Sunday 10 March 2013

Was the Author of Matthew's Gospel Jewish?

Here's a short break from my Goliath series, which I'll resume some time later.

In one of my posts critiquing Mark Goodacre's critique of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, I mentioned that there is a significant amount of debate about whether the author of Matthew's Gospel was Jewish or not, and if he was, then what kind of Jew he was. This may have taken some people by surprise; I think most readers of the New Testament take it as a "result" that Matthew was written by a Jew, just as people generally take Luke to have been a Gentile. Much like so many areas of scholarly biblical criticism, the work of the experts has failed to get out there to people in the streets or pews.

So I thought it would be worth taking a look at the question - not that this blog's readership levels will do much to redress society's unfamiliarity with the issue!

Why did people originally think Matthew was written by a Jew rather than a Gentile?
First a note to say I'll be following the established convention of calling the author of the Gospel of Matthew - "Matthew". Please do not take this as any indication that I think the author was any individual Matthew, nor even that the actual author happened to be named Matthew; here it's just shorthand for indicating the author of the Gospel concerned. And whilst I'm giving disclaimers, perhaps I should also mention that just because I refer to the "author" of this Gospel in the singular, that should also not be taken to mean that everything in the Gospel of Matthew was written by just one person; on the contrary the author undoubtedly used sources and there may be elements of later redaction present in texts of the Gospel found today.

Returning to the question of this section, of course this Gospel was, from early on, not just attributed to any Jew, but to the disciple of Jesus  Μαθθαῖος ὁ τελώνης (Matt 9:9; 10:3). Indeed given this attribution, the jewishness of the Gospel would be pretty much guaranteed; surely Jesus' disciples were Jewish themselves, just like Jesus himself. And if such an early disciple had written the Gospel, then the Gospel itself must be very early, thus not allowing time for any great split between the new religion and Judaism of Jesus' day.

That's all very well as far as it goes. The problem is that no biblical scholar these days thinks that the Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew the tax-collecting-disciple mentioned in the Gospel. Of course many evangelical fundamentalists do still hold to this position, but even amongst them there are some who don't - after all the Gospel doesn't actually say this, so some have been able to break free from this doctrine.

But there's another reason why, early on, people thought Matthew's Gospel was particularly jewish - it was thought that it had originally been written in either Hebrew or Aramaic before being translated into Greek. Being written in a semitic language, it was argued, betrayed its semitic (and therefore jewish!) origins. In this respect a quotation is often given from Papias, which, strictly speaking, is a quotation of a quotation - we only know of this quotation via Eusebius writing in his Ecclesiastical History (3:39:16):
Ματθαῖος μὲν οὖν Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήνευσεν δ᾽ αὐτὰ ὡς ἦν δυνατὸς ἕκαστος
So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.
This is a passage which is cited to support numerous arguments in modern day biblical criticism, but is only a snippet about Matthew (or even about a Matthew) amongst argumentation in Eusebius' text about Mark. Needless to say, biblical scholars are agreed that the Gospel we know as Matthew Gospel (which may or may not be what Eusebius/Papias were talking about here) was not written in a semitic language, but was written right from the outset in Greek.

So these two arguments for the Gospel of Matthew's jewishness come to nought. Of course that doesn't mean that the Gospel isn't jewish, it's just that we have not yet established that it is.

But how could you tell if a document were written by a Jew or, more particularly, by a devout Jew? To do that, really you need to get to grips with the content of the Gospel. And that is what I was saying in my previous post that Udo Schnelle had helpfully done by way of "for and against lists" in his The New Testament Writings (translated from the German Einleitung in das Neue Testament).

I thought it would be helpful to go through these lists here, and see if that gets us any further in understanding the debate.

Arguments for Intrinsic Jewishness in Matthew's Gospel
I'll use Schnelle's points as subheadings:

a) The fundamental affirmation of the Law (cf. Matt 5:17-20; 23:3a, 23b).
The first of these passages seems quite forceful, and is often quoted in many contexts. So it's well worth taking a close look.
17 Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας· οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι.  18 ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν· ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.  19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.

