Tough Questions Answered

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Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew? – #5 Post of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Although the author did not record his name within the text itself (a common practice in the ancient world), the first book found in the New Testament (NT) has historically been attributed to the writing of Matthew, a tax collector and one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.  Although some NT scholars doubt the authorship of Matthew, there are good reasons to believe that he was, indeed, the author of the first gospel.

There are at least two lines of evidence that can be rallied to the defense of Matthew: (1) the superscription of the ancient manuscripts and (2) the patristic witness.

A superscription is text added to an ancient manuscript by a scribe for purposes of identification; it acts as a title.  According to NT scholar D. Edmond Hiebert, the first gospel’s “identifying superscription, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew,’ is the oldest known witness concerning its authorship.”   Scholars believe the superscription was added as early as A.D. 125 and the “superscription is found on all known manuscripts of this gospel.”   This fact is a powerful testimony to the uniformity of evidence with regard to the authorship of Matthew.

The second line of evidence is the patristic witness.  The early church fathers were unanimous in crediting the gospel to Matthew.  Hiebert claims, “The earliest is the testimony of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, dating to the first half of the second century.”

Following Papias is Irenaeus “who wrote his famous Against Heresies around A.D. 185.”

The next church father to attribute authorship to Matthew is Origen, who wrote in the early third century.  He is quoted by Eusebius, who wrote in the early fourth century.

Finally, Eusebius himself, in the early fourth century, documents that Matthew wrote the first gospel.

There is an unbroken witness to Matthew as the author of the first gospel going back to at least the middle of the second century, and there is no contradictory witness found in any of the church fathers.

Due to the fragmentary nature of documentary evidence in the ancient world, our ability to trace back authorship to within 100 years of the original writing of the first Gospel is exceptional.  Surely this presents a persuasive case for Matthean authorship.


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Comments

  • Boz

    Why does this argument not persuade the majority of new testament scholars, whose consensus view is that the apostle Matthew did not write the gospel that bears his name?

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Boz,
    I don’t worry too much about the consensus view (argument from popularity) and I’m not even sure that there is one. I follow the historical evidence where it leads and it seems to lead to Matthew.

    Bill

  • Boz

    nice evasion eh bro – you didn’t answer the question.

  • Bill Pratt

    I did, but indirectly. I don’t know that there is a consensus view and therefore I don’t know what that consensus view is. I am simply saying I question your assumption that there is a consensus view. Maybe there is, but I don’t know what it is.

  • Boz

    “the consensus view of new testament scholars is that the apostle matthew did not write the gospel that bears his name”

    I found this information in An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E Brown
    and also in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D Ehrman

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    Boz,

    The consensus view of Americans is that God exists. Does that mean that He actually does?

    Darrell

  • Bill Pratt

    OK, you’ve done some homework. According to these two scholars, that is the consensus view (I’ll take your word for it). Now what? You’ve argued in the past that citing something as the “consensus view” is not a reason to believe it. You called it the argument from popularity, I believe. So why are you so interested in the consensus view in this case?

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    Bill,

    Ditto!

    Double standards are really fun, aren’t they. :)

    Darrell

  • Boz

    There are many different areas of expertise – history, anthropology, physics, chemistry, etc. One person cannot possibly be across all the issues from all areas of expertise. In this case, the most reasonable course of action for non-professionals is to tentatively accept the consensus view. This is a type of argument from authority, however we have nothing better to rely on, without spending hundreds/thousands of hours to learn all the issues.

    This is the criteria I use when considering arguments from authority: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html

    That said, Why does the arguement in the original rticle not persuade the majority of new testament scholars, whose consensus view is that the apostle Matthew did not write the gospel that bears his name?

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Boz,
    I did a little homework, and here’s what I found. According to D. Edmond Hiebert, “The strongest objection to apostolic authorship is that this gospel is held to incorporate almost in toto the work of Mark, a non-apostolic author.” Scholars then reason that it is highly improbable that Matthew, an eyewitness of Jesus’s life, would quote so heavily from Mark, who was not an eyewitness (the assumption being that the Gospel of Mark was written before Matthew).

    A couple responses could be made. First, it is hardly proven that Mark was before Matthew. Many scholars believe that, but the case is certainly not ironclad. Matthew could very easily have come before Mark, which would nullify this argument.

