In the beginning

Column: It’s time for an introduction to Matthew

by Father Mike Stubbs

TENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME Mt 9: 9-13

Across a crowded dance floor, a man catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman. He feels attracted to her, even though he does not know her name or anything about her.

That is how many love stories begin. In a sense, that also describes our relationship to the Gospel of Matthew.

Last December, we began year A of the Lectionary, during which most of the Sunday Gospel readings come from Matthew. We dove into the Gospel without any introduction. On the other hand, during Lent and the Easter season, most of the Gospel readings came from the Gospel of John. But now that we have returned to Ordinary Time, we have resumed Gospel readings from Matthew. It is time for that introduction.

Just as the man glimpsed the woman from far away, we also see the Gospel from a distance. It was written almost 2,000 years ago. Most scholars date its composition between the years 85 and 90. Most also believe that whoever wrote the Gospel based it largely upon Mark and a hypothetical document called Q, a source also shared by the author of the Gospel of Luke.

Although the city of Antioch was the probable location where the Gospel of Matthew was written, others suggest Alexandria in Egypt. In any case, a large, cosmopolitan city with a significant Greek-speaking Jewish population appears to be the likely candidate.

Who wrote the Gospel of Matthew? A cryptic statement by Papias of Hierapolis from the second century maintained: “Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew language and each interpreted them as best he could.”

Many suppose that this statement refers to the current Gospel. On the other hand, there are some problems with this theory. Matthew most likely died before the estimated date of the Gospel’s composition. The original language of the Gospel appears to be Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. Papias’ statement mentions a list of sayings by Jesus, not a narrative of events that we expect in a Gospel. It is possible that Papias was describing an early source, now lost, from which the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke drew some of their material, and not describing the Gospel of Matthew itself. That is why most scholars conclude that the apostle did not write the Gospel.

Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 9: 9-13, puts an interesting twist upon the question: Who wrote the Gospel? The passage shows Jesus calling Matthew, who is working as a tax collector, to follow him as his disciple. The Pharisees criticize Jesus for calling a tax collector, whom they equate with a sinner. Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Luke and Mark offer a close parallel to this passage in Matthew, with a significant difference: Luke and Mark call the disciple in question “Levi,” rather than “Matthew.” If Mark wrote his Gospel first, as most scholars believe, then why did the author of Matthew change the name to Matthew? Perhaps he did so to honor the apostle Matthew. Did the community to which the author belonged trace its origins back to Matthew? Perhaps this was a way to acknowledge the apostle.

In any case, the story of the call of Matthew includes an important theme which pervades the entire Gospel of Matthew. Jesus and the Pharisees engage in fierce conflict. Their quarrel reflects the tension between the early Christian community in which the Gospel was written and the Jewish community, which ultimately ended with their separation. To a large extent, the Gospel of Matthew focuses upon describing this new religion, which we now call Christianity.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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