A very Jewish Jesus: The Gospel of Matthew’s portrait (NT 1.4)

Something I often stress to students of early Christianity is that this Jesus movement was very much a form of Judaism in its origins. The peasant Jesus was a Jew, and all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, Jews who continued to feel that following the law (the Torah) was humanity’s response to God’s covenant with his people (Paul, the Jewish Pharisee, was a bit of an exception in not requiring that gentiles follow certain aspects of the Jewish law — especially circumcision and food laws — in order to join. Still Paul was very much a Jew and did not object to Jewish followers of Jesus following the law and, in some respects, expected gentiles to follow other aspects of the law beyond those that created a social or status distinction).

So just about every portrayal of Jesus in the first century would naturally reflect the Jewishness of Jesus, as is in indeed the case. However, among the gospels in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew stresses perhaps more than others the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus is presented as the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures in over a dozen fulfillment citations. The gospel begins by presenting Jesus as the son of David, the anointed king par excellence.

Furthermore, Jesus is often presented as the new Moses, as in the birth narrative. This continuing theme of Jesus as the expected prophet like Moses continues in what Matthew has as the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). There Matthew’s Jesus affirms the continuing validity of the Jewish law for the followers of Jesus:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus’ followers were to follow the law in a way that excelled the Pharisees, who had a reputation (outside of the gospels and in this passage in Matthew) for carefully following the law in their daily lives, beyond the practice of many other Jews. This is the interpretive key to the material that follows (falsely called “antitheses”) which have Jesus quoting the law of Moses and interpreting it in a way that strongly affirms the original intention of the laws (as Jesus’ Matthew understood it). These are not replacements for the law of Moses, but rather a radicalization of the reason why those laws were given by God, in Matthew’s view. Matthew and some in the community for which his gospel was written in the late first century evidently continued to place an importance on following the law and continued to think of themselves as Jews in this way.

15 thoughts on “A very Jewish Jesus: The Gospel of Matthew’s portrait (NT 1.4)

  1. Danny Zacharias

    What is also interesting about the ‘most jewish gospel’ is that Matthew talks about Jesus in highly exalted terms (moreso than the other synoptics), often using language reminiscent of God himself. I’ve recently finished a paper on the Son of Man in Matthew (I’ve submitted it to CSBS) that shows these contrasts between the synoptics, and how Matthew highly exalts the Son of Man (and implicitly then, Jesus).

  2. Derek Dodson

    As always, I greatly appreciate your posts and your research.
    Your post raises for me an unsettled issue that I have been trying to make sense of for some time. It is the idea that Matthew’s Gospel is the “most Jewish” of the canonical Gospels, an idea that I believe represents a consensus among scholars. I’m trying to understand how one quantifies Jewishness; what are the criteria for establishing a text as being more Jewish than another—authorship, content, style, recipients/communities? If we simply take the text of the Gospels, however, I would think they all are Jewish in the sense of the story and symbolic worldview that they portray. The Gospel of Mark reflects Jewish apocalyptism, and many would argue that the book of Isaiah functions as a subtext/intertext that runs throughout Mark’s Gospel. Though less explicit than Matthew’s prophecy citations (but perhaps more sophisticated), Luke’s Gospel presents the story of Jesus as a fulfillment of the story of Israel, especially at the beginning of his Gospel with his annunciation stories, Septuagint style, and “psalms” that praise the God of Israel for fulfilling his promises. Luke also presents Jesus as a prophet of Israel who is rejected by his people but is exalted as messiah by the resurrection. The Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed how the once-thought very Greek Gospel of John fits well within the Jewish milieu of Palestine, as well as the character of Moses and the Jewish festivals that provide a frame of reference of the storyline. What makes Matthew “more Jewish” than the other Gospels? I suspect that it is Matthew’s specific dealings with the Law, as you have stated, that is most determinative for this view. But is discussion/debate concerning the “Law” the key to being more Jewish? In that case, is Matthew’s Gospel “more Jewish” than Philo’s Life of Moses or Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagōgē or any other Jewish text that doesn’t make the Law central to its message. Matthew’s Gospel does have a feel of the rabbinic about it, but I would hesitate to define Jewishness in the 1st century by the later rabbis.
    Well, I hope that I have said enough at least to raise the question whether the Jewishness of a text can be quantified.

    ps. An assumption of mine is that Christianity is one Jewish group/movement among others during the Hellenistic era. The “parting of the ways” is not an easily defined moment; historical, sociological, christological, and polemical factors contributed to it happening in different places at different times.