20 Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.

17 Do not consider that I [Jesus] have come to destroy the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you until the heaven and the earth pass away, not one iota nor one serif will pass away from the Law until everything comes about. 19 Whoever, then, looses one of the least of these commandments and teaches people thus, he will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whoever does and teaches [them], he will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of the heavens.
This at first sounds very strong stuff indeed - a robust defense of the Torah and Prophets. However, as Maurice Casey points out in his Jesus of Nazareth (pp. 91-2, albeit making an argument for an early date of Matthew's gospel which fails to convince), verse 19 is not really as strong as people often claim. After all, for this verse everyone gets to the kingdom of the heavens regardless of their attitude to the Law; just some of them will be called "least" - hardly fire and brimstone stuff! Yes, in verse 20 one's righteousness has to be better than the Scribes and Pharisees, but this is more a condemnation of them than anyone else.

Undoubtedly the Law (and the Prophets - oh am I sorely tempted to comment on this formula - but one thing at a time!) is important for Matthew, but from here it is not the deciding factor for humanity or religion.

b) The sustained reference to the Old Testament and emphatic application of the idea of fulfillment (cf. e.g. Matt 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18; 3:3; 4:4-16; 8:17 and others).

These are generally the fulfillment passages, one of which we dealt with at length in a previous post. They clearly are a "feature" of Matthew's Gospel, and must surely be taken to indicate that either Matthew thought he could make good arguments from fulfillments of jewish scripture or he thought this would be important to his readers.

There are a couple of interesting points to note, however. Firstly, Matthew often quotes from the Greek translations of scriptures available to him, to the extent that, as we have already seen, the very point he makes about a "virgin" can only be maintained from the Greek translation of his time, not the Hebrew.  Ulrich Luz in A Commentary on Matthew (Hermeneia series) concludes that "Matthew's bible was the LXX [Septuagint]" (vol. 1, p. 128).

Secondly, as Mark Goodacre points out in his podcast that I criticized, one of the fulfillment "quotations" (strangely omitted from Schnelle's list here) references a passage that is simply not found in any scriptural literature found today, nor any that were known to early Christians who wrote about it. Matt 2:23 has:
καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται. And he came to reside in a city named Nazareth in order that it would be fulfilled that which was spoken through the Prophets, "He will be called a Nazarene"
There have been many attempts to identify such a "scripture" with no convincing success. So the question arises what purpose does this particular fulfillment passage serve? The author seems more concerned with the idea of "fulfillment" than accuracy about what jewish scriptures actually say.

A further error of the author is in Matthew 13:35 where the author incorrectly attributes a quotation of the Psalms (78:2) to the Prophets, or indeed, in some early manuscripts, even to the Prophet Isaiah.

These points serve to reduce suggestions of the author's familiarity with jewish scriptures both in Greek and Hebrew, but it seems he was even less familiar with scriptural sources in Hebrew than he was those in Greek.

c) The fundamental limitation of Jesus' mission to Israel (cf. Matt 10:5-6; 15:24).

These two passages seem rather undone by other passages concerning the mission to the Gentiles that will be considered in the "against" list, and I'll have more comment there. However, for the moment here's a suggestion about these two passages. I liken them to a sort of Matthean "Messianic Secret à la Wrede"; that is, they seem to me to be more of an explanation for readers that the new religion started out amongst Jews even though it was Jesus' intent all along for everyone to hear the message. Their aim might have been apologetic in this way, and if I'm right then they could equally have been written by a Jew or a Gentile.
d) The Matthean community still keeps the Sabbath (cf. Matt 24:20).

I actually think Schnelle understates this point. It's not just that the Matthean community observes the Sabbath, but also the author expresses concern for all those who keep the Sabbath, thus going beyond Matthew's own community. Matthew here, it seems to me, shows quite a link to Jews of his day.
e) The Matthean community still lives within the jurisdiction of Judaism (cf. Matt 17: 24-27; 23: 1-3).

