For the modern reader, a casual reading – even when done devotionally – reveals Matthew’s Gospel as a curious work. Depending on the translation that is being read, the book begins with a lot of “begats,” followed by a kind of Christmas story that is without either shepherds or a stable. Jesus says things and does things, says things and does things, is betrayed by Judas, is crucified, and is raised up from the dead. The book ends with a mission to go tell the world, and a baptismal formula to go along with that mission. All of the “middle parts” of the book are usually studied or preached in a piecemeal fashion. If there is a structure within the book at all, it’s a bit difficult to see. Yet, there are patterns, and patterns within patterns. It is a most amazing thing.
Most people familiar with the New Testament know about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is recorded in chapters 5 – 7 of the Gospel, but that is not all that Jesus had to say. There are four other long sermons or discourses by Christ to be found in Matthew – five in all. Matthew uses these five longer sermons as tent poles that support and fill out the entirety of the Gospel.
The Sermon on the Mount – chapters 5 – 7.
The Missionary Discourse – chapter 10.
Various Parables – chapter 13.
Community Instructions – chapter 18.
Discourse on the Future and on Judgment – chapters 23 – 25.
Matthew also has an interesting way of signaling to the reader when the sermon is over, and the next section of his Gospel is about to begin:
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things … (7:28)
When Jesus had finished these parables … (11:1)
When Jesus had finished these parables … (13:53)
When Jesus had finished saying these things … (19:1)
When Jesus had finished saying all these things … (26:1)
Viewed in this way, the Gospel of Matthew contains five books or divisions of sermons and narratives, bookended by the Nativity and the Crucifixion and Resurrection. All in all, seven parts, which tells us that he has given us a Gospel that is as complete in its parts as possible within the limits of one scroll. Although Matthew never directly tells the reader, a fair assumption would be that he is presenting the good news of Jesus Christ as the new Torah (a reference to the first five books of the Old Testament), with Jesus himself as the new lawgiver. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus is even presented as ascending “the mountain,” as Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Law.
This isn’t the only place where allusions to the five books of Moses appears. The first five chapters follow the path of the Torah. Matthew begins his Gospel in Greek with the words, “Biblos geneseos Iesou Christou,” or “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” Thus, the very second word of the Gospel here is a rather overt reference to Genesis, the first book of Moses. Is there an Exodus in the story of Jesus? Yes. Just as Joseph the Old Testament patriarch led his family into Egypt for their safety, in Matthew 2:14, Mary and the Christ child are led by Joseph into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Following Herod’s death, they make their exodus back out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15). In the Torah, the third book, Leviticus, deals with laws and rituals. In Matthew 3, Jesus approaches John the Baptist and permits himself to experience water baptism, which will become the single most important ritual in the Church. It is the sacrament that opens the door to all of the other sacraments. Then, just as the fourth Old Testament book, Numbers, gives the account of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel presents Christ in the desert for forty days. In Deuteronomy, the Law that God gave Moses is repeated, and Moses reminds the people, “The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain (Deut. 5:4a).” In the same way, Matthew chapter five begins with the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak …” At this point, Jesus lays the foundation stones of his New Law, beginning with the Beatitudes. I’m not insinuating that Matthew fabricated these stories in order to fit this framework, but that the framework seemed, naturally, to fit the events as he knew them.
It would be fair to wonder if Jesus was the only figure to be compared to Moses. The truth is that the great Jewish teacher Hillel, who was still alive when Jesus was a boy, was also compared to Moses in the Sifre Devarim, a midrash or Hebrew commentary on the Torah. The imagination of Hillel’s admirers found similar patterns when they placed his life next to that of the great lawgiver:
“Moses was 120 years of age when he died” (Dt.34:7).
He is one of four who died at 120 years of age:
And here they are:
Moses, Hillel the Elder, Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai, and R. Akiva.
Moses lived in Egypt for forty years,
and in Midian for forty years,
and saw to Israel’s needs for forty years.
Hillel the Elder ascended from Babylonia at the age of forty years,
and attended sages [in discipleship] for forty years,
and saw to Israel’s needs for forty years.”
– Sifre Devarim, 357:4
The original audience for Matthew’s Gospel were primarily Jewish adherents of the Lord Jesus, people well versed in the concepts found in the first five books of what we call the Old Testament. They also would have been familiar with Greek, the language in which his Gospel was written. Chances are very, very good that they would have understood many of these patterns, as well as many others found in the book. He was, after all, referring back to their own culture and their own deeply held beliefs. The complex tapestry of Matthew’s Gospel reveals it to be more than a memoir, and more than just a copy-and-paste affair cobbled together from various sources. It was, quite deliberately, the inspired work of a lifetime.
Eslin, Morton S.,”’The Five Books of Matthew':Bacon on the Gospel of Matthew,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Apr., 1931), pp. 67-97.
Halverson, Taylor, “New Testament insights: Matthew’s Gospel patterned on the 5 Books of Moses,” 11 May 2015, Deseret News. <https://www.deseret.com/2015/5/11/20564388/taylor-halverson-new-testament-insights-matthew-s-gospel-patterned-on-the-5-books-of-moses>
The Holy Bible, NRSVCE <https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-Revised-Standard-Version-Catholic-Edition-NRSVCE-Bible/>
Scheiner, Patrick, “The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus as the New Moses,” 2019, BibleProject.<https://bibleproject.com/blog/sermon-mount-jesus-new-moses/>
Sifre Devarim, Jaffee, Marty, tr., Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington, 2016.<https://jewishstudies.washington.edu/book/sifre-devarim/>
6 May 2022