John Gayford on the origin and history of the Gospel attributed to St. Matthew

The very early church after Pentecost had no need for scriptures; they already heard and possibly read Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic versions of the Old Testament. They then heard the oral tradition of the Good News from living witnesses of the ministry of the Lord. These told and retold their story; their audience was the safeguard that they told the truth. In all probability they had begun to make written aids to memory which might be lists of the sayings of Jesus or parables or actions of Jesus, and again most specially miracles. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus were most likely told with the real force of an eyewitness. As time went on these eyewitnesses were growing old and there came a need for written accounts of the Good News; that is the Gospels. We now know that many Gospels were written each telling the story in their own way for their own community using the accounts of the eyewitness and written lists. Each Gospel would be attributed to whomever the community thought was a reliable source. In the end only four were selected for the Canon of the New Testament, as many of the others were considered to contain heretical material.

The call of Matthew is recorded in all the Synoptic Gospels and is simply recorded in his own Gospel (9:9) as:-

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me”. And he got up and followed him.

It seems reasonable to assume that he like the other disciples had some acquaintance with Jesus before their call. Mark refers to him as Levi son of Alphaeus. Jews who dealt with Gentiles frequently would have two names. 

Most Biblical scholars now accept that the Gospel attributed to St. Matthew was not written by the Apostle but that he may have provided some material. There is still discussion if he were a Jew or a Gentile, but the majority opinion is that he was a convert from Judaism. Those who claim he was a Gentile cite the fact that he made a number of errors about Judaism which would not be expected from a well-educated Jew. There is still argument on how close the “Matthew school” was associated with “the synagogue” depending on the definition of the terms, with some synagogues more strict in Jewish observance and others more social gatherings. There are clear links with Judaism throughout the Gospel but it can be critical of Jewish practices.  St. Matthew’s Gospel is written in good Greek, not in Hebrew as reported by Eusebius, though it is correct to say it is created in a Hebrew rhetorical style. There were a number of Jewish-Christian sects with their own versions of the Gospel based on St. Matthew’s Gospel that were probably translated from Greek to Hebrew and have led to historical confusion. It would seem that some had their own versions, seen by early Christian Fathers who even quoted from them, but the originals do not survive for our eyes. Examples of these are the Gospel to the Hebrews, Gospel of the Nazarenes and Gospel to the Ebionites.

We do not know for certain where the Gospel was written but it is assumed that it was written for a large community where Jews and Christians lived together though not always in harmony. Many of the Christians were probably Jewish converts but others were likely to have been of Gentile origin in a church becoming more Gentile. Antioch seems to be a favourite suggestion as this would provide a mixed, possibly affluent and well organized community.  

There can be no denying the immense importance the Gospel attributed to St. Matthew had for the early church, who regarded it as an eye witness account of the ministry and earthly life of Jesus. Evidence suggests that St. Matthew’s Gospel was in wide circulation by the second century. It provided a good link with the Old Testament. We do not know if Matthew was quoting from Hebrew scripture or the Greek Septuagint; the reason for this was that he was quoting from memory and he was familiar with both.  All the four canonical Gospels were initially anonymous. A fourth century scribe added the attribution of the Gospel later.  One of Matthew’s concerns was that Jewish traditions should not be lost from the Church which was becoming increasingly gentile. The Divine nature of Jesus was a prime issue for the community of Matthew. Some Jewish Christians were unable to accept this. They then returned to their Jewish faith and roots again.

It is now agreed that St Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written and that the writer of St. Matthew’s Gospel had access to this, using material in St. Mark which was edited and expanded in a personal way. There is a theory that even before St. Mark’s Gospel there was a document that has never been found but has been called Logion-Quelle or just Q.  Both Matthew and Luke had access to this which St Mark did not. Both St Matthew and St Luke had additional material of their own which they incorporated into their respective Gospels. It has been estimated that some 20% of St. Matthew’s Gospel is not found in the other Synoptic Gospels. There is no evidence that Luke and Matthew ever met, but it is possible that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel saw a proto version of Luke’s Gospel.

