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The Gospel According to Matthew
a.d. 60 – a.d. 90
by Levi, called Matthew, probably from Palestine or Syria
37. Who Was Matthew?
Early Church tradition considered Matthew’s the first gospel to be written, with Mark’s gospel being an abbreviated form of it. As we discussed at length in the Introduction to Mark, this is now universally recognized not to be the case. This mistaken notion of the order of the first two gospels has also caused much confusion about the time of their writing. Matthew was at one time thought to have been written as early as the year 50. Now that Matthew is generally thought to have followed Mark, one’s dating of Matthew depends entirely on where one places Mark in the timeline. If Mark was written in the 50s, Matthew could have come in the late 50s or 60s. If, on the other hand, Mark was written in Rome between 65 and 70, Matthew would not have been produced until the 70s or 80s or even 90s. All these theories have their advocates, and there is really no evidence upon which to base any conclusion. Nor are there strong traditions about Matthew such as we have concerning Mark. The only scant bit of evidence is the brief statement of Papias (c. 140) saying: “Matthew composed the logia of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted as best he was able.”
My placing Matthew here in the chronology, therefore, is not even an “educated guess.” I simply do so because it seems to make sense to break up the theological writings of Paul with another reading of a written account of the Life which gave birth to that theology. That Matthew may have been written in the late 50s, or at least the collection which later gave rise to it gathered and circulating, by this time, seems to me ample justification for taking a closer look at it now in our progression.
As Mark was written for a Gentile, probably Roman, audience, Matthew’s gospel was written primarily to Jews.
matthew, a man of intriguing possibilities
About the man Matthew himself, little is known for certain. The following conjectures may be put forward.
From the fact that they are both said to be sons of Alphaeus, it is assumed by some that Matthew was the brother of the disciple called James the Less (or “younger.”) That they were brothers is not specifically stated, and the commonality of many Jewish names (James, Mary, Jude and Judas, etc.) adds confusion to the gospel accounts. If true, this would make Matthew and James the third duo of brothers in the discipleship corps of twelve—an interesting fact in itself. What fascinates me about this possibility is the “family” component that existed within Jesus’ inner circle of companions—that Jesus knew these men ahead of time, and was probably acquainted with most of their families. We are told that one of the first things Matthew did after being called (Luke 5) was invite Jesus, along with his friends and disciples, to dinner at his house, an invitation that also included other “sinners” besides the tax gatherer Matthew himself. Had James, Matthew’s potential brother, already been called by this time? If two of the young men of the family were among Jesus’ most intimate friends, to what extent was the entire household of “Alphaeus” swept up in the growing movement? Whose house was it where this took place—Matthew’s, or the family home of Alphaeus?
These may seem like idle details. But the human drama of the gospel sometimes exists between the lines of the story. I think it possible that in the person of Matthew, as we saw with John Mark, we may encounter one of these truly fascinating between-the-lines stories.
Capernaum, which Jesus made his home after leaving Nazareth, was a small village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a Jewish community large enough to have a synagogue, but small enough that “everybody knew everybody,” as we say. From the fact that his brother may also have been called, and that both his father’s and mother’s names are known, it can be gathered that the family lived in Capernaum and that Matthew grew up in the village as the son in a faithful Jewish family. Whether or not there is any significance to his being given the name Levi, we cannot know. But is it possible his father Alphaeus had priestly aspirations for his son?
Levi, himself, however, had other plans. He must have been an ambitious young man. Being a tax collector for Herod and the Romans was not the sort of job one acquired by accident. He must have sought it, for it required a certain level of education. What sort of young Jew would seek such a job, would ingratiate himself with Herod’s administration as well as the Romans, knowing how hated tax collectors were, knowing that in all likelihood it would result in your friends and relatives and people you had known all your life turning against you? To throw in with Herod, then to spend your life squeezing your own people for your own personal gain, required a level of betrayal that is difficult for us to comprehend. Think of the IRS agent as your own neighbor, whose only rule when tax time came was to get as much out of you as he could. No wonder tax collectors were hated! It is hard to imagine anyone wanting such a job.
Yet such was Matthew. What did his family think? I wonder how close he and his brother James were when James’ taxes came due. I don’t think it hard to imagine that the hatred of the village toward Matthew may have extended toward the whole family of Alphaeus. As Matthew was probably the black sheep of the family, the whole household may have been stained in the public eye by Matthew’s profession. As is common in our time, a family black sheep often results in gossip about what the parents must have done wrong for the prodigal to have gone astray.
How, then, did Alphaeus and Mary stand in the public eye? One can imagine the scribes and Pharisees shunning the whole family along with Matthew.
But then a remarkable thing happened.
When Mark so powerfully says, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God,” Jesus did not only come into Galilee. He came to people.
