Saturday, May 25, 2013

Did Matthew Write The Gospel Attributed To Him?

This is a typical way of downplaying the significance of Matthew's gospel:

"We do not know the name of its author: the title found in our English versions ('The Gospel according to Matthew') was added long after the document's original composition. It is true that according to an old tradition the author was none other than Matthew, the tax collector mentioned in Matt 9:9. This tradition, however, arose some decades after the Gospel itself had been published, and scholars today have reasons to doubt its accuracy. For one thing, the author never identifies himself as Matthew, either in 9:9 or anywhere else. Also, certain features of this Gospel make it difficult to believe that this Matthew could have been the author. Why, for example, would someone who had spent so much time with Jesus rely on another author (Mark) for nearly two-thirds of his stories, often repeating them word for word (including the story of his own call to discipleship; 9:9-13)? And why would he never authenticate his account by indicating that he himself had seen these things take place?…Since he produced his Gospel in Greek, presumably for a Greek-speaking community, he was probably located somewhere outside Palestine…Matthew, an anonymous Jewish leader of the Christian community (assuming that his strong literary skills, indicative of a higher education, gave him a place of prominence there), penned a Gospel narrative to show that Jesus was in fact the Jewish messiah, who like Moses gave the law of God to his people." (Bart Ehrman, The New Testament [New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012], 114-115, 132)

Ehrman doesn't know that the title of the gospel wasn't added until "long after" the document's composition. See, for example, Martin Hengel's discussion of the gospel titles in The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000). Hengel gives a series of reasons why the titles probably would have been included early on. For example, after more than one gospel was circulating, the gospels would need to be distinguished from one another. When critics like Ehrman suggest that Matthew used Mark as a source, they don't seem to realize that their argument in that context works against their argument that Matthew wouldn't have had a title until "long after" its composition. If the author of Matthew knew of Mark and thought so highly of the document as to use so much of it, then he and his earliest readers would have wanted a way, probably multiple ways, to quickly and easily distinguish each gospel from other documents in general and from other gospels in particular. A title would allow people to quickly and easily distinguish one gospel from another. That would be important, for instance, in church services in which gospels were being read, a context in which quickly and easily distinguishing among the gospels would be desirable. Furthermore, both private and public libraries used titles to distinguish one work from another. And so on. If you read Hengel's book, you'll see that there are multiple reasons why the gospels probably would have had titles applied to them early, most likely during the first century, when apostles and their contemporaries were still alive. See my quotations of Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel here, and read their books for further information.

How does Ehrman allegedly know that the tradition of Matthean authorship "arose some decades after the Gospel itself had been published"? The earliest extant report of that tradition is in Papias, writing in the early second century about information he attained at an unknown earlier date. But the timing of the earliest tradition report extant today need not be equivalent to the timing of the earliest tradition.

Think of the absurdity of the situation implied by Ehrman. Not only did people wait until "long after" Matthew's composition to give the work a title, but they also waited until "some decades" later to start claiming that Matthew wrote it. Yet, attribution of the document to Matthew was universal and was corroborated by a diverse series of non-Christian sources from the second century onward. Is that sort of early and widespread acceptance of Matthean authorship better explained by Ehrman's scenario or a traditional Christian view? Why would a document that circulated anonymously for decades become universally accepted as Matthean, with corroboration from non-Christian sources, leaving no trace of dispute?

To make matters worse for Ehrman, he claims that the author of the gospel was a "leader" with "prominence". But this prominent leader's work circulated anonymously? Why? And his identity was universally forgotten and universally replaced with Matthew's identity so early? I'm reminded of Donald Guthrie's reference to "those modern schools of criticism which have peopled early Christian history with a whole army of unknown writers, whose works attained as great a prominence as their authors obtained obscurity." (The Logos Library System: Deluxe Collection [Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, 1997], New Testament Introduction)

Ehrman asks us to solve problems of his own creation. Reject his dubious assumptions, and you won't have to face his contrived problems. He suggests that if the apostle Matthew wrote the gospel, he would have identified himself as an eyewitness. Why think Matthew didn't identify himself by a document title or an oral report of authorship that accompanied the book's circulation, for example?

