Was Matthew Attacking Paul?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman, May 9, 2023.

On my podcast this past week (Misquoting Jesus with Bart Ehrman) someone asked me if I thought any of the Gospels of the NT were influenced by Paul.  It’s an interesting question that I should post on (my view: Mark, maybe; Luke, unexpectedly and oddly not; John, I doubt it; Matthew?)

Ah, Matthew.  As it turns out, I think Matthew shows a rather obvious and ironic connection with Paul.  Did he know Paul’s writings?  I have no idea.  Did he know about Paul?  Same, no idea.  Did he oppose a major feature of Paul’s gospel message?  Sure looks like it!!  (I’m trying to say that he could be opposed to Paul’s views without necessarily knowing Paul’s writings; the views may have been more widely spread than just by Paul.  In fact, they almost certainly were.

Here’s how I’ve discussed the matter once when I was reflecting at greater length in the issue:

Paul certainly had opponents in his lifetime:  “Judaizers,” as scholars call them — that is, Christian teachers who maintained that followers of Jesus had to follow the Jewish Law:  Men were to be circumcised to join the people of God; men and women were, evidently, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.  Presumably that meant keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and so on.  Anyone who didn’t do this was not really a member of the people of God, since to be one of God’s people meant following the law that God had given.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians in particular he shows that he was thoroughly incensed at this interpretation of the faith and insisted with extraordinary vehemence that it was completely wrong.  The gentile followers of Jesus were not, *absolutely* not, supposed to become Jewish.  Anyone who thought so rendered the death of Jesus worthless.  It was only that death, and the resurrection, that made a person right with God.  Nothing else.  Certainly not following the Torah.

I really don’t see how Paul and the author of the Gospel of Matthew could have gotten along.

Some background:  Matthew’s Gospel was  probably written about thirty years after Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians; Galatians is usually dated to the mid 50s, Matthew to around 80-85 CE.  We don’t know who the author of Matthew was, apart from the fact that he was obviously a highly educated Greek-speaking Christian living outside of Palestine.  His book is often located to Antioch Syria, but in my view that is simply a guess based on flimsy evidence.  Still, it certainly *may* have been written Antioch, a city with a large Jewish population and a burgeoning Christian church.

Matthew, like the other Gospel writers, did not produce his account simply out of antiquarian interests, to inform his readers what happened 55 years earlier in the days of Jesus.  His is not a disinterested biography or an objective history.  It is a “Gospel.”  In other words, it is intended to proclaim the “good news” about Jesus and the salvation that he brings.  When Jesus teaches something in this Gospel, Matthew expects that the teaching will be relevant to his readers, that they will want to do what Jesus says.

There is no doubt that Matthew would agree with Paul that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought salvation to the world.  The Gospel is not *entirely* about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But it is largely about that.  It is 28 chapters long, and the last 8 chapters are focused exclusively on what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem, including the crucifixion and resurrection.  This is clearly the climax of the story.  And for Matthew, as for his predecessor Mark, the death of Jesus is seen as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).  It is through his death that he “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

So Matthew would agree with Paul there.  But so would Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Galatia.  The controversy with the Galatian opposition was not over whether Jesus’ death brings salvation.  It was over whether the followers of Jesus, who accept that death, need to keep the Jewish law.  And it does seem to me that this is where Paul and Matthew split company.  Again, remember that when Matthew decides what to present about Jesus’ life in the Gospel it is not simply so that people can know “what really happened” in the past.  It is so that the life and teachings of Jesus can direct the lives of his followers in the present.

And what does Jesus say about the Jewish law in Matthew?   He says that his followers have to keep it.  One of the key passages is something that you will NEVER find in the writings of Paul.

Do not suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets.  I came not to destroy but to fulfil.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away not one iota or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all is fulfilled.  And so, whoever looses one of the least of these commandments and teaches others in this way will be called least in the kingdom of God, but whoever does and teaches the law will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you that if your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20).

This is a really interesting passage.  Does it contradict Paul that the followers of Jesus were *not* to keep the law?  It certainly seems to.

Now someone *could* say that here Jesus is saying simply that the entire law has to be in effect until he dies (“until all is fulfilled”).  But Jesus is saying more than that.  His followers must do and teach the law.   None of it will pass away until the world is destroyed (“till heaven and earth pass away”).  Again, Matthew is not saying this so his readers will have a good history lesson about the Savior of the world and what he taught his disciples.  He is including this passage for the same reason he includes all his passages, to teach his readers how they are to believe and live.  Jesus in this passage does *not* say, “Keep the law until I die.”  He says he did not come to destroy the law.  It is still in effect.  And will be as long as the earth lasts.  His followers have to keep it.

After this Jesus launches into his “antitheses,” where he indicates what the law says and explains its fuller, deeper meaning.  The law says don’t kill; to fulfill it you should not engage someone with wrath.  The law says not to take someone’s spouse; to fulfill it you should not want to do so.  The law says to make punishments fit the crimes (an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth; not a head for an eye or a body for a tooth); to fulfill it you should show extreme mercy and not punish another for harm done to you.  And so on.

I think that Matthew’s Jesus really meant what he says (NOTE: I’m talking about Jesus as he is portrayed in Matthew, NOT about Jesus’ own historical views).  He gives no hint that following the law this closely is impossible to do.  He seems to think it is possible.   God gave a law.  You should follow it. Scrupulously.  Even more scrupulously than the righteous scribes and Pharisees.  If you don’t, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

That’s a tall order.  And in my judgment it seems very much opposed to Paul’s views, who insists that *his* readers not think that they must follow the law.   Pretty big difference.  In fact, Paul says anyone is cursed who disagrees with his view of the matter (Gal. 1: 6-9).  Surely Matthew disagreed.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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