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Was the Author of Matthew Matthew?

In my previous post I showed that the claim that Matthew, the tax-collector, was the author of the Gospel of Matthew (as we continue to call it) cannot be traced earlier than about 180 CE.  It is not found in Justin, who lived in Rome in 150 CE and who quotes the Gospel – along with Mark and Luke – without indicating who wrote them.  And the evidence of Papias (120-140 CE) is more than just ambiguous: he actually does not appear to be referring to *our* Gospel of Matthew when he says that  the disciple Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew language.

In this post I want to give two reasons for thinking that the Gospel was not in fact written by Jesus’ disciple Matthew (and at every point it needs to be remembered that the Gospel does not *claim* to be written by Matthew; quite the contrary, not only is it anonymous: it speaks of Matthew as one of the characters in the story in the third person).

FIRST point.   According to the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 9), Matthew the tax-collector was a Palestinian Jew.   As such, his native language was Aramaic.    That makes it highly unlikely that he could have written this book.

To begin with, apart from the books written by the extremely highly literarily elite Josephus, we don’t have any literary books composed in written Greek by any Palestinian Jews of the first century.  Zero.   And as I will be showing in a moment, this book was certainly composed in Greek.

Relatedly, as I have stressed before on this blog, the vast majority of Palestinian Jews in this period were illiterate – probably around 97%.   The exceptions were urban elites.  There is nothing to suggest that Matthew, the tax collector, was an urban elite who was highly educated.


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The Jewish Emphases of Matthew
When Was Matthew Called Matthew?



  1. Avatar
    toejam  June 26, 2013

    Makes perfect sense to me. The point about the author of Matthew having to rely on Mark is the strongest point I think. It’s almost inconceivable that an eyewitness would rely so heavily on someone else’s account, almost verbatim at times. And a quickie: Have you dedicated a blog post on why you still hold firm to the Q hypothesis yet (as opposed to, say Mark Goodacre and Richard Carrier’s position, that Luke simply used Mark and Matthew)? If so, can you post the link to it? Or if not, I’d like to put that in as a request for a future post. I’ve only ever seen you summarise the basic grounds, but I’d love to delve a little deeper in the question of the Q hypothesis, in particular why you think the Goodacre/Carrier position is wrong. But hey, take it as just one more of a thousand other requests! haha!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

      I don’t think I’d name Richard Carrier in the same sentence as Mark Goodacre! Carrier is not a NT scholar by training or expertise. Anyway, it’s a great question. I’ll have to devote a post or two to it…..

      • Avatar
        toejam  June 26, 2013

        Haha. I agree actually. Carrier is not my cup of tea either. And that’s putting it politely. But I named him because he and Goodacre are pretty much on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to popular literature on historical Jesus, and yet they both reject Q for more or less the same reasons. I have to say, after listening to Goodacre’s podcast on the topic, his argument does sound compelling.

      • Avatar
        Peter  June 27, 2013


        Speaking of him whose name I won’t mention (!), do you know whether his claims about the references made by Josephus to Jesus and James have been examined by experts in the field yet?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

          Experts have worked on the issue for a long time, before the nameless one saw the light of day. Most agree that the *core* of the testimonia are Josephan.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 26, 2013

    I particularly like the point that an eyewitness would not have copied large portions of Mark.

  3. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  June 26, 2013

    I have what may be an “off the wall question.” Do we really know how to pronounce correctly the names of the early Christians: Papias, Ireneus, etc.? Sometimes I hear them pronounced differently (I think). Moreover, most of us have read about them, but have never or consistently heard them pronounced in a scholarship setting. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

      Well, theree are standard pronunciatiouns that scholars use, based on the way they pronounce ancient languages, esp. Greek and Latin.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 26, 2013

    I don’t doubt that the author was someone other than Matthew. Are you going to tell us what type of person you think did write it? I’ve believed (based on things I’d read or heard) that this Gospel was intended more for Jewish readers, and was written by someone with a Jewish background. Hostile not toward “the Jews,” as might be assumed from the “His blood be on us and our children” line, but toward the Jewish priests who’d supposedly influenced that crowd.

    But when I think about it, why would someone writing in Greek, circa 80 CE, have expected a Jewish or Jewish-background readership? And why, after that lapse of time, would he have cared about the attitude of the Jewish priests?

  5. Avatar
    brandyrose  June 26, 2013

    The Papias stuff is confusing to me, so let me restate and you correct me please:

    Papias was either 1) passing on a rumor and Matthew did not write any sayings down, 2) talking about a book written by Matthew in Aramaic that doesn’t exisit any longer or 3) talking about a book written by someone claiming to be Matthew in Aramaic that doesn’t exisit any longer? In no case, though, was he talking about “our” Matthew?

    Thanks for this information; very illuminating!

