Saturday, February 5, 2011

Matthew's Book of Jesus' Sayings

Early in the second century, Papias of Hierapolis (from the Roman province of Asia) reported that, while Mark wrote down the things that Jesus said and did, Matthew made an ordered arrangement of Jesus' sayings, "which each person interpreted as best he could." This suggests that Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings was somewhat different in style from Mark's Gospel. Papias evidence also suggests that Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings had not been lost, but rather had been used by other writers for their own purposes. Obviously, the first place we should look for Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings is in the Gospel of Matthew itself.

Indeed, we can discover the content of Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings, since it is possible to remove from the Gospel of Matthew those parts that are clearly taken from the Gospel of Mark. We are not going to far if we say that most of the text that remains from the Gospel of Matthew was originally derived from Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew did not substantially change most of the text of the material borrowed from the Gospel of Mark. In general, he even followed the same sequence, inserting the Markan material in blocks in the same order as it is found in the Gospel of Mark. So, if the writer of the Gospel of Matthew dealt with Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings in the same way as he dealt with the Gospel of Mark, one can expect that he did not change it very much, at least in terms of the actual content. This gives us confidence that we can reconstruct the text of Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings from the Gospel of Matthew, just by removing the Markan elements in the Gospel of Matthew, and noting the way in which the author of the Gospel of Matthew dealt with these Markan elements.

Having carried out this task, the content of Matthew's book of Jesus' sayings is likely to have been as follows:
  • Preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism.
  • Temptations of Jesus.
  • Sermon on the Mount.
  • Healing and teaching.
  • Teaching in Jerusalem.
  • Jesus' passion.
  • Jesus' burial and resurrection.
In regard to the Sermon on the Mount, while Jesus could have delivered this teaching all at the one time, it is more likely that the account has been supplemented by teaching that was delivered on other occasions. In any event, Jesus would have gone over the same teaching many times in his three years of ministry, in different places, and in different circumstances.

The inclusion of the range of material listed here is not surprising, even though it was called a "book of sayings." As F.F. Bruce observed, in his The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1960), pp.38-40, the "sayings" attributable to Matthew seem to follow the pattern of the Old Testament prophets. These works usually included an account of the prophet's call to prophesy, and then went on record their prophecies and the circumstances in which the prophecies were delivered. Similarly, it would be inexplicable for an early Christian to have omitted any reference to Jesus' passion and resurrection, and to have omitted the speeches and teaching surround these events.

While the Gospel of Matthew has been traditionally attributed to Matthew, there is nothing in the text itself that indicates this. Instead, it is clear, and relatively uncontroversial, that Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, did not write the work called the "Gospel of Matthew." Almost half of the work consists of direct borrowings from the Gospel of Mark, and it is unlikely that an eyewitness of the events would choose to borrow so extensively from a work written by someone else who was not himself a direct eyewitness.

However, it is likely that Matthew wrote the text identified here as "Jesus' sayings," which represents most of that part of the Gospel of Matthew that has not been drawn from the Gospel of Mark. It was probably on the basis of the substantial use of Matthew's work that led to the Gospel of Matthew, in its current form, being attributed to Matthew.

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