Introduction to Matthew


Matthew’s Unique Message

The Gospel according to Matthew equipped its original Christian Jewish readers with the teaching of Jesus the Messiah so that they might effectively spread the message of God’s reign to all the nations. Matthew’s story of Jesus sets the scene by presenting Jesus’s ancestral background and linking him to the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus’s baptism by John is the occasion of his empowerment with the Spirit for ministry. Matthew presents this ministry in five “chapters,” each with a narrative about Jesus’s works and a discourse containing Jesus’s words. The story ends in Jerusalem, where God raises Jesus from the dead, reversing Jesus’s unjust crucifixion and empowering him to commission the disciples for world mission.

God’s reign is first announced by John the Baptist, whose message and fate anticipate that of Jesus. Jesus receives the Father’s endorsement and the Spirit’s empowerment at his baptism and begins his ministry of demonstrating the kingdom in Galilee by proclaiming the words of God and performing the works of God. Jesus’s ethical teaching is presented in the Sermon on the Mount as fulfilling that of the law and the prophets. His ongoing ministry of word and work in Galilee reaches out to marginalized persons of society but raises the hackles of some religious leaders. Jesus then teaches his disciples to expect serious opposition and persecution in their own ministries. As the Galilean ministry continues, opposition escalates, and Jesus is accused of collaborating with Satan. He then teaches his disciples through parables that reception of the kingdom message will be mixed. As the ministry continues, opposition becomes clearer, and Jesus again teaches his disciples. He promises to build his church but also speaks clearly of his upcoming death in Jerusalem. Despite his emphasis on self-denial, his disciples are preoccupied with greatness, so Jesus teaches them about values and relationships in their community. Jesus now turns toward Jerusalem, enters the city, and meets intense opposition from the religious establishment. After several heated arguments, he denounces Israel’s leaders and teaches his disciples how they must live in light of the destruction of the temple and his coming. One of his own disciples then betrays him to the leaders, who bring him before the Roman governor. Pilate crucifies Jesus and seals his tomb, but God raises him. Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee and commissions them to make disciples from all nations.

Matthew equips his Christian Jewish community with the Torah-fulfilling teaching of Jesus on righteous living, on opposition during mission, on the mixed external reception of the message, on the internal values that characterize his community, and on how to live in light of his coming. This teaching along with Jesus’s powerful presence will enable the community to continue kingdom ministry to Israel and begin discipling the Gentiles.

Matthew’s Influence on the Church

As the first Gospel in the canon, Matthew has received a great deal of attention through the centuries (Kealy 1997; Luz 1994). Matthew is the NT book that influenced the early church most (Massaux 1990-93), leading to a rich reservoir of patristic commentary (tapped by Simonetti 2001, 2002). This prominence is mainly due to Matthew’s unique structure, which focuses the reader’s attention on the Sermon on the Mount and the other four major discourses of Jesus. The history of the interpretation of Matthew is outside the scope of the present volume, but it is clear that through the centuries the First Gospel has occupied the minds of many great expositors. The work of U. Luz has especially emphasized Wirkungsgeschichte, the history of Matthew’s influence on, and reception by, the church (1989: 95-99). Allison (2005b: 117-31) speaks appreciatively of the strengths and ongoing relevance of the patristic exegesis of Matthew.

