Matthew’s community

Daily Reading for September 23

Most of those who listened to Matthew’s Gospel in the late first century experienced tough living conditions. Regular food shortages, squalid conditions, hard work, sickness, and poverty marked the life of these followers of Jesus in one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire. . . . The Gospel offers a frequently contestive vision and alternative identity and way of life, even while enmeshed in and imitating imperial values and practices.

Matthew’s Gospel was probably written in the 80s CE. The community for which it was produced is usually located in Antioch, on the Orontes River. The city’s population was approximately 150,000 to 200,000, and it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. . . .

Conflicts in Galilee and Judea to the south strained relations with Judeans within Antioch. Matthew’s people, comprising one or more assemblies and focused on the prophet-messiah Jesus as their Lord, had not yet distinguished themselves as “Christian.” They had not yet separated from the people and heritage of Israel but still identified themselves as part of the large Judean population resident within Antioch. . . .

Followers of Jesus had existed in Antioch since the 30s or 40s. Matthew’s people had developed from one of the more expansive “assemblies” (ekklesiai) that emerged beyond Palestine in the decade or so after Jesus’ death. They perhaps originated with Jesus-followers forced out of Jerusalem. They maintained active communication with the assembly in Jerusalem headed by Peter and later James, brother of Jesus. And from the assembly in Antioch envoys such as Barnabas and Paul spread out into the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor to begin to catalyze other communities. . . .

After Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE, Matthew’s people were in conflict with other Judean communities over the shape of post-70 Judaism and the role of Jesus. Foundational to their community identity was their conviction that in the mission, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s just and live-giving purposes were being revealed and established as a judgment on and alternative to the Roman imperial order.

From “Matthew’s People” by Warren Carter, in Christian Origins, edited by Richard A. Horsley, Volume 1 in the series A People’s History of Christianity (Fortress Press, 2005).

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