A Case For the Early Dating of Matthew’s Gospel

The majority of modern scholars believe Matthew’s Gospel was written between AD 80 and 90. That’s quite some time after Jesus lived and died. Matthew was likely dead by then, so how could he have written it? After all, during Jesus’ time, a person could expect to live another 30 or more years if they lived to be 20 years old. Matthew would have been in his 70s or 80s when he wrote. While that’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

So why do scholars assign such a late date? And is late dating worth reconsidering? Let’s dive into the first question. At the risk of oversimplifying, here are the four main arguments for late dating. 

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Arguments for late dating

For starters, Matthew seems to be dependent on Mark. Most critics think Mark was written around 65-70, so we need to let at least a few years go by. OK, sure. I have no major issues here. 

Second, there’s the parable of the wedding banquet. At the end of the parable, Jesus says “the king was angry and sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Mt 22:7) It is commonly believed that these words were placed in Jesus’ mouth to make him look more prophetic.  In their mind, this is clearly referring to the destruction of the Temple. There’s a problem, however. The king in the parable is very clearly God, which makes this argument flawed, as it would equate him with Caesar. Another possibility is that it is punitive military language drawn from the OT and other Jewish apocalyptic writing.

Third, Matthew shows a more developed theology than Mark, which is much more simple. Matthew famously ends with the trinitarian baptismal formula. Such a theology didn’t develop until later. Except that just isn’t true. Paul, writing to the Corinthians in the mid-fifties closed out his letter by saying “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” That sounds pretty trinitarian if you ask me. Paul said James, Peter, and John approved of his message. (Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14)

Finally, critics allege that Matthew sounds pretty anti-Jewish. It seems to reflect some tensions between Christians and Jews that were developing near the end of the first century. To give some brief background, Jews were kicking Jewish believers in Jesus out of the synagogue. The writing of the Birkat haMinim benediction was written shortly after at a rabbinic council in Jamnia. It reads “Let Nazarenes and heretics perish in a moment, let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and let them not be written with the righteous.” The problem with this is that one can just read Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts and see that Jewish-Christian tensions were already a thing early on. These are just not great arguments in support of later dating. 

Arguments for early dating

First, Jesus approves the paying of the Temple Tax in Matthew 17:24-27. This was because he did not want to offend the Jews that he wanted to win over.  But after 70 AD, Josephus tells us that the Temple tax became the tax for Jupiter’s Temple in Rome! (Josephus J.W. 7.6.6) And other rabbinic literature tells us that the shekel-tax only applies while the temple stands. (m. Šeqal. 8.8) Obviously, Matthew isn’t going to have Jesus promoting the upkeep of a pagan temple. While it’s possible Matthew is faithfully recording something Jesus said, it’s weird to include this saying unless the temple was still standing. 

Secondly, Matthew talks about being reconciled to someone you’ve offended before you making your offering at the altar. (Mt 5:23-24) This would be a teaching that his disciples could no longer follow unless the Temple was still standing. It seems a bit odd to keep this antiquated saying in his Gospel. 

Third, the passage used in Matthew 21:13 is taken from Mark 11:17, and it is paralleled in Luke 19:46. A unique aspect of Matthew’s version is that he changes the verb “saying” to a present tense, creating a historical present. “You are turning it into a den of robbers.” This change to a historic present main verb and switch to a present in the quoted speech is likely to emphasize the current situation, i.e. that the temple is still standing.

Finally, in Matt 24:20-21, Jesus tells his hearers to pray that their flight won’t occur during a sabbath or during winter. But, if Eusebius is to be believed, we know what happened: “the church in Jerusalem was given a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men, which commanded them to leave the city and live in a city of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.5.3). In Matthew’s writing after 70 AD, we might expect some changes in Jesus’ words to conform to the historical story.

Matthew wrote Pre-70 AD

Taken together, I think these clues confirm what the 2nd-century church father Irenaeus tells us — Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome. (Against Heresies 3.1) Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, and Polycarp was a student of John, so he’d be in a position to know. The arguments for early dating just aren’t all that convincing, and there are good reasons to think Matthew was written while the Temple still was standing. 

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