Thursday, September 05, 2013

Matthew's Authorship In Light Of That Gospel's Early Prominence

In previous posts, I've addressed objections to Matthew's authorship of the gospel attributed to him, and I've discussed some of the evidence for his authorship. See, for example, here, here, here, and here. What I want to do in this post is add a further consideration that's seldom discussed.

Martin Hengel referred to the "unique success" of the gospel of Matthew (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 71). He notes that the gospel "already established itself quickly and tenaciously in the church at the beginning of the second century" (71-72). He quotes the comments of another scholar:

"But as far as we can go back, Matthew is the most-used book, not merely in Jewish Christianity which was turning into the church, but also with the scriptural representatives of the Gentile church. The predilection for it made the use of the two others [the other two Synoptics] more difficult." (n. 296 on 255)

Clayton Jefford writes:

"[Matthew was] widely recognized among the numerous churches of the early second century...A careful reading of the Ignatian correspondence reveals that the bishop is very familiar with this particular gospel in comparison with remaining texts. Though he makes only rare reference to passages from the text of Matthew itself, he uses the work as the springboard for a variety of comments, thus to reveal a close familiarity with Matthean concerns and the ideas that are characteristic of the Matthean mindset. We can easily find a number of these usages....Ignatius makes use of phrases that appear to be unique to the text of Matthew...The potential parallels between Ignatius and the Gospel of Matthew would seem to be is clear that the Gospel of Matthew, both as a literary source and as a foundation for faith, gained an early status as the most widely known and utilized of our gospel texts through the churches of the early Christian world. The apostolic fathers attest to this fact on a wide scale. Connections to Matthew are evident in the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, throughout the letters of Ignatius, in 1-2 Clement, and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This suggests that the text of Matthew circulated quickly around the Mediterranean and gained an authoritative status quite readily among disparate churches in different locations." (The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], 110, 140-143)

As I discuss in my previous posts linked above, the gospel of Matthew isn't just prominent in early Christian sources, but also among early non-Christians (a Jewish tradition attributed to the first century that responds to Matthew's gospel, the Gospel Of Thomas' response to Matthew, Celsus' use of Matthew more than any other gospel, etc.).

See, also, C.E. Hill's discussion of the early use of the gospels in his Who Chose The Gospels? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). He notes, for example, that Clement of Alexandria uses Matthew's gospel almost as much as he uses the other three gospels combined (71-72). Craig Keener refers to Matthew as "the favorite of the second-century church" (Acts, Vol. 1 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012], 390).

If the gospel attributed to Matthew was composed by and attributed to the apostle around the middle of the first century, about thirty years before another gospel was written by an apostle, then the later prominence of Matthew's gospel makes a lot of sense. It makes less sense if the gospel originated late in the first century, didn't come from the apostle, and circulated anonymously in its earliest years. If Matthew's gospel was composed by the apostle, was attributed to the apostle earlier than in the other scenario, was circulating longer, and had a longer period of time as the only gospel composed by an apostle, then the prominent reception of that gospel is more coherent.


  1. Well, I'm also of the mind that Matthew is probably mid-1st century and perhaps even the first of the Gospels written; but I'm also impressed with the argument that all of the NT was written and circulating before A.D. 70. The only exception I'd make is for Revelation, but that's only because I can't think of a good reason to doubt Irenaeus on it's dating from the time of Domitian.

    1. I think all of the documents other than John's were written prior to the destruction of the temple. I suspect that all of John's writings come from the 80s and 90s. In addition to the patristic evidence for Revelation's late date, multiple sources tell us that the fourth gospel was written late as well. Two sources tell us that Papias served as a secretary who wrote out John's gospel. One of those sources tells us that Papias made the claim in his own writings. Papias may have had such a role prior to the destruction of the temple. But the comments he makes in his extant fragments and the other information we possess about him suggest that he wouldn't have had such a prominent role until later. And John's use of the term "the elder" in two of his letters makes more sense at a later date. I also think it makes sense for John to have taken a more patriarchal role in the closing decades of the first century. As the last surviving apostle or one of the last, he'd be more likely to take the sort of role we see reflected in his New Testament documents. It seems less likely that he'd produce all five of those documents prior to the fall of Jerusalem, then remain silent (in a sense) when there was more need for his guidance in later decades. Not everything John did would have to be in writing or of a canonical nature, but I think an increase in his writing activity makes more sense later than earlier.

