Before beginning this study I'd like to say a word or two about the title of this book. The "for beginners" qualifier means that I will approach Matthew's gospel with the notion that the reader has not studied this material before. My goal has been to create a book on this subject that is instructive as well as easy to read.
Before getting into the text itself we will take the time to examine the social and historical setting that existed when this gospel was produced as well as how Matthew's book came to be included in the official New Testament canon.
We will also lay out Matthew's well structured division of material and review some of the reasons why this gospel was written and how it was used in the early church.
Historical Background of Matthew's Writing
There were four main political and historical periods that shaped the thinking of the people when Jesus arrived on the scene of human history, the scene that Matthew will record in his gospel.
Persian Period, 536-336 BC
In 587 BC one of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people occurred: their capital city, Jerusalem, and the magnificent temple situated there were destroyed, and a majority of the Jewish people were either killed or taken into captivity by the Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar. Amazingly, in 539 BC while the Jews were still in captivity, the Babylonian Empire itself was defeated by the Persian army.
In the following year, 538 BC, with permission from the Persian king, Cyrus, a small remnant of Jewish exiles returned to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple located there. Others followed to resettle the land over the next century. Teachers and prophets like Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi wrote about this period of time.
The time between the prophet Malachi (433 BC) and the appearance of John the Baptist is referred to as the Intertestamental Period (Period of Silence). In this four hundred year span no inspired books were written, but many historical and diverse religious styles were produced. For example:
- Historical books: Recorded the social and political movements of the Jewish people.
- Josephus (historian)
- Maccabees I and II (history of a Jewish uprising a century before Christ)
- Apocrypha (hidden): These were stories and accounts of events and people in Jewish history not recorded in the inspired books. For example:
- History of Susanna
- Wisdom of Solomon
- I and II Esdras
- Pseudepigrapha (false writings): These were books written using the names of Old Testament writers long after their deaths (i.e. Revelation of Moses).
These writings, between 400 BC and the arrival of Christ, influenced the thinking of the people, and a large part of Jesus' teaching was done to counteract these ideas (the many restrictions about the Sabbath not found in the original Law given by Moses but practiced and taught by a group of Jewish scribes known as the Pharisees).
The Jewish people were basing much of their religious thought on these intertestamentary writings. As a result, many of their ideas concerning the Messiah and the "end times" were shaped by these non-inspired texts rather than the inspired prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). This was to become a major stumbling block for their belief in Jesus since He did not conform to the image that they had of the Messiah coming from these sources.
Greek Period, 333-167 BC
This was the time of Alexander the Great and his legacy. After Alexander's death his kingdom was divided among his four generals. Judea, where the Jewish people lived, was under different control for the two centuries of Greek world domination:
- 320-298 BC: Egypt dominated the area and was in constant battle with its northern antagonist, Syria, who also wanted to control the region in order to have a staging area for attacks against Egypt to the south.
- 198-167 BC: Syria was in control of Judea. One Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, oppressed the Jews by trying to close the Temple in Jerusalem and forbidding circumcision. He even sacrificed a pig on the altar in the temple. These actions led to a revolt by the Jewish people written about in the historical books: l and ll Maccabees. It was also a time when Jews were greatly influenced by Greek culture to the point where many no longer spoke Hebrew (the language of the Scriptures). To accommodate these changes a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint was produced.
Maccabean Period, 167-63 BC
A popular revolution against Syrian control and Greek influence allowed the Jews to enjoy a brief period of independence from 167-135 BC. It was during this period of time that new powers arose in the Jewish nation:
- Pharisees: These were scribes (lawyers) who led the revolt and were considered protectors of the Jewish Scriptures and an opposing force against the evil and pagan influence of Greek culture.
- Sadducees: An aristocratic upper class of priests who began to wield political power (there was no king in Israel, so they filled the power vacuum). The role of teaching went from the priests to the Pharisees; the role of leadership passed from the king and was now exercised by the high priests.
- Essenes: These were desert dwellers who considered the religious leadership in Jerusalem corrupt, and who lived as a private community away from civilization. They recorded copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Aramaic, sealed them in clay jars and hid them in the caves near the Dead Sea. They did this to protect the Scriptures from the corruption of the religious teachers of that time and also because they believed that the end times were near. These copies were later discovered in 1947 and are now referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Zealots: Political activists and anarchists who wanted to continue the revolution against any foreign occupation of Jewish territory (Barabbas/Simon).
