If it could be shown that Matthew’s gospel was written by one of the twelve apostles, it would be a decisive weight in favor of the credibility of biblical history. After all, Matthew would have had a front row seat to Jesus’ life and alleged miracles. Because of that, skeptics have challenged the genuineness of the authorship of Matthew.
For example, here’s the famous skeptic Bart Ehrman in an interview with NPR: “All the Gospels were written anonymously, and none of the writers claims to be an eyewitness…Whoever wrote Matthew did not call it “The Gospel according to Matthew.” The persons who gave it that title are telling you who, in their opinion, wrote it…
Moreover, Matthew’s Gospel is written completely in the third person, about what “they” — Jesus and the disciples — were doing, never about what “we” — Jesus and the rest of us — were doing. Even when this Gospel narrates the event of Matthew being called to become a disciple, it talks about “him,” not about “me.” Read the account for yourself (Matthew 9:9). There’s not a thing in it that would make you suspect the author is talking about himself.”
SO WHAT IS WITH THE 3RD PERSON NARRATIVE? DOES THAT DISPROVE MATTHEAN AUTHORSHIP?
Well, here’s the thing about this objection – it was answered many centuries ago.
It wasn’t until the time of Augustine (354-430 AD) did anyone challenge the traditional authorship of the gospels. Faustus the Manichean was the first we have on record, and Augustine of Hippo wasn’t having it. Here’s his blistering critique:
“Faustus thinks himself wonderfully clever in proving that Matthew was not the writer of this Gospel, because, when speaking of his own election, he says not, He saw me, and said to me, Follow me; but, He saw him, and said to him, Follow me. This must have been said either in ignorance or from a design to mislead.
Faustus can hardly be so ignorant as not to have read or heard that narrators, when speaking of themselves, often use a construction as if speaking of another. It is more probable that Faustus wished to bewilder those more ignorant than himself, in the hope of getting hold on not a few unacquainted with these things. It is needless to resort to other writings to quote examples of this construction from profane authors for the information of our friends, and for the refutation of Faustus.” -Contra Faustum, 17.4
Talk about not pulling any punches. Making this same point, a reader actually called out Bart on his blog. Ehrman admitted that yes, there are examples in history where ancient autobiographers have written in the 3rd person. But he says that it’s obvious in secular history, but not so with Matthew. He then provided no evidence to back up this assertion.
Augustine said it was needless to quote the “profane authors” but given Bart’s stubbornness, allow me to give it a shot.
Xenophon was an Athenian military leader and writer. Along with Plato and Aristophanes, he remains one of our primary literary sources regarding Socrates. Here he is writing in his well-known work Anabasis:
“There was a man in the army named Xenophon, an Athenian, who was neither general nor captain nor private, but had accompanied the expedition because Proxenus, an old friend of his, had sent him at his home an invitation to go with him; Proxenus had also promised him that, if he would go, he would make him a friend of Cyrus, whom he himself regarded, so he said, as worth more to him than was his native state.” –Anabasis 3.1.4
And now here’s the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, also writing about himself in the 3rd person:
“However, in this extreme distress, he was not destitute of his usual sagacity; but trusting himself to the providence of God, he put his life into hazard [in the manner following]: “And now,” said he, “since it is resolved among you that you will die, come on, let us commit our mutual deaths to determination by lot.
He whom the lot falls to first, let him be killed by him that hath the second lot, and thus fortune shall make its progress through us all; nor shall any of us perish by his own right hand, for it would be unfair if, when the rest are gone, somebody should repent and save himself.” This proposal appeared to them to be very just; and when he had prevailed with them to determine this matter by lots, he drew one of the lots for himself also…” – Jewish War, Book 3, Chapter 8, Part 7
I won’t multiply quotes, but Julius Caesar also famously wrote in the 3rd person in his volume on the Gallic Wars. The point is this: Augustine was right. This wasn’t an uncommon thing for ancient writers to do. Bart’s response that Matthew wasn’t overt like other secular writers doesn’t fly.
But there’s more. Ehrman offers a second argument that Matthew couldn’t have written the gospel traditionally attributed to him. He claims Matthew probably couldn’t read or write in Aramaic, let alone Greek. Says Dr. Ehrman: “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.”
WAS MATTHEW ILLITERATE?
Really? There’s nothing to suggest that Matthew was educated? Wouldn’t his occupation as a tax collector suggest that he could read and write? That seems like it would be a basic job requirement.
Think about it for a moment.
Publicans worked in cooperation with their Roman superiors. They were in close contact with them. They would have had to provide documentation of their collections and speak with them, so Matthew likely had to to be bilingual. This is why tax collectors were despised – they associated with Gentiles and they were considered to be traitors. Plus there’s good evidence that rebuts Bart’s exaggerated claim that 97% of the population of 1st-century Palestine was illiterate.
Not only that, Ehrman himself admits that being a tax collector in the ancient world involved some reading and writing: “Throughout most of antiquity, since most people could not write, there were local “readers” and “writers” who hired out their services to people who needed to conduct business that required written texts: tax receipts, legal contracts, licenses, personal letters, and the like.” (Misquoting Jesus, 38)
BUT DOESN’T MATTHEW COPY MARK? WHY WOULD AN EYEWITNESS DO THAT?