Among those people was the household of Alphaeus. We know no details of what actually happened. All we know is that two young men called James and Levi (or Matthew) became among Jesus’ closest friends, believed in him, and became his disciples and were both appointed among the Twelve. Matthew left his career as a tax collector and was forever after known as the “Evangelist.”
Reconciliation and healing came to the whole family. Obviously Matthew and James must have been wonderfully reunited as brothers for them to be included in the Twelve.
But the life-changing power of the “gospel of God” was not limited to the two brothers of the family. In one of the tiny details of the gospel account (in the same way that many of the overlooked details in the Bible tell some of its most remarkable stories), we encounter a wonderful and amazing fact.
Fast forward three years. In Mark 15, Mark says that “some women” were watching the crucifixion “from a distance.” Among the group were Mary Magdalene, Salome who was probably the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James the younger. If the above family associations are accurate, we now see that not only the sons, but also the mother had become one of Jesus’ close followers and was with the other women and mothers at the end, even after the disciples themselves had fled.
Matthew then went on to write an account of his Lord’s life particularly directed toward a Jewish audience. To the spiritual heritage he had turned his back on early in his life he now returned, placing that heritage into the perspective of its prophetic fulfillment. The prodigal young Jew (a “sinner” and “tax gatherer”) became the spokesman for a larger Jewish faith, whose name would go down in history as the author of the very first New Testament book.
I must emphasize that all this is guesswork. I don’t want to be guilty of reading more into the scriptural texts than is there. Nowhere are Matthew and James the less called brothers, nowhere are they associated with one another as are the other brother-groups of the Apostles. The confusion is heightened by the fact that in Mark and Luke, there does exist an ambiguity about whether Levi and Matthew are the same person at all, and that in some manuscripts Mark 2:19 (“Levi son of Alphaeus”) actually reads “James the son of Alphaeus.” Some commentators even suggest that Levi and James were not only not brothers, they may actually be the same person. And that “person” may not be the same Matthew whose name is attached to this gospel. We simply don’t know.
The ambiguity of the account leaves us with many questions. One final question is, if the two brothers were both disciples, why do Mark 15:40 and 15:46-47 read, “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were…Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses…Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid;” why does it not read instead, “Mary the mother of James the younger and Matthew…Mary the mother of Matthew and James.” If this Mary was the mother of Matthew, why doesn’t Mark say so? Peter would surely have known. And why does Matthew not make it clear in his gospel?
We are left to puzzle over the identities of Matthew, Levi, James, Alphaeus, and Mary the mother of James and Joses.
The pertinent scriptures are as follows, from which you can try to sort it out as best seems to make sense.
Matt 9:9-10 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and sat with him and his disciples. (NIV—Most translations simply say “in the house” without identifying it as Matthew’s house. Though I like the NIV and use it regularly, this is one of many instances where I question the taking of such liberty. Obviously the translators have inferred it to be Matthew’s house from the account of Luke, but this is not what Matthew himself wrote. So why do they add to Matthew’s words?)
Matt. 10:1-3 He called his twelve disciples…These are the names of the twelve apostles…Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Mark 2:14-15 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth…Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house…. (NIV again—In this case, most translations say “in his house,” which is closer to Luke’s version.)
Mark 3:16-18 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and his brother John…Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Mark 15:40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were…Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses.
Luke 5:27-29 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth…Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.
Luke 6:15 When morning came he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Luke 24:10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.
Acts 1:13 Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.
38. A Gospel to Jews
In the Introduction to Mark we already discussed many of the features distinguishing Matthew, Mark, and Luke—how Matthew and Luke polish and “improve” on Mark’s blunt style, how they hesitate to show Jesus getting angry or showing the same level of human emotion, and how they tend to show the disciples not quite so dull-witted.
Some of the most interesting of these “edits” and “improvements” and “smoothings” on Mark’s bluntness are found in:
Matthew 8:16 (Mark 1:34)
Matthew 12:15 (Mark 3:8)
Matthew 13:57 (Mark 6:5-6)
Matthew 20:20 (Mark 10:35)
Mark 3:5, 21 and 10:14—omitted by Matthew completely.
One very interesting thing in this regard is that where Mark is obviously an eyewitness account through Peter’s eyes, we do not get that sense from Matthew. The question is why. If the author was indeed one of the twelve disciples, why is there no eyewitness flavor to the account as is so apparent in Mark’s gospel? Why doesn’t Matthew have just as many, or more, of those eyewitness touches that distinguish Mark’s gospel? And if it was written by Matthew the disciple, why did that Matthew then need to rely so heavily, as we have seen, on both Mark and the sayings source book Q for the writing of his own gospel. The textual criticism is indisputable that Matthew did use Mark. Yet if he was telling the story as an eyewitness, long after he and Mark and Peter had gone their separate ways and they were all preaching and traveling in different parts of the world, one would think Matthew might tell the story in a way and with a style and using a chronology that were uniquely his own. This leads to the obvious conjecture that perhaps Matthew himself, the disciple, did not write (or did not entirely write) the gospel as it has come to us but that a later unknown scribe attached his name to it.
