'LaValla Gospels' - An Introduction

July 01, 2024

Why should I even do this?

This summer I take over from Brian Poulin, FMS, as Vocation Director for the Marist Brothers USA Province. Anyone who knows Br. Brian will understand why I feel a little intimidated taking on this job with him as my predecessor - imagine a bulldog and the Energizer Bunny had a child together whom they sent to a German humanistisches gymnasium. I am going to have to hustle to bring the same energy to the job that he has.

One thing that Brian did, in addition to publishing a monthly vocational newsletter, was to keep a regular blog, Thank God It’s Saturday, where he shared his thoughts and experiences, updated people on happenings in the Institute and Province, commented on the major events Church and World, and let people know what music he was listing to and books he was reading. I believe there’s a value in the Vocation Director regularly writing something - it keeps the members of the Province up-to-date about vocations, and can give people interested in the Marist Charism a window into our life and spirituality. But this is something I have to do in my own way.

People who know me know I’m very interested in ancient and classical languages, which I studied in college (because I’m a winner). I can read Koine Greek, and I enjoy researching my favorite passages from the New Testament and writing my own translations. This is something I like doing, and would be doing anyway as a hobby… so, as a blog, I will be working my way through the Gospel of Matthew, offering my own translation and commentary, as well as reflections on how passages relate to the Marist Charism. A charism is fundamentally a particular style of following the Gospel, and so as weird and nerdy and extra as this sounds, I do think makes sense for me to do as the Vocation Director, since my job is basically to invite people to explore the Marist Charism. (Also, I have a track record of taking on enormous Scripture-themed projects that end up crushing the life out of me - see www.maristbible.org.)

As a disclaimer, I will do my absolute best to make sure everything is accurate, but this translation is going to be the devotional work of an amateur, and should be read in that spirit.

Br. Sam Amos, FMS

The Gospel According to Matthew: A Marist Perspective

A Gospel for Educators

The Institute of the Marist Brothers is a congregation of educators. Our official Latin title is Fratres Maristae a Scholis (Marist Brothers of the Schools), hence the congregational initials FMS that each brother bears after his name. Our mission is “to make Jesus known a loved through the Christian education of young people, especially the least favored.” Our founder, St. Marcellin Champagnat, established us in 1817 to address the lack of quality teachers and schools in early 19th century France, and today we run primary and secondary schools, community centers and universities in dozens of different countries throughout the world.

Matthew’s portrait of Jesus is especially relevant for Marists because Matthew presents Jesus as a teacher: Jesus teaching the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5), Jesus teaching his disciples how to live and work together as a Church (Mt 18), Jesus warning his followers that they ultimately have to account for their lives before God (Mt 25). The Gospel of Matthew was a favorite text for the early Church because it laid out Jesus’ teachings in such a thorough and organized way. The structure of Matthew’s Gospel (see below) reminds one of a well-written course syllabus.


As Marists, we see ourselves as educators who, by our words and actions, teach our students who Christ is. Reading Matthew’s Gospel can be an invitation to remember that Christ is the ultimate teacher, and to reflect on how we can allow Christ to teach through us.

Name & Author

The Gospel According to Matthew (Mt from now on) was written in Greek in the second half of the first century. In Greek, its name is To Euangelion Kata Matthaion. The word euangelion means “good news” (hence the English words evangelist, evangelical, evangelize, etc). In the Roman Empire, the word was used to refer to imperial propaganda, like announcements of victorious battles or the emperor’s birthday. In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX) the word euangelion referred to news of God’s saving action in the world. In Isaiah, bringing the good news / euangelion was part of the role of the Lord’s Anointed (=Messiah / Christ) (Is 61.1).

In early Christianity, euangelion / gospel originally referred to an oral proclamation of what God was doing in the world through Jesus (cf. Mk 1.14, Gal 1.6-9). This use of the term referenced the concept of euangelion in the LXX and rejected the values implicit in imperial propoganda (i.e. the real Good News concerned Christ’s victory, not Caesar’s). By the second century, Christians also used the word to refer to written accounts of the life of Jesus, i.e. the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The full and formal titles of these books- the Gospel According to Matthew / Mark / Luke / John- acknowledges the original understanding that there is only one true Gospel.

The early Christians writers Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome all report that the Apostle Matthew wrote an account of Jesus’ life in Hebrew (by which they likely meant Aramaic) which was later translated into Greek. Traditionally, Mt has been understood to be this document. However, most modern scholars no longer believe this to be the case. Mt is written in elegant and polished Greek, and does not read like a translation of an Aramaic original. Mt also makes heavy use Mk as a source (Mt contains 90% of the material found in Mk). Since both ancient writers and modern scholars agree that Mk was not written by an eyewitness of Jesus’ life, it does not seem plausible that an apostle would rely so heavily on it.