The first of these passages probably deserve a whole post to itself, if not more. It is an extraordinary passage in terms of its form. It starts off seemingly as a controversy story but at its end it announces a miracle without actually recounting the event.
24 Ἐλθόντων δὲ αὐτῶν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ προσῆλθον οἱ τὰ δίδραχμα λαμβάνοντες τῷ Πέτρῳ καὶ εἶπαν· ὁ διδάσκαλος ὑμῶν οὐ τελεῖ [τὰ] δίδραχμα;  25 λέγει· ναί. καὶ ἐλθόντα εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν προέφθασεν αὐτὸν ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων· τί σοι δοκεῖ, Σίμων; οἱ βασιλεῖς τῆς γῆς ἀπὸ τίνων λαμβάνουσιν τέλη ἢ κῆνσον; ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν αὐτῶν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων;  26 εἰπόντος δέ· ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων, ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· ἄρα γε ἐλεύθεροί εἰσιν οἱ υἱοί.  27 ἵνα δὲ μὴ σκανδαλίσωμεν αὐτούς, πορευθεὶς εἰς θάλασσαν βάλε ἄγκιστρον καὶ τὸν ἀναβάντα πρῶτον ἰχθὺν ἆρον, καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ εὑρήσεις στατῆρα· ἐκεῖνον λαβὼν δὸς αὐτοῖς ἀντὶ ἐμοῦ καὶ σοῦ.

24 When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma-coin came to Peter and said, "Your [pl] teacher pays the two-drachma-coin, doesn't he?" 25 He said, "Yes." And coming to the house, Jesus anticipated him saying, "What does it seem to you, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive their tolls and taxes? From their children or from foreigners? 26 And he said, "From foreigners." Jesus said to him, "Well then, children are free. 27 But so that we don't shock them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up; having opened its mouth you will find a stater-coin; taking that, give it to them for me and you."

This passage reflects a pre-70 CE situation, which was modified for Matthew's post-70 CE timeframe. This temple tax was replaced by the fiscus Iudaicus following the destruction of the temple. One interesting thing is the brief but overwhelmingly positive "yes" that Peter gives to this tax, compared with the rather more reticent we-shouldn't-have-to-pay-it-because-we're-not-foreigners-but-I'll-pay-it-through-a-miracle approach of Jesus. Many have seen some considerable redactional activity here. Nonetheless, most maintain that Matthew received a pre-70 CE oral tradition here, and may have redacted it further.

Whatever the case, it is very striking that Matthew includes this passage. Does it refer to a principle that Matthew sees as applying in his community? Well it's hard to say. Nonetheless, it is clear that Matthew is including something here which would strike a chord more with Jews than Gentiles.

The other passage Schnelle cites for this part, Matt 23:1-3, is less interesting being a further example of condemnation of Scribes and Pharisees, with a warning about hypocrisy.

f) The Moses typology in Matt 2:13ff; 4:1-2; 5:1 and the five great discourses in the gospel present Jesus as having an affinity to Moses.

I can't disagree that in Matthew's Gospel the hero Jesus is frequently given a Moses typology; however this is not unique to Matthew. Indeed in Luke-Acts, which is generally considered much more gentile (and written for a gentile audience), Jesus also receives a Moses typology, perhaps more so in Acts than in the Gospel of Luke.

Take Stephen's speech in Acts 7. His whole speech says an awful lot about Moses, which is all transferred to Jesus in verse 37. It would be hard to interpret the speech without acknowledging that it considers jewish scriptural history to be extremely important, yet this is in a book written supposedly by a Gentile for Gentiles.

So does the Moses typology in Matthew count any differently?
g) The language, structure, reception of the Scripture, argumentation and history of the influence of the Gospel of Matthew point to a Jewish Christian as its author.

It's a bit difficult to address such generalizations, so I won't attempt to do so.

Well, although I've argued to diminish some points, and supported others, it remains an impressive list from Schnelle. So what could possibly be said in the "against" list? I'll leave that for my next post.

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