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No. 94: Toward a Chiastic Understanding of the Gospel According to Matthew, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 94
April, 1997
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons

In preparing an essay on Matthew 24-25 for our subscription essayletter Studies in the Revelation, I have found it necessary to consider the structure of Matthew’s gospel as a whole. The following are the fruits of my research, such as they are. This essay is not intended as the last word on the subject!

Since many of the books of the Bible are structured in a chiastic fashion (also called introversion or palistrophe), I began by examining Matthew along such lines. I have come to the conclusion that Matthew is indeed chiastically organized. Ethelbert Bullinger, in The Companion Bible (London, 1910; Kregel, 1990), and John Breck, in The Shape of Biblical Language (St. Vladimir’s, 1994), point out many smaller chiasms in particular paragraphs in Matthew’s gospel. Our concern here is with the book as a whole.

A chiastic structure has the form A B C B’A’. It can be brief or can extend over a whole book or even set of books. Chiasm differs from "inverted parallelism" by having a central pivot-point that in some way is the most important aspect of the structure. Inverted parallelism, consisting of ABBA, may not have such a central point (unless BB is also a pivot or the more important aspect of the overall section). As we shall see, the central or pivot point of Matthew seems to be the decision of the Pharisees to kill the innocent Servant of the Lord (12:14-21).

Chiasms can overlap in various ways. Large chiastic structures may include several smaller ones. The end of one chiasm may form the beginning of another. One section of a chiasm (usually the first or last) may be a smaller version of a larger chiasm of which it is a part. And so forth. This is not a problem, since chiastic structures are by their nature rather tightly constructed. Either a chiasm is present, or it is not. There are not many ambiguous cases. Of course, nothing prohibits a writer from composing an incomplete chiasm.

It is possible, in an excess of enthusiasm, to discover chiasms where none are present, by forcing the text. At the same time, the abuse of a practice does not negate its proper use. Chiasm is arguably the most common literary form in the Bible, and so we will not go wrong by looking to find them in Matthew, provided we do not abuse the text.

In a chiastic structure, the recurrence of A at the end, and of B at B’, and of C at C’, etc. involves some kind of intensification of the original statement. What was said the first time at B is said again at B’, but in a new way because of what has happened in the meantime, and especially because of what happened at the central pivot. As we shall see, in Matthew 2:13-21, Herod drives Jesus into the "death" of Egypt, and while Jesus is there judgment falls upon the Jews. This brief passage is answered by Matthew 21:1–27:56, where Jesus enters the Egypt of Jerusalem and heads for His death, but in the midst thereof pronounces doom upon the Jews (ch. 23-25).

This example displays the value of chiastic reading. Jesus’ descent into Egypt for protection has a direct relationship of contrast to His ascent into Jerusalem for destruction. The martyrdom of the little children is prophetically related to the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Apart from a chiastic reading, we probably would not make these connections. But Matthew’s literary structure has placed these connections there, and in this way Matthew can make the theological point that Jesus’ death is a descent into Egypt and His resurrection is a new exodus.

With this in mind, let us turn to a consideration of the book of Matthew.

The Gospel According to Matthew

Matthew is the first of the gospels; there can be little doubt of this. The notion that Mark was first because Mark is shorter is nonsensical. Matthew was one of the disciples and was a man of letters. Who better to take notes during Jesus’ lifetime?

Moreover, immediately after Pentecost there would have been a demand for a book containing the teaching and works of Jesus. The Jews were a people of the book. Each time God did a great work, a new part of Scripture was written to tell about it. The 3000 converts on the day of Pentecost would have expected such a book, and we can be pretty sure that Matthew set right down to write it. Doubtless he spoke with the other disciples, and perhaps Matthew’s gospel is to some extent a joint work. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that within a month after Pentecost copies of Matthew’s gospel were in circulation.

Apart from the demand of the Jewish converts, there is another reason why Matthew’s gospel had to be written immediately, and that is that most of what Jesus said and did was said and done privately. Jesus was mysterious. When He taught the multitudes, He used parables. When He healed, he told people to keep it secret. Thus, there were lots of rumors about Jesus, but not many hard facts. Matthew explains all this. The messages recorded in Matthew were given to the disciples, though sometimes other people around the periphery listened in. Matthew tells us that it was Jesus who commanded that His miracles be kept under wraps. Now that Jesus had been raised, however, the secrets were to be revealed: The mystery of the kingdom was to be published. The idea that the disciples waited fifteen or twenty years before getting the gospel into written form is a notion that strains credulity.

As Matthew was written first, it is also the case that Matthew presents Jesus as a new priestly Moses, as Mark presents Him as a new David, and Luke as a new prophet. The early chapters of Matthew recapitulate the history of the pentateuch, and set the theme, to wit:

1:1-17 – genealogies; Genesis

1:18-25 – birth of Jesus; birth of Moses

2:1-23 – wealth, descent into Egypt, exodus from Egypt

3:1-17 – baptism of Jesus; Red Sea crossing

4:1-11 – 40 days wrestling in wilderness; 40 years in wilderness

4:12-25 – initial ministry; initial conquests in Numbers

5-7 – Sermon on the Mount; Deuteronomy

The rest of Matthew does not continue this history, nor does it apparently move over the Pentateuchal history a second time in more detail. Egyptian-Pentateuchal themes do, however, continue to be important. At the center of the book, as we shall see, we find the Pharisees as new Egyptians denying the sabbath to the people, with Jesus as new Moses granting them sabbath. The entire movement of the book of Exodus is from slavery to sabbath, and we find that theme at the heart of Matthew.