Yet during the twentieth century, Matthean studies became somewhat passé, mostly because of the dominance of the Markan-priority view of synoptic origins. Many scholars who took this view held that Mark embodied an earlier and more authentic version of the historical Jesus. More recently, however, Matthew has begun to receive more attention, as evidenced by such commentaries as Beare (1981), Benoit (1972), Blomberg (1992a), Bonnard (1970), Bruner (1987, 1990), W. Davies and Allison (1988, 1991, 1997), France (1985), Garland (1993), Grundmann (1975), Gundry (1994), Hagner (1993, 1995a), Hare (1993), Harrington (1991), Hauerwas (2006), Keener (1999), LaGrange (1948), Limbeck (1986), Luz (1989, 2001, 2005), G. Maier (1979-80), Meier (1979, 1980b), Morris (1992), Nolland (2005), Overman (1996), Sand (1986), Schnackenburg (2002), Schweizer (1975), and Witherington (2006). In addition, numerous important works have addressed various themes related to Matthew’s provenance and theology; they include Allison (1993b, 2005b), Aune (2001), Balch (1991), Bauer (1988), Bornkamm, Barth, and Held (1963), Broer (1980), Didier (1972), Gaechter (1963), Gerhardsson (1979), Kingsbury (1988a, 1989), Marguerat (1981), Overman (1990b), Saldarini (1994), Schenke (1988), Shuler (1982), Sim (1998b), Stanton (1992b, ed. 1995), Westerholm (2006), and Wilkins (1988). This renewed interest in Matthew is mainly due to the rise of the disciplines of redaction and narrative criticism and to the increasing awareness of Matthew’s Jewish roots. (See Hare 1998, 2000.)

Distinctive Aspects of This Commentary

The availability of so many fine works on Matthew means that a new project must add something to what is already available (Engelbrecht 1995; Hagner 1995b). The distinctive aspects of this project are as follows. First, many treatments of Matthew assume that Matthew is rewriting and expanding Mark. Be that as it may, the original readers of Matthew most likely did not hold it in one hand and Mark in the other, assuming that Matthew could not be understood apart from Mark. The present commentary therefore approaches Matthew in its own right, utilizing what has come to be known as narrative criticism (Fokkelman 1999; Powell 1990; Resseguie 2005). This method relates the parts of a Gospel to its whole instead of reading Matthew as an adaptation of Mark.

Second, this commentary attempts to explain Matthew in the context of Second Temple formative Judaism(s). It is written from the perspective argued by Overman (1990b), Saldarini (1994), and Sim (1998b) to the effect that Matthew was written to a group of Christian Jews who were still in contact with non-Christian Jews in the synagogue. This view avoids the anachronistic reading of Matthew as promoting Christianity as a new religion for Gentiles in opposition to Judaism, a monolithic old religion for Jews. Matthew and his community were part of a process in which Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, followers of Jesus, and others were presenting somewhat diverse competing versions of Judaism. Judaism had not yet become unified by the ascendancy of the Jabneh (Jamnia; cf. Lewis, ABD 3:634-37; Lewis 1999-2000) rabbis after the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew should not be read from a perspective that reflects the result of this diversification—the second-century parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism. Rather, Matthew should be read as the voice of “Jews for Jesus,” as it were, during a time of much diversity within Judaism. (See Hare 2000 for another view.)

Third, in keeping with the objectives of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, this commentary provides both analysis and synthesis. Some treatments of Matthew excel in historical and exegetical analysis, notably W. Davies and Allison’s three-volume commentary in the International Critical Commentary series. Others provide exceptional theological depth, such as F. D. Bruner’s profound two-volume work. The present commentary does not have the depth of these two works in their respective areas but instead weaves analysis and synthesis together to provide comprehensive yet concise discussions of both historical-exegetical and literary-theological matters. The amount of interaction with current scholarship will not always satisfy academics, but bibliographic notes will at least point the way to additional recent studies.

Fourth, the theological perspective of the present work reflects a recent discussion among evangelicals that has led to a view known as progressive dispensationalism (Blaising and Bock 1992, 1993; Saucy 1993). While affirming such central dispensational tenets as the imminence of Jesus’s coming and a future national conversion of the Jews, this approach takes a much more sanguine approach to the continuity of Scripture than did classical dispensational approaches. Although full rapprochement with covenant theology is not likely, progressive dispensationalism has much in common with this approach, especially premillennial versions. The interpretation of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25) is directly affected by this approach, as is the exegesis of such cruxes as Matt. 11:12; 19:28; 21:43.

