The Structure, Character, and Purpose of Matthew’s Gospel

©David Peterson (2010)


Carson, D. A., ‘Matthew’, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, F. E. Gaebelein (ed.), 8 (1984), 22-41, 50-57.

Combrink, H. J. B., ‘The Structure of the Gospel of Matthew as Narrative’, TynB 34 (1983), 233-53.

Davies, W. D. & Allison, D. C., Matthew 1-7, ICC (London/New York: Clark, 1988), 58-96.

France, R. T., Matthew – Evangelist & Teacher (Exeter: Paternoster, 1989).

Kingsbury, J. D., Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975)

Matera, F. J., ‘The Plot of Matthew’s Gospel’, CBQ 49 (1987), 233-53.

Stanton, G. D., ‘The Origin and Purpose of Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthean Scholarship from 1945 to 1980’, in H. Temporini & W. Haase (ed.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Teil II (Principat), Band 25 (Religion), Teilband 3 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1985), 1889-1951.

Gurtner, D. M. & Nolland, J., Built upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).


Matthew follows the broad ‘geographical’ layout of Mark, which is really the fundamental structure of each of the Synoptic Gospels:

  1. Prologue: Introducing Jesus (1:1 – 4:11, cf. Mark 1:1-15)
  2. Jesus’ Journeys through Galilee, Neighbouring Regions and to Jerusalem (4:12 – 20:34, cf. Mark 1:16 – 10:52).
  3. Jesus’ Ministry in Jerusalem (21:1 – 25:46, cf. Mark 11:1 – 13:37)
  4. Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection (26:1 – 28:20, cf. Mark 14:1 – 16:8)

However, Matthew is distinctive in alternating large blocks of discourse and narrative material. Each discourse is concluded with a similar formula, which acts as a literary link and gives continuity to the whole (a variation of καὶ ἐγένετο ͑ότε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους at 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1 and 26:1).

Bacon gave the classical presentation of the theory that the five-fold formula concluding the discourses marked the conclusion also of five major sections of the work, so that the whole Gospel constituted ‘The Five Books of Matthew Against the Jews’.[1] He went so far as to suggest that the Evangelist was a converted Rabbi—a Christian legalist—who, as a member of a church threatened by lawlessness, met this heresy by providing a systematic collection of the words and deeds of Jesus in five parts, after the fashion of the Mosaic Pentateuch.  His structure was:

The Preamble (1 – 2)

Book I        Concerning Discipleship

a. Introductory narrative, 3-4

b. Discourse, 5-7

Book II        Concerning Apostleship

a. Introductory narrative, 8:1 – 9:35

b. Discourse, 9:36 – 10:42

Book III        Concerning the Hiding of the Revelation

a. Israel is stumbled, 11-12

b. Teaching parables, 13:1-53

Book IV        Concerning Church Administration

a. Jesus and the brotherhood, 14:1 – 17:21

b. Discourse, 17:22 – 18:35

Book V        Concerning the Judgement

a.        Jesus in Judea, 19-22

b.        Discourse, 23-25

The Epilogue (26-28)

The influence of Bacon’s hypothesis on Matthean studies has been immense, leading some to conclude that the Gospel was structured to provide a lectionary for church services (Kilpatrick, 1946), or a manual for teaching and administration in the church (Stendahl 1968), or to convey sermons mediated by the risen Jesus (Marxsen 1968).

However, while agreeing with the notion of a five-fold structure, many have argued that there are reasons for doubting that this Gospel was meant to be a new Pentateuch, a counterpart to the five books of Moses.[2] Kingsbury argues as follows:

a. It is inadequate to designate the birth narratives as ‘preamble’ and the death-resurrection narratives as ‘epilogue’—they are much more central to Matthew’s presentation than that.

b. There may be six discourses (if we note the change of setting between ch. 23 and chs. 24-25).[3]

c. How real is the similarity to the Pentateuch in contents and structure?

d. If there is a ‘new Moses’ typology, it is ‘not so dominant a trait as to render Bacon’s proposal credible.’

