Devised Literary Structure of Matthew
Devised Literary Structure of Matthew

Devised Literary Structure of Matthew


Matthew is not a histography. The structure of Matthew is not a chronological narrative, but rather alternating blocks of sayings and narratives of particular groupings of sayings and actions, attributed to the ministry of Jesus, combined in a devised way. The sections below describe how Matthew may be seen to be structured by various scholars. 

Structure of Matthew

G.D. Kilpatrick, The Origins of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2007, p. 135-136

Among the element which most surely derive from the writer is not a little of the detail and the man plan (structure) of the book (Matthew). It is in the main plan that a comparison with Mark is most instructive. In Mark 1:1-15 there is a sequence of events and from Mark 11 onward an order, either already present or coming into being, which may run back into Mark 10. But between these two points we are confronted with the amorphous tradition of the Galilean ministry…  We may indeed detect small groups in the material , but any attempt to find an order or systematic arrangement of the whole comes to grief. When we turn to Matthew, we find a quite different state of affairs. In Matthew, chapters 3-25, the core of the Matthean arrangement of material, corresponds to chapters 1-13 of Mark. Matt chapters 1-2, 26-28 serve as a kind of prologue and epilogue to the central part of the book whose grouping deserves examination. In it there are five sections, each divide as follows:

Book 1.
(a) Chapters 3-4, Narrative.
(b) Chapters 5-7, Sermon on the Mount.

Book 2.
(a) Chapters 8-9, Narrative.
(b) Chapters 10-11:1, Discourse on Apostleship.

Book 3.
(a) Chapters 11-12, Reception of the Message.
(b) Chapter 13, Parables.

Book 4.
(a) chapter 13:53-17:21, Narrative and Teaching.
(b) Chapter 17:22-19:1, Discussion on Church Administration.

Book 5.
(a) Chapter 19:2-22, Narrative and Teaching.
(b) Chapter 23-25, Eschatological Discourse.

This division is clearly modeled on the book of the Law an implies a contrast between Jesus and the Law which indicates both the Jewish background of the book and its Christological point of view. But this arrangement could only come from the author of the book, since it is not in the tradition, and circumstances and communities do not create books of themselves. We have seen that the gospel’s Christology and relation to Judaism are representative of the church for which it was written. From these date we can argue for an identity of outlook between the evangelist and his community on the two most important features of the book.

Benjamin Wisner Bacon,  Studies in Matthew,  New York : H. Holt, 1930, xiv-xvii

A more practicable course is suggested by the structure of Mt itself, a course which limits attention for the present to this Gospel only. A half-century ago it was recognized that its compiler has followed the plan of aggregating his teaching material from all sources into five great discourses corresponding to the oration codes of the Pentateuch, each introduced, like the Mosaic codes, by a narrative section, each closing with a transition formula as the reader passes from discourse to narrative. To these five bodies of discourse Sir John Hawkins would apply the Hebrew term pereq, meaning “chapter” or “section.” The lay reader will find it easier to think of them as “Sermons” in view of the first of the series, a discourse on the Righteousness of Sons, to which custom has applied the title “Sermon on the Mount.” Prefixed to the first narrative section we find two loosely connected chapters relating the birth and infancy of Jesus from sources elsewhere unknown. This section, Matt 1-2, may most conveniently be designated the Preamble. Correspondingly after the last of the five discourses the transition formula leads over to three chapters (Matt 26-28) of closing narrative relating the passion and resurrection. This envoi we may call the Epilogue.

To show the real structure of the work it will be divided into its seven parts:

  1. Preamble (ch. 1-2)
  2. Book I, subdivided into a Narrative A, introducing a Discourse B (ch. 3-4 and 5-7) 
  3. Book II, similarly subdivided (A, ch. 8-9, B, ch. 10)
  4. Book III (A, ch. 11-12, B, ch. 13) 
  5. Book IV (A, ch. 14-17, B, ch. 18)
  6. Book V (A, ch. 19-22, B, ch. 23-25)
  7. Epilogue (ch. 26-28)

With this subdivision, designed to reflect the evangelist’s structural plan, it will be convenient to employ a method of study … as the most fruitful of modern lines of approach.

