Monday, May 29, 2017

Richard Bauckham Is Wrong About Matthew's Authorship

He's mostly right about gospel authorship issues. He thinks Matthew may have had some sort of role in the origins of the gospel attributed to him, accepts the traditional authorship attributions of Mark and Luke, and attributes the fourth gospel to a close disciple of Jesus named John. But he doesn't think Matthew is responsible for the first gospel as we have it today, and he thinks the John who wrote the fourth gospel wasn't the son of Zebedee. Now that the second edition of Bauckham's Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2017) is out, I want to revisit the issue of gospel authorship with a focus on his material on the subject in that book. This post will mostly be about the authorship of the first gospel. A later post, which I'll link here when it becomes available, will respond to Bauckham's view of the authorship of the fourth gospel.

You can search the archives for posts we've written over the years that cite some of Bauckham's comments on Mark and Luke. See, for example, here, here, and here.

Regarding Matthew, Bauckham argues (108-12) that it's highly unlikely that a first-century Jew living in Israel would have had two Semitic personal names as common as Matthew and Levi. It's very unlikely, then, that Matthew is the Levi referred to in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27. And if Levi were another name for one of the Twelve, Mark surely would have explained that in his list of the Twelve, where so many other details are included (108). Since the author of the gospel of Matthew uses a passage about another man to tell his readers about Matthew's calling (Matthew 9:9), the author must have been somebody other than Matthew. "Matthew himself could have described his own call without having to take over the way Mark described Levi's call." (112) Bauckham also thinks the replacement of "his house" (Mark 2:15) with "the house" (Matthew 9:10) suggests that the author of the gospel of Matthew was only applying Mark 2:14 to the apostle Matthew and didn't think the rest of the passage was applicable (111).

What about the unlikelihood of somebody being named both Matthew and Levi? There are extremely rare names and combinations of names, sometimes even unprecedented ones, in every culture. Why do we conclude that people with such names exist? Because the prior improbability that somebody would have such a name is just one factor among others that have to be taken into account as well, and those other factors can outweigh the prior improbability that somebody would have that name. How reliable is a source who reports that somebody had such a name? How likely is it that such a report would exist if the person under consideration didn't have the name in question? And so on. In his book, Bauckham often accepts a highly unusual name if there are ancient sources attesting it, even just one source. He does it in his section on Matthew's authorship, where he mentions some ancient Jews who are referred to with two names, including at least one that's "unusual" or "very unusual" (109-10). The many comments he makes elsewhere in his book about how popular or unpopular various names were assumes that some unpopular names existed, even ones attested only once. Even if naming somebody both Matthew and Levi would have been "virtually unparalleled", "very unlikely indeed", etc. (109-10), we should go on to look at the other evidence pertaining to Matthew's names and Matthean authorship of the first gospel. We should try to determine the significance of the improbability Bauckham is appealing to in light of the evidence as a whole.

D.A. Carson refers to some problems with how Bauckham goes on to handle the remainder of the evidence:

"Yet whatever the onomastic improbability, the identification of Levi (Mark's gospel) with Matthew (here [in Matthew 9:9]) seems less implausible than Bauckham's explanation: the unknown evangelist knew that Matthew was a tax collector (like Levi), and knew he was one of the Twelve, and so simply transferred the story across (on the assumption that the conversion of one tax collector would be very much like the conversion of another?)." (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, Vol. 9: Matthew & Mark [Gran Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010], 263)

What's mentioned in Matthew 9:9 isn't what we'd expect of the calling of every tax collector, most of them, or even one other tax collector. How many tax collectors would be in their booth at the time of the calling and would be sitting while Jesus walked by? How many would immediately leave their work and follow Jesus upon being told "Follow me"? How many would experience all of those things? It's doubtful that the author of the gospel of Matthew would have thought that the story of the calling of this tax collector would be so applicable to another tax collector. Bauckham is wrong in commenting that "The story, after all, is so brief and general it might well be thought appropriate to any tax collector called by Jesus to follow him as a disciple." (111), since the story isn't "so brief and general". The appropriate response to Bauckham's claim that "Matthew himself could have described his own call without having to take over the way Mark described Levi's call." (112) is that anybody could have. There wouldn't have been anybody, whether Matthew or somebody else, who would have needed to use Mark's account about the calling of another man to describe the calling of Matthew. And it's very unlikely that the author of the first gospel would have wanted to tell Matthew's story in that manner. Why give such a significant figure in early Christianity such secondhand treatment, especially if the author of the gospel was associating his work with Matthew as much as Bauckham thinks he was? The scenario Bauckham is proposing is highly improbable.