Most scholars think that the majority of St. Matthew’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century which makes it a work for second generation Christians. These were unsettled times with the Roman-Jewish wars, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. It was against this background that St. Matthew’s Gospel took shape. It is usually agreed that Matthew’s Gospel was written after Mark’s Gospel, the latter generally placed between 64 and 69 AD. Matthew’s Gospel is usually placed between 80 and 90 AD and certainly after 70 AD with the conclusion of the first Roman-Jewish war, but more likely while the Rabbis were meeting at Jamnia (75-90 AD). 

In the first century AD, text for reading did not appear as in modern publications where there can be a print run of several thousand for a first edition. Each edition had to be copied, a slow, laborious and expensive task. Usually the community for which it was being written bore such cost. Small or even large changes could be made in each copy. It should come as no surprise that when early texts are available for study they do not all agree. We cannot state exactly when oral tradition was taken over by written text, there must have been some overlap, possibly for economic reasons but also an oral tradition had its appeal.

St. Matthew’s Gospel can be seen as a more compete record that St. John’s Gospel as it had some account of the incarnation and infancy of Jesus. Also it provided a good link with the Old Testament, and sees Jesus as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. It is a Gospel that reads well and has formed a major part in liturgy and catechesis. For these reasons the compilers of the Canon of the New Testament had little hesitation in placing it as the first of the Gospels. Even so it is not impossible that a Jewish tax-collector could have written in Greek. It is good Greek, with a play on Greek words and quotations from the Hebrew or Septuagint scriptures. It is described as good in a simplistic straight forward style of Greek with Hebrew idioms and an improvement on the Greek of Mark. There were some very early church communities that would only accept St. Matthew’s Gospel. As the feast of the nativity of Jesus developed in the fourth century, more details were sought than appeared in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke about the infancy of Jesus.  “Infancy Narratives” appeared, one of these is called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed in Latin of which the earliest copy can be traced to the fifth century. Needless to say this has nothing to do with the Gospel of Matthew. 

Hostility between Christians and Jews resulted in anti-Christian treaties being written by Jews from the 14th century. In order to do this they needed to be able to quote from St Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew. The oldest is by a Spanish Jewish Rabbi Shem-Tob ben Ibn Shaprut written in 1380 and underwent a number of revisions. The aim was to disprove that Jesus was divine.

They felt they needed a Hebrew translations for their critical use.

We have to admit we have no reliable information about St Matthew outside the Gospels. Legend has it he preached in Judea for 15 years following the Ascension of Jesus. After this he went to other destinations which include Ethiopia, Persia, Syria, Macedonia and even Ireland. Traditionally he is celebrated as a martyr with the Golden Legend claiming he was martyred while saying Mass. Against this St Clement was prepared to accept that he died a natural death. Again there are many sites that are claimed for his death, as there are churches that claim to have relics.

In art the earliest representation is in a 6th century mosaic in San Vitale of St. Matthew inspired by an angel. He appears in a similar format in the 8th century Lindisfarne Gospels. Late middle-ages art shows Matthew as an older man sometimes with reading glasses. He may be shown in statues with the supposed instruments of his martyrdom namely the sword, spear or axe. Not surprisingly he may be depicted with a money bag or box. Often he is portrayed with a pen, scroll or book with an angel dictating to him as he writes. 

In the Western Church St. Matthew’s feast day is 21st September but in the Eastern Church it is usually celebrated on 16th November. The Orthodox Church claim that their Lectionary is formed from the most ancient writings of the Church and St. Matthew’s Gospel is the most frequently used. St Matthew’s Gospel gives us the Lord’s Prayer (as used in liturgy), the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. In the Western Church St. Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel for Year A in the Lectionary for the Mass.

There are claims that St. Matthew’s Gospel is the best attested Gospel historically with papyri fragments from about 200 AD. There are almost complete manuscripts in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus both dating from the fourth century. It is the “Gospel of the Church”. Although not the first Gospel written it has always been the introductory Gospel of the New Testament. 

Suggested Further Reading:-

– Harrington, D.J. The Gospel of Matthew. In the Sacra Pagina Series. Liturgical Press. Collegeville, Minnesota. 1991.

– Meier, J.P. The Gospel of Matthew. In Volume 4 of the Anchor Yale Biblical Dictionary edited by Freedman, D.N. Yale University Press. London. 2009.

– Mitch, C. and Sri, E. The Gospel of Matthew. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids. Michigan. 2010.

Father John Gayford is a retired priest.