Also, very often where the other gospels will have Jesus healing one person, or being witnessed by one person, Matthew will have two. The legal theme of a testimony of two witnesses is being carried forth by Matthew in this respect.

The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel

Here is the overall structure of Matthew, as I see it:

A. Genealogy (past), 1:1-17
B. First Mary and Jesus’ birth, 1:18-25
C. Gifts of wealth at birth, 2:1-12
D. Descent into Egypt; murder of children, 2:13-21
E. Judea avoided, 2:22-23
F. Baptism of Jesus, 3:1–8:23
G. Crossing the sea, 8:24–11:1
H. John’s ministry, 11:2-19
I. Rejection of Jesus, 11:20-24
J. Gifts for the new children, 11:25-30
K. Attack of Pharisees, 12:1-13
L. Pharisees determine to kill the innocent Servant, 12:14-21
K’ Condemnation of Pharisees, 12:22-45
J’ Gifts for the new children, 13:1-52
I’ Rejection of Jesus, 13:53-58
H’ John’s death, 14:1-12
G’ Crossing the sea, 14:13–16:12
F’ Transfiguration of Jesus, 16:13–18:35
E’ Judean ministry, 19:1–20:34
D’ Ascent into Jerusalem; judgment on Jews, 21:1–27:56
C’ Gift of wealth at death, 27:57-66
B’ Last Marys and Jesus’ resurrection, 28:1-15
A’ Commission (future), 28:16-20

A. Past and Future.

The genealogy of Jesus in 1:1-17 brings us up from the past, while the commission in 28:16-20 moves us into the future. The commission should probably be compared to the commissioning of Joshua to take the promised land toward the end of Deuteronomy.

B. The Marys.

The birth narrative of 1:18-25 can be analyzed as having three parts: Mary is presented, an angel appears with a message, and Jesus is born. In the same way, the resurrection narrative of 28:1-10 presents two Marys, an angel appears with a message, and then Jesus appears in His resurrected body. (John 1:1-18 only presents one Mary, the Magdalene.)

Section B’ has appended to it the fact that the Jewish leaders put out lies about the resurrection, 28:11-15. This is an inversion of the Messianic secret: Now that the hidden mystery is to be published, men seek to hide it.

C. Rich Gifts.

The story of the Persian magi in 2:1-12 also involves Herod’s thwarted desire to kill Jesus. In terms of the chiasm of Matthew, the first point to notice is the rich gifts given to Jesus, which will sustain the family while in Egypt. Similarly, the wealthy Joseph of Arimathaea provides a rich tomb for Jesus while He is in the Egypt of the grave, 27:57-61. Second is the fact that the Jews prevailed on Pilate to guard the grave of Jesus (57:62-66). As Herod sought to prevent Jesus’ birth, the Jews seek to prevent His resurrection.

D. Egypt and Crucifixion.

The first D section is short, while the second is the longest section of Matthew.

In 2:13-21, we find a second Joseph taking his family down into Egypt to hide from Herod. This is because the real Egypt is Judea, where Herod is Pharaoh. Herod slaughters the boy children, as Pharaoh did in Exodus 1. Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, a lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. This is relevant, because the parallel is to Matthew 23-25, the prediction of the coming destruction of Jerusalem under Vespasian and Titus. Matthew 24:19 recalls Matthew 2:18 by saying "Woe to those who are with child or who nurse babes in those days!"

The parallel D’ section runs from the triumphal entry to the death of Jesus. This is the greater descent into Egypt, the real Egypt of Jerusalem. Just as the destruction of Jewish babies is sandwiched into Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt, so Jesus announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem is found in the middle of His sojourn in the real Egypt. Section D’ looks like this:

I. David’s Son. Here Jesus comes as king, as a new Solomon, whose wisdom confounds all questioners:

1. David’s Son enters Jerusalem, 21:1-11
2. Cleansing the Temple, 21:12-17
3. The Barren Fig Tree, 21:18-22
4. Priests’ question, 21:23-27
5. Parable of Two Sons, 21:28-32
6. Parable of Vineyard, 21:33-46
7. Parable of Wedding Feast, 22:1-14
8. Pharisees’ question, 22:15-22
9. Sadducees’ question, 22:23-33
10. Lawyer’s question, 22:34-40
11. David’s Son answers Pharisees, 22:41-45
II. Judgment on Jews:
1. Warnings against Pharisees, 23:1-12
2. Octave of Woes against Jewish leaders, 23:13-31
– these parallel the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, see Biblical Horizons No. 4.
3. Sentence of death against Pharisees, 23:32-36
4. Lamentation over Jerusalem, 23:37-39
5. Judgment on Jerusalem (and world), 24:1-25:46
– for a full outline of this section, see Studies in the Revelation No. 16

(to be continued)