But he makes a good point about Mark's list of the twelve apostles. You'd think Mark would mention that Matthew was also known as Levi, if Mark had held that view. Luke's list of the Twelve isn't as detailed as Mark's, so the lack of clarification in Luke's list is less important, but it's significant that Luke, like Mark, doesn't explain to his readers, inside his list of the apostles or elsewhere, that Matthew and Levi are different names for the same person.

However, there's other evidence Bauckham doesn't discuss that suggests that Mark and Luke viewed Levi as one of the Twelve. It follows that though Mark and Luke don't tell us who among the Twelve had the alternate name of Levi, they thought somebody among the Twelve did. That weakens Bauckham's argument about what's "clear" from Mark's list of the Twelve and how Mark "surely" would have included the detail that Matthew had that other name if he'd known about it (108).

In Mark and Luke's passages about the calling of Levi, the language, themes, and placement of the text are reminiscent of the calling of other apostles, which suggests that whoever is being called in the passage is an apostle as well. Compare Mark 1:16-20 to 2:14-17. Compare Luke 5:1-11 and 5:27-32. In both gospels, the calling of Levi is narrated in close proximity to the calling of those other apostles, with similar language and themes, leading up to the nearby choosing of the Twelve by Jesus and the listing of them by the gospel authors (Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:13-16). Jesus is walking by and looks at the individual(s) in question and says "Follow me" and is immediately followed, which involves leaving a profession (fishing or tax collecting), in both contexts in Mark (1:16-20, 2:14). That theme of leaving a profession makes sense for the calling of an apostle in the sense of being one of the Twelve, since that sort of apostleship would require so much devotion. Similarly, both of Luke's passages have the individuals in question "leaving everything" to follow Jesus (5:11, 5:28). That theme of the apostles leaving everything is repeated elsewhere (Mark 10:28, Luke 18:28). Their leaving the professions they were involved with was important, "so that they would be with him [Jesus] and that he could send them out" (Mark 3:14). So, the passages in Mark and Luke about Levi have a series of connections both backward to the call of Peter and his associates and forward to what's said of the Twelve. Even without reading Matthew, the accounts about the calling of Levi in Mark and Luke look like the calling of a member of the Twelve.

Some passages in Mark and Luke about people other than apostles refer to themes like following Jesus and leaving possessions and making other sacrifices to follow him. But those other passages have less similar language and themes and less significant placement in the text of the gospels. Something like Jesus' call to discipleship in Mark 8:34-38 or his interactions with Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10 is somewhat reminiscent of the calling of the apostles, but also significantly different. Jesus walks by Zaccheus and looks at him (verse 5), and Zaccheus gives up possessions to follow Jesus (verse 8), for example, but Jesus is only staying in Zaccheus' house briefly (verse 5), there's no reference to his leaving his profession, the passage is far removed from the appointing of the apostles earlier in the gospel, etc. Likewise, Jesus' exchange with the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30) involves a call to discipleship and to giving things up to follow Jesus, but the man doesn't follow Jesus, the passage is far removed from the context of the calling of the apostles, and so on. Both passages contrast the rich young ruler's rejection of Jesus' call and the apostles' acceptance of it (Mark 10:28-31, Luke 18:28-30). While the calling of individuals like Peter and Levi is similar to Jesus' interactions with other people elsewhere in Mark and Luke, there are substantial differences as well. The calling of Levi is significantly similar to the calling of Peter and his associates in a way in which other passages in these gospels aren't. So, independently from the gospel of Matthew, Mark and Luke give us reason to place Levi among the Twelve.

But they don't refer to any of the Twelve as Levi when they list the apostles, nor do they tell us elsewhere which apostle went by that name. They also leave out other information about apostolic names. Peter is referred to as Simon Barjona in Matthew 16:17, but not anywhere in Mark or Luke. Similarly, Luke doesn't tell us that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were referred to as Boanerges, a detail that Mark does include. And so on. Bauckham doesn't claim that Mark and Luke are exhaustive about apostolic names. More significantly, Bauckham thinks the identification of Thaddaeus (Mark 3:18) with Judas the son of James (Luke 6:16) is "very plausible" (108), but neither Mark nor Luke offers that identification, even though Bauckham thinks Luke used Mark as a source and appeals to such sources in the opening of his gospel. That's an instance in which Luke knew about a potential confusion over apostolic names, but didn't offer a clarification. Still, Luke's failure to clarify something potentially seen as a discrepancy between what he wrote and what's in a source he used and that many of his readers would be familiar with (Mark) isn't the same as a failure to clarify something that people could misunderstand in his own writings (that Levi and Matthew are the same person). I'm just giving some examples of Mark and Luke's failure to provide details and clarifications they could have provided about apostolic names, even though the examples I've cited in this paragraph are less significant than not clarifying the relationship between Levi and Matthew.

