THE WITNESS OF THE SCRIPTURES
What do the Scriptures tell us about the Author of Matthew’s Gospel?
Church tradition holds that the apostle Matthew (also called Levi) wrote this Gospel for a Hebrew audience, and originally wrote his account in Hebrew (Aramaic). So, let’s see what we can learn about Matthew from the scriptures to discover whether that confirms or conflicts with the church tradition.
Matthew, like Jesus and all his twelve apostles, was a Hebrew, a Jew. His parents had given him a Jewish name, “Matthew” comes from the Hebrew, mattija – meaning, “the gift of the Lord”. This is suggestive of a conservative, religious family. His other name “Levi”, is suggestive of someone from the priestly tribe of Levi. His father, Alphaeus, is named in Mark so was probably a respected member of the Jewish community. Also like the other apostles, Matthew was living in the traditional and religious region of Galilee and would have received the traditional Jewish schooling of five years in the Bet Sefer (House of the Book) learning to read, write and memorise the Torah, then graduated to the ‘Beit-Talmud’ (House of Learning) where he would have memorised the rest of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures), learnt the art of rhetorical debating and begun studying the Pharisees’ Oral Law and interpretations.
Here are the Gospel accounts of his calling:
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ He told him, and Matthew got up and followed Him. And it happened that as He was reclining at the table in the house, behold many tax-gathers and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. Matthew 9:9-10 NASB
As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow me!” And he arose and followed Him. And it came about that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax-gathers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them and they were following Him. Mark 2:14-15 NASB
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax-gatherer named Levi sitting in the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow me.” And he left everything behind, and rose and began to follow Him. And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. Luke 5:27–28 NASB
Jesus was heading out from Capernaum, a large Jewish village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He was probably following an important trading route – the road which passed through Capernaum from Damascus to the seaports of Phoenicia, when he saw Matthew collecting taxes. The term “tax collector” or “tax-gatherer” is from the Greek word “telones” and some versions of the Bible translate it as “publican.” Telones were essentially customs officers who charged a tax on all imports and exports and were renowned for their ingenuity in inventing taxes on everything; crossing rivers, entering or leaving a town, travelling on a road, admission to markets, taxes on axels, wheels, pack animals, pedestrians and anything else they could think of. The tax offices for “receipt of custom” were at city gates, on public roads and on bridges. The telone could walk up to any traveller on any road within his district and ask them to unload all their goods and open all packages so they could be valued by him and taxed on that value. Many scholars believe that the customs raised at Capernaum went into the treasury of Herod Antipas, apart from the amounts kept by the telones for their income. The dominant school of Pharisees in Jesus’ day were separatists and would not lower themselves to have anything to do with a tax collector, whom they saw as no better than a Gentile, defiled by their constant contact with the heathen which would have necessitated fluency in the Greek language, and regarded as traitors and apostates. To them the tax collector was irredeemable, excluded from all religious fellowship including the Temple and Synagogue, unfit to be a witness in any Jewish court and their money considered tainted such that it defiled anyone who accepted it. (27) (28) (29) (30) (31) (32)
Could a despised tax-collector, considered unredeemable and unfit to be a court witness, become the author of the Gospel that was most frequently quoted by the early church fathers? Matthew would be the least likely person for the early church to name as author if they were just looking for the name of one of the apostles to attach to this Gospel to give it credibility, as some have proposed.
As a member of the priestly tribe Matthew would likely be well educated in Jewish law. (33) It appears that at some stage during his teens Matthew rebelled against the strict separatist Judaism that he had been taught in order to follow a more financially prosperous path. Maybe his rebellion was sparked by what he saw as hypocrisy in his teachers and religious leaders – fifteen of the twenty denunciations of hypocrites in the gospels come from Matthew’s Gospel. Like many a young person, Matthew had not rejected God just the hypocrisy that he saw in his religious leaders. When he saw Jesus totally without hypocrisy Matthew was willing to give up everything to follow him. He was intelligent, excelled in maths, could keep ordered accounts and records, had been trained in a shorthand to record people’s statements verbatim, and knew Greek well enough to ingratiate himself to the Romans in charge of revenue collections. The price he paid for this was the derision of many and being ostracised from his community, but so many were ostracised from the religious Jewish community at this time that they formed their own communities of outcast ones. Matthew had no difficulty attracting a large crowd of these to the dinner he held for Jesus (Luke 5:29).
