As with each of the other gospels, the author of this one does not put his name to the gospel; but this doesn’t mean that it was not written by Matthew, the disciple traditionally regarded as its author. As I pointed out for John’s gospel which is also technically anonymous, secular historians frequently also did not attach their name to their books; but we do not disqualify these books because anonymously written and cast doubt on their authorship. From the time there were Christian writings, Matthew’s gospel was only ever and universally regarded as being written by Matthew the tax collector and disciple of Jesus.
R.T. France writes: “the writers of the early Christian centuries offer us no other candidate for authorship, and a tradition which is both early and unanimous should not be simply assumed to be false unless the nature of the book itself makes it clearly inappropriate” (New Bible Commentary, “Matthew: Authorship and Date”, p. 906).
The Roman historian Livy doesn’t identify himself as the author of his History, neither does Polybius identify himself as the writer of “The Rise of the Roman Empire”, nor does Julius Caesar identify himself as the author of “The Gallic Wars”; and Caesar, like John, speaks of himself in the third person. Thucydides and Herodotus both name themselves as the authors of their Histories, yet speak in the third person. But I still believe that the names attributed to their respective works are genuine and the information they give as being true, just as I do Matthew’s gospel.
When was Matthew Written?
Dr Ann Nyland writes: “Matthew frequently speaks against the sect of the Sadducees, which was wiped out in the war with the Romans in 66-70 AD. Likewise the temple tax mentioned in 17:24-27 did not continue after the temple was destroyed. This effectively places Matthew’s work prior to this date. The evidence suggests that Luke and Mathew did not know of each other’s work, thus dating both works around the same time as each other. Luke is dated c. 62 AD. The consensus of opinion places Matthew’s authorship to the mid-60s AD.
Eusebius quotes Irenaeus c. 170 AD as saying, ‘Matthew published the Good News in writing also, among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were first in Rome together in the early 60s” (2007, p.11).
Matthew’s Skill as a Writer
The construction of this gospel is skilful and sophisticated and indicates it was written by a highly educated author. Matthew, as a tax collector, meets this requirement. Having received the standard education (and perhaps more), which all Jewish boys were given, and thus being bilingual, speaking Aramaic and Greek at least, he was not only well qualified to do the work of a tax collector but to write a Gospel. France suggests: “….tax-collectors were, by virtue of their profession, used to handling records and documents, and so Matthew may well have functioned as a sort of ‘secretary’ to the apostolic group. Such suggestions, however, fall far short of proof” (France, R.T. New Bible Commentary p. 906).
Harold Lindsell writes: “The orderly arrangement of the teachings of Jesus into discourses shows the author to have been a teacher, concerned with the urgent need of preserving and transmitting the lessons of the Great Teacher. There are five great discourses: the Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7), the Missionary Instructions to the Twelve (ch 10), the Parables of the Kingdom (ch 13), Greatness and Forgiveness in the Christian Community (ch 18), and the Discourse on Last Things (ch 24-25). Much of the material is arranged in groups of threes, fives, and sevens for greater ease in teaching and learning” (Harper Study Bible, 1964, p. 1435).
Matthew’s Use of Mark
Black’s Bible Dictionary says: “Early Christians saw it as an improved edition of Mark, nine-tenths of whose contents it reproduces. To Mark’s record it adds stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy and accounts of his Resurrection appearances. It contains a full and clear account of Jesus’ teaching, which is largely lacking in Mark. Its material, instead of being mingled as in other Gospels, is well arranged and useful for instruction purposes. Finally, it gives many different aspects of Christian thought” (“Black’s Bible Dictionary”; p. 427).
The entry continues further on: “The chief sources of this Gospel can be discovered by comparing it with Mark and Luke. (1) Not only does Matthew reproduce ninety percent of Mark’s material, but it follows Mark’s order of events in the ministry of Jesus, and even copies Mark’s language. As the author of Matthew was limited by the length of the ancient book into which he had to fit all his extra material, he was obliged to condense Mark’s record. When he does this, he reduces details, but is careful to give the actual spoken words of his source. The evidence of Matthew’s dependence on Mark is overwhelming” (Black’s Bible Dictionary, p. 428).
Evidence for Matthew as the Writer of his Gospel
“Eusebius quotes Clement of Rome (c. 101 AD) as saying that the first of the four gospels which are unquestionable was Matthew, ‘who was once a Tax Profiteer but later an apostle’. Clement writing from Rome to Corinth c. 96 AD, refers to Matthew. Matthew is quoted as early as c. 110 AD by Ignatius and by Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians. The writer was Matthew, also known as Levi. Matthew was a wealthy Tax Profiteer, and one of the Twelve Disciples. The Tax Profiteers of Palestine were wealthy individuals who belonged to the upper (or upper-middle) classes of society…..The common impression today is that Tax Profiteers were given to extortion and oppression, but the evidence is to the contrary: there were very few petitions and edicts against them” (Nyland, Dr. A, 2007, p. 11). This last sentence goes against the common understanding that tax-collectors were the pariahs of Jewish society, as is mentioned below, but I can’t change what others have written when I quote them, so have left both views as their authors state them.
