Introduction and outline
The written gospels have always been of the greatest significance to the Christian church, because they form the principal source of knowledge of the life of the Lord Jesus. The word ‘gospel’ means good news and the use of the term for a written report about Jesus goes back to the first- or second-generation Christians. It does not so much indicate a literary genre but characterises the contents of the book: good news about Jesus Christ. The gospel describes the good news of how God has realized salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
A matter that is discussed time and again in synoptic studies is the question of whether or not the gospels form a unique literary genre. Although in the past this was rather strongly suggested, scholars have been reconsidering this proposal during the last few years. Aune (1987: 46-76) concludes that the authors of the New Testament wanted to write according to the well-known genre of Greco-Roman biography (cf. Hengel 1983: 223-224). Shuler (1982) even argues for the identification of the gospels with a specific type of ancient biographical literature (encomium biography). This has tremendous implications for our understanding and exegesis of the gospels. The gospel writers wanted to describe a ‘life of Jesus’. Of course, it is clear that we are not dealing with a biography in the modern sense of the word: this appears simply from the fact that the evangelists gave their primary attention to the last few years of Jesus’ life. Among other things, the gospel writers had a missionary vision in mind with their writings, which explains their relatively extensive treatment of the history of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. The authors themselves were completely devoted to the person about whom they were writing.
Character and structure
The primary purpose of ancient biographies was praise. At times this purpose incorporated apologetic concerns, while at other times imitation seems to have been important to the writer. These concerns are found in our gospel as well. Matthew begins his writing with a genealogy, in which he shows how Jesus descends from both Abraham and David. This reveals Matthew’s goal, i.e., to make clear to his Jewish readers that Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus. We may very well characterise the gospel of Matthew as the gospel of fulfilment. The author employs no less than about fifty quotations from the Old Testament. The book of Isaiah in particular has exercised a great influence on Matthew’s gospel.
From a methodical point of view, it is typical of Matthew that he summarises the narrative parts briefly and to the point. When we compare this with the other gospels, this immediately attracts our attention. Compare, for example, Matthew 14:3-12 with Mark 6:17-29, or Matthew 17:14-21 with Mark 9:14-29.
What stands out is that our gospel is instructive by nature. Lengthy addresses and narrative sections occupy a major place. The many parables (chapter 13) and the lengthy instructions in the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5-7) also fit in with the instructive concern of the Gospel of Matthew. In accordance with this design Matthew rounds off his writing with the words of Jesus ‘teaching them (i.e. the nations) to obey everything I have commanded you’ (28:20). It can be deduced from the pedagogical design and the wording of the Great Commission (28:16-20) that, through his gospel, Matthew wanted to meet a catechetical need within the young church.
Matthew’s gospel also serves an apologetic purpose and tries to refute the accusations put forward by opponents of the Christian faith. Thus, the birth narrative (in particular Matt 1:18-25) defends Jesus against charges that His birth was illegitimate and the information concerning the bribing of the Roman guard at the grave by members of the Jewish Council (information exclusively reported by Matthew) forms a refutation of the accusation that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matt 28:11-15).
The Gospel of Matthew is also very systematically organised, as appears from its overall structure. We may distinguish four major sections in the book:
- The prologue (Matt 1:1 – 4:16).
- The proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Galilee (Matt 4:17 – 16:20).
- Jesus on His way to Jerusalem and the prophecy of the suffering (Matt 16:21 – 25:46).
- Announcements about suffering, death and resurrection (Matt 26:1 – 28:20).
Then there are also five discourses systematically placed together by Matthew. We find these in five ‘blocks’, three of which are found in the Galilean period.
- The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1 – 7:29)
- About mission (Matt 9:35 – 10:42)
- Parables of the Kingdom (Matt 13:1-52)
- About conversion, sin and forgiveness (Matt 18:1-35)
- About the last things (Matt 24:1 – 25:46).
Identical wording concludes these five instructive passages, and connects them with the narrative passages in a fluent and natural manner. We find these expressions in the following verses: Matthew 7:28: “When Jesus had finished saying these things…”.
Matthew 11:1: “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples…”
Matthew 13:53: “When Jesus had finished these parables…”.
Matthew 19:1: “When Jesus had finished saying these things…”.
Matthew 26:1: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things…”.
When we describe the Gospel of Matthew as a church-directed writing, we undoubtedly do it justice. But if we want to identify the nature of the gospel in two words, the most dominant features are: ‘royal’ and ‘prophetic’. The heart of the message that Matthew wants to pass on to his readers is that Jesus is the Messiah and that with Him the Kingdom of God has ‘broken into’ the world.
