Levi the son of Alphaeus was a tax‑gatherer at Capernaum. (Alphaeus being also the name of the father of James the Apostle, it has been conjectured that James and Matthew were brothers. This is of course possible, but can hardly be called probable.) One day Jesus, coming up from the Lake side, passed near the custom‑house where Levi was seated in Oriental fashion, “and He saith unto him, Follow me, and he arose and followed Him.” (Matt. 9:9) That Jesus ever addressed Levi before, we are not told; but it is reasonable to suppose that he was expecting the summons, that he was already a disciple of Jesus, and prepared as soon as Christ gave the word to leave all for His sake. At any rate, Levi must have heard of the Great Rabbi and of His preaching, and have already resolved to adopt the view of the Kingdom of God which Jesus taught.
When Levi became a follower of Jesus he changed his name from Levi to Matthew (This is indeed an inference, but one which is accepted by the best commentators to harmonize the “Levi” of the second and third Gospels with the “Matthew” of the first Gospel.), which means “the Gift of God,” and is the same as the Greek name Theodore. This practice was not unusual, and may be illustrated by the instances of Saul and of Simon, who also adopted new names in the new life.
The same day Matthew made a feast – perhaps a farewell feast to his old associates – to which he invited Jesus and His disciples. We may conceive what a joyous banquet that was for Matthew, when for the first time as an eye‑witness he marked the words and acts of Jesus, and stored within his memory the scene and the conversation which he was inspired to write according to his clerical ability for the instruction of the Church in all after ages.
After this Matthew is not once named in the Gospel history, except in the list of the Twelve; in the other Gospels he appears seventh on the list, in his own Gospel eighth – the last in the second division. In his own Gospel again – a further mark of humility – he designates himself as “Matthew the publican.” His nearest companion seems to have been Thomas (whose surname Didymus has led to the belief that he was Matthew’s twin brother), and in the same group or division were Philip and Bartholomew. Such are the scanty details which the Gospels record of St. Matthew. Those few notices however suggest some inferences as to the religious position, character and teaching of the Evangelist.
Since Capernaum was in the tetarchy of Herod Antipas, it may be inferred that Levi was an officer in the service of that prince, and not in the service of the Roman government, as is sometimes tacitly assumed. This is not unimportant in estimating the call and conversion of St. Matthew.
A Hebrew who entirely acquiesced in the Roman supremacy could hardly have done so at this period without abandoning the national hopes. Jesus alone knew the secret of reconciling the highest aspirations of the Jewish race with submission to Caesar. But to acknowledge the Herodian dynasty was a different thing from bowing to Rome. Herod was at least not a foreigner and a Gentile in the same sense as the Romans. Idumea had coalesced with Israel. It is therefore conceivable that a Jew who was waiting for the Messiah’s reign may in very despair have learned to look for the fulfillment of his hopes in the Herodian family. If it was impossible to connect Messianic thoughts with an Antipas, or even with the more reputable Philip, still might not a prince thereafter spring from that house to restore the kingdom to Israel? Might not God in His providence fuse by some means the house and lineage of Herod with the house and lineage of David? It was not impossible, and probably the tyrannical Antipas owed the stability of his throne in some measure to a party among the Jews who cherished these ideas.
No one can read St. Matthew’s Gospel without perceiving that he was no Hellenist, but a Hebrew of the Hebrews, deeply learned in the history and prophecies of his race, and eagerly looking forward to their realization; but he had been content to find, or at least to expect that realization in the family of Herod. These views were suited to his nature in two ways. For we may infer first that he was influenced by what is almost an inherent passion in his race – the love of gain (had it not been so he would never have chosen a career which at its best was despised and odious); secondly, that he loved a life of contemplation and quiet, and was well pleased to separate himself from the fiery enthusiasm and headstrong schemes of the Galileans who surrounded him. Such may have been the hopes to which Levi clung. But when the plan and teaching of Jesus were unfolded to his mind stored with national memories, he instantly recognized the truth and beauty and completeness of that ideal, and gave himself up heart and soul to the cause of the Son of David. For that cause and for the Kingdom of God he resigned all his hopes of advancement in Herod’s kingdom, his lucrative calling and the friends he had made.
It may be that Matthew’s wealth was not in an absolute sense great, but it was great for this little Galilean town. It was great to him. And if like St. Paul he had left a record of his personal religious feelings, he might have related how he counted up all the several items of gain, and found the sum total loss compared with the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:7,8)
If we may Judge from the silence of the Gospels, the position which Matthew held among his fellow‑disciples was a humble one. He was not among the chosen three. No incident connects itself with his name, as with the names of Andrew and Simon, of Philip, of Thomas, or of Bartholomew, of Judas [the brother] of James, of the sons of Zebedee. No one word of his to Christ is recorded. Even when he was called he rose and followed in silence.
