Imperial aggression – Assyrian and Roman
Much scholarship has been devoted to establishing the Jewish context of the Gospel of Matthew, with its Gentile context (including significantly the Roman imperial system) less discussed. Some scholars of the last decade or so, however, have sought to address this. There have been two dominant positions on this issue: 1) that the Matthean author is addressing a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and as such, supports taking the salvific message of Jesus to both (see Brendan Byrne, “The Messiah in whose Name ‘The Gentiles will Hope,’” p. 55-73); and 2) the Gospel writer’s Christian Jewish, Antiochene community have suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans during the Jewish war, and wish to avoid the Gentile world as far as possible (see David Sim, “The Gospel of Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 19-48). In order to appreciate the complexity of the Matthean author’s narrative, the Roman imperial context cannot be ignored, as it is alluded to in various episodes with varying degrees of subtlety.
In these short extracts from the first and fourth chapters of Matthew, we see the Roman Empire alluded to by means of an implicit comparison with the Assyrian Empire. In both extracts, the Gospel writer evokes the book of Isaiah. Matthew 1:23 comes within the narrative of Jesus’s conception, and cites Isaiah 7:14 – “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[a] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” – in order to firmly establish Jesus as the chosen agent to embody and reveal God’s saving presence (Immanuel, meaning “God is with us”). Matthew 4:13-16 comes at the end of the opening section of the Gospel, as Jesus moves from Capernaum into “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where he will begin his teachings in 4:17. As Warren Carter points out, these two references to Isaiah in the first few chapters of the Gospel both recall the struggle of King Ahaz against the Assyrian Empire, along with the prophet Isaiah’s encouraging words in the midst of this threat of God’s plan for the salvation of Israel (Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 264). Several commentators, such as William Davies and Dale Allison, downplay the political significance of these references, arguing that Matthew sees Jesus’s role as the Immanuel as primarily a spiritual one, to save people from their sins, and that politics are not really at issue here. The Roman Empire simply provides a background in which Jesus’s soteriology can be shown as functioning against all odds (William Davies and Dale Allison, Matthew, 1-7, p. 174, 210). However, this fails to adequately take into consideration the depth of the allusions to Isaiah.
Both passages are connected to Matthew’s Gospel by their mutual experience of imperial oppression from Assyria or Rome. Matthew’s audience (whom a large portion of interpreters believe were living in post-70 CE Antioch), the Roman provincial capital of Syria, would have witnessed the extent of Rome’s influence every day. Antioch was a central location for Roman power; it was important for supplies, troops, and anti-Jewish feeling, as reported, for example, by Tacitus, Histories V.13, who tells us that Vespasian had gathered troops here in 67 CE, and Josephus, Jewish Wars VII, who narrates that Titus visited Antioch in 70-71 on his way to his triumph in Rome, and was pleaded with (unsuccessfully according to Josephus) to expel all the Jews from the city (on the suffering of the Jewish and Christian Jewish population of Antioch during and in the aftermath of the Jewish war, see David Sim, The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism, p. 233-236).
Isaiah provides three key positions on imperial power: 1) it is contrary to God’s plan (7:19, 16; 8:1-4); 2) God uses it as a tool to punish sinful behaviour (7:17-28; 8:5-15); and 3) God will ultimately save the oppressed from its influences (9:1-7). For the audience of Matthew’s Gospel this would provide a comforting background within which to understand their present situation. While God does not sanction Roman power as such, he makes use of it (Matthew 22:7 appears to blame Jewish sinfulness for the destruction of 70 CE), and will redeem his people from it through Jesus.
That 4:15-16 specifically places Jesus’s ministry as beginning “beyond the Jordan” in the “districts of Zebulun and Naphtali” evokes Israel’s exodus and occupation by oppressing powers. Zebulun and Naphtali specifically identify tribal locations shown by God to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-4) that Assyria once conquered and renamed (Isaiah 9:1), and are now of course held by the Romans (see Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 265). When the Matthean author refers to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” therefore, those members of his audience with knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures are invited to make this link between the land Jesus now comes to spread his message to, and its former and present status under imposing imperial rule. What the author communicates through these two references to Isaiah, therefore, is more than simply a promise that mankind will be saved from sin, and Jesus’s geographical location. Rather, these allusions to the imperial oppressors of ancient Israel offer a framework for interpreting Rome’s dominion over Matthew’s audience, and assert that their subjugation will come to an end through Jesus. Many interpreters will find an association between the imperial powers of Assyria and Rome far-fetched, as it relies on a very specific, and not necessarily immediately obvious connection to be drawn by the earliest (and future) recipients of Matthew. It remains, however, as one possibility.
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Thematic keywords in English: