fulfillment. In addition, Jesus rides into Jerusalem riding a donkey in order to fulfil the prophecy within Zechariah: 'your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey[10].' Matthew also firmly establishes Jesus as the Son of David in order to affirm his connection to the royal Davidic line of Jewish scripture. Christ's passion is presented as a key point in the fulfillment and completion of the Jewish texts; as Buck notes, 'Matthew, even more than the other gospel writers, emphasizes that Jesus' suffering is in keeping with the will of God; in fact, that the passion amounts to a fulfillment of Scripture[11].' It seems that Matthew is presenting his audience with adherence to Torah on two fronts- Jesus not only preaches observance of the law but is its fulfillment and completion. Matthew arguably couldn't have made the text any more blatantly Jewish. As Senior maintains, 'this turn of events was, in Matthew's perspective, not simply a tragic accident of history but was entwined with God's own mysterious will. Just as the mission of Jesus fulfilled the scriptures so, too, did all of the events of the passion, even the betrayal of Judas and the complicity of the leaders in the shedding of Jesus' innocent blood[12].' At certain points within the text, it sometimes seems as if Jesus is overturning the law, however. Many often turn to the so-called 'antitheses' to substantiate this point. Here Jesus offers a reflection on the written laws of the Pentateuch; for example he states that 'You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.’ But now I tell you: if you are angry[ with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell[13].' It is phrases such as 'now I tell you' which initially look like replacement phrases. This seems strange, however, given the emphasis earlier on in the Gospel of adherence to the law and Matthew's obsession with placing Jesus firmly within the context of Jewish fulfilment theology. In addition, the preceding verses offer the most obvious possible proclamation that Jesus is absolutely not overturning the law of the Torah. It is, I think, as Blanton notes when he says: 'although the antitheses are sometimes taken as evidence that Matthew's community no longer valued strict observance of the Torah, or that Jesus' ethic of love superseded the Torah's formulations, neither of these views is correct, as an examination of the antitheses indicates[14].' Instead, we can interpret the antitheses as Jesus refining, clarifying or expanding upon elements of the Torah. The adultery commandment, for example, now specifies that even looking at a person not your spouse with lust is as bad as committing the act of adultery; Jesus is not opposing what Moses taught, he is simply adding to it, interpreting it. Matthew also presents Jesus as espousing a more nuanced emphasis on the Torah; adherence to scripture is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of eternal life, it is essential to follow the Torah to the letter keeping each minor instruction yet one also needs to follow Jesus. Viljoen summarizes Matthew's depiction of Jesus' relationship with the Torah succinctly: 'Matthew...presents Jesus as the true interpreter of the Law. For Matthew's argument it was important to defend his conviction that Jesus gives the correct interpretation of the Torah. Jesus' relation to the Torah forms a central motive in his Gospel. Thus Jesus is seen as the last and greatest expositor of the Law[15].'

This examination of Jesus' relationship with the Torah in Matthew feeds into the wider discussion of Jewish relations within the Gospel and, in turn, within Matthew's own context. The question becomes, what can we glean from these considerations in terms of Matthew's message regarding Jews and gentiles within his own sitz im leben? As Viljoen maintains, the Gospel 'tells the story of Jesus, but in such a way that the story of the Matthean community can also be recognized in it. The past story of Jesus and his disciples includes the story of the community's experience[16].' The Gospel introduces the trouble between Israel and Galilee and between the Synagogue and the Christian church; Matthew manifests the dispute in debates over interpretation of the law and discussions over the role which Jesus plays in relation to the Jewish religion. It is clear from our discussion of the Torah that Matthew is keen to maintain the Judaism within Christianity for some reason; strict adherence to the law and Jesus' fulfilling nature is key to him. However, there is also some distinctly anti-Jewish sentiment which is not to be ignored. The Jewish leaders are more deeply involved in Jesus' condemnation and act consistently with 'evil intention[17]'. The Pharisees are constantly depicted in a negative way, Matthew removes even small bits of positivity we see in Mark. The Jewish people themselves are also strongly associated with blame, this is not just a polemic against the Jewish authorities; the people often respond to the suggestions of the leaders and the crowds are able to be easily persuaded. In addition, at Matthew 26:57, the crowds seize Jesus, attacking him with force. In Mark they simply lead him away. There are also definite elements of what Przybylski calls the 'church-synagogue polemic[18]' manifested in the series of phrases designating the synagogue as 'theirs' thereby establishing an 'us and them' tension-filled environment e.g. 'Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom[19]' There is also a distinct pro-Gentile vibe throughout the text (the gentiles recognize Jesus as the Son of God, show belief throughout in Jesus' healing power and are endeared to the reader by Pilate and his wife's reluctance to kill Jesus); these elements might require explanation although it is a possibility that gentiles are simply being used as a foil for Jews in order to reinforce the negativity of the Jewish people and increase the force of the polemic. After all, the only people who can be used as a foil for Jews are all those who are not Jews. Yet, some have noted Matthew's desire to keep the group at arm's length; Senior quotes Sim on this in saying that 'far from being a pro-gentile gospel, 'the Jewish Matthean community largely avoided contact with the surrounding Gentile society and had good reason for doing so[20].'' It seems, then, that we have an interesting juxtaposition between an anti-Jewish polemic and distinct pro-Judaism manifested through strict emphasis on adherence to the Torah, as well as a pro-Gentile atmosphere and the possibility of a desire to keep them at arm's length. What can we glean about the Matthean situation from these facts?

