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Being Emmanuel: Matthew's Ever-Present Jesus?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2021

Markus Bockmuehl*
Keble College, OxfordOX1 3PG, UK Email:


Among the New Testament Gospels, Matthew most emphatically stresses the continued presence of Jesus throughout his ministry and with his disciples after Easter. This is despite sensitivity to the challenge of the cross and experiences of absence or deprivation. Structurally, the Gospel develops this affirmation in relation to the narrative of Jesus’ birth and incarnation, to his ministry, to the governance of the Christian community in its apostolic mission to Israel and the nations. Matthew never quite articulates how this continued presence actually works, whether in spatial or sacramental or pneumatological terms. And yet the emphatic correlation of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Emmanuel’ confirms that each is constituted by the other: being ‘God with us’ (Matt 1.23) means precisely to ‘save his people’ (1.21), and vice versa.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 I am less sure than Warren Carter that the function of this presence of ‘Emmanuel’ is primarily and specifically ‘anti-imperial’ in intent, much as a relativisation and scepticism about imperial power would seem to be a valid and necessary inference. (‘The child Jesus is a sign of resistance to imperial power. The name Immanuel contests imperial claims that Domitian is a deus praesens (Statius, Silv. 5.2.170) or θɛὸς ἐπιφανής. It confirms Jesus as the one who manifests God's will and blessings on earth. Through him God's purposes and reign will prevail’ (Carter, W., ‘Evoking Isaiah: Matthean Soteriology and an Intertextual Reading of Isaiah 7–9 in Matthew 1:23 and 4:15-16’, JBL 119 (2000) 503–20, at 513Google Scholar).)

2 οὐδὲν οὖν ἄλλο δηλοῖ τὸ καλέσουσιν Ἐμμανουὴλ ἢ ὅτι ὄψονται Θɛὸν μɛτὰ ἀνθρώπων⋅ ἀɛὶ μὲν γὰρ γέγονɛ μɛτὰ ἀνθρώπων, οὐδέποτɛ δὲ οὕτω σαφῶς (John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 5.2, PG 57.57). This became a common homiletical trope in subsequent centuries. Cf. also Lancelot Andrewes’ Sermon on 25 December 1614 (L. Andrewes, Ninety-Six Sermons (Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology; 5 vols.; Oxford: Parker, 1841) i.142): ‘St. Matthew knew that well enough, for he sets it down so . . . Immanuel and Jesus both came to one, as indeed they do; one infers the other … This name must needs imply a secret antithesis to His former being with us. We say nothing in saying, He is now with us, if He be not so with us now as never before. With them in types and figures of Himself; His shadow was with them; but now He Himself.’

3 By substituting a prophecy about a ‘Nazorean’ for Mark's more intelligible usage of ‘Nazarene’ (e.g. Mark 1.24), Matthew leaves us guessing what passage or indeed what Greek or Hebrew terminology he has in mind. The most plausible association is with the Messiah as the promised Davidic ‘Branch’ (Heb. netzer) from the exiled stump of Judah; see e.g. Isa 11.1, which was read messianically at Qumran (4Q161 frs. 8–10) and in Targum Jonathan. Perhaps Matthew is simply adducing an eschatologically tinged ‘folk etymology’ of the name ‘Nazareth’, as e.g. J. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Bletchley: Paternoster, 2005) 129 implies. Interestingly, Julius Africanus (ca 160–240) associated the relatives of Jesus (δɛσπόσυνοι, ‘the Lord's people’) especially with the villages of Nazareth and Cochaba, both of whose names may have carried messianic associations: see e.g. Riesner, R., ‘“Was kann aus Nazareth Gutes kommen?” (Johannes 1,46): Archäologie und Geschichte des Heimatortes Jesu’, TBei 48 (2017) 324–39Google Scholar, at 333–4 and others cited there (n. 67).

4 This is a particular emphasis of Kupp, D. D., Matthew's Emmanuel: Divine Presence and God's People in the First Gospel (SNTSMS 90; Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 240 and passim.

