Advent 3: The Magnificent Opus of St. Matthew and the Introduction of Jesus as the Fulfillment of Israel's Longing
The four Gospels are a remarkable literary accomplishment, collectively and individually. Forget for a moment that Christian cherish these works as God’s truth, shared by the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the writers, there are few if any parallels to these narrative biographies in their literary magnificence, and their compelling beauty is indeed no small aspect of God’s revelation here. The evangelists may or may not have been familiar with the fathers of written history, Herodotus and Thucydides, the Greek originators of the modern art who, five centuries before Jesus, crafted the “doing” of history into a narration of events with interpretive meaning.
For many centuries St. Matthew’s Gospel was called “the Gospel of the Church.” Through the medieval era this title seemed logical and appropriate. At the time, the Matthean Gospel was considered the first of the four to be composed; it is the longest of the four, and there survives many a stained-glass window with the evangelist, pen in hand, listening to the whisperings of an angel. St. Matthew’s Passion account, for example, was read annually on Palm Sunday. By 1800 scholars of the bible had begun critical studies of the four Gospels and gradually came to an understanding of both inspiration and biblical dating. By the twenty-first century the prevailing wisdom holds that St. Mark composed the first Gospel, that St. Matthew composed his Gospel at least a decade, and possibly more, after St. Mark’s and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Matthean text rests upon the Markan text, an independent “Q Source,” and the evangelist’s own inspiration—an inspiration which producing a “Christmas Narrative.”
We know next to nothing about the identity of St. Matthew. For several reasons, scholars are doubtful that the Apostle Matthew—the former tax collector—is the same person who composed the Gospel under that name. We are on safer footing in drawing from the internal clues of the Gospel itself. The Matthean text indicates an author who is deeply influence by the Hebrew Scripture. The term “according to the Scriptures” appears in St. Matthew more than in any other New Testament work. [The term “Scripture” in the early Church applied exclusively to the Hebrew canon of books, the “Old Testament.”] The author depicts Jesus as doing the works of Moses, such as delivering God’s law from on high, i.e., Sermon on the Mount, and feeding the people in the wilderness, i.e., the distributive miracle of the loaves and fishes.
St. Matthew’s Gospel is believed to have originated in the city of Antioch [near modern Antakya, Turkey] at least a decade after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Relations between Christians and Jews who lived side by side were tense. Christians were wont to see the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment on Israel for rejecting the messiahship of Christ. Many Jews regarded Christians, particularly converts from Judaism, as traitors and blasphemers, outraged by the Christian contention that the crucified Jesus was one and the same as God [Yahweh].
Considering that Roman authorities generally tolerated the Jews for their ethic and long history while periodically persecuting Christians as subversives, it is easy to understand how Jewish Christians were tempted “to return home,” so to speak. It is in this context that the Gospel of Matthew developed, a text written to establish for all time that Jesus is the Messiah, the true son of Abraham, the new Moses, who has come to deliver the fullness of the Law and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies. In its unfolding biography the Gospel of St. Mathew will describe a Jesus who delivers a new moral code [the Eight Beatitudes], who battles with scribes and Pharisees over their legalism, and who takes a dim view of the mediocrity of Temple worship to the point that its leaders wanted him dead and were instrumental in making that happen. Only St. Matthew records the infamous line, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.”
Using the text of St. Mark and the Q source, St. Matthew adds his original material under the influence of divine inspiration. Like his contemporary St. Luke, St. Matthew wished to lay out his theological position before delving into the adult ministry of Jesus, and he sculpted an infancy narrative as his signal statement of both the identity of Jesus and his meaning to the world. The infancy narrative, the first two chapters of his Gospel, is inspired in both a human and divine sense. Unfortunately, it is a narrative of which most Catholics are unaware, as the Gospel of St. Luke, with its Bethlehem portrayal, is the usual Gospel of choice for the Masses of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I would point out, though, the Matthean Christmas text is the recommended one for the Christmas Eve vigil Masses, though pastors have the option to use St. Luke and even the introduction to St. John’s Gospel. I might add here that the Christmas creche display is inspired primarily by St. Luke’s account, but the displays themselves were first erected in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi.
In the next post on this sequence, I will walk through St. Matthew’s Chapters 1 and 2 for a closer look at the faith realities expressed in each section, beginning with the genealogy of Jesus. I might recommend that you read St. Matthew’s Christmas texts as if you had never heard of St. Luke’s and were approaching this material for the first time. I recommend this particularly to catechists, preachers, and parents of young children who educate their offspring as “the first teachers of the faith.” In my previous Advent post I talked about the second century church writer Tatian, who attempted to morph together all four Gospels in his Diatessaron, an error that inhibits a fuller understanding of the divine inspiration behind each Gospel. It is an easy shortcut to fall into, and the multiple Christmas narratives are as good a place as any to teach foundation understanding of biblical reading and scholarship.