Numerous scholarly theories have attempted to funnel these observations about Matthew into a neat theory which accounts for them all; I haven't space to examine them all here, only to point out which I think seems to make the most sense. Viljoen paints a picture of the Matthean community- a predominantly Jewish- Christian group in tension with traditional Judaism and excommunicated from the Synagogues; there was a climate of threat stemming from the Gentiles for being Jewish and from the Jews for being followers of Christ. The atmosphere is clearly defensive. Viljoen subsequently observes that 'factions developed systems to justify their own existence and to define and protect inner group values. In this process such groups would frequently oppose outsiders openly. Stereotypical terms were repeatedly used as 'buzzwords' to justify themselves...and to denounce other groups...Matthew frequently refers to the righteous...while denouncing this lawless wicked generation and the Pharisees and teachers of the law as hypocrites. Such terms were often used in a polemical sense to distinguish the insiders as minority group from the outsiders who controlled them[21].' Matthew's polemic was aimed at those who rejected the Matthean community's interpretation of scripture and of Jesus. Correct interpretation of the law became the competition between rival religious groups hence Matthew's stress on presenting Jesus as the most accurate interpreter of the Torah and why so much emphasis is placed on this idea of interpretation of scripture. Matthew uses the Gospel to voice the 'correct interpretation' in the interpretative battle within his own Sitz im leben. Matthew is responding, also, to accusations that Jesus has replaced the law made evident through his blatant specification of this at 5:17. This statement seems too specific and corrective not to be a response to some accusation. Buck, I think, agrees largely with this view arguing that 'the church of Matthew is a minority in danger of either being swallowed up by Judaism or of being deprived of the right to consider itself as a part of the true Israel. Matthew's church is fighting for its very existence, and in such a fight one does not always observe the gentlemanly rules of sport[22].' Hence, the polemic.

In conclusion, it is clear that Matthew places considerable emphasis on the observance of Jewish scripture and Jesus' strict adherence to and fulfilment of it. There is also a strong affirmation that Jesus' is the only correct interpretation; he is the interpreter and ultimate fulfiller of scripture, not a replacement of it. This Torah observance feeds into a wider theme of the preservation of Judaism and contributes to stimulating debate between the Jewish leaders and Jesus throughout the text which, in turn, generates Matthew's polemical tone against the Jews. The combination of the Evangelist's pro and anti-Judaism and pro and less-pro attitude to Gentiles is a fascinating one, it is interesting to explore ways in which we might account for all of these various themes as manifestations of a situation internal to the Matthean community itself.

[1] Tagawa, K., 1970. ‘People and Community in the Gospel of Matthew,’ New Testament Studies 16

[2] Matthew 28:19

[3] Matthew 5:18

[4] Sim, D. C. The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism: The History and Social Setting of the Matthean Community (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998)

[5] ibid.

[6] Blanton, T. R. IV. “Saved by Obedience: Matthew 1:21 in Light of Jesus’ Teaching on the Torah,” JBL 132 (2013)

[7] ibid.

[8] Matthew 7:21

[9] Blanton, T. R. IV. “Saved by Obedience: Matthew 1:21 in Light of Jesus’ Teaching on the Torah,” JBL 132 (2013)

[10] Zechariah 9:9

[11] Buck, E. “Anti-Judaic Sentiments in the Passion Narrative According to Matthew,” in Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity Vol. 1: Paul and the Gospels, Peter Richardson ed. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1986)

[12] Senior, D., 1998. ‘The Gospel of Matthew and the Passion of Jesus: Theological and Pastoral Perspectives,’ Word and World 18/4

[13] Matthew 5:21-22

[14] Blanton, T. R. IV. “Saved by Obedience: Matthew 1:21 in Light of Jesus’ Teaching on the Torah,” JBL 132 (2013)

[15] Viljoen, F. P. “Matthew’s Sitz im Leben and the Emphasis on the Torah,” Acta Theologica 32 (2012)

[16] ibid.

[17] Buck, E. “Anti-Judaic Sentiments in the Passion Narrative According to Matthew,” in Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity Vol. 1: Paul and the Gospels, Peter Richardson ed. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1986)

[18] Przybylski, B. “The Setting of Matthean Anti-Judaism” in Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity Vol. 1: Paul and the Gospels, Peter Richardson ed. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1986)

[19] Matthew 4:23

[20] Senior, D. "Between Two Worlds: Gentiles and Jewish Christians in Matthew's Gospel," CBQ 61 (1999)

[21] Viljoen, F. P. “Matthew’s Sitz im Leben and the Emphasis on the Torah,” Acta Theologica 32 (2012)

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[22] Buck, E. “Anti-Judaic Sentiments in the Passion Narrative According to Matthew,” in Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity Vol. 1: Paul and the Gospels, Peter Richardson ed. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1986)

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Matthews’ Perspective On The Ethos And Teachings Of Christ, His Successors, And The Torah Way. (2018, April 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
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