Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Saint Mathew


The Gospel of Matthew is a Gospel of Law and differs radically from Paul's gospel which is based of Faith. The intrinsic difference between these lies in the fact that Paul’s audience were Gentiles whereas Matthew was preaching to Jewish believers-in-Jesus and was faced with competition by the developing Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism at that juncture in history differed significantly from that practiced by the Qumran Community and by the Sadducees; both largely destroyed in the Roman War.

In order to place the Gospel of Matthew in an historical perspective one must understand the context in which it was composed (80-90 CE). The Temple had been destroyed and Jews had began their rejection of sectarianism. Believers-in-Jesus were being rejected by Rabbinic Judaism and had begun the path towards a Gentile religion. Matthew’s position vis a vis the Law is a most controversial issue among theologians. Was Matthew Jewish or Gentile? Did he preach to Jews or to Gentiles? Do the anti-Judaism sections found in Matthew suggest that he was preaching against the Jews? Some scholars believe he was a Jew himself (W.D. Davies & H.D. Hummel), some have concluded that he came from Qumran (K. Stendahl) while others  that he was a Gentile (G. Strecker & J. Meier).  I find most compelling the argument that Matthew and his community were composed of Jewish believers-in-Jesus which competing with the traditional Synagogue as stated by Anthony Saldarini and J. Andrew Overman convincing. 1 Matthew appears to be preaching to those believing in Jewish law and custom and his style of argumentation bears much resemblance to Jewish modes of thought  and argument . 2  

In the Gospel of Matthew it is clear that the Law - Halakha - is the expression of God’s will. The law of Moses is still in force (Matt. 23:3) but Jesus is the new teacher of the law (Matt. 23:8). Jesus assumed for the Matthean community a stance parallel and equal to Moses for the Jews. In the Gospel of Matthew there is no denigration of Moses 3 – in stark contrast to the Gospel of John.  Moses, the giver of the law, is a figure of great  importance for Matthew. Many parallels are explicitly drawn by Matthew between Moses and Jesus;  danger from death at the hand of Pharaoh and Jesus from Herod, both live in exile in Egypt, Moshe's forty years in the desert is compared to Jesus' forty days of temptation and both ascend the mountain in order to proclaim the law.

As Eusebius stated ‘no one but our savior can be shown to resemble Moses in so many ways’. 4 More than sixty quotations from the scriptures times appear in Matthew. 5 In chapter 3 we compared Jesus statements to similar ones of Hillel; all these Jesus statements  come from Matthew. (Luke twice seems to copy Matthew’s quotes). The law in Matthew’s Gospel is in fact stricter than that of Moses. It is not Pharisaic law that is being criticized but the ethics and hypocrisy of individual Pharisees. David Flusser has noted that ‘All the motifs of Jesus’ famous invective against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 are also found in rabbinical literature’. 6

Matthew (and Mark) claim that the Pharisees not only criticized Jesus for having performed healing on the Sabbath but weighed the option of having him executing with the help of Herod Antipas (Mark 3:6, Matt 12:14). In Luke, after the event of delivering the curing of the Sabbath, it is the Pharisees who warn Jesus of Herod's plan to kill him (Luke 13:31). Mark and Matthew may have been referring to the followers of Shammai who opposed healing on the Sabbath and Luke to the followers of Hillel who did not.

Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew stated a ringing affirmation of the law.

"Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved. Therefore anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matt. 5:17-19)

These verses are an unambiguous statement about the importance of the Law.  There is a statement in the Talmud which seems to quote Jesus ‘I come not to destroy the Law of Moses nor to add to the Law of Moses’ (BT Shabbat 116b). This, of course is almost a quote of Matthew’s phrase from above.

Matthew's definition of Jesus' Law is defined in chapters 5-7, beginning with the `Sermon on the Mount'. The Sermon of the Mount (5:3-11) begins with a statement about the blessedness of the poor, the gentle, the mourners and the righteous. This ethical statement which reminds the people to act righteously towards the underprivileged is highly reminiscent of the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel.

Matthew then proceeds to introduce stringent appendices to the Law:

*The Torah commands Do not murder - Matthew orders do not be angry - 5:21

*The Torah commands Do not commit adultery - Matthew orders not even in your heart - 5:27

*The Torah allows divorce under several conditions - Matthew rules No divorce except in the case of adultery - 5:31

*The Torah says fulfill your vows - Matthew says do not make vows - 5:33

*The Torah says Love your neighbor - Matthew says Love your enemies - 5:43 - offer no resistance to the wicked and offer the other cheek - 5:39. (Matthew’s statement that Judaism teaches ‘hate your enemy’ (Matt. 5:43) in fact appears no Jewish text.)

Each of these statements by Matthew (with the exception of ‘hate your enemy’) can be found in the multi-faceted streams of Judaism that existed during the lifetime of Jesus.

