Who wrote Matthew—s Gospel? This sounds like a
trick question, and in a way it is. No, Matthew did not write
Matthew—s Gospel, at least not in the way we think of an author
writing a book. Though one author put his personal stamp on
style and expression, it was only after the text had been refined
in discussion with others in the community. Matthew—s Gospel,
like the other three Gospels, emerged from a first-century community
Many scholars suggest that the city of Antioch was
the setting in which Matthew—s Gospel was composed. Antioch
in Syria is often mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments.
Lying just north of the Holy Land, it dominated Palestinian
fortunes for three centuries (from 333 B.C.). Antiochus IV,
the king of Antioch in the second century B.C., tried to force
Greek culture on the Jews. The story of the Maccabees recounts
the dramatic consequences.
In New Testament times Antioch featured even more
prominently. It was in Antioch that the first uncircumcised
gentiles joined a Christian community (Acts 11:19-24). Acts
tells us that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first
called Christians" (11:26b).
Antioch became the center from which Paul launched
his missionary journeys (Acts 13:1-3). Antioch was also the
place where Peter and Paul clashed regarding the observance
of the Law (Galatians 2:11-13).
Shaping the Gospel
The Christian community at Antioch left a lasting
imprint on this fascinating Gospel. The context may even explain
how the Gospel came to be written. For example, we can recognize
in the Gospel traces of the concerns of the local Christian
community: a prosperous urban environment, intense preoccupation
with Jewish-Christian relations, familiarity with Palestine
and the prominent role of Peter in the community. According
to ancient tradition Peter was "bishop" of Antioch before moving
The language of the Gospel is an intermediate
standard Greek that reflects a knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic
as well. This is consistent with what we know about the Jewish
population of Antioch.
The core of Matthew—s Gospel is derived from a
collection of Jesus— teachings. According to ancient tradition
this collection of sayings was ascribed to the apostle Matthew.
It may have been written in Aramaic and is commonly referred
to as the "M" source.
This collection of "words" corresponded closely
to a source often called "Q" from the German word for source,
Quelle. A Greek-speaking Christian scribe in Antioch
took the material from "M" and "Q" as well as another source,
the Gospel of Mark, and composed the Gospel of Matthew from
it. Modern authors follow ancient custom in referring to this
final author as Matthew.
The Gospel was not written all at once. Matthew,
who was perhaps a catechist, may have prepared certain texts
for special occasions.
He may have composed the Sermon on the Mount,
for instance, to give a comprehensive view of Jesus— new moral
principles (Matthew 5-7).
He gathered seven parables to express Jesus— view
of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13).
A string of ten miracles proved Jesus— role as
the messianic healer (Matthew 8-10).
Such texts were presented to the community, reflected
on, discussed and improved upon. Then Christian scribes well-versed
in the Hebrew Scriptures refined the scriptural references.
Gentile Christians sharpened the universal implications.
Jesus tells his followers: "...every scribe who
has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head
of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and
the old" (Matthew 13:52). We see this lesson heeded in the construction
of the Gospel.
In pastoral instructions and celebrations of the
word, text after text was tested, refined, approved. Only at
the end did the final compiler sit down and construct the whole
Gospel, putting various sections into their present places,
linking them, integrating them, weaving them into a tapestry
of rich material.
The name of the final author has not been recorded,
even though we know from other sources that ordinary writers
in the first century did attach their names to the texts they
wrote. This was not done in the case of the Gospels because
they were community productions. They reflected not one person—s
view but the faith of the Church.
Jesus as the New Torah
With half a million inhabitants, Antioch ranked
as the third largest city in the Greco-Roman empire. Antioch
also contained large Jewish populations surpassed in size only
by those in Jerusalem and Alexandria.
Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the
first century A.D., tells us that the Jews in Antioch were well
organized. They enjoyed full civil rights. They had their own
leaders and magistrates.
They had built a sumptuous synagogue, decorated
throughout with votive offerings made of brass. They often sent
magnificent gifts to the temple in Jerusalem.
Life for these Jews revolved around the Torah,
the word of God as contained in the five books of Moses (Genesis
through Deuteronomy in our Bibles), also called the Pentateuch.
All sects within Judaism accepted the Pentateuch.
These five books were God—s law. They determined
worship, ritual practice and everyday morality. Those who listened
to a reading from any of these five sacred scrolls knew they
were listening to God.
According to a common theory among Scripture
scholars, the Gospel of Matthew is constructed around five collections
of sayings of Jesus:
I. The Sermon on the Mount
II. The Sermon to the Apostles (10);
III. The Sermon on the Kingdom (13);
IV. The Sermon on Leadership (18);
V. The Sermon on the Last Things (22-23).
This is not a coincidence. In Matthew—s plan for
his Gospel Jesus— five sermons replace the five scrolls of the
Don—t think, however, because these are called
sermons that Jesus actually spoke these texts on five specific
occasions. We know from a comparison with Mark and Luke that
the sermons are each composed of dozens of separate teachings.
By his presentation of Jesus— teaching in five
books, so the theory goes, the author presents Jesus as the
new Moses, or even more, as the new Law, the revelation of God.