Of the four gospels, critics direct most of their fire at those of Matthew and John. This is, in part, because Matthew and John are the only two gospels that tradition says are direct, eyewitness accounts, written by original disciples of Jesus. If Matthew and John are eyewitness accounts, then they greatly strengthen the case that the gospels are historically accurate documents…and some skeptics do not want that. Critics also challenge the authorship of these gospels because the evidence regarding them is sometimes confusing, making it more difficult to discern who actually wrote what.
As a result, critics often assert that neither Matthew nor John were actually written by the apostles, Matthew (also called Levi) and John, Son of Zebedee. Instead, they argue that these books were written or compiled late in the first century—or early in the second—by Christian believers, and then falsely attributed to those apostles.
In reality, there are strong cases supporting apostolic involvement in the writing of both books. In an earlier article, we outlined the case in support of the Gospel of John. Here, we explore the Gospel of Matthew. As we’ll see, the story of its authorship is a complex puzzle, but it is likely that Matthew actually did play a vital role in creating the gospel that bears his name, either as an author or as a key source. As a result, the traditional view that the Gospel of Matthew represents the apostle’s eyewitness testimony still stands. Let’s explore this fascinating book.
The Traditional Story
Christian tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew, a tax collector who became one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. After Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Matthew continued as a dedicated apostle, working to win Christian converts from among the Palestinian Jewish community. After about 20-30 years of this, he penned his gospel—in Hebrew or Aramaic—for a Jewish audience, before leaving to spread the gospel in other lands. Tradition holds that Matthew was martyred about 10 years later while evangelizing in Ethiopia.
That’s the traditional story. The early Christian churches and early church leaders were pretty much unanimous in their acceptance of Matthew as the genuine work of the apostle, and treated it as a sacred document from very early on. There was no controversy regarding the provenance of the book. That is an important fact, because the early churches were not afraid to debate whether certain books were genuine, and many pieces of potential “scripture” were weeded out through this process. The fact that the early Christian churches had no controversy regarding the origin of Matthew’s Gospel is interesting.
Nevertheless, there are some puzzling issues associated with figuring out the authorship of Matthew, probably more so than with any other gospel, which we will address later.
The External Evidence
Regarding Matthew’s gospel, the early churches unanimously deemed it genuine, and numerous church historians attested to Matthew’s authorship. Below is an overview.
Papias, a Christian leader and follower of John, who lived from about 70-150 A.D., had this to say about Matthew (as quoted in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (HE), 3.39.16): “Matthew compiled the Sayings in the Aramaic language, and everyone translated them as well as he could.”
Irenaeus, a church leader and historian who lived from about 130-202 A.D., writes in his book, Against Heresies (3.1.1): “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.” This reference would place the gospel’s final writing sometime in the 60s A.D. (Blomberg, Craig, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd Edition, p. 26).
Another scholar and theologian, Origen (lived c.185-c.254) is quoted by Eusebius (HE 6.25.3-4): “I accept the traditional view of the four gospels which alone are undeniably authentic in the Church of God on earth. First to be written was that of the one-time exciseman who became an apostle of Jesus Christ – Matthew; it was published for believers of Jewish origin, and was composed in Aramaic.”
The historian, Eusebius, writes in HE 3.24.6: “Matthew had begun by preaching to Hebrews; and when he made up his mind to go to others too, he committed his own gospel to writing in his native tongue, so that for those with whom he was present the gap left by his departure was filled by what he wrote.”
Eusebius adds that of all the disciples and apostles, only two, Matthew and John, committed their gospels to writing, preferring instead to preach it personally. They were men of action more than writing but, according to Eusebius, recorded their memoirs out of necessity.
Continuing with our review of the external evidence, the prolific author, Jerome (lived c.347-420), wrote that Matthew originally composed his gospel in a Hebrew language, and that it was later translated into Greek by an unknown person. He added that the Hebrew version could be found in the library at Caesarea (De Viris Illustribus.3).
Finally, Epiphianus (lived c.315-403) wrote in Panarion 29.9.4, regarding a Jewish Christian sect, the Nazarenes: “They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.”
Given the testimony and records that we have, one can see a case emerging that a gospel was written
- By the apostle Matthew
- Originally in Aramaic or Hebrew
- For a Jewish audience, in an effort to win converts
So far, so good. Now, let’s take a brief look at the internal evidence; clues within the book itself.
The Internal Evidence
It’s important to note that the title, The Gospel According to Matthew, was not attached to the original text. However, Matthew’s name as the author almost certainly was attached to the text, even if not listed in the title itself. During the 2nd century, the titles of the canonical gospels evolved to a more consistent format (The Gospel According to…), most likely when they were collected together in codex (book) form.
The early churches were aware of the gospels’ origins. As stated earlier, there was no doubt among the early churches regarding the origins or provenance of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In his multi-part critique of Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged, Ben Witherington, PhD, of Asbury Theological Seminary, provides some very useful information about how documents like this were transmitted in the first century, and how the early churches could have been so confident about the books’ origins.