Fifth, this commentary provides both a readable dynamic-equivalence, or functional-equivalence, translation and numerous comments on Matthew’s Greek syntax. Since translation is the briefest sort of commentary, the translation here reflects the views supported in the exegesis of the Greek syntax. Any translation by a single individual is bound to be somewhat idiosyncratic, and so readers should compare the translation found here with the Greek text and standard translations. The translation consistently attempts to avoid male language when the exegesis has determined that humans in general rather than males in particular are meant by the author. Although the noun “man” and pronouns “he,” “his,” and “him” have been used elsewhere for humans in general, such inclusive use of male language does not appear in this translation for the simple reason that it does not reflect sound exegesis to the current generation. Admittedly, this may at times lead to unfamiliar, even awkward phrasing (cf. Matt. 7:24; 16:24-26), but this is preferable to conveying the impression to some readers that Jesus is only concerned with males.

Literary Matters

Gospel Genre: The Question of History and Theology

Due to apologetic concerns over the historicity of the Gospel traditions, conservative evangelicals have at times been reluctant to view the Gospels as theologically motivated. At the other end of the spectrum are liberal scholars who tend to view the Gospels as imaginative documents produced to meet the church’s needs rather than to transmit reliable Jesus traditions. Such scholars think the Gospel stories frequently reflect the situations and controversies of the post-70 CE church rather than the historical Jesus (e.g., Beare 1981: 13-15). Evangelicals have rightly responded in defense of the historical reliability of the Gospels (e.g., Blomberg 1987b; E. Ellis 1999), but their stress on historicity may neglect the theological import of the Gospels.

Others have argued, at times from misguided dispensational views, that the church derives history from the Gospels and theology from the epistles of the NT, especially those of Paul. This history-versus-theology dichotomy is false, whether in a conservative detheologizing context or in a liberal dehistoricizing context. The Gospels narrate what really happened but do so in part for theological reasons. According to Luke’s prologue, Luke did careful research in order to ascertain the reliability of oral and written traditions so that Theophilus might be taught reliable truths about Jesus (Bock 1994: 51-67). If one may extrapolate from Luke to the Gospels in general, their procedure was to transmit the Jesus traditions they had received, with a view toward meeting the spiritual needs of their audiences, which included the historical grounding of their faith.

The Gospels are theological interpretations of selected traditions that the authors accepted as reliable accounts of historical events that occurred during the life and ministry of Jesus. Some scholars argue that the Gospels are examples of the ancient genre of laudatory biography or encomium (e.g., Shuler 1982; Talbert 1977, critiqued by Aune in France and Wenham 1981: 9-60). Others hold that they constitute their own genre (e.g., Guelich in Stuhlmacher 1991: 173-208). Be that as it may, most if not all would agree that the Gospels are not comprehensive biographies or exhaustive histories of Jesus. A perusal of any Gospel synopsis or harmony dispels that notion. But each Gospel’s Jesus stories are calculated to meet the needs of its respective audience. There is overall continuity in the Synoptic Gospels’ accounts, but there is a great deal of individual freedom as the authors tailor their traditions for their respective communities. If John 20:30-31 provides a model, the theological purposes of the evangelists guided their editing of tradition, leading to literary narratives, not historical chronicles. Their purpose was not to satisfy intellectual curiosity by compiling historical data but to disciple their respective communities by bringing selected episodes from the life of Jesus to bear on the communities’ needs. The Gospels continue to teach the church by narrating reliable words and deeds of Jesus. The Gospel authors faithfully present story as history and creatively interpret history as story (Byrskog 2000; cf. 1994; G. Osborne 2005; J. W. Scott 1985).

Source Criticism and the Synoptic Problem

A cursory reading of the Gospels reveals the fundamental difficulty known as the synoptic problem—why are the first three Gospels so similar in some respects and so different in others? Conservative evangelicals may attribute such matters solely to divine leading of the authors, but reflection on Luke 1:1-4 should lead one beyond such naive pietistic solutions. Luke researched earlier written “accounts” (singular διήγησις, diēgēsis, Luke 1:1; cf. Let. Aris. 1, 8, 322; Josephus, Ant. 11.68) and oral traditions emanating from eyewitnesses (αὐτόπτης, autoptēs, Luke 1:2; cf. Josephus J.W. 3.432; Ant. 18.342; 19.125; Ag. Ap. 1.55). Theories of synoptic origins can be divided into two main groups: those that posit the literary independence of each Gospel and those that see some sort of literary interdependence between the Gospels.

