Author of Matthew: Eyewitness to Jesus or Gentile Pretender?

Jews in Jerusalem

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In this post I conclude my case for the traditional view that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew (“Matthew,” or the “first Gospel”) was one of the original Jewish disciples of Jesus, namely “Levi” or “Matthew,” the tax collector, mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13.

The aim of my case is to respond to Bart Ehrman’s claim in How Jesus Became God that the Gospels were composed by Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died, thereby casting doubt on the link between the Gospel accounts and the historical Jesus.

In my last post, I laid out internal and external evidence for the traditional view of the authorship of Matthew. In this post, I will respond to some popular objections to that view.

Would Matthew Rely on Mark?

As I recently described in this post, the most widely held view of how the three synoptic Gospels were composed—the Four-Source theory—claims that the author of Matthew used Mark as his most significant source in composing the first Gospel. To some scholars, this fact suggests an objection to the traditional view that Matthew was composed by one of Jesus’s original Jewish disciples.

According to this objection, if the author of the first Gospel were really Jesus’s original disciple, Matthew, it seems he would not have chosen to rely on the Gospel of Mark since, according to the traditional view, the author of Mark was not an eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry while the disciple Matthew was. Wouldn’t Matthew prefer his own eyewitness account to the account of a non-eyewitness? Therefore, insofar as the author of Matthew did rely heavily on the Gospel according to Mark in composing his Gospel (reproducing over 90 percent of it verbatim), it might seem that the author of the first Gospel was not the disciple Matthew (Hagner lxxvi).

However, this objection is easily deflected. As noted in my post on the Gospel according to Mark, the traditional view is that Mark was composed by a disciple and close associate of Jesus’s disciple, Peter, and that the Gospel according to Mark reflects the ministry of Jesus as transmitted by Peter. If that is the case (which seems plausible, as I argued in that post), then the author of Matthew would effectively be relying on Peter’s account of Jesus’s ministry, which seems like something a fellow-eyewitness like the disciple Matthew might well do. So, I don’t think this first objection raises a real problem for the traditional view.

Was the Author of Matthew a Gentile?

Some scholars have raised a second objection, arguing that the author of Matthew was a Gentile and not a Jew since the author exhibits ignorance of basic first-century Jewish culture.

For example, Matthew sometimes mentions Pharisees and Sadducees together (e.g., Matthew 3:7, 16:1, 16:6, 16:11-12). Some scholars skeptical of the traditional view suggest that Matthew’s joint mention of Pharisees and Sadducees in multiple passages shows that he was ignorant of the fact that they were two distinct first-century Jewish sects. Matthew 16:12 specifically mentions the “teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” seemingly implying that the author did not realize that the two groups had distinct teachings. Thus, according to this objection, it seems unlikely the author of Matthew was a Jewish disciple of Jesus and more likely he was a Gentile, ignorant of Jewish culture.

However, there is a better explanation of these passages. Matthew 22:23-33 reports a confrontation between Jesus and a group of Sadducees in which Jesus challenges one of the views that set the Sadducees apart from the Pharisees—namely, the view that there is no resurrection. Here, the author does not mention the Sadducees and Pharisees together, suggesting that he is aware of this important difference between their teachings.

In light of Matthew 22:23-33, it seems better to think the author mentions Pharisees and Sadducees together in some passages since they were united in their opposition to Jesus. This seems to be a better reading of the relevant passages in Matthew 3 and 16, and of the phrase “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. Their teaching was that Jesus was not the Messiah. Other passages raised by skeptical scholars can be explained in a similar way (I won’t canvass them here for the sake of brevity).

Additionally, the claim that the author of Matthew was a Gentile ignores the ample positive evidence that he was a Jew, as explained in my last post (e.g., the author’s special interest in the Jewish law, Pharisees, and scribes; his copious use of the Hebrew Bible; his lack of felt need to explain Jewish customs as Mark does, etc.).

For these reasons, “Few recent commentators on the [first] Gospel have been inclined to accept the view that the author was a Gentile” (Hagner, lxxvii).

Would Matthew Have Written in Greek?

Finally, scholars who doubt the traditional view sometimes question whether Jesus’s disciple Matthew would have written the first Gospel in its current Greek form. Wouldn’t it be more likely, they say, that a Greek-speaking Gentile wrote it than that an Aramaic-speaking Jew did?

We can say several things in response to this objection. First, if the disciple Matthew had been a tax collector, it is likely that he would have spoken Greek and perhaps also some Latin to allow him to engage with the Roman authorities for whom he collected taxes. So, it is possible that the disciple Matthew wrote the Greek Gospel we have (though this hypothesis is at odds with Papias’s testimony that Matthew compiled sayings in “Hebrew” [probably meaning “Aramaic”]).

Second, and more likely in my view, is the idea that a later Greek-speaking Jewish disciple of the Apostle Matthew translated “M”—a source deriving from Jesus’s disciple Matthew, unique to the first Gospel (see this post)—from its original Aramaic into Greek, and then stitched the translation together with two other sources, Mark and Q, to form the Gospel as we know it (Hagner lxxvi). This view would make sense of Papias’s claim that “Matthew compiled the sayings in the [Aramaic] language, but everyone translated them as he was able” (Albright and Mann CLXXIX).

Assessing Ehrman’s Claim

If that is the correct story about the authorship of the first Gospel, then the Gospel has a unique element attributable to the disciple Matthew, but it is also made up of teachings deriving from the disciple Peter and the (probably orally-transmitted) source, Q. (I will discuss oral sources in a future post.) This story still leaves the Gospel firmly anchored to eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s ministry, and it offers a somewhat more nuanced version of the traditional view of Matthew’s authorship.

If that story is correct, then Ehrman is partly right that a “second-generation Christian”—a Greek-speaking disciple of the Apostle Matthew—was responsible for the final form of Gospel. However, Ehrman would be wrong to suggest that such a story should make us worry that the content of the first Gospel did not derive from the historical Jesus or his original disciple Matthew. After all, the hypothesis is that the sources used in composing the first Gospel derived from eyewitnesses (the disciples Peter and Matthew) and oral tradition linked to Jesus (Q).

Clearly, I have not made an air-tight case for my view. However, the view does seem to be plausible, and thus there is no need to accept Ehrman’s skeptical claim there is a substantial disconnect between Jesus’s historical teachings and the content of the first Gospel. Indeed, I think the responses to the objections voiced above show that the (nuanced) traditional view of Matthew is more plausible than Ehrman’s skeptical view.

2 thoughts on “Author of Matthew: Eyewitness to Jesus or Gentile Pretender?

  1. Aaron, I am so grateful for your gifting in logic and argumentation so I can be free to do other things! 🙂 Blessings on you and your family.

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