The Author, Audience and Date of Matthew — Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri

August 22, 2012

Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602) is a painting from the Italian master Caravaggio (1571-1610), completed for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. It was destroyed in 1945 and is now known only from black-and-white photographs and enhanced color reproductions.

The Gospel of Matthew was the most widely diffused Gospel in early Christianity. More often than not, from the second century onward, it was Matthew’s account of Jesus that found its way into homilies, pastoral letters, theological writings, and catechetical instructions. Even after the fourfold Gospel canon had begun to crystallize, and orthodox leaders throughout the ecclesiastical world had come to recognize the authority of Mark, Luke, and John, a primacy of honor was still accorded to Matthew. This is not to say that Matthew’s Gospel stands on a higher footing than its canonical counterparts, or that its portrait of Jesus is more trustworthy and true. It is simply a fact of history that when the early Church wished to contemplate the life of Christ, or to listen again to his voice, it usually turned first to Matthew.

The reasons for this are not difficult to imagine:

  1. Matthew, after all, was the first Gospel to be published bearing the name of one of the twelve apostles.
  2. Second, the Gospel is both well written and well organized — two great advantages for assisting memorization in a predominantly oral culture such as prevailed in the early Christian centuries.
  3. Third, the Gospel offers a beautifully balanced picture of Jesus, alternating between his mighty deeds and his memorable discourses. I’ve attached an outline of Matthew that feature some reading links but it also functions as a reading plan, if you wish to match your readings to the overall structure of the gospel.
  4. Fourth, the Gospel of Matthew has important things to say about the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New, providing the earliest Christians instruction on what it meant to live as the messianic people of God and in what ways this differs from living according to the legal and liturgical traditions of Israel.
  5. Finally, the First Gospel insists that the good news is destined for proclamation, not only among the Jewish people but also among the Gentiles. Whatever else can be said about the reasons for ‘its popularity, it is clear that Matthew’s Gospel was well suited to the needs of Christian formation and supplied the ancient Church with a charter for its life and mission in the world.

A measure of insight into Matthew’s Gospel may be gained by examining its historical context, its literary composition, and its theological and spiritual content. Analysis of the circumstances that gave birth and shape to the Gospel will help us to appreciate Matthew’s unique perspective on the Messiah and his message.

The Author of Matthew
Early Christian testimony is virtually unanimous in identifying the apostle Matthew as the author of the First Gospel. So far as the evidence available to us indicates, no rival tradition ever circulated that linked the work with the name of any other ancient figure. Everyone from St. Irenaeus in the second century to Origen and Tertullian in the third century to St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century to St. Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century held that the Gospel according to Matthew was a gospel written by Matthew.

The same verdict is rendered by the earliest extant Greek manuscripts that preserve a title page for Gospel, all of which bear some variation of the heading Kata Maththaion, “According to Matthew.” On the strength of this tradition, the apostolic and Matthean authorship of the First Gospel went on to become the uncontested position of theological scholarship for most of Christian history.

Today, however, the apostolic authorship of Matthew’s Gospel is maintained by only a minority of biblical scholars. The reasons for this change of position are varied and complex. Suffice it to say that a shift took place in nineteenth-century scholarship that subordinated the Gospel of Matthew to the long-neglected Gospel of Mark. Since then, a majority of Gospel specialists have come to hold that the author of Matthew obtained substantial information about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. This new hypothesis — that Mark was written before Matthew and was utilized as a source for Matthew — has had a direct impact on the question of authorship.

If the writer of Matthew made extensive use of Mark, a Gospel that everyone acknowledges was written by a non apostle, it would seem to follow that the author of Matthew could not have been an apostle either. After all, why would a companion of Jesus, an eyewitness to the Messiah at close range, rely on the work of someone else, much less on an account written by a non-eyewitness such as Mark? Such is the reasoning of many scholars today.

From here the discussion of authorship typically proceeds to an analysis of the internal data of the text. The aim of this undertaking is to establish a profile of the evangelist based on what he has written. When this detective work is done, most scholars are convinced that the Gospel of Matthew was written by a Jewish Christian. Several considerations support this verdict:

(1)  The author of Matthew seems to have known Hebrew. Not only does he write Greek in a noticeable Semitic style, but several of his quotations from the Old Testament are translated directly from the Hebrew original rather than cited from the existing Greek translation, called the Septuagint. Knowledge of Hebrew in addition to Greek was all but unknown in the first century outside the Jewish community.

(2)  The author displays a marked interest in the fulfillment of the Scriptures. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah who accomplished all that was foreseen and foretold in the Old Testament. So saturated was his mind in the biblical tradition that research has turned up nearly two hundred citations, allusions, and verbal parallels to the Jewish Scriptures embedded in the text of the First Gospel! This level of specialized knowledge of Judaism’s sacred texts was extraordinarily rare among the Gentiles of the ancient world.

