Monday 18 March 2013

Was the Author of Matthew's Gospel Jewish? (Part 2)

In my last post I outlined the arguments for concluding that the author of Matthew Gospel was jewish; in fact proponents of this view generally consider him to have been a devout Jew. I started with something about how the traditional view arose, and why the arguments behind it are discounted these days, although that doesn't mean that the traditional view is necessarily wrong. Then I ran through Udo Schnelle's first list - the arguments, from the text itself, that Matthew was a (devout) Jew.

In this post I run through Schnelle's list against Matthew being a Jew or, at the very least, a devout Jew. However before I start looking at this list, I'm very conscious that this is an internet blog - an arena where some unpleasant things can be said, and I think I'd better make some brief comments to address this head on.

Anti-Semitism, Christianity and the Internet
In christianity there is a long history of anti-semitism, and in certain places of the internet, such bigotry, whether connected or unconnected with christianity, soemtimes raises its ugly head. I very much hope that my comments here will not attract this kind of input - I still have moderation of comments turned off, but I will keep this under close review.

Arguments that I outline below that Matthew may not have been jewish, or at least not as devoutly jewish as he has often been portrayed, should not be taken as giving succour to racism. 

Udo Schnelle's List For Gentile Standpoint of Matthew's Gospel:
Again for this post I take Schnelle's list items as sub headings.

a) The Gospel's offer of salvation to all clearly points to a Gentile mission that has been underway for some time (cf. Matt 28:18-20; 8:11-12; 10:18; 12:18, 21; 13:38a; 21:43-45; 22:1-14; 24:14; 25:32; 26:13).
In part this point of Schnelle's is the converse of his point c in his previous list; i.e. contrary to his point there, Matthew does in fact include in his Gospel all nations, not just Israel. The fact that Matthew finishes his Gospel with the great commission to go and make disciples of all nations, serves to counteract any impression of favouritism to Israel.

But in fact some of the passages he lists here go beyond that. Take Matt 8:11-12:
11 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι πολλοὶ ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν καὶ δυσμῶν ἥξουσιν καὶ ἀνακλιθήσονται μετὰ Ἀβραὰμ καὶ Ἰσαὰκ καὶ Ἰακὼβ ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν,  12 οἱ δὲ υἱοὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἐκβληθήσονται εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον· ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων.
11 But I say to you that many from the East and West will come and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens. 12 But the children of the kingdom will be cast out to outer darkness; there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. 
This looks like a condemnation of jewish religion of the day and promotion of a more gentile viewpoint.

Another thing to note here is the quantity and spread of these salvific messages for Gentiles as opposed to the briefer lineup in point c of his previous list.

b) The nullification of ritual laws (cf. Matt 15:11, 20b; 23:25-26).
Of course the new religious movement that became christianity rejected the food laws at some point, and partly these passages fit into that pattern. However the combination of rejection of food laws with purity rituals around eating food (particularly in the chapter 15 passage) does show considerable movement on from the judaism(s) contemporary with Jesus.

c) The Matthean critique of the Law. Especially in the Antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-48) Jesus places his authority higher than that of Moses, for which there is no parallel in ancient Judaism.
It's hard to add to what Schnelle outlines here, and I think this one is a particularly strong argument for a radical gap between Matthew's view of his religion and the judaism(s) of his time. Notice how the "crowds" in Matthew's Gospel accept this usurping of Moses' authority; well beyond the section of the sermon comprising the antitheses, indeed right at the end of the entire sermon, the crowds mention Jesus' authority, and do so in a positive way (Matt. 7:28f).

Moreover, there's no sympathetic treatment for Mosaic law here; the antitheses are simply stated, with the assumption that the audience will have to, in modern vernacular, "deal with it". No veneration, no explanation as to why the change, no attempt to rescue cherished traditions. It really is quite striking.

d) Matthew presents a thoroughgoing polemic against Pharisaic casuistry (cf. Matt 5:20; 6:1ff; 9:9ff; 12:1ff, 9ff; 15:1ff; 19:1ff; 23:1ff).
I find arguments that involve condemnation of the pharisees weaker (particularly compared with the preceding argument). "Inter-nicene" polemics, I find, really don't add much to the debate about the jewishness of Matthew. Rather, clearly he didn't agree with the pharisees; well there were plenty of Jews who didn't! So I find most of these passages really don't answer the question of how jewish Matthew was.

Where, however, the dialogue can be widened out to reflect a greater range of judaism than simply the pharisaic perspective, then perhaps the argument is stronger.

This is perhaps possible with a number of these passages, but certainly the Matt. 6:1ff section of the sermon on the mount. Indeed, I don't know why Schnelle includes this text in the "pharisaic casuistry" section, as pharisees aren't mentioned here (have I missed something?). This passage does seem to constitute criticism of widespread jewish practice of the time in "synagogues" and so probably does add to his argument overall, although I think he has mis-categorized it.

e) Matthew avoids Aramaisms (cf. Mark 1:13/ Matt 4:2; Mark 5:41/ Matt 9:25; Mark 7:34/ Matt 15:30; Mark 7:11/ Matt 15:5).
The following assumes the priority of Mark - a position held by an overwhelming majority of New Testament Biblical Critics, and also argued for by Schnelle himself.

We can add to Schnelle's list here Mark 9:5/ Matt 17:4 (use of "Rabbi") and Mark 14:36/ Matt 26:39 (use of "Abba").

