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The Jewish Emphases of Matthew

In evaluating whether Matthew was himself Jewish or not – the theme of my current thread — it is important to get a sense of his distinctive emphases in his portrayal of Jesus. Here there can be little doubt. The focus of attention in Matthew’s Gospel is on to the nature of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism. You see this off the bat in chapter 1. Whereas Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult being baptized by John the Baptist, Matthew’s begins with a clear resonance of Jewish Scripture – with a genealogy of Jewish and Israelite ancestors. And before he begins the genealogy, Matthew tells us that it will be one that traces the line of Jesus back to David and Abraham (“The Book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”). And why does he highlight these two names in particular? Because David was the greatest king of Israel, whose descendant was to be the “messiah” (as Jesus is called here: Jesus “Christ”), and Abraham was “the Father of the Jews.” This is a genealogy that intimates the author’s concern: to stress the Jewishness of Jesus.

This impression is confirmed in the birth narrative that follows (chaps. 1 and 2).  What is perhaps most striking about Matthew’s account is that it all happens according to divine plan, as set forth in the the Jewish Bible.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph’s fears.  All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23).   So does everything else in the narrative: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18) and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23).  These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy.


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The Jewish Emphases of Matthew: Part 2
Was the Author of Matthew Matthew?



  1. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  June 26, 2013

    I have just pre ordered your book from Amazon. It’s scheduled for the end of March 2014 to be released. Looking forward to it.

  2. Avatar
    dennis  June 26, 2013

    ” he wants to stress the Jewish character of Jesus , and presumably ,of the religion founded on him . ”
    Might not the intent have been not to have ‘ the ( new ) religion founded on him ” at all , but rather a post Resurrection
    Reformed Judaism ( Sermon On The Mount as the New Law ) as there had earlier been a post Sinai Reformed Judaism ( the Jewish People now bound to God through the Law ) The dialogue with the ( non Jewish ) woman where the crumbs falling from the table feed the dogs metaphor is used doesn’t seem to show a lot of enthusiasm for expanding the rolls Jewish People ( contra Paul ) .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      Yes, it’s a question of whether Matthew’s view of Jesus and following him constitutes a new “religion.” Good point.

  3. Avatar
    stephena  June 27, 2013

    Good analysis. I wonder how this could have been seen as a book that appeals to Jews when these “fulfillments” are, for the most part, citing scripture incorrectly by referring to events in Jesus’ life that have no bearing on the original meanings. One would think that Jews would see right through this, though perhaps that’s what you’re leading up to. I’m assuming the rather obvious mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 (almah/young woman) is another dead giveaway that Matthew is NOT Jewish, or certainly not schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures, but simply familiar with them.

  4. Avatar
    Jim  June 27, 2013

    If Jesus was actually born in Nazareth, then the probability of his Davidic ancestry might be lower. Is it possible that the idea of both the Bethlehem birthplace and virgin birth originate from Q or possibly M/L overlap material? If so, could these two ideas have already been out there from sometime just after Paul’s death to the writing of Matthew’s gospel? I suppose anything is possible and I could win the lottery tomorrow, but I was wondering if Matt possibly got these ideas from existing oral traditions.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      I doubt if it was in Q, since that is almost entirely sayings of Jesus; and its not from a M/L overlap because the most striking thing about their two accounts is that the stories are *entirely* different. But I do think the ideas of VB and Bethlehem were around before both of them, and probably after Paul (or at least he’d never heard of them, I should think)

  5. Avatar
    LoganM76  June 27, 2013

    Great series of posts, Prof. Ehrman. It’s a topic I’ve been wondering about lately. It’s a shame we’ll never know specifically who the authors of the gospels were, but I’m looking forward to reading more about what we do know about them.

    One question: did the Jewish emphasis of Matthew cause concern for later interpreters? Did commentators try to downplay that aspect as anti-Judaism began to rise over the next few centuries? Do we have any copies of Matthew where some of that Jewishness was removed?

    Or, conversely, did early Christian commentators use the Jewish emphasis of Matthew as an opportunity to appropriate the Jewish religion? I’m thinking of something similar to how the Epistle of Barnabas tried to claim that Christians understood Judaism correctly and Jews had it wrong.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      1. Most later interpreters focused more on the *anti-Jewish* elements of the Gospel (there are a lot! Esp. ch. 23 and in the trial scene)
      2. Yes, later Jewish Christians especially liked Matthew.