I've addressed the issue of Matthew's use of Mark's gospel here. Under my view, a "word for word" (as Ehrman puts it) repetition of Mark wouldn't be a problem.

But is Matthew 9:9-13, a passage Ehrman singles out, actually a word for word repetition of Mark 2:14-17? No. In fact, scholars often point to differences among the parallel Synoptic accounts as evidence for Matthean authorship or as a potential explanation for how a mistaken Christian belief in authorship by Matthew arose. (E.g., Matthew 9:9 refers to "Matthew", whereas Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 refer to "Levi". Matthew 9:9 humanizes the individual by referring to him as "a man" rather than more formally referring to his ancestry [Mark 2:14] or referring to his despised employment as a tax collector [Luke 5:27]. Matthew 9:10 refers to "the house" rather than "his house" [Mark 2:15, Luke 5:29], and "the house" is more natural coming from the house's owner.) If Matthew 9 is distinctive enough to be part of the explanation of the authorship attribution of the document, as seems to be the case, then so much the worse for Ehrman's claim that Matthew just repeated Mark. And so much the worse for Ehrman's claim that the author of the document didn’t make any effort to identify himself.

The author makes a lot of references to financial matters, including some unique to his gospel (e.g., 17:24-27, 18:23-35). In a passage about taxes that the Synoptics have in common (Matthew 22:19, Mark 12:15, Luke 20:24), Matthew uses more precise terminology than what's used by Mark and Luke. Those characteristics would make sense if the author were a tax collector.

And a tax collector's work would give him reason to know Greek. So would various cultural factors involved with living in first-century Israel and various factors involved with being a prominent leader in a messianic movement.

As an apostle, Matthew would have had good reason to travel outside of Israel, so his presence outside of the nation wouldn't be a significant problem for Matthean authorship. Along with those who hold a traditional view of Matthean authorship, Ehrman acknowledges that the author probably was a Jew and that his gospel is of a highly Jewish character. Whether the author was outside of Israel at the time when he wrote doesn't have much significance in the context of authorship. The author was a Jew, and a Jewish apostle would have had reason to travel outside of Israel.

More could be said. I'm not trying to make a full case for Matthean authorship here. But notice how misleading Ehrman's treatment is.


  1. Great points. Let me add my 2 cents. I'm assuming Markan priority and Matthew and Luke borrowing from Mark in my comments.

    Matthew 9:10 refers to "the house" rather than "his house" [Mark 2:15, Luke 5:29], and "the house" is more natural coming from the house's owner.)

    There's the principle of humility that can be applied too. If it's true that the author of the epistle of James was the half brother of Jesus, then he was demonstrating humility when he referred to himself as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ", rather than "the half brother of the Lord who grew up with him."

    Similarly, if Matthew/Levi was the author of Matthew, then the phrase "the house" would make sense if he didn't want to draw attention to himself, just as it would make sense that he wouldn't use the phrase "his house" if it was his house but didn't want to say "my house".

    It's interesting that Mark refers to Levi's genealogy of being "the son of Alphaeus", but both the author of Matthew and Luke omits the genealogy. Matthew leaving it out would be consistent with Matthean authorship and the principle of humility.

    Luke refers to Matthew "leaving all" to follow Christ. Matthew doesn't say that. Which would be consistent with Matthean authorship and the principle of humility since Matthew wouldn't want to brag about the depth of his conversion (and he would know more than anyone else how far he fell short of God's requirements and his own unfaithfulness). If the phrase "leaving all" had been written in the Gospel of Matthew, it might suggest that Matthew wasn't the author.

    Luke refers to the feast being "a great feast". Matthew doesn't refer to it as "great", which would be consistent with Matthean authorship and the principle of humility since Matthew wouldn't want to brag about his great riches (some of which might have been acquired using unethical/immoral means). If it has been written in Matthew, it might suggest Matthew didn't write it.