For all that, the formula ‘when Jesus finished these sayings’ is significant literarily —indicating the end of five particular discourses and the beginning of narrative sections—and theologically—indicating that Jesus is the one who presents these discourses and that they have the status of divine revelation. They seem to indicate significant stages in the ‘history’ of Jesus, as Matthew presents it.

Kingsbury has taken a new approach to the structure of Matthew by focusing on its Christology and arguing that any attempt to describe the document as liturgical, apologetic, catechetical, or didactic, does not do justice to Matthew’s own summary of the contents of his work as ‘the gospel of the Kingdom’ (26:13; 24:14 cf. also 4:23; 9:35).

In response to this it should be noted that:

a. These verses do not refer to Matthew’s work per se, but to the content of Jesus’ preaching.

b. But Kingsbury rightly re-emphasizes the gospel nature of Matthew, both with respect to structure and contents.

With regard to structure, Kingsbury observes the structural significance of the formula ἀπὸ τότε ͗ήρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς. At 4:17, Jesus is shown from that time on publicly presenting himself to Israel and ‘summoning it to the Kingdom of heaven’. At 16:21, after the rejection of Jesus by so many in Israel, comes the revelation to disciples that it is God’s will that he go to Jerusalem to suffer, to the and be raised.

Thus, Kingsbury argues that Matthew broadly divides as follows:

The Person of Jesus Messiah (1:1 – 4:16)

The Proclamation of Jesus Messiah (4:17 – 16:20)

The Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Messiah (16:21 – 28:20)

With regard to content, Kingsbury argues that:

a. Of all the titles given to Jesus in the first main section 1:1 – 4:16, the most important one is Son of God.  Matthew permits that title to ‘surpass all others’ (Son of Abraham, Son of David, Servant-Messiah, King of the Jews).

b. In the second main section (4:17 – 16:20), the presentation is controlled by the central thought expressed in 4:17. Jesus publicly presents himself to Israel and summons it to the Kingdom (offering salvation in word and deed). But rejection by Israel leads to more and more concentration on ministry to disciples.

c. In the third main section (16:21 – 28:20) the focus is on the necessity for Jesus’ death and its consequences: ‘because Israel rejects him, the direction the ministry of Jesus Messiah, the Son of God, takes is toward death (16:21).’

d. Son of God is ‘the one christological predication that extends to every phase of the “life” of Jesus: conception, birth and infancy; baptism and temptation; public ministry; death; and resurrection and exaltation’ in this Gospel. This christological title expresses for Matthew ‘the deepest mystery of the person of Jesus Messiah’; it represents ‘the most exalted confession of his Christian community’ and ‘can be uttered by people only by ‘revelation of God’ if such utterance is not to be accounted as blasphemy’ (Kingsbury, 82).[4]

With regard to the purpose of Matthew, Kingsbury argues that: ‘regardless of the weighty ecclesiological concerns that surface in the Gospel, it is primarily a christological document and has as its central purpose to inform the members of Matthew’s community against their present situation, of Jesus Messiah and of his relationship to the Father and of what it means to be his disciple’ (962).

In response to Kingsbury it should be noted that he rightly re-emphasizes the gospel character of Matthew—a document designed to proclaim the ultimate significance of the person, ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah for all people, whether Israelite or Gentile.

Although he asserts that the document has the members of a particular community specifically in view, he tends to undervalue the apologetic and catechetical characteristics of Matthew.[5] Luke-Acts appears to have been written for the edification of believers, but also to help them in their apologetic-evangelistic engagement with unbelievers in the Greco-Roman world.  Matthew could have the same aim, but with particular reference to the world of Judaism.

Kingsbury’s outline breaks up the prime Peter passage in an unacceptable way (cf. Carson on 16:13-16), and at both transitions Matthew may have been more influenced by the order of Mark than by ‘structural’ considerations. Furthermore, his topical headings are artificial: e.g. ‘the person of Jesus’ is still a focal point in Sections 2 and 3 and ‘the proclamation of Jesus’ cannot rightly be restricted to section 2. (Carson, 50).