  6. Avatar
    Pofarmer  June 27, 2013

    40 days in the wilderness for jesus, 40 years in the desert for moses right? Never caught that before

  7. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  June 27, 2013

    Fulfilling ‘prophecies’ in retrospect is child’s play. You can ‘prove’ anything with that technique.

  8. Avatar
    billgraham1961  June 27, 2013

    You have made a compelling case for the Jewish emphasis in Matthew. I think it’s pretty much beyond dispute, but who knows? Someone could raise an objection. My question from this entry, has more to do with the intended audience. We suspect it’s a Jewish audience, but where? I assume since it was originally written in Greek that it would have been the Jewish diaspora. I also assume since most people couldn’t read at the time that it was aimed very specifically at the elite who could read. Nevertheless, as a technical communicator, I’ve learned that there are always secondary, tertiary and unintended audiences. Could one of those audience have been people who could not have read, but listened to the reading of the gospel by someone who could? Another interesting question is how long it took to produce a single copy of the gospel in those times and how widely they were circulated. I seem to recall, however, that they were so valuable that at least in one instance, a copy was chained to the pulpit in one of the churches in Asia Minor. Maybe my memory is inventing things, but I seem to recall something of that nature.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      Definitely outside of Palestine. It is usually argued that it was written in Antioch, but I don’t think we know. It must have been a community where there were lots of both Jews and gentiles.

  9. Robertus
    Robertus  June 27, 2013

    “… a male child is miraculously born to Jewish parents, but a fierce tyrant in the land is set to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm in Egypt. Then he leaves Egypt and is said to pass through the waters (of baptism). He goes into the wilderness to be tested for a long period. Afterward he goes up on a mountain, and delivers God’s law to those who have been following him. …

    And so, there can be little doubt …”

    I still have a little doubt. In broad strokes, I agree, but some of the Matthean redaction does not fit that well. Why no fulfillment citation for the baptism to emphasize the supposed parallel between the Jordan and the Red Sea? We do have the Matthean line about ‘fulfilling all righteousness,’ but this does not allude to the Red Sea at all. Likewise, there is an explicit Matthean fulfillment quotation just prior to the baptism: ” … so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean” (2,23 RSVP). How does this fulfillment fit in with the Moses parallel? It doesn’t, so I’m not convinced that the secondary type of fulfillment is the full meaning of Matthew’s redactional focus. He is perhaps still more enamored with the first and lesser intent to impress with proof texts. Sometimes we want to find fuller meaning in additional, secondary ideas, when the details of the text and imagined or real intent of the author are, unfortunately, more pedestrian.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      I don’t think Matthew wants to hit you over the head with it to make it all TOO obvious. You might want to read Dale Allison’s book about Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a New Moses.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  June 28, 2013

        Which is why I agree with the portrayal in broad strokes but entertain doubt regarding some of the details, eg, baptism and temptation. Thanks for the suggestion of Allison’s book. I have the 3-volume commwntary packed away somewhere. With his move to Princeton, I’m looking forward to meeting him.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 27, 2013

    Being anything but an avid Bible reader (grins), I’d never realized any of this. Fascinating! Can’t wait for your continuation.

    As I think about it, I’m more and more puzzled as to whom this author was writing *for*. Given the low literacy rate you’ve described, can we assume the authors of gospels expected them to be read aloud to groups of worshippers? By 80 CE or so, weren’t most of those worshippers “Gentiles”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      I hope to be getting to that! (and yes, books were normally read aloud, since most people couldn’t read)

  11. talitakum
    talitakum  June 27, 2013

    Well, it’s quite interesting to understand if Matthew used the Scriptures for his redactional purposes to depict a messianic, Moses-like figure (e.g. the Davidic genealogy, the flight to Egypt, the birth in Bethlehem) or – at the opposite – if he used the Scriptures to find prophecies of actual “historical” events (at least as he knew them). In my opinion could be both.

    For example, it’s easy to argue that the birth in Bethlehem may well hide a theological interest to prove the “birth of the Messiah” in line with Jewish messianic expectations (Nazaret is a far more probable place of birth, *but* ),

    However, I am not aware of any Jewish messianic tradition regarding the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14 as quoted by Matthew (Matt. 1:22-23). It seems more probable to me that Matthew knew a tradition regarding the virgin birth (as *independently* reported by Luca, who has no Moses-like figure concerns) and then he “forced” the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 to justify this tradition.
    So, the origin of the independent accounts of the virgin birth is fuzzy, but I don’t believe that it’s been built upon any messianic tradition inherited from Scriptures (in particular, from Isaiah 7:14).
    What do you think?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      No, there was no Jewish tradition of a virgin birth. Some Christian came up with the idea, Matthew and Luke both heard it, and they both ran with it in different directions.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 27, 2013

    I pre-ordered the book due out next March! Wanted to mention that it doesn’t show up yet when one simply does a search on “Bart Ehrman” at Amazon. It really is necessary to use the link the other poster was good enough to give us.

