Matthew and his Gospel: Tax collector, well educated, Levite Jew and Apostole

Introduction

Matthew the Apostle (Hebrew: מַתִּתְיָהוּ‎ Mattityahu or מתי‬ Matt, متى Arabic “Gift of YHVH“; Greek: Ματθαῖος; Coptic: ⲙⲁⲧⲑⲉⲟⲥ, Matthaios; also known as Saint Matthew and as Levi) was, according to the Christian Bible, one of the twelve apostles of the Master (“Rabbi”) Jesus and, according to Christian tradition, one of the four Evangelists.

Matthew was an apostle of Jesus and evangelist (born in Capernaum 4/2 B.C. – Ethiopia, 24 January 70). In the Gospels is called “the publican”, i.e. the tax collector who is called by the Master (Rabbi) Jesus. In Mark and Luke the same publican is called Levi, although he is not explicitly identified with the apostle Matthew.
According to the tradition of the Church, Matthew is depicted with an angel at his side who inspires him and guides his hand while writing the Gospel; the winged figure is one of the four living beings present in the Book of Ezekiel and in the Book of Revelation and this because the Gospel of Matthew begins with the earthly genealogy and childhood of Jesus “Son of Man“, thus emphasizing his humanity.
Traditionally, apocryphal texts also refer to Matthew: the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which speaks of the infancy of Christ, the Acts of Matthew and the Martyrdom of Matthew, which describe his preaching.

The oldest Gospel

The ancient ecclesiastical tradition considered Matthew as the first Gospel, written in Hebrew (Aramaic), even if a part of recent criticism considers Mark as the most ancient Gospel. The Gospel according to Matthew was however composed immediately after the second destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, therefore between the years 70/100. Among the synoptics, that of Matthew is the most extensive, the most complete, the most structured and also the most quoted.
The publican Matthew is a man of high culture, a tax collector, of Hebrew/Ellenistic formation, so much so that it seems he has Greekised his name, the Gospels according to Mark and Luke in fact present him with the name of Levi (of Hebrew family).

In the New Testament

Among the early followers and apostles of Jesus, Matthew is mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and Matthew 10:3 as a publican who, while sitting at the “receipt of custom” in Capernaum, was called to follow Jesus. He is also listed among the twelve, but without identification of his background, in Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. In passages parallel to Matthew 9:9, both Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 describe Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi, the son of Alphaeus, but Mark and Luke never explicitly equate this Levi with the Matthew named as one of the twelve.

Early life

Matthew was a 1st-century Galilean (presumably born in Galilee, which was not part of Judea or the Roman Iudaea province), the son of Alpheus. As a tax collector he would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek. His fellow Jews would have despised him for what was seen as collaborating with the Roman occupation force.

After his call, Matthew invited Jesus home for a feast. On seeing this, the Scribes and the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. This prompted Jesus to answer, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32)

Ministry

The New Testament records that as a disciple, he followed Jesus, and was one of the witnesses of the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus. Afterwards, the disciples withdrew to an upper room (Acts 1:10–14) (traditionally the Cenacle) in Jerusalem. The disciples remained in and about Jerusalem and proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) “Mattai” is one of five disciples of “Jeshu“.

Later Church fathers such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.1) and Clement of Alexandria claim that Matthew preached the Gospel to the Jewish community in Judea, before going to other countries. Ancient writers are not agreed as to what these other countries are. The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church each hold the tradition that Matthew died as a martyr, although this was rejected by the gnostic heretic Heracleon as early as the second century.

Matthew’s Gospel

The tradition that the author of this Gospel was the disciple Matthew begins with the early Christian bishop Papias of Hierapolis (c. 100–140 CE), who is cited by the Church historian Eusebius (260–340 CE), as follows: “Matthew collected the oracles (logia: sayings of or about Jesus) in the Hebrew language (Hebraïdi dialektōi), and each one interpreted (hērmēneusen – perhaps “translated”) them as best he could.”

Matteo capitolo 7, 12 la Regola d’Oro

On the surface, this has been taken to imply that Matthew’s Gospel itself was written in Hebrew or Aramaic by the apostle Matthew and later translated into Greek, but nowhere does the author claim to have been an eyewitness to events, and Matthew’s Greek “reveals none of the telltale marks of a translation”. Scholars have put forward several theories to explain Papias: perhaps Matthew wrote two gospels, one, now lost, in Hebrew, the other our Greek version; or perhaps the logia was a collection of sayings rather than the gospel; or by dialektōi Papias may have meant that Matthew wrote in the Jewish style rather than in the Hebrew language. The consensus is that Papias does not describe the Gospel of Matthew as we know it, and it is generally accepted that Matthew was written in Greek, not in Aramaic or Hebrew.

