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Why Was The Gospel of Matthew Attributed to Matthew?

I have now gotten to a point where I can discuss why the four Gospels were specifically given the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   Recall the most important points of my preceding posts on the blog so far:  the Gospels were all written anonymously and they circulated anonymously, for years and decades; we have no certain evidence that they – these particular Gospels — were called by their familiar names until around 180 CE, in sources connected with Rome (Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment); my hypothesis is that an edition of these four Gospels was published in Rome sometime between Justin in 150-60 CE (he quotes the Gospels but does not name them) and Irenaeus in 180-85 CE.  That edition gave these Gospels their now-familiar names.

If all that is correct, then there is no reason to think that people widely associated them with their familiar names before that.   The reason this became a widespread tradition is that it was started by a single editor – possibly based, of course, on things being said in his church or the wider Christian community (on that we have no evidence); once this edition took root, its views proved completely amenable to Christians in Rome, and the tradition spread from there.

So why call the books “according to Matthew,” “according to Mark,” “according to Luke,” and “according to John”?   The first point to note is the obvious one.  Two of these books are assigned to disciples of Jesus, and two to companions of the apostles who are then “representatives’ of these apostles – strikingly, Peter and Paul, the two most important figures in the early church (Mark was thought to be Peter’s companion and secretary; Luke was Paul’s traveling companion), and thought, by tradition, to be the principal apostles precisely of Rome, where this edition was created.  And so, in these two Gospels, we have the witness of Jesus’ disciples and of Peter and Paul.

But what more can we say?  First I’ll talk about the two disciples, Matthew and John.

In my view …


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Why Was the Gospel of John Attributed to John?
Do Textual Variants Really Matter for Anything?



  1. Avatar
    Scott  December 1, 2014

    Are you going to address the question of why anyone would attribute two of the gospels to the somewhat lesser authority of the buddies of the eyewitnesses (or buddies of non-witnesses in the case of Luke!) when they didn’t hesitate to attribute the other two to actual disciples of Jesus?

  2. Avatar
    J.J.  December 1, 2014

    Just curious… I haven’t seen you mention the Diatessaron in your scenario about a mid-II Roman four-gospel canon. Do you think Tatian did this before or after your scenario?… and in what language?… and where?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2014

      I’m a dilettante when it comes to Diatessaronic studies. It’s a hugely complicated field. I suspect Tatian’s work was at about the same time or just after the edition I’m imagining. One of the big questions is whether he used other sources in addition to the four, and if he did it in Rome or back in Syria. My hunch is that it was originally in Greek, but the matter is debated.

  3. Avatar
    bonnie43uk  December 1, 2014

    It still baffles me that Jesus himself didn’t write anything. He supposedly came down from heaven with a message of such importance for mankind, yet left it up to others to spread his message. How was the population of the planet any different the day after the crucifixion?, life went on none the wiser all over the world for hundreds and hundreds of years.

  4. Avatar
    webattorney  December 1, 2014

    When you say other Gospels mention the tax collector disciple as “Levi” rather than Matthew, which specific Gospels are you referring to?

  5. Avatar
    Jason  December 2, 2014

    What would it really mean for an edition to be “published” between 150-190 CE? How many copies of a version of a collection would that include, and would it be seen as a special discrete version of a scripture yet, or would it be more like “the copy Zack made of the book Ismail had?”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2014

      Being “published” simply meant having a copy made and distributed to someone else.

  6. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  December 2, 2014

    The possibility has already been discussed here that maybe what Matthew “wrote” was what we now know as Q. It’s not clear to me that Matthew would have needed to be literate to be the source of Q. I can picture an elderly Matthew sitting down with a young scribe and reminiscing about all the things he’d heard Jesus say. It would be natural for the resulting document to resemble Q–a lot of rather disconnected sayings with no narrative framework. Anyway, that scenario sounds more plausible to me than a rumor arising about Matthew’s authorship for no reason whatsoever.

    On a semi-related note, do you buy the theory that the author(s) of the Didache actually had a copy of Q and used it as their scripture?

  7. Avatar
    fishician  December 2, 2014

    A basic reason for rejecting the first Gospel as being written by the tax collector Matthew is that tax collectors ought to be able to count. If you read “Matthew’s” genealogy of Jesus he supposedly records 3 sets of 14 generations. But the numbers don’t add up! No matter how you try to slice it, he comes up either one short in one set, one too many in another. Some tax collector!

