The Synoptics tell us that Matthew was a tax-collector by trade. So if his version of the Jesus story shows an unusual degree of interest in financial matters, we’re given a solid reason to think that the apostle is the genuine author. It wouldn’t likely be some later, anonymous non-eyewitnesses like the skeptical critics say.
As it turns out, this is precisely what we find to be the case. Matthew talks about moola more than any other Gospel writer, and it isn’t even close. When we add up the references to money in the Synoptics, here’s what we get:
- Matthew – 44
- Mark – 6
- Luke -22
Luke’s total includes nine references in one parable to the pound. (Luke 19:11-27) Matthew has 14 mentions of talents, mostly in the same parallel parable. (Matthew 25:14-30) If these frequent references are narrowed down to one word each, here are the totals:
- Matthew – 31
- Mark – 6
- Luke – 14
So right off the bat, we can see Matthew mentions money more than any other evangelist. Let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty details. Much of what follows here is drawn from Werner Marx’s fantastic article Money Matters in Matthew, which was published in Dallas Theological Seminary’s scholarly journal Bibliotheca Sacra back in 1979.
Matthew and the temple tax
Only Matthew records the story of Jesus paying the temple tax. (Matthew 17:24-27) They’re approached by collectors of this tax, but Matthew doesn’t call them the same Greek word he uses for tax-collectors elsewhere. (λαμβάνοντες vs. τελῶναι) These weren’t men employed by the Romans but the Temple. Matthew takes the care to point out the difference.
Jesus makes a point that the sons of the King are free from the two-drachma taxation, but he doesn’t want to offend them. So he sends Peter off fishing and says that he’ll find a ‘stater’ in a fish’s mouth. We know historically speaking that a stater is worth four drachma, enough to cover Jesus and Peter’s Temple tax. What’s notable is that the names of these two coins aren’t found anywhere else in the New Testament; they’re exclusive to Matthew.
The generous and debt-forgiving heart of God in Matthew
Matthew is the only gospel writer to include the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16). The teaching of Jesus is 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.” This pay would be a denarius. (Mt. 20:2) The unusual graciousness of the vineyard owner would strike quite a chord with a publican who was all about the Benjamins. People don’t normally treat money like that!
It also turns out that a denarius is a daily wage in the time of Jesus. 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)
Matthew is also the only evangelist to record Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:21-35) The King’s servant owed ten thousand talents. A denarius was a day’s wage, and talents were equal to 6000 days wages. So we’re talking about more money than what Judea, Samaria, and Perea were paying in tribute to Rome every year by a lot.
The unmerciful servant was forgiven this impossibly enormous debt. Later on in the story, he would not forgive a man who owed him 100 denari, or about three months’ worth of wages. In other words, Jesus is teaching that unforgiveness makes you stupid! Our debts could never be paid by our own effort, so we should not demand that others owe us something when we have been wronged. This parable must have made a big impression on an exacting debt collector like Matthew.
It’s also noteworthy that Matthew uses the word “talent” 14 times in his Gospel. He’s the only NT writer to use this word.
Other money matters in Matthew’s Gospel
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.” You can imagine that Matthew must’ve swallowed hard here. Perhaps he thought, “sheesh…no money at all, huh? So…even the copper, Jesus?”
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). He mentions the word “gold” five times in his Gospel. Mark and Luke never use the word.
He is also the sole gospel writer who reports the exact amount of the payment made to Judas: 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15). 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).
It’s also interesting to note that Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our debts…” while Luke’s version reads “And forgive us our sins…”. (Matthew 6:12, cf. Luke 11:4) The Greek word used is ὀφειλήματα and is also used in Romans 4:4 referring to wages that are due.
Finally, in Matthew 5:25-26 we read, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser’s hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
The Greek word Matthew uses is quadrans and in a parallel passage, Luke uses the word lepton. (Luke 12:59) This is what we’d expect from someone wanting to be precise and use the exact title of the Roman coin, where Luke was writing for a Greek audience and the word refers to a small value coin. The only other place this denomination of the coin is mentioned is with the story of the widow’s two mites in Mark.
Matthew and fraud detection
In the empty tomb story, Matthew goes out of his way to tell us that after Jesus’ burial, the Jews “made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” (Matthew 27:66)
How is it that Matthew is the only evangelist to mention this? Let’s think about it for a second. Judea was oppressively taxed under Roman dominion. This can lead to fraud and evasion, and with that closer vigilance and scrutiny by the collectors. Since Matthew was used to this kind of thing, he’d naturally be the most likely to notice and record a fact that guarded against the charges of fraud.
Matthew and number games
This might feel like a side journey but hang with me. One of the main complaints made against Matthew is how his genealogy conflicts with Luke. Richard Dawkins asks “shouldn’t a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty one generations?”
1st Chronicles lists 22 generations that trace the high priestly line, while Ezra includes only 16. Matthew’s purpose is to authenticate Jesus’ legal descent, not to give every single step.
Notice how Matthew begins his genealogy: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) As the New Testament commentator Bill Mounce observes, Matthew purposely arranges the names from Abraham to David to Christ “in groups of fourteen to coincide with the three important stages of Jewish history: the account of God’s people leading up to Israel’s greatest king; the decline of the nation, ending in Babylonian exile; the restoration of God’s people with the advent of the Messiah.” But what’s up with that? Why groups of 14?
Within the written Hebrew language, letters can also be used as their numbers; every letter is assigned a numerical value. The name of David in Hebrew is “דוד,” and from here we can do the simple math. The numerical value of the first and third letter “ד” (Hebrew: dalet) is 4. The middle letter “ו” (waw) has a numerical value of 6. Add the 3 numbers: 4+6+4=14, the numerical value of the name of “David.”
Matthew’s other name was Levi, (Luke 5:27-32) so while he was conversant in the Roman world as a tax-collector, he still was also steeped in his Jewish roots. And so it’s not surprising to see a numberphile like Matthew play Jewish number games to teach us about Jesus’ genealogy.
Matthew’s genuine eyewitness account
The list of the disciples is given four different times in the New Testament. Matthew’s roster of the twelve is the only one that calls him “Matthew the tax collector.” (Mt 10.2-4, cf Mk 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16, Acts 1:13-14) It’s also noteworthy that besides the calling of the Galilee fishermen, Matthew’s summons is the only other calling that is made into a big deal in the Synoptic Gospels. (Mt. 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32) Why does it have extraordinary significance? Based on the internal evidence we just observed, I have to think that the early church knew that Matthew was an official chronicler of Jesus.
And it’s also interesting 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). Mark’s gospel says “in his house”. 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.
When you add up these little clues, the early attribution of authorship to Matthew seems to be on the money. They’re exactly what we’d expect to find from a publican and it seems like a stretch that the early church pieced these clues together and pinned his name on this Gospel. I think these internal clues, taken together with the witness of the early church fathers make an interesting case that Matthew really wrote Matthew.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.