Matthew’s Christology is one that emphasises to a Jewish audience the Jewishness of Jesus. It will be the purpose of this paper to argue that the raison d’etre of Matthew’s Christology is to portray Jesus as entirely compatible if not with the Judaism of his day then with ancient Judaic tradition, namely the Old Testament. Whilst there are numerous titles given to Jesus that are exclusive/predominant within the Matthean account, such as that of Son of God, it is the writer’s assertion that these merely complement Matthew’s central theses; this being the portrayal of Jesus as Messiah and so, as such, will not be investigated except where they promote this conclusion.
This fulfilment of Judaic tradition will be investigated in three separate yet interrelated areas: Jesus as the fulfilment of Hebraic messianic expectation, Jesus’ role as a Jewish teacher and Jesus as inaugurator of God’s Kingdom.
Matthew is a Semitic gospel written as an encouragement to Jewish Christians and as an apologetic to unbelieving Jews.
From the outset Matthew identifies Jesus as one of royal Davidic lineage and Abrahamic descent. Matthew immediately identifies with Judaic tradition portraying Jesus with the Immanuel figure of Isaiah 7:14 (1:23). This motif of the Jewishness of the gospel is especially prevalent in its depiction of Jesus’ role as the fulfilment of the Old Testament’s messianic hope (2:4, 26:63) as well as running throughout the text on varying levels. Perhaps one of the most interesting theories offered in detailing this continuation between testaments is Leske’s proposal that Jesus’ role and ministry is antecedent to the Isaianic literature, and, in particular, the Servant nation of Israel. Whilst a comprehensive critique of Leske’s argument is outside the scope of this study, it would seem fair to concur that Matthew does indeed identify Jesus with the Servant (cf. 3:17; Isaiah 42:1). Consequently, we see in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus a fundamental tenet of Israel’s theological history personified.
Jesus is, as the Messianic Servant, shown to be the fulfilment of further Isaianic prophecy, that of the suffering Servant. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there are six direct allusions to Isaiah 53 indicating a definite link and identification by Matthew with this Israelite and Messianic hope. Further, Farmer suggests that direct allusions notwithstanding in 20:20-28 and especially 26:26-30 Isaiah 53’s redemptive hope is supposed to be fulfilled through Jesus’ description of the outcome of his crucifixion.
Isaianic prophecy aside it is also clear that Matthew above the other three evangelists presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, a new Moses. The structure of the book into five sections is intended to help the Jewish readers identify Jesus as an antecedent of Moses. Jesus is according to some scholars a type of Moses bringing about a new exodus and a new Israel. More explicitly however, Matthew portrays Jesus as the only man to have fulfilled the law in its entirety as well as the messianic fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy through the many formula quotations (3:15; 5:17-48;12:17-21; 13:35; 21:5, 16, 42; 22:44; 23:39; 26:31; 27:9, 35, 46).
Judaism as a religion placed great stress on the role of the rabbi or teacher, the concept of a teacher having students/disciples is ancient, Elijah and Elisha being cited as examples(1 Kings 19:19-21). In the Judaism of Matthew’s time such relationships were symptomatic of the religious climate with the array of schools of disciples that existed. It is not surprising then that Matthew in addressing recent adherents to this religion should portray Jesus as a teacher with his own band of disciples albeit a distinctive one. Whilst it must be noted with France that in comparison with Mark Matthew uses the term rabbi infrequently this should not be taken to mean Jesus as teacher is an inappropriate title to Matthew. Clearly, Jesus is revealed as Messiah far more explicitly than in the other synoptics but, Jesus nonetheless describes himself as a rabbi (3:15; 5:17-48; 11:27; 13:10-17; 23:8) and others recognized his similarity to other teachers and thus addressed him as such (8:19; 9:11; 12:38; 17:24; 19:16; 22:16, 24, 36).
