Translator: Alessia Lanini
Revised by Elsie Joy
Second revision by Chris Pyle
Fernando De Angelis
FROM ADAM TO THE APOSTLES
An overview of the whole Bible based on the text itself
The Gospel of Matthew
Under the light of the Old Testament
DRAFT 1 of Chapter 1 (24/10/20)
I soon realized that I could not slow down, after publishing the first three books of the series From Adam to the Apostles (Summary OT, Notes on Acts and Structure of Revelation). Those who have read the three books and have accepted their unitary vision of the Bible ask questions and are concerned by objections – coming mainly from the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews – questions which need an urgent answer.
It is argued that in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus opposed the Old Testament, since he repeats: “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…” (Mat 5:21,27 and others). Jesus would then have had to change the observance of the Sabbath and the distinction between pure and impure foods (Mat 15:1-20), and eliminate the stoning of adulterers (“Let anyone of you who is without sin…”, John 8:7). In the Letter to the Hebrews, however, the fact that we are now in the ‘New Covenant’, in which there has been a change of priesthood and law (Heb 7:12; 8:8), would be considered as an unequivocal novelty.
Faced with objections of this kind, many supporters of the unitary vision of the Bible find themselves embarrassed and some of them have asked me for an explanation, knowing that I consider those arguments to be unfounded. To go beyond infrequent and partial answers, I therefore decided to write these Notes on the Gospel of Matthew, which will be followed by those on the Letter to the Hebrews. My conviction is that the objections to the unity of the Bible do not depend so much on the text of the New Testament itself, but rather on other causes, such as an inaccurate understanding of the Old Testament, or a lack of framing of those passages in their context.
As in my three previous books, I will not go into detail, continuing to base my Notes above all on the simple reading of the text. That is, without referring to the great amount of work done by scholars, whom I do not despise and from whom I first benefited when I was young (when I attended a sort of bible school that Alfredo Terino had organized in his house), now I will try to take advantage of it again by consulting the footnotes and comments that John MacArthur has placed in a special edition of the Bible indicated at the beginning of this book.
It seemed simplistic for me to go through the Gospel focusing only on the teaching of Jesus, feeling personally the need not to neglect the person of Jesus, taking the opportunity to be with Jesus, because it is precisely the fact that they had been with Jesus that was apparent in the apostles (Acts 4:13). However, I will avoid launching into fanciful speculations, even if I allow myself plausible conjectures, in order to draw out what is often veiled in the Gospels (synoptics in particular) by a strictly detached style, focused on facts and teachings.
I have focused on the sequential elements of the discourse that Matthew carries forward, plucking out only some useful details from the other three Gospels, without seeking a synthesis between different perspectives and objectives, although not in contrast.
While in the Notes on Acts I have tried to highlight the links with the remaining parts of the New Testament, the relations I prioritise here are those with the Old Testament: because it is Matthew himself who makes them explicit, and also because of the implicit references which I will try to point out as well. I wish to concentrate on the message that Matthew wanted to convey, avoiding describing the developments present in the following work of the apostles, which are often a subject of controversy and therefore could distract us.
I will also try to make myself understood by those who have not read the first three books of the series though avoiding repeating myself and using references to specific parts of the previous volumes.
FIRST OVERVIEW OF THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
1.DIVERSITY OF PERSPECTIVE IN THE FOUR GOSPELS
It is a very widespread conviction that a story of a finished event can be told in an objective way. But it’s a wrong idea, because the reality is complex and can be observed from multiple points of view; there is a saying: “Finished story, endless story” and it means that, when a story has ended, you can tell it in infinite ways. We will not dwell on this here, having touched on it in the Notes on Acts (Further insight n. 1, Subjectivity of History, and Further insight n. 2, The Pauline point of view of Luke).
John clearly expresses the subjectivity of his Gospel, as this is how he concludes: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). So John selected the facts, specifying elsewhere that he had told them with a definite purpose: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). In short, John evidently wrote true things, but since it was impossible to write them all, he seems to have prioritised the strengthening of faith in believers, developing the theme of the divinity of Jesus and of what it really means to believe.
After the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), the apostles dedicated themselves to preaching and it is likely that they soon arrived at an ‘oral codification’ of the message, memorized by the disciples who were closest to them. We believe that this “first oral codification” operated by the apostles is what unites the three synoptic Gospels, whether they drew from it directly, or took it from those who had possibly already put it in writing.
In order to avoid continuously repeating everything to everyone, it was obviously useful to make a written form of the ‘oral codification’ available, elaborated by the apostles. Matthew appears to be the most suitable to bring the work to completion. Peter and John, in fact, were engaged in preaching and relating with the outside world and did not have enough time to organize a written account. Other apostles were not familiar with writing and lacked culture. And so, we can imagine that Matthew began to write, not to realize a work of his own, but as a delegate of the group of the Twelve to which he belonged. The Gospel of Matthew can therefore be considered as an expression of the whole group of the Twelve. This could explain the undisputed authority it immediately achieved and the fact that Matthew did not put himself in evidence, to the point of not explicitly signing what is considered to be ‘his’ Gospel.
