The Gospel of Matthew clearly has a Jewish audience in mind.
One way that Matthew may be appealing to a Jewish audience is through thematic and literary linkages to the texts known as the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses. Matthew’s Gospel represents an update of the Five Books of Moses, the earliest books of the Old Covenant or Old Testament. Let’s look further at the thematic structural correspondences between Matthew 1-5 and the Five Books of Moses.
Matthew 1 corresponds to the Book of Genesis, the First Book of Moses. Starting at the very beginning, Matthew 1:1 introduces the gospel by means of the genealogy of Jesus: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). The underlying Greek word for “generation” in this verse literally reads genesis, the name of the first book of the Bible. Genesis deals with the generations of the earliest people of God and the emergence of the people of Israel. The remainder of the Old Testament focuses on the rise, fall and fortunes of the people of Israel. The Book of Genesis provides the contextualizing and generational background for where the people of the House of Israel come from. Correspondingly, the New Testament focuses on Jesus Christ and his followers. Similar to the purposes of the Book of Genesis, as the opening chapter of the New Testament Matthew 1 provides contextualizing generational background about Jesus while alerting readers that the Book of Genesis is its model.
Matthew 2 corresponds to the Book of Exodus, the Second Book of Moses. Exodus tells the story of Israelite hard bondage in Egypt, Moses being saved as a young baby from a murderous ruler, Moses’ call to be a prophet, and the unmatchable power of God’s saving arm to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. What do we find in Matthew 2? Jesus avoids death at the hands of King Herod, his family flees into Egypt and then eventually, through divine guidance, Jesus is led from Egypt back to the Promised Land. Matthew also appeals to the Old Testament to demonstrate that Jesus' time in Egypt and his return to the Promised Land is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1).
Matthew 3 corresponds to the Book of Leviticus, the Third Book of Moses. Leviticus focuses primarily on the laws and rituals of salvation. Similarly, in Matthew 3 we read the story of Jesus fulfilling one of the first and most important laws and rituals of salvation — baptism. Just as the “Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation” (Leviticus 1:1), similarly in Matthew 3 God’s voice calls out from the heaven to the New Moses, Jesus Christ: “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Appropriately, the Hebrew title for the Book of Leviticus is “waykira,” which means “And he (the Lord) called.”
Matthew 4 corresponds to the Book of Numbers, the Fourth Book of Moses. Numbers recounts the 40 years of wandering, suffering and temptation of the children of Israel in the imposing wild places of the desert. In Matthew 4, Jesus wanders for 40 days in the desert wilderness, suffering and being tempted as he sought communion with God. Though God sustained the Israelites with the miraculous manna bread, Jesus teaches that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Matthew 5 corresponds to the Book of Deuteronomy, the Fifth Book of Moses. Deuteronomy is a second telling of the law that Moses received on a mountain (Deuteronomy means “second law,” meaning the second retelling of the law). Beginning in Matthew 5 (and finishing in Matthew 7) Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, which is essentially a renewal and updating of the old Law of Moses.
It seems likely that the first five chapters of the Gospel of Matthew were written to show thematic and structural correspondences to the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Torah or the Law. By recording the words and deeds of Jesus, Matthew sought to demonstrate to a Jewish audience that Jesus is the new Moses who fulfilled the old law while delivering the new.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.