Non-canonical or Apocryphal Gospels

In the 3rd-century Jewish–Christian gospels attributed to Matthew were used by Jewish–Christian groups such as the Nazarenes and Ebionites. Fragments of these gospels survive in quotations by Jerome, Epiphanius and others. Most academic study follows the distinction of Gospel of the Nazarenes (26 fragments), Gospel of the Ebionites (7 fragments), and Gospel of the Hebrews (7 fragments) found in Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha. Critical commentators generally regard these texts as having been composed in Greek and related to Greek Matthew. A minority of commentators consider them to be fragments of a lost Aramaic or Hebrew language original.

The Infancy Gospel of Matthew (or Pseudo-Matthew) is a 7th-century compilation of three other texts: the Protevangelium of James, the Flight into Egypt, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Origen said the first Gospel was written by Matthew. This Gospel was composed in Hebrew near Jerusalem for Hebrew Christians and translated into Greek, but the Greek copy was lost. The Hebrew original was kept at the Library of Caesarea. The Nazarene Community transcribed a copy for Jerome which he used in his work. Matthew’s Gospel was called the Gospel according to the Hebrews or sometimes the Gospel of the Apostles and it was once believed that it was the original to the Greek Matthew found in the Bible. However, this has been challenged by modern biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman and James R. Edwards.

Jerome relates that Matthew was supposed by the Nazarenes to have composed their Gospel of the Hebrews though Irenaeus and Epiphanius of Salamis consider this simply a revised version canonical Gospel. This Gospel has been partially preserved in the writings of the Church Fathers, said to have been written by Matthew. Epiphanius does not make his own the claim about a Gospel of the Hebrews written by Matthew, a claim that he merely attributes to the heretical Ebionites.

In Islam

The Quran speaks of Jesus’ disciples but does not mention their names, instead referring to them as “helpers to the work of GOD” (ALLAH). Muslim exegesis and Qur’an commentary, however, name them and include Matthew amongst the disciples. Muslim exegesis preserves the tradition that Matthew, with Andrew, were the two disciples who went to Ethiopia (not the African country, but a region called ‘Ethiopia’ south of the Caspian Sea) to preach the message of GOD.

Gospel of Matthew

Background

The oldest relatively complete manuscripts of the Bible are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, which date from the 4th century. Besides these, there exist manuscript fragments ranging from a few verses to whole chapters. P {\displaystyle {\mathfrak {P}}} 104 and P {\displaystyle {\mathfrak {P}}} 67 are notable fragments of Matthew. These are copies of copies. In the process of recopying, variations slipped in, different regional manuscript traditions emerged, and corrections and adjustments were made. Modern textual scholars collate all major surviving manuscripts, as well as citations in the works of the Church Fathers, in order to produce a text which most likely approximates to the lost autographs.

Authorship and sources

The anonymous author of Matthew was probably a male Jew, standing on the margin between traditional and non-traditional Jewish values, and familiar with technical legal aspects of scripture being debated in his time. Many modern scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel to be composed and that Matthew (who includes some 600 of Mark’s 661 verses) and Luke both drew upon it as a major source for their works. The author of Matthew did not, however, simply copy Mark, but used it as a base, emphasising Jesus’ place in the Jewish tradition and including other details not covered in Mark. An additional 220 (approximately) verses, shared by Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark, from a second source, a hypothetical collection of sayings to which scholars give the name “Quelle” (“source” in the German language), or the Q source. This view, known as the Two-source hypothesis (Mark and Q), allows for a further body of tradition known as “Special Matthew”, or the M source, meaning material unique to Matthew; this may represent a separate source, or it may come from the author’s church, or he may have composed these verses himself. The author also had the Greek scriptures at his disposal, both as book-scrolls (Greek translations of Isaiah, the Psalms etc.) and in the form of “testimony collections” (collections of excerpts), and, if Papias is correct, probably oral stories of his community. These sources were predominantly in Greek, but mostly not from any known version of the Septuagint; although a few scholars hold that some of them may have been Greek translations of older Hebrew or Aramaic sources. The tradition that the author was Matthew the Apostle begins with Papias of Hierapolis (c. AD 100–140), an early bishop and Apostolic Father.