  6. Avatar
    mjeffery  June 26, 2013

    Is it safe to think that Paul would have mentioned the gospel of Matthew or any other gospel besides his good news from old testament scriptures? Paul’s writings are earlier than the earliest gospels. Might we investigate the reason for the accepted canonized gospels cropped up after Paulinian epistles to try and humanize his Jesus? What is wrong in going this direction? Seems Paul should have known about a earthly Jesus and not just keep pointing to the Jesus of old testament scriptures which were revealed to him. And if he knew of a earthly Jesus, wouldn’t the gospels also have been circulating during his life? But, the evidence does not seem to support that concept. In fact, if the people Jesus called to follow him were actually commoners, they would not know how to write or read most likely. To attribute the gospel of Matthew to a well educated Matthew is to attribute it to some other Matthew, not a disciple. Maybe a Matthew from some time after Paul who had Paul’s epistles and humanized the fictitious Christ while having the gospel attributed to a Mark with him. Exciting prospects ….

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

      I’m not *quite* sure what you’re asking. But in any event, Paul did know and talk about an earthly Jesus.

  7. Avatar
    ktn3654  June 26, 2013

    Let me present a conjectural scenario. Maybe the historical Matthew was actually the original compiler of the Q document. In this scenario, Q would originally have been composed in Aramaic. Then someone else translated it into Greek, and finally it was used as a source for what we now call the Gospel according to Matthew. This seems to fit pretty well with what Papias says. Maybe the anonymous author of the Gospel passed on the information that it was partly based on records compiled by Matthew, so the name of Matthew eventually became attached to the Gospel itself.

    One piece of evidence for this scenario is that Matthew himself isn’t really such a prominent figure in any of the Gospels. If the point of attributing the Gospel to him was just to give it some sort of apostolic authority, why not go all the way and attribute it to Peter or James?

    Also, literacy isn’t an all-or-nothing matter. Even if tax collectors weren’t likely to write sophisticated Aramaic, surely you have to admit they would have been far more likely than fishermen to possess some extremely basic literacy. And Q, as reconstructed, seems like the sort of thing someone with very basic literacy might have produced.

    I know that this scenario is pretty much unprovable, but it seems plausible enough to me. I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      Yup, it’s all possible. But then again, most things are! The issue is always whether there is any *evidence*. Q appears to have originated in Greek, and is not probably Palestinian in origin. So that’s a problem.

      I’d say the evidence is dead-set against fishermen in rural Galilee being literate. I think we just don’t know about Matthew, but it seems pretty unlikely, given what we know. (Lots of books, by the way, are attributed to apostles other than Peter, James, and Paul! It’s just something Christians did….)

  8. Avatar
    joshua  June 26, 2013

    Prof. Ehrman:
    Just a question:
    1) Surely Josephus’s nemesis, Justus Tiberias was also a Galilean Jew who wrote in literary Greek. I understand your arguments regarding this tax collector fellow but not for Galilean Jews.
    2) Can you please address what you think regaring George Howard’s work on the “original Hebrew” version of Matthew. I’ve seen that some scholars accept some of his ideas that Shem Tov Ibn Shaprut was not simply translating from the GK and Latin but had a Hebrew version.
    With much thanks!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      1. Good question. I don’t know about Justus Tiberias’s language. Why do you think it was Greek? (a genuine question)
      2. I don’t think Howard won many converts; Shem Tov is very very late; it can’t really be representative of a text earlier than our Greek. For full introductoin to the issues, you may want to look at Allison/Davies Introduction to their 3-volume commentary on Matthew.

      • Avatar
        joshua  June 28, 2013

        1) Thanks so much for responding! I grant that we can’t be totally sure what language his works were originally in but at least we can say: “Justus came from a respected Tiberian family, and that “he did not lack Greek culture,” as Josephus himself admits. Justus’ name and that of his father (Pistus) also attest Hellenistic influence, and he was, moreover, appointed private secretary to *Agrippa II, a post which obviously demanded a thorough command of Greek. (A. Schalit, Encyclopedia Judaica).
        So he knew and could write the language presumably on somewhat of a high level.
        2) Thanks for the reference! It’s neat that scholars running from Dr. James Tabor to Craig Evans have recognized that Shem Tov can’t be understood as simply a translation.

  9. Avatar
    dikelmm  June 26, 2013

    You mentioned that the Gospel attributed to Matthew is dated “around 80-85 CE.” How do scholars arrive at such relatively precise dating of the Gospels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2013

      Well, it refers to the destruction of the Temple, so it must be some time after 70. It appears to be used by other Christian writings at the very beginning of the 2nd century. So half way in between, just to be safe on one side or the other, 80-85 seems reasonable.

