According to Matthew: An Introduction, Part 1

It should come as no surprise that the Lord’s people love the gospel of Matthew. Being the first book in our New Testament, Matthew is one of the most read books in the Bible. Containing fifty percent of the “Christmas story”, Matthew (or at least the first few chapters) is often read on an annual basis. By verse count, Matthew makes up over thirteen percent of the entire New Testament. This is a treasured and important book. It is also a book that has come under considerable amount of persecution.


The two fiercest fronts in the battle for the Bible are waged at the beginning of our two testaments. Liberals and apostates (nearly synonymous terms) seek to undermine the historical facts of Genesis 1-11 with the same ferocity as they attack the authenticity of Matthew. Their logic is simple and sound: by derailing the beginning of the story, the whole narrative becomes meaningless. Just as the atonement is meaningless without a historical Adam, so too does the entire biblical story line of God’s kingdom plan break down to meaningless emotional mush without an accurate understanding of Matthew’s gospel.


Instead of reading pages upon pages in order to gain the author’s perspective (as is the case in most commentaries) I am going to tell you here and now what I plan to argue for. It is my conviction that Matthew not only wrote the gospel that bears his name, but that he did so very early (35-40 AD) from the Roman province of Judaea with Judaean Christians as his primary audience in order to affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Christ, Israel’s king, and savior of the world. It is also my conviction that Matthew did not (and could not) use Mark as a source for his material as he relied first on the divine hand of the Holy Spirit and secondly on his own memory of the events that he records. Liberal scholars will defend their evil deeds of casting doubt on Matthew’s authorship, doubt of the original audience, doubt of Matthew’s purpose, and doubt as to where “Matthew’s” content comes from by asserting that their decisions in no way influence their exposition of the text.[1] These convictions will certainly influence all the exegetical decisions that follow because authorial intention is the key to understanding meaning. To state things more plainly: if we do not know who wrote Matthew, to whom he wrote, why he wrote, when he wrote, and the context in which he wrote, then we really don’t know anything at all.


Historical Context


Rather than beginning our study with a complex analysis of the various heretical notions that Satan has used to poison the pure waters of Scripture (i.e., Marcan priority, redaction criticism, form criticism, etc.), our introduction will be better served by reminding the reader of the historical context in which our New Testament takes place and the stage upon which our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, bursts forth.


Close of the Old Testament


The Old Testament closes with the exiles from Judah returning to the land of Israel (2 Chr. 36:22-23). Jerusalem is no longer the capital of a vassal kingdom under Babylonian rule (2 Kings 24:1-4) but is a small city of the Persian province referred to simply as “beyond the river” or, west of the Euphrates (Ez. 4:11). Those who have returned rebuilt the temple (Ez. 3) though it is a shadow of the glorious structure constructed under King Solomon. The priesthood is reinstated and temple worship resumes (Ez. 3:1-7) yet corruption runs rampant in their ranks and their worship becomes putrid in Yhwh’s sight (Mal. 2:1-17). The Old Testament concludes with a people back in the land of promise, yet far away from Yhwh in their hearts. They are still awaiting the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15), the teacher of righteousness (Joel 2:23), and the Davidic King (2 Sam. 7) to come. Yet, just before the close of the Old Testament (ca. 430 BC) the prophet Malachi provides a promise of this One to come (Mal. 3:1) and provides a description of His forerunner (Mal. 4:4-6). The redemption of Israel has not yet arrived. But her redeemer is coming.


The “Intertestamental” Period


Perhaps readers of the Bible take too much for granted as they make progress in their various Bible reading programs. I am convinced that there is a part of our minds that does not realize that the Bible takes place in real time and history. I am always amazed at the lack of questions that arise when transitioning from the Old Testament to the New. At the close of the Old Testament, Persia is the dominant empire, yet the New Testament begins under Roman control. The New Testament speaks of various sects like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, yet the Old Testament never mentions these groups. What is going on? A brief overview of these 400+ years of silence is necessary in order to understand and appreciate the context of the New Testament. Not only as the geo-political landscape of the near east changed, but so too has the social and religious structure of Israel.


Changing Geo-Political Landscape: Since the separation of the rebellious northern tribes from the Davidic line (930 BC), the land of Israel has been under Assyrian (722-612 BC), Egyptian (609 BC), Babylonian (609-539 BC), and Persian (539-331 BC) control. To each succeeding world power comes the prize of the Promised Land. Yet there are two more world powers (Greece and Rome) that enter the fray before the beginning of the New Testament.


In 331, a young Macedonian general named Alexander invaded the Persian empire and defeated the Persian army of Darius III at Gaugamela, affectively breaking the back of the Persian rule over southwest Asia. All that was once a part of the Persian empire is now under Alexander the Great and his Greek empire. Having produced no heir, Alexander’s empire was divided among his four generals after Alexander’s death (323 BC). The land of Israel stood on the border of the provinces of Egypt (ruled by the Ptolemies from Alexandria) and Syria (ruled by the Seleucids from Damascus). These two Greek “empires” were constantly feuding back and forth and so Israel spent time in subjection to both Alexandria and Damascus. Though originally part of the Ptolemaic empire, the land of Israel was taken by the Seleucids in 198 BC. This victory was foreseen by Daniel who said that the king of the north (Antiochus III the Seleucid) would defeat the king of the south (Ptolemy V) (Dan. 11:13-16).


