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The Matthean Community and the Gentile Mission

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The importance that Matthew attached to the gentile mission is clear from the climactic position in which he has placed the universal mission mandate. From this, however, it cannot be inferred that all the members of the evangelist's community were in agreement on this issue. Indeed, Matthew's inclusion of a particularist form of the mission mandate in his Central Section suggests that the gentile mission was controverted at the time of the gospel's composition. A consideration of the development of Christianity's relationship to Judaism before and after the year 70 provides an opportunity to test this conclusion, insofar as the turning to the gentiles was connected with the separation from Judaism. The teaching and practice of the historical Jesus provided the post-Easter community with no clear directive with regard to missionizing gentiles. His attitude of "expectant universalism" could be taken to authorize the gentile mission, since in Jesus' coming the endtime had arrived, but it also could be understood to exclude it, since only if impenitent Israel were converted could the kingdom of God be revealed and the eschatological pilgrimage of the gentiles take place. The first missionaries to the gentiles were the Hellenists, who were suited to this task both by their use of Greek and by their attitude towards the ritual law, which may have been derived from community tradition concerning Jesus' stance on this matter. The actual catalyst for the admission of gentiles to baptism-without circumcision-may have been the appearance of charismatic phenomena among the "friends of the synagogue" of the Hellenists. Paul's radical rejection of the law as a way of salvation led to serious misunderstanding with the Jerusalem leaders in the attempt to resolve the controversy over the circumcision of gentile converts in Antioch. These leaders saw in Paul's missionary successes a sign that God was raising up from the gentiles a new people to his name, and on this basis they withheld their support from the Judaizers. For Paul, on the other hand, the agreement to separate missions and the acceptance of the collection for the Jerusalem poor was a sign of the leaders' recognition of the ΧΟνωνία between Jews and gentiles in the one people of God. It was on this basis that he opposed Cephas in Antioch for respecting James' insistence that Jewish Christians observe the kosher laws and abstain from table fellowship with gentile Christians. Neither Peter nor Barnabas could accept Paul's view of the matter, which amounted to an attempt to force Jewish Christians to live as gentiles, abandoning the law as a way of salvation. At this point Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity seem to have gone their separate ways, although Peter did not ally himself unambiguously with either extreme. A sign of Jewish Christian fidelity to the law after Antioch is to be found in the "apostles' decree," which demands of gentile Christians living in predominantly Jewish (or Jewish Christian) localities that they refrain from the same four things that are forbidden to "sojourners" in the Holiness Code. No observant Jewish Christian community living in Palestine during the two decades prior to the outbreak of the Jewish War had occasion to embark on a mission to gentiles, and the character of Matthew's special tradition points to just such a community. As a result of the Jewish War the Matthean church settled in a Greek-speaking area, probably Syria, where the gentile mission was already established. But the immediate catalyst for turning to the gentiles was the campaign of vilification and persecution to which the community was subjected by post-70 Pharisaism, which was no longer satisfied with merely halakic conformity on the part of Jewish Christians. However, the decision at Jamnia seems not yet to have been taken, and some of Matthew's community, in hope of a reconciliation, held back from the fateful step of the gentile mission. Such a step would not have meant the incorporation of gentiles into a Jewish Christian community but rather a definitive break with Judaism, and this is why the issue of circumcision, which had been the center of controversy in connection with earlier gentile conversions, does not arise in Matthew's gospel. The evangelist represents those in his community who believed that the time had come to move in a new direction, but in his initiative he was unable to appeal to the example of Peter, whose authority lies behind the special tradition of the community. Rather, by placing the universal mission mandate on the lips of Jesus as he addresses the Eleven Disciples in the gospel's final scene, the evangelist uses a "deus ex machina" to gain acceptance for the gentile mission and to heal the divisions within the community which had arisen over this issue.


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