Who Wrote the Gospel according to Matthew?

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Last time, I looked at the going theory of how the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were composed. I did this to lay some groundwork for my continuing multi-post response to some of the skeptical claims Bart Erhman makes in How Jesus Became God. Specifically, in this series I aim to answer his skepticism about traditional views of the authorship of the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Ehrman thinks the Gospels were composed by Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died, thereby casting doubt on the connection between the Gospel accounts and the historical Jesus.

In contrast, I think there are good reasons to believe traditional accounts according to which the Gospels were composed by original disciples of Jesus or those close to them. I’ve already argued this point for Mark. Today, I’ll begin to argue it for Matthew. (It will take me two posts to complete the argument.)

As for my examination of Mark’s authorship, I won’t try to definitively settle the question of who wrote Matthew; given the nature of the evidence, I’m not sure that’s even possible. Rather, I’ll just try to show the plausibility of the traditional view.

Internal Evidence

The Gospel according to Matthew was written anonymously—the author nowhere references himself or herself in the document. However, the style and content of the Gospel give us some clues about the author.

First, the author shows a special interest in the Jewish law (both written and oral). For example, Matthew uniquely depicts Jesus affirming the importance of the law (Matthew 5:17-20) and gathers together a series of Jesus’s teachings related to the law that are either absent from the other Gospels or disbursed throughout them (Matthew 5:21-48).

Second, the author seems to show a greater interest in Pharisees and lawyers (“scribes”) than the authors of the other canonical Gospels. The author mentions Pharisees and scribes a combined 54 times, compared with Luke, Mark, and John at 42, 33, and 20 times, respectively.

Third, the author quotes the Hebrew Bible over sixty times—more than twice as many times as any other Gospel author. The author’s aim seems to be to depict Jesus and his gospel as the fulfillment of the expectations of the Hebrew scriptures (Hagner liv).

Together, these these three considerations suggest that the author was likely Jewish, perhaps a Pharisee trained in the Jewish law (implying a male author), and that he wrote with a Jewish audience in mind.

These conjectures are further supported by the fact that (1) the author does not feel the need to explain Jewish customs like Mark does (compare Matthew 15:1-2 and Mark 7:1-5), and that (2) he responds directly to first-century Jewish objections to the Christian narrative about Jesus, such as that the empty tomb was the result of Jesus’s disciples stealing his body and not of his resurrection (see Matthew 28:11-15).

Papias’s Testimony

As for Mark, the main external evidence for the traditional view that Jesus’s disciple Matthew authored the first Gospel is Papias’s testimony in his lost work, Interpretation of the Lord’s Sayings, dated around 120 or 130 CE. In his 4th-century history of the church, Eusebius quotes Papias as follows: “Matthew compiled the sayings in the Hebrew language, but everyone translated them as he was able” (Albright and Mann CLXXIX).

What can we gather from Papias’s claim, assuming it is correct? First, we can gather that someone named Matthew was responsible for “compiling” certain sayings of Jesus into written form. This idea fits with the traditional view that Jesus’s disciple Matthew had at least some hand in producing the first Gospel.

Second, we learn that the sayings for which Matthew is responsible were originally in “Hebrew,” and then were translated. Hagner (xliv) notes that “Hebrew,” here, probably means “Aramaic,” a related but distinct language spoken in first-century Galilee. The implied language to which these sayings were translated is probably Greek, the language of the first Gospel.

Importantly, Papias’s claim that the sayings were originally in Aramaic does not entail that the entire Gospel was originally written in Aramaic. The fluid Greek of the Gospel suggests that, in its current form, it was first written in Greek and not merely translated from Aramaic (Hagner lxv). Nevertheless, underlying parts of the Gospel (e.g., certain sayings of Jesus) could still have been in Aramaic originally.

Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, and other early church writers say similar things about the authorship of Matthew (Albright and Mann CLXXIX), but it is very possible their claims are based on Papias, and so they should not necessarily be taken as independent evidence (Hagner xliv).

Should we believe Papias, here? Similar to the argument I made about Mark, it seems unlikely that Papias would lie about his claim that someone named Matthew compiled the Gospel (or parts of it). This is so for at least two reasons.

First, Matthew was otherwise pretty unknown among Jesus’s early disciples; apart from the short “calling” story of Matthew 9:9, the name Matthew is mentioned only in lists of Jesus’s twelve disciples. So, it’s hard to know why Papias would choose to identify the author as Matthew if he were deceptively trying to bolster the credibility of the Gospel. If you were going to lie about it, wouldn’t you pick someone else (e.g., Peter or James, the brother of Jesus)?

Second, in Matthew 9:9 (and possibly elsewhere, as we’ll see below), Matthew is portrayed as a tax collector. Now, if you were trying to portray an author as credible in the first-century Roman world—especially to Jews—you would definitely not portray him as a tax collector, since they were known for stealing and were hated by Jews (Cross Examined.org). Indeed, this attribution could be somewhat embarrassing for the early church, which suggests that Papias’s claim is likely not a lie.

