The position of the Gospel according to Matthew as the first of the four gospels in the New Testament reflects both the view that it was the first to be written, a view that goes back to the late second century A.D., and the esteem in which it was held by the church; no other was so frequently quoted in the noncanonical literature of earliest Christianity. Although the majority of scholars now reject the opinion about the time of its composition, the high estimation of this work remains. The reason for that becomes clear upon study of the way in which Matthew presents his story of Jesus, the demands of Christian discipleship, and the breaking-in of the new and final age through the ministry but particularly through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel begins with a narrative prologue, the first part of which is a genealogy of Jesus starting with Abraham, the father of Israel. Yet at the beginning of that genealogy Jesus is designated as “the son of David, the son of Abraham”. The kingly ancestor who lived about a thousand years after Abraham is named first, for this is the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the royal anointed one. In the first of the episodes of the infancy narrative that follow the genealogy, the mystery of Jesus’ person is declared. He is conceived of a virgin by the power of the Spirit of God. The first of the gospel’s fulfillment citations, whose purpose it is to show that he was the one to whom the prophecies of Israel were pointing, occurs here: he shall be named Emmanuel, for in him God is with us. The announcement of the birth of this newborn king of the Jews greatly troubles not only King Herod but all Jerusalem, yet the Gentile magi are overjoyed to find him and offer him their homage and their gifts. Thus his ultimate rejection by the mass of his own people and his acceptance by the Gentile nations is foreshadowed. He must be taken to Egypt to escape the murderous plan of Herod. By his sojourn there and his subsequent return after the king’s death he relives the Exodus experience of Israel. The words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” are fulfilled in him; if Israel was God’s son, Jesus is so in a way far surpassing the dignity of that nation, as his marvelous birth and the unfolding of his story show. Back in the land of Israel, he must be taken to Nazareth in Galilee because of the danger to his life in Judea, where Herod’s son Archelaus is now ruling. The sufferings of Jesus in the infancy narrative anticipate those of his passion, and if his life is spared in spite of the dangers, it is because his destiny is finally to give it on the cross as “a ransom for many”. Thus the word of the angel will be fulfilled, “…he will save his people from their sins”. In Matthew begins his account of the ministry of Jesus, introducing it by the preparatory preaching of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus that culminates in God’s proclaiming him his “beloved Son”, and the temptation in which he proves his true sonship by his victory over the devil’s attempt to deflect him from the way of obedience to the Father. The central message of Jesus’ preaching is the coming of the kingdom of heaven and the need for repentance, a complete change of heart and conduct, on the part of those who are to receive this great gift of God Galilee is the setting for most of his ministry; he leaves there for Judea only and his ministry in Jerusalem, the goal of his journey, is limited to a few days. In this extensive material there are five great discourses of Jesus, each concluding with the formula “When Jesus finished these words” or one closely similar. These are an important structure of the gospel. In every case the discourse is preceded by a narrative section, each narrative and discourse together constituting a “book” of the gospel. The discourses are, respectively, the “Sermon on the Mount”, the missionary discourse, the parable discourse, the “church
This shortest of all New Testament gospels is likely the first to have been written, yet it often tells of Jesus’ ministry in more detail than either Matthew or Luke. It recounts what Jesus did in a vivid style, where one incident follows directly upon another. In this almost breathless narrative, Mark stresses Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God now breaking into human life as good news and Jesus himself as the gospel of God. Jesus is the Son whom God has sent to rescue humanity by serving and by sacrificing his life. The opening verse about good news in Mark serves as a title for the entire book. The action begins with the appearance of John the Baptist, a messenger of God attested by scripture. But John points to a mightier one, Jesus, at whose baptism God speaks from heaven, declaring Jesus his Son. The Spirit descends upon Jesus, who eventually, it is promised, will baptize “with the holy Spirit.” This presentation of who Jesus really is, rounded out with a brief reference to the temptation of Jesus and how Satan’s attack fails. Jesus as Son of God will be victorious, a point to be remembered as one reads of Jesus’ death and the enigmatic ending to Mark’s Gospel. The key verses at Mark which are programmatic, summarize what Jesus proclaims as gospel: fulfillment, the nearness of the kingdom, and therefore the need for repentance and for faith. After the call of the first four disciples, all fishermen we see Jesus engaged in teaching, preaching, and healing, and exorcising demons. The content of Jesus’ teaching is only rarely stated, and then chiefly in parables about the kingdom. His cures, especially on the sabbath; his claim, like God, to forgive sins; his table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners; and the statement that his followers need not now fast but should rejoice while Jesus is present, all stir up opposition that will lead to Jesus’ death. Jesus’ teaching in exalts the word of God over “the tradition of the elders” and sees defilement as a matter of the heart, not of unclean foods. Yet opposition mounts. Scribes charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul. His relatives think him “out of his mind”. Jesus’ kinship is with those who do the will of God, in a new eschatological family, not even with mother, brothers, or sisters by blood ties. But all too often his own disciples do not understand Jesus. The fate of John the Baptist hints ominously at Jesus’ own passion. Momentarily he is glimpsed in his true identity when he is transfigured before three of the disciples, but by and large Jesus is depicted in Mark as moving obediently along the way to his cross in Jerusalem. Occasionally there are miracles, the only such account in Jerusalem), sometimes teachings, but the greatest concern is with discipleship. For the disciples do not grasp the mystery being revealed. One of them will betray him, Judas; one will deny him, Peter; all eleven men will desert Jesus. The Gospel of Mark ends in the most ancient manuscripts with an abrupt scene at Jesus’ tomb, which the women find empty. His own prophecy of Mk is reiterated, that Jesus goes before the disciples into Galilee; “there you will see him.” These words may imply resurrection appearances there, or Jesus’ parousia there, or the start of Christian mission, or a return to the roots depicted in Galilee. Mark’s Gospel is even more oriented to christology. Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Messiah, the anointed king of Davidic descent, the Greek for which, Christos, has, by the time Mark wrote, become in effect a proper name. Jesus is also seen as Son of Man, a term used in Mark not simply as a substitute for “I” or for humanity in general or with reference to a mighty figure who is to come, but also in connection with Jesus’ predestined, necessary path of suffering and vindication.