Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

About a book, introducing Matthew’s Gospel. (Version 1.4)

About a book

The Emmaus perspective

As a first-century Jewish prophet, Jesus prepared the way for a new creation, a people called out to as the nucleus of a re-born Israel. By drawing upon ancient legal precedents and walking in the footsteps of faithful men he not only saved his people, but also challenged them to change their ideas. Though soundly rooted in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), Jesus’ teaching remains controversial, especially amongst those who espouse mainstream Judaism’s traditional understanding of those scriptures. It is only by sharing Jesus’ perspective that one can appreciate how fully his life fulfilled the legislation that would ensure his death functioned as a saving sacrifice. Without such comprehension their remains an uneasy match between the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel of the Church, the latter hinted at by types and prophecies, but seeming to lack the sound legal basis that, in reality, it enjoys.

Luke tells us of two disciples who, like many today, struggled to reconcile what had gone before with the events of Jesus life. Their Emmaus-bound encounter has an allegorical tone, for the disconsolate pair failed to recognize their Lord until, by seeking to detain him, they engaged with his teaching, after which their eyes opened and they recognized their tutor for who he really was. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, we all need an eye-opening pilgrimage to Emmaus.

The second-century theologian Marcion, like the unenlightened pair of disciples, found the events in first-century Palestine seemed incompatible with the theology of the Hebrew Bible1. In response he reject the Hebrew Scriptures along with every gospel but Luke’s2. Marcion subsequently drifted into heresy, but perhaps he should have paid more attention to Matthew’s Gospel, for its earliest chapters contain signposts designed to point a disciple toward that Emmaus Inn moment. It challenges them to view afresh the familiar terrain of patriarchs, prophecies and precedents, suggests they divert from the well-trod interpretive highways onto less favored paths from which the view is clearer, and introduces them to meta-narratives that flow through the scriptures like the sap in a vine. It confronts and unsettles to enlighten and reward. It reveals afresh the merciful God behind the judgements of the Hebrew Bible and the just God at work in the life of Christ.

The common view and the significance of order

The early Church maintained that Matthew’s Gospel was the first to be composed and attributed it to a companion of Jesus who had learned the new perspective at first hand, the disciple whose name it bears. However, today, we are less inclined than our forefathers to trust ancient convictions and the authenticity of early documents, so before venturing further I shall address the dating and status of my primary source.

Matthew’s Gospel enjoys a close relationship with those of Luke and Mark and scholars had long understood that these three present a common view, a ‘synoptic’ of the life of Christ, in which their contributions intertwine like the stands of a three-fold cord3. Take any two and they share common features not found in the third4. However, in the last two centuries the sequence in which the gospels’ authors wrote, the so-called ‘synoptic problem’, became, as it continues to be, the subject of intense scholastic debate.

Until the nineteenth century Matthew’s Gospel eclipsed the others in importance. Yet, in recent centuries the idea that Mark’s came first, has been popularised, along with a two-source hypothesis that derives Matthew and Luke from Mark and a theoretical source known as Q. Today, some academics would challenge the assumptions behind this hypothesis and even raise their voices against Markan priority. Furthermore, recent studies on Luke’s Gospel have claimed the possibility of deriving Luke directly from Matthew alone. Based on such evidence, a body of serious scholarship now believes that Q, once a flourishing article of academic faith, is no more than a modern fiction5. As a result, support for an older solution to the Synoptic problem, the ‘Griesbach Hypothesis’, is re-grouping under the new banner of the ‘Two Gospel Hypothesis’, which restores the traditional priority of Matthew, then deriving Luke from it and Mark from both of them.

The earliest manuscripts

The synoptic problem has a significant bearing on one’s approach to Matthew’s text, so a brief review of some of the dating evidence is not out of place.

Matthew’s references to chronological landmarks set a lower bound on its date of composition of about 30 C.E., but it is much harder to determine an upper bound on that date. To start with, the text comes to us only through diligent copying, for the survival of ancient papyri is a fickle process. Such copying liberates a message from the mortality of its medium, but this comes at a price. The existence of ancient copies of a work, whether sacred or secular, makes it practically impossible to prove whether it is the original. Nevertheless, thanks to this process we have thousands of early biblical manuscripts and manuscript fragments. The sheer volume of these multi-sourced copies provides, through the testimony of comparison, far better evidence for the Bible’s original form than is available for any other documents from that period (such as the gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi).

