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When Was Matthew Called Matthew?

For years I agreed with those scholars who claim that we have very early “evidence” that the Gospel of Matthew was actually written by Matthew, the tax-collector who was a disciple of Jesus. I no longer think so. Let me give some of the relevant information.

The anonymity of this author – as is true for the other three NT Gospels as well, was respected by Christians for decades. When the Gospels of the New Testament are alluded to and quoted by authors of the early second century, they are never entitled, never named. Even Justin Martyr, writing around 150-60 CE, quotes verses from the Gospels, but does not indicate what the Gospels were named. For Justin, these books are simply known, collectively, as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” It was about a century after the Gospels had been originally put in circulation that this book was called Matthew, and the others were called Mark, Luke, and John. This comes, for the first time, in the writings of the church father and heresy-hunter Irenaeus, around 180-85 CE.


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Was the Author of Matthew Matthew?
The Identity of “Matthew”



  1. toejam  June 25, 2013

    Good stuff. Correction: In the sixth paragraph, don’t you mean to say the “early second century”, not “early third”? It is interesting to see the trend from the anonymity of Mark and Matthew, to the hints at authorship in Luke and John, to the full blown dubiously specified authors of the non-canonical gospels (Thomas and Peter, for example). I’d also like to ask: Do you think it’s possible/plausible that Papias was actually refering to the Gospel of Thomas (or an earlier form of Thomas) or Q? Seems very plausible to me that the original gospels were sayings gospels that were later given narrative structures, as the memory of Jesus’ life and deeds began to fade.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      Yup, second century! If Papias was referring either to Q or Thomas, then these were not in the form we know them: they exist (well, Q doesn’t exist…) only in Greek. And nothing in the tradition connects Matthew with either one.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  June 26, 2013

        We have a small amount of the gospel of Thomas in Greek; mainly it has been preserved in Coptic.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

          Sorry, my bad. Yes, indeed, we have Greek fragments, much earlier than the 4th century Nag Hammadi Coptic (complete) copy.

  2. toddfrederick  June 25, 2013

    I’m going to ask a question that may or may not be relevant to the above blog, but one which was stimulated by the current discussion, especially in that the Gospels required apostolic authority. This question does not deal with ancient issues but is contemporary….so, if you want to give a response I would appreciate it but if you think such is out of your field or way off topic, I understand.

    You come from a tradition that affirms that the whole of the Bible (the book itself) is divinely inspired and, to the extreme, is the inerrant and infallible Word (or words) of God dictated word for word by god himself.

    Where did this notion originate? It does not seem to be an ancient doctrine….that is, I guess it’s called, Sola Scriptura.

    I ask this because over the past few years this has been much in the news with regard to those who hold this view and use it now days to try to influence public policy and enforce personal behavior. ..especially through the thought and the activities and proclamations of the radical Christian right wing….
    The Bible Says” sort of thing.

    I am very much aware of the Fundamentalist declarations in 1920 through the Southern Baptist convention and the two brothers who published the pamphlets of the ten fundamentals, and even a more recent declaration that the King James Version of 1611 (King James Only” movement) was also divinely inspired as the authorized version again by god’s personal authorization….as my mother would say The Saint James Bible.”

    I view the Bible as just another book that records the history of a small group of people and their efforts to understand themselves and their place in the universe giving rise to the foundation of two great religious movements..

    Whoever started this insane idea that the Bible contains the inerrant and infallible words of God?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      You might want to read the books by George Marsden on the rise of fundamentalism. Short answer is that these views of the Bible are normally traced back to the Niagra Conference held periodically in the late 19th century.

      • toddfrederick  June 26, 2013

        Another question related to this and to your study of early documents:

        When the writings about Jesus were first written and circulated did they, in any way, carry a sense of sacredness as is viewed by many in contemporary society…that they were inspired by God….and what would make them sacred or inspired?

        I would suppose that such would come from the early church fathers and how they viewed what eventually became the Canon.

        I would guess that the writers themselves, such as the writer of Matthew or the letters of Paul were not viewed as sacred writings at the time they were written.

