Mark’s gospel shocks the reader (or, in the ancient world, listener) with its proclamation that the crucified Jesus was the Christ, the messiah sent by God to rescue Israel. Its narrative is spare and powerful. Matthew and Luke offer more elaborate presentations of Jesus, with different emphases. For Matthew, Jesus is emphatically the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and the teaching of God’s law. For Luke, Jesus is the savior who would reconcile all of humanity with God, regardless of ethnic boundaries.
As with Mark, we know very little about the authorship of Matthew. The gospel is attributed to the disciple Matthew. An early source claims that Matthew wrote down the pronouncements of Jesus in Hebrew. It is possible that the author of Matthew’s unique material, the M source, goes back to a Matthew tradition. But the earliest copies of the Gospel of Matthew are in Greek. It was likely composed in Greek sometime around the 80s AD. This hypothesis is often paired with the suggestion that the gospel was written outside Judea itself, somewhere in the broader Greek speaking world.
However, the Gospel of Matthew still exhibits a strong Jewish influence (all the gospels do, but Matthew especially). Many scholars believe that it was composed in Antioch, a city in the Greek speaking world, but still close to the Jewish and Christian heartland of Judea. However, this hypothesis is frankly speculative.
Emphases of Matthew
For Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and a lawgiver, the final revelation of God’s law. Matthew, while no less convinced of the importance of the death and resurrection than Mark, puts Jesus’ teaching at the center of his gospel. For Matthew, Jesus’ teaching is validated by the fact that Jesus’s life fulfilled the Jewish scriptures. Hence, Matthew is replete with fulfillment citations: “all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet” (Matthew 1:22).
Matthew chapter 1 offers a genealogy of Jesus. Notice that the genealogy draws Jesus’ descent via Joseph to the line of David. Jesus is descended from David. Matthew chapter 2 is filled with material particular to Matthew that emphasizes the strong connections between the Jewish scripture and Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the hometown of Joseph and Mary, and the City of David. A celestial sign guides the Magi, who follow it to Judea and meet with Herod the Great. They ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) Herod is paranoid and afraid that a usurper has come. He asks the Magi where they believe the Messiah is to be born. The Magi in turn refer to Micah 5:2-4: out of Bethlehem “shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Herod sends them to Bethlehem with the instructions “when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” In truth, Herod plans to kill Jesus. Unfortunately for Herod, the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They leave Judea by another way.
As for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, an angels warns them to flee to Egypt. “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” (Matthew 2:15)
Herod, realizing he has been tricked, orders the murder of infants two years old or under. This event is known as the Massacre of the Innocents.
After Herod dies, an angel appears to Joseph in Egypt and tells him to return to Israel. However, after learning that the son of Herod is ruling over Judea, Joseph becomes afraid. An angel warns him in a dream to go away to Galilee and make “his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2:23)
Notice the strong connection of Jesus’ birth with Herod’s death. Jesus’ birth is placed in a Judaic frame of reference. There are also broad parallels to the story of Moses. Jesus avoids a slaying of infants, just as Moses avoids slaughter by being placed in the Nile. Both Jesus and Moses come out of Egypt. These are not the only parallels between Jesus and Moses found in Matthew. It is a reoccurring motif throughout the gospel.
The Nativity of Matthew contains the adoration of the Magi, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight into Egypt. These are all exclusive to Matthew and comprise part of the material of the M source. The nativity also serves to highlight Matthew’s emphasis that Jesus is a fulfillment of Jewish scripture; Jesus is the final revelation of God’s law. Luke also has a nativity. As we shall see, his nativity similarly brings Luke’s emphasis to the forefront.
Structure of Matthew
The emphasis of Matthew is closely tied with its structure. Matthew is the most intricately-structured of the four canonical gospels. Like the Torah, it is made up of five “books.” Matthew believes Jesus’ teachings are authoritative because they fulfill scripture, but also because Jesus’s life, miracles, death, and resurrection validate his teaching. Thus, each “book” of Matthew begins with narrative and is immediately followed by teaching. Remember that the teachings are pulled from a source separate from Mark. Therefore, Matthew is ordering the gospel narrative according to Mark and following the narrative blocks up with teachings found in the Q source.
