The Social Situation of Matthew|
Consider Palestine in the 80’s CE, fifty years after the death of Jesus. Many scholars think this is when and when the
gospel was probably written. 1
About 10 years beforehand in 70 CE, Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Romans.
2 The Temple had been the
pride of Judaism and the place where its people gathered for Jewish festivals. Now Judaism had to re-think its
At the time Jews made up about 10% (now arguably) of the Roman Empire which virtually extended throughout the known world
Most Jews were scattered around the Empire and attended their local Synagogue. However they were now nervous about
whether or not the army of the Empire would try to destroy their religion altogether.
Why should the Empire be so hostile towards the Jews? The Empire was based on the culture of Hellenism which in
turn was based on Greek Philosophy.4 This culture put great emphasis
on Order and the peoples who refused to
conform to Roman ideas of what this meant were crushed. This is what happened to those living in Jerusalem and who
revolted against the Empire
in the late 60’s CE.5 Generally speaking other cultures and religions
in the Empire had been absorbed into
But the Jews were different. They believed they were chosen by God to keep his moral law as written up in their
Torah and they would readily die for this. 7 So far they had managed to
survive. In many ways they had actually conformed
to the culture of the Empire. They had even imitated this and learned the language and ways of government that
the Empire had promoted. Their clothing, buildings, payment of taxes, systems of administration and even their
Temple conformed to General practice such as architecture. 8 On the other
hand they resisted Emperor worship,
the cruelty of
amphitheatres and the promiscuity of “the nations.” 9 If they did have
slaves they treated them as servants.
This sort of cultural conformity had helped them to survive and function within the Empire. Yet they were still
to the moral Law God had given to them.10 Their devotion to the law,
written up in their Torah meant they were
known in the Empire as “The People of the Book.” 11
Come back to the situation of Matthew. In the 80’s CE the Jews scattered around the Empire continued to attend
their local synagogue. Now, following the lead of a sect called Pharisees, they were putting more emphasis than
ever on the external observances of the Jewish law. 12 The Pharisees
who were taking on the leadership role, were
one of the very few sects or groups within Judaism that had survived the Temple’s destruction. The priests, the elders,
the Sanhedrin, the scibes, the Herodians etc although mentioned in the gospel were now groups of the past. Yet the
followers of Jesus, though small in number, were another group of survivors.
Matthew, one of the followers of Jesus,
disagreed with the emphasis being made by the Pharisees. He, and his community, said people should internalise
the law and put emphasis on its spirit. He believed this was the emphasis that had been made by Jesus.
He was hoping that mainstream Judaism would follow this lead. But instead, mainstream Jews were looking to the
Pharisees for leadership.13 The Pharisees formulated a decree
(at Jamnia) so that in the local Sabbath services
at the synagogue, a prayer should be included that cursed the followers of Jesus.
14 This put Jewish
Christians in a terrible position. All their lives so many of them, especially members of Matthew’s community,
had thought of themselves as Jews. They thought of their following of Jesus as a being part of a sect
within Judaism (c/f Acts 24:5)
The Synagogue was part of who they were. But now they were being forced out of it.
Thus the one hand the Jewish population throughout the Empire were trying to work out what their next steps would
be after the destruction of their Temple. On the other hand the members of Matthew’s community were trying
out how they could go forward now that they were excluded from the Jewish synagogue.
The Availability of the Teachings of Jesus
An obvious way forward for Matthew would be to gather together the teachings of Jesus so that his followers
would have a "model" in writing on which to pattern their lives.
Fifty years had passed since the crucifixion of Jesus. Over that time the stories about his life and his teachings
were passed on in the household gatherings of his followers. 15
At the time people relied heavily on their memory for learning and in
general the re-telling of stories was the main way tradition and history was passed on.
16 But there are
limitations to the effectiveness of the spoken word. For instance as stories are re-told people can put a
different slant on them. In the case of Matthew he wanted to put his own slant on the stories and teachings
to achieve his own objectives. The written word would be more faithful to his own emphases and his own interpretation
of the life and te4achings of Jesus.
How would he put this in writing? Matthew had as a resource the oral teachings about Jesus. He also had the manuscript
Mark’s gospel which had been written at the time the Temple was being destroyed in 70CE. Mark was writing for
all the followers of Jesus, which by now included many Gentiles. But Matthew’s main concern was for the Jewish
Christians in his own community. He wanted to show them that Jesus himself came from the heritage of Judaism
and so did his teachings and his practice of the spirit of the law. Matthew wanted to show the teachings of
Jesus set out the very best of a Judaic society even while they warned against its shortcomings. He also
wanted to stress the great trust that was needed amongst the followers/disciples of Jesus and the person of
The Layout of Matthew’s Gospel
Some methods of gospel interpretation, especially Semiotic analysis, show how Mark for instance broke up his gospel
matching paragraphs. These formed what is called “inverted circles”, c/f ABCDEDCBA. This sort of pattern was
common in Greek literature such as in the stories of Homer. However Matthew was writing for people with a Jewish
background. Also he was going to put a heavy emphasis on what was needed in a law-based society. We know that
natural law is mainly understood in terms of cause and effect. Much of the writing of the Jews was their history
recorded to show that so many of their problems had been caused by their failure to observe the commandments. Cause
and effect, as also history itself, is based on the passage of time.
So it could not be surprising that Matthew would divide up his gospel with statements about TIME.