The Gospel according to Matthew
Who is the Author?
All the internal and external evidence points to Matthew being the author of the first gospel with no other tradition. We have no early Heretics or critics of Christianity claiming he wasn’t the author, half the time they just avoid him altogether or screwing the meaning in what he says. The church fathers is where we can establish the external evidence for authorship. Now a case can be made for internal evidence in Matthew that he is indeed the tax collector Jesus speaks of, but we’ll get to that in another article.
The earliest tradition comes from Papius in the beginning of 2nd century but lived the through the end of the first century. Unfortunately his works are lost but we have them because they were quoted by Eusebius writing at the beginning of the 300’s (Eusebius recorded many church fathers for which, numerous times he has been proven correct in what he records by the discovery of manuscripts that prove him correct). Here he quotes:
“Matthew compiled his sayings in the hebrew language and everyone translated them as they were able”Papias
(Compiled in the Greek could also mean composed sayings which could refer to the entire narrative. The hebrew could connote aramaic and when translated could also mean interpreted, that's just how ancient greek language works).
He further quotes that Matthew wrote the Logia or “oracles” (a reference to his whole gospel? Or to the sayings of Jesus? That is a point of ambiguity) in the Hebrew language.
Justin martyr 150AD
Within 100 years of the gospels we have the words of Justin Martyr alluding to multiple gospels. He says in his First Apology
“and on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as Long As Time permits;…”Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 67
The first sign here is where he says the “memoirs of the apostles are read” indicating the words of the apostles, plural. Justin elsewhere in his works refers to these memoirs as gospels. Also by saying all who live in cities or in the country gather to hear these read imply multiple locations where these memoir (gospels) could be heard. When it comes to Matthew, Justin specifically tells us of relevant events such as the visit of the Magi at Jesus’s birth and his agony in gethsemane. The story of the Magi’s visit is mentioned only in Matthews gospel and this is a supportive statement of it through reference.
Following Justin was Irenaeus in around 180AD writing In Against Heresies (3.1.1-2) he says that Matthew wrote a “Gospel among the Jews in their own style”. What he means here is that it was written in the Hebrew dialect while Paul and Peter were preaching in Rome. This certainly gives us context for Paul and Peter being in Rome while Matthew was amongst the Jews, but more importantly for our discussion it tells us Matthew wrote to the Jews, and the Gospel of Matthew is very Jewish and is appealing to the Jews
Clement of Alexandria 180AD
Clement of Egypt writing around the same time period (In Adumbrationes in Epistolas Canonicas on 1 Peter 5:13) as Irenaeus tells us that the gospels with the genealogies came first (Matthew & Luke) and that the Gospel of Mark was done at the request of Peter’s preaching in Rome coming shortly after. He ends by saying John came last at the urging of friends. This is confirmation again of the three early synoptic Gospels with John coming later. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (3.39.15-16) Clement also says Matthew wrote the Logia in the Hebrew dialect. Some suspect this could be the document known as Q, a gathering of Jesus sayings or it could just be referring to Matthew’s Gospel being written first (The Gospels with the genealogies).
Tertullian tells us “…that the documents of the Gospels” were written by the Apostles Matthew and John and “Apostolic men of Luke and Mark.” . Not much more really needs to be said than that. Clear and to the point.
Against Marcion 4.2.1-2
Muratorian Fragment 170AD
Now this is our first canonical list with reference to Matthew. The first page of this fragment is now lost but virtually all scholars agree that it referred to Matthew and Mark to begin with. This is earliest official canonical list from a non-heretic (that being Marcion). The second page begins with “…at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative]’.” In the article on Mark you will see that this is who it is referring to Mark himself. It continues “The third book of the Gospel Is that according to Luke. Luke, the well known physician…”
then... “The fourth of the gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write]...” the keyword here is “forth”. So John is forth, Luke is listed third and Mark is inferred before Luke, then there is one book before Mark and all the historical records tell us that individual is Matthew.
Audience & Location
The audience of Matthew’s Gospels was innately Jewish and was appealing to a Jewish nation. Only such. Nation existed prior to the sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD, after that, Jews were globally scattered in smaller pockets of peoples. We have ancient sources saying Matthew may well have written from Jerusalem. Irenaeus in around 180AD writing In Against Heresies (3.1.1-2) says that Matthew wrote a “Gospel among the Jews in their own style”. What he means here is that it was written in the Hebrew dialect for the Jews and if among, then likely he was based in Jerusalem.
