“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him; then he began to speak, and taught them” (Matt 5:1). These verses introduce the famous “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s book of origins, and lead immediately into the Beatitudes, a series of blessings in which Jesus explains what is involved in “the kingdom of heaven”, which is the centre of his message (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19–20).
On those Beatitudes, see
The author of this narrative knows very well the traditional rabbinic methods of teaching which were consistently employed by Jesus—he collects parables and pithy sayings, reports his dialogical debates and midrashic expositions, and shapes the whole “book of origins” so that, through its five collated teaching blocks, it evokes the five books of the Law of Moses—the “books of origins” of the people Israel. Jesus is presented as the Rabbi (Teacher) par excellence, the new Moses for the people of his time.
These five blocks of teaching provide an extensive catechisms for the disciples who travelled with Jesus throughout Galilee. We should remember that these disciples included more than “the twelve apostles” of later Christian tradition—Matthew himself notes that “many women … had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him”, and identifies “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” amongst them (Matt 27:55–56).
However, this group of followers is representative for the larger group of people who had begun to follow Jesus in the years since the events reported in the Gospel. The work was compiled in order to provide a catechetical foundation for those later followers—through even to our own times, many centuries later.
These five teaching blocks canvass ethical imperatives (5:1–7:29), missional guidelines (10:5–11:1), parables of the kingdom (13:1–53), relationships within the community of faith (18:1–19:1), and apocalyptic predictions about the coming kingdom along with strengthened indications of what righteousness is required in that kingdom (23:1–26:2). These teachings are demanding and comprehensive.
Who compiled this teaching Gospel? Within ecclesial tradition, the author is identified as Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus. There is absolutely no hint that he was schooled in the intricacies of Torah interpretation. In that tradition, Matthew was appointed as an apostle, and later wrote an eye-witness account of the time he spent with Jesus. It’s a point of view that I don’t personally adhere to.
Within biblical scholarship, Matthew is recognised simply as a character who appears briefly in the story told by the first Gospel in the New Testament. He is identified in one short verse narrating his call by Jesus (Matt 9:9). He is also included in the list of twelve who were called to be apostles, with the added descriptor, “the tax collector” (Matt 10:3). He is also named in three other books, with nothing further said about him (Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; and Acts 1:13). But little else about him is conveyed in the four books that name him.
On the authorship of the Gospels, see
Those five fleeting references are the only times we see directly this person in the biblical narratives. He is surely there in other scenes, but he simply blends into the collection of “the disciples” (Mark 2:23; 3:7; 5:31: 6:1, 35, 41, 45; 7:17; 8:1–10, 14, 27, 34: 9:14, 28, 31; 10:10, 13, 23–24; 11:19; 12:43; 13:1; 14:12–16; and Synoptic parallels), “the twelve” (Mark 4:10; 6:7; 9:35; 14:20; and Synoptic parallels; and John 6:66–71; 20:24), or, even more anonymously, into “the crowd” (Mark 2:4, 13; 4:1; Matt 7:28; 13:2; Luke 5:1; 6:17; 7:11–12; 8:4; John 6:2; 12:9, 12; Acts 1:15; 2:6; etc.).
And yet, in the evolving church traditions, Matthew emerges from the shadows to take centre stage as disciple, apostle, saint, and author of the Gospel which is placed first in the New Testament. Some churches even maintain the patristic claim that Matthew wrote in Aramaic, and was later translated into the Greek version that forms the basis of the New Testament text.
The claim about Aramaic comes from a fourth century report by Eusebius of Caesarea that a second century bishop, Papias of Heirapolis, claimed that Matthew “put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language (Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ), but each person interpreted them as best he could” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16). We should note that this is a somewhat indirect witness at quite some remove, and also that the Greek word Ἑβραΐδι can be translated either as Hebrew or as Aramaic.
But this claim falls down from the clear evidence of the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, which mirrors very closely both the Gospel of Mark, at many points, and the Gospel of Luke, at other points, in passages found only in Matthew and Luke. The two key conclusions drawn by many scholars are twofold: first, that Matthew (like Luke) used the Gospel of Mark as a basis for writing a narrative about Jesus—but modified and adapted both the order and wording of passages; and second, that Luke and Matthew had access to another source (whether oral or written) for many of the sayings of Jesus (the source is known as Q). This makes it completely unlikely that Matthew wrote, in Aramaic, or in Hebrew, the earliest account of Jesus.
And ascribing the authorship of this Gospel to the tax collector identified at Matt 9:9 is also a patristic move. The title of this (and the other) Gospels, identifying the alleged author, is found only in later manuscripts and patristic writings; the narrative itself fails to identify anyone as the author, let alone the tax collector named Matthew. This claim is a later apologetic move, most likely made to provide an “apostolic authorisation” to the Gospel.
So what do we say, then, of “Matthew”, the purported author of this Gospel, a work which the author declares at the start to be “the book of origins of Jesus, Messiah” (Matt 1:1)? For me, a key to the way that the author of this “book of origins” operated is provided at Matt 13:52, where Jesus concludes a sequence of parables with the statement that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”.
That description encapsulates very clearly, for me, who the author of this Gospel was—a scribe, “trained for the kingdom”, drawing on old resources, but reshaping them so that they are seen to be new. We can see this in many ways in the narrative that he constructs. We can especially see this in the way he presents Jesus as an authoritative teacher of Torah—the one whose words are to be heard, remembered, studied, and passed on. (Thus, the reason for his writing of this Gospel.) It’s a point of view that undergirds the way that I interpret the various Gospel selections that the lectionary offers in this coming year, in which Jesus gathers his disciples, speaks to them, and teaches them.