In fact the only Aramaism I can think of that Matthew retains from Mark is the cry from the cross Mark 15:34/ Matt 27:46. Matthew does also retain the hebraism "hosanna" from Mark (21:9), however I suspect that this has become liturgical, for "hosanna" doesn't exist in this form in hebrew biblical texts that we have. Otherwise Matthew seems to have systematically stripped Mark of its Aramaisms, which is quite striking.

Is this a sign of Matthew's lack of jewish perspective? Or at least lack of semitic jewish perspective? After all he could have followed some kind of hellenistic judaism. At very least he seems not to have considered Jesus' original language very important, or perhaps have had something against it, considering the extent of the expunction. I think this latter stance would go against him Matthew being a hellenistic Jew, but I guess it is a matter of judgement.

f) The Matthean community understands its life to be at some distance from that of the synagogue (cf. Matt 23:34b ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς ὑμῶν [in your synagogues]; Matt 7:29b καὶ οὐχ ὡς οἱ γραμματεῖς αὐτῶω [and not as their scribes]).
The first of these passages is part of a long condemnation of scribes and pharisees and so could, in theory, be a castigation limited to those groups. However, the use of "your synagogues" does seem to widen this out which, in addition to its adoption of a "them and us" attitude, does lend a certain force to an argument against Matthew's jewishness.

The second of Schnelle's passages come at the end of the sermon on the mount already mentioned above. As the criticism is of the scribes, following arguments I've outlined above, I find Schnelle's argument has less force here.

g) Ritual prescriptions for the Sabbath have lost their significance (cf. Matt 12:1-8).
Hmm. This argument cuts both ways. Matthew has taken over the pericope in Mark 2:23-28 and reworked it. So this raises the question, is Matthew's redaction any less jewish than Mark's original?

There is a lot of ink spilled over the Markan text, particularly as regards the "son of man" expression. But we'll come to that.

I think the first thing to notice is how Matthew corrects Mark's error about Abiathar. Matthew just discreetly drops reference to the high priest at David's time, and thus gets his text back in line with the Hebrew bible. This really is an argument for Matthew's familiarity with Hebrew scriptures, although it would work just the same for familiarity with them in Greek translation; however I'm sure that Mark Goodacre would see this as bolstering his argument in part.

Nevertheless, immediately Matthew detracts from this sense of familiarity with the scriptures by adding to Mark's version with (Matt 12:5):
ἢ οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε ἐν τῷ νόμῳ ὅτι τοῖς σάββασιν οἱ ἱερεῖς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τὸ σάββατον βεβηλοῦσιν καὶ ἀναίτιοί εἰσιν;
Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and they are innocent?
This is one of those passages which makes people read around to find out what on earth Matthew was talking about! The best people can find for a fit for this quotation/allusion is Numbers 28:9-10, which is hardly convincing.

So to the "son of man" expression at the end of the parallel passages. This is something of a can of worms which I am very reluctant to open. Really the "son of man" topic needs a series of posts itself, if not rather more. There is an enormous amount of disagreement about its usage in the gospels.

Nevertheless, perhaps I can restrict myself to saying that Mark's treatment of the "son of man", with its twofold stages to the argument (Mark 2:27-28) seems much more coherent than Matthew's citation of just the latter part (Matt 12:8). The Markan argument is a good one in that it fits the context, it possibly uses Aramaic elements of the expression (cf. practically anything written by Maurice Casey!) and almost undoubtedly portrays Hebrew parallelism. Matthew has lost a very jewish feeling of this argument in his partial citation. It seems that he really didn't understand the argument that Mark's Jesus was making.

h) The rejection of Israel, i.e. that Israel has lost its distinct place in the history of salvation, has been accepted by Matthew as reality for some time (cf. Matt 21:43; 22:9; 8:11-12; 21:39ff; 27:25; 28:15)
I basically agree with this point of Schnelle's although I do think he double counts - Matt 21:43 is the explanation of the parable in 21:39ff, so really ought to count as one. Matt 28:15 is remarkable, not just for the sentiment expressed here, but also for the "them and us" approach:
Καὶ διεφημίσθη ὁ λόγος οὗτος παρὰ Ἰουδαίοις μέχρι τῆς σήμερον.
And this story was spread widely amongst jews [even] until today. 
Could Matthew really have considered himself amongst these jews? I guess it depends on how you look at this text.

Well there you have Schnelle's "against" list - that is against Matthew having been jewish. Just as with the "for" list, I've agreed with some and diminished others.

But he has missed a common additional argument in his "against" list. This one deserves a post of its own; so I'll save it for later, along with some attempt to make sense of the contrary data.


  1. Thank you for writing and putting this out in a blog. Your approach seems very stable (belying your moniker), considering your apparent religious history. I have recently (within the last year) rejected the fundamentalist understanding of scripture with which I was raised. It took long enough, but now I am gobbling up as much good scholarship as I can. This week I was in the provenance of the NT, and so this is an extremely useful look at the gospel of matthew. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. Hi Truth Only

    Many thanks for your comment and sentiments.

    Changing/leaving my religion was certainly an emotionally difficult experience for me; it sounds like you're adopting a very sensible approach. I wish you all the best with your endeavours.


  3. Thank you VRS.
    Etant totalement inculte en matière de religion, ceci me permet d'acquérir des connaissances totalement nouvelles et d'avoir un éclairage objectif, autant que faire se peut sur certaines questions.
    Looking forward to the next post.

    1. Apsara

      Merci pour votre commentaire. En fait, je pense que c’est votre troisième commentaire sur ce blog, ce qui fait de vous ma première lectrice fidèle!