The purpose of this Gospel was to convince Jews or help Jewish Christians realise the full picture — Jesus is the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, perfectly kept the law of the prophets and fulfilled God’s promise through death on a cross. Matthews intention was to make it abundantly clear that Jesus is the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for.
Dating the Gospel of Matthew generally falls into two camps: pre and post 70AD. Liberal scholars put Mark in the 70’s, Matthew & Luke in the 80’s & John in the 90’s. Conservative scholars generally put Matthew, Mark & Luke in the 60’s & John in the 90’s. What is the general reason for this? Well mainly based on the prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Since critics don’t believe in predictive prophecy, for them, it has to be written later as they’re ruled out anything supernatural a priori. For more on an introduction to the miracles discussion see here and here for one relating to the resurrection.
The Gospels do not come with particular dates rubber stamped onto them, though some Christian traditions (by tradition we mean church father documentation) do give them specific dates — all (except for some traditions about the Gospel of John) dating the Gospels before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The Table 2.4 shows here the date ranges proposed by some non-Christian scholars: (1) By some Jewish scholars, (2) by a Jewish historian, Shaye Cohen, and (3) by a prominent agnostic scholar, Bart Ehrman.
Table 2.4. Proposed dates of Gospel composition
These dates are rather typical among scholars, but we should note that if the traditional view of authorship of the Gospels is correct, Matthew and John were written by people already active as disciples of Jesus in AD 33, Mark was by someone who was able to be an assist to Barnabas and Paul no later than about 50, and Luke was by someone who accompanied Paul in the 50s and early 60s on journeys to Turkey, Greece, Judaea, and Rome.
Peter J Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels?
Arguments for the traditional authors are therefore likely to provide indirect support for significantly earlier dates, unless one is inclined to suppose that the authors wrote toward the ends of unusually long lives, especially when life expectancy was shorter than now. The sorts of dates given by the scholars above are often based in part on Gospel references, from the lips of Jesus, to the destruction of Jerusalem or the temple in AD 70. However, if we allow that Jesus could predict future events, a major objection to earlier dates is removed. Most forms of modern Judaism or agnosticism are belief systems that, by definition, deny the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus as the long-prophesied, miracle-performing Son of God, who was ultimately raised from the dead. They’d deny the destruction of the temple, virgin birth, the resurrection and so on anyway.
However, the dates given above show that mainstream scholars who disbelieve that Jesus was the Messiah nevertheless date the Gospels within the time limits of reliable memory. If one is open to the possibility that the portrait of Jesus’s identity in the Gospels is actually true, there are few strong reasons why the Gospels could be considerably earlier. Earlier dates are much more appealing over all those given above.
So rather than just presuming what the dates would be based on presuppositions, what evidence for the dates can be discovered from the witnesses and are there any internal features in the text that would suggest a rough date? And what signals are there that Matthew was written before 70AD (which is where the real battle is)
Papius (writing 125AD) mentions Matthew wrote the logia in the Hebrew dialect perhaps referring to an early collection of Jesus’ acts and statements or his Gospel [Ecclesiastical history, 3.39.15-16]. Though some call this document Q and see it as the “notes from eyewitnesses”. If a document existed then it predates the gospels in the writing of it and probably would have started during the ministry of Jesus. Rabbi’s would often have their disciples take notes in the Jewish world, whose to say they wouldn’t here? Matthew being a tax collector would not only have known Greek and Aramaic, but would also have access to Papyrus for writing. But there is no agreement on what Q would have contained and there isn’t strong evidence such a live recording of notes took place, it is hypothetical. And one important factor to note is in a culture of strong reliable oral tradition, such a Q document wouldn’t been needed really. Elsewhere I speak in depth of 1st century Jewish oral tradition.
So from our earliest source outside of the gospels, Matthew is attested as the earliest Gospel, with Mark being Matthew but shortened for a Gentile audience and written in a tone to comfort and reassure the persecuted church in Rome. One of the reasons for this is the Jewishness of Matthew’s Gospel and to whom the message went out first to, and then the gentiles to follow on after (Gentiles would not necessarily have wide understanding of Jewish prophecy & law).