- Herodians: A political party sympathetic to Herod; some among them thought that Herod was the Messiah.
Israel was a hotbed of political activity; it was nurtured on non-inspired writings during the intertestamental period that speculated about the fantastic arrival of the Messiah who would deliver them from foreign oppression and usher in a golden period of Jewish domination resembling the period when Solomon was king.
Roman Period, 63 BC (New Testament)
The Romans destroyed Syria completely and dominated the Jews and their territory. They established governors over the Jewish people. The Roman leaders sold the rights to collect taxes to individuals in the country. These people were called Publicans (i.e. Matthew). Herod, called king of the Jews, was appointed as a political ruler by the Romans, and was responsible for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem during his reign.
Pontius Pilate was a military governor who supplied a Roman guarantee of force to collect taxes and put down any rebellion.
The Calendar BC/AD
During the life of Christ the time was calculated according to the Roman calendar (the feasts were celebrated according to Jewish calendar, but the years were according to the Roman one). The Roman calendar calculated the year by referring to the founding of the city of Rome as year one, and so the year Christ was born was 753 (after the founding of Rome).
After Christianity became the religion of the Roman world the Emperor Justinian requested that a new dating system be established using the birth of Christ as year one. When this adjustment was made the Roman year was 1279. Since Jesus had been born in 753 (Roman time) they re-established the new calendar year in Christian terms to be 526. 526 years after the birth of Christ – AD (Anno Domini: Year of the Lord).
To complicate things even further, it was discovered that their calculation as to the year Jesus was born was in error by 4 years, but since the change had already been made to the new calendar they left things as they were. This means that according to the new calendar Jesus was born in 4 BC!
The Romans were cruel and ruthless but during their dominance they provided important elements that supported the spreading of the gospel:
- Pax Romana (12 BC - 93 AD): One hundred years of relative peace in the Roman Empire. This meant that most people had freedom and safety of movement throughout the land.
- An excellent road system designed to move troops quickly and efficiently throughout the empire also provided easy travelling for missionaries.
- They maintained the communication and literary system of that age.
- The Greek language was the universal language of literature and communication between cultures and the Romans did not try to change this.
- The Latin language was used as the language of law.
Paul of Tarsus, Roman citizen and Christian missionary, was able to use a well-maintained road system to travel and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ using the universally understood Greek language to communicate his message.
Palestine in New Testament Times
People were poor (Judea was poorer than Galilee). Religion was the center of life and, along with political speculation, provided the anticipation of freedom. It was an agricultural society, and its main city, Jerusalem, had a population of about two hundred and fifty thousand people. There was a high literacy rate among the Jews since everyone had to learn the Law of Moses. There existed certain class divisions:
- Aristocracy: Priests, with High Priest as spiritual and social leader. Many accepted only the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) as authority, did not believe in resurrection and were conservative religiously but accepted Greek thought and customs.
- Pharisees: Zealous teachers of the Law. They believed in resurrection and the immortality of the soul. Accepted the entire Hebrew Bible.
- Common people
- Publicans: sympathizers to Rome.
- Slaves (why crucifixion was so humiliating, it was the punishment for slaves).
30-40% of the Roman population was in slavery. There was no middle class. Divorce was rampant in that society. Among the Gentiles there was prostitution (cult prostitution at pagan temples), infanticide (unwanted babies left in open fields to die), and child abuse (orphans raised as thieves or prostitutes).
Among the Jews, Temple worship was central. A yearly cycle of feasts was celebrated. Regular synagogue worship was the lifeblood of the Jewish community. Most of the world, however, practiced Emperor worship along with other forms of paganism.
Into this turbulent world comes Jesus Christ. He was born in Bethlehem to a poor couple and raised as a young Jewish man attending synagogue and temple worship. He enters public ministry at age thirty confronting Pharisees, Priests, and the general public with the message that He is the Messiah and hope of Israel. He is hailed as king, executed as a criminal, and resurrected to demonstrate His deity and lordship.
Matthew, one of His disciples, writes about Him, and in the rest of this book we will begin studying his eyewitness account of this remarkable person, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth, called the Christ.