In scripture, mountains are of immense symbolic significance as places of encounter with God. One of the chief purposes of the gospel of Matthew is not only to show how Jesus fulfils the prophecies and longings of Israel but also to show how he transcends all national and religious boundaries.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, ‘the new Moses’ gives his followers a new Law which fulfils and completes the Mosaic Law. In the final words of Matthew’s gospel, again on a mountain top, claiming all authority in heaven and on earth, he sends his disciples out to the whole world to preach and teach all that he has taught them.
Between these two mountains, his followers, both then and now, learn discipleship.
As well as these crucial moments, there are other mountain experiences in Matthew which are noteworthy. They mark some significant occasions in the life of Jesus and in the lives of his hearers; they clarify Jesus’ identity and mission and carry the gospel narrative forward. Beneath the screen below are ideas for discussing the following visual introduction to Matthew’s Gospel.
USING THE RESource ‘RICH TEXT’ INTRODUCTIONS TO THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
A brief word about the Gospels
The gospels themselves are inspired interpretations of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ arising from the earliest experiences of believers in Jesus Christ. Through all ages of the Church they stand as documents which Christians will read, study, pray over and apply to their own lives and situations, and through which God will speak to them. As such they are rightly called ‘the Word of God’. As foundational documents of the Church they also stand as a reference point against which Christians may judge the authenticity of their lives as Christians and the extent to which the Church is fulfilling its call.
The Gospel Introductions in RESource
The visual introductions to the gospels on RESource are brief interpretations
(not inspired) of each gospel presented to get you started on a closer study of each particular gospel.
• First of all you might like to consider the advantages and disadvantages of trying represent the gospels in images at all? (While Christianity has generally been at ease with the use of sacred images, Judaism and Islam avoid the use of images in conveying holy truths.)
• How do you feel about the cartoon technique used by the artists in this particular introduction. What is helpful what is distracting? In what way are they presenting stereotypical images? Is this how you yourself imagine Jesus, the disciples, First Century Palestine? What influences how we imagine these things?
• Consider your own image of Jesus. Could you easily convey this visually or in other way? Why or why not?
• Do the gospel introductions in RESource tend to suggest or reinforce the idea of Jesus as a ‘fantasy’ figure rather than as a ‘real’ figure? How close can we get to the ‘real’ Jesus?
The RESource Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
The visual introduction to Matthew invites you to focus on the mountain motif in Matthew in introducing its main themes. Matthew was interesting in revealing Jesus as the new Moses and the longed for Messiah.
Why or why not is the mountain theme a helpful approach to the exploration of Matthew’s gospel?
What other approaches are possible?
Visual 1- the Mountain of Temptation: Matthew 4:1-11
How does the representation of Satan work in this frame?
If evil was so obvious and unattractive would anyone ever be tempted or is there something glamorous about this Satan? Is he every human being’s dark side? How might you have drawn this scene? Would you choose to personify evil or convey its reality in a different way? Explain how or make your own representation.
Visual 2 – the Mountain of the Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-12
Matthew situates the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ exposition of his ‘new Law’ on a mountain as a counterpoint to Moses reception of the Law on Sinai.
Does this illustration suggest any relationship between the two mountains? What are the contrasts between the scene on Mt Sinai and the scene of the sermon on the Mount?
Visual 3 – the Mountain of Encounter with God: Matthew: 14:22-24
How is the interior movement to prayer suggested in this screen?
Are the details of Jesus’ facial features, hair, beard etc, a help or a hindrance to an appreciation of how Jesus encountered to God in prayer? What does the darkening sky suggest to you?
Visual 4 – the Mountain of the Healing and Feeding of the Multitude: Matthew 15:29-39
The Old Testament counterpoint to this mountain is the prophecy in Isaiah that on a mountain, a great feast will be laid out and every tear wiped away. Is this vision suggested at all in this visual interpretation? What is the function of the landscape and panorama here?
Visual 5 – the Mountain of the Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-8
This is a very literal interpretation of Matthew’s text. You might compare it with this theological interpretation from the icons of the Eastern Church or this abstract response. Which is most meaningful for you? In most depictions Christ himself is the source of light but in this Christ receives then reflects the divine light. Which is truer to Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration?
Visual 6 – the Mountain of the Betrayal: Matthew 26:30-50
Despite the tradition surrounding ‘Mount’ Calvary, Matthew’s gospel does not describe the place of Jesus’ crucifixion as a mountain, but Jesus’ betrayal does take place in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. How are stereotypes at work (or undercut) in this illustration? How does it confront or confirm your interior image of this scene?
Visual 7 – the Mountain of the Great Commission: Matthew 28:16-20
How do the setting sun and the sunset colours work in this screen to suggest the coming to an end of a mode of Christ’s presence with his disciples? Does the scene suggest the future also. What other ways are there to interpret this moment?