The testimony of Eusebius quoting Irenaeus, the late 2nd century church father whose works we have (and he’s quoted him accurately, which adds confidence for Papius quotes as anywhere Eusebius can be checked he is generally reliable) quotes that Ignatius wrote “Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome”. We know from a variety of sources that Peter was in Rome approximately 60AD and Peter and Paul both lost their lives under Emperor Nero in the late 60’s [Josephus].
Now Eusebius does suggest Matthew’s composition could be as early as 41AD. However, Irenaeus and other church fathers though do seem to suggest a later date and these tend to be prior to Eusebius. But there are secular scholars Like James Crossley & Maurice Casey who would put Mark’s Gospel in the 40’s and if this aligned with Matthew being written first, there could be some truth to this (perhaps the Hebrew version of Matthew existed prior to the Greek?). But to be safe, using sources like Josephus, Irenaeus & Papius, Matthew is probably written in Judea somewhere in the 50’s & 60’s in Aramaic and later translated into the Greek.
So we have
- Matthew first possibly first written in the Hebrew dialect (Papius)
- Written while Paul and Peter were in Rome (Irenaeus)
- Josephus tells us when Paul and Peter die, so Matthew would be around that time or earlier (Josephus)
- Eusebius suggests early dates which could be an earlier version, though this is more hypothetical (Eusebius)
So Just from early textual sources and off the cuff comments, pre-70AD is certainly a possibility.
Internal text signals
We have good evidence the gospels can be dated prior to 70AD and in this case, Matthew’s Gospel.
1. None of the gospels mention the temple being destroyed
We begin with perhaps the most significant Jewish historical event of the first century, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. Rome dispatched an army to Jerusalem in response to the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The Roman army (under the leadership of Titus) ultimately destroyed the temple in AD 70,34 just as Jesus had predicted in the Gospels (in Matt. 24: 1–3).
This is inconsistent with their style of pointing out things that happen after the fact for the gospels not to mention this significant event. (For example Luke 22:34 is fulfilled in Luke 22:54-62 or Acts 21:11 which is fulfilled in Acts 21:27-36). A clear example is all 4 gospels mentioning Judas for the first time note he later became a traitor (Matthew 10:4; Mark 3:9; Luke 6:16; John 6:71). Matthew champions Jesus fulfilling prophecy throughout his gospel (Give some examples here), do you think he’d just skip this destruction of the Jewish nation? It is quite clear in the text that Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6). Yet none of the authors indicate this has already happened. This is inconsistent with their style. If an event has been predicted and fulfilled in their lifetime, they mention it. We see the same pattern In John 2:19-22 we see Jesus talks about God raising him up from the dead. And then it later happens. None of the New Testament books mention this, yet theologically, this event would surely bolster their claim of Jesus’ predictive prophecy?
2. The New Testament doesn’t describe the siege of Jerusalem
Even before the temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem was under assault. Titus surrounded the city with four large groups of soldiers and eventually broke through the city’s “Third Wall” with a battering ram. After lengthy battles and skirmishes, the Roman soldiers eventually set fire to the city’s walls, and the temple was destroyed as a result. No aspect of this three-year siege is described in any New Testament document, in spite of the fact that the gospel writers could certainly have pointed to the anguish that resulted from the siege as a powerful point of reference for the many passages of Scripture that extensively address the issue of suffering. So you’re pushing pre 67AD here.
3. The language of the Gospels and Acts indicates they were written in a pre-persecution era.
In the year 64AD the first great Christian persecution began. Christians were fed to wild animals, tortured and crucified. Works like the Apocalypse of John and the forged Apocalypse of Peter were produced put the Romans in a bad light. Scholars note these works represent the anguish Christians were feeling during and after Great persecutions. However in the Gospels and Acts, we don’t see the same attitude to Romans. Luke often paints romans in a good like such as: Paul rescued by the Romans in Acts 21:28 from dying at the hands of Jews; Acts 27:23 Romans treating Paul kindly; Luke 7:1-10; Mark 15:39 the Roman centurion was one of the few at the cross who realises Jesus is the Son of God. Now for atthew we see the same with the centurion who asks Jesus for help Matthew 8:5-13: the centurion who comes to Jesus for help. Could you see this happening in 64AD? No there would be a sense of Roman victory, they didn’t foreshadow Jesus’ impact back then. The attacks in the gospels are mainly on the Jewish sects.