Though these early manuscripts carried no publication date, chronological shifts in writing characteristics (palaeography) can date them, non-destructively and, it is claimed, with similar accuracy to any radiometric approach. Using this method, a typical dating for the earliest copies of Matthew would be around 250 C.E.6, though some would (controversially) date the Magdalen Papyrus to the period 70-100 C.E.7. The fresh flow of comparative evidence from the Qumram caves will undoubtedly see other manuscripts revised to much earlier dates.

The love of quotation

Whilst, 250 C.E. is still quite late, the theologian’s fondness for quotation has left earlier evidence. Justin Martyr, converted in 130 C.E. and martyred in 165 C.E., quoted many passages from Matthew’s Gospel. He also mentioned the reading of the memoirs of the Apostles, known as gospels, in church8. Earlier still, no later than 117 C.E., Ignatius of Antioch borrowed a variety of Matthew’s expressions and phrases9.

Some argue that the Gospel’s well-developed theology and view of the church, necessitates a late date10, such as this second-century period. However, as I intend to demonstrate, the Hebrew Bible undermines this argument, doing so through a host of precedents that call for a group called out with a purpose (i.e. a Church) and possessing a theology totally consistent with that in Matthew’s Gospel. Furthermore, the earliest evidence of quotation seems to be a couple of verses, in a letter, written around 95-98 C.E., from Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church11.

The traditions of the Fathers

Papias of Hierapolis, writing slightly earlier than Justin Martyr, documented traditions obtained from those who knew the Apostles and some suggest that he knew the Apostle John. Although we know of his work only through the later histories of Eusebius of Caesarea, what little we have is enlightening. Papias, like many modern disciples, preferred talking with people to studying in the library. He commented that I did not think that information from books would help as much as the word of a living, surviving voice.’ In other words, although it was already possible to get the traditions of the apostles from books, Papias preferred going to the source12.

The evidence suggests that during the earliest part of the second century Matthew’s Gospel was already in use. This has led some to suggest that this gospel’s criticism of established Judaism reflects an origin at the end of the first century, a period when Judaism increasingly closed its doors to Christianity13. However, Luke portrays similarly open criticism at much earlier dates (Acts 7:51-53). Moreover, Matthew’s Gospel addresses particularly Jewish concerns such as ritual cleanliness and, at times, assumes its readers are familiar with Jewish traditions. The audience naturally primed for such a gospel existed yet earlier, before the Temple’s destruction, when followers of ‘The Way’ routinely encouraged their Jewish peers to view the Scriptures through Jesus’ eyes (cf. Acts 24:5, 14-15).

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 C.E., provides such a landmark in Jewish history that its notable absence from Acts provides strong evidence for Luke’s Gospel being composed prior to that event. If the traditional order of gospel composition is accepted, then this in turn places the origin of Matthew’s Gospel before that event. However, that Matthew portrays Jesus predicting the temple’s fall, e.g. in the parable of the marriage feast (Matt 22:1-14), makes such an early date inconceivable for those who reject the possibility of such foretelling. Indeed, there can be little doubt that such skepticism concerning predictive prophecy helped prompt liberal scholars to oust Matthew from its premier place. Yet, by baulking at this hurdle one produces another, for simple logic corrals you into rejecting out of hand the Bible’s claim that the God of Abraham reveals the future (Isa 46:9-11) and with it that the authority of scripture.

Ironically, whilst the retrofitting of prophetic predictions is commonplace in apocryphal books, such as First Enoch, Jesus’ predictions often required little more than a sound knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and the faith that God would act consistently14. Another ‘prediction’, the murder of Zechariah son of Berechiah which Jesus refers to in Matthew 23:35, is also arguably a case of Jesus simply applying the Hebrew Bible and God then delivering a sign in keeping with Jesus’ words15.

If the predicted events are not quite the fixed lower bound that to some they might seem, the Church fathers provide some tantalising clues that the Gospel existed in written form even before that. Thanks to Eusebius, we have it on Papias’ authority that the disciple Matthew as one of those who compiled material concerning Christ16. Moreover, Eusebius’ evidence for Matthew’s Gospel in the apostolic era is not limited to insights from Papias. He also mentions a claim made by Pantaenus of Alexandria17, a philosopher and teacher, who was active around the turn of the second century C.E. Pantaenus reported finding a pre-existing church in India that already had a copy of Matthew’s Gospel and claimed to have received it from the apostle Bartholomew. We may add to Eusabius’ evidence that of the second-century scholar Irenaeus, who also held that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel, moreover that he did so whilst Peter and Paul were establishing the church in Rome18.

