Why Was the Gospel of Matthew Written?

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by Neil Godfrey

English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of ...
English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Goulder’s thesis that the Gospel of Matthew was composed specifically to be read out week by week in churches (assemblies) may not have been widely adopted yet I am convinced that the core of his arguments is worth serious consideration. Of course Goulder applies his thesis to the Gospels of Mark and Luke, too, but I focus here on Matthew.

Here is the essence of Goulder’s argument as he himself sums it up in Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar (2009). I also build on a simplified table Goulder uses to illustrate his argument in The Gospels According to Michael Goulder: A North American Response (2002).

  • The gospel can be divided up into discrete units or more or less the same length. It ends with the story of the resurrection, a suitable reading for “Easter Day”. (I can hear many of us wondering when “Easter Day” began to be observed and when does the gospel itself appear to have been written. Those questions require more detailed discussion for another time.)
  • Let’s imagine the gospel’s story units were intended to be read serially, week by week, throughout the year, with thematically relevant units meant for their appropriate seasons (such as the resurrection story at “Easter”).  If so, we would expect to begin reading the opening chapter of the gospel after Easter (or after the more Jewish sounding Passover/Wave Sheaf Offering). We would expect to find seven narrative units to coincide with the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost.

Here is what we find:

The Code in the fourth column explains Goulder’s justification for the division of the unit:

q = a citation of some kind to identify the topic’s theme (e.g. “This was done to fulfil. . . “)

0 = clear opening sentence pointing to a new topic

c = a closing sentence indicating conclusion of a topic

t = three subunits

i = inclusion

(Apologies for the King James text: have copied this from an earlier work that would take too much effort to revise now.)

Unit Ref. Topic Code Vss Date
1 1:1-25 the genesis of Jesus otiq 25 Nisan 25 [1] The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
[2] Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
[3] And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;
          [4] And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;
          [5] And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse;
          [6] And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias;
          [7] And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa;
          [8] And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias;
          [9] And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias;
[10] And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias;
[11] And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon:
          [12] And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel;
          [13] And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor;
          [14] And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud;
          [15] And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob;
          [16] And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
          [17] So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.
          [18] Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
          [19] Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
          [20] But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
          [21] And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
          [22] Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
          [23] Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
[24] Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
[25] And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
2 2:1-12 the magi oqic 12 lyyar 2 [1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
          [2] Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
          [3] When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
          [4] And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
          [5] And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
          [6] And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
          [7] Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
          [8] And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
          [9] When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
          [10] When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
          [11] And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
          [12] And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
3 2:13-23 escape from Herod oqqqtic 11 lyyar 9 [13] And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
          [14] When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
          [15] And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
          [16] Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
          [17] Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
          [18] In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
          [19] But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
          [20] Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
          [21] And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
          [22] But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
          [23] And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
4 3:1-17 John baptizes Jesus oqic 17 lyyar 16 [1] In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
          [2] And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
          [3] For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
          [4] And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
          [5] Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,
          [6] And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
          [7] But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
          [8] Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
          [9] And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
          [10] And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
          [11] I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
          [12] Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
          [13] Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
          [14] But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
          [15] And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
          [16] And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
          [17] And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
5 4:1-11 the tempta-
oqqqtic 11 lyyar 23 [1] Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
          [2] And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
          [3] And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
          [4] But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
          [5] Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
          [6] And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
          [7] Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
          [8] Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
          [9] And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
          [10] Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
          [11] Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
6 4:12-25 Galilee mission with disciples oqtic 14 Sivan 1 [12] Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee;
          [13] And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim:
          [14] That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying,
          [15] The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles;
          [16] The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.
          [17] From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
          [18] And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
          [19] And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
          [20] And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
          [21] And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
          [22] And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
          [23] And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.
          [24] And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.
          [25] And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.
7 5:1-16 the Beati-
oic 16 Sivan 8 [1] And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
          [2] And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
          [3] Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
          [4] Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
          [5] Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
          [6] Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
          [7] Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
          [8] Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
          [9] Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
          [10] Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
          [11] Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
          [12] Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
          [13] Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
          [14] Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
          [15] Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
          [16] Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.


The Sermon on the Mount is broken up into seven units with six more readings after the Beatitudes.

