Matthew the Taxman

PPT: Matthew the taxman

When you pick up your bible and read from its opened pages, do you ever wonder how its 66 volumes, all of them written in languages foreign to you, and some up to 4000 years old, managed to make their way down through time to eventually influence your thoughts? And it seems amazing to think that there is a coherence, a natural progression to the layout of the text. Take the New Testament, for example. Its story begins with the birth of the central character of Christianity, but anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the Old Testament would immediately appreciate that this birth was actually foretold centuries before it took place and that the life of the Messiah, as portrayed in the first four New Testament books is predicted in detail in the Old. Not only that, but the historical logic of the 27 New Testament volumes appears faultless. The birth, life and death of the Messiah leads methodically onward to the establishment of the Christian church as described in the Acts of the Apostles; and from there we learn of the progressive church planting that occurred, first in what is now Turkey then onward into Europe. The principles and doctrine that govern church life follow quite naturally, and finally, in the last volume of all we see the vision of John of Patmos who records the end of all things and the established supremacy of the Christ, the Son of God, in heavenly power. The New Testament, then, encapsulates the story of Christendom from its beginning to its glorious conclusion.

Astonishing, marvellous, you say, but the reality of the consistency of the text is even more incredible than you would think from these comments. For a start, the 40 or so scribes who produced the Bible, sometimes in complete isolation, or occasionally with secretarial or co-author help, desperately needed prompting to ensure that the total work was unified and harmonised; and when their little section was complete it had to be transcribed and preserved in order to flow down securely through the generations without corruption or deterioration. Each preserved scrap of the final product then required to pass a test of verification and acceptability. As far as the Old Testament was concerned, acceptability of any segment probably meant that it could, by common consent, be linked to a spiritual leader, the Pentateuch to Moses, the Psalms to David, the Proverbs to Solomon, the major and minor prophecies to the prophets who gave them their name, until, at the birth of Jesus, the identity of every Old Testament book, with a few minor exceptions (eg Esther) was accepted. So, the Old Testament text, in Hebrew and, from about 300BC in Greek (the Septuagint) was complete and accessible in the synagogues of Israel when Jesus walked the earth; and the “Dead Sea Scrolls” of 100BC, discovered at Qumran in 1947 (and containing copies of every Old Testament scripture except Esther) was the very text from which he read.

The history of the New Testament text is clearer than that of the Old. As mentioned earlier, the order of appearing of each volume in our New Testament is historically consistent, beginning with the birth of the Messiah and proceeding through Paul’s missionary journeys, the establishment of local churches, the institution of church doctrine and practice until we reach the end of all things as described in John’s Revelation on the island of Patmos. But in reality, the letters of Paul were the first to appear (about 50AD), were preserved in the communities to which they were addressed, and were brought together into one collection by about 100AD. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the gospels, on the other hand, was maintained by oral tradition until the apostles realized that, if they did not commit them to the written page, they would be lost for ever with the death of the 12.

Let’s think, over the next few minutes about how the gospels sprang to life by taking a look at the first gospel, the gospel we know as Matthew; and we’ll read at chapter 9 and verse 9.

Matthew 9: 9 As Jesus went on from Capernaum, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me”, he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

It is generally agreed among scholars that Matthew the tax collector was the driving force behind the production of the gospel that takes his name; but the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke (called the synoptic gospels because together they present a broad common picture of the life of Jesus) all overlap with each other even although each presents an unique feature of the life of the Messiah. For example, the story in which Jesus feeds five thousand or so pilgrims is found virtually word for word in Matthew 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9; the same is true of the healing of the paralysed man in Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5, even to the point of using the same explanatory comments to bring the stories to life. The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that they all share the same common source material or, more likely, that the first to have been written formed the textual basis for the second and third. That is, there is every reason to believe that Mark’s story (generally agreed to have been the original) was copied into Matthew and Luke. And, if we compare the three texts, Mark’s gospel can be divided into 105 sections, 93 of which occur in Matthew and 81 in Luke; and of Mark’s 105 sections, only four do NOT appear either in Matthew’s or Luke’s commentaries. So, substantial parts of Matthew and Luke seem to have been drawn from Mark’s original.

There is an alternative option that we need to think about. It is possible that Matthew or Luke or both were the ORIGINAL source material and Mark, which is much shorter, was written later as a kind of summary or synopsis of the others. But, all the evidence is against that view. I could quote you numerous examples, but for the sake of time, let’s just look at a couple. When Jesus visits his home town of Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Mark baldly states that :-

Mark 6: 5-6 He COULD do no deed of power there …. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Matthew, on the other hand, is much more sensitive to the authority of Jesus and writes:-

Matthew 13: 58 He DID NOT DO (ie he chose not to do) many deeds of power there because of their unbelief.

Matthew’s more considered or refined word construction must surely have been written after some thought had been given to the less tasteful, more blunt expression in Mark.