        When did these writings become considered inspired sacred writings (if such can be determined). Thank you.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

          I think the answer is no. The Christian writings were not seen as Scriptural authority (on a par with the Hebrew Bible) until some years after they were written; in some cases, though, they were regarded as sacred already by the end of the 1st century and beginning of the second (thus 1 Tim 5:18 and 2 Pet. 3:16)

          • Jdavis3927  July 2, 2013

            Hey Bart, Since you believe, or at least I think you believe, that 2 Timothy was not written by Paul, do you think that 2 Tim 3:16 could possibly be referring to writings that did not make it into the canon?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 2, 2013

            No, I think it must refer to the Jewish Scriptures.

    • Robertus
      Robertus  June 26, 2013

      You can find a kind of belief in inerrancy already in Augustine:

      “… I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.”


  3. FrancisDunn  June 25, 2013

    Dr Ehrman..I read somewhere, many years ago that Mathews gospel was written for a Jewish audience and Mark for the Greeks and Luke for the Romans. Is there any evidence that would point to this? I read this somewhere long before the internet; maybe late 60’s early 70’s.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      I’ll be dealing with Matthew in my posts. There’s really limited evidence whom Mark was for, other than Greek speaking non-Jews; Luke is an interesting case, but I think it’s too simple to say that it was principally for Romans. I may get into that at some point.

  4. RonaldTaska  June 25, 2013

    Really good post. The question of whether or not the Gospels are eyewitness accounts is crucial. Keep going.
    Minor point: The second sentence of the paragraph regarding the “budding evangelical scholar” should be early “second” not early “third” century.

  5. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  June 25, 2013

    The actual Matthew would not have copied Mark to write his own personal account located in Matthew 9:9-13. Seems to be a good reason if you believe in the priority of Mark. What percentage of scholars believe in the priority of Matthew?

  6. Robertus
    Robertus  June 25, 2013

    Do you have any doubts that Papias was referring to what is now known as the gospel of Mark?

    I have up until now assumed that he is referring to our gospel of Mark, but that does not, of course, imply that what he reports about the gospel should be assumed to be accurate. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth that the gospel originated in Rome or was later more distributed widely from Rome and some wanted to give it some authority by linking the place of origin or distribution with Petrine authority.

    Minor correction: “In the early third [second] century, …

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 25, 2013

      Yes, I think that if he was not talking about our Matthew (as he appears not to have been doing) then he probably wasn’t referring to our Mark either.

  7. EricBrown  June 25, 2013

    “For Irenaeus, just as the gospel of Christ has been spread by the four winds of heaven over the four corners of the earth, so there must be four and only four Gospels, and they are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Against Heresies, 3, 7, 11).

    Modern readers may not find this kind of logic very compelling…”

    Until Copernicus, etc, (and later for most folks), the earth was the center of the universe, and there were seven planets (things that moved in the sky relative to the the fixed celestial (starfield) sphere). These were the Sun, the moon, venus, mercury, mars, jupiter and saturn.

    When Galileo observed a moon around jupiter (which, also moving relative to the stars, would be a “planet” by the old defintion), this was rejected out of hand by many of the greatest minds of the day, not by experimental evidence but by the most obvious of refutations: there could be no more planets because there were no more than seven holes in the human head (2 ears, 2 eyes, 2 nostrils, and 1 mouth). QED.

  8. bobnaumann  June 25, 2013

    “In the early third century, just 40 years or so after Matthew was written, we have a church father…..”. Pardon my math, but was Matthew written after 160 CE?

  9. mjeffery  June 26, 2013

    Isn’t it just as reasonable to think the synoptic Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses at all but, merely fed off of Mark and embellished the author of Marks’ work in their own literary way? Since Paul’s epistles only mention a celestial Jesus and fed off of the Old Testament presuppositions of a Messiah, couldn’t the epistles also help bring in the humanized Jesus Messiah? Acts seems to attempt to tie them together, even with its poor history. In other words, the New Testament sequence should be the Epistles (Jesus of Paul), The Gospels (Paul’s Jesus humanized) then Acts (the connecting tissue). It seems like story board collection of writings. Papyrus dating seems to back this up.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

      Yes, I don’t think the Gospels were by eyewitnesses — just the contrary. But I also think that Paul understood Jesus to be a real human being. (He was born, he was a Jew, he had brothers, he was crucified, and so on — all in Paul.)