By 190 BC, Rome had emerged as a budding military might. By this time, her legions left Italy to begin a conquest of the Greek peninsula, but Rome was not yet strong enough to begin a campaign of the Levant. Nevertheless, the buffer between the house of Seleucid and Rome was growing thin. Antiochus IV of Seleucid (Epiphanes) attempted to invade Egypt to take all of Ptolemy for himself and thus strengthen his hand against Rome but was forced to retreat to Damascus. Frustrated abroad, Antiochus Epiphanes turns his attention inward.


In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes begins to forcefully “Hellenize” the Jews of Palestine (the land of Israel). Alexander’s goal was to make the world he conquered a Greek world. The Jews of Palestine had received much laxity in this area and were allowed to carry on with their traditions and religion without much interference. All of that changed with Antiochus’ reign of terror. Laws were passed that forbade the circumcision of Jewish boys (the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant – Gen. 17:9-10), ordered the burning of Torah scrolls (the law that Israel was to always keep before them – Deut. 6:4-9), installed an idol of Zeus (in violation of God’s law – Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10) in the temple (the place where Yhwh chose for His name to dwell – Deut. 12:5), sacrificed a pig (an unclean animal – Lev. 11:7) on the altar and force-fed the attending priests the raw meat. True to Daniel’s prediction of the abomination of desolation (Dan. 8:9-25; 11:21-35), Antiochus Epiphanes made himself out to be dead set against Yhwh and His people.


The actions of Antiochus Epiphanes set the stage for rebellion. Around the year 167 BC angry Jewish rebels led by a man named Judas (Judah) Maccabee rebelled against Greek rule and succeeded in driving the Greeks out of Jerusalem by 165 BC. Judas Maccabee led the people in battle but also in rededicated the temple after its defilement by pagan Gentiles. For the first time in over 400 years Israel was an independent nation. Taking the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” this infant kingdom allied itself to Rome in order to secure herself from any future Greek threat. Israel was now declared a “friend” of Rome.


For almost a hundred years the independent kingdom of Israel (technically the Hasmonean Kingdom) rebuilt much of the kingdom as it was in the Old Testament. Yet the death of the Hasmonaean king Alexander in 76 BC left two feuding sons, both of whom had intentions to take the throne. Civil war ensued and Roman general Pompey was called upon to settle the matter. In 64 BC Pompey marched into Jerusalem to restore peace and to prop up the next Hasmonean ruler. Both sides vied for Rome’s support and protection, but Rome was more interested in a vassal king that they could control than an independent nation for a fickle ally. Eventually, in 43 BC, Rome placed Antipater as Procurator of Judaea (a nice position, but hardly the same as king). This did not sit well with the populace for Antipater was not of the line of David, nor even the line of Israel. Antipater was an Idumean, a descendent of Esau. Antipater was assassinated shortly after his appointment leaving his son Herod as his heir. Fearing for his life, Herod flees to Rome where Julius Caesar pronounces him, a son of Esau, “king of the Jews.” The son of Esau is ruling over the sons of Jacob. This is the same Herod that will persecute the seed of the woman, seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel.


Changing Social and Religious Landscape: Not only did the geo-political world undergo massive change in the 400 years between the testaments but so did the social and religious would of Palestinian Jews. The careful student will note three major differences between Israelite life and worship in the Old Testament vs. the New: (1) the introduction of the synagogue, (2) inconsistencies within the priesthood, and (3) new social groups never before mentioned.


1. The Synagogue: The New Testament regularly mentions the synagogue, a gathering that has no mention in the Old Testament. When Israel was in exile and cut off from the temple worship, they began meeting on the Sabbath (Saturday, the seventh and final day of the week) to read the Scriptures and pray. This practice was carried back to the land after the exile ended and continues to this day.


2. The Priesthood: Torah is very clear that only Levites were to serve in the temple (Num. 18:6) and even then, only the sons of Aaron were to serve as priests (Num. 18:7). All of that changed during the Maccabean revolt.


Judas Maccabee, himself a Levite, was the first man to be both king of Israel and high priest, a move that was purposefully prohibited in Torah. The priests were to come exclusively from Levi and the line of Aaron while the king was to come from Judah and the line of David. Yet pragmatism drove much of Maccabean thought. From this point forward the office of high priest was no longer considered a holy vocation for life, but a political appointment to be bestowed and transferred on a whim. Whoever was in control of Judaea also controlled the office of high priest by either taking the office himself (as in the case of Judas Maccabee) or bestowing it on another as a political favor. This explains why John records that Jesus was first tried by Annas the high priest and then was sent to Caiaphas the high priest (Jn. 18:12-24). Annas, Caiaphas’ father-in-law, had been the high priest but fell into disfavor with Pilate. Caiaphas was the current high priest yet deferred sometimes to his predecessor and father-in-law. In summary, the priesthood was not only a mess, but an absolute joke by the first century AD.