It is interesting that in the Gospel according to Matthew there is no mention of Matthew until after the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus’ stilling the wind and waves, sending the legion of demons into the herd of swine, and forgiving and healing the man who was paralysed. Mark and Luke’s gospels both introduce Matthew (Levi) earlier in the narration but all three accounts place Matthew’s calling directly after Jesus proving that He had the authority to forgive sins by healing the man who was paralysed. Christ’s authority to forgive sins is the essential pre-requisite for His calling a tax collector to follow Him. Almost a third of Matthew’s Gospel is written about events which happened prior to any indication in it that Matthew had encountered Jesus. As one who had close contact with all travellers, Matthew probably heard many of the stories of the miracles that Jesus was doing and it could be that he was part of the crowd for some of these earlier events, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, was drawn to Jesus’ teaching and took meticulous notes but never thought that Jesus would accept one such as him for a disciple. That would explain Matthew’s immediate response to Jesus’ call.
The only other time that Matthew is named in any of the gospels is when Jesus chose twelve of his disciples and named them apostles (Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16) then sent them out to the lost sheep of Israel to preach, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons (Matthew 10:5-8). Matthew is not named again until the twelve are listed once more in Acts 1:13. He is specified nowhere else in scripture, although it is clear that he continued faithfully following Jesus with the other apostles and then testifying to his resurrection after Pentecost.
Some sceptical scholars have argued that Matthew could not be the author of this Gospel because the writer never identifies himself with Matthew the tax collector, or with anyone else in the text. There are no instances of “I”, “me”, “we” or “us” anywhere in the Gospel according to Matthew, everything is written in the third person. Bart Erhman and others argue that this precludes Matthew, or anyone who walked with Jesus, from being the author of this Gospel. It was not, however, uncommon for ancient auto-biographers to write in the third person about themselves; Xenophon, Josephus and Julius Caesar all did so. Therefor it is plausible for the author of this Gospel to also write in the third person when referring to himself, so this does not preclude Matthew from being that author. (34)
Another objection raised by sceptical scholars is that Jesus’ followers were unlearned and therefore could not have written such high quality works. Matthew’s Gospel is the one that focuses most strongly on Jesus being the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures and contains the most quotes thereof so some have argued: “If the Gospel of Matthew was written by a tax collector, the gospel couldn’t have such intimate knowledge of the Law—because tax collectors were religious outsiders”. (25) It appears that such scholars think that the disciples both started off ignorant of their own religion and never learnt anything more after Jesus called them as teenagers or young men. Although some experts have concluded that literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world were seldom been more than 20 percent (35) (36), in 59 BC Julius Caesar established a daily newspaper Acta Diurna which was distributed throughout the Roman Empire and was continued on by subsequent rulers, suggesting sufficient literacy among the populace to have a social impact. (37) It should also be noted that the Jewish people were a people “of the Book”, they highly valued literacy even for the ‘common man’ as it enabled one to read from the holy scriptures in the Synagogue and every Synagogue in every village had a number of different people each week read to the congregation from the Torah and Prophets. Having grown up in this the apostles then had three years of intensive training with Jesus and it gave them a love for learning and for the Word as we can see in Acts 6:2,4. The original expression used here for “give ourselves continually” is very emphatic. It denotes intense and persevering steadfast application to a thing, unwearied effort in it. While most commentaries focus on the proclamation of the Word, such also requires prayerful study of the scriptures. The evidence suggests that the 12 apostles, 11 after James was killed by Herod, remained based in Jerusalem – the centre of Jewish religious life and debate – for around twenty years after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, until after the Acts 15 council in Jerusalem. Two decades in the epicentre of Jewish thought and debate, steadfastly applying themselves to prayerfully studying and reflecting and preaching under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and debating with the most learned of their Jewish counterparts who did not see Jesus as the fulfilment of the scriptures read every Saturday in their Synagogues and proclaimed daily in the Temple. Such would have produced a very deep and thorough understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.
There are other clues to the author of this Gospel in its style and content. It is the most unequivocally Hebrew of the four Gospels, most focused on the scribes and Pharisees, and has a greater focus on money than the other Gospels.
The Gospel according to Matthew is clearly written by a Jew and for other Jews to show them that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and God’s promised Messiah. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures over sixty times, more than twice as many times as any other Gospel author, and refers to Hebrew prophecies of Christ’s virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), His return from Egypt after the death of Herod (Hosea 11:1), His ministry to the Gentiles (Isaiah 9:1-2; 60:1-3), His miraculous healings of both body and soul (Isaiah 53:4), His speaking in parables (Psalm 78:2), and His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9). Matthew both uniquely depicts Jesus affirming the importance of the law (Matt. 5:17-20) and contrasts Jesus’ interpretation of the law with that of the Pharisees “you have heard that it was said… … But I say unto you… …” He refers to but does not explain Jewish customs (unlike Mark who provides explanations for a Gentile audience). He emphasis Jesus’ role as ‘Son of David’ and provides his genealogy back to Abraham. He also directly responds to the Jewish leader’s initial objections to the narrative about Jesus, such as claims that the empty tomb was from his disciples stealing the body (Matthew 28:11-15). This focus on writing for Jewish believers has led some scholars to agree with church tradition that Matthew’s Gospel was written very early in the history of the church, possibly even in response to the first scattering of believers mentioned in Acts 8:1, when they would have been separated from the apostles’ direct testimony of all that Jesus taught and did. (38) (39) (40) (33) (41)
The author of the Gospel according to Matthew shows a greater focus on the scribes and Pharisees than the authors of the other Gospels. In Matthew scribes and Pharisees are mentioned a combined 54 times, compared with 42 in Luke, 33 in Mark and 20 in John. This is consistent with someone who grew up under their training then rebelled against it and suffered their shunning.