5 Cf. Kupp, Matthew's Emmanuel, 230.

6 Harris, Thus M., ‘The Comings and Goings of the Son of Man: Is Matthew's Risen Jesus “Present” or “Absent”? A Narrative-Critical Response’, BibInt 22 (2014) 5170Google Scholar, at 56, citing C. F. Evans, Resurrection and the New Testament (SBT ii.12; London: SCM, 1970) 83.

7 See e.g. Nolland, Matthew; cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (ICC; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988–97) iii.681.

8 Similarly Harris, ‘The Comings and Goings of the Son of Man’, 67.

9 C. Blumenthal, ‘Basileia is Gaining Space: God's Will, Mimesis of Christ, and the Spatial Shaping of the Basileia in Matthew's Gospel’, The Gospel of Matthew in its Historical and Theological Context (ed. M. Seleznev et al.; WUNT 459; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021) 345–64; cf. C. Blumenthal, Basileia im Matthäusevangelium (WUNT 416; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019) 21–9, 153, 164, 203–5.

10 Schreiner, P., The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew (LNTS 555; London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) 153–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar and passim.

11 Soja, E., Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places (Cambridge, MA/Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)Google Scholar.

12 Sleeman, M., Geography and the Ascension Narrative in Acts (SNTSMS 146; Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 ‘Thirdspace’, he writes, ‘represents ways in which new meanings and possibilities of spatial practice can be imagined’ (P. Schreiner, The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew (LNTS 555; London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) 50), just as Foucault's concept of heterotopia denotes ‘imaginary places outside all places, . . . neither here nor there’ (53) – like the imaginary games of children. Most strikingly, Schreiner takes this concept beyond Foucault to conclude that the incarnation itself is a heterotopia, i.e. presumably such an imaginary place outside all places, neither here nor there (136). Au contraire: the incarnation marks the quite particular point in space and time where the Word becomes enfleshed – not ‘neither here nor there’ but among us, for Matthew as much as for John. (Less awkward or demandingly abstract access to Schreiner's desired heterotopic outcome might be available by reading the incarnation as myth).

14 For Schreiner, this ‘Jesus presents an imagined kingdom through his words’ (The Body of Jesus, 134; emphasis added).

15 J. P. Grimshaw, ‘Review of P. Schreiner, The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)’, BibInt 26 (2018) 287–89, at 289.

16 This correlation is one to which Harris, ‘The Comings and Goings of the Son of Man’, 67 has also rightly drawn attention in a significant study of this subject. It may also be expressed, perhaps even better than in Foucault or Schreiner, in the recently popularised Celtic notion of particular ‘thin places’ in which heaven and earth come within touching distance of each other. That said, the point of Matthew's account is arguably to make a more universal claim about the ‘Emmanuel’, not to single out or set apart particular ‘holy places’.

17 I owe this insight to a comment received from Carl Holladay.

18 Cf. similarly Karrer, M., Jesus Christus im Neuen Testament (GNT 11; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998) 308CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Kupp, Matthew's Emmanuel, 216–17. McDonald, P., ‘“Am with You Always, to the End of the Age”: Presence in the Gospel according to Matthew’, PIBA 28 (2005) 6686Google Scholar, at 83–4 notes that in a somewhat different vein Moses goes on to pass the baton of God's commissioning presence to Joshua-‘Jesus’ in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua. But while the OT Joshua receives the divine promise of presence from Moses, the NT Joshua-Jesus issues it himself, and is himself the new lawgiver here. A deliberate Joshua-Jesus typology has been more persuasively argued for Hebrews (R. J. Ounsworth, Joshua Typology in the New Testament (WUNT ii/328; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012)).

20 Evidently taking οὗ γάρ with a smooth breathing, Codex Bezae and the Syriac versions ‘amend’ their reading into a double negative form: ‘no two or three’ will gather in his name anywhere without his presence among them (ουκ ɛισιν γαρ . . . παρ οις ουκ . . .).

21 Commentators offer extensive lists of Jewish parallels (e.g. Josephus, J.W. 1.111; T. Levi. 18.12; T. Sol. 1.14); for later rabbinic usage, cf. also Str-B 1.738–47. See the comprehensive discussion in Davies and Allison, Matthew ii.623–41; J. Gnilka, Matthäusevangelium (HTKNT i.1–2; 2 vols.; Freiburg: Herder, 1986–8) ii.60–7; U. Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKKNT i.1–4; 4 vols.; Zurich: Benziger/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1985–2002) ii.461–6. For the theme of church discipline, see the reapplication of the image in these terms in 18.18; and cf. Acts 5.3, 5, 9. Luz, Matthäus, ii.466 considers both church discipline and the authority to forgive sins to be implicit in the generalising designation ὃ ἐάν (‘whatever’), confirmed in 18.18.

22 So e.g. J. D. Kingsbury, ‘The Figure of Peter in Matthew's Gospel as a Theological Problem’, JBL 98 (1979) 67–83. Cf. further M. Bockmuehl, Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) 92–4.

23 Cf. Kupp, Matthew's Emmanuel; T. J. Surlis, The Presence of the Risen Christ in the Community of Disciples: An Examination of the Ecclesiological Significance of Matthew 18:20 (Tesi Gregoriana: Serie Teologia 188; Rome: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2011) 86–8 and passim.

24 So also P. Pokorný, ‘“Wo zwei oder drei versammelt sind in meinem Namen …” (Mt 18,20)’, Gemeinde ohne Tempel: Zur Substituierung und Transformation des Jerusalemer Temepls und seines Kults im Alten Testament, antiken Judentum und frühen Christentum (ed. B. Ego et al.; WUNT 118; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999) 477–88.

25 M. Abot 3.2 שניים שיושבין ויש ביניהם דברי תורה, שכינה שרויה ביניהם (Ḥananyah b. Teradion).

26 M. Abot 3.6, there attributed to Ḥananyah's contemporary Ḥalafta b. Dosa.

27 Thus rightly Kupp, Matthew's Emmanuel, 199.

28 A. Cohen, Matthew and the Mishnah: Redefining Identity and Ethos in the Shadow of the Second Temple's Destruction (WUNT ii/418; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016) 30 argues that, more than other comparisons, this one usefully correlates two post-70 documents that explicitly reflect ‘the reality of a temple-less Judaism which confronted both the authors and their respective communities’ (emphasis original). Cohen's conclusion insightfully contrasts what he regards as the Temple's spiritualised continuity in the Mishnah with its spiritualised replacement in Matthew by Jesus and his community – although that divergence also contrasts with interesting elements of liturgical and architectural convergence between church and synagogue during the Byzantine period (516–31).

29 Kupp, Matthew‘s Emmanuel, 175 refers to 1.23 as the ‘masthead’ over the whole Gospel.

30 ἀφίɛται ὑμῖν ὁ οἶκος ὑμῶν ἔρημος, addressed as it is to Jerusalem (23.37), echoes Jer 22.5 ɛἰς ἐρήμωσιν ἔσται ὁ οἶκος οὗτος (כִּי־לְחָרְבָּ֥ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּֽה) and seems likely to evoke both city and temple.

31 Mark 14.57–9; cf. 15.29.

32 Twentieth-century scholarship abounds in examples, and the work of N. T. Wright is also often cited in this connection. Frequent ‘replacement’ language also appears from a different theological vantage point e.g. in B. Charette, Restoring Presence: The Spirit in Matthew's Gospel (JPTSup 18; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000) 101–8 and passim.

33 So also M. Konradt, ‘Die Deutung der Zerstörung Jerusalems und des Tempels im Matthäusevangelium’, Studien zum Matthäusevangelium (ed. A. Euler; WUNT 358; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016) 219–57, at 256–7 (‘Und nicht nur für Josephus, sondern auch für Matthäus bedeutet die Zerstörung Jerusalems in keiner Weise das Ende Israels’); cf. 220.

