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The authorship of Matthew, the first Gospel in the New Testament, is impossible to accurately attribute. Early Christian writers claimed that the text was written or compiled by Matthew, the tax-collecting apostle of Jesus, in Hebrew, during the mid-1st Century CE (according to Iranaeus, between 50 and 60 CE). Although this traditional attribution has become canonical within the Christian tradition, several considerations speak powerfully against it. For one thing, although Matthew is mentioned twice in the Gospel (9:9; 10:3), he does not himself claim to be its author, and indeed no such claims were made until decades after the text was written. For another, a Hebrew version of Matthew can be found no earlier than the Middle Ages: the original was almost certainly written in Greek. Additionally, the dating of the text to the mid-1st Century is problematic, given the text’s knowledge of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE (see 21:41; 22:7; 24:15-16) and of the Pharisees, a group whose influence rose even later in the 1st Century.
The most significant blow to the theory of Matthean authorship comes, however, from the so-called “two-source theory” of Matthew’s composition. The vast majority of scholars agree that the text of Matthew draws heavily on the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Greek sometime between 65 and 70 CE, along with a collection of Jesus’ sayings – also Greek – known as “Q” (short for Quelle, meaning “source” in German) that was compiled sometime before 70 CE and which it shares with Luke. In addition, Matthew draws on a special set of traditions found in no other gospel, known simply as “M.” These factors strongly suggest that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek after 70 CE, making its authorship by the apostle Matthew in Hebrew extremely unlikely.
What, then, can we say about the circumstances of Matthew’s composition? References within the text indicate that Matthew was likely written between 80 and 90 CE (its citation by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in 110 CE provides a terminus ad quem of about 100 CE). Its Greek composition for a Greek-speaking audience makes Matthew seem out of place in Palestine, where Aramaic was most widely spoken. Matthew is more at home in a major Hellenistic city with a significant Jewish presence. Antioch in Syria is the most popular candidate among scholars, though Alexandria in Egypt, Caesarea and Galilee have all been raised as possibilities. Although the available evidence does not permit definitive attribution, the author of Matthew displays deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and of contemporary debates concerning the interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Whoever wrote Matthew was therefore almost certainly an Israelite who knew a number of languages. This strong education makes his status as a leader within his community (possibly a scribe) quite likely. And while Matthew’s community clearly followed the teachings of Jesus, the text’s emphasis on Jesus’ adherence to Israelite traditions indicates that the community – the intended audience of Matthew – was primarily Jewish, though with some Gentiles in it as well.
Like the Gospel of Mark on which it draws, Matthew displays clear interest in demonstrating the Jewish character of Jesus’ life and ministry and indeed his status as the Jewish messiah. Even more strongly than Mark, however, Matthew grounds its claims in the Hebrew scriptures. The author of Matthew’s erudition is amply displayed in so-called “fulfillment citations” that occur throughout the text (see for instance 1:23; 2:6; 2:15; 3:3, 4:14-16). These citations, unique to Matthew, assert that actions Jesus performs fulfill specific passages of Hebrew scripture that contain predictions or foreshadowings of what will occur when the messiah arrives. In doing so, Matthew ascribes divine agency to events in Jesus’ life and suggests that his coming is the culmination of a divine plan that spans the history of Israel and completes it.
Some of Jesus’ status as fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures is established in his biography. The very first lines of Matthew, for instance, state that Jesus is the son of Abraham and David – the father of the Israelites and their greatest king (1:1). And much of Jesus’ early life as presented in Chapter 2 – from his miraculous birth to his persecution by the tyrannical King Herod, his flight to Egypt and eventual return to Israel in order to preach God’s law – parallels the life of Moses as presented in Exodus 1-20. These associations identify Jesus as the messianic figure who will redeem Israel from its oppression under foreign rule and show the way to salvation.
That Jesus correctly interprets the Mosaic Law is established in the famous “Sermon on the Mount” in Chapters 5-7. Much of the material found in the Sermon on the Mount derives from Q and is also found in Luke. In Luke, however, Jesus’ sayings are scattered throughout the text, suggesting that this event is Matthew’s own creation and reflects his theological concerns. Jesus’ eschatological framing of his teachings, along with his insistence that he has come not to abolish the law but fulfill it, should therefore be taken very seriously (4:17; 5:17-20). Jesus reveals God’s will and the coming of the kingdom of heaven and states unequivocally that entry to the kingdom will be granted only to those who follow the Mosaic law in the correct way. The famous “Antitheses” (5:21-48), in which Jesus contrasts a particular commandment with his interpretation of it, indicate that the proper way to interpret the laws is to uncover their animating intention. For example, whereas the Torah commands the Israelites not to murder, Jesus commands his followers to avoid anger entirely and instead seek reconciliation (5:21-26). For anger is the root cause of murder and is thus the Mosaic commandment’s true target. Jesus’ interpretation of the law thus intensifies it in a way that corresponds to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, which Matthew views as the purpose underlying all of the law and the prophets (7:12).
Written by Daniel del Nido, Core Lecturer, Religion, Columbia University
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha.Fourth Edition. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010
The Harper-Collins Study Bible Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance. Revised Edition. Ed. Harold W. Attridge. New York: Harper One, 2006
Encyclopedia Britannica: Gospel According to Matthew (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gospel-According-to-Matthew)
Barton, Stephen C. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Sixth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015