The Background of Matthew

Thomas C. Urrey  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 5 - Fall 1962

Matthew’s message is that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled. Or to put it in other words, God’s redemptive plan was begun in the history of Israel, depicted in prophetic fashion in the events and activities of the people of God, and was climactically finished in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The background out of which the Gospel of Matthew comes is Judaism which had undergone a vast doctrinal development during the four hundred years of the Interbiblical period. A significant change had occurred in the concept of the coming of the Messiah and the attending circumstances and results of that great event. Prophecy in the Old Testament prepared the setting for God’s fulfillment of his redemptive work in Christ. In Christ the plan of redemption is completed.

But during the long period between the Testaments, Israel’s messianic hope gradually, but surely, took on a different expectation. Against the dark background of bondage and affliction by foreign powers, the Jews looked for a political Messiah who would deliver them from the yoke of Rome. The Messiah-King was expected to re-establish the Davidic monarchy after conquering all the enemies of God. He would reign in glory on the throne of God in Jerusalem, the city of the Great King. He would make his appearance at the Temple and conqueringly declare his Messiahship with great signs and wonders. Israel would rule the world under his sovereign power, and his disciples would reign with him in splendor and glory.

Against this traditional expectation of the Jews, Matthew shows that Jesus indeed came to reign as King, but upon the throne of the hearts of those who accept him by faith; he came to establish his Kingdom, but a Kingdom which would be the rule of God in the hearts of his children by faith. Matthew is careful to reveal the kind of King Jesus came to be and kind of Kingdom he came to establish.

The message of the King and his Kingdom will be better understood in the light of a brief study of the background of the Gospel.


Matthew, The Taxgatherer

Who was Matthew? Why was he called by Jesus? The only record we have of Matthew, aside from lists of disciples is found in Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2 :13-17, and Luke 5:27-32. In these records he is called Levi, the publican or taxgatherer. In the Gospel of Matthew he is identified as Matthew, the taxgatherer. And in all the lists of apostles in the Gospels and in Acts, aside from Matthew itself, he is listed simply as Matthew. Levi doubtless was his Jewish name, later changed to Matthew, the Greek equivalent of Theodore, meaning “Gift of Jehovah.”[1]George Milligan, Men of the New Testament (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, n.d.), p. 4. Perhaps the change was made because Levi was too obviously a Jewish name. As taxgatherer this man had certainly turned traitor to the priestly tribe to which he belonged.[2]Edgar J. Goodspeed, Matthew: Apostle and Evangelist (Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co., 1959), p. 7. Thus, his change of name possibly carries a Christian significance as to his call to discipleship, a gift of God.

Matthew is mentioned in Mark 2:14 as the son of a certain Alphaeus. Most commentators say he is not to be identified with Alphaeus, the father of James the Less, and husband of Mary, who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Goodspeed posits the view that Matthew was a brother of James the Less and stepson of Mary from whom he received his insight into the events of the crucifixion.[3]Ibid., pp. 2, 6-8, 10-11.

Be this as it may, Matthew was noticeably different from the other apostles. He was not a rough fisherman as Peter, who eclipsed him in popularity in the Gospels. He likely was a quiet, meditative man, more interested in the teachings of Jesus than in the chronology of his ministry, more cognizant of the content of his ministry than the chronological sequence of events. Carr says he loved a life of contemplation, being a man swift to hear, slow to speak. He was unobservant and uncaring of the minutiae of outward action. His mind teemed with the associations of his nation. He was deeply conscious of the momentous drama which was enacted before him, and felt himself called to be a chronicler and interpreter to his own people.[4]A. Carr, Cambridge Greek Testament: Matthew (Cambridge: The University Press, 1896), pp. xv-xvi.

Matthew’s call to apostleship was distinctive. It is the only individual call in the records of the apostles, aside from Paul’s. Goodspeed conjectures that the rebuke given to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees after the healing of the palsied man (Matt. 9:2-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26) awakened Matthew to the need of recording the words of the Master. At any rate, Jesus specifically chose Matthew for his secretary and recorder because he saw that his ministry would result in death from Jewish opposition.[5]Goodspeed, pp. 9, 13, 50f. Note that the event of Matthew’s call immediately follows the healing miracle in all the accounts.