34 Konradt, ‘Die Deutung der Zerstörung Jerusalems’, 235.

35 Most dramatically in J.W. 6.299–300; cf. further 2.539; 5.412; Ant. 20.166.

36 Konradt, ‘Die Deutung der Zerstörung Jerusalems’, 252.

37 See e.g. Justin, Dial. 16, 108, 133, 136; 1 Apol. 47–8. Even the more explicitly abolitionist and supersessionist Epistle of Barnabas knows of such rebuilding efforts in its own day (16.3–4), but it passes no comment on definitive replacement implications of the year 70. For evidence of initiatives and aspirations to rebuild the Temple under Hadrian, see detailed discussion in W. Horbury, Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) 298–307.

38 R. Deines, ‘How Long? God's Revealed Schedule for Salvation and the Outbreak of the Bar Kokhba Revolt’, Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History (ed. A. Lange et al.; SIJD 9; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011) 201–34.

39 Pokorny, ‘Wo zwei oder drei’, 479–80 infers that for Matthew by contrast every Christian gathering can therefore become the place of presence.

40 M. Abot 3.3 אבל שלשה שאכלו על שלחן אחד ואמרו עליו דברי תורה, כאלו אכלו משלחנו של מקום ברוך הוא.

41 U. Luz, Matthew (Hermeneia; 4 vols. (vol. i rev. edn); Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001–7), iv.259 notes Origen's interpretation of Christ's simultaneous absence and presence according to his human and divine natures (Comm. Matt. 65, GCS 11.152–3).

42 Programmatically in M. Goodacre, ‘Fatigue in the Synoptics’, NTS 44 (1998) 45–58.

43 E.g. Saunders, S. P., Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God's Presence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010)Google Scholar.

44 Kupp, Matthew's Emmanuel, 199.

45 I am not convinced that this mode of presence is best described as ‘mystical’, pace J. Freeborn, ‘The Presence of Christ in Matthew’, ExpTim 115 (2004) 156–61, at 156.

46 Note the present tense of ἀφίɛται. Many commentators needlessly restrict this predicate's temporal reference.

47 Cf. the force of the rabbinic term כאילו, e.g. in m. Abot 3.3 quoted in n. 40 above three who sit and talk about Torah are ‘as if’ כאילו they ate at God's own table.

48 A similar and also potentially timeless family connection is present in 12.46–50, although it remains again somewhat unclear whether this relativisation of kinship is a general principle about all families or perhaps relates first and foremost to the biological family of Jesus vis-à-vis his circle of (present and future, v. 50) disciples.

49 Cf. Coakley, S., ‘Finding Jesus Christ in the Poor’, Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage (ed. Gaventa, B. R. and Hays, R. B.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 301–19Google Scholar, at 316.

50 Cf. similarly Luz, Matthew, iv.384.

51 Abstention from wine for a specified period marked the Nazirite, and m. Nazir 2.3 identifies a simple declaration to abstain from a cup set before one as sufficient to validate the vow (מזגו לו את הכוס, ואמר הריני נזיר ממנו, הרי זה נזיר).

52 ‘We can detect a significant coming absence, but it achieves little focus in Matthew’ (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 713).

53 Luz, Matthew, iv.553 (cf. i.195–6) similarly draws attention to this problem.

54 So e.g. already Hippolytus, On the Blessings of Isaac and Jacob (ἐν τῷ σταυρῷ τὰς χɛῖρας καὶ τοὺς βραχίονας ἐκπɛτάσας, with reference to Isa 53.4: M. Brière et al., eds., Hippolyte de Rome. Sur les bénédictions d'Isaac, de Jacob et de Moïse (PO 27.1–2; Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1954) 20); Arnobius, Comm. on Psalms 17(MT 18), line 99 (haec omnia nobis per illum evenient, qui posuit ut arcum aereum brachia in cruce et cottidie interpellat pro nobis: K.-D. Daur, ed., Arnobii Iunioris Commentarii in Psalmos (CCSL 25.1; Turnhout: Brepols, 1990)); also cf. Justin, Dial. 90.

55 Cf. Blumenthal, ‘Basileia is Gaining Space’, 359, 364

56 So also McDonald, ‘I Am with You Always’, 85–6.