I’m coming to the end of another re-read of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, because it was aimed at a Jewish audience. Hence, it’s focus on quoting from the Hebrew Bible (aka. the Old Testament) to demonstrate that Christ was bringing the promises made to the Hebrews to fulfilment. Naturally, it begins with a genealogy of Christ, tracing him back to David and to Father Abraham.
“Thus there are fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the captivity in Babylon, and fourteen from the captivity in Babylon to Christ. And this was the manner of Christ’s birth. His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, but they had not yet come together, when she was found to be with child, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”Gospel of S. Matthew, 1: 17-18
It’s still safe to consider Saint Matthew’s Gospel as being written the first, which is the traditional story, although a large portion of modern scholarship has succumbed to the idea that Saint Mark’s Gospel is prior, because of its smaller size. The idea seems to be that the shortest comes first, like a skeleton, which is later fleshed out into newer versions. There’s also this reasonable if entirely un-evidenced idea that there was a common body of ‘Jesus sayings’ that the scholars call Q, from which the evangelists (except Saint John) drew to construct their several essays. Clever ideas thought up by clever people, no doubt. I’ve always thought that modern scholars picture the Apostles and Evangelists as scholars sitting in writing rooms to write, with bookshelves of reference books behind them. When you consider that these same scholars think that the Gospels were all written decades after the Ascension of Christ, and not by the Apostles and their disciples, but later Christians, you can see why this whole idea of assembling by reference to other traditions fits in.
But, the older idea, as I said, may still be held. The Apostles had a mission and needed to leave the Holy Land at some point, possibly at some time in the late 50s. They required a working text of the Gospel to carry on to the countries they would visit. They must have generally used Matthew’s Gospel, the only one written at the time. He was one of the Apostles, of course. I know that at least the Apostle Bartholomew’s copy was left behind in India and found later (according to Eusebius’ history); and, of course, the Apostle Barnabas was buried with his copy. The mission of the Apostles, as also of Christ, was primarily to the Jewish people, and the Gospel of Saint Matthew is full of references to the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. Mark’s Gospel, written later, when the Apostle Saint Peter had arrived in Rome and Mark had joined Peter’s disciples there, is shorter and has some particular reference to Saint Peter, as it naturally would. It’s similarity to Saint Matthew’s Gospel may simply be explained by the fact that that was available in Rome and regularly heard, alongside the Holy Father Saint Peter’s own reminiscences. Saint Luke’s Gospel contains new information, such as in the infancy stories, and must have required further input from local Christians in the Holy Land (such as the Blessed Virgin) and is certainly from later on. Saint John’s Gospel is generally considered to be the last of the four, although it contains some very early, first-hand-witness information.
Flipping through it right now, it’s surprising how short it feels, how abbreviated. The Gospels were not meant to be biographies of Christ, although they provide biographical information. They were concerned rather with presenting Christ as the fulfilment of the promises. So, we have short references to prophecy, even to untraceable prophecy such as this one:
“But as soon as Herod was dead, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in Egypt in a dream, and said, ‘Rise up, take with thee the child and his mother, and return to the land of Israel; for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ So he arose, and took the Child and His mother with him, and came into the land of Israel. But, when he heard that Archelaus was king in Judaea in the place of his father Herod, he was afraid to return there; and so, receiving a warning in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee; where he came to live in a town called Nazareth, in fulfilment of what was said by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'”Gospel of S. Matthew, 2: 19-23
Saint John the Baptist is introduced and surpassed. The Apostles are appointed, the inner circle first – Peter (along with his brother Andrew), James and John – and then the rest. There is the great sermon on the mount, between chapters five and seven, a first catechism, we might say.
“Do not fret, then, asking, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘How shall we find clothing?’ It is for the heathen to busy themselves over such things; you have a Father in heaven who knows that you need them all. Make it your first care to find the kingdom of God, and His approval, and all these things shall be yours without the asking. Do not fret, then, over to-morrow; leave to-morrow to fret over its own needs; for to-day, to-day’s troubles are enough.”Gospel of S. Matthew, 6: 31-34
Then come the long stream of miraculous works, interspersed with confused Jewish leaders – pharisees, mostly, but increasing numbers of scribes and Sadducees (Jerusalem priests) – asking why such an orthodox Jew doesn’t observe all the various purity laws of the people.
“Whereupon He said to them, ‘Have you never read of what David did, when he and his followers were hungry? How he went into the tabernacle, and ate the loaves set out there before God, although neither he nor his followers, nor anyone else except the priests had a right to eat them? Or again, have you not read in the law that the priests violate the sabbath rest in the temple, and none blames them? And I tell you there is One standing here who is greater than the Temple. If you had found out what the words mean, ‘It is mercy, not sacrifice, that wins favour with me,’ you would not have passed judgement on the guiltless. The Son of Man has even the sabbath at His disposal.'”Gospel of S. Matthew, 12: 3-8
The disciples are then sent on the mission. John the Baptist is soon killed by Herod, the ethnarch of Galilee, and Christ takes himself away from Galilee. In the midst of new attention from the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Christ prepares for his sacrifice with the Transfiguration on the mountain and the procession to Jerusalem.
“While they were still together in Galilee, Jesus told them, ‘The Son of Man is to be given up into the hands of men. They will put Him to death, and He will rise again on the third day.’ And they were overcome with sorrow.”Gospel of S. Matthew, 17: 21-22
The controversies with the Jerusalem authorities climax with the terrible parables of the vineyard owner whose servants and son are killed by the vineyard keepers and of the king whose son’s wedding feast is not attended by those invited.
“‘…But when the vine-dressers found his son coming to them, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize upon the inheritance. And they laid hands on him, thrust him out from the vineyard, and killed him. And now, what will the owner of the vineyard do to those vine-dressers when he returns?’ They said, ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will let out the vineyard to other vine-dressers, who will pay him his due when the season comes.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read those words in the scriptures, The very stone which the builders rejected has become the chief stone at the corner; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people which yields the revenues that belong to it.'”Gospel of S. Matthew, 21: 38-43
The implied abandonment of Jerusalem by God brings a new fury into the hearts of the Jerusalem authorities, who arrange for Christ’s arrest. He establishes the new covenant, is tried, tortured, killed and returns, beyond all hope. The Church then receives the command to go forth on the mission.
“And now the eleven disciples took their journey into Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had bidden them meet Him. When they saw Him there, they fell down to worship; though some were still doubtful. But Jesus came near and spoke to them; ‘All authority in heaven and on earth,’ He said, ‘has been given to me; you, therefore, must go out, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all the commandments which I have given you. And behold I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world.”Gospel of S. Matthew, 28: 16-20