So Matthew was called from his tax collector’s booth in Capernaum in Galilee to follow Jesus. His education and experience fitted him perfectly for his particular ministry. He was a tax farmer under the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. As tax collector Matthew was educated in the use of both Aramaic and Greek. He likely recorded the tax reports in Aramaic and later transferred them into Greek. It was his responsibility to keep an accurate record of such transactions.[6]From archaeological findings in Egypt evidence has been uncovered which greatly illuminates the role of the taxgatherer. It is also probable that Matthew was skilled in taking notes in shorthand, a practice common in Greece and Rome.[7]Goodspeed, pp., 21, 90, 108-9. Undoubtedly, he was a man well acquainted with and fascinated by the use of figures and mathematical formulas. There is ample evidence of this familiarity in the Gospel of Matthew. Scroggie adds that Matthew shows evidence of clerical precision by his methodical arrangement of this Gospel, as well as his use of numerals.[8]Graham Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels (London: Pickering and Inglis, Ltd., 1948), p. 247.


Matthew, The Author

The question which naturally arises is whether or not Matthew is the author of the Gospel which bears his name. Did he write the book or did some unknown Jewish Christian compile it out of various sources, using Matthew’s collection of the sayings of Jesus and thereby attaching his name to it for apostolic authority?

A majority of New Testament scholars today and during the past century have accepted the theory of the priority of Mark and that Mark was the primary source for the compiler of the Gospel of Matthew. Because of this fact many of the scholars take for an accepted fact that the Matthean authorship of the gospel is invalid.

They ask, “Why would an apostle and eyewitness depend upon one who was not an eyewitness for the narrative framework of his gospel?” They claim Mark wrote first around 70 A.D. and that the writer of Matthew took Mark’s basic narrative and added to and rearranged it to meet the specific needs of Jewish Christians in Antioch after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Cf. Streeter, Filson, Johnson, Hunter, McNeile.) Their varying discussions usually begin with a statement preserved by the father of church history, Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History. He quotes Papias as saying, “Matthew compiled the Logia in the Hebrew (Aramaic) speech, and every one translated as best he could.”[9]F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1960), p. 38. Therefore, many claim Matthew compiled a source which could have been a collection of Old Testament prophecies proving the Messiahship of Jesus, known as the “Testimonies.” Or, more likely, as Filson claims,[10]Floyd V. Filson, Opening the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952), p. 48. it could have been a collection of the sayings of Jesus put into a single document composed originally in Aramaic, the language of the Jews of Palestine.

Most contemporary scholars would venture to suggest that the compiler of Matthew’s Gospel took Mark as his basic source and added to its rearranged plan these sayings of Jesus which were written by Matthew, the apostle, weaving them into Mark’s framework. It is likely, they say, that this original source had been previously translated or rewritten by Matthew into Greek. Then this Greek source was used by Matthew’s compiler, who also added a more satisfactory account of Jesus’ divine origin and some of the passion events especially significant for Jews. Consequently, what we have in Matthew is Mark’s narrative rearranged somewhat and supplemented by extensive teaching material compiled by Matthew himself and by other material on Jesus’ origin and death. Therefore, since the apostle Matthew was a contributing author, and since the book greatly emphasizes the teachings of Jesus, it became easy to attach Matthew’s name to it for authority.[11]Archibald M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), pp. 55-60.

Such reasoning concludes that it was not Matthew, but some Jewish Christian of Antioch about 80 to 90 A.D. who compiled the Gospel to answer some pressing problems relating to the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus and to explain the recent events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem. Many needed assurance that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. By meeting these needs the compiler also produced a book well adapted to worship. Reference to the church, many scholars say, proves its later origin.[12]B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (London: The Macmillan Co., 1956), pp. 503f

There are those, however, such as George E. Ladd and E. J. Goodspeed, who hold firmly to the priority of Mark but still assert Matthean authorship. Goodspeed indicates that it is reasonable to accept Matthew as the author because no better author has been suggested. Also, and more to the point, he argues that it is likely that Peter is the authoritative apostolic source behind Mark’s Gospel. Since this was known by Matthew, the narrative of Mark was accepted as being an accurate account, broadly speaking, of Jesus’ life. But it sadly lacked much of Jesus’ teaching and an adequate account of his origin. The Jews, to whom Matthew was writing, needed a much more detailed account of the divine origin of Jesus as Messiah. Consequently, Matthew possibly took Mark’s account, with is Petrine authority, and expanded it, with some rearrangement, to fulfill his didactic aim in meeting the needs of the recipients of his Gospel.[13]Goodspeed, pp. 93f.

Goodspeed further states it was Peter’s death which prompted Mark to write. Since Peter could not give him corrections on matters of chronology it is possible that Mark’s sequence of events is incorrect at points. Matthew could have known this and rearranged the sequence in light of his own experience and to fit his arrangement of Jesus’ discourses.[14]Ibid., pp. 44f.