Matthew and Levi

If we suppose Papias is right that someone named Matthew was responsible for compiling sayings of Jesus that constitute either all or part of the first Gospel, who exactly was this person?

Since neither the New Testament nor other contemporary documents present us with better candidates, the most likely candidate is the original disciple of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13. Matthew 9:9 describes this disciple as “a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth,” i.e., a tax collector.

This Matthew is also referred to as “Levi” in Mark 2:14-15 and Luke 5:27-29. It seems the author of Matthew started with the account in Mark (per the Four Source theory, discussed in my last post) and edited the name of the tax collector whom Jesus called, changing it from “Levi” to “Matthew”. In contrast, the author of Luke left Mark’s “Levi” unchanged (Hagner lxxvi).

Why would the author of Matthew make this change? One possibility (imagined by Hagner [lxxvi]) is that the author of the first Gospel was, in fact, the tax collector mentioned in the Gospel, and that he preferred his post-Jesus name (Matthew) to his traditional pre-Jesus name (Levi). This is mere conjecture, but it does make sense of the data.

Now, if “Matthew” and “Levi” pick out the same person, this identification would suggest that Matthew was a Jew from the tribe of Levi—a Levite—since “Levi” was a common name in that tribe.

In the first century, Levites were typically Pharisees educated in Jewish law (Albright and Mann CLXXVIII). Traditionally, Levites were responsible for leading Israel’s worship activities. However, in the first century, since worship was centralized in the temple at Jerusalem, there wasn’t as much need for Levitical support of Israel’s worship, so Levites typically had to find other work. Thus, it would be understandable that the author would have an alternative vocation like tax collection (his education would have fitted him for it).

This picture of the disciple Matthew as a Levite with the education of a Pharisee fits nicely with the internal evidence noted above, namely that the writer of the first Gospel was a Pharisee trained in the Jewish law.

The Plausibility of the Traditional View

On the whole, then, both the internal evidence from the first Gospel itself and external evidence from Papias seem to corroborate the traditional view. There are good reasons for thinking Matthew, an original disciple of Jesus, had a hand in writing the Gospel that bears his name.

However, the story of internal and external evidence I told above is not unassailable. Skeptical scholars like Ehrman have raised objections to it, suggesting (among other things) that the author was really a second-generation Gentile, not a Jewish disciple of Jesus. I’ll take up those objections in my next post.

4 thoughts on “Who Wrote the Gospel according to Matthew?

  1. Very interesting. Again I am struck by the need to go beyond this debate into what arises in me in reading the Gospels. I am also curious about the importance of the written word being the evidence of veracity. Is it true that the oral tradition was extremely important in that part of the world and that era? If so that might dilute the importance of slavishly referring to how and when things were written. Or not??

    • Great comments, as always. It is, of course, crucial to go beyond the historicity debate to what the Gospels say and how they shape our lives. But, one can’t do everything at once, so I’ve been focused on this historicity topic for now. For those who already accept the value and/or veracity of the Gospels, this debate might seem unnecessary. But, of course, there are folks like Bart Ehrman who don’t accept their value/veracity, and thus discourage others from following Jesus. So, obviously, my work here is meant to help those folks, and thus it may not scratch your itch.

      Of course, the mere fact that accounts of Jesus are written doesn’t necessarily indicate veracity: people routinely write all kinds of false and useless stuff (exhibit A: the internet). But, the written word does have the ability to preserve specific accounts in a way that oral words do less reliably (at least in our culture and many others since the first century). So, the written word allows us to be sure we are getting the accounts (more or less) as originally written (there is a lot more to be said about that topic, but I’ll leave it for another time).

      Whether the original written accounts accurately reflect what Jesus said and did is another matter. I’m willing to grant that there may be some incidental and accidental errors in the accounts–though nothing that affects a major point of teaching (e.g., Were there two blind men or one? Not sure it matters). I also don’t see any reason to suspect a mass conspiracy to pass on false or inflated accounts. The authors are people who were suffering or being killed for their faith, and they gained no great privilege as a result of their work (recall that they wrote anonymously). So, it’s not clear why it would be worth it to them to lie about what they had heard. Without clear evidence of conspiracy, I think the default should be to believe that the writers were representing the truth as best they could, and that, given the reverence they attributed to Jesus and his teachings, they were taking special care to get their accounts right.

      As you say, oral tradition was also extremely important in preserving the message. If the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written around 70 CE and Jesus was teaching between 27 and 30 CE, then there is a break of at least 40 years when the tradition was passed on orally. I had planned to write about that later in this series (Ehrman attacks the reliability of the oral tradition too), but given your interest I may move it up in the queue. I’ll plan to finish Matthew (one more post) and then address the oral tradition. But, even though the oral tradition is very important, I don’t think that obviates the need to be clear and rigorous about the origins and historical status of the written accounts; after all, they are what we rely upon today. Both have been important links in the transmission of Jesus’s teachings.

  2. Pingback: Author of Matthew: Eyewitness to Jesus or Gentile Pretender? | Aaron Mead | Writer

  3. Pingback: Mind the Gap: The Gospels and Oral Transmission | Aaron Mead | Writer

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