A Rabbinic statement declares ‘Keep aloof from what leads to sin and from whatever resembles sin’. 7 Furthermore what does the commandment ‘do not covet’ imply? If you covet your neighbor’s wife and act upon it you have committed adultery. As an example we find in the Talmud the following statement: "Whoever looks lustfully at a women is like one who has had unlawful intercourse with her". (BT Yoma 29a)

If one covets ones neighbor’s house and acts upon it he has stolen. What therefore is the sin of coveting? Is it not that lust itself and anger itself are sins in and of themselves? Can Jesus’ statement ‘love your enemies’ be interpreted as referring to Rome, the premier Jewish enemy at the time and can it mean do not resist the Roman enemy? The statement which many Jews reject as being specifically Christian ‘love your enemy’ has many Jewish underpinnings: Lamentations states that one should ‘offer one's cheek to the striker’ (Lam. 3:30). Despite the hostility of sinners in the Qumran community David Flusser discovered in their documents ‘I will not return evil to any body, good will I will pursue’. 8 The Essene Manuel of Discipline states ‘My son, . . .Be not angry for anger leads to murder’. . . .be not lustful, for lust leads to adultery’. 9  And from the Testament of Benjamin ‘If one betrays a righteous man, the righteous man prays’. 10

The conflict surrounding plucking and eating on the Sabbath or healing on the Sabbath, issues which were greatly debated in this gospel, are also lie within the acceptable range of interpretations found in the many sides of Judaism in the first century. Jews are forbidden to go hungry on the Sabbath (although it can depend on the degree of hunger) and if one is hungry one would be allowed to pluck. In regard to healing on the Sabbath when Jesus said to the man with a withered hand "hold out your hand" (Matt. 12:13) he did nothing to violate Jewish law. Speaking or asking God to heal is not a violation of any Jewish law on the Sabbath. There is nothing in Jesus' position, as annunciated by Matthew, regarding the Sabbath suggesting abrogating the law. Furthermore questions about circumcision or dietary are not raised in Matthew in contrast to the Gospel of Mark (chapter 7). Jesus is fact behaving in ways similar to the Prophets who criticized sacrificing and the Temple. 11 He concentrated on the ethical content of Judaism rather than ritual law. Divorce was forbidden to community of Qumran and among Galilean Jews.

The anti-Judaic statements of the Gospel of Matthew begin in chapter 10 and continue in chapter 15,22,23 and 27.  In chapter 10 Jesus warns his disciples that they will find hostility within the Jewish community when they attempt to missionize them. Jesus is clear ‘do not travel to into Gentile lands and do not enter any Samaritan cities’ (Matt. 10:5). In view of the above it appears unlikely that Jesus would say after his resurrection ‘you are to go and make followers of all the people. You are to baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew told his followers not to go and preach to Gentiles. The phrase ‘in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ came in a latter stage of Christology, not during the lifetime of Jesus.

Chapter 23 begins with a recognition of both the scribes and Pharisees authority to interpret the law. `Do and observe what they tell you'. (23:2) The gospel proceeds to list the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees in seven categories. They are accused of being blind guides and fools (five times -16,17,19,24,26) being liars (18) of being corrupt and lawless men (25,28) and of committing murder (29-39). This vitriolic list of those who have the authority to interpret the law, suggests a family feud or sibling rivalry carried to an unfortunate extreme. Jesus also tells us that the Pharisees ‘sit in Moses’ seat: you must therefore do and observe what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach’ (Mt. 23:2-3). Jesus required of his disciples that they exceed that of the Pharisees (Mt. 5:20).

What do other Jewish writers tell us, in the first Century of Jewish intramural conflict?

I Enoch, an apocalyptic mystical writer said the following: "For the sinners shall alter the word of truth and many sinners will take it to heart: they will speak evil words and lie and they will invent fictitious stories and write out my scriptures on the basis of their own words. " (104:10). The writer of I Enoch and his community believed that sinners do not follow the law instead they lead people astray. The Scriptures are known only by the righteous and wise men of that community.

The writer of the Psalms of Solomon believed that false and lawless leaders had corrupted and defiled the Temple. They break the law (4:1), misuse it (4:2) and are hypocrites. (4:8,22; 8:9) Only the faithful remain true to God's law (14:1-2) and the devout few will inherit life (14:10)

The Qumran community led by the Teacher of Righteousness fought a man called in the texts a `Wicked Priest', who was probably the High Priest in Jerusalem. 12  The `Wicked Priest' persecuted him and may have killed him.  The `Teacher' is also called the `interpreter of the law' and their Halakha - their law - was quite different than pharisaical Halakha. Their solar based calendar made all holidays fall on different days than the traditional Jewish lunar calendar. This difference in calendars is more important than any of the disputes discussed in the Christian Bible since it meant that communal life between the two groups was impossible. 13 The Teacher's knowledge of the end of days would made him, at the least, a special Prophet. His community was persecuted by the Sadducees and the Pharisees. They called the Pharisees `seekers of falsehood'.

All of these groups of Jews believed themselves to be true heirs of God's word. They also all agreed that the Jewish establishment leadership was corrupt and they alone represented the remnant following God's law. They were very hostile to the Jewish leadership.


