Scripture scholars have, over the past two hundred years, made the quest to identify the author of the Gospel of Matthew un-necessarily complicated.
But first, let’s consider the text itself. The earliest complete versions of the Gospel of Matthew are contained within the two Greek New Testament manuscripts known as the Codex Vaticanus (Vatican Library: 325 A.D.) and the Codex Sinaiticus (British Museum: 350 A.D.). We can date many surviving fragments of Matthew (the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Magdalen Papyrus) from the first, second and third centuries (between 70 and 200 A.D.). Tertullian and the text of the Muratorian Canon, both from the second century, are the earliest documents that refer to a “Gospel of Matthew” as being a canonical text.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, German scholars developed a “historical-critical” approach to scriptural research that challenged many long-held assumptions about the four Gospels. For instance, they argue that Mark, not Matthew, wrote his Gospel first. According to these scholars, Mark’s very brief Gospel served as a basis for the longer Gospels of Matthew and Luke (where Matthew and Luke have material that is similar to Mark’s). According to this “multi-source hypothesis,” Luke and Matthew also drew from “Q”, which is simply those passages common to Matthew and Luke, but not contained in Mark. It should be noted that there is no archaelogical basis for their conclusions: everything is speculation and based on their own interpretation as to how the biblical texts were created and edited.
When scholars scratch below the surface, though, the multi-source hypothesis reveals numerous flaws. Even supporters of the historical critical method agree that the “multi-source” hypothesis is problematic. One awkward question, which has never been settled among former or present “historical-critical” scholars, is the question as to whether the Gospel of Matthew was first written in Greek or Hebrew. All of our surviving versions are in Greek.
But the early Fathers of the Church (Irenaeus, Jerome, Eusebius) tell us that Matthew first wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. Saint Jerome tells us that a Hebrew version of Matthew was still extant in his day at the library in Caesarea or Alexandria. Eusebius tells us that Pantaenus the missionary went to India, and was told by the locals that Bartholomew the Apostle had brought the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew, to India in the first century.
The simple presumption is that the original Hebrew version was lost, and what survives are the Greek versions. Since Greek was as much the language of business and commerce as Roman throughout the Empire, and especially in the Eastern Empire, the assumption is that the Gospel of Matthew circulated far more widely among the gentile Christians in Greek than in Hebrew. By the end of the first century, as gentiles were baptized, far more Christians would have been familiar with a Gospel proclaimed in Greek, rather than Hebrew.
Nevertheless, the historical-critical scholars are not just stumped, but positively hostile to the assertion that Matthew originally wrote the Gospel in Hebrew. If Matthew had, in fact, written the Gospel in Hebrew, then it undermines the “multi-source hypothesis.” If Matthew had written the gospel in Hebrew, then he likely did not copy certain parables from Mark. (Mark would have borrowed them from Matthew.)
As is often the case in scriptural scholarship, we have two competing interpretations, which are often divided along ideological lines. One the one hand, we have the traditional position that the Gospels were written by the biblical personages whose names they bear – Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel of Matthew. On the other hand, we have a modern academic approach that is occasionally less-interested in dispassionate analysis and occasionally more concerned with devising theories that simply reject, in knee-jerk fashion, whatever position the church holds.
In the case of Matthew’s Gospel, the “tradition of the church” simply means “history.” Eusebius claims that Papias mentioned Matthew’s Gospel in 130 C.E. Irenaeus, in 180 C.E., attributes authorship to Matthew. Jerome (340-420 C.E.) states that Matthew wrote a Gospel “in Hebrew,” and that a copy still exists in Caesarea.
The response of the historical critical scholars to the position that Matthew wrote his original Gospel in Hebrew is as follows:
Premise 1. Papias, Irenaeus and Jerome said Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew.
Premise 2. The Canonical Matthew in Greek could not possibly have resembled the Hebrew proto-Matthew.
Conclusion: The Apostle Matthew did not write the Canonical Gospel of Matthew.
