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Authorship of Matthew's Gospel

Authorship of Matthew's Gospel

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Who wrote Matthew’s Gospel?

Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, tells us: ‘Matthew has put together the words (of the Lord) in the Hebrew language. Everyone translated these (into Greek) as well as he could’. Other Fathers of the Church simply say that the Apostle Matthew composed his Gospel in Hebrew. What to make of this?

It is quite clear that the Apostle Matthew could not have written the present Greek version of the Gospel: the writing represents not an eyewitness collection but a compilation of traditional texts in a second-generation Christian community.

Moreover, an internal analysis of the text shows that the author of the Greek version (the final edition) was without any doubt a thoroughly hellenised Jew, not a Galilean countryman as Matthew must have been.

But it is likely that the tradition of Matthean authorship holds a kernel of truth. The Apostle Matthew may have had a hand in bringing together, in Aramaic or Hebrew, a collection of sayings of Jesus. In fact, this may well have been the collection scholars call Quelle, a collection which underlies large sections of the Gospel. Is this not exactly what Papias tells us? This may have given rise to the assumption that Matthew had written the whole Gospel.

The Gospel probably came about in two major stages. It began as a collection of Aramaic sayings of Jesus, brought together by the Apostle Matthew. Then a Greek-speaking Christian scribe re-wrote it and enlarged in its present form, probably for the Christian community at Antioch in Syria.

The Tradition of Matthean authorship

Around 130 A.D., Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, wrote about the various Gospel editions. He tells us that the Apostle Matthew put together the discourses of Jesus in the Aramaic language. In other words: he says that Matthew collected Jesus’ words and made one book of them. This book was written in Aramaic, that is: in the language spoken by Jesus himself.

St. Irenaeus (about 180 A.D.) reports the same tradition.“Matthew”, he tells us, “preached among the Jews (in Palestine). He also produced in their language a writing of the Gospel. This he did while Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the Church in Rome”.

Many other outstanding writers of the early Church confirm this testimony: Pantaneus (about 200 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), Origen (186-254), Tertullian (160-240 A.D.), Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340 A.D.) and so on.

The references for these quotes are: Papias, Sayings of the Lord, 103; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1; Origen, quoted in Eusebius, History of the Church, 6,25.4; and Eusebius himself, History of the Church, 3,24.6.

It is evident, therefore, that from the earliest times onwards intelligent people in the Church ascribed the edition of the first gospel text to St. Matthew, the Apostle. Surely, there must be some historical ground for the tradition. We have no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of their information.

The most likely explanation is that Matthew had a hand in bringing together the sayings of Jesus as a collection. This was the earliest, Aramaic core of the Gospel. The collection may well be the re-constructed source of the Gospel which scholars call Quelle.

We know little about Matthew’s further life. Tradition narrates that he first preached to the Jews in Palestine and then to other nations outside the Holy Land. Some ancient writers say that he went to Ethiopia; others mention Persia, Syria, Greece and even Ireland. The circumstances of his death are also uncertain. but we may presume that tradition is right in calling him a martyr. His liturgical feast is celebrated on the 21st of September.

Internal clues to authorship

Does the Gospel according to Matthew itself say anything about its author? It does not do so directly. The title according to Matthew was only added later. But when we read the text carefully, we can recognize many characteristic traits of the evangelist.

Matthew the Apostle?

Every author quite naturally leaves the imprint of his/her personality on the writing he or she produces. The problem with the Gospels is that they mostly contained traditional material, so that the traces of authorship are harder to detect. Secondly, in the case of Matthew’s Gospel, we are probably dealing with two editions, and therefore two authors.

The Fathers of the Church, and Christians throughout the centuries, have always been intrigued by one passage in which ‘Matthew’ speaks of his own conversion:

“Jesus left that place, and as he walked along he saw a tax collector, named Matthew, sitting in his office. He said to him, “Follow me”. And Matthew got up and followed him”.

“While Jesus was having dinner at his house (Matthew’s house), many tax collectors and outcasts came and joined him and his disciples at the table...” (Mt 9:9-10).