As teacher Jesus is portrayed as the revealer of God’s will and Israel’s true teacher and as such one of the central motifs of Matthew is Israel’s rejection of His teaching (cf. 11:1-12:50). In line with many Old Testament prophets Jesus’ teaching is rejected. (5:10-12; 24:14). Further, the parabolic teaching of Jesus which is emphasised in Matthew is typical to rabbinic teaching of the day as well as the subjects used in these parables. This familiarity in teaching is especially predominant in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew depicts Jesus as antecedent to Moses especially in regard to its emphasis on ethical teaching. Further, the location on the mountain is very reminiscent of Moses’ unveiling of the law upon Sinai as well as Jesus’ active comparison of his teaching with that of Mosaic law (5:21, 31, 33, 38, 43) in contrast to the Lucan account (Luke 6:27-35). What is clear is that Jesus is presenting a teaching that while distinct is precedented from within the Mosaic law itself and is thus seeking to affirm to the Semitic audience the authenticity of his mission.
One of the central features of Jesus’ teaching as Messiah is his stress on appropriating the teaching and not merely internalize it. It is this very principle that Matthew portrays Jesus displaying in Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. Hebraic expectation of the Kingdom of God was primarily teleological. The Kingdom of God was an apocalyptic hope. What is characteristic of Jesus’ ministry however is what has in recent years been labelled realized or inaugurated eschatology, that is, the present reality of the Kingdom in the temporal. Jesus’ synopsis of His message is given in 4:17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” and, in so doing Jesus is, according to Keener, employing “typical Jewish periphrasis for God” and emphasising the cruciality of Jesus’ ministry as bringing about the awaited for the reign of God. This idea of the immanence of the kingdom is especially paramount in Matthew more so than in any other gospel with its emphasis in the parables of the kingdom. Jesus in these parables emphasises that while God’s reign is not complete, in His followers the kingdom is present and expanding, this is especially true of the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. In addition, Jesus is described not just as an emissary of the kingdom, the kingdom-bringer. He is also shown to be the king Himself. Jesus is described as being of royal lineage, He is the Son of David and the Son of Man Judaism was anticipating. Such references would not be lost to the Jewish hearers, Jesus is King of the Jews (26:64) and thus the king of the kingdom was present.
This motif in Matthew of the presence of the kingdom is exemplified in the way Jesus is depicted as a miracle worker, one who is ushering the kingdom into physical reality. Matthew depicts Jesus’ miracles as evidence of this inauguration of the kingdom (11:2-6; 12:28). As Son of David Jesus is shown to be bringing the kingdom through his healings (9:32-34; 12:24). Perhaps the clearest example of this inauguration of the kingdom through Jesus’ actions is Matthew’s description of the presence of the kingdom in the passion. The passion as the means of forgiveness of sins and thus fulfilment of the prophetic kingdom hope of Isaiah 53 is displayed to be a primary means of the inauguration of the kingdom and an anticipation of the kingdom’s final consummation. Further, Matthew portrays the resurrection in a typical Jewish apocalyptic linguistic. The description of the angel’s descent, the earthquake and the fearful guards makes 28:2-4 appear “to recount the events of Easter morning as though they were events of the last times”. Clearly then Matthew is reflecting, to an extent, the intertestemental Jewish apocalyptic writings.
So, to conclude, the predominant theme of Matthew’s Christology is Jesus’ continuance from Judaic tradition and scripture. Jesus is shown to be the consummation of Mosaic law and to be the Messianic figure from the prophets. This is notably true in regard to Isaiah’s Servant songs, particularly the Suffering Servant, namely Isaiah 53. Secondly, Jesus is shown to be a teacher, following many conventional rabbinic customs. As a teacher He is shown to be antecedent to Moses particularly through the Sermon on the Mount and thus while still a teacher one such as Israel had never received before. Finally, Jesus’ mission is, in 4:17 shown to bring about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth and thus fulfil Judaic eschatological hope. In all of these areas Matthew is portraying Jesus to be the Messiah Israel was anticipating, but, like other scriptural prophets one who would be rejected by His own people.
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