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The Identity of “Matthew”

In a previous post I dealt very briefly with the question of whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew was Jewish. I want to say a few more things about the issue, although I’m not planning on providing anything like an exhaustive treatment. It’s a complicated issue. At the end of the day, my view is that we simply don’t know.

In this post I want to say something about what we know about the identity of the author more generally. We call this author “Matthew” because that is the name traditionally associated with the Gospel. The Gospel is called “According to Matthew” in all of the surviving manuscripts that have a title (i.e., all the manuscripts that still have their first page.) It is never called anything else – although the *form* of the ascription to Matthew differs in different manuscripts: e.g., is it entitled “According to Matthew” or “The Gospel according to Matthew” or “The Holy Gospel according to Matthew,” or something else? But in all the ascriptions, the person named is always Matthew. It’s never Bartholomew or Nathaniel or some other person.

There are several points to make about the fact that the manuscripts all assign the book to “Matthew.” The first and possibly most important is that these manuscripts are all very long after the book was written and placed in circulation. The first complete copies of Matthew – which contain the titles – are from the middle of the fourth century – some 300 years after the book was written, by whoever wrote it, and placed in circulation. By that time, everyone on the planet who had an opinion about the book believed that it was written by Matthew. So I’m not sure the titles in the manuscripts help us much in knowing who actually was the author.

 

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When Was Matthew Called Matthew?
Was Matthew a Jew?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    maxhirez  June 23, 2013

    Are there any fragmentary manuscripts where the first page does NOT have a title/attribution? Also, and you may be planning on getting into this later, is it really likely that the tax collector disciple went by two different names or is there a more likely explanation?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      Don’t think so. On the second question, the view that he actually had two names is not because any of the Gospels says so, but because the tax-collector is called two different things in Mark and Matthew. It’s hard to know why Matthew changed the name.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 23, 2013

    A lot of good points here, especially the ones about how an author would not likely title his Gospel “according to” and that the author of Matthew gives no clue in his description of Matthew, the tax collector, that he is talking about himself. You could add, of course, that the disciple Matthew probably could not read nor write New Testament Koine Greek.
    My guess is that scribes/editors liked this account because it fit their views about the few Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah and about the importance of being Jewish and about Jesus being “exalted” into being divine . Just a guess.
    There are way too many contradictions in the Gospels for any of the authors to have been an eyewitness. I guess one could argue that one of the four is reliable and the other three got it wrong.

  3. Avatar
    Jim  June 23, 2013

    A weird question, how would you rank the gospels in terms of accurate historical content or are they all about the same in this regard?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      Not so weird. I’d say Mark is more accurate than the others on the whole, and John is the least accurate.

  4. Avatar
    Hin  June 23, 2013

    Hi Prof. Ehrman, Is it plausible that the gospel is indeed Matthew’s testimony although it is not written by him? Is it plausible that Matthew tells somebody what Jesus has said and done in Aramaic, and the latter writes all the details in Greek? So that the gospel is still ‘according to Matthew’? Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      The reason that doesn’t work is that whoever wrote Matthew copied large sections of Mark *in Greek*. So Aramaic was never the language of the author or the person who related the stories.

  5. Avatar
    Scott F  June 23, 2013

    The best part of Matthew’s recollection of his own calling as a disciple by Jesus is that it is copied almost entirely from Mark! Change Levi to Matthew and – hey presto – you have Matthew’s version.

  6. Avatar
    Peter  June 24, 2013

    Hi Bart.

    In the post you plan to do on Matthew’s supposed “Jewishness”, could you make reference, if you have space in the post, to Matt. 5:17-19, please.

    I know there is a convincing argument that Jesus probably did urge people to obey “the Law” (since this is a speech that was unlikely to have been made up later by a Christian), but I wonder did Matthew, presuming he was a Jew, have an “agenda”, an agenda that led to his making up this verse by way of trying to keep the Christian group to which he belonged as “Jewish” as possible?

    Don’t worry if you don’t have space to deal with this question in your post; I know it’s very difficult to keep the posts to a manageable length!

    Regards.

  7. Avatar
    EricBrown  June 24, 2013

    First, i do not doubt that this gospel was written by somnebody other than a companion of the historical Jesus. that being said, the “evidence” of not using the first person raises a question for me, simply in regards to evaluating the strength of that evidence.

    Did Josephus, who was himself a particpant in the Jewish Wars, and so must have given an account of the character “Josephus”, write in the first or third person in this “section” of “Jewish Wars.”

    Clearly, I am wondering if there was a convention or style. For that matter, I wonder if Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars referred to “ego” or “Caesar”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      Yes, you’re right, a number of authors in antiquity did speak of themselves in the third person. But in their cases it is clear as day that they are speaking of themselves. Not so Matthew!

  8. Avatar
    mjeffery  June 26, 2013

    Didn’t Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, name the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, forever linking them to Jesus’ apostles or associates of apostles. Scholars have numerous reasons that bely his attributions–the main one being that they are dated too late (after 70 AD) to be penned by actual apostles.

  9. Avatar
    Mohy  March 13, 2014

    (Matthew ) The Sign of Jonah:
    38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
    .
    I read this interesting passage and believe me i tried several times to count the number of nights and days and they could never be three.
    could you please comment on that , how can any Bible scholar interpret this ? its very clear that something is wrong
    Some bible web sites says that the day day counts differ from Jewish to ours. and that any part of the day refers to one full day and night Is this true?
    or they are just trying to justify the difference between the sign of Jonah and that of Jesus

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 13, 2014

      Yes, it’s usually thought that in Jewish reckoning any portion of a day was enough to consider it an entire day (and night). Go figure….

      • Avatar
        Mohy  March 13, 2014

        So Do you agree that Jesus spent 3 days and nights in his grave and that he fulfilled this prophecy ?
        i mean from Friday to Sunday could be 3 days and nights ? i know u don’t believe in the bible as God word what i meant is according to Matthew could you say that Jesus had fulfilled the prophecy and had spent 3 days and nights in the grave like Jonah did in the whale stomach?

        • Avatar
          Mohy  March 13, 2014

          This is very interesting subject i saw u in a debate saying that Jews begin their day from the sunset accordingly if Jesus was sent to his grave in Friday night that will be the first day in grave then at Saturday Sunset we start the second day in grave( that makes it 2 days and 2 nights according to the Jews)but he left Sunday morning
          so that day (Sunday) does not count so the total are 2 days and 2 nights am i right?
          am sorry for asking again

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 14, 2014

            He was buried on Friday. Dead all day Saturday. And if raised, on Sunday. That’s three days.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 14, 2014

          I don’t think Jesus ever came out of a grave.

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