St. Matthew is the namesake of our church. What does it mean, then, for us to be named after St. Matthew? Who is this St. Matthew whose name we bear?
The Tax Collector
Ancient church tradition assigned the authorship of the first gospel to the tax collector identified by that gospel as “Matthew”:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.Matthew 9:9 (NRSV)
In Mark and Luke, this tax collector is identified as Levi and is not mentioned again. But in the first gospel, this tax collector is identified as Matthew right before a story in which Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and other “sinners”:
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”Matthew 9:10–13
Why does the first gospel identify the tax collector as the disciple Matthew (Matthew 10:3) when the other gospels do not? Some in the ancient church believed that this was a clue that the first gospel had been written by the tax collector disciple himself. After all, surely the author would know his own name and record it correctly.
There were also other traditions circulating that stated that Matthew had written the first gospel in Hebrew and that it served as the basis for the Greek gospels. Because of these beliefs, Matthew’s gospel was placed first in the New Testament—and because it was everyone’s favorite.
There’s only one problem with this theory: it all falls apart if it should turn out that Matthew’s gospel was not the first one written.
The overwhelming consensus of scholars is that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a literary source alongside a source of sayings and teachings called “Q” (from the German Quelle “source”). This raises a real problem.
If the Gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness, a disciple of Jesus’, then why does he rely so heavily on the writings of Mark, who was not an eyewitness? Indeed, his reliance on Mark and the Q source, along with his clear fluency in Greek (better than Mark’s), make it extremely unlikely that the gospel was written by a Galilean eyewitness to the life of Jesus. Oh, there are undoubtedly elements of oral tradition in the account and the Q source might wind up being connected to a tradition from Matthew the disciple. But did Matthew the disciple, tax collector or otherwise, write the gospel of Matthew?
No. So who did?
We don’t know. The gospel is anonymous; it bears no claim of authorship. None of them does, actually. They’re all anonymous. But we can draw some inferences.
The author is a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, probably writing in the 80’s of the First Century, probably in Syria (maybe Antioch). The community he is writing to seems likewise to be Jewish-Christian and perhaps still keeps the Jewish laws of the Sabbath and kosher food.
He is bitterly opposed to early Christianity’s major religious rival, the sect of the Pharisees, and his gospel reflects the “Great Divorce” taking place between Messianic Judaism (i.e., Christianity) and Pharisaic Judaism (i.e., proto-Rabbinic Judaism) in the late First Century.
As an opponent of the Pharisees, he is quick to reject their claims to be teachers and interpreters of the law and presents Jesus as the true rabbi, the true teacher. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew has a great deal of teaching material in it, organized by the author into five major sections, perhaps echoing the five books of the Torah.
The author of the gospel is a clear articulator of Christian ethics, found in chapters five through seven, or what we usually call “The Sermon on the Mount.” He is committed to a unity of faith and action and sees hypocrisy—the failure to unite faith and action—as one of the greatest spiritual failings of Jesus’ opponents.
But we don’t know that person’s name.
The Tax Collector Again
So, if the author of the Gospel of Matthew is not the Matthew the disciple or tax collector, then why did he change the name of Levi in Mark’s gospel to Matthew in his? Three lines in the narrative provide a tantalizing clue.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew (Μαθθαιος Maththaios) sitting at the tax booth;
“When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples (μαθηται mathētai), “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “… Go and learn (μαθετε mathete) what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”Matthew 9:9, 11, 13
Here, through puns and wordplay, the author is making an explicit connection between the sinner called into discipleship, the disciples, and learning what mercy is all about. For a sinner called to be a disciple who will learn the law of Christ, Matthew is the perfect name.
So, in our exploration of St. Matthew’s teachings together, this is the St. Matthew we’ll be talking about. Our St. Matthew is the unnamed author of the Gospel, the one who sees a connection between faith and action, who presents Jesus as a great teacher, and the one who saw that a sinner—even a tax collector—can, at the feet of the Master, learn the law of love and grace.
Below are the sermons preached in this series reflecting on St. Matthew’s guidance for us as Christians.
- St. Matthew Wants You to Be Ready for Anything, October 11, 2020
- St. Matthew Wants You to Know Jesus Is Really Big on Forgiveness, September 13, 2020
- St. Matthew Wants You to Know That Faith Is Known by its Fruit, October 4, 2020
- St. Matthew Wants You to Know that God’s Grace Is Free, September 20, 2020
- St. Matthew Wants You to Know that Talk Is Cheap, September 27, 2020