What's most important to recognize in this context is that identifying Levi and Matthew as two different individuals still leaves you with a substantial lack of clarity in Mark and Luke. If Levi isn't Matthew, then which member of the Twelve is he, given the evidence cited above that he's portrayed as a member of the Twelve in the two gospels under consideration? Or if you deny that Mark and Luke meant to portray Levi as one of the Twelve, why did they use language, themes, and text placement that are so suggestive of Levi's identity as one of the Twelve? I don't see how a significant lack of clarity in Mark and Luke is a problem only for those who consider Levi and Matthew the same person. There's a substantial clarity problem for Bauckham's position as well.

What should we think of the change from "his house" in Mark 2:15 to "the house" in Matthew 9:10? It could easily be an attempt on Matthew's part to clarify the passage rather than an attempt to distance verses 10-13 from verse 9. As Bauckham notes (111), the "his" in Mark 2:15 is sometimes taken as a reference to Jesus rather than Levi, so Matthew may have changed "his" to "the" in order to avoid that confusion. Luke makes the passage clearer by referring to how "Levi gave a big reception for him in his house" (5:29). Perhaps Matthew intended to provide clarification. Or he may have just chosen different terminology than Mark without any intention of clarifying anything and without intending to distance verses 10-13 from verse 9 in the way Bauckham suggests. Furthermore, how would changing "his house" to "the house" have the implications Bauckham claims? To the contrary, the lack of qualification for "the house" motivates the reader to look at the surrounding context for indications of what house is in view. Why would the author send his readers to the surrounding context if he wanted them to avoid the conclusion that verse 9 provides the context they're looking for? The most natural way to take "the house" in verse 10 is as a reference to Matthew's house, since Matthew's booth had just been mentioned, and the reference in verse 9 to Jesus' traveling makes it more likely that he'd be in somebody else's house rather than his own. If the author of the gospel of Matthew had wanted to distance verses 10-13 from verse 9 as much as Bauckham suggests, he could have put one or more other accounts between the content of verses 9 and 10 or changed or added language to verses 10-13 to distance those verses from verse 9 rather than keeping them together and so undistinguished (e.g., he could have referred to "the house of Levi, a tax collector").

Most of the evidence for Matthew's authorship of the gospel isn't addressed by Bauckham. See here for a collection of posts discussing a lot of that evidence. Notice the number, variety, and strength of the factors involved: the unlikelihood of fabricating attribution to such a minor apostle, the universal acceptance of Matthean authorship while the authorship attributions of other documents were being disputed, hostile corroboration of Matthew's authorship, how well Matthean authorship explains the early prominence of the gospel, etc. The counterarguments Bauckham offers have some merit, but are much less substantial.


  1. J. J. Blunt much more plausibly suggests that "the house" in Matthew is evidence *for* Matthean authorship, since Matthew himself would have thought of his *own* house as "the house." The way most of us do, habitually.

  2. I notice in this argument you describe from Bauckham a tendency all too common in NT studies: Making a weak conjecture and then basing a further important conclusion on that weak conjecture. The idea that the author of Matthew "transfers" the story of Levi to Matthew is a very weak conjecture. But this shaky basis is used to support the further conclusion that the author of Matthew isn't Matthew himself, because Matthew himself wouldn't have done that! It's both frustrating and striking that Bauckham, like so many NT scholars, cannot see what a weak argument this is. It's not as though he *knows* that the author of Matthew made such a transfer. That's just his *made-up idea*, and he should recognize that its probability can't be all that high and therefore that it shouldn't be taken as a given in a further inference about Matthean authorship. But this happens again and again in NT studies. Some weak theory is made up out of whole cloth and then taken as a settled fact as one moves on in discussing some issue like authorship. Drives me crazy. It sometimes seems like NT studies is built on bad epistemology deliberately.