    Second, assuming Mark did come first, why would Matthew not incorporate Mark’s work into his own if he agreed with the facts? After all Mark, got his information from Peter, who was an eyewitness, and Matthew would have presumably known that. Even if he didn’t, why reinvent the wheel? Mark’s data was on target and well researched, in Matthew’s mind, so he could use it as starting point.

    Third, Matthew wasn’t content to just copy Mark. He made several changes and additions to Mark, filling in with his own thoughts. The Gospel of Matthew is quite a bit longer than Mark, after all.

  • Boz

    Also, we all accept this type of argument from authority (accepting the expert consensus) for thousands of different facts. e.g. the existence and structure of the elements on the periodic table, the existence and actions of atilla the hun, the age of the universe being ~14b years, etc.

  • http://www.calvaryle.org Steve Wright

    Boz, I can cite scholars like Unger and Jensen who say the consensus view is that Matthew did write the gospel that bears his name. Such is the nature of study in the Biblical world.

    However, I agree with your premise that since I am not a chemist for example, I would be wise to accept what my chemist friend tells me as to chemistry. And many examples like that could be given.

    So why is it that the one main area where this principle is violated (especially on the internet) is the study of Scripture. I don’t know you personally, but do you have a formal Biblical education? Did you go on to do graduate work in a seminary somewhere? Are you a ‘non-professional’ (to use your words above). Have you spent years and years studying the Bible, along with all of the historical, textual and grammatical issues around it? …. and not only study but teach it to others as well?

    Do you ever pause for a moment and say ‘This guy has a Masters or Doctorate in religious studies, has been teaching the Bible for 15 years or so, maybe I should question my views before assuming he is wrong’

    Just asking….but so you know, I’m not wanting you to do that. Men like the two who run this blog (and I agree with them), are actually encouraging others to ask questions and challenge our beliefs – because our beliefs are not threatened by questions.

    Quite a contrast to other subjects where if one pushes too much eventually they are silenced with an ‘I’m the expert, just accept what I am telling you’

  • Sean Caldwell

    Quite interesting debate. I would disagree with the premise that the consensus view is that Matthew did not write the gospel. I’ve read plenty of scholarly material in my seminary studies that indicate Matthew is the author of the book that has his name.

    Of course, we can find scholars that say Mark didn’t write Mark, Luke didn’t write Luke or Acts, and John didn’t write John. Yet the earliest church fathers, the Didache, letters of Ignatius & Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, Martyr, Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, and many more from the 2nd century on state Matthew wrote it.

    Sean

  • http://uzzas.blogspot.com/ Uzza

    Can someone explain why Matthew refers to himself in the third person? I’m not trying to be confrontational, I’m sure there’s a ‘consensus’ (heh) explanation but I can’t find it.

  • Tim

    Uzza,

    It was a fairly standard practice in ancient writing to refer to oneself in the third person. We find this, for example, in Xenophon’s Expedition of Cyrus and Caesar’s Commentaries. Given this fact, it is not particularly surprising that Matthew adopts the same convention; it is certainly not evidence against Matthew’s authorship of the first Gospel.

    Regarding consensus, Brown’s main argument is one noticed above — that Matthew’s Gospel incorporates a great deal of Mark’s. Brown (and presumably others whose view he is representing) considers this to be a serious argument against Matthean authorship because Matthew was a disciple whereas Mark was not. But this does not seem to be a strong argument. As Bill points out, a strong and consistent tradition represents Mark as the interpreter of Peter when the latter preached in Rome. Would Matthew scruple to make use of an authentic account of Peter’s preaching? It is hard to see why.

    Alternatively, one might adopt Zahn’s hypothesis that our Greek Gospel of Matthew was put together in the course of the translation of an original Aramaic gospel of Matthew and enlarged by the translator by being combined with the extant Greek Gospel of Mark. The principal objections to this view are (a) that we do not have an extant Aramaic Gospel of Matthew, and (b) that Matthew’s Gospel contains, in the Greek, some wordplays — e.g. αφανιζουσιν … οπως φανωσιν (Matt. 6:16) and κακους κακως (Matt. 21:41) — that (it is supposed) could not have resulted from a translation from Aramaic. But (a) given how little of the literature of the first two centuries has survived at all, it is scarcely surprising that we have lost any given work, particularly since the Greek Gospel of Matthew that we do have would have superseded the Aramaic Gospel and have had a much wider circulation. And (b) the wordplays do not, frankly, seem beyond the reach of a deft translator.