      • mjeffery  July 3, 2013

        Wasn’t Paul’s only knowledge of seeing a Jesus, a celestial one on the road to Damascus? That is not a Jesus of flesh and blood. Yes, he later humanized his vision which most likely came from more prophesies. Jesus was a popular name at the time since Josephus mentions 5 in his writings. So, why wouldn’t Paul use the name Jesus? He knew it is a name shared with a popular Septuagint figure of Joseph (Hebrew: יוֹסֵף ‎, Standard Yosef Tiberian Yôsēp̄; “May Yahweh add”; Arabic: يوسف‎, Yūsuf ). Didn’t Joseph have brothers? Again, with Paul setting the stage, the pieces just needed to be added to create the Judeo Christ Religion. Just like Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source …. the embellishments to Paul’s writings needed to be added because of the gaps. Some Gnostic Christ Child books exist, but are embellished too much for acceptance, except to the fundamental Catholic.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 3, 2013

          Paul does use the name Jesus. No, he didn’t know him, but he knew his brother and his closest disciples. I’d suggest you look at my book Did Jesus Exist?

          • mjeffery  July 3, 2013

            You had said that the best history is history written at the time of the event and that there were multiple individual and non-collaborated observations of the same event. I am placing the very real and most likely probability that Paul knew and interacted with James and Peter and they collaboration with each other and without writings that were written at the time of the events they postulate. Basically, Acts and in other places show them collaborating. Paul’s celestial Jesus needed to be made into a person, James and Peter play their part to make him look real. Many do not believe that James is actually a brother. Catholic historians say he is a half brother or cousin. So, even the likelihood that James is a brother is very suspect. Placing weight on a “James as Jesus brother” is very questionable. Therefore, the story still seems made up. Even the writings from the supposed illiterate common people as mentioned in Acts, makes it seem even more suspect. From the view of ancient Hellenistic Religion this seems like another synchronicity but of Jewish Messianic origins.

      • mjeffery  July 9, 2013

        Did you mean all in his “as it is written in scriptures”, the Old Testament and existing Apocrypha since the gospels were not around yet.? Jesus was a name added to the person in old testament prophesies as the one to come.

  10. mjeffery  June 26, 2013

    Both Justin Martyr and Papias seemed to have given validity in their own minds of the gnostic gospels as well. Do we consider non-canonized orators and apologists of gnostic works as valid when talking about the canonized gospels? Seems that they should be put in the pot with the Gnostics. If anything they prove the likelihood and unlikely plausibility of any historical Jesus ever existing. But, point to a combination of Greco/Roman deities with Old Testament Messianic prophecies. They take on wild mythical adoration’s like in the Christ child Apocrypha’s of Jesus and other mythical elements.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 26, 2013

      No, I dont’ believe Papias or Justin approves of any gnostic Gospels. What do you have in mind from their writings?

      • mjeffery  July 3, 2013

        I’m defining Gnostic as a sense of someone thinking they have a knowledge that no one else has except through a divine or spiritual sense. Justin Martyr’s First Apology discussed the Eucharist and Transubstantiation which was not discuses in any other earlier writing that we know of. Again, Paul mentions a communion, but Justyn embellishes it. These are concepts by gnosis and not reason, logic, fact or science. Yes, I’m saying most of what Catholics believe is actually Gnostic in many ways (ie. Vicar of Jesus the Pope). Paul’s encounter is a Gnostic encounter. Only Paul says he heard it …. the others heard nothing. It is a self-imposed Gnostic experience.

      • mjeffery  July 3, 2013

        Mark 4:11-12
        New International Version (NIV)
        11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
        “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
        and ever hearing but never understanding;
        otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

        Verse 12 is a quote from Isaiah 6:9, 10
        Isn’t this a call to become a Gnostic or to partake into a Gnosticism? “Secrets” and in other passages say revelation or special revelation. Just the concept that there are mysteries revealed must lead one to think about what “reveal” or “mystery” means and who, if only a special select people, it would be considered gnostic. Just less gnostic than the Apocrypha or Gnostic Gospels, non-the-less they are Gnostic’s.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 4, 2013

          I don’t believe “Gnosticism” existed at the time Mark was writing.

