Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Matthew's Magnificent Gospel.

The Gospel of Matthew was the centerpiece of the early church. It was the first Gospel written according to several early post-Apostolic writers and the most often quoted during the first 200 years of the church. And rightly so, for it is not only magnificently written but it is the bridge between the Old Testament and the New.

     William Barclay writes, “When we turn to Matthew, we turn to the book which may well be called the most important single document of the Christian faith, for in it we have the fullest and the most systematic account of the life and the teachings of Jesus”

     But it is not above its modern critics.

     Among the most often heard critiques is that it was not written by the Apostle Matthew but rather by an unknown author some time in the late 1st century. That would remove it from the likelihood that it was an eyewitness  account. At best it would be legend, at worst fiction.

John Loftus' critique of the Gospel of Matthew summarizes the complaints against the Gospel then engages the critique at the point of sources the author used:

he [Matthew] employs secondary sources (Mark & Q), themselves patchworks of well-worn fragments.

Loftus, John W.. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Revised & Expanded) (p. 312). Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.
     And I as well as almost every Bible scholar would agree. Yes. Matthew used quotes from other sources. He could not have been there when the events of the first few chapters took place. But everyone recognizes that. He also uses quotes from some other source for all the sayings and deeds of Jesus. But let's consider that.

     The quotes in Matthew have every mark of being rather literal translations from a Hebrew original. They retain the Hebrew word order, and they are filled with Hebrew idioms while nowhere else in the book are Hebrew idioms found.  The quotes are also used heavily by Mark and Luke.  There are also some quotes that are Hebrew translations shared with Luke and not Mark. Scholars identify those by Q, which stands for Source. But there are many places in Matthew where the  quotes are unique to Matthew. Chapter 23, for example, has no counterpart in any of the other Gospels. Much of the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is found in no other Gospel.

     That is ample evidence there was an earlier source. But it is not likely Mark. Much of Mark, of course, is shared with Matthew. And Mark also is quoting an earlier source just as is Matthew because his quotes are also heavy with Hebrew idioms. But the early Christian writers are clear that Matthew was first and that Mark wrote later relying on Peter's memories. They did not copy from one another.  The best solution to the puzzle is that Matthew and Mark were quoting a common oral source. We could call that Q if we like.

     If it was an oral source, it was a well known oral source since it is quoted in all three synoptics (the first three Gospels) and it had a form, a chronology,  that is retained in those Gospels. These were not random quotes. The source of those oral sayings and deeds of Jesus is most likely the Apostles themselves. Who else would put together an orderly record of the sayings of Jesus?

     In Acts 2 we are told that the Apostles almost immediately began to teach the new converts about Jesus. And who could possibly know the story and the words of Jesus better than they themselves? It is reasonable that this teaching was organized and memorized so that it could be spoken to others faithfully as the church expanded beyond Jerusalem.

     Now, Peter was one of the Apostles, and Peter was with Jesus almost the entire time of his teaching ministry. He was among the Apostles in Jerusalem as they taught the new converts. He would have known the story of Jesus well. It is his memories that Mark is said by early second century writer Papias to have recorded in an orderly fashion in his Gospel. But Peter's recollections of Jesus would have been much like those of the other Apostles.

     Matthew, we know, was also a disciple. He is mentioned in all three Gospels. Would his recollections not have been very similar?

     But they were not exactly the same. There are variations - which argue for oral transmission rather than written transmission. In one place Matthew's account is significantly different. He inserts the name Matthew where Mark and Luke use Levi.  Why would he change the name?  It may be because Matthew wrote the Gospel and was, therefore, writing about himself.  Matthew also makes a point of confessing that he was the tax collector giving the party in the passage that follows his calling. He also refers to himself as the tax collector in the list of the twelve disciples. Mark and Luke do not make that reference. Matthew's reference seems like a personal disclosure, and one another writer might not make writing about a respected Apostle since tax collector was a disreputable profession. 

