Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 3 of 5)

The First Gospel, so called because of its positioning in the New Testament, is historically attributed to Matthew Levi, an apostle of Jesus Christ and former tax collector. There is no manuscript evidence indicating that the document ever circulated without “According to Matthew” as its title, and no other name was ever appended to it.1 

Seeing that Matthew’s Gospel betrays a strong Jewish orientation, the ethnic heritage of both the author and reading audience appears to have been Jewish. The terminology is decidedly Jewish.2 A number of Aramaic expressions occur throughout the text, often without translation.3 Familiarity with Jewish history, politics, ideas, and customs is assumed.4 The Hebrew Bible has a prominent place, with about 40 quotations and over 100 allusions, demonstrating a mutual knowledge of and respect for these sacred writings. More fulfilled OT prophecies are cited than in any of the other Gospels.5 Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus and traces the line of decent back to Abraham (1:1-17).6

Palestine, particularly Judea, is a plausible location for the document’s origin and/or destination (cf. Jerome, De vir. ill. 3), although a more popular suggestion is Syria, specifically Antioch. The earliest clear usage of Matthew’s Gospel comes from Antioch in the early 2nd-century writings of Ignatius (ca. 35-107), who made much use of the text (see Smyrn. 1.1; Eph. 19.1-3; Polc. 2.2). The Gospel fits well into the setting of Syrian Antioch, which had a large Jewish population, a well-established Christian community, and a church committed to the discipleship of all nations (cp. Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 11:29; 13:1-3; 14:27-28; 15:40; 18:22-23). 

Contextual Layer #3: Matthew and His Reading Audience

Matthew was more than a biographer and historian. He was also an evangelist and theologian. While providing a reliable record of historical facts, he conveys doctrinal truth for developing faith in Christ and Christ’s teachings. The introduction of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1–4:16) is saturated with quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, confirming Jesus of Nazareth as the long-anticipated fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. The extensive narrative that follows is interspersed with five major sections of discourse material, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5–7. 

Chronologically, geographically, socially, ethnically, and culturally, Matthew’s initial reading audience would not have been too far removed from Jesus’ original listening audience. The teachings and influence of Christ’s earthly ministry had reached as far north as Syria, as far south as Idumea, as far east as the Decapolis and Perea, and all in between (Matt. 4:24-25; Mark 3:7-8). It is highly improbable that the contents of the Sermon on the Mount were limited to a solitary speech on a single occasion. We would surely expect the Lord to have regularly and repeatedly shared this information on multiple occasions. Matthew has captured the essence of what Jesus characteristically taught.

Matthew’s inclusion of this lengthy discourse, absent from the other Gospels, is indicative of authorial selectivity. Each Gospel writer, according to his immediate purpose, at times focuses on certain details ignored by others or omits particular elements highlighted by others.7 Consideration of both the similarities and differences is especially informative when comparing Matthew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount with Luke’s record of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49). In Luke’s rendering of the beatitudes, blessings are pronounced on those who are literally poor and hungry (Luke 6:20-23), whereas Matthew’s record is more spiritually oriented (Matt. 5:3-12).

Rather than editorial modification, as some have suspected, authorial selectivity is more likely. Matthew and Luke emphasize different aspects of the Lord’s teachings for their respective readerships. Matthew’s inclusion of the Psalm 37:11 quotation, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’” (Matt. 5:5), is particularly meaningful from a Jewish perspective. Luke’s account, directed to a non-Jewish audience, has no reference to it. Yet both include the Lord’s anticipatory assurance of the great reward in heaven (Matt. 5:12; Luke 6:23).

The Broader Christian Community

The striking parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the epistle of James demonstrate the ongoing influence of Christ’s teachings in the early church.8 Nevertheless, when Jesus preached this impactful sermon, it was not the time to impart exclusively Christian doctrine, nor was it the time to set aside the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:17-29; 7:12), but it was necessary to address the fallacies of hypocritical leaders (5:20; 6:2, 5, 16; 7:15-20, 29) and prepare for the approaching kingdom (cf. 6:10, 33; 7:21).

During the Lord’s bodily presence on earth, God’s spiritual kingdom was soon to be realized, specifically within the lifetime of some of his personal disciples (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 16:28). Matthew and his readers, contemporaries of other NT writers and their readers, were in fact citizens of this promised kingdom as members of Christ’s church (Matt. 16:18-19). From the historical record of Acts 2 onwards, the church Jesus promised to build was existing and growing and recognized as “the kingdom of God.”9 

At the time Matthew’s Gospel was produced,10 the residents of the Roman provinces of Judea and Syria (later combined as Syria Palestina) were subjected to the governing control of Rome. Those resisting compromise with foreign occupiers and pagan influences were generally suppressed and marginalized. Much of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount would have resonated with Matthew’s readers and other Christians at this time.