  3. Phil Harland Post author

    Thanks, Dan: Your comment about the difficulty in making sense of characters in the story prostrating themselves (often translated “worshipping”) before Jesus gets to one of more difficult problems in interpreing Matthew. My own take on this is that this prostrating takes place insofar as Jesus is “God with us” in this gospel, but that does not solve the dilemna of how would a Jew in the first century find prostrating oneself before a figure as acceptable. No more time right now to get into more details…

    Derek: I largely agree with your comments here. Hence my preface regarding the impossibility of not being Jewish within the Jesus movement in the first and likely subsequent centuries and my use of the phrasing “stresses perhaps more than others the Jewishness of Jesus”. Absolutely, in this particular short post, in which I was not attempting to deal with other gospels, I was thinking of the focus on following the law to the “t” as a criterion for assessing indications of Judaism. You are correct that there are many criteria that may be at work in such assessments and that is why my “perhaps” and preamble are there. Certainly we can say that with regard to the Torah, Matthew is more Jewish (if we wish to use such phrasing) than Mark, who has Jesus proclaim all foods clean.

    Chris: Although I have not read the paper you mention, I do not agree that the most appropriate response to a well-ingrained scholarly view (Matthew’s Jesus is Jewish and advocates following the law in a full manner) is to argue its opposite. The evidence in Matthew would make this a very difficult position to sustain.


  4. Chris Weimer

    Phil: The scholarly consensus barely exists. There are still plenty of scholars who posit a Christian Matthew. At the very most, they posit a Jewish-Christian Matthew.

    I will try to finish the paper soon, and if you want I can even send it to you for viewing. I think the evidence is mostly in favor of a Christian Matthew, not a Jewish one. And by Jewish, I’m looking at things like following the Torah – kosher foods, cleanliness, circumcision (although admittedly Matthew is entirely silent on the last issue).


  5. Phil Harland Post author

    THanks, Chris. I have a hard time using the term “Christian” to describe most Jesus-movement related literature without careful qualification (namely that this is not to suggest a completely separate religion from Judaism), and so cannot imagine what it would mean to say that Matthew is Christian, not Jewish (cannot compute). The scholarly opinions you allude to perhaps reflect modern theological concerns (which are claiming this document for Christians) or precede the now common recognition that the Jesus movement was very much a part of Judaism from which it emerged (and Judaism was diverse to begin with). I’m not sure who you are thinking of though, so can’t be certain. The so called “parting of the ways”, which then perhaps provides a basis for claiming something is Christian and not Jewish should definitely not be placed in the first century, in my opinion, although there are trends beginning then. The earliest evidence we have of someone (outsiders) calling members of the Jesus movement “Christians” is in the late first century (Luke-Acts), but even that is not necessarily to distinguish them from Jews. The late first century is also when we have evidence of some Jews ejecting some Jewish followers of Jesus from some synagogues as well. I’ll look forward to seeing your paper in the future when you post it on your site. Phil

  6. j. b. hood


    Thanks for the good interaction you are doing with your readers–sometimes turns out to be every bit as informative as your original posts.

    Your response reminds me of a question.

    Phil, in your wider area of expertise, what do you make of the “Chrestus” riots which resulted in the Jews (possibly including some Christians) being expelled from Rome? Some scholars give ‘probabilities’ over whether or not this is Jesus, although in my book there were surely other “Christ” candidates in that era; and even the concept and would-be identity of Messiah was strongly debated. Do you have any thoughts on this? Is it “Christ” (not nec Jesus, possibly a concept not a person) being debated by the Jews?

  7. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello J.B. I’m glad you find the interaction interesting. I do too, although I often find it hard to find all the time to do everything;) I’ll think more about “Chrestus” and hopefully post something once I refresh my memory. I’m finding your new blog on Matthew related things interesting. Phil

  8. john gager


    Can you give me the name of the author of an article on Matthew as a JEWISH text, along the lines of Saldarini? I just can’t dig it up.


    john gager

  9. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello John,

    Glad you found this blog. I’m not quite sure what you may have in mind, but is it possible that you are thinking of the works of Andrew Overman, which emphasize that the Matthean community is one among many sectarian Jewish groups and that this group is losing out to the group that develops into rabbinic Judaism. His first work was _Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism_. You may have something even more specific in mind, however. Hope this helps.


  10. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello talmud,

    No need to apologise for holding a different opinion. Generally, however, one is not mistaken simply because someone says ‘you are mistaken’. Discussion of evidence and explanation of how you would put the evidence together differently is what history is all about.


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