The centrality of the passion

Daily Reading for September 21 • Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

If we come to the gospels expecting to find biography in the modern sense, we shall look in vain. There was little real interest in scientific biography in the ancient world—Plutarch is an exception—and Matthew provides us with no biographical material between the infancy and the beginning of the Baptist’s ministry. Almost all the elements that a modern reader would demand of a biography are lacking. Matthew has two principal interests: the fulfillment of God’s purposes in and through Jesus, and how this fulfillment will find expression in the community which Jesus founded. In addition to Matthew’s concern with themes rather than with history, the most cursory inspection of this gospel would reveal that—from a purely historical point of view—it devotes a disproportionate amount of space and attention to the narrative of the passion.

This concentration on the passion and the resurrection of Jesus provides us with a clue to the purpose of a written gospel. Although it is possible to reconstruct something of the earthly life, and even the ministry, of Jesus from the letters and from Acts, obviously there was a further need felt to make the record as clear and authentic as possible. There must have been considerable anxiety among Christians lest all the original twelve disciples should die before the process of sifting and control had been completed. The four gospels were not written for people to whom Jesus-Messiah was outside experience; those outside the Christian community were not the intended audience for the gospels, however much the availability of those writings may now persuade us to the contrary. Belief in the passion and resurrection of Jesus, and in their saving effects, is central to the gospel; for the evangelists the passion was central to the interpretation of those events.

From Matthew by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, volume 26 of The Anchor Bible series (New York: Doubleday, 1971).

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