Combrink 1983, 70-3, combines the insights of Bacon and Kingsbury to propose a structure in which narrative and discourse are sometimes combined:

A Narrative: the birth and preparation of Jesus (1:1 – 4:17)

B Introductory material, First speech: Jesus teaches with authority (4:18 – 7:29)

C Narrative: Jesus acts with authority – ten miracles (8:1 – 9:35)

D. Second Discourse: the Twelve commissioned with authority (9:36 – 11:1)

E Narrative: the invitation of Jesus rejected by ‘this generation’ (11:2 – 12:50)

F Third Discourse: the parables of the kingdom (13:1-53)

E’  Narrative: Jesus opposed and confessed, acts in compassion to Jews and Gentiles (13:54 – 16:20)

D’  Fourth Discourse within Narrative: The impending passion of Jesus, lack of understanding of the disciples (16:21 – 20:34)

C’  Narrative: Jesus’ authority questioned in Jerusalem (21:1 -22:46)

B’  Fifth Discourse: judgment on Israel and false prophets, the coming of the kingom (23:1 -25:46)

A’  Narrative: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus (26:1 – 28:20)

Combrink argues for a concentric pattern, with the section E-F-E’ representing the ‘larger turning area’ in the story.  He has some helpful insights about the progression of the narrative and correspondences between the beginning and the end of the Gospel.  However, the significance of the discourse in Matthew 18 is obscured by this outline.

For the sake of simplicity and clarity, my own preference is to stick to the alternating pattern of narrative leading to discourse:

1. The Prophecies of the Messiah Realized (1 – 4)

2. A Discourse on Righteousness (5 – 7)

3. The Authority of the Messiah Revealed (8:1 – 9:35)

4. A Discourse on Mission and Martyrdom (9:36 – 10:42)

5. The Presence of the Messiah Questioned (11-12)

6. A Discourse involving Parables of the Kingdom (13:1-52)

7. The Purpose of the Messiah Declared (13:53 – 17:27)

8. A Discourse on Life and Discipline in the Messianic Community (18)

9. The Messiah Enters the Holy City (19-23)

10. A Discourse on the Fall of Jerusalem and Coming of the Son of Man (24 – 25)

11. The Passion and Resurrection of the Messiah (26 – 28)


Carson 1984, 25-38, rightly concludes that the complex array of themes in this Gospel was probably designed to meet several needs:[6]

a.            To instruct and perhaps catechize.

b.            To provide apologetic and evangelistic material, especially in winning Jews.

c.            To encourage believers in their witness before a hostile world.

d.            To inspire deeper faith in Jesus the Messiah, along with a maturing understanding of his person, work and unique place in the unfolding history of redemption.

Matera 1987 investigates Matthew’s Gospel from the point of view of plot, as understood by contemporary literary critics. Some events are more important to the development of the plot and are called ‘kernels’ (‘narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events’).[7] The kernels of Matthew’s plot are the birth of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the question of Jesus’ identity posed by John the Baptist, Jesus’ conversation with the disciples at Casearea Philippi, the cleansing of the temple, and the great commission. This leads to the following outline of ‘narrative blocks’, based on the kernels:

1:1 4:11 The Coming of the Messiah

4:12 – 11:1 The Messiah’s ministry to Israel of preaching, teaching and healing

11:2 – 16:12 The crisis in the Messiah’s ministry

16:13 – 20:34 The Messiah’s journey to Jerusalem

21:1 – 28:15 The Messiah’s death and resurrection

28:16-20 The great commission

Working from the criteria used by literary critics, Matera suggests the following description of the plot of Matthew’s Gospel:

Jesus is born as the Davidic Messiah.  After the imprisonment of John the Baptist, he initiates a mission of preaching, teaching, and healing exclusively to Israel.  At a crucial moment in the ministry (signaled by the question of John), representatives from all segments of Israel reject him.  Jesus’ disciples, however, recognize him as the Messiah, and he confides to them his destiny of suffering, death, and resurrection.  When Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, his action of cleansing the temple becomes the immediate occasion for his death. Jesus’ passion is Israel’s definitive rejection of the Messiah, and it results in the transfer of the gospel to the Gentiles.