  8. Avatar
    JBSeth1  December 2, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    At some point, will you also go over why critical scholars believe that the original 4 gospels were written, when they were?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2014

      Explain a bit more what the question is?

      • Avatar
        JBSeth1  December 2, 2014

        Hi Bart,

        Why do scholars believe that Mark was written roughly around 65CE and why do scholars believe that John, which comes from a separate tradition, was written later?



        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2014

          Ah, that would take a long post. In fact, I’ve devoted one to it: https://ehrmanblog.org/dates-of-the-gospels/ It may not give you all you want, but it’s a start.

          • Avatar
            JBSeth1  December 8, 2014

            Hi Bart,

            Thanks for your response. This was exactly what I was looking for 🙂

            In your comments on this subject on May 07 2012, you said, “There are solid reasons, that I won’t go into here, for thinking that Mark was the first Gospel to be written. ”

            Is this topic covered in one of your Blog posts or perhaps in one of your books? For some time now I’ve been curious as to why scholars came to believe that Mark was first.

            Thanks again.


          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2014

            I don’t think I’ve commented on this on the Blog. I’ll add it to my list of things to talk about!

  9. Avatar
    JohnHanley  December 2, 2014

    I’m with you, but I can imagine some wondering if an illiterate Aramaic-speaking person could dictate what he wanted his text to be to an Aramaic-and-Greek-speaking scribe, who would write down the dictated text in Aramaic and then translate it into Greek writing. I can image you saying this is possible in theory, but where’s the evidence that this ever occurred in antiquity? Do you know of any?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2014

      I’ve looked for evidence of this kind of thing happening, and haven’t been able to find it.

  10. Avatar
    jmmarine1  December 2, 2014

    I find the traditions that Luke was a travelling companion of Paul and Mark an interpreter of Peter quite odd. I have read many places that when Luke quotes Paul (or reproduces a speech) he usually has Paul say something quite different than we can find in Paul’s own letters. Besides, as you have pointed out, Luke/Acts does not have a Pauline idea of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, but that Mark does! I noted that James Tabor in his book on Paul and Jesus states that Mark is quite heavily in debt to Paul on his own perspective on Jesus’ death. I also saw that De Gruyter Press has recently published a 2 volume study on the influence of Paul on Mark’s Gospel: http://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/206432
    Strange how Paul shows little influence on Luke, yet a great deal on Mark, though Mark is believed to be the interpreter of Peter, and Luke of Paul. How is this possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      Yes, it’s a very intriguing question! But sometimes one’s best advocates are not the best representatives of one’s views!

  11. Rick
    Rick  December 2, 2014

    This comment may be entitled finding personal bias! I had for years “jumped to the conclusion” that a 1st century Tax Collector could not only count… but write – at least enough to record his collection activities as proof of his diligence to his .. treasurer. Guess that’s an ooops!

  12. Fearguth
    Fearguth  December 2, 2014

    One thing is for sure: that Christian who first attributed that anonymous gospel to Matthew, the tax collector, wasn’t a Republican.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 3, 2014

    This is really a great series of posts and I like the logic you use step-by-step. It once again raises the issue of how people make stuff up and then that stuff is considered to be absolute truth. This seems to happen again and again.

  14. mwferguson
    mwferguson  December 3, 2014

    Have you read Fabian Udoh’s “To Caesar what is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine (63 B.C.E.-70 C.E.),” Dr. Ehrman?

    In it, he discusses how Matthew the τελώνης (typically translated “tax collector”) was more specifically a “toll collector.” Now, Zacchaeus in Lk. 19:2 is described as a ἀρχιτελώνης (“chief toll collector”) and πλούσιος (“wealthy”), which means that Zacchaeus probably a higher level tax official (probably the wealthy man who bought the right to collect tolls).

    But, Matthew is just a regular τελώνης (“toll collector”), and, as you note, is described in Mt 9:9 to be working at the τελώνιον (“toll booth”). This would cast Matthew in the lesser of these occupational roles.

    Udoh also discusses how the collection of tolls in 1st century Galilee was leased out to Jewish contractors and agents, meaning that they almost certainly spoke Aramaic and used Aramaic for their records. The Gospel of Matthew, in contrast, was probably written in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine (probably in Antioch), which is why it is Koine Greek.

