Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Tax Collector's Gospel

The traditional authorship attribution of the gospel of Matthew is sometimes disputed on the basis that what the author says about the calling of Matthew in chapter 9 is too similar to what's found in Mark and Luke or isn't detailed enough. I've responded to such objections elsewhere, but I want to add some points I didn't make there.

Notice that Matthew 9:13 adds a citation of Hosea 6:6, which isn't found in the parallel passages in Mark 2:17 and Luke 5:31-32. The passage in Hosea reads, "I desire compassion, and not sacrifice." Jesus cites that passage just after the religious authorities objected to his "eating with the tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 9:11). It makes sense for the author to have more interest in including a comment Jesus made about compassion for tax collectors if the author is a tax collector in whose house Jesus made the comment.

Jesus' comment in verse 13 doesn't require that the author was a tax collector and the one whose house Jesus was visiting, but the author's decision to include the comment becomes more coherent if the author had that background. And that comment in verse 13 overturns the objection that the account in the gospel of Matthew is no different than the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke and the objection that Matthew's gospel doesn't include any details that reflect interests that Matthew would have had more than Mark and Luke. As I explained in the comments section of the thread linked above, I think it's likely that Matthew delegated the composition of his gospel to one or more other individuals, though he oversaw the effort. Under that kind of scenario, it makes sense for Matthew 9 to follow the general parameters of what Mark and Luke say about Matthew's calling, but with the sort of supplemental material you'd expect from Matthew.

Something else worth mentioning in this context is that Hosea 6:6 is cited again in Matthew 12:7, once again coming from Jesus. And the passage isn't cited anywhere else in the gospels. So, Matthew cites it twice, and no other gospel cites it at all. That adds further weight to the case for Matthean authorship. Jesus' citation of the Hosea passage probably left a strong impression on Matthew in the context of the events of Matthew 9, so it's understandable that he'd also have remembered another occasion when Jesus cited the passage. Not only does Matthean authorship make more sense of the first citation of Hosea 6:6, but it also makes more sense of the second one.

Another passage I didn't discuss in my earlier post is Matthew 10:3, where Matthew is identified as "the tax collector" in the list of Jesus' disciples. By contrast, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13 don't include that identification. If the gospel attributed to Matthew was written by him, then his being identified differently in that gospel's list of disciples than he is in the lists in the other three documents becomes more coherent. Matthew's motivation for mentioning what he does in 10:3 may be similar to his motivation for including Jesus' appeal to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13. Jesus called for compassion toward tax collectors (9:13) and chose one to be part of his inner circle, among the Twelve (10:3).

Whatever Matthew's motivation in these passages, we should note the cumulative effect. In both 9:13 and 10:3, a different approach is being taken than what we see in the other two relevant gospels and Acts on issues involving tax collectors, with Matthew being closely involved in both contexts (hosting Jesus at his house in 9:13 and being named in 10:3).

One objection that could be raised is the reference to Levi (another name for Matthew) as a tax collector in Luke 5:27. Matthew just refers to himself as "a man" rather than "a tax collector" in Matthew 9:9. Since Luke is putting more emphasis on Matthew's identity as a tax collector in that context, doesn't that undermine my argument? It does weaken the significance of my argument, but it doesn't eliminate it. Matthew's not including "a tax collector" in 9:9 is easily explained by its redundance, since his sitting in a tax booth is mentioned just afterward. And Luke's emphasis on Matthew's identity as a tax collector in this context doesn't change the fact that, overall, the gospel of Matthew shows a larger interest in Matthew's calling and his identity as a tax collector.

Another potential objection is that the document wouldn't have to be written by Matthew in order to have these Matthean interests. That's true. Scholars will sometimes assign the gospel to a Matthean community or a Matthean school, for example. But that doesn't change the fact that the evidence I'm addressing suggests some kind of close relationship with the apostle Matthew. That evidence doesn't have to settle every issue in order to have some significance. I would combine the evidence I'm discussing in this post with other evidence to argue for Matthean authorship of the gospel. The evidence I'm focused on here doesn't have to be exhaustive in order to be a significant part of a cumulative case.

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