The ending of Matthew’s narrative suggests to Matera the affective response the author is seeking to produce.

  1. ‘The proper response to the risen Lord is worship (28:17) and confidence (28:20) derived from the sure knowledge that all authority has been granted to Jesus the Messiah.  The narrator expects the readers to worship Jesus as the risen Lord and to be confident that he is present to the church until the close of the age.’
  2. The infancy narrative prefigures these affective responses (cf. 1:23 with 28:20; 2:11 with 28:17). ‘Because such worship and confidence hinge upon Jesus’ person, the plot of Matthew’s Gospel has something to do with the recognition of Jesus’ identity.’

Combrink 1983, 87-90, also considers what he calls ‘the pragmatic (rhetorical) dimensions of the narrative.  Textually (with tense changes, questions, negations, commands, etc.), the author seeks to put readers into the same position occupied by characters in the story. The design of the narrative as a whole ‘challenges the reader to accept Jesus’ call and mission for his followers.’

Davies and Allison 1988, 3, consider different proposals for the genre of Matthew and conclude that none of the suggested genres ‘taken in isolation does justice to the totality of the gospel, even though it includes examples and elements of them all: history, myth, moral instruction, apocalyptic teaching, liturgy, catchism, and apologetics.  In a literary sense, as in others, the text is an omnibus of genres.’

However, I question the adequacy of this conclusion.  Kingsbury has re-established for us the gospel framework and intentions of Matthew.  The gospel framework familiar to us from Mark has been expanded for apologetic and catechetical reasons (cf. Carson, 25-38)

a. It is a work of edification for Christians who are particularly concerned to encounter Jews, either hostile to the gospel or open to some persuasion.

b. It encourages a pattern of discipleship in which the making of disciples is a key element, requiring confidence in the risen Lord’s continuing power and presence.

Stanton 1985, 1910-21, examines four different views about the relationship of the author and the community for which he writes to Judaism.  The majority view appears to be that ‘Mathew’s community has cut its ties with Judaism and that large numbers of Gentiles may have been accepted into the community’, but ‘the Jewish features of the gospel are so strong that it must be seen as a Jewish Christian or, perhaps, a Hellenistic Jewish Christian gospel.’ (1915)

Matthew’s community is ‘still ready to debate with the synagogue and to hope that even if Israel has been rejected by God. Individual Jews will be converted.  On this view the gospel can be seen, at least in part, as an apology – a defence of Christianity over against non-Christian Judaism.’ (Stanton, 1915).[8]

[1] Bacon, B. W., Studies in Matthew (London: Constable, 1930), especially 264-335.

[2] Cf. Davies, W. D., The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1963), 14-93, 107; Kingsbury 1975, 3-4.   France 1989, 145-9, discusses alternative structures that take account of the five discourses.

[3] However, Davies & Allison 1988, 61 note 3, rightly argue that Matthew 23 is a complaint directed to Jewish leaders, not teaching for disciples, and that it is ‘the extension and conclusion of the polemical narrative in 21-2.’

[4] ‘Son of God’ is a confessional title in Matthew’s presentation: it is inaccessible to the unbelieving public, hence the distribution of the relevant terminology (2:15; 3:17; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 11:27; 14:33; 16:16; 17:5; 21:38; 24:36; 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54; 28:19).  But Stanton 1985, 1924, rightly observes that ‘other themes are not necessarily subsumed under this title.’

[5] Cf. Moule, C. F. D., ‘The Intention of the Evangelists’, appendix to The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1967), 100-114.

[6] Note also what France 1989, 119-22, says about the foolishness of trying to identify a single purpose for a book like Mathew.

[7] Matera points out that, whereas traditional outlines are based primarily on linguistic data, the determination of kernels and narrative blocks results from an analysis of how events function within a narrative. However, he does not neglect the insights of Kingsbury and others.

[8] Stanton, 1925-9, examines what various scholars have written about Matthew’s ecclesiology and what this reveals about the community addressed in the Gospel.


One thought on “The Structure, Character, and Purpose of Matthew’s Gospel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s