There are internal suggestions that Matthew the tax collector did write the gospel attributed to him. Dr Ross Clifford (1991, p19) writes: “….whilst all the Gospels have a number of stories about tax collectors, Matthew is the only one that records the narrative of Jesus paying his own personal tax”. Quoting Judge Edmund H. Bennett, Clifford writes “Why should Matthew be more likely to mention this particular fact than any other evangelist? When we remember that he was himself a tax-gatherer, and therefore especially interested in and observant of anything related to his own profession, the answer is obvious” (Clifford 1991, p 19-20).
Dom John Chapman says “Ancient writers pointed out that whereas the lists of the Apostles in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts all mention St. Matthew’s name, only St. Matthew’s own Gospel adds the words ‘the publican’, for to be a tax-gatherer or ‘publican’ was regarded by the Jews as the worst disgrace. So he relates his own call by Christ, when sitting at the seat of custom, whereas St. Mark and St. Luke, telling the same story, give the name ‘Levi’ instead of ‘Matthew’ so as to shield St. Matthew from the infamy of his former calling” (Chapman 1944, p 6). This fact alone suggests that the traditional ascription of the Gospel to Matthew is because it was actually written by Matthew. France says “the writers of the early Christian centuries offer us no other candidate for authorship, and a tradition which is both early and unanimous should not be simply assumed to be false unless the nature of the book itself makes it clearly inappropriate”; and further down the page, he says: “But the text of the gospel itself does not say who the author was, and the matter may well be left open” (France 2002, p 906).
The Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew
It was widely accepted in the early Church that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew and it was later translated into Greek. Chapman says “With regard to St. Matthew the evidence of antiquity is unanimous and extraordinarily early, that he wrote for the Jews of Palestine in Hebrew, that is, Aramaic – ‘in their dialect’ as St Irenaeus puts it. Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, are our most famous authorities for this” (Chapman, 1946, p 5).
However, Professor Bart Ehrman discounts Papias as a credible witness because “scholars have almost uniformly rejected just about everything else that Papias is recorded to have said in the surviving references to his work” (Ehrman 2010, p 109). He states categorically that Papias gives us two bits of solid information about Matthew that aren’t true of “our” Matthew; that our Matthew is not just a collection of Jesus’ sayings; and that our Matthew was not originally written in Hebrew but in Greek.
But the tradition has some substance to it because Jerome reports that there was at least one copy in existence in his own time: “Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered” (“Lives of Illustrious Men: Jerome and Gennadius: Jerome”).
Despite this, most of modern academia rejects the idea. The entry on Matthew in Black’s Bible Dictionary, for example, tells us: “The author is not named in this Gospel. According to tradition he was one of the Twelve, the tax collector Matthew (Matt 9:9), known as Levi in Mark (2:14) and Luke (5:27). This tradition is reflected in the statement of Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, writing about AD 140: ‘Matthew collected the Logia in the Hebrew language and each one interpreted them as he was able’. Opinions of Bible scholars differ widely as to what these Logia actually were, but this Gospel probably embodies some of Matthew’s work. It was, accordingly, named for him. It does not impress the reader as being the account of an eyewitness. Moreover, the fact that it was written in Greek and was based on Greek sources makes it difficult to believe that its author was one of the primitive Disciples” (emphases added).
And R.T. France says, “It is quite possible that Christians in the first few centuries AD were familiar with a Hebrew or Aramaic work which was traditionally associated with Matthew, but unlikely that it was our gospel. Papias, the earliest writer to mention Matthew’s writing, attributes to him a compilation of ‘sayings’ in Hebrew or Aramaic, and some believe that he was referring not to the gospel we know but to one of its sources (perhaps the source ‘Q’ which many believe was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke…But Papias’ statement is too brief to be clear, and its original context is unknown” (p. 906).
Supporters for both sides present credible arguments for their case, so it seems the best course is to not be too dogmatic about the issue. If Matthew did write his gospel first in Hebrew, it could have been written as early as about 40 AD, i.e. within a decade of Christ’s death; otherwise the date of writing would be possibly around 60 AD; but certainly, before 70 AD when Jerusalem was razed to the ground by the Romans. None of the synoptic gospels refer to a Jerusalem already destroyed by Rome, but have this cataclysmic event as taking place in the near future (to them), having been prophesied by Christ.
Black’s Bible Dictionary, Miller M.S and Miller J.L. (editors), 1954, publ. A. & C. Black Ltd., London W.1
Clifford, R, “Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” 1991, Albatross Books, Sutherland, Australia.
Harper Study Bible, annotations by Harold Lindsell, “Introduction to the Gospel According to Matthew”, p. 1435, 1964, publ. Harper and Row, publishers, Incorporated, Assigned to Zondervan Publishing House 1965
Ehrman, B, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.
New Bible Commentary: Clines, David. J. A. 2000, New Bible Commentary, ed. Carson, D. A., France, R. T., Motyer, J. A., Wenham, G. J., Publ. IVP Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, Illinois, USA
Nyland, Dr. A, 2007, “The Source New Testament”, Translation and notes by Dr. A. Nyland. Copyright by Anne Maxwell-Nithsdale Nyland 2004, 2007, publ. Smith and Stirling Publishing, Australia.
“Lives of Illustrious Men: Jerome and Gennadius: Jerome” Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 3, p 362, publ. Hendrickson 1995.
“The Four Gospels” 1946, by Dom John Chapman, publ. Sheed and Ward, London, England.