Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Who Wrote the Book of . . . Matthew?

Who Wrote the Book of . . . Matthew?
Posted by Clark Bates
May 24, 2016

     As we continue in this discussion of New Testament authorship, our third destination is what is commonly known as the “first gospel” or the “Gospel according to Matthew.” The order in which these articles are being presented, haphazard as it may seem, is not without intent. Having begun with John , (a gospel that stands apart from the three Synoptic Gospels in content and theology), attention was then turned to Mark. The reason being that while Mark is the second gospel in order of canonical inclusion, it is considered by most to be the earliest written record, and the source upon which the other Synoptic Gospels draw some of their information. So, having established the most likely authors of the previous gospels, attention will now be turned to the gospel that followed Mark in dating, Matthew.

      While it has been the format of the earlier articles to begin with the internal evidence of gospel authorship and then to move into external evidence that supports the text, the discussion on Matthew will differ. The reason for this article beginning with external evidence and moving inward is that a larger portion of authorial suggestion comes from outlying tradition. It seems best, then, to begin with the weightier evidence before analyzing it with the text itself.

External Evidence

      Just as could be said of most of the gospels, the Gospel according to Matthew is formally anonymous. The commonly attributed titles by which we now know the fourfold Gospel seem to have originated around AD 125 but this is little more than an educated guess. As was briefly noted in the previous discussion on Mark's gospel, this educated guess has been called into question. Given Hengel's detailed examination of book distribution in the ancient world, evidence has surfaced that titles of some sort would have been necessary for proper identification from other works.1

      Implicit support for this position is found within Tertullian's criticism of the heretic Marcion for publishing his own gospel without the author's name. As part of his rebuke, Tertullian writes, “a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect. . . which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.”2 Writing in the mid-second century, Tertullian's statement regarding the need for titles, falls within the time frame of earlier speculation, but it seems unlikely that such a view could have become prolific within only a few decades. Hengel's main thesis on the subject is that it would be inconceivable that the gospels could circulate anonymously for up to sixty years, and then in the second century suddenly display unanimous attribution to certain authors. If the authors had been largely anonymous prior to the second century, one would expect there to be more variation within the following attributions; especially given that this was the case with several second-century apocryphal gospels.3

“a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect. . . which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.”

      In detraction to this view, it is often stated that the Greek kata (according to) that precedes Matthew in the title of the gospel need not indicate authorship but merely conformity to a certain style (i.e. The Gospel According to the Hebrews, The Gospel According to the Egyptians). In fact, this is its more common usage in Greek literature of the time.4 Hengel agrees with this but also notes a telling analogy: In the Greek fathers, the one Old Testament is referred to as “according to the Seventy” where the prepositional expression is used to introduce the person responsible for producing the version concerned. Hengel argues that the one Gospel circulated in the same way with four distinct forms (i.e. “according to Mark”, “according to Matthew” etc.).5 The only existing statement of Papias (AD 70-163) regarding this gospel comes to us through the writings of Eusebius in the fourth century in fragmented form and is notoriously difficult to translate.6 It reads, “Matthew (composed, compiled, or arranged in orderly form), (the sayings, or gospel) in (the Hebrew [Aramaic] language or style), and each (interpreted, translated, or transmitted) them as best he could.”7

      While this excerpt contains obvious problems, certain textual data within the first Gospel can be illuminating. To begin with, the early church interpreted this text to say that Matthew originally wrote the gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic which was later translated into Greek. However, the Old Testament quotations contained within the text lack Aramiac rendering and read more as from an author writing in Greek but knowledgeable of Semitic languages. Given that Matthew's dependence on the Gospel of Mark is widely maintained, the verbal connections between the two make Aramaic or Hebrew origins less likely. Finally, the existence of Semitisms throughout the first Gospel do not allow for an average translation form Greek. These Semitic enhancements surround the sayings of Jesus and are used for effect by a writer who is demonstrably capable of writing Hellenistic Greek.8 If this is the case, Papias' claim that Matthew wrote in Hebrew becomes questionable, and while some have argued that this discredits the entirety of Papias' statement there is no need for such extremism, as author's have often been known to err in one point without erring in all.9

Internal Evidence

       Evidence from within the gospel itself provides some leading information regarding authorship. Only in Matthew do we find the apostle referred to as, “Matthew the tax collector” (Matt. 10:30). In Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27, the man whom Jesus calls from his role as a tax collector is identified as “Levi”. However, in the same parallel passage in Matthew (9:9-13) the tax collector is named “Matthew”. While some have sought to create an alternative proposal, the most economical explanation is that Matthew is to be identified as the same tax collector named Levi elsewhere. That this tax collector is the apostle can be confirmed through the apostolic lists of of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-18; Luke 6:13-16).