Several possibilities present themselves. Did the word of Papias, the logia, mean the full Gospel as we have it. Or did it refer to some incomplete “sayings” collection that was added to later?” Both a “sayings” collection and a possible “testimonia” collection have been associated with Matthew, though without evidence.
One particularly intriguing idea is that Matthew was the compiler of Q, a theory that obviously fits with the statement of Papias that Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus. Then later, after Mark, an unknown third person used both Mark and Matthew’s collection of sayings, smoothing over the rough spots, to write the gospel as it has come to us, and attached Matthew’s name, as seemed fitting since he (along with Mark) was the primary source for it. Such an attribution of authorship would involve no duplicity but simply the honest attempt of the final writer to give credit where credit was due. (This theory is not widely held, I should point out, for the simple reason that Q is thought to be an Aramaic document, not Hebrew.)
Matthew’s collection of the logia (literally “oracles”) may not have been Q but one of many such “collections” being gathered and circulated at the time. Following on his work, possibly an unknown scribe wrote the finished book.
The word “oracles” often has prophetic overtones. As the content of Matthew concerns itself far more than any of the other gospels with the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, used by the gospel writer to convince the Jews that he was the Messiah, it may be that Matthew’s collection was made up of this grouping of prophecies, which were then, along with the content of Mark and Q, incorporated into the final gospel. It is this prophetic aspect of the gospel that gives its particularly Jewish flavor.
I find it difficult to imagine that Matthew himself could have been the sole final author without adding any of his own unique eyewitness observations. The fact is, Matthew incorporates almost all of Mark, and uses Mark’s order of events. I cannot imagine that an eyewitness to these astonishing events relied so heavily on the work of another. And yet the tradition in the church that it is Matthew’s gospel is unbroken, with no convincing reason set forth to doubt it other than these questions about what Papias words actually mean.
(If you are greatly interested, I recommend Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction on Matthew, in which he explores every tiny possibility in such detail that I quickly become overwhelmed. I am left convinced that ancient tradition is indeed correct, and that Matthew was perhaps, or perhaps not, the author of every word, and was perhaps, or perhaps not, the final complier…but in either case certainly was the driving creative, literary, and spiritual force behind the gospel that bears his name.)
One caveat to this uncertainty about his lack of eyewitness details, however, exists in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ calling of the mysterious “tax collector.” Did you notice this in the list of scriptures? We are almost certain that Mark came first, and wrote, As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth…Levi got up and followed him. Matthew at some later time, basing his work on Mark and using Mark’s account in many instances almost word for word, here makes a major change—Mark’s “Levi son of Alphaeus” becomes simply Matthew.
Is this Matthew himself, the author, making a change so as to accurately identify his own role as a disciple in the gospel story? If so, then here is one of those eyewitness details we hoped to find. Yet then why did he also omit the words “son of Alphaeus,” thus increasing our uncertainty all the more about the identities of and relationships between Levi, Matthew, James, and Alphaeus.
Frankly…I am left more perplexed than when I began!
organization and structure
However it came to be produced, the Gospel According to Matthew is far more than a mere compilation and organization of the work of others. The completed whole contains a literary artistry which may be even more remarkable given its foundational dependence on Mark. While Mark provides most of our knowledge of the events of Jesus’ life, the world owes to Matthew its knowledge of his teaching. And the author skillfully wove this teaching material, along with the prophecies of such interest to his Jewish audience, into a timeline of events that was provided for him by Mark.
“When we examine the structure of the Gospel of Matthew, it is evident that the work, whatever its sources, has been very carefully and artistically arranged. Like many ancient Jewish works, it is in five “books” or main divisions…These five divisions are alike in structure: each contains a narrative section (i.e., Jesus’ ministry), followed by a didactic section (i.e., Jesus’ teaching)….Comparing Matthew with Mark, one finds it most striking that Matthew has kept Mark’s order, for the most part, as well as preserving almost the entire contents of Mark…and Matthew has done this while impressing upon his finished work the subject arrangement just described. The gospel is clearly the work of a first rate literary artist and teacher, who has reflected long and deeply upon the substance of the Christian gospel—both Jesus’ life and his teaching—and has combined the teaching material with the biographical (or anecdotal) narratives in a most appropriate way.” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3, p. 304)
This five-part structure and its parallel to the Pentateuch and the Psalms underscore Matthew’s purpose: To make an ironclad case to Jews for Jesus’ Messiahship on the basis of his fulfillment of the Old Testament. Phrases such as, This took place to fulfill, or that it might be fulfilled, followed by an Old Testament prophecy, are found far more frequently in Matthew than in any of the other gospels. In all there are over sixty Old Testament references and quotations in Matthew.
