Authorship of Matthew's Gospel

The essay below is taken from our resource Trusting the New Testament.

Internal Evidence: Attribution

With this criterion, where Matthew is concerned, there is a small matter of discussion, though it is not a serious one. The manuscript evidence does universally name Matthew as author of his Gospel, in the ascription at the beginning - with one possible exception.

The third-century manuscript P1, which contains portions of what is obviously Matthew 1 (including the beginning), does not offer any ascription whatsoever. As noted in Chapter 14, this would not permit us to thereby claim that the work was anonymous, since this would correspond with the P1 copy having its origins in a scroll copy of Matthew where the authorship would be designated by an external tag. If, perhaps, P1 stood alone without the additional evidence recorded here, it might make for a persuasive point against Matthean authorship, but we shall see that it (and other internal attribution evidence) is far from the only evidence in play.

External Evidence: Attribution


The early second-century church writer Papias (c. 125 A.D.) shares the following concerning Matthew:

Matthew made an arrangement of the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each translated them as he was able...

Great debate has attended this phrase in terms of what Papias meant by "oracles" (a collection of sayings? a full narrative Gospel?) and what he meant by "in the Hebrew language." Some say that this refers to an early Aramaic or Hebrew version of Matthew, and this is supported by other external attestations noted below, as well as by the fact that this quote of Papias is preserved by the church father Eusebius (c. 260-341 A. D.) as a way of explaining the origins of Matthew's Gospel.[1]

Two objections have been made to Papias' testimony. The first is that we have no reason to regard Papias as a reliable source. Of course for many critics, the mere fact that Papias was a Christian is enough to say that, but it would be their burden to explain why Papias is not trustworthy. Richard Bauckham shows that Papias "deliberately uses the terminology of historiographic practice," and that his language matches that of other classical historians who explained how they did their own research. The steps Papias describes himself going through to compose his work were the same carefully-ordered steps recommended by the ancient historians, as found in the pagan author Lucian's book instructing on the methods for writing history: Making careful inquiries; collecting eyewitness testimony; setting down the data in the form of notes, and then arranging them into a coherent presentation.[2]

Papias also states that he sought out living voices of testimony in preference to documents, and this is often misread as some sort of deficiency. It is in fact the same preference as that of the ancient historian, who sought out "indirect autopsy" when direct witness of the events by the historian himself was not possible.[3]

The second objection tendered against Papias is that Eusebius regards him as a man of "limited understanding." However, this estimation has to do with a disagreement Eusebius has with Papias over matters of eschatology[4] and Eusebius evidently does not think Papias' "limited understanding" is such that he cannot be trusted as a source for historical matters. Indeed, it would take very little "understanding" to be able to grasp that a certain person authored a certain book.


Following Papias, the church father Irenaeus (c. 130-c.200 A.D.) wrote similarly: "Now Matthew published also a book of the Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the Church." [5]

Some object that Irenaeus was merely copying what was said by Papias, whose work he knew, and so his testimony can not be considered independent. (Similar arguments are also made about testimonies that follow.) However, this is a gratuitous assumption. Simply because Irenaeus knew of Papias' work does not mean that Papias was his sole source of knowledge for this information. The same argument could be made concerning virtually any other writer or reporter of information, with just as much credence. Irenaeus also offers more information than is available from Papias (as quoted by Eusebius), which suggests an independent investigation or more sources of information.[6]


Eusebius tells of a missionary named Pantaenus, who traveled to India around 180 A.D.:

...he there found his own arrival anticipated by some who there were acquainted with the gospel of Matthew, to whom Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached, and had left them the gospel of Matthew in the Hebrew, which was also preserved until this time.[7]


Eusebius reports the words of Origen:

As I have understood from tradition, respecting the four gospels, which are the only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the world. The first is written according to Matthew, the same that was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who having published it for the Jewish converts, wrote it in the Hebrew.[8]


Eusebius himself says:

Matthew, also having first proclaimed the gospel in Hebrew, when on the point of going also to other nations, committed it to writing in his native tongue, and thus supplied the want of his presence to them, by his writings.[9]


Near the end of the fourth century, the church father Jerome wrote:

Matthew -- who was also (called) Levi -- was an apostle and former tax-collector. He first composed the gospel of Christ in Hebrew letters and words in Judea for those from the circumcision who had believed. Who later translated (his gospel) into Greek, is not quite certain. Moreover, the Hebrew itself is still held today in the library at Caesarea (Maritima), which the martyr Pamphilus carefully put together. I also was able to make a copy from the Nazarenes, who use this volume in Beroea, a city in Syria. In it, it is to be noted that whenever the evangelist made full use of testimonies from the ancient scriptures -- either on his own or from the Lord Savior -- he did not follow the authority of Seventy translators [i.e., the Greek Septuagint], but of the Hebrew. These are two (examples) of this: "Out of Egypt I have called my Son" (Matt 2:15) and "For he shall be called a Nazarene" (Matt 2:23).[10]

Thus there is significant external evidence attributing to Matthew a Gospel, and connecting it to a version originally composed in a Semitic language.

