The Gospel According to Matthew

According to many scholars the authors of the Synoptic Gospels are unknown. It is believed that the names Matthew, Mark, and Luke were attributed to the books at some point for convenience. In I Corinthians 15:4, referring to Christ’s atonement, Paul stated, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. Paul’s writings are dated around 55 CE. If the Gospels were dated, at the earliest, 70 CE., why would Paul be specific, mentioning “the third day”? The Old Testament does not *directly* prophecy that Christ will be raised on “the third day.” It seems Paul would have obtained this information from one of the Gospels not yet written, supposedly. Paul does not say according to tradition, but according to the Scriptures. Thus, it is not likely that he was referencing oral tradition. Considering such, the Gospels appears to have been written much earlier than current scholarship claims. The focus of this analysis will be on the Gospel According to Matthew.

During the second century the Gospel of Matthew was quoted by the church fathers more than any other book in the churches’ possession. Before the canon, in Palestine, the Gospel According to Matthew was the only Gospel widely read.[1] Matthew contains more of Jesus’ teachings than the other Gospels. However, scholars debate the book’s date and actual author. Unlike the other two Synoptic Gospels—Mark and Luke, Matthew’s Gospel has been traditionally contributed to one of the twelve disciples—Matthew. The hypothesis is that whoever wrote Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as a source. This would place doubt on the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel as actually having been written by the disciple Matthew. Why would an eyewitness to the events need to use Mark or any other source to write an account of events that took place?  Inferences from the author’s own writings are used to date when it was written. The date for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem is known. Scholars interpret references to the temple by the author as somehow being aware that the temple has been destroyed. Thus, most date the Gospel of Matthew to be written after 70 CE.[2]

There are some interesting things about the Gospel of Matthew. For example, Ignatius of Antioch wrote several letters to various churches; after his arrest and on his way to be martyred. There is a near-unanimous consensus among scholars that Ignatius was martyred 98-117 CE.[3] In his letter to the Ephesians there is a reference of the virgin birth found in Matthew’s Gospel:

Καί ἕλαθεν τόν ἄρχοντα τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου ἡ παρθςενία Μαρίας καί ὅ τοκετός αύτῆς, ὁμοίως καί ὁ Θάνατος τοῦ κυρίου· τρία μυστήρία κραυγῆς, ἅτινα ἐν ἡσυχία Θεοῦ ἐπράχθη.

“Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord; three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God.”[4]

This supports the claim that Matthew’s Gospel must have been written during the first century because Ignatius cited it in his letter to the Ephesians before the end of the first century. Not many scholars disagree. However, there are other ancient sources that could be useful for dating Matthew’s Gospels much closer to the beginning of the first century. Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, provides some of the earliest information of the authorship of Matthew. It is not known exactly when Papias was born, (Papias lived sometime during the last part of the first century and into the first part of the second century) but Irenaeus claims that Papias knew the apostle John. However, in Church History, Eusebius disclosed that Papias himself, in the preface to his written work, wrote that he never had been a hearer nor had he met any of the apostles, but learned the faith through those who did know the apostles.[5] Only fragments of Papias writings have survived. Eusebius provided some of Papias’ writings in his history of the church. According to Eusebius, Papias describes Matthew’s Gospel as:

Ματθαῖος μέν οῦν Ἑβραἴδι διαλέκτω τά λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήωευσε δ’ αὑτά ὡς ῆν δυνατός ἕκαστος.[6]

“So, Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each person interpreted them as best he could.”

This contradicts what modern scholars believe. Most scholars believe that all the Gospels were originally written in Koine Greek. Nevertheless, in Against Heresies Irenaeus’ remarks concur with Papias’ claim regarding Mathew’s Gospel being originally written in Hebrew.[7] Currently, the date given for the Gospel of Matthew was established by modern scholars under the assumption that the text was originally written in Greek. If the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew, the dating of the text might be much earlier than scholars currently date it.