A Contrived, Self-Serving Argument
We might call this academic approach a “contrived argument,” since the premises of the argument are created in order to satisfy the constraint imposed by the conclusion. This is like conducting scientific research where the results are massaged or jury-rigged in order to defend a pre-determined outcome.
As the foregone conclusion is that “Matthew did not write the Gospel,” the contrived premises must be that a) Mark wrote his gospel first, b) Matthew did not write a Gospel in Hebrew, c) no scholar could have possibly translated Matthew into Greek, even if Matthew were capable of writing the Gospel in Hebrew and d) Eusebius, Irenaeus and Jerome were mistaken when they claimed that Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew.
Let’s walk through the contrived assumptions:
Assumption 1. An underlying assumption is that “the historical tradition of the church is, prima facie, unreliable.” Simply because Christians believed, in 300 C.E., that Matthew wrote Matthew does not make it so.
Flaw: This is an unusual argument, since today, we are 1,700 years further removed from the historical event, and we have no better archaeological or historical information than did the Christians of the fourth century. If anything, they were closer to the record, handed on orally, than we are today. What sparse archaeological data we might have (minute fragments of first century texts) does not indicate that the early Christian church was wrong. We do not have, for instance, Hebrew fragments that contradict the Gospel of Matthew as we have it in Greek. Furthermore, the historic record in favor of Apostolic authorship is strong: it includes the written testimony of Eusebius, Irenaeus and Jerome.
Assumption 2. As no Hebrew text exists, the Apostle Matthew, who likely spoke and wrote in Hebrew, did not write the Gospel of Matthew.
Flaw. In other words, whatever it was that Eusebius, Irenaeus, Jerome and Papias were referring to, it was not the canonical Gospel of Matthew that we know today. It is an insipid argument, suggesting that in order to prove that Matthew wrote the Gospel, we need to furnish a text in the original language.
Considering for a moment that Greek was the dominant language of the Roman Empire, and that expatriate Jews in Rome, Damascus and Antioch were as likely to speak Greek as Hebrew, and you can see why a Hebrew autograph text did not survive. Bottom line: Matthew’s autograph text was promptly copied into Greek, by a highly competent scribe, because Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. Among Christian who resided throughout the Roman Empire, there was no demand for a document written in Hebrew.
Assumption 3. Matthew is so well-structured in Greek that it could not possibly have been translated from any other language. [This is, in my view, the scholar’s strongest argument in favor of the position opposing Matthean authorship.]
Flaw. The only flaw in this argument is that it is a virtually unprovable assumption. It is like arguing for or against the existence of organic life in a neighboring galaxy. We simply don’t know. It is conjecture to argue that the structural elegance of Matthew argues against the possibility that the received Greek text was never translated from Hebrew first.
Assumption 4. First-century scribes were not up to the task of translating Hebrew into a truly high-quality Greek text.
Flaw. Structurally and theologically, Matthew is a pretty powerful document. However, if anything was lost in the translation from Hebrew to Greek, it was style and not substance. The author of Matthew in Greek often begins sentences with terms like “and then…” or “and…”. Does this lend credibility to the argument that Matthew was originally written in Greek? Scholars disagree.
Assumption 5. Mathew copied some his passages directly from Mark, in Greek, which explains why Mark and Matthew have passages that are, in places, identical word-for-word.
Flaw. Again, we are assuming that Matthew copied from Mark, and not vice-versa. Truthfully, the “historical-critical” scholars have no evidence that Mark was written first. To the contrary, we know that Saint Jerome asserts that Matthew was written first. This position is rejected by the nineteenth century “historical-critical” camp, as it does not support the premise (that they cannot prove) that Matthew drew from Mark and from Q.
Another question posed is, where was the gospel written? The general consensus is either Jerusalem (Judah) or Antioch (Syria). This assumption is based on the constraints that the locale must have had a long-present Jewish population that was linguistically familiar with Greek.