“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him.” (Mt 9:9).
Matthew the evangelist was a tax collector (or “publican”) before his call to follow Jesus. As a tax collector, Matthew could read and write competently. Most people at that time in history were illiterate or could read and write only a little.
Matthew was also called Levi (Mk 2:14), a Jewish name. Matthew was both a tax collector for the Romans and a Jew. For this reason, he was something of an outcast in devout Jewish society. The scribes and Pharisees treated Jewish tax collectors unkindly and would not even eat a meal with them (Mk 2:16).
Matthew was a Jewish tax collector. As a literate Jew, he must have been able to read and write Hebrew. Eusebius and Jerome attest to this fact. As a tax collector for the Romans, he must also have been able to read and write Latin. He chose to write the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew because he was writing for the Christians of Judea. Most of the first Christians of Judea were originally Jewish. Many were illiterate, but those who did learn to read and write most often learned Hebrew. It is unlikely that Matthew could read and write Greek.
It was not Matthew's idea to write the Gospel. He was prevailed upon by the Hebraic Christians of Judea to write the Gospel in their language, Hebrew, before he left to preach in distant lands. According to Eusebius:
“Matthew had begun by preaching to Hebrews; and when he made up his mind to go to others too, he committed his own gospel to writing in his native tongue, so that for those with whom he was no longer present the gap left by his departure was filled by what he wrote.”
(Eusebius, History of the Church, 3.24.6-7).
Eusebius was Bishop of Caesarea, a student of Pamphilus, and an early Church historian. He lived from approximately A.D. 260 to 340. Saint Jerome was born roughly about the same time that Eusebius died, about A.D. 340 or so. Jerome also states that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.
“Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist 'Out of Egypt have I called my son,' and 'for he shall be called a Nazarene.' ”
(Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 3).
Saint Jerome states that the Hebrew version of Matthew was still in existence during his lifetime in Pamphilus' library at Caesarea. Eusebius was Bishop of Caesarea (about a generation or two before Jerome). Eusebius studied under Pamphilus at Caesarea and he also spoke of Matthew's Gospel in the original Hebrew. Jerome also knew that the Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel was in use during his lifetime by a certain group of Christians in Syria.
When St. Jerome refers to the Hebrew language, he could not possibly mean Aramaic. The Jews did use Aramaic as an everyday language. However, Hebrew was their preferred written language because the Torah was written in Hebrew. Also, later in that same paragraph, Jerome tells us that Matthew did not follow the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), but rather the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. As evidence of this, he cites Mt 2:15 and 2:23, verses where Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 and Judges 13:7, books of the Old Testament written in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Therefore, when Jerome says Hebrew, he does not mean Aramaic.
Jerome also said that the Book of Sirach was originally written in Hebrew, and that copies of that book in Hebrew were extant during his lifetime. Over the centuries, many scholars doubted Saint Jerome's claim, with some saying that Jerome actually meant Aramaic, (which was formerly the main spoken language of the Jews). After several discoveries of fragments and portions of the Book of Sirach in the original Hebrew, scholars had to admit that when Jerome said it was written in Hebrew, he did not mean Aramaic. (Catholic Encyclopedia online, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05263a.htm
And Saint Jerome gives us further evidence that Matthew's Gospel was originally written in Hebrew. He tells us that copies of the Hebrew version were to be found in Alexandria:
“Pantaenus …was sent to India by Demetrius bishop of Alexandria, where he found that Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, had preached the advent of the Lord Jesus according to the gospel of Matthew, and on his return to Alexandria he brought this with him written in Hebrew characters.”
(Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 36).
The name Pantaenus refers to Saint Pantaenus, who lived about 100 years before Eusebius. The name “India,” during the time of Pantaenus, was used to refer to various areas east of the Red Sea, including Arabia, Persia, and Parthia, but not present-day India.
When Was It Written?
After Christ's Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot as the twelfth Apostle. After Pentecost, the Twelve Apostles remained in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. They did not yet travel to distant lands to preach the Gospel. At the time of the appointment of the first Deacons, the Twelve Apostles were still together.
“And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.' ” (Acts 2-4).
After the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, one of the first Deacons, there was a persecution: “And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1). Notice that even though many disciples were scattered by the persecution in Jerusalem, they still remained in the general area. Jerusalem is found within the area of Judea, and Samaria is just to the north of Judea. But the Apostles were not scattered by this persecution; they remained in Jerusalem.
By the time that St. James the greater was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-3), only Peter and James the Less were left in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. If other the Apostles had been in Jerusalem at that time, Herod would have tried to arrest them, just as he arrested Peter. After his escape from jail, Peter fled to Rome. The Apostle James the Less remained always in Jerusalem, for he was the leader of that community (Acts 12:17); James was the Bishop of Jerusalem.
At some point between the martyrdom of Stephen and the martyrdom of James the greater, the Apostles began to travel to distant lands to preach the Gospel. But they did not leave all at once. They left one or two at a time to preach the Gospel in distant lands. It might have seemed to some of the disciples that eventually all of the Apostles would leave. As one Apostle after another left the area, the Christians of Judea became anxious to have a written record of the Gospel message. Most of the first Christians of Judea were converts from the Jewish faith. Those among them who could read and write were most fluent in Hebrew. The schools they attended were taught by the Jewish priests. They needed someone to write the Gospel in Hebrew. Matthew was the obvious choice. He was, like them, a Jew turned Christian. He could read and write fluently (an essential skill for both tax collectors and Gospel writers).
The Gospel of Matthew, according to Jerome and Eusebius, was written before the other Gospels. Matthew wrote it for the first generation of Christians, who lived in Judea and were mostly (former) Jews. He wrote it before he left for distant lands to preach the Gospel and before Peter left Jerusalem for Rome. Matthew's Gospel was written first, before Mark, Luke, and John.
The Gospel of Matthew was written between three to six years after the Ascension of Christ, during the reign of the emperor Gaius [Caligula]. See the author's book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary
, chapter 11, for a detailed chronology of the early Church, the Gospels, and Paul's missionary journeys.
What was the Title of Matthew's Gospel? Most authors give their works titles. But it is very unlikely that Matthew named his Gospel, “The Gospel According To Matthew.” Such a title would have been contrary to the humility and wisdom of an Apostle. And most author's do not use their own name in the title of their work.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Mt 1:1). At first glance, this lengthy set of words does not seem like a title. Authors today generally prefer short titles, sometimes consisting of only one or two words. But in ancient times, as seen for example the books of Flavius Josephus (who lived and wrote in the first century A.D.), titles were often as long as a full sentences (or even a few sentences). Notice also that the first verse is not a sentence; it lacks a verb. The title of Matthew's Gospel is the entire first verse: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham
. Matthew's gospel is titled this way because it is presented as a confirmation to Hebraic Christians that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, who was to be a descendent of David and of Abraham.
(Portions of this article have been adapted from the author's book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary
, chapter 11.)
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005