Literary independence. Certain scholars argue from the prevalence of oral transmission of sacred tradition in the ancient Near East that each Gospel author edited the available oral tradition without borrowing from another Gospel (Farnell in R. Thomas 2002: 226-309; Linnemann 1992; Rist 1978; Westcott 1895: 165-212; Ingolfsland 2006). In this approach, assuming the traditional view of apostolic authorship, Matthew reflected on his experiences as an eyewitness of Jesus’s ministry and augmented his own recollections with oral traditions. This approach accounts for the differences between the Synoptics with some plausibility, but it does not adequately account for the extensive and often verbatim agreements between the synoptic accounts (e.g., Matt. 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-9; Matt. 9:14-17 and Mark 2:18-22).

Literary interdependence. Most scholars conclude that some sort of literary interrelationship is necessary to explain the phenomena of the Gospels. In fact, such a view was held by Augustine and many of the church fathers, who believed that the canonical order of the Gospels represented their order of literary dependence. In the late eighteenth century the Griesbach hypothesis, which posited that Mark used both Matthew and Luke, revised the patristic approach to Matthean priority. Although some scholars still hold to Matthean priority (cf. Tuckett 1983b, 1984), the scholarly consensus today favors Markan priority, with Matthew and Luke composing their Gospels in dependence on Mark and the hypothetical source Q (Tuckett 1996; M. Williams 2006), which purportedly contained a collection of the sayings of Jesus. This view is known as the two-source theory (Mark and Q), but it has been further developed into the four-source theory, in which Mark and Q are supplemented by the additional hypothetical sources M, for unique Matthean tradition, and L, for unique Lukan tradition (Streeter 1924). (For critiques of this consensus, see Butler 1951 and Stoldt 1980.)

The Markan-priority theory tends to reduce Matthean studies to distinguishing between tradition and redaction by locating Matthew’s sources (Mark, Q, and M) and discerning Matthew’s editorial refinements as an indication of his unique theological interests. It is commonly assumed that Matthew’s redactional departures from his tradition are historically less reliable. Yet many evangelical scholars utilize this approach without diminishing the historicity of Matthew (e.g., Blomberg 1992a; Carson 1984). If one accepts the traditional view of apostolic authorship, one may wonder why an eyewitness of Jesus’s ministry would base his Gospel on the account of Mark, who was not an eyewitness. Yet patristic tradition places Peter’s recollections and authority behind the Gospel of Mark (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15; cf. Gundry 1994: 621). It has been argued that Mark would be rendered superfluous had Matthew been written first, but this overlooks the presence of vivid narrative details in Mark that are not found in Matthew. Ultimately, whether Mark abbreviated Matthew’s discourses and expanded Matthew’s narratives (minority view; cf. S. E. Johnson 1991; Kingsbury in Farmer 1983: 331-61) or whether Matthew adapted Mark’s narrative to his discourses derived from Q (consensus view; cf. Dermience 1985; Huggins 1992), what matters most to the church is the meaning of the Gospels as literary and theological wholes.

Narrative Criticism

The impossibility of arriving at certainty in solving the synoptic problem and the atomizing tendencies of source-critical studies have led some to adopt a more holistic approach commonly known as narrative criticism. Narrative criticism draws conclusions about meaning and theology by comparing the parts of each Gospel to the whole Gospel instead of its putative sources. According to Powell (1990: 20), in order to read the Gospels in this way, “it is necessary to know everything that the text assumes the reader knows and to ‘forget’ everything that the text does not assume the reader knows.” This approach seems fitting if the Gospels are viewed as theologically interpreted history, written for the edification of Christian communities. One would think that the Gospels functioned as wholes within those communities, not as overlays to be spread upon previous Gospels or other sources. Modern scholars have been understandably preoccupied with uncovering the history of the traditions they find in the Synoptics, but such an approach was hardly that of ancient Christian communities. It seems unlikely that such communities read one Gospel as an overlay of a previous Gospel, and it is difficult even today to utilize source-critical methodology for Gospel studies in the context of church ministry.