  10. Avatar
    hwl  June 26, 2013

    Apart from the Qumran Scrolls and Josephus, do we have any other extant literary works by Palestinian Jews in the 1st century? Given the paucity of such works in any language, then surely it is not surprising no Greek literary work survives? When the Romans burnt down the Temple, presumably they would have destroyed a lot of literary works – perhaps some of these were in Greek. Some of highly fragmentary Qumran Scrolls are in Greek and do not correspond to any extant Greek texts – presumably the Essenes could have composed these works themselves. What do you think of my theory?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      We have some of the apocryphal works by anonymous authors. But the paucity of such works is part of the bigger point: hardly anyone could or did write! some of the Essenes certainly could.

      • Avatar
        hwl  June 28, 2013

        Could the paucity of extant literary works from 1st century Palestine owe more to the destruction of the Temple – the centre of Jewish life and presumably the repository of the nation’s literary works – than the rarity of literacy? Could the Essenes be viewed as a counter-example to the thesis that only the elite of society were literate: they were living on the fringe of Jewish of society and were not aristocratic nor wealthy, yet treasured and wrote their literary works.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2013

          Interesting question. But I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that there were books kept in the Temple. It’s say, in fact, that they almost certainly weren’t, given what we know about it. But yes, the Essenes had literate members, as some of them served as scribes.

  11. Avatar
    dfogarty1  June 27, 2013

    Is it safe to say that Mathew was writing to a mostly Jewish audience, mostly trying to convert Jews; while John
    and his audience were Gentiles or Jewish
    outcasts who had given up on Jews?

  12. Avatar
    billgraham1961  June 27, 2013

    This really clears things up for me on Matthew and Mark according to Papias’ statements. It also helps me to understand that Mark was written originally in Greek, not Aramaic as I had previously assumed. I can also see how and why the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic. But I have one question. Why are there traces of Aramaic in the gospels such as “talitha koum” and “Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani”? Could they have been from oral tradition or another source? I’ve probably asked a question along these lines before, but I would appreciate some further clarification on it. Oh, and I appreciate you correcting me in the past on Mark not using the Q source, but Matthew using it. It’s all very helpful.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      Where there are traces of Aramaic we have indications that this particular story started out early on in the movement, among Jesus’ followers in Palestine, and that hte story came to be translated later into Greek, where the “punchlines” were left in the original, to pack an even better punch.

  13. Avatar
    Adam0685  June 27, 2013

    What is your general response to the arguments of Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony`É

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2013

      My *general* response is that I can’t disagree more! I hope to write a book on it some day.

  14. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  June 28, 2013

    So everything I learned growing up in Sunday School about the authorship of the Gospels, is a lie. Where *do* fundamentalist Christians (and fund. Christian ‘scholars’) get the idea that the Gospels were actually written by their namesakes??

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2013

      I’d say there’s a very real and importance difference between a “lie” and an “untruth.”

  15. Avatar
    Mohy  March 10, 2014

    I have a question to help me understand could it be the Mark is the one copying from Matthew ?
    is there any chance of that ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 11, 2014

      There’s a *chance*, but not a good one. If Matthew was first, and Mark was copying, then you’d have to explain why he left out so much material. The obvious answer is that he wanted to abbreviate Matthew’s version. But the problem is that when they tell the same story, Mark’s is usually *longer* than Matthew’s version. So he’s clearly not abbreviating. So, well, it doesn’t make sense. More likely Matthew was expanding Mark.

  16. Avatar
    Venzen007  July 9, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When I hear “the Gospel according to Matthew” or something similar, I don’t naturally hear Matthew as the author with someone else giving an otherwise title-less work an appropriate title. I naturally hear that someone has written down Matthew’s version, whether direct from Matthew or through some oral tradition they associated with Matthew, and titled their work accordingly. I then wonder whether such a person could have used other available gospel sources to beef up what might have otherwise been a scant gospel, given maybe limited information available from Matthew. Are you aware of any evidence against such a scenario?

    The part that feels the weakest to me is the suggestion that the names (titles) were added between 150ish (Justin) and 180ish (Irenaeus) CE based on Irenaeus being the first surviving source to mention the names and the absence of earlier named manuscripts when all full manuscripts we do have are named and named consistently. I can reasonably see Justin considering the gospels as a collective of a single story (memoirs of the apostles) rather than distinct versions to differentiate between.

    What would you say is the strongest evidence for the Gospels being assigned names at some later time?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 10, 2020

      I suppose the strongest evidence is that the titles on them are not titles, they are not called by these names even when they are quoted at an earlier time, and the alleged authors almost certainly did not write them. The version of events in Matthew’s account almost certainly don’t come from Matthew jesus’ disciple, since much of it comes directly from Mark’s Gospel, and it seems implausible that an eyewitness would not simply tell his own version of events as opposed to copying the accounts found in an earlier version.

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