The Gospel According to Matthew, or, as the Joseph Smith Translation notes, The Testimony of St. Matthew, is the first of four Gospels in our New Testament. 1 This Gospel was very influential among early Christians.2 Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers (c. AD 155-230), described Matthew as the "most faithful chronicler of the Gospel."3 In this dispensation, the Prophet Joseph often used the first Gospel in his sermons.4 Although modern scholars have debated the authorship of this Gospel, ancient Christian writings are unanimous in ascribing it to the tax collector named Matthew in Matthew 9:9.5
The purpose (here) is to examine the role of Matthew as an editor of Jesus's acts and teachings. In other words, modern readers can learn much from this Gospel by examining what Matthew chose to include and how he chose to write it. This concept is not unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon shows clear evidence that both Mormon and Moroni actively edited the texts that they had before them and inserted their voices into them.
As we approach Matthew's Gospel from this editorial perspective, we should note that while it is true that, as one of the Apostles, Matthew would have been present at many of the events during Jesus's ministry, it is also clear that he used a number of oral and written sources to compile his Gospel. In many respects, Matthew was in a similar position to that of Mormon and Moroni, collecting and editing material in order to create a specific message about Jesus Christ for his audience.6
Within Matthew's Gospel we find him delineating five major discourses by the Savior: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the Apostolic Commission (Matthew 10), the Kingdom of God discourse (Matthew 13), the Church Administration discourse (Matthew 18), and the (Second Coming) discourse (Matthew 24-25). We know that Matthew intended his readers to see these as distinct, but related, discourses by the way that he concluded each of them. At the end of each of the first four discourses, he added, "And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these" sayings, teachings, or parables (Matthew 7:28; see also Matthew 11:1; 13:53; 19:1). At the conclusion of the last discourse, he added, "And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings" (Matthew 26:1)
Matthew uses "bookends" around his Gospel as a whole and around important sections within his Gospel. Just as the function of bookends is to keep books together, so scriptural bookends help us to identify the parts of the Gospel that Matthew wanted his audience to read as a single unit. This is important because our current chapter divisions often divide passages that Matthew intended to be read as a single unit.
An important thematic bookend encapsulates the entire Gospel.While acknowledging the importance of the Jewish mission, it is significant that Matthew frames his Gospel within a gentile context. The first two chapters emphasize the importance of Gentiles in the establishment of Jesus's ministry. Matthew's genealogy differs from the one found in Luke. ...Matthew begins with Abraham, the father of the covenant, but Genesis makes it clear that through this covenant all nations, not just the Israelites, would be blessed (Genesis 12:3; 18:18).7
As one scholar has noted, Matthew's genealogy, therefore, "contains a universalistic overtone: it is indicated in a hidden way that the son of David, the Messiah of Israel, brings salvation for the Gentiles."8
This universalistic tone is further strengthened in chapter 2 where the Wise Men seek out and worship the Christ child as "King of the Jews" when the representatives of Judaism fail to do so.9
The corresponding bookend that is unique to Matthew's Gospel is Jesus's commission to the disciples before His Ascension. "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations....,(Matthew 28:19-20).10 This passage is in stark contrast to Jesus's command to the Apostles to go rather to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6).
Yet Matthew has prepared his readers for the shift in missionary emphasis with his accounts of the healings of the centurion's and Canaanite woman's children, both of which contain Jesus' praise for the faith of these two gentiles. We know from Acts and the Pauline Epistles that the expansion of missionary work to include the Gentiles was a difficult transition for the early Church, and that there were members who resisted it. Therefore, he may have written to try and convince his readers of the importance of the gentile mission.
As one New Testament scholar has noted, "The Gospel of Matthew is a book intended to be read as a whole and not in parts or pericopes. It is intended to be read not just once but several times."
The Prophet Joseph taught, "He who reads it (the Bible) oftenest will like it best." This has certainly been my experience with Matthew's Gospel.
Gaye Strathearn is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
(This article is taken or condensed from the 2006 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Full texts are available in How the New Testament Came To Be; The 35th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium; Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2006.)
1. For all Joseph Smith Translation quotes, see Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004).
2. It seems to have been referred to by Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18) and James (James 1:13; 2:13; 3:5-6, 18; 4:8, 11; 5:12), although they may be using a similar source. It is quoted in the writings of Ignatius (To the Ephesians, 14.2; To the Smyrnaeans, 1.1; 6.1; To Polycarp, 2.2), and the Didache (1.4; 3.7; 7.1; 8.2; 9.5; 13.2). It was the only book of scripture used by the Ebionites (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.26.2), and the Valentinians, Marcionites, and Basilidians also taught from it (Clement, Stromata, 7.17).
3. "On the Flesh of Christ," in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 3:540.
4. Joseph's use of Matthew is seen in a survey of the scripture index in Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Richard C. Galbraith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 462-67. In this index there are 545 references to Matthew; 96 references to Mark, 233 references to Luke, and 274 references to John.
5. For examples of the issues of authorship, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 93-95; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 2-4; R. T. France, Matthew, Evangelist and Teacher (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 50-80. The unanimity among ancient authors is significant because at times they did question the authorship of texts (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.3.1-5; 6.14.1-3).
6. James D. G. Dunn writes, "Not every (early Christian) church knew or thought it necessary to know all there was to know about Jesus; and that the Evangelists were probably at least in some measure selective in their use of the Jesus tradition" (Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 161).
7. This point was not lost on Paul in Galatians 3.
8. Matthew 1-7, 110.
9. Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggests that the Wise Men were probably diaspora Jews (see The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979-1981), 1:358). This may indeed be the case, but for Matthew, they were Gentiles. In Matthew's Gospel only Gentiles use the phrase "King of the Jews" (see Matthew 27:11, 29, 37). In contrast, the scribes and elders called Him mockingly "King of Israel" (see Matthew 27:42).
10. Luke records a similar statement but he places it in Acts 1 rather than at the conclusion of his Gospel.