    Matthew was called Levi in Mark, which would suggest that he was a Levite. Being from the tribe of Levi, Levites would tend be a literate people who could read the Scriptures. Interestingly, the Gospel of Matthew cites and quotes the OT much more than the other Gospels. In fact, it's one of the top three books of the New Testament to do so (along with Hebrews and Revelation). That would be consistent with Matthean authorship.

    Again, assuming Markan priority and that both the author of Matthew and Luke borrow from Mark, Luke decided to keep the account of Matthew's calling using the name "Levi" as it is in Mark, rather than "Matthew" as in Matthew. However, the author of Matthew was willing to change the name to Matthew contrary to Mark's Gospel and unlike Luke. And as you noted, the fact that both the name of Matthew in that account of Matthew's calling by Jesus and the traditional authorial attribution of that Gospel to Matthew match. As you said, that matching might suggest that he's identifying himself.

    Of the 4 listings of the Twelve Apostles in the New Testament (Matthew 10; Mark 3, Luke 6, Acts 1) only the Gospel of Matthew refers to Matthew specifically as a tax collector. Which would be consistent with Matthean authorship and the principle of humility since he would be identifying himself as an unworthy "sinner" saved by grace. Since tax collectors had the reputation of using unethical means to collect taxes for the Romans. A portion of which was for themselves. The greater the taxes the greater the percentage they could keep for themselves.

    1. Being from the tribe of Levi, Levites would tend be a literate people who could read the Scriptures.

      Because Levi was the priestly tribe.

      typo corrections: "...but both the author of Matthew and Luke omits the genealogy" should be, "...but both the [authors] of Matthew and Luke omits the genealogy."

      "And as you noted, the fact that both the name of Matthew in that account of Matthew's calling by Jesus" should be, "And as you noted, both the name of Matthew in that account of Matthew's calling by Jesus..."

    2. As you said, that matching might suggest that he's identifying himself.

      It almost goes without saying that identifying oneself or suggesting one's authorship is not contrary with the principle of humility. The very fact that it's a subtle self-identifying is in keeping with the principle of humility.

  2. thanks Jason - very helpful.

    What is the best full case, (or 3-5 sources) in your opinion, in print form, for Matthean authorship of the Gospel according to Matthew?
    (If you think you know)

    1. Ken,

      I suspect that there are sources out there that gather together a lot of good arguments for Matthean authorship and make a strong argument in one place. I'm not aware of any such source, however. Maybe somebody else knows of one and will post something about it.

      There are some good arguments mentioned in the New Testament introduction of D.A. Carson, et al., the introduction by Andreas Kostenberger, et al., and commentaries like Grant Osborne's. But every source I've seen falls well short of making as strong of a case as I think ought to be made. My own case is drawn from a large number of sources, including my own reading of the ancient literature.

      One of the problems here is that modern New Testament scholarship tends to neglect some important lines of evidence, such as hostile corroboration and ancient literary practices that are relevant to authorship. Some types of evidence, like the patristic data, are often cited, but not in much depth. A small handful of sources will be discussed, or maybe just one, like Papias, while a large number of other sources that could be cited go unmentioned. You could purchase a 700-page Matthew commentary and find it giving something like half of one page to a discussion of authorship.

      My recommendation is to piece together an argument yourself. Go to Martin Hengel for information on the titles of the gospels and how the documents would have been identified, circulated, and used in early Christianity. Look up the sources I've cited in the past regarding hostile corroboration (e.g., John Cook). Read Craig Keener's comments, which I've cited in the past, concerning communication among the early Christians. And so on. With regard to the patristic evidence, for example, you'll often find that one scholar will cite patristic sources A, B, and C, another scholar will cite sources A, B, D, and G, and another will cite B, C, E, F, and G. You can gradually build up a larger and larger collection of patristic sources as you consult more modern sources. But you won't find everything in one place.

      A few of the scholars who come to mind on gospel issues in general, though not all of them accept Matthean authorship, are Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, and C.E. Hill. Hill's book on the gospels, which Steve Hays and I have written about in past threads, is very good and seldom discussed. If you don't have it, get it and read the whole thing. I plan to post more about it in the near future, maybe later this week.