Matthew also emphasizes “Jewish” topics. The Law is mentioned frequently: Jesus did not come to destroy but fulfill the Law. Jesus mentions more than once that he came first and foremost to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and sends his disciples out with that charge. The Jewish Scribes and Pharisees also play a focal role in Matthew’s story, at times being spoken of with respect, yet also paradoxically receiving Jesus’ most excoriating denunciation and condemnation.
The “five” pentateuchal structural elements (narrative followed by teaching) in the book are as follows. You will notice that this fivefold grouping can only be preserved by considering the Infancy narrative as introductory, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection as conclusionary. Nor are the divisions as cut-and-dried as they look on this chart. The book reads more as a flowing whole than this might indicate. So perhaps those who see Matthew in this light are stretching a point, but I thought you might find it interesting.
Introduction: Infancy Matthew 1-2
1. Discipleship Matthew 3-7
2. Apostleship Matthew 8-10
3. Hidden Revelation Matthew 11-13:52
Discourse (13:1- 13:52)
4. The Church Matthew 13:53-18:35
5. Judgment Matthew 19-25
Conclusion: Passion and Resurrection Matthew 26-28
uniquenesses of the gospel according to matthew
Matthew’s gospel contains additional uniquenesses and peculiar flavors not found in the other gospels.
Matthew’s story of the birth and genealogy are unique to his gospel (oddly, puzzling scholars for two millennia, differing markedly from Luke’s and in large measure incompatible with it). The virgin birth is found only in Matthew, as is the story of the Wise Men, and the flight into Egypt.
The continual emphasis on apocalyptic eschatology and the prophetic are not limited merely to its Old Testament messianic references. Many of Matthew’s parables have futuristic overtones about the kingdom of heaven, or the last being first and the first last, climaxing of course in the great judgment of Matthew 25.
Besides being the “Gospel for the Jews,” Matthew has been called the “ecclesiastical” gospel, as focusing more attention on the church than the other three. The word “Church,” in fact, appears only in Matthew.
Matthew also pointedly and persistently presents Jesus as King—from the very beginning where his “royal” lineage is established. He is referred to as “Son of David” more often in Matthew than anywhere else. This theme of kingship is powerfully woven through the trial and crucifixion drama. William Barclay calls the kingship of Jesus the “dominating idea” of Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew’s uniqueness as a vehicle in the early Church for the transmitting and teaching of the precepts introduced by Jesus and made the foundation of the Christian faith is so well described by one of my favorite New Testament scholars, that I cannot improve on it. I find this insight that distinguishes Matthew from the other gospels so fascinating that I feel it worthy of quoting in full as fit conclusion to our introduction to this powerfully thematic gospel.
Matthew is supremely the teaching gospel. We have already seen that the apostle Matthew was responsible for the first collection and the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus. Matthew was the great systematizer. It was his habit and his custom to gather together in one place all that he knew and could find about the teaching of Jesus on any given subject. The result is that in Matthew we find five great blocks of Jesus’ teaching, five great sections in which the teaching of Jesus is collected and systematized: all these sections have to do with the Kingdom of God. They are as follows:
a) The Sermon on the Mount, or The Law of the Kingdom (5-7)
b) The Duties of the Leaders of the Kingdom (10)
c) The Parables of the Kingdom (13)
d) Greatness and Forgiveness in the Kingdom (18)
e) The Coming of the King (24, 25)
Matthew does more than collect and systematize. It must be remembered that Matthew was writing in an age when printing had not been invented, when books were few and far between because they had to be hand-written. In an age like that comparatively few people could possess a book; and, therefore, if they wished to know and to use the teaching and the story of Jesus, they had to carry it in their memories. Matthew therefore always arranges things in a way that it is easy for the reader to memorise. He arranges things in threes and sevens. There are three messages to Joseph; there are three denials of Peter; there are three questions of Pilate. There are seven parables of the Kingdom in chapter 13; there are seven woes to the Scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23. The genealogy of Jesus with which the gospel begins is a good example of this. The genealogy is to prove that Jesus is the Son of David. In Hebrew there are no figures; when figures are necessary the letters of the alphabet stand for the figures. In Hebrew there are no written vowels. The Hebrew letters for David are DWD; if these letters be taken as figures and not as letters, they add up to 14; and the genealogy consists of three groups of names, and in each group there are 14 names. Matthew does everything possible to systematize and to arrange the teaching of Jesus in such a way that people will be able to assimilate and to remember it.
Every teacher owes a debt of gratitude to Matthew, for Matthew wrote what is above all is the teacher’s gospel. (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, pp. xxiv-xxvi)