Concluding Thoughts

Why allude to Psalm 37:11? What significance would this have had to the respective audiences of the psalmist, of Jesus, and of Matthew? While the wicked appear to prosper, those deprived of dignity and resources seem to be missing out on the “good things” of this world. But the common theme of Psalm 37, the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s Gospel is that the righteous, even when disenfranchised by the world, are the ones to whom God’s kingdom belongs (Matt. 5:3, 10). It is in this radically transcendent kingdom, where the social boundaries of honor and shame are reversed, that divine favor, comfort, and provision are afforded.11

Matthew certainly does not overlook the Lord’s concern for people’s observable physical needs, but the primary focus is consistently heavenward in addressing their greater spiritual needs (cf. 9:6-8, 35-38; 12:28; 15:31). Matthew’s Jewish Christian community is repeatedly reminded of the enormous chasm between the earthly and the heavenly,12 the temporary and the eternal,13 the physical and the spiritual.14 It is in this context the statement is made: “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’.” A temporal land inheritance, as some modern interpreters suggest, would be a major disappointment!

--Kevin L. Moore

See K. L. Moore, Authorship of NT Gospels; also A Critical Introduction to the NT (Henderson, TN: Hester, 2009): 60-63.
     2 Matt. 2:20-21; 4:5; 5:35, 47; 6:7, 32; 10:6; 17:24-27; 18:17; 27:53.
     3 Matt. 5:22; 6:24; 16:17; 27:33, 46.
     4 Matt. 1:18-19; 2:1, 4, 22; 14:1; 17:24; 23:2; 26:3, 57, 59; 27:2, 11, 13.
     5 Matt. 1:1, 22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23; 3:3; 4:14-16; 5:17; 8:16-17; 12:17-21; 13:14-15, 35; 21:4-5; 26:63-64; 27:9-10.
     6 See K. L. Moore, Matthew's Audience, and Lineage of Jesus. The Lord’s recorded reference in the third person to “their synagogues” (10:17) is applicable to antagonistic nonbelieving Jews rather than implying anything about the ethnicity of Matthew’s readership. Compare the third person wording in 4:23; 9:35, and descriptions in 6:2, 5; 23:6, 34 of adversarial behavior in the synagogues.
     7 See K. L. Moore, Synoptic Confusion.
     8 See James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976): 21-22; Virgil V. Porter, Jr., “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 1,” BibSac 162:647 (July 2005): 344-60; and “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 2,” BibSac 162:648 (Oct. 2005): 470-82.
     9 Acts 1:2-8; 2:1-47; 8:12; 14:21-22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; Eph. 2:19; Col. 1:13, 18; 4:11; Rev. 1:6, 9; 5:10. See K. L. Moore, The Kingdom of God (Part 3).
     10 See K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 64. While a number of scholars propose AD 80-90 for the writing of this Gospel, the present author favors a more conservative date in the mid-60s. This is based, in part, on the testimony of Irenaeus, who reports that Matthew penned his Gospel while both Paul and Peter were in Rome (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). The Magdalen Papyrus (P64), containing portions of Matthew 26, has been dated as early as ca. 66 (see Carsten P. Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus [NY: Doubleday, 1996]), although this controversial dating is disputed.
     11 See Seung Ai Yang, “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed., eds. J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, and N. Perrin (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013): 847-48. Also K. L. Moore, Honor and Shame.
     12 Matt. 5:3, 10, 12-16, 34-35; 6:9-10, 19-21; 11:25; 16:19; 18:10, 18-19; 23:9; 25:31-46; 28:18.
     13 Matt. 5:18; 6:25-34; 7:13-14, 24-27; 10:22, 32-33; 11:20-24; 12:6-8; 23:21-22; 24:35
     14 Matt. 6:11-15, 22-23; 8:20; 9:2-8, 12-13, 15-17; 10:28; 11:28-30; 12:25-30, 39-45, 48-50; 16:6-12, 24-28; 17:20; 18:1-14; 19:14, 21-30; 21:21-22; 22:29-33; 23:13, 23; 26:26-29, 41.

Related articles:

Image credit: Adapted from

No comments:

Post a Comment