Monday, February 27, 2012

Matthew's Two Gospels

I recently listened to a discussion of the authorship of the gospels, by Timothy McGrew, that Brian Auten linked earlier this month. McGrew makes a lot of good points, but he isn't attempting to be exhaustive. For those who are interested in more of the external evidence for the authorship of the gospels, including multiple sources from the mid second century and earlier who weren't mentioned by McGrew, here's a series I did on the subject a few years ago. And here's an index of Triablogue posts on Biblical authorship in general, including more material on the gospels.

McGrew's discussion is particularly good on the gospel of Matthew. He mentions some of the contexts in which Matthew might have written and why he might have used material from Mark's gospel. I want to expand on some of his comments here.

I've said before that I think there were two gospels authored by Matthew, one in the Hebrew language and one in Greek. Here's what I consider the likely order in which the gospels were written:

Hebrew Matthew
Greek Matthew

That order of writing would explain the traditional order of the gospels in Bibles over the centuries. It would also explain why so many ancient sources thought Matthew wrote first and wrote in Hebrew. And it would allow for a primacy of Mark along the lines of the Markan primacy widely held in modern scholarship.

Richard Bauckham has pointed out that the concept of translation was broader in ancient times than it is today (Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], 224-225). A document could be expanded or rearranged, for example, yet be referred to as a translation rather than a new edition. The relationship between the Hebrew and Greek versions of Matthew could be relatively loose. Maybe the Hebrew document was just a collection of Jesus' sayings or little more than that, sort of like what Q is thought to have been.

As McGrew mentions, the gospel of Matthew we possess today could have been produced by somebody working on Matthew's behalf. If he oversaw the production of it or approved the final version, it could go out under his name. Similarly, Paul often had somebody writing on his behalf (e.g., Romans 16:22). Craig Keener notes, in the context of discussing the authorship of another gospel:

"Besides any skills John had acquired [which could change at different times in his life], he undoubtedly would have had help; even the most literate normally used scribes, and Josephus’s staff included style editors to improve his Greek. John would have been an unusual writer if he published the work entirely by himself." (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 101-102)

A scribe or group of scribes could utilize Mark's gospel in the process of producing a document for Matthew. They could then add material that Matthew and other sources provided, rearrange Mark's material, etc.

Even if Matthew had been working alone, he could have had more than one reason for wanting to use portions of Mark's gospel. It would save time and effort. Mark had already recorded Peter's testimony in a Greek document that was familiar to a wide audience. Matthew's Greek gospel was coming at a later date and perhaps when he was older than Peter had been when Mark heard Peter. Matthew still had memories of Jesus' life, but he was further removed than Peter at that point. Peter was the foremost of Jesus' disciples, who had seen some significant events Matthew hadn't witnessed. There would be some advantages to largely repeating and sometimes supplementing what Peter had said rather than starting over with everything.

The same motivations could have applied if he had somebody else compose the document for him. Given the literary practices of ancient times, as well as his high status within the church, he probably didn't write the document on his own. If Mark's gospel was what prompted interest in a Greek gospel from Matthew, it would make sense for Matthew to respond by supplementing Mark's work. He would tell his scribe(s) what he wanted changed from and added to Mark's account, and they would eventually produce a final product that Matthew approved. Once Matthew's Greek gospel came out, at a time when the church was becoming increasingly Gentile, there wouldn't be much desire to preserve an earlier and inferior gospel in a much less popular language. The Greek Matthew would replace the Hebrew document, though there would be a lingering memory that he had written a Hebrew gospel first.

The sort of scenario I've just laid out is highly consistent with the internal and external evidence. It's preferable to other theories that are widely contradicted by the external evidence (Christian and non-Christian sources) and either deny the originality of the gospel's title or interpret it less naturally.

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