    I think it would be very likely for a low level toll collector to have authored this text half a century after he described (very briefly) to have met Jesus in Galilee. Makes much more sense that the text was misattributed to claim apostolic authorship and authority.

    • mwferguson
      mwferguson  December 3, 2014

      Sorry, typos:

      “which is why it is *in* Koine Greek.”

      “I *don’t* think it would be very likely for a low level toll collector to have authored this text half a century after he *is* described (very briefly) to have met Jesus in Galilee.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      I’m afraid I haven’t read it.

  15. Avatar
    toejam  December 6, 2014

    My best guess is that Q was originally believed to have been compiled by Matthew, and the Gospel of Matthew was attributed to Matthew because it was recognised to include that material (unlike Mark). I.e. It started off as being known as the Gospel that included the Matthean sayings (in order to distinguish it from Mark), but ended up being confused with the whole thing being composed by Matthew.

  16. Avatar
    Steefen  December 7, 2014

    Matthew could not have read the Gospel of Mark written in Greek. Why would an eyewitness to the life of Jesus compose an account of his recollections of Jesus’ life by borrowing on a book he could not even read? The book was not in written form until 80-85 C.E., anyway.

    In Matthew we have “Take and eat; this is my body. …Drink… this is my blood…” The key to understanding this metaphor is to consult Jewish scripture. Four keys open the door to understanding the metaphor: Leviticus 17: 10, Deuteronomy 28: 53-57, Jeremiah 19: 9, and Lamentations 4: 10.

    Leviticus 17: 10
    Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood—I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people.

    If Jesus made the metaphor, he was turning his disciples away from God’s face and separating them from God’s people.

    Jeremiah 19: 9
    I [the Lord Almighty] will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters and they will eat one another’s flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.

    Lamentations 4: 10
    With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children who became their food *when my people were destroyed.*

    Why would Jesus turn his disciples away from God when there was no siege, when the Jews were not being destroyed?

    The Jews were under siege *and* were being destroyed in AD 70. This is when the Lord’s Last Supper historically took place; or, you can go with a supernatural explanation that Jesus prophesied the siege and the destruction. However, already, scholars have said, no, Jesus did not prophesy the destruction of the Temple: the gospels were written during or after the Revolt. Therefore, the Last Supper also was written in time when Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed by rebels and Romans, not in AD30 but 40 years later.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  December 7, 2014

      So, it is unlikely that a Matthew or a Levi from 30 C.E. recited for oral tradition or wrote the Last Supper segment of the Gospel of Matthew.

  17. Avatar
    Steefen  December 7, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, I do not believe your argument holds up to scrutiny: 1) Hellenists and 2) Matthew/Levi and his oral tradition.

    We know there were Hellenists who were followers of Jesus. What? Four of them had Greek first names? Why couldn’t these four be the honor students of the 12 Disciples who hung out at Sepphoris? Who’s to say Jesus and his adopted father Joseph didn’t help on construction projects in Sephhoris before the gospel picks up Jesus’ life in his late 20s? People from “the country” can befriend intelligent people who can mentor them and cherish them. There are plenty of people who collect people.

    Stephen which means king can be an indicator that the martyred Stephen was actually a Hellenist king. He would have had the means to preserve biographical information, sayings of Jesus, wonders of Jesus in writing. This king certainly would have been an acquaintance of other royals in Jerusalem or in nearby regions: Queen Helena, Prince Izates, his brothers, maybe his sisters; Queen Ourania of Auranitis and her family tree. Queen Ourania is related to Cleopatra’s bloodline because it appears Cleopatra and Julius Caesar had a daughter in addition to the son who was assassinated.

    It is highly likely that while Jesus hung out with undesirables, he also hung out with the Hellenists who had begun to meet in their own groups and one was murdered for being a fan of Jesus. The New Testament gives an account of how a fan of Jesus “bothered” the disciples with questions until Jesus instructed a reply.

    True, the Jerusalem church did not step in to stop the stoning of Stephen but Stephen was speaking the business of Hellenists (we don’t need the Temple) not the tenets of Jewish Christians.

    As Jesus was a purist, Queen Helena and her son Prince Izaates were purists. The former took at least a 14 year vow in Judaism. The lives of Jesus, Queen Helena, and Prince Izaates crossed. In fact (in my book, The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy, 1st Edition), Jesus references Queen Helena’s husband, King Monobazus when he speaks of not storing earthly treasures where moths and thieves can get to them but store your treasures in heaven. Then how could Queen Helena turn her back on the mother of Jesus, in her sorrow, after Jesus’ crucifixion? Queen Helena would have come forth with sympathies, doing whatever she could to preserve the legacy of Jesus.