Narrative criticism seems much more appropriate than source criticism for the study of the Gospels in a church context, given the genre of the Gospels as theologically interpreted history and the canonical function of the Gospels as Holy Scripture. Therefore this commentary will be a narrative-critical study, although source-critical matters will occasionally be noted (see the plea for methodological eclecticism in W. Davies and Allison 1988: 1-4). A weakness of literary criticism in general and of narrative criticism in particular is that the historical referents of the literary documents are usually ignored as being beside the point. But when Holy Scripture is studied within an evangelical context, the historical events interpreted by the literary sources retain high value.

Literary Structure

In the narrative-critical approach utilized by the present study, one attempts to articulate the role of the parts in framing the whole of the First Gospel. Grasping the structure of Matthew is crucial to this approach. Although some scholars (e.g., Gundry 1994: 10-11; Harrington 1991: 4) despair of outlining Matthew, the following approaches are commonly found.

Markan outline. One regularly encounters analyses of Matthew along the chronological and geographical lines that work well with Mark (e.g., Hendriksen 1973: v-vi; Morris 1992: v-ix). Such an approach yields something similar to the following:

I. Infancy narrative (1:1-2:23)

II. Preparation for ministry (3:1-4:11)

III. Public ministry in Galilee (4:12-15:20)

IV. Public ministry outside Galilee (15:21-18:35)

V. Journey to Jerusalem (19:1-20:34)

VI. Final days in Jerusalem (21:1-27:66)

VII. Resurrection and the Great Commission (28:1-20)

In some cases an outline like the above is used but with topical themes, such as “King” or “Messiah” (e.g., Toussaint 1980: 25-27). All such outlines are more or less artificially superimposed upon Matthew rather than derived from it. This approach has some value in clarifying the biographical and geographical flow, but it does not engage Matthew’s distinctive pattern of alternating narrative and discourse blocks of material.

“From then on Jesus began....” Some scholars (e.g., Kingsbury 1988a; 1989: 7-25; Bauer 1988) have called attention to the phrase ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς (apo tote ērxato ho Iēsous), which occurs at two pivotal points. In 4:17, just after the account of John the Baptist’s arrest, Matthew announces the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry with the words “from then on Jesus began to preach.” In 16:21, just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Matthew characterizes Jesus’s messianic ministry as one of suffering with the words “from then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that he would go to Jerusalem ... and be killed.” In this approach Matthew’s structure appears as follows:

I. Preparation of Jesus the Messiah (1:1-4:16)

II. Proclamation of Jesus the Messiah (4:17-16:20)

III. Passion of Jesus the Messiah (16:21-28:20)

Although it is significant that Matthew inserts ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς at two critical points in his narrative, this phrase seems to be more of a biographical or chronological marker than a literary device. This second approach to Matthew is not all that different from the previous approach, and it does not handle Matthew’s alternating narrative/discourse pattern, which is the most obvious structural difference between Matthew and the other Synoptics. For this reason, the following approach is preferable (but see Bauer 1988: 129-34).

“When Jesus had finished....” Students of Matthew have long noticed the unique juxtapositioning of narrative and discourse materials. What is more, Matthew marks each of the five transitions from discourse back to narrative with the phrase καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς (kai egeneto hote etelesen ho Iēsous, when Jesus had finished; 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1; C. R. Smith 1997). Acknowledging this structural pattern does not necessitate accepting Bacon’s view (1918, 1928, 1930) that Matthew contains five books of Jesus that correspond to the five books of Moses in the Pentateuch. This third approach has difficulties in that certain discoursive materials occur in narrative sections, most notably the warning to the disciples and the woes to the religious leaders in Matt. 23. But all things considered, this approach has the most to commend it. A detailed outline based on this insight is found at the end of this introduction, but a condensed version is as follows:

