Harvard University, Houghton Library

Matthew writing his gospel is depicted on this page from a Book of Hours, probably composed in about 1470 in Troyes, France. A popular, late-medieval genre resembling a breviary, Books of Hours contain readings and prayers to be recited during certain times of the year and at the canonical hours—with many texts offering opportunity for illustration. Typically, the second part of a Book of Hours is a series of gospel readings, each prefaced by a portrait of one of the four evangelists.

An anomaly of Matthew’s gospel is its venomous diatribe against “scribes and Pharisees,” whom Jesus calls “hypocrites,” “blind fools” and even “murderers” (Matthew 23). How do we explain the virulence of these words—which have been used to justify the most vicious kinds of anti-Semitism—from a man who said, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39)?

For many scholars, Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees was an attack on all Jews, from whom early Christians had recently separated. But author Anthony J. Saldarini notes that at the time the gospel was written (80–95 C.E.), its author would have felt himself to be a full-fledged member of the Jewish community—a Jewish member of the Jesus Movement. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., numerous groups vied for leadership in the Jewish community; the author of Matthew belonged to one of these groups, and he wrote his gospel partly to debunk his rivals and establish his own group as the rightful leaders of Israel and interpreters of scripture.