    Second, according to Acts, the disciples surviving Jesus’ ascension continued to meet at the Temple. There was an oral tradition of the gospel preserved there. Matthew’s memories were given testimony by Matthew then.

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 8, 2014

    I’m rereading these earlier posts on the various attributions. I recall that I had a question about this; but because I don’t doubt for a moment that you’re correct in saying “Matthew” didn’t write the Gospel, I didn’t ask my (rather silly) question. It’s still bugging me, though! So I’m going to ask it now.

    If Matthew was sitting in a booth collecting taxes, he obviously received payments from more than one person. If he was illiterate, how could he keep track of who was paying him what sum, so he could pass the information (along with the money) on to his superior?

    Let’s say he collected from twenty people. Ten owed the same amount; the others didn’t (if only because they owed back taxes – which they may or may not have been prepared to pay in their entirety). Five of the ten who owed the same amount didn’t have it all – and each one had a different portion of what he owed.

    Matthew could surely keep the twenty payments separate. But how could he possibly keep track of who’d paid each of those sums, if neither he nor the taxpayers could write?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2014

      I think your question is really one of how *anyone* who was illiterate in the ancient world could be engaged in business. They had ways of coping, since business was done, and it was done without massive literacy. What his actual method would have been is anyone’s guess.

  19. Avatar
    JohnKesler  December 15, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Have we discovered any early gospel manuscripts without authorial attribution?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2014

      No we haven’t. The earliest manuscripts with titles are around 200 CE; earlier ones are too fragmentary and so don’t have the beginnings and ends .

  20. Avatar
    lobojose  December 24, 2016

    Dr. Herman, Do you know the name or ID number of the “earliest” manuscripts found that had the name of the gospel in it (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      I’m out of the country and away from my books, so maybe someone can correct me, but I believe Matthew, Mark, and Luke are first named in their titles in the fourth century in Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, but John is named in the beginning of the 3rd century (around 200 cE) in P66 and P75 (both of them known as “Bodmer Papyri”)

      • Avatar
        lobojose  December 26, 2016

        First: Dr. Herman, thank you very much for your respond and I hope that you are having a good holidays.

        Second: I apologize for the following question; I have not been able to find previous responses from you in the internet about why we accept the authorship of the books of Plutarch if the early manuscripts of Plutarch did Not had his name? (Some of the scholars make use of this statement in order to counter-answer the issues of the gospel authorship).
        So, My Question Is: Why we do accept Plutarch authorship and we do Not accept the gospel authorship of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, when neither one have the authors names in their manuscripts??

        Third: I wish you, your family, and everyone in this group a healthy and successful year!

        Thank you for your help!!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2016

          I’m not familiar with the manuscript tradition of Plutarch. Do they not attribute the Lives and Moralia to Plutarch?

          • Avatar
            lobojose  December 27, 2016

            It is said… if the gospels were not written by the apostles because their signatures do not appear in the manuscripts, then… why do we say that Plutarch wrote his manuscripts if his name does not appear?

            I did a little more homework and I was lucky to find in “Michael Licona, “Fish Tales: Bart Ehrman’s Red Herrings and the Resurrection of Jesus” in Come Let Us Reason. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig Eds (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). 140.” the following:
            (Webpage: http://christianworldviewpress.com/are-the-gospels-anonymous/) …………… Sorry for the long link.
            THE TEXT: “It was not unusual for ancient authors to leave their names out of their works. Plutarch was a Greek author who penned more than 50 biographies during the late first to early second centuries. Plutarch’s name is absent from all of them. It is the tradition that has been passed down through the centuries that gives us information pertaining to who wrote these biographies. And no one questions that Plutarch is the author.”
            QUESTION: Why is the authorship of the Gospels in doubt; however, people accept the authorship of Plutarch when his name is absent from all documents?

            I much appreciate you help and educational instruction.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 28, 2016

            My sense is that lots of ancient texts are questioned as to authorship. On Plutarch: does Licona give you the names and dates of the manuscripts so that we can check to see whether Plutarch’s name occurs on them? What is his basis for saying that Plutarch’s name is absent? I really don’t know, but if he doesn’t give a footnote with the information, how do we know if he knows? These are genuine questions.

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