Matthew, therefore, had been a tax collector. In those days tax collectors were looked down upon by people, since they were usually dishonest and not interested in religion. Luke (Lk 5:27-29) and Mark (Mk 2:13-15) also mention Jesus’ calling of the tax collector, but they call him ’Levi’. Why this difference in name?

The explanation offered by commentators was the following: Jews often had two names. Before his conversion this tax collector must have had the name ‘Levi’. Perhaps, Jesus himself gave him the new name ‘Matthew’ (Gift from God), just as he had given the name ‘Peter’ to ’Simon’. (Jn 1:40-42; M’ 16:17-18) In any case, among Jesus’ disciples and in the early Church, he was known as Matthew. It may be that Mark and Luke wanted to avoid mention of Matthew having been a tax collector before and so they called him by his previous name ’Levi’. Matthew himself, however, would not mind speaking about it. He would never forget how great God’s mercy had been towards him! He would always reflect on Jesus special love for himself: that Jesus had called him in spite of his having been a ’tax collector’.

When enumerating the list of Apostles, Matthew’s Gospel stresses that Matthew as a tax collector. It says: “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, the tax collector...etc”. (Mt 10:2-3)

The author of Greek Matthew

While these references to the Apostle Matthew are entirely speculative, there are more clues regarding the Greek author who composed the final version of the Gospel.

For the Christian communities in the cities of the Middle East, it was crucial to work out clearly how their belief in Christ related to the old Jewish religion. Many Christians were Jews by origin, or knew Judaism as proselytes or God-fearers. But even Gentiles who had never been Jews by birth or by personal choice would wonder how Jesus the Jew fitted in with the history of his own Jewish religion.

The Greek Gospel according to Matthew was written in this context . Although the date and place of composition cannot be fixed with absolute certainty, scholars generally assign a date around 85 or 90 AD for the final edition; and, interestingly enough, many believe Antioch was the place where it was written. Arguments for this are: the language of the Gospel: an intermediate standard Greek with knowledge of Aramaic and Hebrew; pointers to a prosperous, urban environment; intense preoccupation with Jewish-Christian relationships; familiarity with Palestine; and the role accorded to Peter. Antioch would fit this combination of factors extremely well.

The author of Greek Matthew was undoubtedly a teacher, a Jewish scribe who was thoroughly hellenised (=influenced by Greek culture), a man who knew the Old Testament well and who used his skills as a scribe to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah. This later author left his mark on the Gospel by his preoccupation with Jesus’ spoken teaching and with Church authority.

The stages of authorship

We may summarise our findings by saying that the Gospel according to Matthew went through at least two stages of growth. A simple reconstruction could be the following:


About 50 A.D., Matthew, the Apostle, composed the first ‘gospel’ in the Aramaic language. Matthew’s main purpose may have been to put in writing the official teaching of the Church community. This means that he would make ample use of the texts (the words of Jesus) which people had learned by heart under the instruction of their catechists.

This early Gospel may already have had an inner structure, in the sense that it was a summary of catechetical instruction arranged for the particular purpose of proving Jesus’ divine messiahship to the Jews of Palestine.


Modern scholars think that the original material was elaborated by a Christian scribe, possibly in Antioch. He translated the text into Greek, added sections from the Ur-Mark document and arranged its presentation in its present schematic and symbolical form. The Gospel may have reached its final form in the eighties.

“Aramaic Matthew” has entirely been lost, perhaps because there were very few people who spoke Aramaic in later times. Anyway, what the Christian community has canonised is the complete Greek Gospel which we know at present.

The authorship of Matthew’s Gospel is discussed in: C.KRAELING, ‘The Jewish Community at Antioch’, Journal of Biblical Literature 51 (1932) pp. 130-160; E.SCHWEIZER, ‘Matthew’s Church’ in The Interpretation of Matthew, ed. G.STANTON, London 1983, pp. 129-155; J.D.KINGSBURY, Matthew, Philadelphia 1977; J.GNILKA, Das Matthäusevangelium, vol.II, Freiburg 1988, esp. pp. 513-515. See also B.T.VIVIANO (‘Where was the Gospel according to Matthew written?’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979) pp. 533-546) who argues for Ceasarea as an alternative location.

John Wijngaards

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