     There is another reason for Matthew not using the name Levi. The name Levi carried some weight. It indicated that Levi (Matthew) belonged to the tribe of Levi, the priesthood tribe. If so that would imply that he was likely well educated in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that is certainly the case with the author of Matthew. No other writer makes as many references to the Hebrew Scriptures as Matthew. It is also evident that the author of Matthew was well versed in Rabbinical interpretation of the scriptures. He uses an interpretive style common among the rabbis, including a teaching method called a remez.[1] But if Matthew was a Levite with the education and religious heritage of a Levite, what is he doing collecting taxes? That is about as low as you could go in Judean society. And it was rarely a profession at which an educated man would be found.

     The answer may be that Matthew was a disaffected Levite. Having seen the religion up close and personal, he was as disgusted with it as Jesus. (It is also why Matthew includes chapter 23. He is letting Jesus say what he thought about the religious leaders of his day.)  But rather than confront it as Jesus did, he ran away from it. And why not? The religious scene was a sham. Collecting taxes was at least lucrative. And it provided fellowship with people just as much on the margins of society as Matthew felt himself to be.

     But there was still a spark of faith in him. It would not be a surprise then when Jesus came along preaching the restoration of the Hebrew faith that Matthew would be attracted.When Jesus called, he followed.

     If the author is Matthew the Apostle he would have known the story of Jesus as well as Peter and the other Apostles.  He was one of them. It was his story. And that is why what seem like third person accounts could also have been his own eyewitness memories. But there is another reason as well for the author using the third person instead of the first person.

     The whole point of all three of the Gospels is Jesus. None of the writers identify themselves, even Luke. Mark doesn't even credit the record of Jesus to Peter, though there are hints in Mark that it is told from Peter's memories. All the Gospel writers choose to focus upon Jesus rather than themselves. It is not surprising  then that Matthew didn't include first person memories.

     All these features point to Matthew as the author and accord well with what the early church understood. 

     However, there is another feature that Lotfus does not mention. That is the quality of the Greek. Some scholars argue that a tax collector in a podunk back water region like Galilee would not have known Greek and certainly could not have written in the excellent and educated Greek evident in the Gospel.

     But Matthew was not the typical tax collector. And Galilee was not as backward as some scholars think. It was a multi-enthnic area. It was a crossroads of cultures.  People spoke Greek and Aramaic and likely other languages. Far from being a surprise that a tax collector in Galilee would know Greek, it would seem almost a prerequisite.

     But excellent Greek? Well, just look at Paul. He was a Jew and spoke Hebrew/Aramaic among his people. He was educated as a Pharisee and knew the Hebrew Scriptures well.  But he knew Greek just as well, and spoke and wrote it as a native speaker. Could that not have been the case with Matthew?

     Then there was the case of the author of Hebrews. His Greek was if anything better, equal to Luke's who was an educated native Greek speaker. And he was also a Jew well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. And there were others. Philo was a Jew from Alexandria who wrote excellent Greek. Josephus knew Hebrew/Aramaic and yet wrote Greek very well.

     Being bi-lingual when both languages are learned from birth results in the ability to be fluent in both languages as if they were - as they are in that case - the native language. At the most, we can derive from Matthew's language that he was a educated native speaker of Greek and also a well versed student of the Hebrew Scriptures. We need not conclude that he could not be a tax collector or one of the disciples.

     Certainly the Apostle Matthew meets every qualification to be the writer of the Gospel. But there are two more things. Papias early in the second century identifies Matthew the Apostle as the author of the first Gospel, and he mentions Matthew wrote first in Hebrew. That fits the Gospel of Matthew very well. No other Gospel was directed as specifically toward the Jews as Matthew's. The text we have is in Greek, it is true. But Matthew among all the Apostles was uniquely able to write his Gospel also in Greek, not as a translation but as a native speaker. And so he did.

     Finally, there is the place the Gospel was accorded in the early church. It is not only listed first but is the most often quoted, and most notably in the Didache, a book of instruction for worship in the early church, a book of instructions from the Apostles.