Donald Senior, The Gospel of Matthew, Abingdon Press, 1977, pgs. 25-27

The five great discourses of Jesus are a unique feature of Matthew’s gospel. Many commentators on Matthew’s gospel have found in these discourses the key to Matthew’s literary design. One of the most influential proponents of this approach was the American scholar Benjamin Bacon, who wrote in the early part of this [20th] century. He noted the presence in Matthew of a transition statement that occurs five times in the gospel (Matt 7:28; Matt 11:1; Matt 13:53; Matt 19:1; Matt 26:1), each making the end of a main discourse and the beginning of a narrative section. Bacon surmised that these formulae were the results of Matthew’s own editorial work and that the five great “books” of narrative and discourse they set off were evidence that the evangelist had patterned his gospel after the fie great books of the Pentateuch. This Pentateuchal structure signaled Matthew’s ultimate purpose: Jesus was the “new Moses” replacing the authority of the old Law and offering ta new law or Torah to the church.

Commentators such as Peter F. Ellis and H. B. Green took this tendency of the evangelist [grouping in clusters] a step farther by proposing that he entire literary design of Matthew’s gospel is chiastic in structure (Peter F. Ellis, Matthew: His Mind and His Message, Collegeville Minn. Liturgical Press, 1974). Chiasm is a pattern used in ancient Greek literature in which a text is ordered around a center, with other segments radiating from the center and standing in balance with one another. Put in letter form this would be: a b c b’ a’. With c as the center of the literary piece, the other segments (a and a’, b and b’] would be in evident thematic parallel with one another. The basic purpose of a chiastic arrangement was to facilitate memorization of material.

Ellis detected the ‘center’ of Matthew’s gospel in the parable discourse of chapter 13, where fresh form conflict with his opponents Jesus begins to instruct his disciples about eh mystery of the Kingdom. From this centerpiece the other segments of the narrative are suspended and stand in relationship with one another. In the case of the main discourses, for example, the Sermon on the Mount finds its parallel in the judgement discourses of chapters 23-25, and the mission discourse is paralleled by the instructions on life within the community in chapter 18… The overall pattern would be as follows: 

  • a, Narrative: Chapters 1-4
  • b, Sermon: Chapters 5-7
  • c, Narrative: Chapters 8-9
  • d, Sermon: Chapter 10
  • e, Narrative: Chapters 11-12
  • f, Sermon: Chapter 13 [center]
  • e’, Narrative: Chapters 14-17
  • d’, Sermon: Chapter 18
  • c’, Narrative: Chapters 19-22
  • b’, Sermon: Chapters 23-25
  • a’, Narrative: Chapters 26-28

H. B. Green, on the other hand, locates the center of Matthew’s chiastic pattern in chapter 11. This chapter, Green contends, with its reference to John the Baptist, its summary of the miracles of Jesus, and Jesus’ own profound words about his role as Son of God, contains the whole gospel in miniature. From this center all the other segments of the gospel can be placed in parallel:

  • a, Infancy Narrative: Chapters 1-2
  • b, Manifestation of Christ to Israel: Chapters 3-4
  • c, Teaching of the Sermon: Chapters 5-7
  • d, Miracles performed: Chapters 8-9
  • e, Rejection of Proclamation: Chapter 10
  • f, Jesus attested as Son of God: Chapter 11 [center]
  • e’, Rejection of Proclamation: Chapters 12-13
  • d’, Miracles rejected: Chapters 14-18
  • c’, Rejection of the Sermon: Chapters 19-23
  • b’, Manifestation at the end time: Chapters 24-25
  • a’, Passion Narrative: Chapters 26-28

Matthew’s use of the Old Testament

Donald Senior, The Gospel of Matthew, Abingdon Press, 1977, pgs. 33-34

One does not have to read very far into Matthew’s Gospel to become aware of his frequent and explicit appeal to the Old Testament as he narrates the story of Jesus. Five times in the first two chapters, Matthew explicitly quotes the Old Testament, in four of these instances using a “fulfillment formula” to introduce the text. Thus, the miraculous conception of Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:23); the flight into Egypt fulfills the promise of God in Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:15); the identity of Bethlehem as the place where the messiah is to be born is confirmed by citing Micah 5:1 (Matt 2:6); the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem is the fulfillment of a lamentation found in Jeremiah 31:15 (Matt 2:18); and in Matthew 2:23 the evangelist cites the fulfillment of the words of the prophets in connection with the displacement of the holy family to Nazareth, although it is uncertain exactly which Old Testament passage he had in mind. 