(3)  The author was familiar with a variety of religious customs and institutions that would hardly constitute common knowledge beyond the sphere of Judaism. On the basis of these observations, the conclusion appears solid that the Gospel of Matthew comes from the hand of a Jewish Christian author, one whose cultural and religious background gave him a firsthand knowledge of the language, writings, and traditions of Israel.

In the final analysis, the view of Christian tradition (the author was Matthew) and the view of critical scholarship (the author was a Jewish Christian) need not be pitted against each other. It is notable that Matthew was a Jewish disciple of Jesus (9:9; 10:3). And being a tax official in Galilee, he would have been conversant in Greek as well as the Semitic tongues of Palestine.

Consequently, it is no great leap to suggest that the person the Gospels call Matthew fits rather well the profile of the evangelist ascertained by modern scholars. [Several episodes unique to the First Gospel feature references to currency, debts, investments, and payments (17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16; 25:14-30; 26:25; 27:3-10; 28:11-15). This could be viewed as favoring Matthew's authorship inasmuch as teachings involving money might be expected to catch the attention of a one-time tax officer. Also, it seems unlikely that a gospel intended for Jewish Christians would ever be ascribed to a tax collector unless the claim had some basis in historical tradition, for the Jews generally despised tax collectors as greedy, unclean, and unpatriotic.]

This is not to ignore that little is known about the apostle Matthew, or that the profile just examined is too general and nonspecific to make him the obvious choice. But as we read the evidence, the apostle Matthew is as suitable as any potential candidate for the authorship of the Gospel. [Even the hypothesis that Matthew used Mark does not rule out the apostolic authorship of Matthew. One could argue that the apostle Matthew utilized the Gospel of Mark with the awareness that Mark, according to tradition, had written down the preaching of Peter. See Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC 33A (Dallas: Word, 1993), LXXVI.]

The Audience of Matthew
Christian scholarship has historically maintained that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Palestinian Christian audience
. [E.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.24.6; Jerome, On Illustrious Men 3.] The Jewish outlook of the book seemed to point in this direction, as did an ancient tradition that Matthew had originally written his Gospel in a Semitic language, either Hebrew or Aramaic. [This tradition, which is widely attested in early Christian writings, is too complex to be treated adequately within the limited scope of our introduction.] Since few Gentiles would have been interested in a work dominated by Jewish concerns, and few communities outside the land of Israel could have read it in a Semitic tongue, every indication was that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for the early believers in Palestine.

Biblical scholarship today places Matthew’s original readers in the eastern Mediterranean. Some have attempted to locate his target audience in Alexandria, Egypt; others have suggested the Transjordan region directly east of Palestine; still others have opted for a Phoenician port on the coast of Syria, or even Caesarea on the coast of Palestine. The majority of modern scholars, however, think that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians in or near the Syrian city of Antioch.

Several factors form the basis of this judgment.

(1)   Antioch is known to have had a sizeable Jewish population living alongside native Gentiles. This is precisely the demographic situation presupposed in the Gospel, which is noted both for its Jewish emphases and for its open acceptance of Gentiles (24:14; 26:13; 28:19-20). Not only that, but the book of Acts tells us that a group of Jewish Christians fled from Jerusalem to Antioch and there initiated a systematic outreach to Gentiles (Acts 11:19-26).

(2)  Matthew’s Gospel displays a marked interest in the person and authority of Simon Peter (10:2; 14:22-33; 16:13-20; 17:24-27). This is significant insofar as Peter not only ministered in Antioch (Gal 2:11-17) but, according to an ancient tradition, served as bishop in the city before making his way to Rome. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.36.2; Jerome, On Illustrious Men 1]

(3)   St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early second century, is one of the first post-apostolic authors to allude to the Gospel of Matthew in his writings. [See, e.g., Epistle to the Ephesians 19.2 (= Matt 2:2); Epistle to the Smyrneans 1.1 (= Matthew 3:15); and Epistle to Polycarp 2.2 (= Matthew 10:16).] Allusions to passages in Matthew are also found in another early document, called the Didache, which many scholars trace to the Syrian city of Antioch.[ See, e.g., Didache 3.7 (= Matthew 5:5); 7.1 (= Matthew 28:19); 8.2 (= Matthew 6:5, 9-13); and 9.5 (= Matthew 7:6).] 

(4)   It is curious that when the synoptic Gospels narrate Jesus’ inaugural mission in Galilee, only Matthew tells us that his fame spread throughout “all of Syria” (Matthew 4:24).

Though specific locations remain uncertain, it is probable that Matthew’s original audience lived somewhere in the Syria-Palestine region. Ancient tradition points in this direction, as do the efforts of modern scholarship. It is there that we find the unique mix of Jewish and Gentile concerns addressed by the First Gospel.

