Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew: Exploring the Mystery
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman
Do we really know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew? Many of the best-known stories about the life and, especially, the infancy of Jesus come down to us through this Gospel.
These include the story of Jesus’s birth, the Wise Men coming to see him, and his family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.
It’s an undeniably fascinating book, so we’ll address who wrote the Gospel of Matthew in this post.
What’s in a Name?
Although this version of the story of Jesus’s life has been handed down to us as the Gospel of Matthew, that title is not original to the text. I’ll still call it Matthew here for the sake of convenience.
It was originally written anonymously, as we know from our earliest manuscripts which have no title and no author’s name at all. The title was only added in the early 2nd century CE, decades after it was written.
In addition, Walter Wilson, in his commentary on Matthew, suggests that the absence of an authorial signature may show the author did not think of it as his own individual perspective but rather as a construction by the author’s community.
It is important to note that during the first century, more men than women were literate. Therefore, most scholars assume that the author of this work has a masculine identity.
So how did we get this title?
According to the 4th-century church historian Eusebius, a 2nd-century bishop named Papias claimed to have known the author of the Gospel of John. Papias said that Matthew, an apostle named only in the Gospel of Matthew (9:9-13), had recorded sayings of Jesus in Hebrew. Most scholars now discount this idea, but the traditional name seems to have come from this reference.
Since we don’t have the name of the author of Matthew or even a title, is there anything we can know about him at all?
Glad you asked!
He was almost certainly Jewish
Matthew is rightly called the most Jewish of the Gospels for several reasons.
Right off the bat, the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel links him directly not only to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but also to David, Israel’s greatest king.
Wilson also notes that the author clearly has knowledge of Hebrew. He makes numerous references to the Hebrew Bible in the text and insists on the importance of Torah observance. All of this points to a Jewish author for Matthew.
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He was probably not from Palestine
The Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, not the Aramaic language spoken in Israel at the time.
Most scholars concur that Antioch, Syria is the most probable location for the writing of Matthew, given that Greek was the primary language spoken there.
According to Aaron Gale, in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, only the Gospel of Matthew mentions that Jesus was recognized in Syria during his lifetime. It is also mentioned in later New Testament texts that a community led by Jesus existed there (Acts 11:19-27, 13:1, Gal 2:11). Moreover, Peter, who was one of the leaders of the disciples, seems to have links to the city (Matt 16-17-19, Gal 2:11).
When was Matthew Written and How Can this Help us Understand the Author?
Most scholars assume it was written between 80 and 90 CE, at least 60 years after Jesus’s death.
Why? First, it refers in several verses to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman imperial army (22:7, 21:41, 22:4, 23:38). Since we know this happened in 70 CE, Matthew must have been written after that date.
Furthermore, scholars have known for a long time that Matthew’s author used the Gospel of Mark, our oldest Gospel, as one of the main sources for his narrative. Therefore, Matthew had to be written after Mark, which was written around the time of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.
Finally, the earliest written reference to the text of Matthew after the New Testament is found in letters written by a bishop from Antioch named Ignatius. In these letters, written around 110 CE, he quotes phrases from the Gospel.
This makes a date of 80-90 CE, between the destruction of the Temple and Ignatius’ letters, a reasonable assumption for Matthew’s composition.
How Does MAtthew Portray Jesus?
In Scripting Jesus, L. Michael White writes that Jesus is portrayed in three key ways in Matthew.
- He is the Davidic Messiah, which again is shown in his birth narrative and genealogy.
- He is the new Moses, clarifying and even modifying the law of Moses.
- Jesus is a teacher of righteousness who is more authoritative than the teachers of his day.
Exploring the Themes in the Gospel of Matthew
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus delivers five sermons that offer insight into the central themes of his message. By examining the teachings presented in these sermons, one gains a clearer understanding of the overarching themes of the Gospel.
Here I summarize them in the order they appear in the text.
The Sermon on the Mount focuses on observance of the Jewish Law (Torah) and devotion to God as the way to attain righteousness. Jesus often modifies specific commandments from the Torah, using the “You have heard it said… but I say…” to show that his followers should be even more stringent about following the Torah than the Jewish religious authorities.
The Mission Discourse is about the pressures of following Jesus during persecution. At the time of Matthew’s writing, the Temple had already been destroyed, and Jewish Christians were rejected by the larger Jewish community in Antioch.
Mark emphasizes that Jesus is both the Son of God and the Jewish Messiah who had to endure suffering and death for the benefit of others.
Parables of the Kingdom explain the coming kingdom of heaven and outline the proper choices and behaviors that will bring this kingdom about.
On Discipline and Forgiveness is about division within Matthew’s community and what to do to resolve it.
On Judgment, the last sermon contains warnings to the Jewish religious authorities (“Woe to you, Pharisees!”) and a speech about the end of the current world.
Summing Up: Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew?
What can we know about who wrote the Gospel of Matthew and when it was written?
The author in question was a Jewish individual who spoke Greek and was a part of the early Jesus community. It is believed that he resided in Antioch, Syria.
He was concerned with observing the Torah, staying true to Jesus despite intimidation, the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, group harmony, and being on the right side of the last judgment.
In short, even though we can’t know the name of the author of the Gospel of Matthew, scholars have been able to learn quite a lot about him just from clues in the text.
If you’d like to know more about this topic, check out Bart’s course “Investigating the Unknown Gospels.” Click below for more information.
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