By Fr John Flader
I am a confused Scripture teacher. Having taught that Matthew the Apostle wrote the first Gospel, I find in a new Bible that “It is generally accepted by scholars today that the author of the first Gospel was not the Apostle Matthew … but a second generation Christian…” Who is right? And was the Gospel written in Greek around 85 AD as this Bible says?
Your question reminds me of those “consolation” questions Groucho Marx used to ask on his quiz show when the contestant failed to answer the prescribed questions. He would ask, for example, “Who was buried in Grant’s tomb?” or “Who wrote Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” Who wrote Matthew’s Gospel? Sounds familiar.
Also, we have to be careful not to let the opinions of “scholars” or theologians become a “parallel magisterium”, which is given the same authority as the official teachings of the Church.
But returning to your question, there is ample evidence that it was indeed the apostle Matthew who wrote the first Gospel, that he wrote in Aramaic, not Greek, and that he wrote it much earlier than 85 AD.
As regards the authorship, Christian tradition unanimously attributes the first Gospel to Matthew. Virtually all the ancient manuscripts that preserve the title of the work have some form of the words “according to Matthew”. Among the Fathers of the Church and other writers, St Irenaeus, Origen, St John Chrysostom, St Jerome and St Augustine all say that Matthew wrote the Gospel.
On 19 June 1911 the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), with the approval of Pope St Pius X, affirmed that Matthew was indeed the author of the first Gospel: “In view of the universal and constant agreement of the Church, as shown by the testimony of the Fathers, the inscription of Gospel codices, most ancient versions of the Sacred Books and lists handed down by the Holy Fathers, ecclesiastical writers, Popes and Councils, and finally by liturgical usage in the Eastern and Western Church, it may and should be held that Matthew, an Apostle of Christ, is really the author of the Gospel that goes by his name” (n. I).
As regards the language, according to the historian Eusebius (Church History III.39.16), the early Christian Papias said that Matthew composed the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew language. Eusebius (Church History V.10.3) also says that in India Pantaenus found the Gospel according to Matthew written in the Hebrew language, where St Bartholomew had left it. And he says (Church History VI.25.3-4) that Origen in his first book on the Gospel of Matthew states that he had learned from tradition that the first Gospel was written by Matthew, who composed it in Hebrew for the converts from Judaism. St Jerome too repeatedly declared that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew (Ad Damasum, xx, Ad Hedib. iv), as did St Cyril of Jerusalem, St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Epiphanius, St John Chrysostom, St Augustine and others. When they say Hebrew it is understood to mean the Hebrew spoken in Israel at the time of Christ, which we know today as Aramaic. In spite of the certainty that Matthew wrote in Aramaic, there are unfortunately no surviving copies of that version, and only the Greek translation remains.
In this regard the PBC, in the same declaration, affirmed: “The belief that Matthew preceded the other Evangelists in writing, and that the first Gospel was written in the native language of the Jews then in Palestine, is to be considered as based on Tradition” (n. II).
As for when Matthew wrote his Gospel, it is most likely that he did so in the 50s or 60s of the first century. There are two main reasons for saying this. First, Matthew records Jesus’ prophecy that Jerusalem would fall, with the burning of the city (cf. Mt 22:7) and the destruction of the Temple (cf. Mt 24:2). Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in the year 70, but there is no mention of it in the Gospel. Also, Matthew refers seven times to the opposition of the Sadducees to Christ and the disciples, but the Sadducees ceased to be a force with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70. In this regard the PBC declared: “The preparation of this original text was not deferred until after the destruction of Jerusalem, so that the prophecies it contains about this might be written after the event; nor is the alleged uncertain and much disputed testimony of Irenaeus (Advers. haeres., lib. III, cap. I, n. 2), convincing enough to do away with the opinion most conformed to Tradition, that their preparation was finished even before the coming of Paul to Rome” (n. III).
So yes, Matthew wrote his Gospel and he did so in Aramaic long before the year 85.