That said, it may be that the Apostle Matthew did write such a document, which is now lost, and the author of Mt used this text as a source. That would explain the name. If it were simply a matter of an anonymous writer wrapping himself in a famous name from the past for the sake of added authority, one would expect him to choose a more prominent apostle, like Peter or James. Thus Mt should be considered anonymous, with a lost account of Christ’s life from the Apostle Matthew possibly used as a source.

Themes

Of the four Gospels, Mt quotes and references the Old Testament (OT) the most. Jesus is presented as the promised Jewish Messiah and the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. As an example, read the Infancy Narrative in Mt 1-2 and try to count how many times the OT is referenced. In many ways, Mt is the Gospel for the People of Israel.

Mt also focuses on Jesus as an authoritative teacher. The Gospel is partly structured around his teachings, which are neatly divided into five sections, recalling the five books of the Torah (Genesis - Deuteronomy), the implication being that Jesus is a new Moses.

Finally, Mt is a Gospel concerned with organized community life as a response to God’s action in the world. The word “kingdom” (basileia) referring to God’s sovereignty on earth appears over 50 times in Mt, and Mt is the only Gospel to use the word “church” (ekklesia) (Mt 18).

Mt is traditionally considered the “first” Gospel, even though Mk was written first historically. Its frequent allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures make for good transition from the OT to the NT, and its well-organized exposition of Jesus’ teaching made it a favorite text for the early Church. Of the four Gospels, the Church Fathers quoted and wrote about Mt most frequently. 

Date & Context

Given its focus on Jesus’ Jewish identity, it is safe to assume it was written for a predominately Jewish Christian audience (i.e. Jews who had accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah). It had to have been written fairly early, since it is quoted by early Church Fathers, including Ignatius of Antioch (fl. 110 AD). Most modern scholars put its composition sometime in the 80’s, assuming Mk would have needed at least a decade to circulate around the Mediterranean and inspire a similar work. Antioch is a good guess for its place of composition, since that city was the center of Jewish Christianity in the second half of the first century.

Mt would have been written for an audience that was mostly Jewish, but was also welcoming an increasing number of Gentile converts, so it frequently highlights Jesus’ Jewish identity while at the same time including details to make clear that non-Jews are also welcome among his followers (the genealogy in Mt 1.1-17 is a good example of this).

Structure & Organization of the Gospel According to Matthew

Mt is divided into 14 parts, 14 being a symbolic number representing David (see the comment for Mt 1.12-17). There is a two-part introduction and two-part coda bookending five alternating sequences of teaching and action. The five teaching sections recall the five books of Moses in the OT. Thus the Gospel is organized to present Jesus as the promised Davidic Messiah and as an authoritative teacher like Moses.

SOURCES

Primary Sources

"The Apostolic Fathers." Edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Elliger, K., and W. Rudolf, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997.

Eusebius. "The Church History." Translated by Paul L. Maier. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2007.

Nestle and Aland, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece. 27th ed. Stuttgart: Deutche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.

Rahlfs, Alfred, and Robert Hanhart, eds. Septuaginta. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.

Tatian. Diatessaron. Translated by Roberts and Donaldson. www.earlychristianwritings.com.

Secondary Sources

Aguilar Chiu, J. E. et al., ed. The Paulist Biblical Commentary. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2018.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Johnson, Luke T. The Writings of the New Testament. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Kee, Howard C. et al., ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Mitch, Curtis, and Edward Sri. Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.

Perkins, Pheme. Reading the New Testament. 3rd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012.

Reid, Barbara E. New Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew. Vol. 1. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.

Wright, N. T., and Michael Bird. The New Testament in its World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019.

Sources for Marist Charism

Delorme, Alain. Our First Brothers: Marvelous Companions of Marcellin. Rome: Institute of the Marist Brothers, 2009.

Estaun, A. M., ed. Water from the Rock. Rome: Institute of the Marist Brothers, 2007.

Furet, Jean-Baptiste. Life of Joseph Benedict Marcellin Champagnat. Translated by Ludovic Burke. Rome: Institute of the Marist Brothers, 1999.

Furet, Jean-Baptiste. Oponions, Conferences, Sayings and Instructions. Translated by Leonard Voegtle. Rome: Institute of the Marist Brothers, 1992.

Institute of the Marist Brothers. Constitutions and Statutes. Rome: Institute of the Marist Brothers, 2021.

Institute of the Marist Brothers. Wherever You Go: The Marist Brothers' Rule of Life. Rome: Institute of the Marist Brothers, 2021.

Institute of the Marist Brothers. Champagnat.org, Official Website of the Marist Brothers. Last modified July 1, 2024. www.champagnat.org.

Sammon, Sean. A Heart That Knew No Bounds: The Life and Mission of Saint Marcellin Champagnat. 2nd ed. Scotts Valley, CA: On-Demand Publishing, 2013.