    Does that answer your question?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    I don’t worry too much about the consensus view (argument from popularity) and I’m not even sure that there is one.

    Except of course when you think you can use it to your advantage as when you cite Habermas’ “minimal facts” approach.

  • Canis Dirus

    “Although the author did not record his name”

    Just stop right there. The explanation that this was common practice is absurd. Made up stories did use that methodology, but anything written by HISTORIANS are not anonymous at all.

    Matthew is certainly not an historical document, and the “story” is rife with misinformation and out of context insertions. It is a clear case of back writing, probably authored by Q much later on.

    All of the 4 gospels are anonymous, and these 4 gospels are the BEST the church could put together, and still had to manipulate the stories as events seem to come out of nowhere.

    Somehow Paul doesn’t realize that Jesus was a LIVING man, though his writings are the earliest and closest to the supposed events. Jesus becomes a man later on … and that is exactly when the wheels fell off the cart for Christianity.

    That’s when the real potential of manipulating populations was realized.

  • Tim

    Canis Diris writes:

    “Just stop right there. The explanation that this was common practice is absurd. Made up stories did use that methodology, but anything written by HISTORIANS are not anonymous at all.”

    Canis, this is just ignorant bluffing. Ancient historians often referred to themselves in the third person. Caesar’s Commentaries never identify the author at all, and they refer to Caesar in the third person. Other examples are easy to find. Xenophon refers to himself in the third person throughout the Anabasis, e.g. Book 3, ch 1:

    “There was in the army a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who accompanied the army neither as a general nor as a captain nor as a private soldier; but Proxenos, an old acquaintance, had sent for him.”

    See also Anabasis 1.8.15; 2.5.40; 3.1.10, 47, etc.

    Or look at the way Josephus — writing within a few decades of the writing of the Gospels, in Greek, refers to himself as an actor in The Jewish War 2.20.4, 3.9.5, etc.

    The practice of maintaining the third person in references to oneself was more characteristic of Greek writers than of Roman ones. See, e.g., Nicolaus’s History and the extant fragments from the Scythica of Dexippus.

    “Matthew is certainly not an historical document, and the ‘story’ is rife with misinformation and out of context insertions. It is a clear case of back writing, probably authored by Q much later on.”

    Whatever else one may say of that most Jewish of the Gospels, Matthew certainly contains a good deal of genuine historical information. Passing and incidental points of contact with Greco-Roman history, like Matthew 2:22, reveal that more clearly (to someone who knows the non-Christian history of the time) than more overt references like those in Matthew 26.

    “Somehow Paul doesn’t realize that Jesus was a LIVING man, …”

    (*facepalm*)

    Romans 1:3; 1 Corinthians 11:23, 15:3-6; 2 Corinthians 13:4; Galatians 4:4 …

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  • Jackiebond007

    i am an old lady who has decided to investigate my catholic religion and fill in the gaps i need to know for me. i was astonished to learn that Matthew actually wrote the first pages of his wonderful gospel. so, i concluded that we might be hearing Matthew quoting our Lord as he heard him. i am impressed.

    Justine Dombkowski

  • Don Sciba

    Boz, you mention a NT “scholar” in Bart Ehrman. This guy is a rabble-rouser agnostic who’s made a lot of money selling books that bash the Bible. If I were you I’d educate myself before citing so-called “scholars.”

  • DonS

    Bill, I’ve often wondered why the gospels were written anonymously. Was it because the authors were afraid hostile Jews or Roman authorities would track them down and persecute them? I would welcome your opinion on this.

  • DonS

    In my opinion Matthew was probably the most educated of the apostles or maybe the most intelligent – being a tax collector where calculations had to be made up on the spot. He had to tax enough to satisfy the Romans while cutting out a commission for himself. I see no reason why Matthew didn’t possess the skills to write his gospel.

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  • DonS

    Time for you to go back to the drawing board and read the New Testament without the obvious anti-Christian bias you have. Your post screams that you have not done any serious historical investigation of the New Testament.

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