     That seals the deal for me. Matthew is the author; he is the only author the early church knew for the Gospel. And the Gospel is an eyewitness account. Today that makes it most valuable to the church as the confessing church meets the challenges of the New Biblical Scholars and skeptics.

1. https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/remez

10 comments:

Miriam Arulanandam said...

Well thought through...

Neil said...

Highly speculative, Don; all those ifs and maybes, which you seem to forget about these when you assert in your conclusion that your special pleading 'seals the deal' for you.

You do know that most historians would disagree with you, don't you; that Matthew's gospel was not the first to be written, that it relies heavily on great swathes of Mark and Q and that its author was not an eye-witness? He wouldn't have needed to use others' accounts if he'd been present himself.

Don Camp said...

Hi Neil. Yes. There are a lot of ifs. But there are in every attempt to narrow down who wrote the Gospel. But there are some facts. 1) Papias and Ireneus attribute the Gospel to Matthew the Apostle. Both say Matthew was the first Gospel. 2) There were no other authors mentioned in the early centuries. 3) There is material in Matthew that is shared in Mark and Luke. 4) There are unique passages quoting Jesus in Matthew 5) The quality of the Greek is very high. 6) There are no first person passages. 6) The Gospel was accorded highest confidence and appreciation in the early church and was often quoted.

Every Bible scholar must deal with those facts when he or she attempts to identify who the author might have been. I try to deal with all of those.

Your rebuttal that Matthew would not have had to use others' accounts if he'd been present is perhaps the most often mentioned. I think that my explanation for the use of quoted material is at least viable. Other objections are noted in the blog. Thanks for your comments.

Neil said...
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Neil said...

Don, may I address all of your points:
1) Maybe Papias and Ireneus did attribute the gospel to Matthew, but that doesn't mean they were right – because:
2) The gospel was anonymously written and appears to have been accepted as such long before Matthew's name came to be attached to it. So, you may well be right that no other name was associated with the gospel but that overlooks the fact that initially no name at all was.
3) No, you have this back to front. There is material in Matthew taken from Mark that also appears in Luke; the overwhelming consensus is that it is this way round, not that Mark borrowed from Matthew, simplifying the material in the process.
4) There are unique passages in Luke too. Their presence in Matthew does not make it an eye-witness account nor the first gospel to be written. It simply indicates Matthew, like Luke, had sources in addition to Mark and Q. We do not know what these were as no-one, including God, took the trouble to preserve them.
5) So? What does a high quality of Greek prove? Other than it is unlikely a semi-literate, Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could have produced such a work.
6) The absence of first person passages strongly suggests that Matthew's gospel (like the others) is not an eye-witness, first person account.
7) This is a non-sequitur, Don; that Matthew's gospel was widely used does not mean it was the first to be written nor does it make it an eye-witness account - any more than the fact Harry Potter is widely read makes those stories true, eye-witness reports or even good literature.

It is unlikely we will ever know who the author of the gospel attributed to Matthew really was. We can, however, safely rule out, for reasons touched on above, that the author was an eye-witness. Thou doest clutch at straws trying to make it so.

Don Camp said...
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Don Camp said...

Hi Neil,

1. Papias' attribution should not be taken lightly. For some reason we, 2000 years later, think we have a better handle on the documents and authors than those who lived within a century or less of them. That seems foolish to me. Why not trust Papias?

2. How do you know that Matthew's name was not associated with the Gospel early on. I've suggested why the Gospel was written without a claim to authorship, but that doesn't mean no one knew. That being the case, when Papias attributes it to Matthew, and that a relatively few years after it was written, you'd think someone would correct his opinion. Papias is, of course, quoted by Eusebius. We do not have Papis' work. So why did Eusebius. He corrected other early writers. See http://biblicalmusing.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-people-you-think-wrote-gospels-arent.html

3. The consensus is based on a general rule that the longer passage is likely the later passage. Since Matthew and Luke are almost always longer, Mark must have been first and have been copied by Matthew and Luke. But that would not be true if they all three used an earlier source.