It’s important to note that those gospels surfacing that did originally have the “authors” names in the titles were the ones that were known forgeries, such as the gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary, and so on. The churches effectively weeded them out because their provenance was highly questionable.
At any rate, key pieces of internal evidence support the traditional authorship of Matthew. For one, much of the teaching unique to the gospel would only be appreciated by a Jewish audience. Examples include Jesus’ teachings about Jewish law as it relates to the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus’ evaluation of the Pharisees, and teachings on almsgiving, fasting, and so on.
Second, Matthew often reminds his readers that Jesus is the fulfillment of various Old Testament messianic prophesies. Such references to the Old Testament would primarily be meaningful to a Jewish audience.
The author’s knowledge of Jewish law and tradition, as well as the basic thrust of his writing indicates two things: 1.) The author was likely a Jew and 2.) He was writing for a Jewish audience.
This evidence is entirely consistent with—and supportive of—the traditional view of this gospel’s authorship.
Again, so far, so good. Now, the case gets a little complicated.
The Puzzle of Matthew
Over the last century or so, various scholars have conducted textual analyses of the canonical gospels, and a few things seem to have become evident. First, it appears that the Gospel According to Mark was written first, in Greek. Matthew (as we know it today) and Luke were written later, and both seem to have used Mark as a source. In fact, about 95% of the content found in Mark also shows up in Matthew.
In addition, Matthew and Luke seem to have used their own unique sources, as well as a hypothesized source in common, referred to as “Q” by scholars. Q, if it existed, would have been a collection of Jesus’ sayings, and it would also have been written in Greek. We know this because Matthew and Mark appear to share some verbatim content from this source. In short, if Matthew and Mark (which are in Greek) share some identical content from a common source, then that common source was also written in Greek. For more information on this, refer to our article on the Synoptic Problem.
So, what does all of this mean? Well, it probably means that the Gospel According to Matthew that we have today:
- Was not the first gospel written, it was likely the second.
- Was not written originally in Aramaic or Hebrew, it was written in Greek.
- Is not solely the recollections of an eyewitness (the apostle, Matthew), but rather contains information from a range of sources
Given all of the preceding, how do we reconcile this with the other evidence we have that clearly indicates that the Gospel According to Matthew
- Was the first gospel written
- Was written in Aramaic or Hebrew
- Is the memoir of the apostle, Matthew
Simply put, the textual evidence is at odds with the clear, strong, and unanimous testimony of the early church. And that testimony is too strong to ignore, especially since we know that the early church was not in the habit of readily accepting forgeries into its midst. On the contrary, it took great pains to ensure the pedigree of the writings it used in its services.
Biblical scholar, Ben Witherington helps to shed some light in his very thorough critique of Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged:
One of those things is that what we mean by authorship today, indeed what we mean by putting someone’s name on a document today, was not exactly the same as what was meant in antiquity. Sometimes a document was named or labeled after its most famous contributor (e.g. Moses when it came to the Pentateuch, or Matthew when it came to the Gospel in his name). Sometimes a document would be named after its most famous source (e.g. 2 Peter which has a Petrine source). Sometimes a document would be named after the person who actually wrote it— say Luke, in Luke-Acts. Now all of these practices were legitimate scribal practices, when they were putting tags on ancient documents to identify them and their sort or source or author.
Given this, a picture begins to emerge that can reconcile the things we’ve learned via textual analysis with the testimony of the early church. It could be that the Gospel According Matthew that we have today was created by an unnamed editor, but that it retains some connection to the apostle himself.
One potential theory of how this could have happened was recently articulated by biblical scholar, Mike Licona, in an e-mail exchange with this author. He states:
Related to Matthew, a number of scholars are open to the possibility that Matthew penned his Gospel first in Aramaic, a smaller Gospel than what appears in our New Testament. That smaller Gospel was translated into Greek later. Sometime after Mark was written, an editor took large portions of Mark, supplemented it with significant portions of the Greek translation of Matthew’s smaller Gospel and perhaps Q. The product is the Gospel of Matthew in our New Testament. That’s a very plausible scenario, especially since the unanimous testimony of the early Church is Matthew wrote a Gospel.
This chain of events, if correct, would reconcile the analyses of textual critics with the testimony of the church. It would also be consistent with first century practices regarding designation of authorship, as well as Jerome’s assertion that Matthew’s Aramaic original was later translated into Greek. Other scholars have asserted that the person who compiled the Greek version of Matthew was Matthew himself, later in life. All sorts of things are possible, but no one can know for sure.
Given all this, it remains entirely plausible—and one could easily say likely—that our Gospel According to Matthew actually does transmit the eyewitness accounts of the apostle down to us. Critics who would dismiss this gospel out of hand are not considering the full range of evidence.