Did Matthew Think He Was Writing Scripture?
- Michael J. Kruger President, Reformed Theological Seminary
- 2016 24 May
One of the most common misconceptions about the New Testament canon is that the authors of these writings had no idea that they were writing Scripture-like books. I dealt with this misconception on a general level here, showing that there was a clear apostolic self-awareness amongst the New Testament authors.
While this apostolic self-awareness may be easy to show for authors like Paul, what about the gospels which, technically speaking, are formally anonymous? Do their authors exhibit awareness that they were writing something like Scripture? To explore this further, let us just consider just one of our gospels, namely the Gospel of Matthew.
The first step is to get our expectations clear. We should not expect that Matthew would say something like, “I, Matthew, am writing Scripture as I write this book.” Gospels are a very different genre than epistles, and we would not expect the authors to provide the same type of direct and explicit statements about their own authority as Paul does in his letters. Indeed, the gospel authors are decidedly behind the scenes and only rarely make appearances within the flow of the story.
However, the formal anonymity of the gospels need not be taken as evidence that their authors did not view these texts as bearing authority. Armin Baum has argued that the historical books of the New Testament (gospels and Acts) were intentionally written as anonymous works in order to reflect the practice of the Old Testament historical books, which were themselves anonymous (as opposed to other Old Testament writings, like the prophets, which included the identity of the author). Thus, the anonymity of the Gospels, far from diminishing their scriptural authority, actually served to increase it by consciously placing the Gospels “in the tradition of Old Testament historiography.”
Matthew itself contains fewer internal clues than other gospels that it is passing along apostolic tradition (Matt 9:9, 10:3). Nevertheless, there are still indications that this gospel was written with the intention to be a scriptural-like book. Most notable in this regard is the unique way that Matthew begins his gospel, with an opening “title” (v.1) followed by a genealogy (v. 2-17). Davies and Allison argue that Matthew’s very first phrase, Βίβλος γενέσεως, is not so much a reference to the genealogy that follows but to the book as a whole. They comment, “Genesis was a Βίβλος, and its name was Ge,nesij. One is therefore led to ask whether the introductory use of Βίβλος γενέσεως would not have caused Matthew’s readers to think of the Torah’s first book and to anticipate that some sort of ‘new genesis,’ a genesis of Jesus Christ, would follow.”
Thus, the opening phrase of Matthew is best understood as “Book of the New Genesis wrought by Jesus Christ.” Such a beginning suggests that Matthew is intentionally writing in a scriptural style—he viewed his book, and wanted his audience to view his book, as continuing the biblical story.
The fact that Matthew appears to be molding his gospel after the pattern of Old Testament books is confirmed by the fact that he turns immediately to a genealogy, placing the Jesus story into the story of Israel, with a special emphasis on David. The genealogy, of course, is a well-known Old Testament genre that is frequently used to demonstrate the historical unfolding of God’s redemptive activities among his people. In this regard, Matthew’s closest parallel is the book of Chronicles, which also begins with a genealogy that has an emphasis on the Davidic line.
If by the first century Chronicles was regarded as the final book in the Hebrew canon,as some scholars have argued, then Matthew’s gospel would certainly be a fitting sequel. An Old Testament canon ending with Chronicles would have placed Israel in an eschatological posture, looking ahead to the time when the messiah, the son of David, will come to Jerusalem and bring full deliverance to his people.
If so, then Matthew’s opening chapter would be a clear indication that he is intending to finish this story. He is picking up where the Old Testament ended, with a focus on David and the deliverance of Israel. Regardless of whether one accepts that Chronicles was the final book in the Hebrew canon, the close connections between Matthew and Chronicles remain. Indeed, on this basis, Davies and Allison conclude that Matthew “thought of his gospel as continuation of the biblical history—and also, perhaps, that he conceived of his work as belonging to same literary category as the scriptural cycles treating of the OT figures.”
 Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” NT 50 (2008): 120-142.
 Baum, “Anonymity,” 139.
 W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 150–153.
 Davies and Allison, Matthew, 151.
 Davies and Allison, Matthew, 153.
 Davies and Allison, Matthew, 187.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.