Matthew’s story of Jesus unfolds in six sections. The opening section introduces Jesus (1:1–4:16). He is located in the story of Israel (1:1–17); conceived and commissioned by God to manifest God’s saving presence (1:18–25); threatened by Herod, recognized by the magi and a star, protected by Joseph (ch. 2); witnessed to by John the Baptist (3:1–12); sanctioned by God in baptism (3:13–17); tested by the devil (4:1–11); and interpreted by the Scriptures (4:12–16). Then in the second section, Jesus carries out his commission to manifest God’s saving presence (4:17–11:1) by announcing God’s reign or empire (4:17); calling disciples (4:18–22); teaching (chs. 5–7; 10); and performing actions such as healings and exorcisms (chs. 8–9).
The third section highlights diverse responses to Jesus and his activity of recognition and rejection (11:2–16:20). In the fourth section (16:21–20:34), Jesus announces a further dimension to his commission. The ruling alliance of Jerusalem elite and the Roman governor Pilate will crucify him. In his teaching (ch. 18) and while journeying from Galilee (chs. 19–20), he elaborates the implications of his death for his disciples’ “way of the cross.” The fifth section narrates his increasing conflict with the ruling powers in Jerusalem, his curses and judgment on their imperially allied world, and his crucifixion as rebel king and death (chs. 21–27). The final section reveals that Roman power does not have the last word as God raises Jesus (ch. 28).
This story of Jesus’ birth, activity, teaching, death by crucifixion, and resurrection exhibits standard features of the genre of ancient biography. We do not know its author. Though the Gospel twice mentions a disciple named Matthew (9:9; 10:3), he is probably not the author. This disciple plays a minor role in the Gospel. And the name “Matthew” is not linked with the Gospel until late in the second century, some one hundred or so years later.
The Gospel’s references to Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (see below) and its apparent citing by writings from Syrian Jesus-followers early in the second century (e.g., Didache, letters of Ignatius) establish a window of c. 80–c. 100 CE for its composition. The Gospel, then, is not an eyewitness account or day-by-day record of Jesus’ ministry. It shapes its sources—Mark’s Gospel and a collection of Jesus’ sayings called Q—to address its audience’s circumstances in the 80s or 90s CE. It was written perhaps in Galilee or in Syria, notably the city of Antioch. The prominence of Peter, the surprising reference to Syria in 4:24, and its early citing by writings from Syria suggest the latter.
Why tell this story of Jesus? The devastating assertion of Roman power in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, events that concluded the 66–70 war of revolt, had momentous consequences for emerging Judaisms. The Gospel’s telling of the story of Jesus, one crucified by Rome as a rebel king, functions to interpret these events, to secure the distinct and differentiated identity of the community of Jesus-followers, to discredit other groups, and to envision practices and a societal vision that constitute a way ahead. The Gospel is thus a work of narrative pastoral theology, addressing its audience’s particular circumstances.
These circumstances comprised conflict, competition, pressure, and vulnerability. Syria had significant involvement in the 66–70 war. In 67, the Roman general and later emperor Vespasian marshaled there three or four legions of troops (more than 20,000 troops in a city of perhaps 150,000). Syrian grain was levied to support Titus’s troops in the subsequent siege of Jerusalem. The practice of angaria requisitioned transport, labor, lodging, and supplies from local people (see Matt. 5:41; 27:32). As Roman presence and pressure increased, conflicts among Jews in Antioch erupted. A highly acculturated member of the Jewish elite by the name of Antiochus accused other Jews of plotting to burn Antioch. Antiochus banned identity-defining practices (Sabbath observance) and required sacrifices to city and/or imperial gods. Some complied, some refused, some were martyred, and some gentiles violently attacked Jews (Josephus, J.W. 7.47–53).
After the war, the victorious Roman general and future emperor Titus paraded Jewish captives and booty through Antioch. Some Antiochenes urged him, unsuccessfully, to expel Jews from the city. The emperor Vespasian levied a tax on Jews as a subjugated people, diverting the tax formerly paid to the Jerusalem temple to maintain and rebuild the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. This move added insult to injury. Jupiter was the sponsoring deity whose blessing had ensured Roman victory over Judea, its God, and temple.
