by Neil Godfrey
This post follows on from four earlier ones that are archived here. (That is, it’s take on the Gospel of Matthew is entirely my understanding of Paul Louis Couchoud’s analysis of this gospel as a reaction to what he believes to have been the original Gospel produced by Marcion. Quotation page references are from Couchoud’s “The Creation of Christ”. Scholarship has moved on since the 1920 and 30′s obviously, but some of the concepts raised — not all of them uniquely Couchoud’s by any means — are worth consideration nonetheless and have the potential to be adapted to the broader question of Gospel origins even today.)
The Gospel attributed to Matthew was composed in Aramaic speaking regions of eastern Syria and northern Mesopotamia where the Jewish population was numerous and Christians were mostly from Jewish backgrounds, says Couchoud. It was written in Aramaic, among a Christian community that saw itself as literally related to the ethnical Israel, and in response to both the Gospel attributed to Mark, said to have been Peter’s scribe, and the Gospel of Marcion. Mark’s gospel was believed to have been too pro-Pauline and anti-Law for their liking.
This scribe who wrote this new gospel structured it in 5 parts in apparent imitation of Moses’ 5 book presentation of the Law. Each part contained narratives and precepts. (The birth narrative at the beginning and Passion at the end formed a prologue and epilogue to this five-part book. The work was to be attributed to a credible eyewitness, so substituted Matthew, a disciple very well known in the Aramaic region where he and his readers were (Matthew’s tomb was reported as being located there around ca 190), for Marcion’s and Mark’s publican named Levi.
This scribe (to be called Matthew) expressed his own view with the parable of Jesus teaching that the new faith is a precious mix of the new and the old. So he did not discard the old as Marcion had done.
Matthew’s primary purpose was to demonstrate far more clearly than Mark had done that Jesus was the Messiah who was the fulfilment of Old Testament scriptures. He liberally adds OT quotations to make his point.
For Marcion and Mark it was impossible for Jesus to have been a Son of David if he was also the Lord of David. Matthew found a way out of this contradiction and so proved even more firmly that Jesus was indeed the Messianic Son of David of Promise. So he gave him a dual genealogy. He made Jesus Son of God by having him born of a virgin, and also a legal son of David through a genealogy up to Joseph. Until this gospel Jesus was always the root or Lord of David but never his son. Marcion’s and Mark’s gospels made this clear, as did the Revelation of John. Romans 1:3 was not part of the original letter as is apparent from Tertullian’s use of Romans in his attack on Marcion.
Additional scenes were created to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfilment of messianic prophecies, such as his birth in Bethlehem. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was expanded to demonstrate that Jesus subjected his powers to the constraints found within the Law. Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil the Law. Where Marcion had presented some precepts of Jesus as the antithesis of the Law, Matthew cleverly turned these into even stronger and spiritual observances of the Law — so that what appeared to be a violation of the law was in fact a more stringent keeping of it. Forbidding oaths, for example, was not an attack on the law, but a way to exalting the law by having every word as good as an effective oath.
Matthew says that Jesus was not sent to any gentile people and he commands his disciples also to go only to Israelites. So when Mark spoke of Jesus visiting Tyre and Sidon and answering a woman’s prayer there Matthew corrects this. Matthew has the woman come to Israel from Tyre and Sidon to make her appeal. Matthew’s genealogy of Joseph likewise explicitly includes Canaanite and Moabite women in it (Rahab and Ruth) to show that gentiles were welcomed into the Jewish or Israelite community.
If Mark was seen as anti-Semitic, Matthew instead represented a more hostile division within the Jewish community. He was stridently anti-Pharisee and his Jesus regularly rails abusively against them. Tithing and sabbath keeping were righteous commands, but the Pharisees were at fault for not doing more.
Peter is established as the human head of the church, the rock, whom Jesus rescues in the end from his doubts and failures. The failings of Peter and the Twelve are not denied, but they are forgiven and Peter is rehabilitated. Sinners were to be worked with, and if unrepentant the church itself was to judge. If still they remained stubborn they were to be treated like sinners and publicans — an image quite opposite Mark’s and Marcion’s where Jesus is said to welcome sinners and publicans.
But Matthew did allow for forgiveness. Hence he introduced parables to show that premature judgement could pull out potential wheat as well as tares. Better to let both grow in the churches till the time of Jesus’ return.
The great end-time prophecy of Jesus in Matthew shows that this gospel was written not long after Mark’s, that is not long after 135. Jews and Christians were still living in the shadow of the terrible war of Bar Kochba and Hadrian’s desolation of the Temple area with a pagan temple. The Book of Enoch was invoked to introduce imagery of Jesus returning with tens of thousands of his saints. At the trial of Jesus the condign consequences of this war were foretold by the Jewish mob who cried out to Pilate, “Let the blood of Jesus be upon us and our children!”
Mark’s gospel prepared readers for persecution and martyrdom. Matthew on the other hand “revives the old fever of the Apocalypses and emphasizes the Coming of the Lord, rather than Martyrdom and the Great Trial. He finds new parables to teach that the watch must be unceasing . . . ”
Mark’s resurrection scene had raised many objections that Matthew attempted to answer. So he introduced guards and bribes and false rumours.
This gospel, soon afterwards translated into a majestic Greek prose, and that appeared to be from one of the apostles too, quickly supplanted interest in Mark’s gospel.
Nowhere did the Gospel according to Matthew meet with a warmer welcome than at Rome. The Roman church loved its grave and majestic tone, its Biblical air, its practical outlook, and its ecclesiastical sense. It approved this Gospel as a reaction against Marcionite audacities by showing that Jesus was truly the promised Messiah of Israel, by giving him real flesh and blood, a genuine birth, yet preserving his character as God’s own Son. One thing in particular placed it in the first rank. The Roman Church claimed Peter as its founder. All that increased Peter’s authority increased Roman authority. The disciplinary power which Matthew had built up for use of the circle of little churches in the East was seized upon by Rome for her own aggrandisement. Unconsciously the evangelist of Hebrew Christianity had made a gift of vast possibilities to a church of whose existence he was probably unaware, or, in any case, which was beyond the horizon of his consideration. (p.221)