Historical Cultural Context
Increasingly, scholarly biblical research makes headlines. In recent years, articles in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and other purely secular periodicals have given more publicity to scholarly conclusions than these scholars might ever have dreamed of from the technical journals and books in which their conclusions first appeared.
Yet very often, the conclusions have been known and accepted for a long time in the scholarly community before they became known to the wider public.
What do scholars say about today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel? As Bishop Descamps noted long ago, as far as substance goes, the Gospels present various versions of the same appearance to the Twelve. Each Gospel singles out an all important appearance of Jesus to the disciples in which they are commissioned for a task.
Today’s scene is found only in Matthew, and careful study of the vocabulary and style indicates that Matthew creatively composed this passage. The language echoes that of Daniel 7:14(Septuagint), but other influences may well have been Exodus 19-20, the familiar blessing in Numbers 6:22-27, various prophetic commissions, and the royal decree of Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:23.
Just as an “edict” of Cyrus concludes 2 Chronicles, the last book in the Hebrew Bible, so does an “edict” by the risen Jesus conclude the Book of Matthew. Cyrus, the Persian king, proclaimed: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.”
Jesus’ edict has three parts: a command (Mt 28:16: go to the mountain), a response (Mt 28:17: when the apostles saw him, some worshipped but some doubted), and another command (Mt 28:18-20: make disciples of all the Gentiles; baptize and teach them).
Jesus’ edict is a startling challenge to Matthew’s community. Earlier during his ministry, Jesus sent the disciples on mission only to the Judeans: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:5-6).
As Matthew has composed it in 80-85 C.E., the message of the risen Lord challenges a largely Judean-Christian group to seek new members from among non-Judeans. Yet this should not have been entirely unexpected. There were hints in this direction throughout the Gospel.*
Perhaps the community had already attracted as many Judeans as it could hope to in Matthew’s time, and thus there was a need to open a new mission field. Clearly, a major separation between Church and synagogue is well on its way.
As a summary of Matthew’s Gospel, today’s passage highlights key themes: It is the Father who has given Jesus ultimate and universal authority. Jesus in turn directs his followers to move beyond their in-group to the entire world, particularly to those who do not share the same ethnic roots. Difficult as this may be, Jesus assures his followers of his abiding presence until the reign of God is established in all its fullness.
Biblical scholars agree that the theological notion of the Trinity is a later development with roots in Scripture. Theologians trace the development through the various disputes in the first thousand years of the Church’s existence. Liturgists credit Benedictine monasteries of the ninth and eleventh centuries with being instrumental in promoting liturgical prominence for the Trinity. The Franciscan Pope John XXII decreed that the Divine Office of the Blessed Trinity should be observed by the entire Church (1334).
A sense of history is a valuable tool for appreciating the origin and development of basic Christian beliefs.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University