We may picture Matthew to ourselves as a silent, unobtrusive, contemplative man, “swift to hear and slow to speak,” unobservant of the minutiae of outward action but with a mind teeming with the associations of his nation and deeply conscious of the momentous drama which was being enacted before him, of which he felt himself called upon to be the chronicler and interpreter to his own people.
No special mention is made of St. Matthew in the Acts of the Apostles, or in the Epistles, but some light is thrown upon his after life by fragmentary notices of early Christian writers.
We gather that he remained in Palestine longer than the rest of the Apostles, and that he made his fellow‑countrymen familiar with the words and works of Jesus. More will be said below as to the nature and special scope of his teaching; but an interesting point of Christian history, and one that bears upon St. Matthew’s character, recorded by Eusebius, may be mentioned here. St. Matthew, says the historian, being about to depart for distant lands to preach to others also, left as a memorial to his Palestinian converts the story of the New Covenant committed to writing in their own tongue, the Aramaic or Hebrew dialect which they used. This parting gift of the Evangelist was the origin of the written Gospels.
Later authorities have named Ethiopia, Parthia, Egypt and Macedonia, as fields of his missionary work. Clement of Alexandria states that Matthew devoted himself to a strictly ascetic life, abstaining from the use of animal food.
By the most ancient testimony the death of this apostle is attributed to natural causes. The traditions of the Greek Church and the pictures of the Greek artists represent him dying peacefully. But the Western Church has placed Matthew on the list of martyrs, and in the works of Italian painters he is portrayed perishing by the executioner’s sword. It is characteristic of this silent, unmarked life, in which the personality of the Evangelist is lost in the voice of the message which he was inspired to utter, that Matthew’s name has been less prominent in the Churches and nations of Christendom than others of his co‑apostles, or even than many saints, whose services to the Church of Christ have been infinitely less. None of the great Churches of Christendom have been called by his name, no guild or fraternity, no college in our great Universities, no state or nation, has chosen him for a patron. Scarcely one famous picture has taught the lesson of his call. The personal memory, like the personal life of St. Matthew, withdraws itself from the observation of men.
AUTHORSHIP, ORIGIN AND CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GOSPEL
1. The authorship of the first gospel has been ascribed by an unbroken tradition to the Apostle Matthew.
2. The date is uncertain. Irenaeus however states that St. Matthew wrote his gospel when the Church of Rome was founded: and the fact that it was published first of the written Gospels rests upon early and uncontradicted testimony. The date of publication then should probably be fixed not many years after the Ascension.
3. St. Matthew’s Gospel was primarily intended for the use of the Jewish converts in Palestine. It is this fact that gives its special character to this Gospel. No other of the evangelists has so completely developed the idea that in Christ the nation lived again, that towards Christ all prophecy moved, that in Him all national aspirations were centered and satisfied. No other inspired writer has pictured so vividly the critical interest of the Messianic days as the meeting point of the world’s past and future.
According to St. Matthew Jesus is from first to last Christ the King, the King of whom all the prophets spoke in the past, but He is also the one figure round whom the historical interest of the future was destined to gather. Hence the twofold aspect of this Gospel, on the one hand it is the most national and the most retrospective of the Gospels; on the other it is the most universal and the most prophetic; in one sense St. Matthew is more gentile than St. Luke, in another he is truly a Hebrew of Hebrews.
The very depth of St. Matthew’s patriotism impels him to glory in the universality of the Messianic reign. The Kingdom of God must over‑pass the limits of the Chosen race. Hence it is no matter of surprise that the Hebrew historian should alone commemorate the coming of the Magi and the refuge in Egypt, and that he and not St. Luke should tell the story of the Canaanitish woman.
The following points confirm the received account of the origin of this Gospel and indicate its special reference to the Jews:
(1) The numerous quotations from prophecy.
(2) The appeals to history as fulfilled in Christ.
(3) The rare explanation of Jewish words and customs.
(4) The strong and special denunciation of the Jews and of their rulers.
(5) The special reference to the Law in the Sermon on the Mount
(6) The Genealogy traced from Abraham and David.
(7) The Mission of the Seventy omitted.
(8) The absence of Latin words, with very few exceptions.
(9) The prominence given to the Jewish thought of a Kingdom of Heaven; (a) in the general scope of the Gospel; (b) in the parables; (c) in the account of the Passion.