Exploring: History and Geography
Refer to the general introductions to the history, geography and daily life of the time of the New Testament in the Resources section on the Scripture module for a general orientation to the background of the Gospel of Matthew. The Online Bible Atlas Chapters 14-17 is especially helpful for its many maps.
One very useful introduction to the historical background of the gospels which is not included in the Core Resources section is the first chapter of Dom Henry Wansbrough’s online text The Gospel of Matthew. Wansbrough OSB was the general editor of the revision of the Jerusalem Bible and is a gifted scholar. The initial chapter, ‘Behind the Gospels’, in this online text outlines the historical setting of the gospels in a simple, direct way before going on to describe the oral tradition behind them.
You might find some helpful suggestions in an Irish document about lesson plans and activities for younger students, relating to New Testament history and geography. (Scroll down to the heading ‘Historical and Geographical Background’.)
To look at photographs of the locations mentioned in Matthew’s gospels check out the photo galleries in New Testament Core Resources on the front page of the Scripture module or click on New Testment Places.
- Use the Online Bible Atlas to find out the extent of the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great.
- What was Hellenism? What were some differences between Jewish belief and Hellenistic beliefs?
- What year was Palestine conquered by the Romans?
- Describe the impact of King Herod on Palestine.
- Who was the high priest in Jerusalem for the major part of Jesus’ lifetime? What do we know about him?
- What year was Jerusalem sacked by the Romans?
- What were the pluses and minuses of Roman rule in the first century Empire?
- Print a map of Palestine in the time of Jesus and circle the places mentioned in Matthew’s gospel.
Examining: Genre and Author
For an introduction to the gospel ‘genre’ read ‘What is a gospel?’. Then look at an article entitled The Gospel of Matthew A Community Effort which discusses the authorship of Matthew’s gospel as well as providing some insights into the community context from which the gospel emerged. This article also briefly introduces some of Matthew’s themes and concerns.
The second chapter of Henry Wansborough’s online textbook looks at Matthew’s Literary Skills. Scroll down to page 17 of the text for an interesting introduction to the structure, imagery and poetry of the gospel, as well as Wansbrough’s conjectures about the identity of the writer of the text.
The Gospel according to Matthew is one of the synoptic gospels. A very good introduction to the meaning of this word and what it indicates about the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is provided on The Narrow Gate site.
Another readable introductory article in the ‘Scripture from Scratch’ series, ‘Exploring the Synoptic Gospels’, discusses the origins of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It looks at the relationship between these gospels and introduces some of the vocabulary of biblical studies/criticism.
- What is a ‘gospel’?
- Can you explain the difference between a gospel and a history or biography?
- What does the word synoptic mean? Which of the gospels are termed the synoptic gospels? Explain why.
- What is the relationship between the synoptic gospels?
- What theory about the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew seems most convincing to you?
Examining: Time and Place
Some questions about the time and place of the composition of Matthew’s gospel have been answered incidentlaly in the previous section, but you might like to read the brief introduction on the Blue Letter Bible site. In its concise discussion of the origins of the gospel it mentions the earliest reference to the Gospel of Matthew in the writings of Papias, a first century bishop of Hierapolis (Pamukkale in present day Turkey).
Scholars draw on many ancient sources in their efforts to discover how and where each of the gospels came into existence. You can look at evidence from St Ignatius of Antioch (who was martyred around the year 107) to see how scholars have used his writings to help them determine the origins of Matthew’s gospel.
You might be interested to look at a chart which compares each of the Gospels.
- Approximately when and where do scholars think that Matthew’s gospel was composed? Are there alternative theories?
- What does the fact that several early documents of the Church refer to passages in the Gospel of Matthew tell us about this gospel.
- Who was Papias?
- What was the Didache?
Encountering: Reading the Text
It is often fascinating to look at the gospel in other languages. Looking at the gospel set out in parallels: Greek, Latin and several different English versions verse by verse, could be an interesting way to introduce a discussion of how the bible evolved into its present form. Jesus himself would probably have spoken Aramaic around town, Hebrew in the synagogue and been familiar with Koine Greek. Most of the New Testament was written in Koine or hellenistic Greek, the common language of the Empire at the time of Jesus.
By the fourth century Latin was the common language of the western part of the Roman Empire, and the gospels had been translated into Latin by St Jerome and others to make them more accessible to people. A Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate (from the latin root word meaning common, usual, ordinary) formed the basic text of the scriptures used in the Western church for many centuries.
- Read the Gospel of Matthew in one (or two) sittings. Note the parts of the gospel that make a special impression on you. Compare your notes with someone else.
- Look at an excerpt from Matthew in the gospel parallels and compare the differences in wording and interpretation across the different English translations.
