Introduction to Matthew

Bible Project



Introductory Material


Did Matthew the disciple of Jesus and former tax collector actually write the book of the Bible, "The Gospel According to Matthew"?  All modern English Bibles give credit in their title of the book to Matthew, but nothing in the content of the writing identifies who the author is. Paul, for instance, starts his letters by first naming himself as the author. None of the the four gospels, however, identify their authors. So why do we think Matthew wrote this book? 

The primary reason for believing Matthew is the author of the book is because this was the claim of the earliest church, those writing right after the time of Jesus. As a leading expert on the book of Matthew, R. T. France, points out that Matthew the apostle has been described as the author “as far back as we can trace it, from the earliest manuscript.” Furthermore, France asserts that “there is no evidence that any other author was ever proposed.” 


A second reason for believing the gospel was written by the apostle Matthew is based on the date it was written. Again, the book of Matthew itself does not claim a date of composition, so we have to rely upon other sources to identify when it was written. The best evidence we have for when Matthew wrote is with those closest to the source. Irenaeus describes Matthew as writing while Paul and Peter are still living. If the book was composed while they are still living then the date of composition would be between A.D. 55-65. Thus the book was written only a short time after the death of Jesus, and again it fits within the lifetime of Matthew the apostle.


The category of writing or genre of the gospel is unique. “Gospel" in many respects is a genre in and of itself. First, we must realize the apostles did not operate as roving reporters furiously scribbling down every thing Jesus did, filling one scroll after another. They were not primarily writing a biography, they were writing a book about God - a theology book. There are three different primary forms of writing found in the Gospel According to Matthew: historical narrative, parables, and teaching. These three forms combine to make a theology book based on the historical events of Jesus’ life. The structure of much of the book oscillates between narrative story and instruction in the forms of parables or teaching. The narrative pieces, however, are not always in chronological order, since the purpose is not primarily to recount the events of Jesus, but to tell reason for which he came. This is also why we do not always find chronological compliance between each of the gospels, they each have different events in a different order depending on the theological point they are making. The events themselves, however, are always factual historical accounts. Everything Jesus did was strategic and the writers are bringing that out.


The audience Mathew is writing too is also debated. Many times the Gospel According to Matthew has been referenced as the gospel to the Jews. This attribution has been primarily due to the numerous Old Testament references found throughout the book, and what is considered Jewish specific language, such as “kingdom of heaven” as opposed to the “kingdom of God.” Therefore, it certainly is plausible for a Jewish audience to have been the group Matthew thought about as he wrote. The churches at that time were known to be comprised of both Jew and Gentile (non-Jewish) congregations. So, from the time of its first circulation the audience would have certainly been mixed. 


The first century Jewish world, to which Jesus was born, is quite different than ours, and in innumerable ways. Despite the inability to cover such vast differences here, some specific characteristics are worth noting. At the time Israel was part of Rome as a Roman province controlled by the Governor Quirinius. The Jews of Jesus' day had been awaiting the time when they would be liberated from their oppressive Roman overlords. Some “freedom fighters,” such as Barabbas, were the source of occasional insurrections to challenge those in authority. 

Within Roman occupation many provinces like Israel experienced a significant measure of self-governance. This was a consistent outworking of the Roman's philosophy of governance called the “Pax Romana.” Therefore, the local ruling class of the Sadducees were viewed as pro-roman and they were able to leverage some political weight at times. On the other end of the spectrum were the Pharisees, they were an influential Jewish sect without any official capacity in society. They considered themselves to be more orthodox and pious than their counterparts.  While the Sadducees and Pharisees were not friendly, they did have a common enemy the tax collectors. In the current form of Roman occupation the Roman appointed governor would solicit the help of locals to collect taxes. Many of these tax collectors would exploit the system by adding on an additional percentage for themselves, through these means they often became rich at the expense of their countrymen. Failure to follow the rules of this Roman system would resulted in very public forms of capitol punishments whether that be lashes and flogging or even crucifixion along a public highway. 

The desire for these oppressive overlords to be fought off by a promised Messiah (David-like leader of God’s people who would provide deliverance) was alive and well in Jewish circles of the day. Matthew is writing to this expectation, he is writing to those looking for the Messiah, and he is writing about Jesus - the long awaited Messiah. 


Several themes run throughout the Gospel According to Matthew, all of these pertain to the understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Some of these central themes are: 

1. Jesus as Immanuel (God with us, or God incarnate)

From the opening title of "Immanuel" given to Jesus in 1:23, to the announcement at Jesus' baptism that he is God’s Son, through the closing remarks by Jesus that he will be “with us” until the end of the age, Matthew consistently presents the understanding that God has come to dwell with his creation. 

2. Authority over creation

Jesus’ miracles are often comprised of Jesus supernaturally manipulating the created order. Whether this be walking on water or healing the sick, Jesus consistently demonstrates his power over nature. The conclusion we are left to draw is that he is the one to whom the creation listens, the Creator.

3. Authority over sin

Power over sin is first demonstrated through Jesus’ extension of forgiveness. As Jesus' detractors rightly assert, only God can forgive sins and forgiveness from anyone else would be blasphemous (9:2-3). Thus, we have an initial foreshadowing of the cross; sin can only be forgiven by the offended party, God himself.

4. Kingdom of Heaven

Jesus is introducing the kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom receives ample explanation, for it will be based upon a new covenant. He explains that it is already being introduced by him and will be fully realized in his return. So, the particularities of this inaugurated kingdom are explained throughout the gospel. 

5. Establishment of salvation being available globally

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he describes salvation from God as being available to Jews and Gentiles alike. This is especially pronounced throughout Matthew’s writing. This is significant given the heavy Jewish influence of his book. The global scale of the salvation being offered by Jesus culminates in his commissioning of the disciples to take the gospel to all nations (28:19).