Now the coincidence here seemed very striking: Jesus was killed at Passover time; seven weeks after Passover came the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. This was celebrated as the occasion that Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai and here, seven sections after Easter, we have Jesus giving a new version of the Law on the mountain. He says, “Think not that I came to destroy the Law and Prophets; I came not to destroy but to fulfil”, and he goes on to contrast the old Ten Commandments with “…but I say unto you”. In other words Matthew appears to be providing a story to be read out in church each Sunday, and for the Jewish festivals, there were especially suitable discourses of Jesus. The Gospel was designed to provide readings for the whole year. (Five Stones, p. 65)

Goulder provides similar arguments for each of the other Jewish festivals (including memorial fast days).


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7 thoughts on “Why Was the Gospel of Matthew Written?”

  1. No worries on the KJV, I can’t read it on an iPad. The text column is only six spaces wide. The ultimate culprit is the main content area is set at 70% width, even if the sidebar drops down below the main content area. That is, there is 30% blank space on the right for tablets, mobiles and narrow desktop browser windows. It doesn’t affect post text, but cuts off tables, wide pictures and indented comment threads. There should be some conditional CSS you could write to fix this.

    1. I will take a look at this issue. You’re right, it’s something that we set in the CSS, but we need to set certain conditions base on the nature of each display.

  2. If I was your only reader my opinion may have more oompf, but I don’t have a problem with
    your use of the KJV if the passage comes from the Gospels. Some portions of Paul’s letters
    are wickedly dense, and most of the OT is mind numbing if read through the KJV. When I was
    actively Catholic, I would attempt the Douay-Reims, hoping the Spirit would give me enough
    mental stamina…but…no…..no….I stopped trying to use anything but the TEV Catholic Bible.

  3. Goulder really only addressed the structural purpose, not at all the theological.

    A good case can be made IMO that Matthew was written to counter Marcion. Chapter 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, is a systemic denunciation of Marcionite positions, many that appear drawn directly from the Marcionite Antithesis (“you have heard it said” pairs of OT and NT phrases) which has come down to us through the heresiarchs, and then those positions turned on their ear.

    “Think not that I came to destroy the Law and Prophets; I came not to destroy but to fulfill”

    This phrase quoted above, preludes a turning of Jesus saying in the Marcionite Gospel “not one iota of my word” changed to “not one iota shall pass from the Law” (from λόγοι μου to τοῦ νόμου). Then Matthew’s Jesus proceeds to declare his support of Torah Law by saying, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” It is plainly evident that Matthew is addressing Christian teachers (e.g., Ministers, such as Paul calls himself in 1 Corinthians 3:5) who oppose Mosaic Law. When he says they will be the least in heaven, he is acknowledging they are Christian too, just not his type of Christian. The Marcionites saw this phrase as directly addressed against them and said so vigorously (AM 4.9.10-15, 4.12.14, AM 4.36.6, AM 5.14.14, DA 2.15, and also Acta Archelai 40).

    There are dozens of (IMO) polemic interactions between Marcionites and Matthew, too many to cover in a comment. I think a good case can be made that Matthew’s theology is primarily in response to Marcion. (Also I think a case can be made that John was written in direct response to Matthew). Of course Goulder AFAIK never considered 2nd century providence for Matthew. Anyway that is my opinion

  4. It’s amazing how tight around the axle people’s work can get.
    Matthew was written to present Jesus as a King.
    Mark, as a Servant.
    Luke, as a Man.
    John, as the Son of God.
    Ones attitude toward Scripture is ones attitude toward God.

    1. Matthew was written to present Jesus as a King.
      Mark, as a Servant.
      Luke, as a Man.
      John, as the Son of God.

      So say the fundamentalists. This blog is more interested in scholarly analysis of the documents.

    2. I am reading Philip Norman’s biography of Paul McCartney and was reminded of your/fundamentalist interpretations of the four evangelists when I came across this:

      “white-clad bewhiskered John as the priest,
      Ringo in his formal black suit as the mortician,
      blue-denimed George as the gravedigger
      and Paul’s bare feet symbolising his role as the deceased.” (p. 405)

      Yup, a perfect fit, a genuine pattern — and totally bogus.

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