Many New Testament scholars believe that the disciples of Jesus consisted of poor illiterate peasants who would not be capable of constructing a literary narrative in Greek like the ones found in the Gospels. They contend that the disciples would have most likely spoken Aramaic based on the region they were from. What’s interesting about this charge is that Hebrew and Aramaic are Semitic languages. It is not unlikely that Papias, Irenaeus, and Eusebius confused Aramaic with Hebrew. After all, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek—the Septuagint. This is because most of the early Christians during this era did not speak Hebrew. Moreover, the Hebrew language was not the primary language used by the Jews during the time of Jesus in Judea, they spoke Greek. Jesus, his followers, and the crowds he preached to most likely spoke Aramaic—a Semitic language closely resembling Hebrew.[8]  

According to New Testament scholars a large percentage of the population in antiquity was illiterate, specifically in the Palestine region. Still, the Gospel claims that Matthew was a tax collector. To be efficient as a tax collector the agent would have been required to evaluate the complexity of the region’s economy as it related to Rome’s demand for owed revenue. Trade that flowed locally and to other regions (exports) would have require an agent with the capacity to analyze and evaluate records of production for goods traded i.e., metals, wheat, barley, wine, olive-oil, etc. This would have required at the least basic skills in reading, writing, and math.

Keith Hopkins’ research on Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.-A.D. 400) provides a good example of the complexity of the Roman economy.[9] Furthermore, there exists a collection of documents from the ancient Mediterranean known as the Geniza Papyri from Cairo. The University of Cambridge’s digital library contains many fragments of these ancient documents, in particular there is one from a tax receipt 786 C.E.  Unsuccessful attempts of securing permission to download and use the image were made. However, information can be retrieved in the footnotes: “Official receipt of jizya tax. The document records the tax was received by the accountants (‘āmil) in Fusṭāṭ. Dated Shawwāl, 169 A.H. The amount is expressed in Greek numerals at the bottom.”[10]

Conclusion

It is interesting that the church fathers made early use of Matthew’s Gospel and that Matthew’s Gospel was the Gospel primarily used by the church in Palestine. More intriguing were the claims that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew; at least that’s what Papias and Ignatius seem to believe. Although, it makes more sense that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic—the Semitic language possibly mistaken as Hebrew. The early church fathers spoke Greek, as did the Jews in Judea at the time of Jesus. However, Jesus himself along with his followers spoke Aramaic. Matthew, a tax collector before becoming a disciple of Jesus was most likely literate, as logic would have it—it would have been essential to carry out his duties as a tax collector for the Romans. Paul’s reference to Christ resurrection “on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” suggests he was familiar with the Gospel writings. This provides additional support for the hypothesis i.e.; Matthew’s Gospel was written much earlier than current scholarship has dated it. The reason(s): Paul’s remarks in I Corinthians 15:4 not only indicated that he was familiar with the written Gospel, it disclosed that since we know Paul was writing in 55 CE, Matthew’s Gospel would have had to have been earlier. The issue of Matthew’s Gospel being counted as Scripture during Paul’s time is recognized. Nonetheless, the oral traditions were considered the Gospel truth for early Christians during this time. So, without being officially canonized, it is possible that Paul would have recognized the writings, if indeed he was aware of them, as such. Furthermore, a passage in 2 Peter disclosed an explicit reference of one New Testament writer to another.  Peter mentions Paul’s writings stating:

 ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς, λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων· ἐν οἷς ἔστι δυσνόητά τινα, ἃ οἱ ἀμαθεῖς καὶ ἀστήρικτοι στρεβλοῦσιν, ὡς καὶ τὰς λοιπὰς γραφάς, πρὸς τὴν ἰδίαν αὐτῶν ἀπώλειαν.

“…as in all the epistles, he [Paul] speaks of concerning this; in which are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable pervert, as also they do with the Scriptures, for their own destruction.”[11]

Peter has categorized Paul’s epistles with other writings, presumably those familiar to the readers—Scripture. This suggests that Paul’s writings were equally important as Scripture to those alive during the composition of them. Thus, it is not unlikely that the Gospel of Matthew would have been considered Scripture as well for those living during this same time, specifically Paul. This would explain his remarks in 1 Corinthians 15:4. Perhaps this brief analysis will have an impact on the curiosity of a scholar who has the resources to investigate the topic further.


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 262.

[2] J.R.C. Cousland, The New Oxford Annotate Bible: With the Apocrypha, 5th edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1781.

[3] Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 170.

[4] The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Translated by Michael W. Holmes in “Apostolic Fathers.”

[5] Eusebius, The Church History, Translated by Paul L. Maier.

[6] Eusebius, The Church History.

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Book 3).

[8] J.R.C. Cousland, The New Oxford Annotate Bible, 1778.

[9] Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.-A.D. 400),” The Journal of Roman Studies, 70 (1980): 101-125. https://www.jstor.org/stable/299558.

[10] University of Cambridge, Digital Library. Last modified 2015. https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-MICH-PAP-B-00012-A/1.

[11] My own translation of 2 Peter 3:16. ESV translates it as: “…as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, pas they do the other Scriptures”

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