Jesus, Moses, Matthew and Literature

As I see it, it’s unsustainable to regard the Gospels as history or biography as currently understood. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t a ‘disinterested’ professional, assembling, evaluating, and presenting a comprehensive, strictly chronological, balanced account. He was a believer, writing an extended religious tract, to buttress the faith of other believers, and persuade the undecided to take the plunge. This isn’t a criticism, just a reminder of what his Gospel is, and isn’t.

Considered as literature, Matthew’s Gospel has themes that are threaded through it as it develops. Especially important among these is Jesus as a second Moses. Moses is the principal hero of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Both Jesus and Moses are born into a situation in which their respective peoples are under foreign domination, Egypt in the case of Moses, and Rome in the case of Jesus. 

My previous post noted the threat posed to Moses by the Egyptian Pharaoh, and to Jesus by King Herod, namely the killing of newborn children. Both are divinely delivered from such a catastrophe, and preserved for a great purpose which, for both, includes an ‘exodus’ from Egypt, Moses with the ‘children of Israel’, and his parents with the child Jesus, after going there to escape Herod.

Jesus, as an adult, passes through the baptismal waters of the river Jordan, recalling the passing through the waters of the Red Sea by Moses and the Israelites. After being baptised, Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the Jordan valley wilderness (Matt. 4), reminding us of Moses’ 40 days of fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34). These 40 days of Jesus also recall the 40 years of testing undergone by Moses and the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness. 

Emerging from the wilderness, Jesus spells out his key message, that the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew’s euphemism for the Kingdom of God), is about to make its dramatic arrival. Similarly, Moses’ key message to the Pharaoh is that a divine deliverance of the Israelites is about to take place. 

Jesus thereafter (only in Matthew’s Gospel) ascends a mountain, from where he preaches his Sermon on the Mount. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, where he receives the Law from God. Jesus, as the new Moses, makes it clear that he has come to “fulfil” that Law. Using the formula, “You have heard it said (by Moses) … but I say to you …” , he extends the ‘outward’ reach of the Law of Moses by emphasising its ‘inward’ implications. Don’t just not commit adultery, don’t even think about it !

Later in the Gospel, Jesus again, like Moses, ascends a mountain, this time the ‘Mount of Transfiguration’. As noted in my previous post, Jesus’ face shone with dazzling light, like Moses’ face on Mount Sinai. Who should now appear on this mount of transfiguration but Moses himself, for a chat with the new Moses, Jesus.

Later again in Matthew, Jesus says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and … you must love your neighbour as yourself”. This is none other than a concise summary of the ten commandments that Moses received, the first four of which are about loving God, and the remaining six about how to love one’s neighbour.

Moses was long regarded as the author of the five books of the Torah, or Pentateuch, which are sometimes called the “Books of Moses”. In Matthew’s Gospel there are five distinct blocks of Jesus’ teaching. The 1st (Matt. 5-7) is the sermon on the mount; the 2nd (Matt. 10) is instructions to the apostles; the 3rd (Matt. 13) is the parables of the kingdom; the 4th (Matt. 18) is a discourse on the future ‘church’; and the 5th (Matt. 24-25) is a discourse on the end times.

Finally, just as Moses dies prior to the Israelites’ entry into the promised land, so Jesus dies prior to the way being opened for believers to enter heaven. Both are ‘saviours’ of the people of God.

In my view, to do full justice to Matthew’s Gospel is to recognise that rather than ‘straightforward’ history or biography, it’s a carefully and artfully structured work of literature designed to display Jesus as the new Moses. Unlike others, perhaps, I don’t see this as destroying its spiritual value, but adding to its timeless, richly fascinating readability. 

One response to “Jesus, Moses, Matthew and Literature

  1. Excellent. A very well-developed summary of the gospel of Matthew and its inter-relation with the Old Testament sources. Was disinterested “professional” “balanced” history possible in this era? Not perhaps in the Jewish tradition. I have not read sufficient Tacitus/ Heroditus etc to assess whether they might be called “disinterested” historians? Nevertheless historical reliability is often brought out by the “thereness” and cultural originality of what is there: that means something important happened.


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