I. Prologue/introduction: Origin of Jesus the Messiah (1:1-2:23)

II. Early days of kingdom word and deed (3:1-7:29)

A. Narrative 1: John and Jesus and the kingdom of God (3:1-4:25)

B. Discourse 1: Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29)

III. Galilean ministry continues (8:1-11:1)

A. Narrative 2: Three cycles of miracles and discipleship (8:1-10:4)

B. Discourse 2: Mission and suffering (10:5-11:1)

IV. Growing opposition to the kingdom of heaven (11:2-13:52)

A. Narrative 3: Three cycles of unbelief and belief (11:2-12:50)

B. Discourse 3: Parables of the kingdom of heaven (13:1-52)

V. Opposition to the kingdom continues (13:53-19:2)

A. Narrative 4: Various responses to the Son of God (13:53-17:27)

B. Discourse 4: Values and relationships in the kingdom community (18:1-19:2)

VI. Opposition comes to a head in Judea (19:3-26:2)

A. Narrative 5: Ministry in Judea (19:3-23:39)

B. Discourse 5: Judgment of Jerusalem and the coming of Christ (24:1-26:2)

VII. Epilogue/conclusion: Passion, resurrection, and commission (26:3-28:20)

Some scholars attempt a synthesis of this approach with the second approach discussed above (e.g., Blomberg 1992a: 22-25, 49; McKnight in J. Green and McKnight 1992: 530-32). Derickson 2006 attempts to construe the narrative-discourse sections chiastically centering on Matt. 13 (cf. Lohr 1961).

Literary Style

Scholars generally view Matthew’s Greek style as aesthetically adequate if not exceptional. The author was relatively fluent in Semitic languages as well as Greek, which led to frequent Semitisms (W. Davies and Allison 1988: 80-85). These Semitisms emanate from Matthew’s sources, the Hebrew Bible, the LXX, and Matthew’s own personal writing style. They are incorporated into Matthew’s syntax in a way that avoids awkward or harsh expressions and retains acceptable Greek style (see Engelbrecht 1990).

Another matter of style is Matthew’s purported use of sources, primarily Mark, Q, and M. Those who scrutinize Matthew from the Markan-priority perspective conclude that Matthew regularly abbreviates Mark’s account of Jesus’s deeds and expands Mark’s account of Jesus’s words. From a narrative-critical perspective, this phenomenon indicates that Matthew features Jesus’s words more than his deeds. However one solves the synoptic problem, there are certain words and expressions that Matthew uses much more frequently than Mark and Luke (W. Davies and Allison 1988: 74-80; Gundry 1994: 674-82; Luz 1989: 52-73).

Matthew seems to be fond of various numerical patterns, such as the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13), the seven parables (13), and the genealogy’s format of fourteen (double-seven) generations (1:1-17). Matthew is fond of threefold structures (W. Davies and Allison 1988: 61-72). Additional features include repetition of contrast and comparison, particularization and climax, inclusio, and chiasmus. Such features will be noted in the body of this commentary.

Historical Origins

The origins of the Gospel of Matthew are not easily ascertained. One can only read between the lines of the Gospel itself in search of historical implications and evaluate the patristic traditions about the book.


The Gospel of Matthew is technically anonymous, as are the other Gospels, although the Gospel of John hints at its authorship (John 21:24; cf. 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Hengel’s (1985: 64-84; 2000: 48-53, 77) plausible argument that the titles of the Gospels are very early, perhaps even original with each Gospel, has positive implications for traditional views of the Gospels’ authorship. Hengel shows that ancient custom tended to identify books by their authors (cf. Tertullian, Marc. 4.2). One should not assume (as does Hagner 1993: lxxvi) that the Gospels originally circulated anonymously and that their titles were added in the second century. The nearly unanimous attribution of the Gospels to their traditional authors by about 150 CE better supports the theory that their titles were original rather than the theory that they originally circulated anonymously.