Writing in the wrong tongue

The modern scholar has one further hurdle to cross before accepting the earliest Church’s traditions concerning Matthew’s Gospel. Papias, Pantaenus and Irenaeus unanimously imply that the language of the Gospel they saw was Hebrew (at that time Aramaic), yet today linguists feel (with reasonable cause) that the early manuscripts are copies of a text composed in Greek rather than a translation. Of course, that does not preclude the possibility that our version is a Greek paraphrase of a Hebrew original, or that its author was bilingual and wrote a second version in Greek. Yet, when it comes to evaluating the evidence for the Gospel’s original language, the early Church had one critical advantage not enjoyed today. It had scholars who had access to both Greek and Hebrew versions.

The fourth-century bible-translator Jerome was aware that ‘the Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered.’19 He had also examined a Hebrew version that was still in use in Syria20, the area in which many believe Matthew’s Gospel to have originated21. He believed that the apostle Matthew wrote the original version in Hebrew and that the Greek was some form of later ‘translation’ by an unknown author. In support of this, he noted that the aforementioned Syrian text based its biblical quotations on the Hebrew rather than taking them from the Greek (i.e. the Septuagint).

Eusebius shared Jerome’s advantage, for he studied under Pamphilius and amidst that renowned collection of theological books at Caesarea Maritima22. He ought to have known what he was talking about, for he had direct access to both the Greek and Hebrew texts. Moreover, he and his fellow academics were studying in a location that provided ready access to native Hebrew speakers.

The proliferation of gospels

In the preceding paragraphs, I presented my case for adopting the traditional early dating and apostolic authorship of Matthew’s Gospel. However, I have still to address the question of its status.

The early Church did not have a monopoly on producing gospels, as the apostle Paul’s knew all too well (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6-7). Thus, although the apostles provided a touchstone for orthodoxy, the rapid expansion of the Church provided a fertile seedbed for the germination of other ‘gospels’. Moreover, its the far-flung distribution diminished the effectiveness of the apostles judicial role. The prevailing Greek love affair with the discovery of hidden spiritual knowledge (which they called gnosis) fertilized this process and added its own twist to many a competing ‘gospel’. This proliferation of differing gospels fuelled a desire to harmonise their content and produce yet more books. Thus, by the ninth century, Photius could list about 280 non-canonical books and archaeologists have since discovered yet more23. Of these, there are over fifty that claim to be ‘gospels’.

Faced with the recent rediscovery of many ancient gospel texts, twenty-first century theologians insistent on resurrecting an issue that early churchmen thought they had resolved for good. They have begun to ask afresh, which gospels preserve the authentic traditions concerning Jesus. Whilst a complete review of these ‘other gospels’ and the debate that surrounds them is beyond the scope of this book, looking at a selection amply illustrates how Matthew’s Gospel still stands aloof from the growing crowd.

Figments, phantoms and forgeries

The texts of some ‘gospels’, such as Q and the Signs Gospel are the hypothetical ‘missing links’ required by those who take an evolutionary view of gospel development. However, no matter how painstakingly researched and skilfully depicted, an artist’s impression of such a theoretical beast remains somehow never quite as convincing as the exquisitely preserved ‘fossil’ that it purports to pre-date.

Some early ‘gospels’ (such as the Gospel of Matthias and the Gospel of the Hebrews) we known of only because ancient writers cite them or comment on their lack of orthodoxy. Their text may lie somewhere amongst the accumulating mounds of fragmentary papyri but they effectively remain lost. By contrast, wherever censorship allows, Matthew’s Gospel is readily available.

The Gospel of Barnabas deserves mention alongside these ‘lost’ gospels, if only because of its high profile amongst Muslims (who often consider it the only true gospel). The Church Fathers mention a Gospel of Barnabas that orthodox Christianity rejected, but provide no details as to its content. However, in the sixteenth century a monk by the name of Mariano claimed to have stolen a copy from the Pope’s private library24. The handwriting, paper and watermark of this document (Vienna codex 2662), the oldest manuscript claiming to be the Gospel of Barnabas, are all of medieval origin. It shows the influence, of at least nineteen of the twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament as well as sections of the Koran25. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, it therefore appears to be a medieval concoction.