          • mjeffery  July 8, 2013

            I’m basically saying Paul and the Gospel Writers are the Gnostic primer which helped the other embellishments which were rejected, so that a canon could occur. But, even the Catholics hold to the apocrypha which are rejected by some due to there Gnostic overtones.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

            I don’t think there are any gnostic overtones in the Apocrypha.

          • mjeffery  July 9, 2013

            Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”) is the term given to a philosophical movement that flourished between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE. Gnosticism placed the emphasis of life and salvation upon the obtaining of knowledge (Greek gnosis), which was deemed Truth, and removing ignorance or error. The movement itself was very splintered and had multiple schools: Gnostic groups incorporated Platonic and Zoroastrian (Magi) philosophies, and in the late first century CE, many of these groups incorporated Christian and Jewish thought and practice into their philosophies. Is this a fair and accurate definition and time frame of the Gnostic’s?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

            Gnosticism is very complicated. If you want a very recent and authoritative treatment, read David Brakke’s new book.

          • mjeffery  July 10, 2013

            What is your definition of Gnostic? Mine is “believer in a mystical religious doctrine of spiritual knowledge,” from Late Latin Gnosticus, from Late Greek Gnostikos, noun use of adj. gnostikos “knowing, able to discern,” from gnostos “knowable,” from gignoskein “to learn, to come to know” “relating to knowledge,” from Greek gnostikos “knowing, able to discern,” from gnostos “known, perceived, understood,” from gignoskein “to learn, to come to know” Wouldn’t you say that pre-Christians and Christians that believed these things are also Gnostic. You aren’t saying the canon New Testament doesn’t have Gnostic undertones are you?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2013

            It would take an entire post to give an adequeate definition of Gnostic. The problem with your definition is that it is so broad it has all sorts of non-Gnostics labeled as Gnostics. I’d suggeest some reading: Michael Williams, Rethinking Gnosticism; Karen King, What is Gnosticism; and now David Brakke, The Gnostics. You’ll see the issues and the problems of definition.

      • mjeffery  July 3, 2013

        Galatians 1:12
        “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

        If you were to announce something that came to you and you wanted to share it and have validity
        given to it, wouldn’t you proclaim special revelation to just you? Isn’t Paul saying he is has knosis?
        He never claims to have met a flesh and blood Jesus nor that flesh and blood men gave him this information. To me, it is clear, he is a cult leader and proclaiming it. David Koresh couldn’t have done it better. Of course Paul had others and church leaders to promote the ideas and fabricate the stories behind them. Now all you need is a collaborating Timothy and a “brother” or “cousin” or “step brother” James to help euhemerize Paul’s Jesus.

  11. mjeffery  July 9, 2013

    Would you consider the Book of Enoch, which is quoted from in Jude 1:14 & 15, as a Gnostic Book? It was written before the Epistles and the Gospels. If so, I stand on the most likely possibility that Paul is merely another Gnostic. Given secret revelations to share with others (or so he self proclaims). He did not know a real Jesus because there wasn’t one. He invented one and had collaboration with others to do it. Therefore, because there was no written history at the actual time of said Jesus and there was collaboration to invent the stories it is safe to conclude it is a made up fiction story?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

      No, it is not Gnostic. It embodies a form of Jewish apocalypticism.

      • mjeffery  July 11, 2013

        Thank you for your suggested books on the Gnostic’s.
        So, you are saying that the Jewish books, most probably the Septuagint, influenced Paul to write about the prophesied messiah as already come. There are around 400 references to this Jewish Messiah apocalypse written in the Old Testament and a mixture of others in the Apocryphal books, Enoch for example. Could Paul have used those writings and maybe even Homer’s to construct the messiah? Again, with no eyewitnesses and most probably collaboration from the other writers?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

          I don’t think Paul came up with the idea of a messiah; the followers of Jesus were calling him that before Paul converted (which was the main reason Paul was opposed to and persecuting them.) I don’t thinki Homer or other Greek authors played any role in the development of christological views early on.