      If Matthew is the aforementioned tax collector, this makes sense of several details within the text. In several instances, recorded exclusively by the first gospel, financial depictions are discussed (17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16, et. al.). This does not require insider information, so to speak, but does become curious when contained solely within the text of a gospel traditionally held to have been written by a financial dealer. A tax collector would need to be fluent in both Greek and Aramaic, coinciding with what has previously been discussed regarding the textual transmissions of Semitisms in Greek. In addition, The gospel's connection to Mark could be viewed as perfectly reasonable, given that plagiarism bore no negative connotations prior to the invention of the printing press, and even more so if the underlying message in Mark comes from Peter, as is popularly believed. It would be difficult to find a reason why Matthew would not utilize the writings of a fellow apostle in such an instance.

      While it is argued that Matthew's Christology is far too advanced for the time of its writing, thereby disproving apostolic authorship in favor of a late date authorship, a high Christology demonstrably developed early as seen in the Christ hymns of the Pauline writings (Phil. 2:5-11: Col. 1:15-20). Also, it is clearly distinguished within the first gospel what the apostles thought of Christ in the moment opposed to what the author knew of Christ at the time of his writing.10 Such evidence, rather than disputing apostolic authorship might better be seen as proving it, given that only those closest to the Lord could preserve such clear distinctions.

      Matthew's gospel relates the opposition to Jesus by the Pharisees and Sadducees as a united front, but rather than confusing the two faculties, the author distinguishes them when needed (22:23-33). This should not be seen as ignorance of Jewish customs but a clear effort on the part of the author to depict the unified opposition of the “world” to the things of Christ. Matthew also bears distinction in its attempt to demonstrate the Jewish nature of Jesus mission (15:24; 10:5-6) and the universal call to the world as its result (28:18-20). Taken alongside the long-standing tradition of Matthew's Hebrew emphasis this corresponds nicely with an author seeking to reach the nation of Israel while not alienating the Hellenistic world.


      What does it matter to identify the author of the first gospel with the apostle Matthew? In some cases it doesn't matter much at all. The message of the gospel stands upon the truth of its claims, not on the identity of its author. However, how one perceives the authorship of this gospel (and others) changes the manner in which one views of the early church and the remainder of the New Testament. To close with an extended quote from D.A. Carson:

Strong commitments to the view that this gospel reflects late traditions that cannot possibly be tied directly to any apostle inevitably casts a hermeneutical shadow on how the evidence, including the external evidence, will be evaluated. Conversely, the judgment that in all probability the apostle Matthew was responsible for the work casts a hermeneutical shadow on the reconstruction of early church history. The web of interlocking judgments soon affects how one weighs evidence in other parts of the New Testament.”11

1Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 64-84.

2Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.2.

3D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 141.

4Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According ot Matthew (London: Robert Stott, 1909), vii.

5Hengel, Mark, 83.

6If you've read the two earlier articles regarding the authorship of John and Mark, you will recall that Eusebius contains the writings of Papias and Irenaeus regarding early apostolic authorship of each gospel.

7This translation comes from Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, transl. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926). The areas in parentheses indicate Greek word usage that remains ambiguous between the three listed options.

8C.F.D. Moule, “St. Matthew's Gospel: Some Neglected Features,” SE2 (1964). A Semitism is a saying in the Greek New Testament that can only be made sensible by appealing to a Semitic underlay or Hebrew idiom.

9It is possible that Papias was led astray by a common error. Carson notes that Epiphanes claims that a heretical group known as the Ebionites based their beliefs on the Gospel of Matthew that they called “According to the Hebrews,” written in Hebrew but falsified and mutilated.

10D.A. Carson, “Christological Ambiguities in the Gospel of Matthew,” Christ the Lord, (Leicester: IVP, 1982), 97-114.

11D.A. Carson, New Testament, 150.