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The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of Matthew

By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010


 

The historical literary evidence demonstrates Matthew the apostle wrote both the Hebrew and Greek Versions of the Gospel of Matthew. He first wrote an original briefer version of his gospel in Hebrew (Aramaic) for the Hebrew Christians in Palestine and then wrote an expanded version of his gospel in Greek for Christians everywhere.


The Authorship of the Gospel of Matthew

The universal testimony of the early church fathers is that Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel of Matthew in both Hebrew and Greek.


The Gospel of Matthew was published first in Hebrew (Aramaic), then in Greek.

When the early church fathers mention that Matthew was published first, they mention the original version of the gospel written by Matthew in Hebrew (Aramaic) because this was the first edition of Matthew’s gospel. For a discussion of Matthew’s authorship of both a Hebrew and Greek version of his gospel, go to www.hebrewgospel.com.

Matthew wrote and published his gospel in Hebrew first and later translated it into Greek. If the early fathers are writing about the origin of Matthew’s gospel, they will most naturally mention the first edition in Hebrew (Aramaic) first before the Greek version. Since they believed without a doubt that he translated it into Greek, they did not even mention it because it was so well-accepted.

Also, these two versions were not viewed as different works, but the same work in two different languages. This is specially true because none of the church fathers who mention a Hebrew original had seen or read the Hebrew version.

The Greek version must have been translated soon afterwards by Matthew because the Hebrew Matthew had so limited an impact and the Greek Matthew had such a wide impact and because no reference is given to when the Greek Matthew was written and published. It was most likely within a few years (within the same general time period “while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome”).

In examining the writings of the church fathers, it can be seen that when taken together, they give the general historical circumstances that were known about the publication of the Gospel of Matthew.

Eusebius gives the circumstances and necessity of the writing of the Hebrew Matthew. Papias gives the reason the Hebrew Matthew was translated into Greek (same basic reason as the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek Septuagint and Irenaeus gives the time period. Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius give us the purpose.


The Circumstances of the Writing of Hebrew Matthew

Eusebius gives the general circumstances of the writing of Matthew’s Gospel in his Church History (3.24.6) when he states,
“For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.”

Eusebius shares with his readers that before Matthew left for an extended leave from the Hebrews, most likely the Hebrew (Aramaic) speaking Jews in Jerusalem and the surrounding region, he wrote a gospel in Hebrew (Aramaic) and left it for them to have while he was gone.

The Reason Hebrew Matthew was translated into Greek by Matthew

Papias (quoted by Eusebius in his Church History 6.22) refers to the Hebrew Matthew and gives a clue to why it was translated into Greek. He said,

“Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”

Papias indicates that Matthew had written his gospel called by him the “Oracles of the Lord” first in Hebrew (Aramaic) and that anyone who did not speak and write Hebrew (Aramaic) translated it as best he could. This tells us not only that Matthew’s gospel was first written to Hebrew (Aramaic) speaking Jewish-Christians probably in Judea, but also that it was not understood by Greek speaking Jews, thus implying the need for Matthew’s Greek version.

When Papias mentioned the Hebrew origin of Matthew, he must have been assuming the existence of the Greek Matthew because he wrote a work entitled “Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord.”

Eusebius testifies to Papias’ work in his Church History (3.39.1),

“There are extant five books of Papias, which bear the title Expositions of Oracles of the Lord."

Eusebius tells us in the same passage that Irenaeus makes mention of these books as the only works written by him, in the following words: “These things are attested by Papias, an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book. For five books have been written by him. These are the words of Irenaeus.”

This most likely was a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew since Papias called it the “Oracles of the Lord.” Also, Papias, like most Gentile Christians at that time, didn’t know Hebrew so he could only have been expositing the Greek Matthew.


The Time Period of the Writing of Matthew’s Gospel in Both Versions

Irenaeus gives us the general time period when Matthew’s gospel as well as the Mark and Luke’s gospels were written.

Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (3.1.1) writes,

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”

This general time period will be explained in more depth later.

The Purpose of Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jewish Christians that they might understand how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy thus proving that he was indeed the messiah and Savior of Israel.

Irenaeus writes (Fragments of the Lost Writings 29),

“The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ [should be] of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire [to establish this point], took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with [an account of] His genealogy.”

Origen, in two of his writings, gives the audience to whom Matthew was writing, Jews who had embraced faith in Jesus.

In his Commentary on Matthew (Book 1), he states,

“Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a publican and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first; and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism.”

Also, in his Commentary on John (6.17) he writes,

“These, then, are the parallel passages of the four; let us try to see as clearly as we can what is the purport of each and wherein they differ from each other. And we will begin with Matthew, who is reported by tradition to have published his Gospel before the others, to the Hebrews, those, namely, of the circumcision who believed.”


The Time Period of the Publishing of Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s first version/edition of his gospel was when he went to other lands. There are two lines of evidence which give us the general time period this happened. It had to have happened after the Jerusalem council in 50 A.D. where the specifics of the gospel and its relation to the Mosaic Law and the gentiles was finally defined. This coincides with what Irenaeus says that Matthew’s gospel was published during the time Peter and Paul were preaching and establishing the church in Rome.

The Jeruslaem Council in 50 A.D. And the Apostolic Missionary Journeys

Nathanial Lardner explains the possible timing of the movement of the apostles to other lands outside of Judea and Samaria.