Finally in chapter 27, after Pilate washes his hands the Jewish crowd is reported to have said `every one of them' [?} says `His [Jesus'] blood be on us and on our children'. (27:25) This statement redacted by Matthew 50-60 years after Jesus' death is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels. It may be that the words ‘on us’ and the ‘on our children’ came from different periods in the life of the Matthew church. 14 It is certainly problematic that Jews would put this curse upon themselves. From the perspective of preaching to future generations this may be the most anti-Judaic statement in the Christian Bible. ‘The main theme in religious hostility towards Jews has been that they are under a curse’. ‘This passage has been taken as proof that the Jews voluntarily accepted eternal guilt for the death of Jesus’. 15

Can a text be simultaneously be considered the most anti-Jewish and the most Jewish at the same time? This question has been raised in the Gospel of Matthew (as well as in the Gospel of John). Part of the answer depends of the definition of the question. Anti-Judaism can be defined as an internal critique as used by Biblical prophets – Jeremiah and Ezekiel as prime examples. Anti-Judaism can also be defined from a Jewish-Christian perspective – it is still an internal critique. Gentile anti-Judaism can no longer be called an internal critique but an external polemic that removes Jews from salvation history and substitutes Jews for a New or True Israel, thus having Christianity supercede Judaism. 16 As Levine notes if Jackie Mason, the Jewish comedian  (who is also a Rabbi) directed his material towards African-Americans or Richard Pryor, the African-American directed his material towards Jews it could not be called an internal critique.  17 Given that Matthew’s Gospel is a Gospel of Law – of Halakhic law – this polemic was a ‘family argument’ – a civil war. Civil wars are the most acrimonious of all wars. Matthew does not refer to a New or True Israel as does John. Can one be both polemical and respectful? George Smiga who calls Matthew’s texts a ‘subordinating polemic’ states ‘I am persuaded that such a combinations fits the text of Matthews rather well’. 18

Whether Matthew was Jewish may be debatable; however that he acted against the traditional synagogue is beyond doubt. The Synagogue hypocrites (Matt. 6:2,5) ‘have no synoptic parallels’. 19 He preached to Jewish Christians (note his continual use of the Bible, used however through his Christological lenses) who were leaving the synagogue  (Matt. 10:17). But does this not suggest that the ‘Parting of the Way’ had already begun? Begun Yes, completed No.

Saldarini concludes his study of the Gospel of Matthew’s with the words ‘it seems clear that he sees himself and his group as part of Israel and that he hopes to attract members of the larger Jewish community to his form of Judaism’. 20

Dali - Crucifixion
Dali - Crucifixion


1 Anthony Saldarini, Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community,  (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994) and Overman, J. A., Matthew's Gospel and Formative Judaism, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1990).

2 Saldarini, pg. 11-12.

3 Allison, D.C., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, T7T Clark, Edinburgh, 1993, pg. 274.

4 Quoted in Allison,  pg. 283.

5 Not always correctly; Matthew’s ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’ to explain Jesus’ family moving from Egypt where they fled not back to ‘Bethlehem’, according to Matthew his birthplace but to Nazareth. No one has found a extant scripture for this.

6 Quoted by J.D.G. Dunn in Bieringer, R., Pollefeyt, D., Vandecasteel-Vanneuville, F., eds. Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel,  (Royal Van Gorcum, The Netherlands, 2001) pg. 59.

7 Ibid.

8 Flusser, HTR, pg. 123.

9 Quoted in Flusser, Judaism, pg. 497.

10 Flusser, HTR, pg. 123.

11 Among the Prophets who condemned the Temple and its sacrifices was Samuel (1Sam. 15-22), Amos (Amos 5:21-24), Hosea (Hos. 6:6) Isaiah (Is. 1:11-17, 61:1-2), Micah (Mic. 6:6-8) and Jeremiah (Jer. 6:20 and 7:21-23).

12 The Wicked priest may have been King Alexander Janneus (a latter Macabbean King) or his earlier ancestors Jonathan or perhaps his brother Simon, the High Priest. See Charlesworth, Jesus and Dead Sea Scrolls, Pg. 144.

13And yet despite the importance of this difference, after the end of the Hasmonuem Kingdom in 60 BCE, the two groups lived separate but peacefully until their destruction at the Great Revolt.

14 Richardson, Peter, and Granskou, David, Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986) article by Benno Przbylski, pg 200.

15 Gllck, C.Y. and Stark, R., Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (Harpern N.Y., 1966) pg. 197.

16 Warren Carter notes his students in mainline Protestant seminaries are ‘genuinely puzzled’ when he mentions anti-Judaic sentiments in Matthew while Levine notes her students in synagogue adult education groups ‘overwhelmingly are appalled’ at what they read. Farmer, W.R., Anti-Judaism and the Gospels, (Trinity Press, Harrisburg, PA, 1999pg. 58 and footnote 35.

17 Amy-Jill Levine in Farmer, W.R., Anti-Judaism and the Gospels, (Trinity Press, Harrisburg, Pa., 1999) pg. 14, 19.

18 Smiga, George, M., Paul and Polemic, (Paulist Press, N.Y., 1992) pg. 69-74.

19 Richardson, Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, article by Benno Przbylski, pg. 194.

20 Saldarini, Matthew’s, pg. 195.