Matthew’s Gospel references money 44 times, compared with Luke’s 22 times and Mark’s 6 times. This author is the only one to record payment of Jesus’ and Peter’s temple tax to the tax collector in Capernaum (Matthew 17:24-27). He is also the only one to record the parable of the payment of the vineyard workers, and accurately states the rate for a day’s wages at that time (Matthew 20:1-6). It is the only Gospel that records anything about the Pharisees swearing by the gold in the temple (Matthew 23:16-17) and attaches more specific monetary detail to Jesus’ directions about taking nothing with them (compare Matthew 10:9, Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3). Such detail with regard to monetary matters is also consistent with the author being a former tax-collector. (42) (39) (38) (41) (34) (40)
The church tradition that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew (Aramaic) fits well with it being composed for early Jewish believers but not, according to scholars, with the way the earliest copies that we have of it are written in the Greek. The fluid Greek of the Gospel suggests that, in its current form, it was first written in Greek and not translated from Aramaic (43). Nevertheless, Matthew may well have originally recorded Jesus’ sayings and actions in his native Aramaic and shared these with others before formally writing his account of Jesus’ life in Greek for the Jewish diaspora living in a Greek speaking world.
While we do not have sufficient evidence to prove that the former tax-collector turned apostle, Matthew, penned the Gospel attributed to him, what we do know collaborates this church tradition. (25)
25. ZA Blog. Who Wrote the Gospels and How Do We Know for Sure? Zondervan Academic. [Online] 20 Sept 2017. [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.] https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels.
26. International Bible Society. Introduction to NIV Study Bible 1 Peter. Biblica. [Online] [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.] https://www.biblica.com/resources/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-1-peter/.
27. Bible History. Tax Collectors – First Century. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.bible-history.com/taxcollectors/.
28. —. Tax Collectors Overview. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.bible-history.com/taxcollectors/TAXCOLLECTORSOverview.htm.
29. —. The Name Tax Collector. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.bible-history.com/taxcollectors/TAXCOLLECTORSName.htm.
30. Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. s.l. : Hendrickson Publishers, 1992 (first published 1883). 0943575834.
31. Bible History. Brief History About the Tax Collectors. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.bible-history.com/taxcollectors/TAXCOLLECTORSHistory.htm.
32. —. The Customs of Tax Collectors. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.bible-history.com/taxcollectors/TAXCOLLECTORSCustoms.htm.
33. Mead, Aaron. Who Wrote the Gospel according to Matthew? Aaron Mead Writer, Theologian, Philosopher. [Online] 10th Aug 2018. [Cited: 8th Sept 2019.] http://www.ameadwriter.com/who-wrote-the-gospel-according-to-matthew/.
34. Manning, Erik. Did Matthew Write the Gospel of Matthew. Is Jesus Alive. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://isjesusalive.com/did-matthew-write-the-gospel-of-matthew/.
35. Harris, H.V. Ancient Literacy. s.l. : Harvard University Press, 1989.
36. Literacy in the Roman World. Routledge. [Online] [Cited: 16th Sept 2019.] http://documents.routledge-interactive.s3.amazonaws.com/9781138776685/Ch8/Literacy%20in%20the%20Roman%20World.pdf.
37. Wright, Brian J. Ancient Rome’s Daily News Publication With Some ikely Implications For Early Christian Studies. 1, 2016, Tyndale Bulletin, Vol. 67, pp. 145-160.
38. The International Bible Scoiety. Matthew – Introductionfrom the NIV Study bible. Biblica. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.biblica.com/resources/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-matthew/.
39. Chilton, Brian. Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew? Cross Examined. [Online] 11th June 2017. [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://crossexamined.org/wrote-gospel-matthew/.
40. Got Questions. Gospel of Matthew. Got Questions Miistries. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://www.gotquestions.org/Gospel-of-Matthew.html.
41. Hamilton, Seraphim. Matthew: Date and Authorship. Orthodox Christianity. [Online] 2nd March 2016. [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] http://orthochristian.com/91189.html.
42. Nelson, Ryan. Who Was Matthew the Apostle? The Beginner’s Guide. Overview Bible. [Online] 1st April 2019. [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.] https://overviewbible.com/matthew-the-apostle/.
43. Hagner, Donald A. Word Biblical Commentary Matthew 1-13, Volume 33A. Michigan : Zondervan, 2015. 978-0-310-52098-3.