“When did the apostles leave Judea to go and preach the gospel in other countries? As many ancient christian writers, whom we have lately quoted, say, that St. Matthew, having preached some while in Judea, was desired by the believers there to leave with them in writing, before he went away, a history of what he had taught by word of mouth: this may not be an improper place to inquire, how long it was after the ascension of Jesus, before Matthew and the other apostles left Judea, to go abroad into foreign countries… And it seems to me, there is reason to conclude, that the apostles stayed in Judea, till after the council at Jerusalem, of which an account is given in the 15th chapter of that book. For St. Luke does continually speak of the apostles, as being at Jerusalem, or near it.”1

Lardner goes on to chronicle the apostles’ activities in the Book of Acts and make the case that any extended movement of the apostles to other lands to go to the Gentiles must have come after an extended time of the apostles in Judea and Samaria and after the Lord’s leading of Peter to bring salvation to Cornelius and the settling of the question of what is required of the Gentiles when they come to Christ. He explains that if the Jerusalem council was held around 49 or 50 A.D., then the Gospel of Matthew would have been published soon after that time just before Matthew went for an extended missionary journey outside of Judea and Samaria.

This is an excellent explanation of the possible timing of the publishing of the Hebrew Matthew. Jesus told his disciples in Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the remotest part of the earth.” The Lord’s intent was for his twelve apostles to first saturate the Jewish world of Judea and the Jewish/Gentile world of Samaria with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The twelve apostles were appointed for the Jews first. Then, according to Acts 26:15-18, the Lord selected, Paul, as a thirteenth apostle to go the Gentiles immediately and share the gospel with them. While the Holy Spirit was using Paul to open the way of salvation recorded in Acts 9-14, he was teaching Peter and the apostles recorded in Acts 11-12 that faith was the way of salvation for all men apart from the Jewish Law preparing them for their eventual mission to the Gentiles. Finally the Holy Spirit brought it all to a culmination with Paul’s message of salvation by grace through faith alone apart from the Law clashing with the expectation of the Christian Jews in Judea of the Gentiles being required to embrace the law when they embraced Christ.

In Acts 15 the Jerusalem council is held where Luke records in v.6 “And the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” The apostles were not summoned from all over the world to attend this meeting. They were already there in Jerusalem. The decision was made that the gospel given by Jesus Christ did not include embracing circumcision and the Law, but only faith in the Lord. Once this was settled, the mission to the Gentiles to the remotest part of the earth by the twelve apostles (minus James) after 15 years or so of filling Judea and Samaria with the gospel could begin. It is estimated by Lardner and others that this council was about 49 or 50 A.D.

Lardner writes,

“Now therefore from the year 44, to the time of the council in 49, or 50, and afterwards, the apostles went on fulfilling their ministry. All of them, as I apprehend, stayed in Judea, till the time of the council: soon after which some did, probably, go abroad. However, several of them might stay there a good while longer, and not remove, till a little before the commencement of the Jewish war in 66.”2

Therefore Matthew who soon departed to go to other lands would have published his first version of the gospel in Hebrew to the Christian Jews in Judea before he left. Later, it is likely that after Matthew was away evangelizing the Jews and the Gentiles outside of Palestine that he ran into non-Hebrew speaking Jews who could not read Hebrew or understand it. Preaching the gospel in the Greek language which would have been necessary as Hebrew (Aramaic) was primarily used in Palestine and only in certain pockets of population elsewhere. So many of the Jews outside Israel did not know Hebrew (Aramaic) that the Septuagint was written around 250 BC to provide the Jews the Old Testament Scriptures in Greek they could understand. It is not hard to see that Matthew recognized the need to provide his gospel to his Greek speaking converts and sometime later translated and expanded his earlier Hebrew gospel into the gospel that spread throughout the world and was the only one ever used by the church outside of Israel.

Irenaeus, in his work, Against Heresies, gives us an idea of timing of the publishing of the gospel of Matthew. He links it with the preaching of Peter and Paul in Rome and their establishing of the church at Rome as an apostolic church, a church established by an apostle with an apostolic doctrinal foundation.

Irenaeus writes (Against Heresies 3.1.1),

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”

Irenaeus is making a general statement of the two general time periods of the publishing of the gospels. He is not trying to be precise. He links the publishing of the synoptic gospels with Peter and Paul’s ministry in Rome and John’s gospel with John’s residency in Ephesus. He is not interested in giving exact dates and probably didn’t know them because it wasn’t important.

The general time period he gives first of the publishing of Matthew’s gospel is that it was during the time period that Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and establishing the church there. This demonstrates that Irenaeus had knowledge of when the gospels were published. When the gospels were published it was not done secretly, but openly in the churches. The gospels were not published anonymously and later attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The authors were known form the beginning.

For more information on the time period that Peter and Paul were ministering in Rome see “The Dates of the Four NT Gospels.”


END NOTES:

1. Lardner, Nathanial, The Works of Nathaniel Lardner with a Life by Dr. Kippis in Ten Volumes, Vol. 5, William Ball, London, 1808, p.285, 315

2. Lardner, Nathanial, The Works of Nathaniel Lardner with a Life by Dr. Kippis in Ten Volumes, Vol. 5, William Ball, London, 1808, p.321-322