Setting and date

The majority view among scholars is that Matthew was a product of the last quarter of the 1st century. This makes it a work of the second generation of Christians, for whom the defining event was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in AD 70 in the course of the First Jewish–Roman War (AD 66–73); from this point on, what had begun with Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish messianic movement became an increasingly Gentile phenomenon evolving in time into a separate religion. The Christian community to which Matthew belonged, like many 1st-century Christians, was still part of the larger Jewish community: hence the designation Jewish Christian to describe them. The relationship of Matthew to this wider world of Judaism remains a subject of study and contention, the principal question being to what extent, if any, Matthew’s community had cut itself off from its Jewish roots. Certainly there was conflict between Matthew’s group and other Jewish groups, and it is generally agreed that the root of the conflict was the Matthew community’s belief in Jesus as the Messiah and authoritative interpreter of the law, as one risen from the dead and uniquely endowed with divine authority.

Saint Matthew and the Angel, painting by Simone Cantarini, 1645-1648

The author of Matthew wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians located probably in Syria (Antioch, the largest city in Roman Syria and the third-largest in the empire, is often mentioned). Unlike Mark, Matthew never bothers to explain Jewish customs, since his intended audience was a Jewish one; unlike Luke, who traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam, father of the human race, he traces it only to Abraham, father of the Jews; of his three presumed sources only “M”, the material from his own community, refers to a “church” (ecclesia), an organised group with rules for keeping order; and the content of “M” suggests that this community was strict in keeping the Jewish law, holding that they must exceed the scribes and the Pharisees in “righteousness” (adherence to Jewish law). Writing from within a Jewish-Christian community growing increasingly distant from other Jews and becoming increasingly Gentile in its membership and outlook, Matthew put down in his gospel his vision “of an assembly or church in which both Jew and Gentile would flourish together”.

Structure and content

Matthew, alone among the gospels, alternates five blocks of narrative with five of discourse, marking each off with the phrase “When Jesus had finished…”. Some scholars see in this a deliberate plan to create a parallel to the first five books of the Old Testament; others see a three-part structure based around the idea of Jesus as Messiah; or a set of weekly readings spread out over the year; or no plan at all. Davies and Allison, in their widely used commentary, draw attention to the use of “triads” (the gospel groups things in threes), and R. T. France, in another influential commentary, notes the geographic movement from Galilee to Jerusalem and back, with the post-resurrection appearances in Galilee as the culmination of the whole story.

Prologue: genealogy, Nativity and infancy

The Gospel of Matthew begins with the words “The Book of Genealogy [in Greek, “Genesis”] of Jesus Christ”, deliberately echoing the words of Genesis 2:4 in the Old Testament in Greek. The genealogy tells of Jesus’ descent from Abraham and King David and the miraculous events surrounding his virgin birth, and the infancy narrative tells of the massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, and eventual journey to Nazareth.

First narrative and discourse

The first narrative section begins. John baptizes Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. Jesus prays and meditates in the wilderness for forty days, and is tempted by Satan. His early ministry by word and deed in Galilee meets with much success, and leads to the Sermon on the Mount, the first of the discourses. The sermon presents the ethics of the Kingdom of GOD, introduced by the Beatitudes (“Blessed are…”). It concludes with a reminder that the response to the kingdom will have eternal consequences, and the crowd’s amazed response leads into the next narrative block.

Second narrative and discourse

From the authoritative words of Jesus the gospel turns to three sets of three miracles interwoven with two sets of two discipleship stories (the second narrative), followed by a discourse on mission and suffering. Jesus commissions the Twelve Disciples and sends them to preach to the Jews, perform miracles, and prophesy the imminent coming of the Kingdom, commanding them to travel lightly, without staff or sandals.

Third narrative and discourse

Opposition to Jesus comes to a head with accusations that his deeds are done through the power of Satan; Jesus in turn accuses his opponents of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The discourse is a set of parables emphasising the sovereignty of GOD, and concluding with a challenge to the disciples to understand the teachings as scribes of the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew avoids using the holy word GOD in the expression “Kingdom of GOD”; instead he prefers the term “Kingdom of Heaven”, reflecting the Jewish tradition of not speaking the Name of GOD).