Scholars, such as Tasker (Cf. Butler, Bowman, Black, Hunter), reasonably posit the possibility that Matthew, in keeping with Papias’ statement, wrote an original treatise in Aramaic and later wrote the Gospel in Greek for Greek speaking Jews.[15]R. V. G. Tasker, St. Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), pp. 13-14.

It is interesting to note that Goodspeed claims that Papias’ statement, as preserved by Eusebius, means not that Matthew compiled an Aramaic document on the sayings of Jesus, but rather that he “wrote down” (sungrapsen) the sayings of Jesus. Such was the basic purpose of his call. Goodspeed claims that there is no evidence that any New Testament books were written in Aramaic alone. Matthew evidently took his notes in Aramaic and used them in this form for years. But the passing time and confused conditions led him to compose the Gospel of Matthew in Greek, using his Aramaic notes as basic source material. Goodspeed believes that this was done in Antioch after 70 A.D. with Mark’s Gospel providing the primary framework upon which Matthew built.[16]pp., 99-100.

However, in all this discussion it must be remembered that God’s plan and purpose was at work in the inspiration and preservation of these accounts of Jesus’ life and works. The Holy Spirit of God led the writers. They were not men who changed and rearranged material to fit their own ends, but the purposes of God. They selected from a vast amount of material only a “tithe of truth” for the preservation of the great story of God’s redemptive plan of the ages.

No argument against the Matthean authorship is convincing. It is highly subjective to reject Matthew upon the premise that an eyewitness would not have used Mark’s material. The major fallacy of this argument is that it raises a question of greater pro­ portion. Who then was the book’s actual author or compiler? Who better fits the conditions, as suggested externally by the whole weight of early church tradition and internally by the tremendous evidence pointing toward Matthew, than the tax collector? That the early Church believed Matthew was the Gospel’s author can­ not be doubted. Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius bear witness to it.[17]H. C. Thiessen, Introducing to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 130-132. And even if it be true that the last three mentioned simply quote Papias, at least they give consent to his claim.

Consider the fact also that there must have been a reason to attribute the work to Matthew other than upon the theory that he was one among several contributing sources. Matthew was not a prominent figure in the New Testament. Why assign the authorship to one so eclipsed by the other apostles if authority is the major goal sought? It is possible, if not probable, that for sound reasons now obscure but evident to the early church fathers, they readily accepted Matthean authorship. At least herein lies a warning against building theories based upon highly speculative “possibilities” and setting them forth as inescapable and binding facts.

Goodspeed makes a point for Matthean authorship when he strongly emphasizes that the Greeks cared little for the source material of a great work, but cared greatly about its author. To them the important question was the identity of the author who made available a great work in the Greek language. All other considerations were obscured by this. Thus, Euclid’s work on geometry was known by his name. He made it available to the Greeks. The Septuagint was not called the Torah, but was named after the men who put it into Greek. Note carefully also the fact that Mark’s gospel is not named “Peter,” which would have been the case had the early church fathers followed the test of apostolic authority instead of actual authorship. Mark was not an apostle, yet his work bears his name because he put it into Greek. Therefore, Matthew is credited with the authorship of the book bearing his name because he wrote it in Greek. If someone else had taken an earlier work in Greek by Matthew and added other material, such as that from Mark, then the Greeks would have named the work after that author.[18]Goodspeed, pp., 25, 38, 121-22.

Again, consider Matthew’s special call and qualifications for such a task. He was educated and well equipped in both Aramaic and reek. He was probably a Jew of the tribe of Levi, thus well acquainted with all the practices of Judaism. He was a man of figures and the Gospel fairly teems with numerals, figures, and reference to money. Two parables whose moral relates to money are peculiar to Matthew, the parable of the unmerciful servant who owed 10,000 talents (equal to $10,000,000), and that of the laborers hired for a penny a day. Also Matthew alone records the watch at the sepulchre being paid a good sum of money to keep silence. He alone relates Judas’ flinging the 30 pieces of silver on the Temple floor. “The taker of toll gives the lesson of the bane of money.”[19]Tasker, pp., 15-16. These and other related facts, such as the mathematically arranged genealogy, point to Matthew as the author.