Church tradition of old has designated Matthew the tax collector (Matt 9:9) as the author of the first gospel. The oldest known heading above the gospel is kata Matthaion, ‘according to Matthew.’ The original edition, however, probably had no title. Although early in the history of the church the first gospel had already been provided with this author designation (supposedly by a second-generation Christian), this in itself does not prove that Matthew the tax collector has indeed written this gospel. Even until today, scholars differ in opinion concerning the author’s identity. It remains unclear, for instance, why Mark (Mark 2:14) and Luke (Luke 5:27) use the name Levi instead of Matthew. Did Jesus perhaps give him the name of Matthew (meaning ‘gift of the Lord’), just as He gave Simon the name of Peter? The New Testament gives us no clear evidence concerning the person of the author. We are therefore dependent on information from the Church Fathers.
In his Ecclesiastical History (HE VI, 25.4), Eusebius quoted Origen who wrote, “… first was written that according to Matthew, who was once a tax-collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language” (tr. Loeb II, 75). Irenaeus wrote, “Now Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and founding the church” (quoted by Eusebius, HE V, 8.2; tr. Loeb I, 455). However, the view that Matthew is the author of this gospel is especially based on a quotation also found with Eusebius (HE, III, 39.16). This quotation originates from Papias, bishop of Hierapolis around 130, and goes as follows, “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best as he could” (tr. Loeb I, 297).
First of all, this brings up the question as to what Papias meant with ta logia (literally words, proverbs). Since Schleiermacher many explained the word logia in this passage as ‘sayings’ and believed Papias had refered to a document containing (only) sayings of Jesus. But nowadays there is more or less a scholarly consensus that Papias used the word in the sense of ‘reports’, including quotational elements as well as narrative units. He called his book ‘Investigations of the logia’ (HE III,39.1) and by this Greek expression he meant the canonical gospels, whether they contain sayings or narratives (Reicke 1990: 299). The Church Fathers after him also understood his words in that way.
When we read that Matthew ‘has combined his gospel in the Hebrew language’, another problem emerges: almost all scholars agree that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, and is not likely to be the work of a translator. Therefore, it is assumed that Papias was wrong here, or that a Semitic translation of Matthew’s Greek gospel was in circulation at the time. However, both suppositions lack conclusive evidence. We may just as well assume Matthew wrote both an Aramaic and a Greek gospel. As Davies and Allison (1988: 12) rightly observe, it is not easy to determine whether an ancient text, especially one so clearly bearing the marks of two cultures, as does Matthew, is or is not a translation. They mention the fact that learned Greeks, such as Eusebius, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, presumably knew the Greek language better than most modern scholars. And they all took canonical Matthew to be the translation of a Semitic original.
We may conclude, then, that there are many missing links and blind spots which complicate the investigation of the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew. However, there are several arguments in favour of the traditional view concerning the person of the author which deserve serious attention. Firstly, there are the quotations of the Church Fathers who unanimously mention Matthew as being the author. Even though they speak of an original gospel in Hebrew, about which nothing is known to us, it is nevertheless remarkable that they do not question the identity of the writer. Secondly, it is not impossible that Matthew first composed an Aramaic gospel for the Jewish Christians and afterwards wrote the Greek gospel that has been incorporated into our canon. In contrast to the conviction of the Church Fathers, it is adduced that it was customary to attach the name of an authoritative and well-known person to unknown books or documents in order to provide that writing with more authority. This argument does not explain why Matthew was chosen, a person about whom hardly anything is known and who decidedly does not belong to the great names of the early church. In short, a historical tradition exists which points to Matthew as the author of this gospel, and we cannot disregard this tradition.
An argument which has only additional force can be found in the following suggestion; as a former tax collector Matthew was pre-eminently qualified to keep a report of Jesus’ words and deeds. Among the twelve Matthew was without a doubt the person who was very capable with the pen and used to keeping accurate accounts. Furthermore, from both the Old Testament (Isaiah 8:16-17; Jeremiah 36:4) and the New Testament (Peter, 1 Pet 5:12; Paul, Rom 16:22) we are familiar with examples of men who made use of a ‘secretary’. Is it not possible that Matthew performed a similar task for Jesus?
Finally, if the apostle Matthew is not the author of this gospel, the actual author remains anonymous. In that case, two questions need to be answered in a satisfactory way. How is it possible that the original author was so quickly forgotten that the title ‘according to Matthew’ could be already added to this book before 100 AD? (cf. Hengel 1985: 64-85). Secondly, how did a tradition arise that Matthew was the author of the first gospel? As long as these questions remain unanswered, the traditional view concerning authorship has a good right to speak, even though certain questions remain unclear.
Time and origin
Concerning the place of origin, tradition points to Palestine. This is in complete agreement with the content; time and again the Old Testament is quoted in order to show that Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled in Jesus. The apologetic traits also fit in well with this situation. It is questionable whether Syria would be more suitable for the origin of a gospel in the Greek language, because the Palestine of the first century AD was trilingual (Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew).
