Lesson 1: Introduction
Your beloved Son chose from among the men of His generation a group of ordinary men who were called to live extraordinary lives in His service. Those simple fishermen, tax collectors, farmers and laborers literally changed the course of human history by fulfilling Jesus’ command to take His Gospel of salvation to the ends of the Roman Empire-calling all nations and all ethnicities to become children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. It is our prayer that Your Holy Spirit will give each of us the same will to serve and the same obedience to continue to carry the Gospel message of salvation to the ends of the earth. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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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.
Bishop Eusebius, Church History, 3.24.6
Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language. The second was that of Mark, who composed it under Peter’s guidance. … The third, the Gospel which was praised by Paul, was that of Luke, written for gentile converts. Last of all, there is that of John.
Bishop Eusebius quoting Origen (185-253/54), head of the Catholic Catechetical School in Alexandria, Egypt, from the first of his books on the Gospel of Matthew,
Church History, 6.25.4
Most of the Bible books do not have the name of an author in the text. It is a fact that is in itself significant, since it indicates that the inspired writers of Sacred Scripture did not see themselves as authors but saw themselves as bearing witness in written form to God’s Holy Spirit inspired message of love and salvation to a fallen humanity. According to the Catholic tradition and to the testimony of the Church Fathers, the inspired writer of the Gospel of Matthew is the Apostle Matthew, who was also known as Levi the tax collector.
The Greek name Maththaios or Matthaios is derived from the Hebrew or Aramaic Matta’i, Mattiya’, or Mattiyah-all shortened forms of the name Mattih-yah(u) that are built upon the Hebrew words natan (“he gave”) and Yah(u), a shortened form of the Divine Name “YHWH” /Yahweh and meaning “”gift of Yahweh” (Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, “Matthew”). The name “Matthew” is found in the lists of Jesus’ chosen Apostles (Mt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Acts 1:13) and in the account of the call of a tax collector named Matthew in the Gospel of Matthew: As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him (Mt 9:9).
In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, he is identified with the tax collector called “Levi.” According to Church tradition this is one and the same man who left his ordinary life to follow Jesus:
•Once again he [Jesus] went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. He said to him, Follow me.” And he got up and followed him (Mk 2:13-14).
•When he went out after this, he noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me.” And leaving everything Levi got up and followed him (Lk 5:27-28).
Matthew/Levi followed (also see Mt 9:9) Jesus in the same way the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John Zebedee left everything, responding to Jesus command, “Follow me,” to become His Apostles (Mt 4:18-22).
It is not uncommon in Scripture for a man to be identified by two names (i.e., Hosea who was renamed Joshua, Simon who was renamed Peter, Thomas who was also called Didymus, or Saul who was called Paul). It is likely that Matthew was the Apostle’s given name (or baptismal name) while Levi was a name that identified him as a member of the tribe of Levi and a member of the Levitical lesser ministry (Num 3:5-9; 8:19; 18:1-7). It was the practice of the Romans to press into service educated men to work as tax collectors/publicans and other functionaries in the Roman provinces. Jewish Priests and Levites received a good education that was not limited to the study of the Scriptures; many Levites were trained scribes.(1)
That Matthew the Apostle was the inspired writer of the Gospel of Matthew was the testimony of the successors of the Apostles. In his fourth century history of the Church, Bishop Eusebius recorded that Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c. 60-130 AD) wrote: Matthew indeed composed the sayings (ta logia) in the Hebrew Language; and each one interpreted them to the best of his ability (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.16). Bishop Papias lived within the first generation of men who were taught by the Apostles. There is also the testimony of the next generation of bishops, for example from Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200) who was raised in the church at Smyrna and studied at the feet of St. Polycarp (c. 69/70-155/56). St. Polycarp was one of the Apostolic Fathers (having been a disciple of St. John the Apostle in Asia Minor) who was ordained the bishop of the church at Smyrna. Smyrna one of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and the community was praised for its devotion and obedience (Rev 2:8-11). Around 180 AD, St. Irenaeus wrote: Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him, Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord who reclined at His bosom, also published a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.1).
In his history of the Church, Bishop Eusebius also recorded some of the fragments from Origen’s Commentaries on Matthew. Origen (c. 185-253/54), the great Bible scholar who was the head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt, wrote twenty-five books of Commentaries on Matthew. In his first commentary (c. 244), Origen wrote: As to the four Gospels, which alone are indisputable in the Church of God under heaven, I learned from tradition that the first to have been written was that of Matthew, who was formerly a tax-collector, but later an Apostle of Jesus Christ. It was prepared for those who were converted from Judaism to the faith, and was written in Hebrew letters (Eusebius, Church History, 6.25.3).
