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.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.
Loftus, John W.. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Revised & Expanded) (p. 312). Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.
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. 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.