Matthew addressed an audience particularly interested in two connections: the one between Jesus and the promised Messiah, but also the one between his message and the content of the Old Testament. This is why he delves into prophetic and doctrinal questions, characterizing his Gospel as essentially for the Jews. Whereas up to Acts 10 and onwards, the Gospel was preached only to the Jews (Acts 11:19), so it seems evident that Matthew’s Gospel is the oldest. Even if it was written after Mark’s, we have no doubt that it was in some way elaborated and encoded orally first.
Some bring reasonable arguments to support that Matthew originally used Hebrew (or the related Aramaic, widespread among the Jews of the time). It seems evident that he had mentally elaborated the discourse in Hebrew, but we consider beyond doubt that the Greek version was then prepared by Matthew himself, or at least by someone with the approval of the apostles. The Gospel of Matthew in the Greek language is therefore considered as an unquestioned and authoritative original, regardless of the process through which it reached maturity.
The Gospel of Mark, even though it was also composed in Greek, is clearly addressed to a public of Roman culture and its content is more or less completely present in Matthew. It is inferred that Mark should have taken Matthew as a basis, removing anything that was unsuitable or would not interest a Roman. Mark has in fact reduced to a minimum the quotations of the Old Testament and the doctrinal discourses, focusing on the actions that the Romans placed at the centre of their interest. Although this Gospel is shorter, it is often possible to see clarifications and nuances that are absent in the others which we will progressively highlight. At the end of the book we have added a Further insight that lists the details present in Mark and not in Matthew.
Luke clearly indicates that he considers his two books, Gospel and Acts of the apostles, as one, both being dedicated to Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Through them he wants not only to present the teachings of Jesus, but also to show how they were put into practice by the apostles at that time. Luke seems to write for the Greek-speaking world, which includes people from various nations, being the language of international communication at that point.
Our goal is to have as broad a convergence as possible on the text itself, so we will tend to avoid questions based on extra-biblical reasons, or we will take a certain position and reason it, without, however, considering it as a decisive criterion in the evaluation of the text.
In any case, the Gospels tell the story of Jesus incarnate, giving only a hint about the beginning of the life of the risen Jesus that raises many questions left unanswered by the Gospels and then dealt with by the remaining part of the New Testament.
2.WHEN SHOULD THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW BE READ?
The book of Matthew was the first book of the Bible that I read and it left an indelible impression on me, which conditioned my subsequent vision of the Word of God: I am not disappointed it went this way. However, I now realize that to understand it better, a knowledge of the Old Testament is essential, and Matthew assumes his readers have it; that has led me to sometimes express an exaggeration: that is, reading it should be discouraged for those who have not first absorbed the Old Testament. Any part of the Word of God, however, can be used by the Holy Spirit to apply it to us personally in a healthy way.
In the New Testament canon, the Gospels are located before Acts, but the Gospel of Matthew had been conceived after Acts 2, that is, after the ascension of Jesus, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, and after the formation of a community around the apostles: that is, after the story of Jesus had ended and the fruits had been seen. The other three Gospels should even be placed in the final part of the book of Acts.
Considering that the Gospels immediately end after having mentioned the resurrection of Jesus, that is, with an open-ended story, then no Gospel could have been written at that time, when the overall meaning of the coming of Jesus was not yet clear. As we see in Acts and in their Letters, the apostles later made a synthesis and an application of the Gospels, written by them or approved by them. Thus, the essence of the Gospels is in harmony with the content of the Letters, finding in these their explanation. In short, the Gospels are in a way ‘other Letters of the apostles’, thought of in the same period as the official ones: Gospels and Letters are then part of a single vision.
The numerous prophetic passages in Matthew have their clarification in Revelation and all this could lead us to a paradoxical conclusion: that the Gospels should be read at the end of the New Testament or at least after Acts, rather than at the beginning. To give an example, the Preface in a modern book is located at the beginning and so it is read first, but it is the last thing to be written: something similar happens in the New Testament, in which the Gospels are rightly placed at the beginning, but their writing is certainly to be placed later in time.
On the question of when to read the Gospel of Matthew, then, we must answer by saying “always”, because it summarizes the entire previous part of the Bible and anticipates what’s to follow; therefore it enlightens everything and is enlightened by everything.
This fourth volume of the series ‘From Adam to the Apostles’ comes after having examined the Old Testament, Acts and Revelation: circumstances and practical needs, also dialoguing with friends, led me to follow this order, and now I better understand the opportunity they gave me, ‘forcing’ me along this particular path.
In conclusion, reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew will also mean retracing one’s steps through the entire Bible, deepening some themes.
