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The Authorship of the First Gospel
When one deals with the question of who wrote a particular Bible book, the evidence is normally twofold: evidence outside the book (“external evidence”) and evidence within the book itself (“internal evidence”). External evidence strongly supports the view that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name. Many early church fathers cited Matthew as its author, including Pseudo Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. (For further attestation see Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968, p. 193.) Matthew was certainly not one of the more prominent apostles. One might think the First Gospel would have been written by Peter, James, or John. But the extensive tradition that Matthew wrote it strongly commends him as its author.
Internal evidence also supports the fact that Matthew was the author of the First Gospel. This book has more references to coins than any of the other three Gospels. In fact this Gospel includes three terms for coins that are found nowhere else in the New Testament: “The two-drachma tax” (Matt. 17:24); “a four-drachma coin” (17:27), and “talents” (18:24). Since Matthew’s occupation was tax collecting, he had an interest in coins and noted the cost of certain items. The profession of tax collector would necessitate an ability to write and keep records. Matthew obviously had the ability, humanly speaking, to write a book such as the First Gospel.
His Christian humility comes through as well, for Matthew alone continually refers to himself throughout his Gospel as “Matthew the tax collector.” But Mark and Luke do not continually use that term of contempt when speaking of Matthew. Also, when Matthew began to follow Jesus, he invited his friends to a “dinner” (Matt. 9:9-10). Luke, however, called the dinner “a great banquet” (Luke 5:29). The omissions from the First Gospel are significant too, for Matthew omitted the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) and the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who restored fourfold what he had stolen (Luke 19:1-10). The internal evidence concerning the authorship of the First Gospel points to Matthew as its most likely author.
The Original Language of the First Gospel
While all the extant manuscripts of the First Gospel are in Greek, some suggest that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic, similar to Hebrew. Five individuals stated, in effect, that Matthew wrote in Aramaic and that translations followed in Greek: Papias (a.d. 80-155), Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202), Origen (A.D. 185-254), Eusebius (fourth century A.D.), and Jerome (sixth century A.D.). However, they may have been referring to a writing by Matthew other than his Gospel account. Papias, for example, said Matthew compiled the sayings (logia) of Jesus. Those “sayings” might have been a second, shorter account of the Lord’s words, written in Aramaic and sent to a group of Jews for whom it would have been most meaningful. That writing was later lost, for no such version exists today. The First Gospel, however, was probably penned by Matthew in Greek and has survived until today. Matthew’s logia did not survive, but his Gospel did. This was because the latter, part of the biblical canon and thus God’s Word, was inspired and preserved by the Spirit of God.
The Date of the First Gospel
Pinpointing the writing of the First Gospel to a specific year is impossible. Various dates for the book have been suggested by conservative scholars. C.I. Scofield in the original Scofield Reference Bible gave a.d. 37 as a possible date. Few scholars give a date after a.d. 70, since Matthew made no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Matthew’s references to Jerusalem as the “Holy City” (Matt. 4:5; 27:53) imply that it was still in existence.
But some time seems to have elapsed after the events of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Matthew 27:7-8 refers to a certain custom continuing “to this day,” and 28:15 refers to a story being circulated “to this very day.” These phrases imply the passing of time, and yet not so much time that the Jewish customs had ceased. Since church tradition has strongly advocated that the Gospel of Matthew was the first Gospel account written, perhaps a date somewhere around a.d. 50 would satisfy all the demands mentioned. It would also be early enough to permit Matthew to be the first Gospel account. (For further discussion and an alternate view [that Mark was the first of the four Gospels] see “Sources” under the Introduction to Mark.)
The Occasion for Writing the First Gospel
Though the precise occasion for the writing of this account is not known, it appears Matthew had at least two reasons for writing. First, he wanted to show unbelieving Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew had found the Messiah, and he wanted others to come into that same relationship. Second, Matthew wrote to encourage Jewish believers. If indeed Jesus is the Messiah, a horrible thing had occurred. The Jews had crucified their Messiah and King. What would now become of them? Was God through with them? At this point Matthew had a word of encouragement, for though their act of disobedience would bring judgment on that generation of Israelites, God was not through with His people. His promised kingdom would yet be instituted with His people at a future time. In the meantime, however, believers are responsible to communicate a different message of faith in this Messiah as they go into all the world to make disciples among all nations.
Some Outstanding Characteristics of the First Gospel
1. The Book of Matthew places great emphasis on the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ. Of the Gospel accounts Matthew has the largest blocks of discourse material. No other Gospel contains so much of Jesus’ teachings. Matthew 5-7 is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount; chapter 10 includes Jesus’ instructions to His disciples as they were sent out to minister; chapter 13 presents the parables of the kingdom; in chapter 23 is Jesus’ “hot” denunciation of the religious leaders of Israel; and chapters 24-25 are the Olivet Discourse, a detailed explanation of future events relating to Jerusalem and the nation.
2. Some of the material in Matthew is arranged logically rather than chronologically. As examples, the genealogical tables are broken into three equal groups, a large number of miracles are given together, and the opposition to Jesus is given in one section. Matthew’s purpose is obviously more thematic than chronological.
3. The First Gospel is filled with Old Testament quotations. Matthew includes approximately 50 direct citations from the Old Testament. In addition about 75 allusions are made to Old Testament events. This is undoubtedly because of the audience for whom the book was intended. Matthew primarily had Jews in mind as he wrote, and they would have been impressed by the many references to Old Testament facts and events. In addition, if this Gospel was written around a.d. 50, not many New Testament books were available for Matthew to have cited. Those books may not have been known to his readers or even to Matthew himself.
4. The First Gospel shows that Jesus Christ is the Messiah of Israel and explains God’s kingdom program (Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, pp. 18-20). “If indeed Jesus is Messiah,” a Jew would ask, “what has happened to the promised kingdom?” The Old Testament clearly taught that the Messiah would bring in a glorious utopian reign on the earth in which the nation Israel would have a prominent position. Since the nation rejected its true King, what happened to the kingdom? The Book of Matthew includes some “mysteries” about the kingdom, which had not been revealed in the Old Testament. These “mysteries” show that the kingdom has taken a different form in the present Age, but that the promised Davidic kingdom will be instituted at a future time when Jesus Christ returns to earth to establish His rule.
5. The First Gospel has a summary statement in its first verse: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” Why does David’s name appear before Abraham’s? Would not Abraham, the father of the nation, be more significant to a Jewish mind? Perhaps Matthew listed the name of David first because the King who would rule over the nation was to come through David (2 Sam. 7:12-17). Jesus Christ came with a message for His own nation. But in the plan of God, His message was rejected. Therefore a universal message reaches out to the entire world. The promise of blessings for all the nations of the world came through Abraham and the covenant God made with him (Gen. 12:3). It is significant that Matthew did include Gentiles, such as the Magi from the East (Matt. 2:1-12), the centurion with his great faith (8:5-13), and the Canaanite woman who had greater faith than Christ had seen in all Israel (15:22-28). Also the book concludes with the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty.