N. T Wright makes a very interesting series of observations concerning the Gospel of Matthew, it’s opening words, it’s overall structure, and it’s purpose as a whole. He writes:
Matthew’s first chapter has long been a puzzle to modern Western readers. The genealogy (1:1-17) appears to be about as unexciting an opening as it could be. But to those with eyes to see (itself a Matthean theme, as in 13:16), it tells the story that must be grasped if the plot of the whole gospel is to be understood…
The Structure of the genealogy shows where he will lay the stress. Other Jewish books of the period structured Israel’s history into significant periods (e.g. 1 En. 93:1-10; 91:12-17; 2 Bar. 53-74); Matthew is following a standard tradition, though adapting it to his own ends... This is not the story of world as a whole, as in Luke (whose genealogy goes back to Adam), though Matthew has not forgotten the world outside Israel, as we shall see. It is the story of Israel.1
Continuing his thoughts a page later, he says that Matthew is “a book so clearly crafted and sculpted, and, moreover, [is] one which proclaims on page after page that it chronicles the way in which the scriptures were fulfilled."2
And in conclusion, he writes:
Matthew, I suggest, had this entire scene in mind as he arranged his material into its eventual form. …Jesus, like Moses, goes to his death with the promises and warnings still ringing in his people’s ears. After his resurrection, Jesus, like Moses goes up the mountain and departs from his people, leaving them with a commission to go in and possess the land, that is, the entire world (28:16-20). And, if my suggestion is correct, Matthew has woven this covenantal choice into the very structure of his gospel, portraying it as the choice set before his contemporaries by Jesus, and thereby himself setting the same choice before the church of his own day.
Matthew’s story, I suggest, is structured so as to bring out this entire theme. The motifs of plot… need to be set within this wider framework. Matthew presupposes a telling of the Jewish story according to which Israel has failed, has ended in exile, and needs a new exodus; and he undertakes to show that this new exodus was accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He does this at a multiplicity of levels: the often-remarked ‘fulfillment’ passages (‘All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…’) are simply the tip of the very large iceberg. Matthew’s plot and structure presuppose the entire Jewish story-line to day. They claim to be bringing about that of which Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 30. They are not simply a collection of types, historical precedents arbitrarily repeated. They claim to be the continuation and proper completion of the whole history itself. 3
In my previous post, I briefly mentioned R. T. France and Peter Leithart, and their contributions to the study of Matthew's gospel. In connection with that post, I believe N. T. Wright definitely seems to be on the same page as them when it comes to the overall story of Matthew’s gospel. Each of these scholars have arrived at the conclusion that Matthew did not just write the story of Jesus; Matthew wrote the story of Israel. France holds the perspective that Jesus “fulfills” the essence of what the Old Testament teaches concerning Israel: their life, death and resurrection as God’s covenant people; and it’s that general pattern (life, death, resurrection) to which he is willing to commit, thereby placing limits upon further interpretations (or what he considers to be unnecessary speculations). France definitely sees Matthew's gospel saturated with Old Testament typological symbolism; but he isn't as ready to go as far as Leithart and N. T. Wright with the details.
Leithart holds the perspective that Jesus “fulfills” the role of God’s faithful “son”, and that Matthew structured his gospel according to Israel’s general narrative (the position of which I have become thoroughly convinced). But N. T. Wright’s view is a bit different from the other two, yet comparatively more distant from France than Leithart. The only areas in which I find Leithart disagreeing with Wright (or perhaps I should say, complementing Wright’s work) is with the detailed order of parallels between Israel’s life and Jesus’ life. Wright doesn’t go into as many details as Leithart does, which is why I find Leithart’s final analysis to be more helpful. Again, Leithart's scholarly contribution can be found on his website. I plan on utilizing Leithart's contribution in future posts, but expanding upon it in a variety of ways, using the notes I made about a year ago for our small bible study group.
Back to my main point though: Notice carefully that whatever the difference may be between these great scholars, Wright is in complete agreement with France and Leithart when he says that “Matthew presupposes a telling of the Jewish story according to which Israel has failed, has ended in exile, and needs a new exodus; and he undertakes to show that this new exodus was accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”
I believe this profound insight must not be overlooked when studying Matthew's gospel.
1. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992] p. 385
2. Ibid., p. 386
3. Ibid., p. 388-389