Fragments and finds

Matthew’s Gospel preserves a complete text of over 1,000 verses, many of which find direct support from the other canonical gospels. By comparison, some ‘gospels’ are mere shreds. For example, Papyrus Oxyrhnchus 1224 comprises just two fragments containing four small sections of text (mostly mirroring attitudes explored more fully in the canonical Gospels)26. Similarly, the Egerton Gospel consists of five fragments containing four complete paragraphs27, three describing incidents found in canonical Gospels and a fourth that suggests an unknown saying but is too poorly preserved to make sense. The Gospel of Judas is more substantial but still has numerous gaps28. The Gospel of Thomas is at least complete, but it remains a relatively short collection of sayings and anecdotal traditions, many of which are better contextualised within the canonical works29.

Matthew’s Gospel has always been widely quoted amongst Christendom and mainstream Christianity accepted it as canonical, yet many other gospels, such as the Gospel of Philip, are hardly mentioned anywhere amongst the corpus of the early church (Philip apparently gets a sole citation30). Through archaeological discoveries, many such texts have gained a prominence today that they originally failed to command.

The mark of a sound gospel

The early church routinely had to deal with textual wolves in sheep’s clothing and a number of the alternate gospels show evidence of editorial derivation from the canonical gospels and other works. In some cases (such as the Secret Gospel of Mark) the alterations seek to ‘embellish’ the original with additional traditions31, in others (such as Shem Tob and Barnabas) the aim appears to be a subversive re-interpretation to suit the editor’s particular agenda.

Many of the burgeoning gospels were attempts to claim the authority of Jesus for cultic teachings or heresies. Amongst these were the numerous Gnostic works, which, like the Gospel of Peter32, stressed that Jesus was not fully human (i.e. they adopted the docetic position). In the early days, it was so easy to beguile people into thinking of Jesus as a purely spiritual being, that the apostle John presented confession of Christ’s humanity as a mark of the soundness of a gospel (1 John 4:2-3).

Today, as we again face competing gospel claims, we may yearn to call upon a test for orthodoxy or a witness who could testify to God’s agenda for Jesus and settle for good whether any given gospel rings true. However, the Emmaus road incident reminds us that we already have such a witness to what a gospel should contain, for at that time Jesus explained how the scriptures pointed to everything concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27). In the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit of God has provided a textual cornerstone against which to judge any gospel’s claims, a sure foundation that will not be moved.

An assessment of the fourteenth-century document, Even Bochan by Shem-Tob illustrates the power of biblical precedents to bring to light a spurious gospel. ‘Even Bochan’ includes a variant of Matthew’s Gospel that appears to originate from a Hebrew source. This ‘Hebrew Matthew’ is therefore a candidate for the Hebrew text mentioned by Eusabius. However, it contains significant differences to the canonical version including some that portray Jesus as inferior to John the Baptist. As we shall see in a later chapter33, this is entirely inconsistent with the foundations established by the Jewish scriptures. Shem Tob’s John is not acting ‘in character’, thus this gospel version is unlikely to be authentic. Similarly, we should treat with caution the Gospel of Judas, for in it we find a Jesus who uses language that emanates from second century Gnostic thought rather than the Hebrew corpus of canonical works (e.g. by referring to the Gnostic concept Barbelo)34. The same sort of test can quickly expose other gospels for the pretenders that they are.

By contrast, Matthew’s Gospel satisfies John’s test for it portrays a Christ who, as Israel’s deity, controls the waves, whilst still hungering, thirsting and bleeding like a man (Matt 8:26-27, c.f. Isa 51:15; Matt 21:18). Furthermore, it also goes to great lengths to establish its links with the Hebrew Bible, both by citing scripture and by skilfully embedded allusions to it.

Revealing the test and passing it

It seems that the need today, for discernment when evaluating gospels, is as great as ever it was. The earliest church knew that Jesus’ teaching was rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and Matthew’s editorial policy, by highlighting those roots, emphasises the criteria by which we may assess his gospel’s status. As it reveals the scriptural foundations upon which Jesus built, it simultaneously positions itself firmly upon them. By its consistency with the Hebrew Scriptures, it shows itself to be a continuation of the flow of divine inspiration that birthed them. Furthermore, it dates from that earliest period, when the Emmaus perspective was well known and clearly understood. Little wonder then, that amongst all the variant claims to gospel status, the emerging Church consistently trusted the authority of Matthew’s Gospel. Having spent many an hour pouring over it, I believe that we should too.