It is significant that Papias, Irenaeus, and Origen all testify that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written not in Greek but “in the language of the Jews/Hebrews”– in either Hebrew (the ancient language of the Jews) or Aramaic (the common language of the Jews in the first century AD). Bishop Papias also noted that, since Matthew’s Gospel was written in the language of the Jews, he and others had to “interpret” or translate it “as best they could.” St. Matthew’s Gospel was then translated into Greek; Greek was the international language of the age and the language in which the other New Testament books were to be written. Since Matthew’s Gospel message was written specifically to the Jews, it makes sense that he would write in their own language and not in the international language of the Gentile nations.(2) It is also significant that Irenaeus, Origen and other early Church Fathers unanimously testify that Matthew’s Gospel was the first written of the four canonical Gospels. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, their claim of the priority of Matthew would become a topic of controversy.
Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews, and his Gospel has to be studied from that perspective. If Matthew was a Levite, a member of the lesser clergy, he had a formal education. Such educated men were often singled out by the Romans to serve the Empire as tax collectors. And as a Levite, his education would have included an extensive study of the Scriptures. No other New Testament writer quotes or directly alludes to the Old Testament Scriptures as much as St. Matthew-by the calculations of some Bible scholars he quotes or alludes to the Old Testament about 65 times. Matthew began his ministry with his own people, spending about a decade in Judea before, according to tradition, later evangelizing in other nations including Asiatic Ethiopia (south of the Caspian Sea), Macedonia, Syria, Persia, Parthia, Medea and Egypt. He was martyred in either Egypt or Medea. St. Matthew is the only Apostle mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud records his trial and execution (Sanhedrin 43a). His tomb is believed to be in Salerno, Italy.
Date of Composition
St. Irenaeus gives us the best idea as to when St. Matthew committed to writing the Gospel message he had been preaching orally. Irenaeus testifies that it was while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome that Matthew wrote down his account of Jesus’ life and ministry (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1). According to Church tradition and the testimony of Bible scholar St. Jerome, who was raised in the faith community in Antioch, Syria, St. Peter spent seven years with the faith community in Antioch before going to Rome where he spent 25 years as Bishop of Rome. He was martyred in Rome sometime between 64 and 67 AD.(3)
St. Paul was sent to Rome to stand trial by the Roman governor Festus in 60/61 AD. After about two years of captivity he was released but was re-arrested on a second visit to Rome and, according to tradition, was martyred the same day as St. Peter.(4) If Irenaeus’ testimony is correct, that would place the composition of Matthew’s Gospel not earlier than 40 AD and not later than 67 AD. The Navarre Bible scholars write: We know that St. Matthew wrote his (Aramaic) Gospel before the other evangelists wrote theirs; the estimated date is around the year 50. We do not know the date or composition of the Greek text, which is the one we have (Navarre Bible Commentary: St. Matthew, page 17). But we do have evidence of the wide use of the Greek text of the Gospel of St. Matthew in quotations found in early Church letters and documents extending back to the end of the first century: the Didache, the First Letter of Pope St. Clement of Rome, the Letter of Barnabas, the Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. 107 AD), and the writings of St. Polycarp to only name a few. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has stated that the original text of St. Matthew is to be dated prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) and indeed prior to St. Paul’s journey to Rome in c. 60 AD (Pontifical Biblical Commission “Replies” of 19 June, 1911).
If the Gospel of Matthew was written in the historical period outlined by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, St. Matthew wrote his Gospel near the end of the dynasty of the Augustan emperors and prior to the end of the Jewish Revolt against Rome and the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Mt 23:33-24:25). According to the Church Fathers, Matthew wrote his Gospel while Claudius was emperor of Rome. Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (10 BC – 54 AD) was the son of Drusus Germanicus, the brother of the Emperor Tiberius and step son of Augustus (with no sons of his own, Augustus had adopted his wife’s sons Tiberius and Drusus as his heirs). After the assassination of Claudius’ nephew, the Emperor Caligula, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius Emperor and the Roman Senate perforce concurred (41 AD).
Ancient writers depict Claudius’ reign as corrupt and vicious. He was strongly influenced by his wives and former slaves who served as freedmen in his household. In 50 AD, Claudius’ niece and fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger (the sister of Caligula), persuaded Claudius to pass over his own son Britannicus in favor of her son Nero to succeed him. Four years later, Agrippina poisoned Claudius, and Nero succeeded him as the last of the Augustan emperors (ruled 54-68 AD), ushering in one of the most depraved and brutal periods in Roman history and the beginning of the Roman state’s persecution of Christians (64 AD). It was during Nero’s reign that Sts. Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome (c. 64/67 AD). In 66 AD, after a series of Roman abuses and Nero’s announced plan that his statue would be erected in the Jerusalem Temple where worship would be offered to him, the Jews of the Roman province of Judea revolted against Rome. At first the revolt seemed to be a success. Political turmoil in Rome overshadowed the rebellion until Nero’s suicide in 68. After Nero’s death, four Roman legions were sent to crush the Jewish revolt against the Empire. The Roman army swept through the Galilee and Samaria and conquered Jerusalem after a three and a half month siege, utterly destroying Jerusalem and the Temple in the summer of 70 AD.