Some will object at this point that Matthew, as we have it in Greek, does not show any signs of being translated from another language. This is true, but it is not an indication that Matthew's original work was not in another language, for as Blomberg points out, "Jewish authors like Josephus, writing in Greek while at times translating Hebrew materials, often leave no linguistic clues to betray their Semitic sources."[11] Given Matthew's likely proficiency in Greek, and the methods of transcription used in his time, it is doubtful that he would have taken his Aramaic original and done a parallel Greek translation. It is more likely that a multi-lingual tax collector like Matthew instead did his Greek version "from scratch" and was proficient enough in both languages to leave no traces of translation.[12]

Internal Evidence: Content

Positive Evidence

In line with the criterion that we would expect the claimed author of a document to reflect the vocabulary and interest of that author, there are certain touches that point to the figure we know as Matthew:

Negative Evidence

Negative internal evidence against the authorship of Matthew can be broadly separated into two categories. The first category is literary evidence, and the second category is chronological. In the latter case, the thread of logic goes like this:

Negative Evidence: Literary

The style in which Matthew writes. Kümmel claims that Matthew could not have authored his Gospel because the style of the Gospel is "systematic and therefore not biographical." This is rather an odd objection. Would we not expect a tax collector to be systematic in his writing? Wallace answers the point well:

Such is a non sequitur because (1) a topically ordered account can yield biographical facts as easily as a strictly chronological account, and (2) Kümmel wrongly supposes that apostolicity is for some reason incapable of choosing anything other than a chronological framework. [14]

A more solid objection is that Matthew is not written in the vivid style of an eyewitness.15 But again, a tax collector is not supposed to be a good narrative writer, but a good organizer - and Matthew's Gospel is well-organized to serve as a teaching tool.[16]

Negative Evidence: Chronological

Knowledge of the war against Rome. Critics cite specific passages in Matthew (21:41-5, 22:7, 24:15, and 27:25) as betraying knowledge of the Roman War, thus requiring a date after 70 for the Gospel as a whole. Since this objection is also repeated for the other three Gospels, we will deal with it in some depth here, and refer back to this chapter further on when the issue is raised again.

The most obvious point to make - one that does not stand to be refuted - is that a denial of predictive prophecy lies behind such arguments. Once this epistemological barrier is cleared, these additional points can be made which defuse charges of prophecy written after the fact:

Beyond the issue of the Temple's destruction, there are a few other passages said to indicate a late date for Matthew.

Theological and community developments appear late. Kümmel[20] cites Matthew 18:15 and 28:19 as being late developments:

Matt.18:15 If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
Matt 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

It is hard to see why these should be considered late developments. 18:15 is much the same idea as is found Leviticus 19:17:

Lev. 19:17 Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.

Moreover, it seems difficult to argue that the idea of peaceful, internecine reconciliation of this sort could not have been envisioned by a great moral teacher like Jesus for use by his own disciples.

As for 28:19-20, reasons for dating it late are unpersuasive:

References "to this day." In verses 27:8 and 28:15 (some also include 11:12), Matthew refers to conditions in 30 A.D. that are still as they are "to this day." Critics suggest that this means a late date. But how long can we wait before saying "to this day"? Would not 30 years (a 60 date for Matthew) be sufficient? Or even 20 (a 50 date)? We are only 18 years, as of this writing, past the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and it hardly incoherent to say that it remains destroyed "to this day."

Matthew reflects Judaism of the time after 70. This is supposedly because of:


If we treat the New Testament like any other document, and do so fairly, the evidence demands that we recognize that in the Gospel of Matthew, we have "at least a significant deposit of Matthean tradition"[25] -- perhaps edited by a later student of Matthew's, but I think, more likely, by Matthew himself.



[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.16.

[2] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans: 2006), 24f.

[3] See on this saying also Chapter 2.

[4] As cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 8.2.

[5] Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.13.

[6] I am not persuaded by the objection of Daniel Wallace ("Matthew: Introduction, Argument and Outline," Accessed December 24, 2008) that Irenaeus errs in saying that Paul and Peter did not "found" the church in Rome, as it is not known what activities Irenaeus would say constituted "founding." By way of analogy, not all of America's "Founding Fathers" played the same roles.

[7] Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 10.3.

[8] Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 25.4.

[9] Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 24.6.

[10] Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 3.

[11] Craig A. Blomberg, Matthew (Broadman, 1992), 40. Wallace, ibid., adds, however, that Matthew's Greek "does betray traces of Semitisms at times" even when there are no Semitisms in the parallel story in Mark. This would mean that either the author or his sources were Semitic.

[12] A related issue, which has to do with whether or not Matthew was dependent on Mark as a source, will be considered in a future Building Blocks volume. My present finding is that Matthew and Mark are independent products.

[13] See on these points Donald Senior, The Gospel of Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997) 80-1; W. F.Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (New York: Doubleday, 1971), clxxvii. Wallace, ibid., also notes that Matthew more frequently references money than any other gospel, and uses "unique monetary terms" and tax-collector-type terminology not found in the other Synoptic parallel accounts. Wallace says in summary: "Especially when one compares the synoptic parallels, Matthew's use of monetary terms seems significant. The most reasonable hypothesis for this is that the author was quite familiar with money."

[14] Wallace, ibid.

[15] H. N. Ridderbos, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 7.

[16] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 2.

[17] Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 5.3.

[18] Josephus, Jewish War 6.5.3.

[19] J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 20; D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 77. Indeed, many passages cited by critics like Kümmel in favor of a late date require significant imagination to arrive at a connection to the specific events on 70 A.D. Passages like Matthew 27:24-5 (When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!") are simply not specific enough to bear the weight of proof that the critics impose upon them. A good test for this is to ask ourselves whether the passages cited by critics might as well be applied to the Jewish revolt of 132-135 A.D. under Bar Kochba, or the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

[20] Werner G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 120.

[21] Robert Gundry, Matthew (Eerdmans: 1982), 746.

[22] On this issue, see "Jesus: God's Wisdom,"

[23] Robinson, ibid., 104.

[24] Gundry, ibid., 601.

[25] Craig S. Keener, Matthew (Eerdmans: 1999), 40.