A Teaching with Authority: Reading the Gospel of Matthew as a Christian Jewish Text

 Sam Mellins, University of Chicago

The four gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each contain a unique perspective on the life, teachings and passion of possibly the most famous Jew to ever live, Jesus of Nazareth. Each gospel through its narrative differences emphasizes particular aspects of the life of Jesus: Luke contains far more material dealing with Jesus’ relationships with women than the other gospels, while John presents long theological discourses that are entirely absent from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From its earliest interpretations, the Gospel of Matthew has been noted for its extensive focus on Judaism, the Jewish law, and the Jewish leaders of the time.

Perhaps the most infamous passage in the Gospel of Matthew, and even the New Testament as a whole, comes during Jesus’ trial for blasphemy and sedition before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine. Pilate believes Jesus to be innocent of the crimes of which he is accused, and wishes to free him. But “the Jews,” as a whole, demand that he be crucified, shouting “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25). This collective, trans-generational acceptance of bloodguilt became the source for countless Christian slanders of the Jewish people and religion. With this history in mind, it is tempting to use the trial scene from Matthew 25 to reject the text wholesale as an anti-Semitic screed written for the purpose of defaming the Jewish people. But in fact the Gospel of Matthew is an intensely Jewish text, written by and for Jews. When read as a Jewish text, the Gospel of Matthew is a powerful commentary on the contemporary rabbinical culture, that would set the norms of the religion now known as Judaism.

Discerning the attitude of the Gospel of Matthew towards Judaism and the Jews is not a simple matter. Matthew contains extensive references to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and affirmations of the enduring validity of the law. Yet, other passages seem to abrogate the law while vitriolic denunciations of the Jewish leadership, and at times, potentially of the Jewish people as a whole abound. While the different messages concerning the Jewish people can at times seem to be contradictory, a common thread underlies the work. The author of Matthew considers himself to be a Jew, and is writing for a Jewish audience, for whom the Hebrew Bible, in the form of the Septuagint, is scripture, and adherence to the Torah (as interpreted and fulfilled by Jesus), is mandatory. But the author believes that alternate forms of Judaism, represented most prominently by the Pharisees, are fundamentally misguided, in their failure both to live up even to their own ethical standards and to recognize the truth of Jesus as the messiah. Through his teaching, Jesus corrects the failures of the Pharisees to promote ethical conduct and obedience to the law of the Torah among Jews.

        In one of the critical discourses of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). The statement could hardly be clearer: the law remains in full effect, “until heaven and earth pass away” (5:18). But for a follower of Jesus, what is obligatory besides obedience to the law? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expounds the law not with the intent of abrogating it, but with the intent of revealing the path of higher righteousness beyond the law. On the importance of reconciliation, Jesus teaches: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (5:23-34). Matthew was most probably written in the decade following the destruction of the Second Temple, so this teaching was not meant to be taken literally. Bringing one’s offering to the temple was no longer a possibility. Rather, what is valuable is the principle: one’s interpersonal relations are of greater ethical value than one’s conduct towards the divine. Regarding adultery, Jesus’ prohibition on divorce for reasons other than unchastity (5:32) is a departure from the Pharisaic tradition, but a possible and legitimate interpretation of the Jewish divorce law as found in the Hebrew Bible. The divorce law of the Hebrew Bible, found in Deuteronomy 24:1, permits divorce in the instance of “something objectionable” being found in the woman. What qualified as objectionable was debated even within the rabbinic tradition during the time of Jesus, and thus, Jesus’ reading that “something objectionable” refers to unchastity is not implausible or even radical. But as Paul Johnson notes in his History of Christianity, Jesus’ teaching on divorce, much more than Roman law, and more even than Jewish law, protected the wife from the economic disaster that divorce frequently entailed in the ancient Mediterranean. The prohibition on divorce in most cases was a significant factor in attracting female converts in the first few centuries of Christianity. The Pharisaical route of allowing divorce in most circumstances promotes individual freedom (mostly, but not entirely, for the husband), but Jesus’ prohibition promotes economic security for the wife. Even when expounding the Torah’s injunction regarding oaths by saying that one should swear no oaths at all, Jesus does not contradict the text of the law, which demands that one not swear falsely in God’s name. He rather demands a higher standard of ethical conduct: that one tell the truth without swearing at all. While not anti-nominalist directly–one who makes an oath is still bound by it–Matthew points the way towards Christian anti-nominalism. It is clear that the author of Matthew is not interested, as the rabbis were, in creating a legal system in which oaths can be used as a tool in civil proceedings. One should simply not be expected to swear, because one should feel bound by an ethical code to tell the truth.        


As an accompaniment to Jesus’ superior path of righteousness is the theme, present throughout Matthew, of the failure of the Pharisees in their role as ethical teachers and models. This failure disqualifies the Pharisees from their role as leaders of the Jewish people, creating a vacuum that can, and according to Matthew, should, be filled by Jesus and his disciples. The gospel contains multiple condemnations of the Pharisees, which escalate in intensity and level of vitriol, culminating in an extended polemic in Chapter 23. At the time of the composition of Matthew, the Pharisees would have been one of the main competitors for the claim of legitimate heirs to the Jewish tradition. By discrediting them in relation to Jesus, Matthew proves the legitimacy of the Christian movement’s claim to be the “true” Judaism.

Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees begins with a failure on the part of the Pharisees to understand the nature of Jesus’ mission. As Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners” (9:10), the Pharisees ask his disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (9:11). The question can be read as reflecting either a genuine desire to understand or a criticism in the more polite form of a question. Matthew at this point does not definitely establish what the relationship of Jesus and the Pharisees will be. This ambiguity disappears in 9:34. As Jesus continues his healings and exorcisms, the “crowds” around him exclaim: “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel” (9:33), to which the Pharisees respond: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons” (9:34). Witnessing Jesus’ unique displays of supernatural power, the Pharisees choose to attribute the source of these deeds to Satan, demonstrating their self-imposed inability to accept the truth of the gospel message. Blinded by their disdain for one who eats with tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees cannot see the truth that is before their eyes. They miss the message for the messenger.

In the second Pharisee challenge to Jesus, the Pharisees confront Jesus regarding a matter of the law. In his response, Jesus directly proves the superiority of his teaching to that of the Pharisees in terms of promoting adherence to the law of the Torah. The Pharisees question Jesus: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat” (15:1-2). The wording of the phrase “tradition of the elders” (translated according to the New Revised Standard Version) is somewhat misleading. As is familiar to someone with knowledge of Rabbinic Judaism, the Pharisees believed their traditions to comprise an “Oral Torah,” also given to Moses through divine revelation at Mount Sinai, and binding no less than the written Torah. The Pharisees are thus accusing Jesus’ disciples not only of breaking with tradition, but of abrogating divine command. When the criticism of the Pharisees is viewed in this manner, Jesus’ response takes on a radical tone: “And he answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (1:3), and, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines’” (15:7-9). In Pharisaic terms, the criticisms are oxymoronic: the tradition is the commandment of God. The “human precepts” are in fact divine doctrines. Jesus explicitly rejects this Pharisaic reading of the law, stating, “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (15:20). But even beyond his rejection of the Pharasaic law, Jesus again rejects their ethical focus, explaining that one cannot be defiled by dietary practice, what goes “into the mouth,” but rather, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (15:17-20). In their zealousness for their traditions, the Pharisees neglect that which proceeds from the heart. The subtle anti-nominalism is necessary because by refocusing attention from that which goes into the mouth to that which proceeds from the heart, one can better make oneself behave according to ethical standards of conduct.

The final criticism of the Pharisees before the culminating condemnation of chapter 23 is the parable of the wicked tenants (22:33-41), through which Jesus demonstrates the unfitness of the Pharisees to serve as leaders of the Jewish people. The text of the parable reads:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.

Some aspects of the parable are fairly clear. The landlord is God, the son is Jesus, and the slaves are the Jewish prophets. But who are the tenants? The essential question of this parable is whether the tenants are the leaders of the Jewish people, or the people as a whole. Using the reading that the tenants are the people as a whole, this parable has often been used as a justification for supersessionist theology, particularly in the context of the subsequent verse: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). Who is the “you” that Jesus is addressing? The choice of the word people (Greek ethnos) might suggest the Jewish people as a whole. But does that make sense in context? The Pharisees seem to think the parable refers to them, not the Jewish people as a whole: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them” (21:45).

The text itself suggests that Jesus is indeed speaking about the Pharisees rather than the Jewish people collectively. Jesus follows the parable with a quotation from Psalm 118:

The stone that the builders rejected/

has become the cornerstone/

this was the Lord’s doing/

   and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Until now the “builders” of the Jewish people, the authority of the Pharisees has been annulled, and, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (21:42). The stewardship of the vineyard, representing the people of Israel, will be taken away from the Pharisees and given to the Jewish Christians, formerly the “rejected stone” of the Jewish people.

In the context of the culminating denunciation of the Pharisees in chapter 23, Jesus offers a new model for leadership of the Jewish people, in the form of Christian Judaism. Speaking to the crowds of Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ (23:8-10).

The leadership structure of the Pharisees is entirely subverted in favor of the teachings of Jesus, which are to be actualized in a structure in which all members stand in subordinate relation to Jesus, but equal relation to each other. Without challenging the authority of the written Torah, Jesus, in his relationship with the Pharisees throughout the gospel, demonstrates both the bankruptcy of their ethical teaching, and the superiority of his authority over theirs. The manner by which one can correctly follow the law and the highest ethical standards, as a Jewish Christian, is not by rejecting Jewish practice, but rather by rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees in favor of the teachings of Jesus. While Christianity and Judaism eventually definitively parted ways (although the final parting was not until the 4th Century, those interested in learning more should read Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels), the text of Matthew remains a powerful first century CE testament to the belief of the author in the ultimate synthesis of the law of the Torah with the Gospel of the Christ.