Many New Testament scholars, such as B. H. Streeter, say Matthew was written after 70 A. D. To quote Streeter,

That Matthew was written after 70 A. D. may be deduced from an addition to the parable of the Marriage of the King’s Son. ‘And the rest laid hold on his servants and entreated them shamefully and killed them. But the King was wroth; and he sent his armies and destroyed these murderers and burned their city.’ (Matthew 22:6-7)[20]p., 516.

He goes on to say,

This insertion (the destruction of the city) is intelligible if it is regarded as an attempt to point the moral of the parable by interpreting it as a prophecy by Christ of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Such a modification of the parable would be very natural after the fall of Jerusalem, but not before.[21]Ibid.

Such a reason, however, posited on the theory that Matthew freely added touches of his own to the words of Jesus to make a point, is unacceptable to this writer who fully believes Matthew gives a trustworthy account of what Jesus said.

Those who hold to a later date for Matthew do so with a certain degree of finality. Unfortunately those who hold to an earlier date, from 50-70 A.D. do so with less degree of finality, but at least they are fair enough to admit that this is a question which is difficult to settle dogmatically.

For several reasons it seems impossible to dislodge the long accepted view that Matthew wrote the Gospel prior to 70 A.D. If it was written after the fall of Jerusalem, surely this event would have been mentioned. When Jesus mentioned Jerusalem as the city of the great King in Matthew 5:35 it seems that the city was still standing. The destruction of the Temple is predicted in 24:1-2, but there is no mention of the event having taken place. Why, if the record was after 70 A.D.? The abomination of desolation standing in the Holy Place is ref erred to as a future event in the warning of 24:15. This most likely refers to the desecration of the Temple by the Roman army of desolation. The whole context of impending trouble in chapter 24:16, 20 seems to argue for a date of writing prior to the event.

The argument, however, that the two references to “unto this day” in 27:8 and 28:15 indicate a comparatively long period of time had elapsed since Jesus’ day is inconclusive. Chapman, the Roman Catholic scholar, is weak in his argument that this means a short period of time, but the major strength for his argument is in his statement that the reference to the “field of blood” must have been made before the fall of Jerusalem, for after the siege there would be no question of the field, or of burial of strangers, or of a nickname for the place.[22]Quoted by Tasker, p. 15.

The purpose of Matthew seems to argue for the earlier date—a time when Judaism needed to be confronted with the truth in Jesus before the doom that was to befall their worship in 70 A.D. It is a message befitting to the Jews soon after Jesus’ death. Certainly the essential message of Matthew’s Gospel was prevalent widely soon after Pentecost. The conditions calling for the specific need of Matthew’s message did not arise just after 70 A.D., but before that event. Therefore, the most logical date is prior to Jerusalem’s fall in 70 A.D.

The question as to the place of authorship and recipients of the Gospel is answered in light of one’s view of the date of composition. If one accepts the later date, then Streeter, Hunter, Johnson, and Goodspeed may be right in assigning the place of writing and the recipients to Antioch.[23]No Goodspeed, pp. 147-57. But if one accepts the earlier date, then the traditional view that it was written in Pales­ tine may be correct. But an early date does not rule out Antioch. For example, Milligan says the lack of reference to the troublous times prior to 70 A.D. in Jerusalem may be omitted in Matthew because it was written somewhere else, perhaps in Syria.[24]p. 14.


Style and Diction

Having accepted Matthean authorship, the next problem to be examined, all too briefly, is style and diction. Some statements have already been made concerning Matthew’s life which refer to this discussion. A man’s calling may well be reflected in what he says and writes. Of the 115 words in Matthew but not in the other Synoptics, many are of special interest in view of the fact that Matthew was the taxgatherer. For example, he uses three words for money found nowhere else-tribute (dedrachmon, 17:24), piece of money (stater, 17:27), and talent (talanton, 18:24; 25:15). Matthew deals with large sums of money whereas Mark deals usually with small sums. Again, Matthew fairly teems with Jewish terminology. There are many characteristic words and phrases such as, “that it might be fulfilled.”[25]Scroggie, pp., 273-76.

Tasker points out that the Gospel could be called the “apologetic,” the “liturgical,” or the “ecclesiastical” Gospel. But he says the dominant characteristic is “royalty.” The great concepts of Messiahship and Kingdom are at its heart.[26]Tasker, pp. 19-20.

The material is arranged in a didactic fashion. The grouping of teaching material is a primary phenomenon of style. A large part of it is devoted to the discourses of our Lord. Though the threefold ministry of Jesus is outlined in Matthew 4:23, the major emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew is on the teaching ministry. Matthew has preserved the poetical beauty of the discourses of Christ, though in the descriptive passages his style is less picturesque than Mark’s, more even and unvaried than Luke’s.[27]Carr, p. xviii. His structure is conducive to memory by the use of these discourses, numerical emphases, and the didactic arrangement.