    2. Some have argued that John may have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem because of John 5:2. The Greek word estin, translated “is”, is a present tense verb. If John were written after Jerusalem's destruction (at 70 AD), then the writer most likely would have written "was" rather than "is." Ken Gentry has written interesting arguments for Revelation also being written prior to 70 AD. Of course, he's got a vested interest in doing so to support his partial preterism.

  2. I agree that Matthean Priority shouldn't be ruled out. Especially since it was clearly written with a Jewish audience in mind by an author very familiar with Judaism. While the Church still had a large Jewish membership and when Jewish apologetics was especially needed and relevant. Unlike Luke who clearly wrote for a Gentile audience and was probably himself Gentile. That suggests an early date for Matthew. Many of the fathers also believed it was the first Gospel written. Maybe it wasn't written first, but published first (i.e. distributed more widely). The Didache seems to be dependent on Matthew. If the Didache was written very early, then Matthew would likely have been written earlier. Why didn't Mark, whose audience was Gentile (esp. Roman) get as accepted or quoted as much as Matthew? Was it because it was distributed later? One would think that a Gospel reputedly written based on the sermons of Peter (who had apostolic prominence and which oral tradition would have quickly spread the truth about) would be distributed more quickly than Matthew. Especially since the Gospel of Mark is much shorter and therefore easier/quicker to copy and easier to distribute.

    1. Peter was more prominent than Matthew, but the involvement of Mark in transmitting Peter's testimony would have been a significant mitigating factor. And Mark seems to have been largely repeating what Peter taught publicly. Matthew's gospel may have been perceived as offering more new or rarely discussed material. Furthermore, since Matthew repeats much of Mark, in addition to providing a lot of material of its own, readers could get a large portion of Mark's material, as well as more, by reading Matthew. Why read Mark when you can get so much of the same, along with more, by reading Matthew? I think authorship was one of the factors involved in Matthew's better reception than Mark, but not the only factor.

      However, Matthew wasn't just received better than Mark. It also had a better reception than Luke and John. The earliness and authorship of Matthew surely were significant factors in that context. I suspect that John's lateness and the large number of predecessors (both canonical and noncanonical, among the "many" referred to in Luke 1:1) diminished John's reception.

    2. Why read Mark when you can get so much of the same, along with more, by reading Matthew?

      I was thinking of that same psychological factor. I should have mentioned it. But from an objective point of view (rather than a psychological one), Mark actually has more detail on those passages it shares with Matthew. At least that's what F.F. Bruce said:

      The Gospel of Mark, because it was shorter than the others, and contained little that could not be found in them, was unduly neglected in ancient times. Augustine, for example, says that Mark seems to have followed Matthew 'as his lackey and abbreviator, so to speak'.' But anyone who studies a synopsis of the Gospels where the common material is arranged in parallel columns will see that for the most part it is Matthew and not Mark who abridges. Mark, of course, omits more than half the material which appears in Matthew; but for the material which they have in common Mark is usually fuller than Matthew. - The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? by F.F. Bruce

    3. Scholars other than Bruce have also made the observation that Matthew tends to abbreviate Mark. But I wouldn't use the contrast between "psychological" and "objective" in describing the perception that much of Mark is in Matthew. Despite his shortening of Mark in some ways, a lot of Mark's wording, theology, historical events, etc. are repeated by Matthew. If two passages agree in their major themes, but one has more of the lesser details, then the perception that they have the major themes in common isn't just psychological.