Matthew will place other “fulfillment” quotations at the moment of Jesus’ entry into Galilee (Matt 4:15-16), to interpret his healings (Matt 8:17) and his compassionate and reconciling spirit (Matt 12:18-21), his teaching in parables (Matt 13:35), his entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5), his deliverance to the passion (Matt 26:56), and to explain the horror of Judas’ betrayal and death (Matt 27:9-10). 

These explicit fulfillment texts hardly exhaust Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. There is an abundance of other biblical quotations and allusions in Matthew, some of them very explicit, others detectable barely beneath the surface. Some of this material, Matthew absorbs from Mark and Q; in other cases, he enriches the text with new layers of biblical reference. In addition to such references to specific Old Testament passages or events, Matthew also uses typology, whereby characters within the gospel are clothed in the mantel of significant Old Testament figures. The opening scenes of the gospel are filled with scarcely veiled comparisons to Old Testament figures. The threats to Jesus by a king parsons to Old Testament figures. The threats to Jesus by a king and his court in the infancy narrative, recalling Pharaoh’s threats against the first liberator of Israel, and the majestic portrayal of Jesus as lawgiver on a mountaintop at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-2) are an indication that Matthew portrays Jesus as a New Moses. The Joseph who protects Jesus and Mary, taking them into Egypt as a place of refuge can hardly escape comparison to the Joseph of the Exodus accounts. Conversely, the barbaric genocide of Herod wins him the mantle of Pharaoh. 

Mnemonic and Mathematical Arrangements

James Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament Edinburgh, Clark, 1911, p 248-249


Writing for the practical needs of the church, the author betrays the vocation of a teacher incidentally in the mnemonic and mathematical arrangements of his material, among other things.

Groups of 3:

  • Three divisions in the genealogy (Matt 1:2-17) 
  • Three angel- messages to Joseph in dreams (Matt 1:20, Matt 2:13, Matt 2:19)
  • Three temptations (Matt 4:1-11)
  • A triple description of the mission (Matt 4:23 see above)
  • A triple illustration in Matt 5:22 (cp. Matt 5:34-35, Matt 5:39-41)
  • The threefold definition of Matt 6:1-4, Matt 6:5-15, Matt 6:16-18 (cp. also Matt 6:9-10, Matt 7:7-8, 22, 25, 27)
  • Three miracles of healing (Matt 8:1-15)
  • Three further miracles (Matt 8:23 – Matt 9:9)
  • Three other miracles of healing (Matt 9:18-34)
  • The triple rhythm of Matt 11:7-9 (cp. Matt 12:50)
  • The threefold attack of the Pharisees (Matt 12:2, 10, 24)
  • Three parables of sowing (Matt 13:1-32)
  • Three instances of Verily I say to you (Matt 18:3, 13, 18)
  • Three classes of eunuchs (Matt 10:12),
  • The threefold rhythm of Matt 20:19 and Matt 21:9
  • Three parables (Matt 21:18-22:14)
  • Three questions put to Jesus (Matt 22:15-40)
  • Three warnings (Matt 23:8-10, cp. Matt 23:20-22)
  • Three herbs vs. three virtues (mint and dill and cumin, justice and mercy and faithfulness) of Matt 23:23
  • Three clarifications of prophets and wise men and scribes of Matt 23:34 
  • The three men of the parable (Matt 25:14)
  • Three prayers in Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-45)
  • Three denials of Peter (Matt 26:69)
  • Three questions of Pilate (Matt 27:17-22)
  • Three mockeries of the crucified (Matt 27:39-44)
  • Three women, specially mentioned at the cross (Matt 27:56)
  • The threefold rhythm of Matt 28:19

Groups of 5, 7, or 10:

  • Five occurrences of the formula “and when Jesus had finished these sayings” (Matt 7:28, Matt 11:1, Matt 13:53, Matt 19:1, Matt 26:1)
  • The fivefold antithesis of Matt 5:21-48
  • The fivefold rhythm of Matt 10:7-8 (cp. Matt 10:9-10)
  • The seven evil spirits of Matt 12:25
  • The sevenfold forgiveness of Matt 18:21-22 (cp. Matt 22:25)
  • The seven loaves and baskets (Matt 15:34, 37)
  • The sevenfold woe of Matt 23.
  • Ten OT citations (Matt 1-4:11) before the beginning of the Galilean mission
  • Ten miracles in Matt 8:1 – 9:34