Matthew’s Sources

One further question calls for attention. What were Matthew’s sources and how did he use them? The facts are fairly easily ‘attained that Mark, Matthew, and Luke contain much similar material. For example, 606 of 661 verses in Mark appear in Matthew. Or, to put it another way, of the 1068 verses in Matthew, about 500 contain material also found in Mark. Only 31 verses in Mark have no parallel in Matthew or Luke.[28]Bruce, p. 31. To explain these facts we move abruptly from the arena of fact into the arena of speculation.

A large segment of New Testament study today posits the view (with variation) that Matthew’s primary source was Mark, from which he drew the major portion of his narrative material relating chiefly to the progressive events in the life of Jesus. To Mark’s chronological structure, with some rearrangements because of the emphasis on discourses in Matthew, the compiler of Matthew added additional material derived from various sources. To meet the specific needs of the Jews to whom the Gospel of Matthew was written, its compiler added to Mark a more satisfactory account of Jesus’ divine origin, large segments of the sayings of Jesus, largely in discourse fashion, some particular events in the Passion story, and even toned down and smoothed over Mark, which had been written for Roman Gentiles. Therefore, generally speaking, Matthew was compiled from various sources such as Mark, a special source on the sayings of Jesus, and a source common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark, commonly called “Q” (from the German quelle meaning source). There were other special sources which Streeter has conveniently labelled “M,” to designate a source derived from Jerusalem containing material peculiar to Matthew. Unfortunately, this line of approach usually denies Matthean authorship, or at least attributes only a portion of the Gospel to Matthew. It is refreshing, however, to find such men as Goodspeed and Ladd who assert Matthean authorship while holding to the priority of Mark. But be sure to note that these views with their variations are theories, not scientifically proved facts, as some would suggest.

Though in light of the present trend in New Testament study the priority of Mark is generally accepted, it does not necessarily follow that Matthew was slavishly dependent upon Mark in the narrative portion. The present writer takes issue not with the fact that Mark was written first, but with the popular claim of the degree of Matthew’s dependence on Mark. While such men as Scroggie, Hunter; and Streeter argue that from 90-96 per cent of Mark is used by Matthew, other men who likewise reveal a deep study of the Synoptic relationship deny such a high degree of dependence. Ludlam says the agreement is only 40.6 per cent.[29]J. H. Ludlam, “Are We Sure of Mark’s Priority?” Christianity Today, Sept. 14, 1959, pp. 11-14. Is it not possible that some, if not many, agreements even to minute points can be explained by the well-known emphasis on memory among Jews? In his treatise Against Apion, Josephus says, “Our people, if anybody do but ask any one of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of anything, and of our having them, as it were, engraven on our souls.”[30]Flavius Josephus, Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1960), p. 631.

Butler, who argues for Matthew’s originality, claims there are Aramaisms in the so-called Markan sections of Matthew not taken from Mark. They are of such quality and quantity as to negate the possibility that the author composed a Gospel by combining the Greek Mark with other sources and materials. If Mark was used slavishly by Matthew he must have deliberately inserted them into Markan passages.[31]Butler, pp. 155-56. Goodspeed claims that Matthew felt free to rearrange Markan material because he felt he knew chronology better than Mark, since Peter had been martyred.[32]p. 44.

In addition, this question should be asked: do we have three synoptic accounts or one account copied, rearranged, and corrected by the other two? Though it is not possible to deny that Matthew used Mark, it is questionable that his dependency on Mark is as great as some have suggested. There remains room for further investigation here. The final word on Matthew’s sources and their use has not been spoken. It is possible that a further study on the use of Aramaic by the Gospel writers may shed further light on this thorny synoptic problem.

Again it should be strongly asserted that too many discussions leave out the work of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration and preservation of the Gospels. Let it be strongly emphasized that the point at which to begin is the truth that this is God’s Word. The Gospel of Matthew is a member of a unified body of spiritual truth which bears effective and reliable witness to what God has done in Christ. The authors were men writing in the framework of their own backgrounds arid experiences, but were writing as they were led by the Spirit of God. Their purposes were not their own, nor were their sources simply of human derivation. Under divine direction they selected from a vast reservoir those truths which bore out the purpose of God in their preservation. They were messages relevant to the day in which they were written, and they are just as relevant to our day.


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