- Given that the Bible most of us read is a translation of a translation, what are the dangers of too literal an interpretation of scripture?
Encountering: Studying the Text
A good place to start a study of the text of Matthew’s gospel is to read an overall introduction which can help you understand some of the key themes. One such Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew is provided on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site. It covers some of the questions like authorship and dating discussed above, but also introduces the subject matter and structure of the gospel.
The Narrow Gate section on Matthew provides a good-point form introduction for students. Among its features is an interesting list of details unique to Matthew. Fr Felix Just’s article, ‘The Discourses of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel’, shows the way in which Matthew presents Jesus as ‘the new Moses’ and fulfiller of the promises made to Israel. This article presents the classic ‘five discourse’ structure of the gospel. However, there is no consensus among biblical scholars as to the structure of Matthew.
Helmut Koester on the From Jesus to Christ site discusses the Jewishness of the gospel, and the way it conveys and interprets the relationship between Judaism and the new Christian communities in the first century. Matthew’s gospel is one of the New Testament books often alleged to be responsible for the development of anti-semitism. Australian theologian Dorothy Lee examines Matthew’s gospel in order to see if this allegation is justified. She makes the point that Matthew’s gospel is at once the most pro-Jewish of the gospels and the most anti-Jewish. It is vital to understand the context in which the gospel was written in order to understand some of the bitter words directed against the Jewish leaders contained in the gospel. While parts of the gospel have undoubtedly been used to fuel anti-semitism, her conclusion is that it was not the original intention of the text.
An outline introduction of the gospel written for young people will help you gain a sense of how it unfolds. A much more detailed treatment of aspects of the gospel is available in an online text written by Henry Wansbrough OSB. Written in response to a request of monastic superiors for a course on the gospel of Matthew, it examines some key topics, for example: Matthew’s sources, Matthew’s Christology, the Sermon on the Mount, in relation to the gospel. It does presuppose some familiarity with scripture study, but it is not too academic, and is a great online resource for those who might have limited access to books.
An article entitled ‘Images of Jesus and the Christian Vocation in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew’ is a helpful introduction to Matthew’s Jesus as teacher and Messiah. Scroll through the article to the section on Matthew’s gospel for an introduction to both Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the ‘image of wisdom’, and Matthew’s vision of discipleship as ‘a kind of discipline of continual study of the law and the prophets in the light of the words of Jesus’. The comparison with the Gospel of Mark is helpful, but the observations about Matthew’s gospel can stand alone.
Finally an article that looks at each of the Passion narratives in the gospels helps those studying the gospels to appreciate the special emphasis of each, while a further look by Donald Senior at the Passion account in Matthew’s gospel draws attention to its distinctive features.
- What would you say is the main message of the gospel of Matthew?
- Locate the five great ‘sermons’ of Jesus in the text, name them, and see if you can relate them to the surrounding narratives.
- What kind of person is Jesus in Matthew’s gospel? How does the gospel suggest to its hearers/readers that Jesus is the ‘new Moses’.
- List at least five features of the story of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew which are unique to this gospel. Comment on the significance of each.
- The Gospel of Matthew has been accused of being ‘anti-semitic’? Is this accusation deserved?
- The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is widely regarded as a summary statement of Christianity. What does it ask of Christians?
- What are the special emphases of the Passion account in the Gospel of Matthew?
Encountering: Biblical Exegesis
Click on Peter’s profession of faith – Matthew 16:13–19 for a method of examining a text from Matthew’s gospel . While older students need to learn how to consult concordances, dictionaries and commentaries to expand their knowledge of the text and test their own insights, the key emphasis for younger students ought to be learning how to read a text carefully with few extra resources.
Refer to Richard Ascough’s site for an introduction to Biblical Exegesis. Janice Capel Anderson from the University of Idaho has prepared some questions which look at Matthew’s gospel in a close and attentive way. She has also prepared a detailed reader guide for Chapters 1–16 and, more generally, for Chapters 17–28.
Prepare a short exegesis of one of the following passages of the gospel:
- Matthew 3:13–17
- Matthew 5:38–42
- Matthew 16:13–19
- Matthew 21:29–34
- Matthew 24:32–36
Encountering: Praying with the Text
A helpful reflection on Matthew 5:1–12 is centred on the Beatitudes. Entitled Climb the Ladder of the Beatitudes, it takes each of the Beatitudes and briefly puts it into the context of today. Using any extract from the gospel, try the simple ‘lectio divina’ method of prayer suggested on the St Mary’s Press site, or the Taizé model of prayer. (Navigate to the Prayer and Song section of the Taizé site.) Matthew’s gospel is used liturgically as the primary text for the gospels at Sunday Mass during Year A, though the Gospel of John is used extensively in Lent and Easter. A Carmelite site which provides a meditative guide for reflecting on the lectionary of Year A would be a valuable aid for either staff or class prayer in the year of Matthew. (Scroll down to Lectio Divina online.)