4. External and internal evidence both indicate Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience
As mentioned earlier, in 70AD the large Jewish population was killed and the remainders scattered. If Matthew was written after 70 AD, to whom was he writing? There was no central group his gospel was aimed at. Many of Matthews details also would only apply to a Jew still in Jerusalem Such as the name of the field Judas hanged himself in (Matthew 27:8) and other Palestinian regional data (I get into this in the Internal evidence for the New Testament articles)
John Wenham says
“some of the apologetic (e.g. the account of the suicide of Judas and the account of the guard at the empty tomb) seems of no great theological significance, yet of particular interest to those who frequented in Jerusalem.”Redating Matthew Mark and Luke, John Wenham, p95
So what we can glean from here from internal text signals rather than all the cultural details is
- Significant events like the destruction of the temple are not mentioned which is out of character with the nature of predicted and fulfilled prophecy
- For three years, Jerusalem was under siege and Matthew and other New Testament books make no mention of it when it could have been of benefit (Though with John’s gospel, it wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to mention it considering his goal)
- There are signs Matthew wrote in a pre-Roman persecution era when contrasted with christian works written during persecution times slamming the Romans, whereas the New Testament doesn’t speak ill of them
- For a Jewish audience or a Jewish Christian audience, with the destruction of Jerusalem there would be no central Jewish core to write to and it would make sense the Gospel was written with a Jerusalem Jewish population
What was the acceptance rate of Matthew’s Gospel as canonical? Except for the heretic Marcion who hated anything Jewish, it gets a clear pass rate.
See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)
It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
- Ig = Ignatius
- Po = Polycarp
- M = Marcion
- Va = Valentinus
- JM = Justin Martyr
- IR = Irenaeus
- C = Clement of Alexandria
- T = Tertullian
- MC = Muratorian Canon
- O = Origen
- E = Eusebius
- CS = Codex Sinaiticus
- A = Athanasius
- D = Didymus the Blind
- P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
- V = Latin vulgate
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml
Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.2 Peter 1:16
2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrectionActs 1:21-22
One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)John 19:34-35
“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.Acts 2:32
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!Acts 3:15
We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”Acts 5:32
“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”Acts 10:39-43
[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.Romans 9:1
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.1 Corinthians 15:3-9
And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:1 Peter 5:1
Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name.
“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.Caius, Church leader
How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected.
So these summarised standards are these:
- Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
- Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
- Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
- Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
- Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?
So does Matthew fit the criteria of being written by an apostle or a colleague? All the sources we have from the church fathers indicate that it was written by the Apostle Matthew. So yes, it meets the first criteria with flying colours, there is no other tradition attesting his gospel to another.
Was the teaching consistent with teaching from the Jews? Quite so. As Matthew makes clear, Jesus is the perfect Jew, living to the standard no one else could live to and became the sacrifice spoken of in Abraham’s day. He is not only consistent with the Jewish scriptures but with the standard of Jesus presented in the early church fathers, the other three 1st century gospels as well as Paul’s letters.
So yes, Matthew is orthodox.
Was it widely agreed upon? Well we have noted that Papius (125 AD), Justin Martyr (150AD), Irenaeus (180AD), Clement of Alexandria (180AD), Tertullian (200AD) & the Muratorian Fragment (170AD) all affirm the Gospel as written by Matthew, some attesting it to be the first like we see in our modern Bibles. They attest from France, Africa, Rome, Turkey & Egypt that the gospel of Matthew is agreed as scripture.
The teachings of Matthew are deeply relevant to the Christian faith being a biography of the life of Jesus, the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. What could be more relevant than the life of Jesus? It is also useful for teaching and guiding future disciples through the times that were to come of difficulty. So quite relevant to Christians at the time (We know it’s early as this is far before heresies like Docetism and Gnosticism kick in which we see John begin to address)
By Apostolicity, and knowing the disciples were given authority by Christ Jesus, Matthew has always been accepted since the beginning without hesitation. Matthew was lead by God to write his Gospel to the Jews and it has the transformational power to save from then and still today.