Good morning! In today’s passage at the end of Matthew (chapters 27-28), the gospel writer narrates Jesus’ final hours, then his crucifixion and burial, followed by his resurrection and final commission for his disciples. This is no mere historical account though. The details Matthew chooses to highlight serve three main purposes: to exonerate Pilate, condemn the Jewish authority, and unleash the Christian movement to the non-Jewish world.
Recall that at the time Jesus lived, Rome controls all of Palestine and its holy city, Jerusalem. Pilate serves as governor of Israel according to the pleasure of the Roman emperor, meaning that his main tasks are to “keep the peace” with a few brutal public executions, and extort sufficient money from the populace to fill the coffers of Rome. He makes the perfect villain, one would think, except that Matthew goes to great lengths to exonerate him. Pilate appears to sympathize with Jesus and try to release him, and receives the warning of his wife to let nothing bad come to Jesus. He tries to obey, but in the face of loud opposition this most powerful man in Palestine “saw that he could do nothing”. Literally washing his hands of the incident, in this narrative Pilate comes across as a well-meaning man unable to resist popular opinion. Matthew effectively exonerates Pilate from any role in the execution of Jesus. There are a dozen theories for why Pilate gets off so lightly in this gospel—some of them even persuasive—but I think the single greatest reason Matthew focuses away from Pilate is that he has bigger fish to fry.
Pilate serves as a rather likable contrast to the true villains in Matthew’s crucifixion story: the chief priests and scribes. Matthew rhetorically skewers these Jewish religious leaders relentlessly, as though he is prosecutor, they the accused, and this the closing argument of a grand trial. He blames them again and again for Jesus’ death. They scorn Judas’ confession that his accusation was false, move the crowd to clamor for his crucifixion, and mock him from the foot of the cross. One line that Matthew puts in their mouth has been used to justify countless acts of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries since: “His blood be on us and on our children!” If we can speculate a bit about the world “behind” the text, Matthew’s own context, I suspect that Matthew’s ire against the Jewish leadership arises from the way Christ-followers in his time were being kicked out of synagogues (a situation referenced earlier in this gospel). Bitter debate raged at the time Christianity split from Judaism because there was no consensus of what had happened to Jesus. Christian disciples claimed that his body was resurrected, while Jewish leaders proclaimed it stolen. We see evidence of that debate written into this text.
While Christians have persecuted Jews terribly in the centuries since because of the narrative conclusion Matthew reaches that “they killed Christ”, in the gospel itself this strategy helps to explain why Jesus’ disciples reach beyond the Jewish world. Matthew has non-Jewish soldiers at the crucifixion identify him correctly as “God’s son”. (In this they follow Mark, the earlier gospel on which much of Matthew and Luke was based.) Recall also the non-Jewish characters in Matthew that Jesus interacts with favorably, including a centurion with a servant, and the Samaritan woman at the well. These examples and the declaration of the cross prepare Matthew’s readers for the final charge from a resurrected Christ, to go baptize “all nations” and teaching them the ways of Christ. Thereby freed from adhering to a Jewish audience first, the disciples will go on to swiftly learn the power of Jesus for those beyond the Jewish fold. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Mark 1-3. Thanks for reading!