The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is the moral heart of Jesus’ teaching. Nowhere is the essential message of Jesus’ ethical doctrines – of internal purity, of the love command – so clearly presented.
The Death and Resurrection in Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew as a whole is bracketed by the Nativity and Passion narratives. The death and resurrection sequence closely follows Mark, but Matthew’s ending is more elaborate. As in Mark, Jesus is crucified and buried in a tomb, but Matthew elaborates by describing the Jews’ request that Pilate place a guard near the tomb. “Otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘he has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 27:64)
On the third day, an angel comes down and scares off the guard. The women visit to anoint Jesus’ body, and the angel tells them what he told them in Mark: Jesus is not here. The women go to tell the disciples, but then Jesus appears to them and tells everybody to meet in Galilee. (Matthew 28:1-10)
Jews hear this story and argue that the body was stolen, instead of believing that Jesus was resurrected. Matthew even writes that the Jews bribed the guard to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body. “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (Matthew 28:11-15) This provides a brief glimpse into the ongoing polemic between Jews and Christians at the time of Matthew’s composition. It also shows how, even though Matthew is the most “Jewish” of the Gospels, it is not, so to speak, “pro-Jewish.” It might be said that the sense of Christianity’s Jewishness is most keenly felt in the Gospel of Matthew, and simultaneously that the incipient alienation and hostility between Christianity and Judaism is most pronounced here.
The ending of Matthew is different than Mark. Just as we ask ourselves how the ending of Mark builds on the emphasis of Mark, we must ask ourselves how Matthew’s ending punctuates his message. Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee, at the mountain to which he had directed them. He commissions the disciples to go and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, he commissions the disciples to “teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20) At the end, Jesus commissions the disciples to teach others, just as he has taught them.
As with the other gospels, the authorship of the Gospel of Luke is partly speculative. However, there is some meaningful information in Luke that may provide insights about the author. Luke includes a prologue, with a dedication to a man named Theophilus, that gives additional information about the writing of Luke.
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
Notice that this not only provides information about the intentions of the author of Luke, but it also gives information about the general authorship of the gospels. Luke states that many have undertaken to write an orderly account. Luke even mentions that some of these accounts were handed down from eyewitnesses. Luke tells us that only after investigating everything did he decide to write an orderly account. From the prologue, we know that many people were writing accounts, that some of these accounts were handed down by eyewitnesses, and that Luke used these accounts to write his gospel, presumably because he was unsatisfied with earlier accounts.
Valuable though this information is, it does not divulge the identity of the gospel’s author. However, there is one clue about the authorship of Luke. The author of the gospel also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, which provides indications about the author’s purpose and background. The most revealing passages are found in the so-called “we passages” of Acts, where the author makes use of the second-person plural. An example is Acts 16:10:
“When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”
Other “we passages” include Acts 20:5, 21:8, 27:8, and 28:16. From these passages, it appears the author of Acts was traveling with Paul all the way to his final destination in Rome. If these statements are taken at face value (see possible interpretations in Chapter 3: The Mission to the Gentiles), Luke was a companion of Paul.
The Gospel of Luke was written later than Mark, and likely later than Matthew. Luke was probably written around 85-95 AD, well after the destruction of the second temple.
Emphasis of Luke
Like Matthew, Luke makes use of unique material which we call the L material. This material is strongly oriented to a gentile audience. In Luke, Jesus is the savior of not only the Jews but also of the Gentiles. Luke is a Gentile gospel depicting Christianity as a universal religion. This idea is expressed in multiple ways through the nativity, the genealogy, and the unique parables of Luke.