Fourth narrative and discourse

The fourth narrative section reveals that the increasing opposition to Jesus will result in his crucifixion in Jerusalem, and that his disciples must therefore prepare for his absence. The instructions for the post-crucifixion church emphasize responsibility and humility. (This section contains Matthew 16:13–19, in which Simon, newly renamed Peter, (πέτρος, petros, meaning “stone”), calls Jesus “the Christ, the son of the living GOD”, and Jesus states that on this “bedrock” (πέτρα, petra) he will build his church: this passage forms the foundation for the papacy’s claim of authority).

Fifth narrative and discourse

Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, and the opposition intensifies: he is tested by Pharisees as soon as he begins to move towards the city, and when he arrives he is soon in conflict with the Temple’s traders and religious leaders. He teaches in the Temple, debating with the chief priests and religious leaders and speaking in parables about the Kingdom of GOD and the failings of the chief priests and the Pharisees. The Herodian caucus also become involved in a scheme to entangle Jesus (Matthew 22:15–16), but Jesus’ careful response to their enquiry, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to GOD the things that are GOD’s” (Matthew 22:21), leaves them marveling at his words (Matthew 22:22).

The disciples ask about the future, and in his final discourse (the Olivet Discourse) Jesus speaks of the coming end. There will be false Messiahs, earthquakes, and persecutions, the sun, moon, and stars will fail, but “this generation” will not pass away before all the prophecies are fulfilled. The disciples must steel themselves for ministry to all the nations. At the end of the discourse, Matthew notes that Jesus has finished all his words, and attention turns to the crucifixion.

Conclusion: Passion, Resurrection and Great Commission

The events of Jesus’ last week occupy a third of the content of all four gospels. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph and drives the money changers from the temple, holds a last supper, prays to be spared the coming agony (but concludes “if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done”), and is betrayed. He is tried by the Jewish leaders (the Sanhedrin) and before Pontius Pilate, and Pilate washes his hands to indicate that he does not assume responsibility. Jesus is crucified as king of the Jews, mocked by all. On his death there is an earthquake, the veil of the Temple is rent, and saints rise from their tombs. Mary Magdalene and another Mary discover the empty tomb, guarded by an angel, and Jesus himself tells them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

After the resurrection the remaining disciples return to Galilee, “to the mountain that Jesus had appointed”, where he comes to them and tells them that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on Earth.” He gives the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”. Jesus will be with them “to the very end of the age”.

Relationship with the Jews

Matthew’s prime concern was that the Jewish tradition should not be lost in a church that was increasingly becoming gentile. This concern lies behind the frequent citations of Jewish scripture, the evocation of Jesus as the new Moses along with other events from Jewish history, and the concern to present Jesus as fulfilling, not destroying, the Law. Matthew must have been aware of the tendency to distort Paul’s teaching of the law no longer having power over the New Testament Christian into antinomianism, and addressed Christ’s fulfilling of what the Israelites expected from the “Law and the Prophets” in an eschatological sense, in that he was all that the Old Testament had predicted in the Messiah.

The gospel has been interpreted as reflecting the struggles and conflicts between the evangelist’s community and the other Jews, particularly with its sharp criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. Prior to the Crucifixion the Jews are called Israelites, the honorific title of God’s chosen people; after it, they are called “Ioudaioi”, Jews, a sign that through their rejection of the Christ the “Kingdom of Heaven” has been taken away from them and given instead to the church.

 


 

Bibliography

  • Davies, William David; Allison, Dale C. (1988). A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. I: Introduction and Commentary on Matthew I–VII. T&T Clark Ltd. ISBN 9780567094810.
  • Duling, Dennis C. (2010). “The Gospel of Matthew”. In Aune, David E. The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-0825-6.
  • France, R.T (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. Eerdmans. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-8028-2501-8.
  • Harrington, Daniel J. (1991). The Gospel of Matthew. Liturgical Press. ISBN 9780814658031
  • Keener, Craig S. (1999). A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-3821-6.
  • Luz, Ulrich (1989). Matthew 1–7. Matthew: A Commentary. 1. Translated by Linss, Wilhelm C. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 9780806624020.
  • Allison, D.C. (2004). Matthew: A Shorter Commentary. T&T Clark. ISBN 978-0-567-08249-7.
  • Morris, Leon (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-85111-338-8.
  • Nolland, John (2005). The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-2389-2.
  • Saunders, Stanley P. (2009). “Matthew”. In O’Day, Gail. Theological Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0664227111.
  • Turner, David L. (2008). Matthew. Baker. ISBN 978-0-8010-2684-3.
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