The Date of Matthew
Scholars widely agree that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the latter half of the first century AD.
However, when it comes to narrowing the range of possible dates, opinions divide into a majority camps [E.g., Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 216-17; William D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 127-38; Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary, trans. Wilhelm Linss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 92-93.] that dates the Gospel in the 80s or 90s and a minority camp [E.g., Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 599-609; R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1989), 82-91; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 14-17.] that dates its composition in the 50s or 60s.

The many factors underlying this difference of opinion can only be summarized here. The question more or less hinges on the interpretation of three critical issues: the synoptic problem, [This is the name scholars give to the relationship that exists among the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Research devoted to the synoptic problem strives to determine the chronological order in which these Gospels were written and identify which Gospel writer(s) most likely relied on the work of his (or their) predecessor(s).] the fall of Jerusalem, and the Church’s relationship with Judaism in the first century.

(1)  The most widely accepted view of the synoptic problem holds that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and that Matthew and Luke made independent use, of Mark when composing their accounts. The issue, then, concerns the date of Matthew relative to Mark. If Mark was written shortly before or after AD 70, as many scholars hold, then Matthew probably appeared in the late first century. The reason is that sufficient time must be allowed for the Gospel of Mark to have circulated and become an authoritative document in the Christian community.

Other scholars, however, think it probable that Mark was written much earlier, perhaps in the 50s. If this chronology is accepted then Matthew could have been written toward the middle of the first century. Finally, for those scholars who adopt a different solution to the synoptic problem, one that sees Matthew as the first written Gospel, the date of Mark is of no consequence except to indicate that Matthew must have appeared sometime in the middle of the first century rather than near its end.

(2) All agree that Matthew’s Gospel makes reference to the conquest of Jerusalem (22:7) and the demolition of its temple (24:1-28). Historically, these events took place in AD 70 when the Romans marched on the Jewish capital and leveled the sanctuary. The question is whether these Gospel references, which appear in sayings attributed to Jesus, are prophecies in the strict sense or whether they betray knowledge of the events as already accomplished. Scholars who date Matthew in the post-70 period often allege that the evangelist, knowing some of the details of Jerusalem’s downfall, adjusted the words of Jesus to conform to contemporary reports of the event. Scholars who date the Gospel in the pre-70 period make the opposite claim, namely, that Jesus’ prophecies show no signs of updating based on eyewitness accounts of the city’s demise.

(3)  Scholars of all stripes acknowledge that Matthew’s Gospel displays a painful tension between Jesus and the Judaism of his day. They also tend to agree that Matthew highlights this theme because he and his fellow Christians found themselves in a similar situation — at odds with the Jewish community and targets of persecution by Jewish authorities. The agreement ends, however, when it comes to defining more specifically the historical circumstances involved.

Advocates of a date in the 80s or 90s generally hold that Matthew’s Gospel shows evidence of the rupture between church and synagogue in the late first century. It is said, for example, that the evangelist’s recurrent use of the expression “their synagogues” is a thinly veiled reference to Jewish synagogues that had already excluded Jewish Christians (4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54). This is significant because the ties between Judaism and Christianity were not formally severed until about AD 85. [Scholars often trace the official split between Christianity and Judaism to an ancient synagogue prayer that utters a curse against "heretics" (a group that probably included Christians but was not restricted to them). Talmudic tradition links this with a rabbinic ruling made in the Palestinian town of Yavneh (also called Jamnia) in the 80s of the first century.]

Furthermore, Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus denouncing the Pharisees is cited as evidence of a late date (12:24-32; 16:11-12; 23:1-36), because in the aftermath of AD 70 it was the Pharisees who spearheaded the reorganization of Judaism and whose doctrines went on to become the basic tenets of rabbinic theology.

Advocates of a date in the 50s or 60s point out that Christians faced Jewish persecution from the beginning, some of which was more severe than mere exclusion from the synagogue (see Acts 7:57-58; 8:3; 26:9-11). Of greater import, supporters claim, are those features of the Gospel that had direct pastoral relevance only in the period before AD 70. This includes, for example, its warnings and criticisms directed against the Sadducees (3:7; 16:1, 6, 11-12; 22:23, 34). Early on the Sadducees were sworn opponents of the budding Christian movement (Acts 4:1-3; 5:17-18; 23:6); however, they were no longer a factor to be reckoned with in the post-70 period, since the sect was all but exterminated with the devastation of Jerusalem.

Likewise, one can understand why Matthew, if he was writing before AD 70, would include Jesus’ teaching on the temple tax as a lesson on fostering good relations with the Jewish community (17:24-27). But after AD 70, when the Romans diverted this tax to the temple of Jupiter in Italy, Matthew’s presentation of the episode runs the risk of seeming to promote idolatry in the name of Jesus. Proponents of a mid-century date for the Gospel thus contend that Matthew included these traditions in his Gospel because they were live issues faced by his readers at the time of writing.

On the question of dating the Gospel, our view is that placing the Gospel of Matthew in the middle of the first century yields the best sense of the text in relation to its original readers. The commentary will thus proceed from this standpoint, though not to the neglect of Matthew’s message for us today.

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