3. Social Sects: Josephus records that by the first century AD there were four major sects that divided the majority of Judaean thought and loyalty: (a) the Sadducees, (b) the Pharisees, (c) the Zealots, and (d) the Essenes.[2]


a. The Sadducees: Theologically speaking the Sadducees were the liberal of the day. They valued only the five books of Moses (Torah) as authoritative yet did not adhere to strict purification requirements that Torah demands. They viewed the human soul so bound to the physical body that both perished at death and therefore rejected the concept of immorality and resurrection. This sad group was made up mostly of priests and Israelite aristocracy. Most of the high priests were selected from the Sadducees. It’s not surprising that, with their liberal position of the Scriptures and obedience, that their willingness to compromise and cooperate with outsiders far surpassed the other sects. Gentiles, such as the Romans, were seen as necessary allies. Their goals were more tangible and worldly. They believed in no afterlife and therefore determined to make the most of this life. Power was their ticket, and they would hold on to it by any means necessary. Our Matthew (a Levite?) may have had more legal right to authority than they did.


b. The Pharisees: These were much more conservative than their Sadducee counter parts, so much so in fact that the two groups did not get along. While the Sadducees rule the temple, the Pharisees rule the synagogue. This sect grew out of concern that Israel was becoming like the nations in their lives, morals, and religion. They took the Scriptures very seriously and were consumed with the notion of keeping all the commandments given by God to Israel. In so doing, they extrapolated various scenarios that would constitute disobedience, or various ways that may provide a loophole for technical obedience. The Pharisees were made up of the middle class and were usually well respected within the community. Power was also important to the Pharisees, but power of a different sort. They sought to protect the traditions of Israel and to keep Israel from Gentile influence (thus Gentiles were little better than corpses as far as their uncleanliness). The power they craved was the power to influence the people. They had the people’s attention every week in the synagogue. The Sadducees had little presence outside Jerusalem, but the Pharisees lived among the people and wielded their influence as often as they could. Our Matthew, who worked hand in hand with the Gentile Romans to collect taxes, would have been ostracized by the Pharisees as an unclean reprobate.


c. The Zealots: The Zealots were the political and militant radicals of the day. They saw themselves as a contemporary version of the Maccabees (remember, a century and a half has elapsed since the Maccabean revolt) with an objective of ridding Israel of her foreign overlords. While it is easy to sympathize with a people who desire their liberty, it should be recognized that the Romans were hardly comparable with the Greek Seleucids in their treatment of Israel. The Romans allowed the Jews to continue worshipping at their temple and had a very “hands off” approach when it came to interfering with their laws, culture, and society. All they demanded was loyalty and tribute. The Zealots did not see it this way and worked to eradicate Roman presence from Palestine by any means necessary. Not only did they use guerilla tactics of ambush, cut, slash, and run, but also employed more sinister methods of assassinations and kidnapping for ransoms. Their enemies were not only the Romans, but any citizen who did not actively support them. How do you suppose they would have viewed our Matthew who openly worked to collect taxes for the Roman invaders?


e. The Essenes: The Essenes were highly pious individuals who had enough of the moral corruption that was running rampant through the nation. Rather than living among the people, they withdrew from society and established their own communities on the outskirts of the wilderness. They took the Scriptures very literally and endeavored to make copies of them for safe keeping. The scrolls found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) were copies of the Old Testament written in their original Hebrew. These were written by the Essenes. These people took cleanliness and purity to a whole new level to the point that they considered sexual intercourse to be sinful, even in the context of holy matrimony. As a result, these communities had the tendency to shrink in numbers over the course of time rather than grow. Rather than being a light to the nations so that they would know that He is Yhwh, the Essenes withdrew from the world to live their cultish life in seclusion. It is not hard to imagine what these Essenes thought of our Matthew, a man who would have taken his collections by force and interacted with overt sinners.


While it’s easy to get lost in the details, the point we must understand is that the Israel of the first century AD is utterly unrecognizable from the Israel of the Old Testament. The temple rebuilt in Nehemiah’s day may have been remodeled to appear even more glorious than Solomon’s, but that missed the entire point. A humble temple was a permanent reminder that the glory of Yhwh had departed (Ezek. 10-11) but was promised to return after Israel repents (Ezek. 43). The temple is a mockery to God’s promise, the priesthood is defiled, worship is a joke, and all of the popular think tanks have adopted a man-centered view of the Scriptures that completely misses the point. The point is this: the theological and moral landscape of Israel in the first century AD reflects the theological and moral demands and expectations of the Old Testament about as accurately as the medieval Roman Catholic church reflected the New Testament. That is to say, not at all. There is a thin veneer of similar language and customs that conceals a complete abandonment of objective obedience by twisting the plain meaning of Scriptures for any number of purposes. By the first century, the nation of Israel was completely bankrupt and apostate. This is the backdrop against which Matthew’s gospel breaks upon like a glorious sunrise after a moonless night.


[1] D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 43. [2] Josephus, Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 572-3 §Antiq. 18:2-6.

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