To add to that, Matthew and Luke soften some of the more raw comments in Mark that could have been interpreted as belittling Jesus. For example, Mark states, quite bluntly, that:-

Mark 3: 5 Jesus looked around (at his audience) with anger, he was grieved at their hardness of heart.

Mark 3: 21 When Jesus’ family heard (what the crowds were saying about him) they went to take charge (for, according to the crowd) “He is out of his mind”

Or, finally,

Mark 10: 14 Jesus was indignant!

Both Matthew and Luke, although they share the same narrative as Mark, hold back on these unrefined comments about Jesus, suggesting that Mark’s rather unpolished words had later been subject to more considered and gifted penmanship. All of this is consistent with Mark’s gospel being the original source material and Matthew’s more extensive text being an endorsement and amplification of that original.

Let’s now proceed to another important point. The gospel of Matthew contains 1068 verses, 606 of which come from Mark’s 661. So, 90% of Mark’s text reappears in Matthew. But, what about Matthew’s 400 or so remaining verses? Well, when we looked at Mark’s gospel some time ago, we agreed, I think, that he described to us through Peter’s eyes what Jesus had done; and when Matthew adopted Mark’s text he picked up on most of these deeds. Two hundred of the remaining 400 verses in Matthew, which, incidentally, were also reproduced in Luke, outline what Jesus said. So, Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels seem to have taken Mark as their sources of Jesus’ deeds and have adopted another text to describe his words or teaching. Is this where Matthew’s unique experience of the Messiah comes to the fore?

It is commonly held that Matthew’s gospel was written about 80AD, a generation after Matthew had died. This is consistent with our evidence that Mark’s commentary (written about 60AD) is incorporated into it. Let’s face it, if Matthew had produced his gospel first hand, why would he have included Mark’s record of Jesus’ deeds since he (Matthew) had witnessed them himself? So, if he did not write it (and there is no attribution in its text) why is the first gospel blessed with Matthew’s name?

One of the earliest church historians, a man called Papias, was bishop of Heirapolis in Phrygia, next door to Galatia, in the middle of modern day Turkey. He lived from AD 60 to 163. He was a friend of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (today’s Ismir) and had met and listened to John the Apostle on Patmos. He recorded, first hand, from existing sources, whatever was known of the sayings of Jesus and his disciples. To Piapas John confided
“that Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he (Peter) recalled from memory of the deeds of the Lord. He had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia (ie the words) of the Lord”

The excerpt regarding Matthew, on the other hand, said that “Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue”.

So, what evidence we have makes it more than likely that Matthew collected all of that material that contains all of the teachings of Jesus as described in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. It certainly could not have been Luke since he explains in his gospel (Luke 1: 1-4) that he traced all of his material second hand. He did not witness the day – to – day activities of the Messiah.

Therefore, while we are indebted to Peter via Mark for the commentary on Jesus’ deeds, our indebtedness to Matthew is even more-so for Jesus’ words. The very kernel of Jesus’ thoughts come from Matthew in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the approach to blameless living in an unholy world.

Matthew, the man.

Matthew’s origins, character and lifestyle we know little about. He seems to have been known by some as Levi, the son of Alphaeus, and as we learned earlier, he grew up and worked as a tax collector in the city of Capernaum on the west shore of the lake of Galilee. The city was also the home town of Andrew and Peter, who had teamed up with James and John in a fishing business there, and would, presumably, have paid taxes to Matthew; and as we all know, Capernaum (ie the home town of Nahum) had been adopted by Jesus as his home during his ministry years. In fact, the whole band of apostles, with the notable exception of Judas Iscariot, were all Galilean.

In distinction to his fishermen friends, Matthew worked with his brain, not with his hands; and to make a living as a civil servant he would have had to be literate in at least Aramaic (the local variant of Hebrew) and Greek (the international tongue). These literary skills, along with his accountant’s training, made him ideally suited to record and compile an accurate account of the oral teachings of Jesus; and since he had been with Jesus from the beginning, and had witnessed the savagery of the crucifixion and the miracle of resurrection and ascension, it was only right that, along with the others, he should have been locked away in that upper room in Jerusalem when the rushing wind shook the place and tongues of fire settled upon them, and they were filled with the spirit for future service in the newborn Christian church.

And, so it was that around this time, Matthew took up his pen and recorded Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. These are set out in five sections in Matthew, interspersed with comments on Jesus’ deeds drawn from Mark’s gospel.

  • Matt 5–7: Jesus’ sermon on the mount: The Law of the Kingdom
  • Matt 10: Jesus’ description of the duties of Leaders of the Kingdom
  • Matt 13: Jesus’ Parables of the Kingdom
  • Matt 18: Jesus’ statements on Forgiveness in the Kingdom
  • Matt 24-25: Jesus’ warning that The King is Coming