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(at http://www.sermononthemount.org.uk/EmmausView/index.html)

1 Henry Chadwick, "The Early Christian Community," in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (ed. John McManners; Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1995), 28-29.

2 Marcion felt the Jewish Scriptures portrayed a different and inferior God.

3 Stephen C. Carlson, "Enumeration of Synoptic Theory Types," n.p. [cited 8 Aug 2007]. Online:http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/synopt/enum.htm.

4 Matthew and Mark contain Luke’s omission. Matthew and Luke share the double tradition omitted by Mark. Mark and Luke share a common order of events that differs from Matthew.

5 Nicholas Thomas Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 41-43.

6 Peter van Minnen, "Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts," n.p. [cited 22 Dec 2008]. Online:http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/texts/manuscripts.html.

7 Peter M. Head, "The Date of the Magdalene Papyrus of Matthew (P. Magd. Gr. 17 = P64):A response to C.P. Thiede," Tyndale Bulletin 46 (1995): 251-285. Cited: 22 Dec 2008. Online:http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Head/P64TB.htm.

8 E. Jacquier, "Gospel of Matthew," in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911): n.p. Cited 6 Feb 2006. Online: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10057a.htm.; Jules Lebreton, "St. Justin Martyr," in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 8:n.p. Cited 7 Feb 2008. Online: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08580c.htm.

9 Peter Kirby, "Gospel of Matthew," n.p. [cited 2007 7 Feb]. Online:http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/matthew.html.

10 Richard T. France, Matthew (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 28.

11 E. Jacquier. “Gospel of Matthew”, n.p.

12 Paul L. Maier, Eusabius - The Church History (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Kregel, 1999), 130.

13 For example, in 90 C.E., Jewish authorities added words to their synagogue liturgy that effectively excluded ‘sectarians’ (including Christians).

14 As explored in later chapters, the fate of Gibeah after they spurned God’s servant (Judg 20:8-44) anticipates the outcome for Jerusalem of rejecting Jesus.

15 Josephus describes a very similar, though not identical, murder of a Zechariah son of Barachiah and dates it to around 67 or 68 C.E. (Jewish War 4.335-344). However, Jesus statement logically calls for him to mention a past event. Reading the Jewish Bible sequentially, then the last such murder mentioned is that of Zechariah son of Josiah, who was slain in the court of the House of the Lord (2 Chr 24:20-21), but consider the prophets chronologically (on the basis of internal dating information) and the last prophet is Zechariah son of Berechiah (Zech 1:1). It is easy that Jesus might amalgamate both, such that whichever way his audience took the scriptures, he included all the shedding of prophet’s blood depicted in their pages.

16 Paul L. Maier, Eusabius - The Church History, 130.

17 Paul L. Maier, Eusabius - The Church History, 185.

18 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1.

19 Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 3.

20 Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 3.

21 Richard T. France, Matthew (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 27.

22 Paul L. Maier, Eusabius - The Church History, 11.

23 N. L. Geisler and W. E. Nix, A general introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 301.

24 David Sox, The Gospel of Barnabas (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), 10.

25 David Sox, The Gospel of Barnabas, 35, 38.

26 Andrew Bernhard, "The Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel," n.p. [cited 9 Feb 2007] Online:http://www.gospels.net/translations/poxy1224translation.html.

27 Wieland Willker, "The Papyrus Egerton 2 Homepage," n.p. [cited 23 Dec 2008] Online:http://www-user.uni-bremen.de/~wie/Egerton/Egerton_home.html.

28 "The Lost Gospel of Judas." n.p. (National Geographic) Online:http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/document.html.

29 Ron Cameron, "The Gospel of Thomas," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1996) 6:535-40.

30 N. L. Geisler and W. E. Nix, A general introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 306.

31 Jack Kilmon, "The Secret Gospel of Mark," n.p. [cited 9 Feb 2007] Online:http://www.historian.net/secmark.htm.

32 N. L. Geisler and W. E. Nix, A general introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 303.

33 Chapter 7, ‘Son of Abraham, son of David’.

34 “The Lost Gospel of Judas: Authentication : Contextual Evidence”, n.p. (National Geographic). [cited 19 Nov 2009]. Online:http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/auth_evidence.html.