Jerusalem’s devastation made an example out of Jewish people. It reminded the rest of the empire that Roman power was not to be challenged. It also raised significant theological issues and questions about the identity, way of life, and future of Jewish communities in the empire. What was God doing? Had God withdrawn God’s presence and blessing? Was the event punishment? If so, was there forgiveness? How should they live so as to prevent such a terrible thing happening again?
And this military-political event posed special challenges for Jesus-followers. They followed one who had been executed on a cross. Rome used crucifixion, a cruel form of the death penalty, to punish runaway slaves, bandits who attacked elite personnel and their property, and insurrectionists against Roman rule. Jesus’ death by crucifixion placed him in such company. The alliance comprising the Roman governor Pilate, the face of Roman power in Judea, and the Jerusalem leaders with whom Pilate shared power, had viewed Jesus as a threat for attacking the temple that was the basis for their power, for proclaiming an alternative empire, and for being understood as a king not sanctioned by Rome.
In telling the story of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel interprets and addresses this post-70 situation. How did followers of one crucified by Rome negotiate a world defined by a fresh assertion of Roman power?
One consequence of the 70-CE defeat of Jerusalem was added pressure on and suspicion of the significant Jewish population of Antioch. The reality that when a ruling power exerts downward pressure on a subordinated group, horizontal verbal, structural, and physical violence frequently breaks out among group members is well attested. This phenomenon is evident in Antioch, as noted above, and in Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel exhibits considerable verbal hostility toward and conflict with leaders, at least, of the synagogue or synagogues of which these Jesus-followers were members.
The Gospel explains the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple as punishment on the rulers of Galilee and Judea for rejecting Jesus (22:1–10). Jesus declares the temple leadership (allied with Rome) to be “robbers” or “brigands.” Their rule attacks and harms the people’s well-being (21:12–13; quoting Jer. 7:11). Through several parables (21:33–22:10; esp. 21:41; 22:7), Matthew interprets Jerusalem’s fall to the Romans in 70 CE as God’s judging the leaders for rejecting Jesus (21:45–46).
This explanation presents Rome as chosen by God to be agents of this punishment. But following a well-established Hebrew Bible pattern, the Gospel also presents Rome as under God’s judgment. Chapter 24 offers the fantasy of Jesus’ return to establish God’s empire or reign in full, destroying Rome’s empire (24:27–31). Rome and other nations will be condemned for not caring for the broken and powerless (25:31–46). The sinful structures of power that benefit elites at the expense of the rest created unjust and harmful circumstances.
Worse, the Gospel presents this Roman-ruled, sinful world as being in the devil’s hands. In tempting Jesus, the devil asserts control over all the empires of the world, of which Rome is the leading empire. The devil offers Jesus these empires if he will bow down to the devil (4:8–9). Jesus’ exorcisms of demons, the devil’s agents, show his victory over the devil’s control (8:28–34).
Moreover, the Gospel declares that this judgment on the Jerusalem leaders and Rome is not the end. It presents Jesus as God’s anointed agent (Christ/Messiah, 1:1; Son, 3:17). He represents and reveals God’s saving presence (1:21–23) and will for the way ahead. Jesus challenges the ruling powers with a different societal vision. He announces and enacts God’s empire or kingdom (4:17). He calls disciples to form a new community (4:18–22) and teaches them (chs. 5–7). Many sick people occupy the world of the Gospel (4:23; 9:35) because Rome’s imperial structures ensure that the ruling elite have plenty to eat while most struggle for daily sustenance. In such a context, diseases of deprivation and contagion are rife. Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and feedings (see 14:13–21; 15:32–39) enact and anticipate the physical wholeness and abundant fertility that the prophets picture when God’s reign/empire is established in full (Isa. 26:6–10; 35:1–7).
Jesus forgives sin (9:1–8; 26:26–29). He also declares that he represents God’s presence wherever his followers gather (18:20) and engage in mission (28:18–20). In five teaching blocks, Jesus reveals God’s will and purposes, shaping the identity and way of life of his followers (chs. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 24–25). Jesus’ teaching announces the surprising situations in which God’s blessing is encountered—among the poor (most of the population!) whose poverty corrodes their being or spirit (5:3), and in deeds of mercy (5:7; 9:13; 12:7; 18:21–35). Mercy is demonstrated in actions that relieve harsh socioeconomic conditions (25:31–46). Quoting from Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18, Jesus declares that the double command to love God and neighbor is central to God’s will (22:34–40).
