Sunday, August 9, 2009

Author Sketch: "Matthew"

Author Sketch: “Matthew”

Only one step shy of the mystery surrounding, “Who wrote the book of Love?” is the question, “Who wrote the book of the Gospel of Matthew?” Theologians and historians have spent thousands of years arguing this very point and the answer with which one comes to a kind of peace has more to do with worldview than the imperviousness of any given body of evidence.

In the absence of an historical accord, the best we can hope for is to sketch out a continuum of the possibilities. The first set of hurdles over which we must leap is in regards to when was the gospel written? The gospel itself never claims to be a first hand account of Jesus’s life and, indeed, given marked shifts in tone between the various sections, it reads more like an accumulation of myths, second-hand accounts, and accepted teachings that might have developed within a particular sect of the early church. Some critics, perhaps more interested in the gospel’s literal veracity, might place it as being written sometime directly after the Resurrection. However, there is also considerable evidence pointing to a much later codification of the gospel, late in the first century after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. So, reasonably, we can place the penning of this work somewhere between 33 and 100 CE.

The question of who exactly is this Matthew is a thornier one altogether. Matthew’s continued usage of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” in contrast to the other gospels’ reliance on “kingdom of God” has suggested to some that its author is be, in fact, Jewish due to his reluctance to write the name of God. This suspicion is compounded by Matthew’s more frequent referencing (relative to the other gospels) of verses from the Torah to show Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.

Conversely, while there is no original manuscript to confirm this, many also suspect that Matthew was originally written in Greek which tells us something not only about its author but its intended audience. Though it was likely written by a Jew (or Jews) with an intimate understanding of Temple Law, that person (or people) was also educated in the universal language of scholarship, Greek, and transmitted the beliefs contained within to a group of people expected to have both a knowledge of the law and Greek writing.

That same author expresses obvious prejudices towards various groups while painting others with a less critical brush. The Kings Herod and the Pharisees are made the clear villains of the piece while the Romans, who actually crucified Jesus, are shown at every turn to be, at worst, unwitting participants in a tragedy beyond their understanding or, at best, actually sympathetic to Jesus’s teaching and, in some cases, his ministry. From this, we may infer that Matthew’s writer was still under threat of Roman persecution and did not (unlike Paul) wish to portray Christianity as critical of or subversive to Roman authority.

Short of the invention of time-travel, we will likely never know with complete certainty who wrote the book of Matthew or fully under what circumstances it was created. Still, the version of Jesus’s life that it tells is the first one to greet us as we approach the New Testament and approximates, if not perfectly reports, a good deal of what we know about Jesus’s own beliefs and teachings. Though we place a high premium on certainty in this empirical day and age, what, after all, is the fun of a mystery religion without a little mystery?


  1. I see the main difference in interpretation lies upon whether the reader reads within the context and referece to only the other books of the bible, or if the reader also includes historical context/motive in order to create a scholarly examination.

  2. This brings us back to our conversation from earlier about Belief and Knowledge. The more Knowledge that you apply, the less room that there is for Belief and vice versa. It is important to remember that both are apparently vital to the human animal and hold equal value in their own quadrant.