Concerning the date of composition, the issues are less vague. Therefore, we would like to devote somewhat more attention to this. The tendency of NT scholarship of the past 25 years is to date virtually the entire New Testament between 50 and 100 AD. This also applies to the Gospel of Matthew. As a rule, a date is proposed for this gospel which is even closer to 100 AD than to 50 AD For example, one of the best documented German introductions to the New Testament, that of Kümmel (1977: 119-120), dates Matthew between 80 and 100, and the scholarly commentary of Davies-Allison (1988: 138) between 80 and 95. When we look at the arguments on which these conclusions are based, we find mainly the so called two-source hypothesis, a particular reading of Matthew 22:7, and the fact that a theological development is observed in our gospel.
What is striking in the argumentation is the hypothetical character of the arguments. The two-source theory is a hypothesis itself (it will be discussed below) and the theological development strongly depends on this two-source hypothesis, i.e., on the idea that Matthew used a copy of the gospel of Mark when he wrote his own gospel.
Evidence for a late date?
Those who propound that evidence exists for a date after 70 usually cite Matthew 22:7, a verse from the parable of the royal wedding banquet. ‘And the king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city’. These last words ‘burned their city’ are generally interpreted as an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Apart from the fact that the possibility that Jesus has spoken prophetically apparently is not taken into account, we also believe that this conclusion is not immediately obvious in substance. In fact, in antiquity, the setting of a city on fire was generally the manner by which towns were destroyed. We find this throughout the Near Eastern literature, frequently in the Old Testament (Num 31:10; Deut 13:16; Josh 6:24; 8:19; 11:11, 13; Judg 1:8; 18:27; 20:48; 1 Sam 30:1), and also with Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo (Bauer 1971: s.v. µµµ). Therefore, it does not necessarily follow that this verse must have been written in connection with an actual event. The general wording ‘and burned their city’ is more reminiscent of the numerous passages in the Old Testament than the actual way it took place in 70 AD. In fact, at that time only the temple was burned and not the city. If Matthew 22:7 had been written after the destruction of Jerusalem, one would have expected more precision in the description. Actually we do find this precise distinction in the pseudepigraphical book II Baruch (7:1), where we read, ‘we have overthrown the wall of Zion, and we have burnt the place of the mighty God’, i.e. the temple (tr. Charles II, 484).
Written before 62 AD
The first evidence in favour of an early date is found in Matthew 24:29, where it says:
“Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky…”
We are concerned with the first word in our verse, the little word ‘immediately’. Immediately after the tribulation the heavens will be moved and the Son of Man will come in His glory. This little word ‘immediately’ tells us that the prophecies of Matthew 24 were not written with reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 and were also not brought into harmony with this: the Son of Man did not come immediately after this destruction!
In Matthew 24 we find a second verse that is relevant for our investigation, which even gives evidence for accepting that the gospel was written before 66. This is found in Matthew 24:15-16.
“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’, spoken of through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains”.
It now becomes impossible to accept that this last phrase ‘flee to the mountains’ was written with reference to actual events, since the mountains of Judea were in fact already in enemy hands at the end of 67 AD (Robinson 1976: 16). Moreover, according to the church father Eusebius (HE III,5.3), the Christians did not flee to the mountains, but left Jerusalem before the outbreak of the war in 66 and went to the town of Pella in the Transjordan. The most simple explanation for all of this is that the exhortations of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:16 are prophetic words, written down by Matthew before 66 AD
In closing, we shall discuss a matter that suggests that the gospel was written even before 62. What actually happened in 62? According to Eusebius, James, the brother of Jesus, died as a martyr in that year. As leader of the church of Jerusalem, he was succeeded by Simeon, the son of Clopas, the brother of Joseph (HE III,11; III,23.1-6; IV,22.4). This succession within the family through the line of the father reflects Jewish custom. Clopas, the father of Simeon, also appears in the New Testament as the husband of one of the Marys who stood by the cross (John 19:25). It is natural and most likely to identify this Mary with the one described by Matthew as the ‘mother of James and Joses’ and as ‘the other Mary’ (Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Meyer-Bauer 1963: 426). If Matthew had written his gospel after 62, at the very least one would have expected that he, who himself stood in the Palestinian tradition, would have indicated this Mary to be Mary the mother of Simeon. The fact that Matthew does not mention Simeon in connection with this suggests that he has written his gospel before 62 AD. (Robinson 1976: 106).
What, then, does all this contribute to our question? First of all, it strengthens the view that Matthew is the writer of this book. Second, the earlier dating states that a relatively short time passed between the writing and the events that are being described. The earlier dating argues that in the gospel of Matthew we are in possession of an account of an eyewitness. This eyewitness is writing for a church in which undoubtably many other eyewitnesses were still alive. Therefor our conclusion, with reference to the dating of Matthew, becomes a witness to the trustworthiness of the written gospel.