Luke chapter 2 begins with the census, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Notice that Luke places his gospel in a Roman context. The census locates this story in a Roman timeframe, and the census is the reason Joseph travels to Bethlehem. Joseph, who lived in Nazareth, returns to Bethlehem with Mary because he was “descended from the house and family of David.” He must be counted in the census there. While in Bethlehem, Jesus is born in a manger and greeted by the shepherds. Both the manger and the shepherds reveal a humble birth for Jesus.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem to present him at the temple and offer a sacrifice to the Lord. When Jesus is brought into the temple, a man named Simeon comes into the temple “guided by the Spirit” and takes Jesus in his arms, saying to him, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
As an infant, Jesus has already been called out to be a missionary to the Gentiles. Joseph and Mary visit Jerusalem every year for Passover. When Jesus is twelve, his parents accidentally leave him behind in Jerusalem. They return three days later searching for him and find him “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:41-52). This is the only canonical account of Jesus as a child. It shows that Jesus is already learned in the Law.
Luke has a genealogy, just like Matthew does (Luke 3; Matthew 1). However, Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke goes back to Adam, the father of both Jews and Gentiles, the ancestor of all mankind.
Luke contains many unique parables, among them the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, possibly two of the most well known parables in the New Testament.
Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question from a lawyer about “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37)
Samaritans were a sect of Jews who lived in Samaria in Palestine. During the Babylonian exile, these Jews remained in Israel and continued to practice what they saw as the correct form of Judaism. Instead of worshipping in Jerusalem, they worshipped at their temple on Mount Gerizim. When the Judean Jews returned from exile, there was conflict with the Samaritans over which group had maintained true Judaism. The two groups were unable to reconcile their differences, and their conflicts became especially intense. Therefore, it would have been shocking for Jesus to portray a Samaritan in a positive light. Jesus essentially says that everybody is your neighbor, even the hated Samaritans. Jesus’ praise of the Good Samaritan is in line with Luke’s tendency to praise the poor and outcast, something that is especially noticeable in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, along with the Good Samaritan probably Jesus’ most well-known parable, is another story exclusive to Luke. Recounted in Luke 15:11-32, this parable is a powerful story of forgiveness and love. However, it is also a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Gentiles. Like the younger son straying from his father, the Gentiles have strayed from God. They do not follow Jewish customs or the Mosaic Law (notice how the younger brother works as a swineherd). But God will rejoice because the Gentiles are being brought back to God. The Prodigal Son is a metaphor for the return of the Gentiles into the sheepfold of God.
Luke’s retelling of Jesus’ death and resurrection reinforces the gospel’s Gentile message of universal salvation.
In Luke, Jesus is accused of “sedition.” The Jews claim that Jesus is “forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor.” Remember in Matthew that Jesus is accused of blasphemy. Coming from Luke’s perspective as a Gentile author, the charge of blasphemy probably would not have convinced Pilate that Jesus was worthy of execution. In Luke’s account, Jesus is accused of sedition, a charge that would have caught the attention of Pilate, a Roman governor. However, knowing that Jesus is a Galilean, Pilate sends him to Herod Antipas (a surviving son of Herod the Great who ruled Galilee as a client state of the Roman Empire) because Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction. Herod interrogates Jesus but finds his answers unsatisfactory; he sends Jesus back to Pilate.
Pilate finds no fault with Jesus, but the chief priests and Jewish rulers want Jesus dead. Pilate defends Jesus and claims his innocence three times. He says to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him” (Luke 23:13-16). But in the end, as in Matthew, Pilate relents to the crowds, and Jesus is led away to be crucified. Upon the death of Jesus, the centurion says “certainly this man was innocent [or righteous].” Remember that, in Mark and Matthew, a centurion exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Luke’s centurion also recognizes the goodness of Jesus. The crucifixion would have been one of the most confusing aspects of Christianity to a Roman audience. Only the worst criminals were crucified. But in the Gospel of Luke, the Romans are the first to recognize Jesus’ innocence.