Responding: Lived Responses, Then and Now
Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as a great teacher and leader, so this section will look at the lives of some significant Christian teachers and leaders who have taken seriously the gospel imperative ‘Go therefore, make disciples of all nations.’ (Matthew 28:19).
100 – 500 CE
, with the great Eastern teachers Athanasius, Gregory, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine gave Christianity a strong philosophical grounding, and showed that there was no incompatibilty between learning and Christianity. On the other hand, Brigid of Kildare, whose history is wrapped around in legend, shows us how Christianity was able to evangelise ancient customs and stories, and use them to express the Christian message.
500 – 1000 CE
During this period of the so called Dark Ages, when invasions, pillage and the decay of the Greco-Roman empire threw the known world into chaos, saints of far-flung Britain and Ireland kept the faith alive, and brought Christianity to the barbarians who had swept down upon Europe. One of these teachers and preachers was Boniface of Crediton, known as the Apostle of Germany. Another was Hilda of Whitby, famed for her knowledge of scripture, her wisdom and ability to build bridges between different people and points of view. She was a fine educator and one of the lights of the period often referred to as the Dark Ages.
Just as the author of the Gospel of Matthew was anxious to make the teachings of Christ intelligible to Jewish Christians of his time, Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the thirteenth century, showed that there was no necessary contradiction between theology and reason. Aquinas’ aim was to make Christianity intelligible to the men and women of his. Hildegard of Bingen is one of the best known of medieval women. Her gifts for music, science, psychology and writing made her much sought-after as an advisor and guide. She also travelled, preaching and teaching, much more than was usual for a woman of her time.
1500 – 2000 CE
The discovery of the new world and its peoples gave huge impetus to the missionary efforts of the Church during this period, while the challenges of Enlightenment thought stimulated the church’s commitment to education. St Paul Miki was a Japanese Christian. He and his fellow martyrs are among the first non-European saints of the modern era. The gospel read on his feast day is actually Mt 28:16–20. Miki continued to preach and teach even from the cross on which he was martyred.
In seventeenth-century France, life was increasingly grim, especially for the poor. A site entitled The Life and Times of Saint John Baptist de la Salle not only introduces the patron saint of teachers but describes the social context in which John Baptist de la Salle began his work. A century later Madeleine Sophie Barat set up schools for girls to address the social chaos of the time and to restore Christian practice in post–revolutionary French society. The work of these two Christian educators has spread to over 80 countries in the world.
- Compare two responses to the command in Matthew: ‘Go and teach all nations’.
- Boniface worked in a context in which faith was either denied or persecuted. How did he make his faith credible to others? What symbolic actions did he perform? How were they received? What are steps we can take to make our faith credible to others?
- Hilda was a bridgebuilder who was willing to adapt her ways for the sake of others. In what ways we can accommodate the views of others without giving up the essentials of our own belief?
- Aquinas spent his life setting out a summary of faith that would satisfy the deepest thinkers of his time, yet, at the end of his life, an experience of God in prayer made him declare that all he had written was like so much straw compared with the reality of God. Discuss some of the challenges of talking about God in the twenty-first century.
- What was the impact of John Baptist de la Salle or Madeleine Sophie Barat on the spread of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
Responding: Responses in Art and Music
The Textweek site contains many depictions of Matthew, both the disciple and the evangelist, while the same site contains many paintings related to Matthew’s gospel narrative which can be discovered by navigating to Year A via the sidebar and locating the text in the table of Sundays. Peter Clare, a modern artist, has a site devoted to a Matthew Cycle of paintings which might be helpful in stimulating a response to the gospel. A delightful frontispiece from Germany draws attention to Matthew’s infancy narrative. The visit of the Magi is taking place at the top of the picture. Matthew is busily recording it while Joseph, asleep and dreaming on the bottom right hand side, receives further instructions from an angel. Compare the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. What’s the role of inspiration imagination and dreaming in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus?
Look at the stills and story from Pasolini’s famous film ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ on the Hollywood Jesus site. A more recent stage production of ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’ by George Dillon is reviewed here.
Use a CD player to introduce the class to some excerpts from the St Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach. The recurrent chorale (popularly known as O Sacred Head, surrounded) is one of the signature tunes of Western music, and could accompany prayer during Holy Week.
Responding: A Personal Response
The introduction to this study of Matthew focused on seven mountain experiences of Jesus in the gospel. Some scholars think that this is a deliberate device of Matthew to draw attention to these moments in Jesus’ life.
What do each of these mountain moments show us about the identity and mission of Jesus?
What directions do they give to those who want to follow Christ?
Choose one of the mountain experiences and express your response in words, art, music.