    2. By the way, Ken, I want to mention something that's important to keep in mind, which people often neglect. When you're looking at the patristic evidence (including heretical and other non-Christian sources from the patristic era), don't just look for references to Matthew by name. Also look for references to apostolic authorship. Sometimes a source will attribute the gospel of Matthew to an apostle without naming Matthew. Even if Matthew isn't named, the attribution to an apostle is significant. Similarly, take note of how widely Matthew is used, what authority it's perceived as having, and other such factors. People often think of the patristic evidence in too narrow a sense, as if direct and explicit references to authorship by Matthew are all that matter. The relevant evidence is actually much broader and deeper than that. A book like C.E. Hill's will give you a good sense of that and many concrete illustrations of it.

  3. Guys,

    This is a fascinating blog,like others.I am glad I have found it.There is a geat blog in French that has the evidence in favor of the 4 gospels being written before 70 AD,all four of them.The blog is written to convince MUSLIMS and is called AVRAIDIRE.COM

    You can translate the article with GOOGLE TRANSLATE:

    "Les Preuves Internes qui Montrent que les 4 Evangiles furents ecrits Seulement 20 a moins de 40 Ans apres la Mort de Jesus/The Internal Evidence that the 4 Gospels were written only 20 to less than 40 years after Jesus' Death"

    "Autre(Another) Preuve Interne que les 4 Evangiles furents ecrits Seulement 20 a moins de 40 Ans apres la Mort de Jesus"


    No less than 30 articles on authors who wrote about Jesus(Bulgakov,Norman Mailer,Voltaire,etc).

    Here is the collection:

    "Recueil(Collection) de Tous les Articles sur “Jesus dans la Litterature Mondiale(World literature)"

  4. Hi Jason, the first person I heard use Mt 9:9-13 to challenge Matthean authorship of The Gospel According to Matthew was Richard Bauckham. It has long troubled me. The external evidence highly favors the view that the apostle Matthew wrote the gospel attributed to him, but it seems so counterintuitive that Matthew would use Mark’s account of his own conversion rather than write his own. That is the one place you would expect him to pen his own unique account. You rightly point out that Matthew did not copy Mark verbatim, but the differences are so miniscule (no greater than in most other places where Matthew uses Mark) as to be relatively insignificant. Minor changes to Mark’s account of Matthew’s own conversion is not what we would expect at all. It’s the most personal element of his story. He adds lots of non-Markan material throughout the rest of His gospel on matters he may not have even witnessed Himself, so why use Mark’s version of his own conversion story rather than telling his own story in his own way with a lot more detail? It doesn’t seem probable and counts against Matthean authorship in my mind. How do you reconcile this?

    1. jasondulle,

      See my earlier article I linked above, the one here. If Matthew delegated the composition of his gospel to one or more other individuals, then it’s not a matter of what Matthew wrote. It's a matter of what others wrote on his behalf, with his approval of the final product. That was a common practice in the ancient world, and it's common today (ghost writers, group authorship, editorial assistants, research assistants, etc.).

      However, even if Matthew hadn't operated that way, where did Mark's account of Matthew's conversion come from? If it came from Matthew (with or without intermediaries), which is a reasonable scenario, then why think the account found in Matthew's gospel should differ more from the account found in the gospel of Mark?

      You suggest that Matthew should have included "a lot more detail" about his conversion. Why? He wasn't writing in a modern American context, in which individualism, writing lengthy accounts of your experiences, and such were as popular as they are in our culture. Even the vast majority of liberal scholars think that Paul wrote several of the letters attributed to him, yet Paul didn't provide "a lot more detail" about his conversion in those letters, including the letters where his conversion is mentioned. And Paul's conversion was in some ways more significant than Matthew's. If Matthew was asked to compose a gospel in response to the popularity of Mark's gospel, which I think is most likely what happened, then the people who approached Matthew about writing a gospel probably would have been people who already knew a lot about him, including his conversion. Besides, he was writing a biography of Jesus, not a biography of Matthew.