Thursday, January 15, 2015


I've been reading in the past weeks about the Gospels. I suppose my interest has been rekindled because of the ideas I encountered in the book I recently read, Zealot. The idea of that author, Reza Aslan, is that the Gospels were all written in the later part of the first century or early second century and were not the accounts of eyewitnesses or even those acquainted with the eyewitnesses to Jesus.

My own research leads me to another conclusion, especially related to the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, I was so exercised by Aslan's analysis that I felt led to publish a piece out of my book I Walked With Jesus in which I address the question. It follows.

Profile of Matthew

Who was Matthew? In our hurry to get into the book itself, we often overlook the author. That is a mistake. Knowing the author and his purpose in writing is important to our understanding of any piece of writing and certainly to our understanding of this gospel. In fact, as we better understand the man called Matthew and his passion for the Messiah and for his own Jewish people, what he wrote of Jesus takes on greater meaning.

Who was this Matthew? The answer that immediately rolls off our tongues is that he is the disciple of that name, called by Jesus to become one of the inner group of twelve disciples. But in recent years that assumption has been challenged. The author does not sign his name to the manuscript. He includes no first person “we” memories of Jesus or first person recollections of what would have been his shared experiences with the other disciples. He even seems to use long passages from a previously existing source rather than personal eyewitness testimony - which the author must have had if he were the disciple Matthew. So, were we mistaken? I do not think so.

Who was Matthew? If we were to ask him, he would tell us, as he does in his gospel, that he was just a man, a sinner who followed Jesus. He would happily leave it at that and change the discussion to what was really his passion, the Messiah.

But of course, Matthew’s brief, humble reply would be only part of the story. History tells us that he was more than a humble follower of Jesus. He was also an Apostle, a man sent with a message to his people, and the author of the book called by his name.

But was he the author? There are two lines of evidence for Matthew’s authorship of the gospel. They both lead us back to what the church has for nineteen centuries accepted as true.

The first is the words of the early church father Papias. Writing in the early part of the second century, Papias identified the author of the book as the Apostle Matthew. Papias also tells us that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians and perhaps wrote in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. To Papias, Matthew was more than a name from history. He was a real person, a respected Apostle. To take the word of someone who lived as little as one generation distant from the author of the book seems reasonable. He certainly knew the events that surrounded the beginning of the church far better than we can know them from a distance of almost two thousand years.

The second line of evidence is a manual for conduct and practice in the early church called the Didache. It is dated to the late first or early second century (100-130 A.D.) and was considered by the early church to be the teachings of the Apostles. The Didache contains the Lord’s Prayer just as it appears in the Matthew’s gospel and the formula used for baptizing - "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" - found in chapter 28 of the gospel. Along with these longer quotes, the Didache also uses many briefer phrases and words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7, words not found in the other gospels. The heavy dependence of the Didache on Matthew would indicate both the early and apostolic origin of Matthew’s gospel, as well as the gospel's importance to the early church.

However, it is not the historical evidence for authorship that is most significant for our understanding of his message. It is the portrait of Matthew that emerges from the book itself.

Matthew clearly was a literate and knowledgeable reader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He quoted extensively from those scriptures, more than any of the other three gospel writers. And it was a knowledge that is understandable when we see in the gospels of Mark and Luke that Matthew was also known as Levi. That name identifies Matthew as a man belonging to the family clan assigned to serve in temple ministry, a man who would have been well schooled in the Scriptures of Israel.

Yet when we are introduced to him in the gospels he is not in the temple. He is working at the most despised of professions, a tax collector for Herod and the Romans, and consorting with sinners. How had he fallen? Why?

Perhaps Matthew’s personal experience of the “religion” of Israel is the answer.
Matthew would have grown up in a family intimately associated with religion. He would have personally seen the corruption and political compromise and deadness (the very things that Jesus confronted and that Matthew reported at length in the gospel). If he had been a young man serious about God, dead religion up close and personal must have been a terribly disturbing disappointment. Like many young people today who become disillusioned by the emptiness of the religion they see in churches, the only option seemed to be to walk away from it all. He didn’t end up pouring drinks in a sleazy back street bar, but his job as tax collector and partier with sinners was not much different. It was as far away from the religion of his youth as he could get. Yet there smoldered in Matthew a hope. It was a passion that is evident in his frequent references to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah, more than any other prophet, weeps in pain at the moral and spiritual decline of Israel. Yet this same Isaiah deeply hopes in the promised Messiah - whose portrait he so wonderfully drew in the powerful 53rd chapter of his message. For Isaiah, the Messiah is the Servant of God who would take away the sin of his people. Isaiah pictured these people as an “afflicted city” ( Isaiah 54:11), a people who were waiting in “darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). And that was Matthew. He was a pile of kindling waiting for a flame. Jesus was that flame.
Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was here. It was now. And Jesus demonstrated it with the power of his words and his acts. The Messiah Isaiah had spoken of had come, and Matthew had become convinced deep down and without question that Jesus was the hope of Israel. This man was Messiah! It must have sent a chill down his back when Matthew first came to that realization.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to the one he knew to be Messiah left him forever humbled. It is telling that Matthew alone uses the name Matthew and not the name Levi when he tells of his own calling to follow Jesus. The other two gospel writers call him Levi. But the name Levi carried far more status than Matthew wished now to bear. Forever after he would call himself simply a man named Matthew.

It is also telling that in the list of the twelve disciples included in all three gospels, Matthew alone would add to his name, “the tax collector.” (He might as well have written Matthew the sinner, for that is what he meant.) Yes, Matthew’s encounter with Messiah left him deeply and profoundly humbled, but it also left him with a burden.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to Messiah would turn him to his people with the message of the Servant Savior. He saw his people as the people described by Isaiah:

Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead” ( Isaiah59:10).
Upon them the light had now dawned. And with the burden of a prophet, Matthew would spend the rest of his life speaking the message of Messiah Jesus, the Light. He would bear that burden to his people in Judea and then across western Asia. Out of that passion flowed the words of the book we know as the Gospel of Matthew.

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