Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Time Line Tuesday: When Was the Gospel of St. Matthew Written?

There is some debate among Biblical scholars about when the Gospel of Matthew was written. There is even some debate about who wrote it, with certain scholars contending that it was not actually written by Matthew. I won’t try to resolve these debates, but I will point to the reasons why Catholic scholars believe that it was written by Matthew and why they claim that it was the earliest Gospel written, most likely between the years 40 and 42 AD, just 8 years after the resurrection.

Understanding Historical Evidence

Historical evidence and scientific evidence of a thing are not the same thing. When dealing with scientific evidence, you can test it and eliminate variables until you are absolutely certain you have the fact of the matter recorded correctly. When dealing with historical evidence, though, you are dealing largely with eye-witness accounts and second-hand accounts of events, all of which may or may not be accurate. You are also dealing with archaeological evidence, if there is any, to support your claim. Historical evidence relies on what are known as source documents - documents that were written or recorded as close to the time the event took place as possible as these are the most likely to be reliable. So, where possible, I will include links to the known source documentation for you to review.

The thing about “proofs” of historical events is that, with limited exceptions, the standard is not the same as for a court trial. You do not need to seek out evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt, as in most cases you will not be able to find it. What you are seeking is a preponderance of evidence - in other words, whether the majority of documents available as close to the event support the conclusion you are trying to make.

The First Source: The Epistle of Barnabas

The first mention of the Gospel of Matthew is subtle, but it occurs in the Epistle of Barnabas, ascribed to the Barnabas mentioned in Acts as the replacement for Judas. This Epistle was written during the reign of Vespasian (AD 70-79), and references two passages from the Gospel of Matthew in Chapters 4 and 5. In Chapter 4, the mention is prefaced with the Latin scriptural formula “os gegraptai” meaning “as it was written” which is reserved for Old Testament Scriptures, indicating that not only did the writer consider this work to be inspired but on an equal level of authority as the Old Testament scriptures. This doesn’t prove that the Gospel of Matthew was written first, but it does provide evidence that the writing of this Gospel took place before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 4: “Let us beware, lest we be found fulfilling that saying, as it is written, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14)

Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 5: “But when He chose His own apostles who were to preach His gospel, He did so from among those who were sinners above all sin, that He might show He came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentence’ (Matthew 9:13)

The Second Source: Iranaeus

Irenaeus was born between 115-125 AD, and had seen and heard Polycarp speak during a visit to Smyrna. Irenaeus became a priest in the Catholic Church and was serving the Church of Lyons during the persecutions of Marcus Aurelius. He was sent in 177 or 178 AD to Pope Eleutherius with a letter from the clergy of Lyons. He returned to Lyons and later succeeded the martyred Bishop Pothinus as the head of the Church of Lyons.

Irenaeus wrote many things, two of which survive in their entirety. The first surviving document is Adversus haeresus, or Against Heresy, “Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge”. The second is “Proof of the Apostolic Writing” written in Aramaic. Irenaeus provides us our first real proof that Matthew was written before Mark.

Here is what Irenaeus writes about the Gospel of Matthew:

“Matthew also published a gospel in writing among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter & Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome. But after their death, Mark, the disciple & interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing what Peter used to preach. And Luke, Paul's associate, also set down in a book the gospel that Paul used to preach. Later, John, the Lord's disciple --- the one who lay on his lap --- also set out the gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia Minor.” - (Against Heresies volume 3 chapter 1, paragraph 1)

According, therefore, to Irenaeus, Matthew was the first to write his Gospel. Mark only wrote after the death of Peter and Paul. Since Saint Peter’s death occurred in 67 AD at the very least we can say with absolute certainty that the Gospel of Matthew was written before the fall of the temple in 70 AD.

The Third Source: Eusebius

The next bit of information we can glean about the history of the writing of the Gospel of Matthew comes largely from Eusebius, Bishop of Caeserea (260-339 AD). Eusebius was a prolific recorder of Church History who wrote 10 volumes. In his 3rd volume, Chapter 24: The Order of the Gospels, he states,

“And the rest of the followers of our Saviour, the twelve apostles, the seventy disciples, and countless others besides, were not ignorant of these things. Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity. For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.” (v 5, 6)
So, from this, we can glean that the writing was from the Apostle Matthew and it was done just before leaving Palestine. Historical tradition places Matthew’s leaving around 12-15 years after the death of Christ, between 42-45 AD - well before the fall of the temple of Jerusalem.

He tells us that the Gospel of John was written last, after Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels. This is the reason that John did not include a genealogy for Jesus - he didn’t need to, as it had already been done. It is also the reason that he included information about Jesus’s life before the execution of John the Baptist, since none of the other Gospels included that information.

For those who would argue that no Gospel of Matthew has been found in Hebrew, and doubt its existence, we can turn to Eusebius’s Church History Book V, where he writes concerning the testimony of a church leader by the name of Pantaenus, head of the Catechetical school at Alexandria prior to the leadership of Pope Clement:

"Pantaenus was one of these and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time. After many good deeds, Pantaenus finally became the head of the school at Alexandria, and expounded the treasures of divine doctrine both orally and in writing.” - Church History volume 5, chapter 10

However, since Eusebius wasn’t someone who personally knew Matthew or had witnessed those events, that means we need to look at Eusebius’s sources for more information. We get our hint as to his possible sources in Chapter 39: The Writings of Papias.

The Fourth Source: Papias

What is preserved of Irenaeus’s other writings are contained as fragments and quotes in the works of Eusebius. In one of Eusebius’ quotes from Irenaeus, we learn of the existence of Papias and his five books:

Eusebius writes, “There are extant five books of Papias, which bear the title Expositions of Oracles of the Lord. Irenæus makes mention of these as the only works written by him, in the following words: These things are attested by Papias, an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book. For five books have been written by him. These are the words of Irenæus.”

Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. There are no surviving copies of Expositions of Oracles of the Lord by Papias, and it is only by quotations from Irenaeus and Eusebius that we know those works existed and some of what was contained in them.

In Chapter 39, Eusebius quotes Papias as saying,

“So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted them as he was able”

Now that we have our sources in place, we can say with some certainty that the Church has very good reason to believe that 1) Matthew was written before the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70; 2) It was quite likely the very first Gospel written; and 3) It was almost certainly written by the Apostle Matthew himself.

Popular Posts