By Patrick Schmadeke
Sometime around 80 CE, roughly a decade after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the Gospel of Matthew was composed for an urban group of Gentile and Jewish Christians. The Jewish-Christians members of this group, it seems, had recently separated from synagogue worship. Yet their religious instincts still echoed the Judaism from which they had come.
In order to appreciate Matthew’s Gospel more fully, it is important to note that the Jewish customs at the time of Jesus were not identical to the Jewish customs at the time the Gospel was written. At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say that the Judaism at the time of Jesus was Temple-centric, while the Judaism at the time of Matthew’s Gospel was Torah-centric. With the Jerusalem Temple having been destroyed, Judaism’s religious center of gravity needed a new foothold. Matthew’s Gospel gives us a window into the paradigmatic shift towards a Torah-centric mindset.
Since the Jewish-Christians of Matthew’s community likely shared this Torah-centric mindset, and since ancient Jews believed that Moses wrote the Torah, it is not surprising that Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ Moses-like features. Biblical scholars have long noted subtleties in Matthew’s Gospel narrative that are intended to provoke the reader not only to recall the life of Moses, but to see the life of Jesus as imitating, and then surpassing Moses’ greatness.
This narrative move is observable in Matthew’s Gospel from the outset. The familiar story of Jesus’ infancy runs thick with parallels to the life of Moses. To highlight a few: King Herod ordered all male children under 2 years old to be killed while Pharaoh had given a similar order that all males born to Hebrews were to be thrown into the Nile; the Holy Family fled to evade Herod’s wrath while Moses fled Pharaoh’s attempt to kill him; after Herod died, the angel of the Lord told Joseph to “go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” while in Exodus after the Pharaoh had died the Lord told Moses “return to Egypt, for all those who sought your life are dead.”
Putting these details side by side makes it easier to notice the similarities between the stories. Furthermore, Matthew often applies to Jesus the same Greek terminology used in the Exodus stories about Moses.
A few chapters later we find further connections between Moses and Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus affirms of the Torah and then gives his own teaching which enriches the Law. While Moses spoke against murder, Jesus intensifies this by speaking against anger.
While Moses spoke against adultery, Jesus deepened this to reject thoughts of adultery. While Moses gave instruction on divorce, Jesus outright rejects divorce. Finally, while Moses spoke of love of neighbor, Jesus broadens this to speak of loving even one’s enemy. It is no accident that Jesus’ seminal teaching scene in Matthew’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount, while the seminal teaching scene of Moses is the revelation of the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. Jesus, like Moses before him, is acting as the lawgiver.
Matthew’s Gospel is pregnant with Mosaic imagery. Both figures are even remembered to have fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. But what was intensely relevant to Matthew’s community (due to historical context) and recognizable (because of their familiarity with the Moses stories) has become less so to modern readers.
Should we sort through the weeds of history to retrieve meaning portrayed by the Gospel? Or are we simply called to see God in new ways in a continually changing world? The answer of course is yes, we must do both. We must familiarize ourselves with the historical data that brings to life dimensions of stories whose meaning we may have forgotten. At the same time, we must resolve to critically examine our modern images of Jesus in order to harmonize them with the unfolding mystery of God’s presence among us. We must always, like Matthew before us, articulate our experience of Christ in a fashion that resonates with people’s experience. Then we, like Matthew, will have preached the Gospel in the world.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic tradition and its relevance to the world today.)