4. That is strange because all three of the synoptic writers preserve the sources of Jesus' words and deeds. Put all those together and you have a pretty complete account of Jesus from a source or sources earlier than any of the Gospels.

Would it not seem strange if none of the Apostles had preserved the things Jesus said and did? If there had been no account of Jesus' life at the time Paul wrote, would we not have expected him to include more than he did in his letters? Paul's letters were for the most part responses to particular questions or issues related to the churches, and not the words and deeds of Jesus, so would it not seem totally reasonable to expect that Paul told them when he was present in the churches? And if he told them, where did he get it?

Paul mentions Peter and James in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, would it have been remotely possible that knowing them he did not learn something of Jesus from them? Or from the Christians he persecuted? Or from the other Christians he worked with like Barnabas?

So an oral tradition of Jesus' words and deeds seems one of the easiest assumptions we can make related to the New Testament.


6. Even today a writer in a formal report of an event that he witnessed may use the third person rather than the first. Since all the gospel writers were focused on Jesus rather than on themselves, writing without referencing themselves seems perfectly understandable.

On the other hand, someone else wishing to give credibility to the Gospel he wrote might reasonably have done so by adding the name of one of the Apostles. But there is no name. The absence of a named author becomes maybe the best evidence of authenticity.

But whether the author Matthew was an eye witness or not is not as significant as the fact that we have the words and deeds of Jesus in a rough translation from the Hebrew original coming from almost certainly the Apostles' memories of their experience with Jesus. We have them from three different documents, and we have significant material in both Matthew and Luke to attest that their sources were not Mark. I can live with that.

Neil said...

Fair enough, though again it's all highly speculative. There is a sense here, Don, that you are determined to believe Matthew is both 'magnificent' and an eye-witness account so are quite prepared to hammer the known facts out of shape until they comply with your beliefs.

Can I make a further few points about that?

1) Q, the written source Matthew and Luke appear to make use of, while a 'sayings' gospel, appears not to include anything from the passion nor from the resurrected Jesus. Isn't this rather curious?

2) There are clearly fantasy elements in Matthew - the dead rising from their tombs and roaming the city, for example (Matt 27.53). Are you claiming these were actually witnessed by the author or his sources? Did he or they stand with Jesus in the wilderness while he chatted with Satan? Was Matthew present for the trial with Pilate? You do know these events are unlikely to have occurred, don't you?

3) Even if every word of Matthew could be demonstrated to be from the pen of a first-person witness (I can't help adding that they patently are not!) what difference does it make when Christians disregard so much of what it says? They don't sell all they have to help the poor (Matt 19.21); they rarely turn the other cheek (Matt 5.9) love their enemies (Matt 5.44) or resist judging others (Matt 7.1-3). They are certainly not 'perfect', as Jesus insists they should be (Matt 5.48) and are happy to ignore his instructions for how to achieve righteousness (Matt 5.20 etc) in favor of Paul's imputed (and easy) supernatural variety. Furthermore, the meek have not inherited the Earth (Matt 5.5) and Jesus did not return to judge the world in the time-frame he set himself (Matt 24.34).

So, even if we were to concede that Matthew's gospel was written by one who was there, and even if it is, in some sense, the word of God, why then is it wrong in so many of its aspects and why does it count for so little among Christians?

Don Camp said...

Thanks again Neil.

I see that many of the issues in the latter part of your post show up in your recent blog post. I've thought that they deserve an answer that is a little more extended than the commentator provided on your blog, so I'll get to them in my next blog post. Good list, btw.

Don Camp said...

Hi again Neil,
Your remarks have spurred me to look again at Matthew's Gospel and consider what you see there. In particular, I wanted to put your comments on Christians' disregard for the standards of obedience that Jesus taught. The result is my recent blog post http://biblicalmusing.blogspot.com/2017/03/matthews-magnificent-gospel-pt-2.html