          • mjeffery  July 12, 2013

            There were no followers of Jesus before Paul or his followers as far as we know. Paul’s writings are the earliest indication of a Messiah or Jesus. He could have made up persecuting them, we have no evidence that he actually did. Except from his story collaborators. The Old Testament which Paul was familiar with did have a Messiah long before Paul or any supposed followers before Paul. I think it is possible that Paul made up the religion of the Messiah from his familiarity of the Old Testament Messiah. There were many Jesus’s and others proclaiming to be the Messiah. The Hebrew word mashiach (“anointed”) is used in the Old Testament to identify a person in special relationship to God. The non-technical use of the term is simply to designate “one anointed”
            [with oil and/or the Holy Spirit], but especially one who had been set apart by God and enabled for a
            special task. For example, the term is employed variously with respect to kings (Saul): 1 Samuel 24:7,
            11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Samuel 1:14, 16 (cf. 1 Samuel 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; Psalm 28:8), (David): 2
            Samuel 19:22; 22:51; 23:1; Psalm 2:2; 20:7; 84:10; 89:39, 52; 132:10, 17 (cf. 18:51), (Solomon): 2
            Chronicles 6:42, (Zedekiah): Lamentations 4:20; of patriarchs: Psalm 105:15; 1 Chronicles 16:22;
            foreign rulers – Cyrus, the Persian king: Isaiah 45:1; Israel: Habakkuk 3:3 (cf. Psalm 28:8); priests: Lev.
            4:3, 5, 16; 16:15; and prophets: Psalm 105:15; 1 Chronicles 16:22. Paul knew these passages, found people to collaborate, started his own sect, with his created Messiah Jesus. James, Jude, Peter all became part of the story. The Gospels for whom we do not know the actual authors went back in time from the Paul Messiah and made up, though poorly, a living Messiah. Acts tries to tie the Gospels to Paul. Even though it is poor history of Paul’s own epistles. Paul probably never knew who wrote the gospels since he was dead by that time but, his letters would have helped whoever wrote the gospels and Acts to try and humanize Paul’s religion. Today, many think it is one work but I fully disagree with them. They are made up stories all the way around. Paul’s Old Testament Messiah Jesus was partially brought to life by him and embellished by the gospel and Acts writers.

  12. schaffce  March 6, 2014

    Except for the fact the only texts we have of MATTHEW are in Greek, what is the evidence that supports the conclusion that MATTHEW was originally written in Greek and is not a translation from Hebrew? I suspect the evidence is that, if it were a translation from Greek, the Greek translations we have would differ significantly from each other, unless only one translation was made, and all subsequent Greek texts derive from that one translation and there is no known Hebrew text of MATTHEW. Have Greek language scholars/linguists analyzed the Greek text and provided linguistic evidence that the syntax/diction/sentence structure is native Greek vice following Hebrew syntax/diction/sentence structure? Your colleague from Yale Prof. Martin has said MATTHEW reads like a translation. Is it that obvious?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      Are you sure Dale Martin says that?

      Matthew is almost certainly an original Greek composition. The reason: it has word-for-word agreements, in the Greek, with its source, Mark, which was itself written in Greek. So Matthew must have known it in Greek and copied it … in Greek!

      • schaffce  March 6, 2014

        In his Open Yale University online course, class on MATTHEW, he makes that comment. He doesn’t provide examples to support the assertion. But it clearly makes no sense that someone translating from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek would recognize that the Hewbrew author had borrowed from the Mark Greek text and then went back to that original Greek source, tracked down the original Greek sentence, and put it in the Greek translated Hebrew text. He would have just done his own translation from Hebrew into Greek and the translation would have differed from the Original Mark source. Thank you for answering the question!

        • schaffce  March 6, 2014

          I got my cables crossed. He says it clearly does not read like a translation. Sorry about that.

          • schaffce  March 6, 2014

            Again I appologize for crossing my cables. Out of deference for Prof. Martin and as a way of expiating my sin of misquoting him, Prof Martin says in lecture two, section on Formation of the Cannons, 23:00 “All of us who know Greek and know Hebrew can tell that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. It doesn’t look like a translation from Hebrew.”

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

            Ah, that’s what I thought!

      • bamurray  March 6, 2014

        On a different topic, you and others have mentioned that Papias was quoted as describing a “Matthew” (presumably different from our Matthew) that consisted (IIRC) of Hebrew sayings that Peter remembered Jesus saying. What are the chances that this set of Hebrew sayings was in fact the Q document?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

          Q was almost certainly written in Greek, and is not connected with Matthew by name, and so is probably not what Papias was referring to.

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