This is a common objection so let’s look at it before we move on. To answer it, I’ll quote Biblical scholar Brant Pitre at length since his remarks are so spot on. Says Dr. Pitre:
“...it is important to note that many people who take the view that the Gospel of Mark was written first find it unbelievable that an eyewitness such as the apostle Matthew would rely on or copy from a Gospel written by a non-eyewitness such as Mark. But this just isn’t true.
For one thing, there are good reasons to conclude that the Gospel of Mark is directly based on the testimony of the apostle Peter, who was both the leader of the twelve disciples and an eyewitness to much more of Jesus’s ministry than the apostle Matthew (see Matthew 16:13-18). If Mark’s Gospel is based on the testimony of Peter, there’s nothing remotely implausible about Matthew using it as a source.
Even more important, history gives us other examples of eyewitnesses who relied on other people’s testimony when composing biographies of their own teachers. For example, when writing his account of the death of Socrates, the ancient Greek writer Xenophon (who was a disciple of Socrates) used the “reports” (Greek exēngeile) of another disciple named Hermogenes (see Xenophon, Apology, 1.2, 10).12 The reason was that Xenophon was not present at the trial and death of Socrates, whereas Hermogenes was.
In the same way, it is entirely possible that the apostle Matthew could have relied on the Gospel of Mark’s record of Peter’s testimony, especially for any events at which Matthew himself was not present—such as the early days of Jesus’s ministry (see Matthew 3–8) or the events of Jesus’s passion and death, which Matthew did not witness because he had fled the scene (see Matthew 26–28). It’s not as if all of the apostles were witnesses to everything that happened in the life of Jesus.”
So I don’t think Ehrman’s arguments against the traditional authorship of Matthew are compelling. But let’s look a little deeper and see what arguments we can find in favor
7 INTERNAL CLUES THAT MATTHEW WAS THE GENUINE WRITER OF HIS GOSPEL
As a tax collector, we’d expect Matthew to be more money-minded. So it comes as no surprise that Matthew references moola more than the other of the synoptic gospel writers. And not by just a small bit either. Matthew references money 44 times, while Luke makes 22 and Mark mentions it just 6 times. Here are some striking examples:
I. Matthew alone records the circumstance of Jesus paying tribute to the tax collector of Capernaum (Matthew 17:24–27). The NIV says “…the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter…” Jesus replies “take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a stater.” (NASB)
We learn from history that stater is worth four
II. Matthew is the only gospel writer to include the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16). The teaching of Jesus that a man who worked one evening hour should be entitled to the same pay as one who“bore the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat” would strike quite a cord with a publican who was all about that Benjamins. (Sorry for the 90s hip-hop reference)
It turns out that a denarius is accurately a day’s wage in Jesus’ time. In Tacitus day there were some unhappy Roman soldiers in 14 AD saying they deserved a denarius a day, which was considered a fair wage. (Annals 1.17)
III. Matthew is also the only gospel writer to record the saying about the Pharisees swearing by the gold in the temple (Matthew 23:16-17).
IV. He is the lone gospel writer who reports the exact amount of the payment made to Judas: 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15)
V. And Matthew alone tells his readers that the guards at Jesus’ tomb were paid hush money after Jesus’ body went missing. (Matthew 28:12,15).
VI. All three synoptic gospels share Jesus’ directions to the Twelve as they were sent out to preach the gospel. (Matthew 10:9, Mark 6:8, and Luke 9:3). Mark writes“take no money in their belts” and Luke phrases it “take…no money.” Matthew uses 3 terms, writing “do not acquire gold, silver, or copper.”
VII. Finally, it’s noteworthy to mention that after his call, Matthew threw a big party for Jesus. Luke records it this way: “Then Levi (Matthew) hosted a grand banquet for him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were guests with them” (Luke 5:29) Matthew’s gospel is much more modest: “While he was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came to eat with Jesus and his disciples.” (Matthew 9:10)
Matthew humbly omits all mentions of himself and the grandness of the event. These facts by themselves might not seem like much, but taken together a collective case starts to snowball.
EXTERNAL EVIDENCE FOR THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Then there is all the weighty external evidence from church fathers like Clement of Alexandria (185 AD), Irenaeus of Lyon, (180), Justin Martyr (150) and Papias of Hierapolis (125) who with one voice said that Matthew wrote a gospel.
“Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew dialect and each person interpreted them as best he could.” (Papias of Hierapolis)
“For in the Memoirs [ read: Gospels] of the apostles and their successors it is written…”(Justin Martyr)
“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.”(Irenaeus of Lyons)
“Of all those who had been with the Lord, only Matthew and John left us their recollections, and tradition says they took to writing perforce. Matthew had first preached to the Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent.” (Clement of Alexandria)
And we have early church writings as well as many others who make copious use of Matthew. (The Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, Tertullian, Muratorian Canon, Origen.) These writers wrote from many different places over the Roman empire.
MATTHEW WROTE THE GOSPEL TRADITIONALLY ASCRIBED TO HIM
To say that Matthew didn’t write a gospel flies in the face of all the external evidence that we have. We saw that Matthew wrote far more often than any gospel writer about money, fitting perfectly with what we know about his occupation. His allusions to the currency of his day show an accurate knowledge of the setting of the times.
And the “3rd person objection” is weak considering that we learn it was a normal practice of ancient autobiographers, as demonstrated by Xenophon, Josephus, and Julius Caesar.
All the indicators we have from Matthew’s Gospel confirm what the church has believed for centuries – Matthew the publican was one of the 12, an eyewitness and has given us his
Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and digital marketing specialist who is passionate about the intersection of evangelism and apologetics.