    I love Amazon dearly, but I do get a kick out of it. (If I’d just spend another *71 cents*, my order would qualify for free shipping!)

  13. Avatar
    EricBrown  June 27, 2013

    “The Hebrew prophets occasionally made predictions about the future messiah. ”

    I know that this is a Christian reading of the Hebrew prophets, but I think it would be central to know:

    1) Was this the meaning of that scripture when written
    2) or, failing that, was that the widely held (or one widely held) reading of this scripture among jews around the time of Jesus?

    I don’t know the answer, although i’ve read in some places that the answer to #1 is “no”, and if that is true, then the answer to #2 becomes important, especially when engaging my evangelical friends. How often I have heard (originally in my evangelical sunday school some 40 years past, and even today among evangelical acquaintances), the construction that: “The jews were waiting for the Messiah, reading then the same OT texts in the same way as we (fundamentalists) do today, and were so daft that they didn’t (and still don’t) realize that the messiah they were waiting for (and still are[?]) came in the person of Jesus. Silly Jews!

    I’ve long sensed that the Christian view is largely faulyt and exaggerated back-reading of Jewish theology/prophecy to ex post facto match their own theology. What can you say along these lines to clarify this for me, Bart?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      Yes, you wonder what evangelical Christians are thinking, that Jews are all idiots who can’t read???

      But yes, there were established methods of interpretation even in Jewish circles to relate a book/passage to one’s own situation even if orgiinally it had nothing to do with it. That’s certainly what the early Christians were doing with their “messianic prophecies” (virtually none of which actually mention the “messiah” — which most Christians have never noticed!!)

      • Avatar
        Elisabeth Strout  June 29, 2013

        Sorry, I feel like I’m commenting on everything here, but there’s just so much brilliance here 🙂 It is absolutely perturbing the attitude Christians take towards Jewish intepretation of their own scriptures.

  14. Avatar
    Kempster  June 27, 2013

    Does Matthew’s desire to stress the Jewishness of Jesus suggest that his intended audience was Jewish? It would seem so, since they are the ones who’d be sensitive to the genealogy and recognize the structure of the opening chapters as pointing back to Moses. However, near the end of the gospel (28:15) he says “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” That seems to be imply that his audience isn’t Jewish, i.e., why wouldn’t they know that if they WERE Jewish? Do we know anything about the original audience Matthew was targeting?

  15. Avatar
    EricBrown  June 27, 2013

    I guess I should add to my query above about messianic readings of hebrew scripture among jews that I am aware that there certainly has been messianic readings of some OT scripture during the Rabbinic era; I am referring primarily to the reading of those scriptures prior to Jesus and/or the Destruction of Jerusalem.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      Yes, you have these patterns of reading in evidence in the commentaries from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 27, 2013

    I know you have touched on this topic before, but what is the evidence that Mark was written before Matthew and that the author/authors of Matthew copied the author/authors of Mark rather than vice versa? I know that this discussion starts with the different accounts of the upcoming destruction of the Jewish temple. Thanks.

  17. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  June 29, 2013

    Final comment on this post – I was just struck by your ending,

    “The parallels are too obvious to ignore: Herod is like the Egyptian pharaoh, Jesus’ baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea, the forty days of testing are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, the Sermon on the Mount is like the Law of Moses delivered on Mount Sinai. These parallels tell us something significant about Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus. Certainly he agrees with Mark that Jesus is the suffering Son of God, the messiah. But here Jesus is also the new Moses, come to set his people free from their bondage (to sin 1:21), come to give them the new law, his teachings.”

    Can’t say I’d ever noticed this, or ever heard it noticed in any of the hundreds of sermons and endless exegesis I heard growing up, but now that you point it out, it seems painfully obvious. I guess my question would be, did the author and/or his audience believe these stories factually took place in stark parallel to Moses’ life, or did they intend/recognize them as figurative parallels, and not literal events?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2013

      I’d say its impossible to know what the author personally believed inside his own head. But my hunch is that he truly thought Jesus was a new Moses…

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