3.LONG LIVE THE TRANSLATORS-TRAITORS
It is well known that translating also means betraying a little, because it is not completely possible to make every concept comprehensible in one language when they were originally expressed in another: it is in fact necessary to ‘adapt them’, which means that we also have to change them, and these changes are more or less necessary depending on the circumstances. As well as these inevitable infidelities, the different translations of the Bible add others, due to the fact that the translators do not work alone, but are connected with the Church whom the work is intended for and if the Church has deviated from its original beliefs, they can only try to harmonize the translation with their own deviations, which will supposedly follow those of the Church. Today, after two thousand years of Church history in which deviations have not been avoided, the translations inevitably reflect those compromises: the translation is a betrayal, summarized Sergio Quinzio.
There would have been much to despair about, but it is from the Italian translations that are around that I learned that there is a ‘path of ascent’ to be followed in several stages. The first objective we must set ourselves is to make the most of what we have, since there are countless beautiful and clear things that we can find even in the worst of translations: if we start to put them into practice, we will see other horizons of understanding open.
The second objective is to pay close attention to those choices that the translators declare to have made, so that we can assess the assumptions they used as their basis to operate, and then whether we agree with those assumptions or not. For example, everyone knows that the word ‘Christ’ is the Greek translation of the original Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ and has the meaning of ‘Anointed’: in the Italian Bibles, and English ones as well (though not always), ‘Christ’ is used on the basis of a traditional choice, that has its own meaning and entails certain consequences; we’ll see that challenging a choice of this kind can be a way to understanding some words of the New Testament better, while we will certainly not contest choices which depend on linguistic problems that we are unable to tackle. When we are faced with a text that seems like it had an obvious translation, but that it wasn’t applied because of theological-cultural choices, then, in some cases, it can be beneficial to consult with a friend who knows ancient Greek (or an expert in the subject) to have the literal translation.
Already in the first sentence of the Gospel of Matthew, however, we will have the opportunity to concretely see some problems of translation, but we won’t dwell on it now, especially since we have already dwelt on these issues at the beginning of the Summary of the OT (Criteria of study, par. 1, 2, 6). In any case, we reiterate that the Holy Spirit can also use an inaccurate translation and apply it to our lives, giving us the strength and the joy of a renewed life.
In summary, we desire to pursue two seemingly contradictory attitudes, both arising from our love for the Bible: on the one hand to appreciate and defend the current translations, on the other to highlight the need to improve their adherence to the original.
4.THE ALTERNATION CROWD/DISCIPLES AND THE SIX PHASES OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Many parts of the Gospels, especially the synoptics, are seen as cards placed side by side, without being connectable to a scheme. Often, we do not know at what point the parable of the weeds is placed, nor what Gospel contains the story of the prodigal son. As if Jesus had said the same things from beginning to end, as if his was not a story, which has a beginning, a development, and a conclusion.
On the level of the exposition method, in the Gospel of Matthew five series of discourses are usually indicated and each series closes with a variant of the phrase “When Jesus had finished saying these things” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). In addition to these ‘end-of-section’ signs, there are also ‘beginning-of-section’ signs, in which Jesus goes from addressing everyone to interacting with the most intimate ones, that is, the apostles and the disciples in general, who ‘approached’ him to listen to a more detailed teaching reserved for them (5:1; 10:1; 13:36; 16:5-6; 19:27-28; 24:1).
Separating an initial introductory part (1:1 to 4:22) and a final part which starts with the arrest of Jesus (26:47 to 28:20), considering the above-mentioned signs of beginning and end of section along with other indications present in the text, the central part of the Gospel of Matthew (4:23 to 26:46) ends up as a series of six alternations between teaching aimed at everyone and that aimed at the closest.
1:1 – 4:22. Introductory part.
4:23-25. First teaching to everyone.
5-7. First teaching to the closest.
8-9. Second teaching to everyone.
- Second teaching to the closest.
11:1 – 13:35. Third teaching to everyone.
13:36-52. Third teaching to the closest.
13:53 – 16:4. Fourth teaching to everyone.
16:5 – 18:35. Fourth teaching to the closest.
19:1-26. Fifth teaching to everyone.
19:27 – 20:28. Fifth teaching to the closest.
20:29 – 23:39. Sixth teaching to everyone.
24:1 – 26:46. Sixth teaching to the closest.
26:47 – 28:20. Final events.
The alternation between teaching everyone and then the closest does not indicate two separate programs, because at the centre of the overall story that Matthew carries forward there is the development of the vision of the kingdom of God. Precisely by emphasizing this development, we have divided the Gospel into six parts.
PART I. Jesus as the ‘awaited Messiah’, before his public ministry (1:1 to 4:22).
PART II. The start of a kingdom offered for the here and now (4:23 to 10:42).
PART III. The rejection of the kingdom by that generation (11:1 to 12:50).
PART IV. The kingdom as a seed, waiting for a delayed bursting forth (13:1 to 20:34).
PART V. The final clash in Jerusalem with the Jewish leaders (21:1 to 25:46).
PART VI. The path finished in death. Or in resurrection? (26:1 to 28:20).