Introductions: Matthew

from Jan 04, 2012 Category: Articles

Who wrote it? When was it written and why?

These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we’re adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible.

Today, please allow The Reformation Study Bible to introduce you to…

The Gospel According to Matthew

Author | Date & Occasion | Characteristics & Themes | Interpretive Difficulties


Although this Gospel does not name its author, some early manuscripts have the inscription “according to Matthew,” and Eusebius (c. A.D. 260-340) tells us that the early church father Papias (c. A.D. 60-130) spoke of Matthew as having arranged the “oracles” about Jesus. Subsequent tradition is unanimous that the disciple Matthew, also called Levi (Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17), was the author of this Gospel, and not until the eighteenth century was this tradition doubted.

Tradition is unanimous that the disciple Matthew was the author of this Gospel, and not until the 18th century was this tradition doubted.

There are some problems with the tradition. First, Papias apparently said that Matthew “arranged the oracles in th Hebrew dialect.” This statement seems to indicate that Matthew wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic, and scholars point out that Matthew does not read like a translation from these languages. It is also quite similar to Mark, which was certainly written in Greek. It is possible that Matthew wrote in both Hebrew and Greek, much as Calvin wrote works in both Latin and French.

Secondly, since Papias did not say “gospel” but “oracles,” some have identified these “oracles” as one of the sources lying behind our Gospels. But Eusebius appears to have understood “oracles” to mean “gospel,” and Irenaeus (writing about A.D. 180) speaks of a “gospel” by Matthew written “for the Hebrews in their own dialect.”

Other objections to Matthew’s authorship are more speculative. Some suggest that the Gospel may have been the product of a group of writers (“school”). Its alleged dependence on Mark and supposedly late composition (see “Date and Occasion“) are given as reasons to doubt Matthew’s authorship. But these objections do not disprove the tradition that Matthew was the sole author.

Since the author did not identify himself, he probably thought that it was not essential for his readers to know his name. Working through the human author was the primary Author, the Holy Spirit.

Date and Occasion

The earliest reference to the Gospel of Matthew is probably in the Epistle to the Smyrnaeans by Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 110). Almost no one dates that book later than A.D.100. Some scholars have dated it as early as A.D. 50, but many critics date it after the destruction of Jerusalem, usually between 80 and 100. Their reasons include the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted such future events as the destruction of Jerusalem, the view that the Gospel’s trinitarian theology (Matt. 28:19) and exalted christology (Matt. 11:27) are late ideas that developed in a Hellenistic environment, and the assertion that the word “Rabbi” (mentioned in Matt. 23:5-10) was not used as a title before A.D. 70.

An appropriate date for Matthew would be between A.D. 64 and 70.

Some of these reasons, such as that Jesus could not have predicted the future or that a high christology is Hellenistic and therefore late, are highly dubious and reflect a rejection of supernatural revelation. Further, there is some evidence in the context of the book that Matthew was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Gospel warns against Sadducees, a group that rapidly declined from prominence after A.D. 70 and ultimatley ceased to exist. The language used to describe the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24 reflects Old Testament prophecies of the divine judgment that Jesus foresaw as connected with the coming of His kingdom. There is no need to explain the content of Matthew 24 as the author’s memory of a historical event.

The writer of this Gospel probably used the Gospel of Mark. Assuming that Mark was composed with the help of the apostle Peter in Rome, an appropriate date for Matthew would be between A.D. 64 and 70.

Antioch in Syria is the most likely location for the writing of the Gospel and for the church for which it was originally composed. Ignatius, the earliest writer to quote Matthew, was bishop of Antioch. The congregation in Antioch was of mixed Jewish and Gentile origin (Acts 15), and this would account for the problems of legalism and antinomianism that Matthew particularly addresses.

Characteristics and Themes

Like all the Gospels, Matthew’s purpose is to convey authoritative teaching by and about Jesus, whose coming marks the fulfillment of God’s promises and the presence of God’s kingdom. Matthew makes no division between history and theology. His history is the basis of the theology, and the theology gives its proper meaning to the history.

Matthew’s purpose is to convey authoritative teaching by and about Jesus, whose coming marks the fulfillment of God’s promises and the presence of God’s kingdom.

Matthew makes extensive use of “fulfillment” references to the Old Testament. His citations are not presented as isolated predictions and fulfillments, but as proof of the fulfillment of all the expectations of the Old Testament. This concern affects the way Matthew stresses certain elements in the history. Matthew shows us the illegality of the Sanhedrin’s actions in the trial of Jesus (Matt. 26:57-68), the distortion of the Old Testament by the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 15:1-9), and the covenantal nature of God’s dealing with His people.

Also distinctive to Matthew is his presentation of the teaching of Jesus in five major discourses: ethics, discipleship and mission, the kingdom of heaven, the church, and the end time. These five divisions may have been patterned after the five books of Moses, to present Jesus as the Prophet like Moses of Deut. 18:18. Most scholars today recognize the five teaching discourses as the key to Matthew’s basic design, especially since each discourse ends with an expression such as, “And when Jesus finished these sayings” (Matt. 7:28). Further, there seems to be a relationship between each discourse and the narrative preceding it. Also note that the narrative portions deal primarily with the question of the King’s identity, while the discourse material tends to focus on the King’s people.

Interpretive Difficulties

Scholars today are in general agreement that both Matthew and Luke made use of the Gospel of Mark in writing their own Gospels. However, Matthew and Luke do not follow Mark at every point in the order of events of Jesus’ life, or the order of His teachings. Matthew and Luke have some material in common not found in Mark, but here too they differ in its placement within Jesus’ ministry.

The three Synoptic Gospels are individual and complementary works… They offer Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, to all generations.

To understand the chronology of the Gospels it is important to note that Mark’s own account is not a complete diary. John reports that Jesus visited Jerusalem several times during a period of about three years, while in Mark the events are presented in what appears to be one year ending with a single, climactic visit to Jerusalem. In other words, the Holy Spirit had already led Mark in selecting and presenting the events of Jesus’ ministry in a particular way. Matthew and Luke similarly were led by the Spirit in their own selection and presentation of events.

The Gospels do not simply present a schedule of Jesus’ activities. Nor are they modern, technical biographies that follow methods unknown in their own day. The three Synoptic Gospels are individual and complementary works; they are not three incomplete attempts to do the same task. They are spiritual books; together with the Gospel of John they offer Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, to all generations.

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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.