Through this presentation of Jesus’ actions and teaching, Matthew’s Gospel reassures people after Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE that God has not abandoned them or withdrawn God’s presence, forgiveness, and blessing. God’s agent, Jesus, provides a future. God has commissioned him to reveal God’s purposes in his actions and teaching, shaping their identity and way of life.
How, then, are followers of Jesus, crucified by Rome, to live in this imperial world? Despite opposition (5:10–12), they are to understand that the empire’s power is not ultimate. It could not keep Jesus dead. God raised him from the dead (ch. 28), and he will return to establish God’s reign (chs. 24–25). Disciples are not to “resist violently” but are to negotiate Rome’s power in active, nonviolent ways (5:39–42). They pay taxes while recognizing that the earth belongs to God, not to Rome (17:24–27; 22:15–22). They pray for God’s will and rule to be established (6:9–13). They reject hierarchical structures of power (20:20–28). They care for and support one another with practical mercy, love, and forgiveness (5:42; 6:9–13; 18:1–35; 22:34–40; 25:34–36). The Gospel thus shapes the identity and way of living of Jesus-followers in a world often not structured according to God’s purposes of abundant life for all people.
The Gospel’s presentation indicates, though, that other members of the synagogue do not accept Jesus’ credentials, explanations, and teaching. Considerable tension exists between Jesus-followers and the rest of the synagogue communities. Though Jesus is active in synagogues (4:23; 9:35), he often finds opposition. The Gospel’s verbally violent rhetoric associates synagogues with conflict and rejection (12:9–14; 13:54–58). Jesus describes them as full of hypocrites (6:2, 5) and violent toward his followers (10:17–18, as are rulers). Throughout, Jesus is in conflict with leaders such as scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests who, along with the Roman governor Pilate, crucify him (9:2–8; 12:1–14; 16:1–12; 26:3–5, 57–68). They clash over how to interpret the Scriptures and practice God’s will in Sabbath observance (12:1–14), elder care (15:1–9), divorce (19:3–12), and paying taxes (22:15–22). They think he is a blasphemer (9:3), the devil’s agent (9:34; 12:24), lacking authority for his actions and teaching (21:23–27). In turn, he declares them disqualified from God’s purposes (15:6–9), warns against their teaching (15:13–14), and in the terrible chapter 23 curses them as hypocrites who neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23).
At the heart of this conflict is the issue of Jesus’ identity. Those who oppose him in synagogues do not recognize him as God’s agent commissioned to manifest God’s will, presence, forgiveness, reign/empire, and purposes. In the difficult situation of post-70 Antioch, perhaps various synagogue leaders and members thought that a group committed to one who had been crucified was likely to attract unwelcome hostile attention. Perhaps they considered the Gospel’s analysis of Roman power as diabolical and dangerous. Perhaps they found its certainty about Jesus’ return to end the Roman world similarly provocative. Perhaps they found it incredible that a crucified one could manifest God’s saving presence and reign/empire. Perhaps they found the eschatological declaration that God had raised him untenable, because clearly the world continued unchanged, with, in fact, Roman power strengthened.
The Gospel, then, tells the story of Jesus so as to address the circumstances of its own time. This situation is marked in part by struggles among synagogue members to make sense of the events of 70 CE and to discern a faithful way ahead. The Gospel sees Jesus as the key figure in offering a way ahead; others in the synagogue do not. The Gospel inscribes this bitter conflict in its story of Jesus.
A word of warning, though, is necessary. This Gospel presents this conflict between Jesus, synagogues, and Jewish leaders in harsh terms. Jesus makes nasty statements that are problematic for contemporary readers (e.g., ch. 23). The history of reading this Gospel over the last two millennia shows that its language has readily been a source of hostile anti-Jewish thought, rhetoric, and actions among Christians. The Gospel provides no warrant for such responses by contemporary readers. Its hostile rhetoric emerges from particular circumstances that no longer apply. And the Gospel holds out a different and greater vision of love for neighbors that accompanies love for God (22:37–40).
In the following commentary, I elaborate this reading and engage the Gospel’s contemporary address. In the bibliographies, I regularly cite two quite different commentaries from among many fine Matthean commentaries. One is my own, Matthew and the Margins, which elaborates this interpretation of Matthew. The other is the magnificent commentary by Ulrich Luz, from which I have drawn much material in the sections on the interpretive tradition. I wish to acknowledge my debt to this fine work.