4. The question of style cannot be fully or satisfactorily discussed without a direct appeal to the original, but it may be observed that St. Matthew’s manner is less vivid and picturesque than St. Mark’s, more even and unvaried than St. Luke’s, whose diction is greatly influenced by the various sources whence he derived the details which he incorporates into his Gospel. Consequently no passages in St. Matthew’s Gospel recall the classical ring like the introduction of St. Luke’s Gospel; on the other hand the Hebrew idiom never so manifestly shows itself in the first Gospel as in the opening chapters of the third.
St. Matthew was an eyewitness of the events which he chronicles, yet it is often remarked that his descriptions are less graphic and full of detail than those of St. Mark, who wrote what he had heard from the lips of others. This need not be a matter of surprise. It is indeed a phenomenon that meets us every day. It is not the contemporary and the eyewitness, but the historian of a succeeding age who takes the keenest interest in minute detail and records with faithful accuracy the less prominent circumstances of a great event. It is the Herodotus or the Macaulay – the historian, the ‘questioner’ – who gathers from every source materials for a minute and brilliant picture, rather than the actual spectator who is often too deeply absorbed by the one point of supreme interest in a scene to notice the looks and acts of other bystanders, or so impressed by the speaker’s glowing thoughts, as to deem them alone worthy of record.
But though St. Mark enables us to realize more exactly the external accessories of the various incidents, St. Matthew has treasured up for the Church more fully than the other synoptists the words and discourses of Jesus; such especially as present Him in the character of the Great Prophet, who, like the prophets of old time, denounces national sins and predicts the future of the nation and the Church. Instances of this characteristic are the full report of the Sermons on the Mount (chs. 5, 6, 7), the charge to the Apostles ch. 10; the great series of prophetic parables in ch. 13 peculiar to this gospel; the denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees in ch. 23, the parables of the Passion ch. 25, the prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, and of the Second Advent chs. 24 and 25.
5. The ablest critics are agreed that St. Matthew does not observe the chronological order of events. By the arrangement followed by this Evangelist, as may be seen by the accompanying analysis of the Gospel, special incidents and sayings are so grouped together as to illustrate the different aspects of our Lord’s life and teaching.
6. The most interesting literary question in connection with this Gospel concerns the language in which it was written. Is the Hellenistic Greek version which we possess, (1) the original Gospel, or (2) a translation from a Hebrew or Aramaic original; further, if a translation, by whom was the translation made, by (a) St. Matthew himself, or (b) by some others?
Apart from the antecedent probability of Hebrew Gospel – a version of the New Covenant to correspond with the Hebrew of the Old Covenant, and to meet the requirements of those Jews who gloried in their knowledge of the Hebrew tongue, and their adhesion to Hebrew customs, who would listen more gladly to the Gospel if it were preached to them in the language of their fathers – direct testimony to the existence of an Aramaic original of St. Matthew’s Gospel is borne by a succession of the earliest Christian writers.
(1) Papias in the beginning of the second century writes: “Matthew arranged the ‘oracles’ (or sayings of Christ) in the Hebrew language.”
(2) Irenaeus says “Matthew among the Hebrews brought out a writing of the Gospel in their own tongue.”
(3) Pantaenus, according to Eusebius (H.E. v.10), is said to have gone to preach to the Indians and to have found among them a copy of the Hebrew Gospel according to St. Matthew which had been left by the Apostle Bartholomew.
(4) In later times evidence for the belief in a Hebrew original is drawn from the writings of Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, and many others.
Against this testimony in favour of a Hebrew original, arguments tending to an opposite conclusion are grounded on (1) the disappearance of the Hebrew Gospel: (2) the authority which the existing version has always had in the Church: (3) the similarity of expression to certain portions of the other Gospels: (4) the apparent originality of style.
(1) That no copy of the Hebrew Gospel is extant need not excite surprise. With the destruction of Jerusalem the Hebrew speaking Christians would be for the most part scattered far and wide over the limits of the Roman Empire. Necessity would impel them to become familiar with the Greek tongue. Their Jewish compatriots in foreign countries would be acquainted with no other. Everywhere the credit of the Greek version of St. Matthew’s Gospel would be fully established; to that version the original Hebrew edition would soon give place. It seems probable too that copies of this Gospel were purposely altered and mutilated to serve the ends of heretical sects, and thus the genuine Hebrew text would become more and more difficult to obtain, and finally would be discredited and lost to the Church. The preface of St. Luke’s Gospel suggests the thought that many more or less complete “Gospels” once extant have disappeared. Moreover, most critics are agreed that the existing Epistles of St. Paul do not comprise the whole number which he wrote to the Churches.
The points raised in the second (2) and third (3) arguments are considered below.
(4) The question of originality cannot be decisively settled by an appeal to the style of the Greek Gospel. There are, however, certainly some characteristics in St. Matthew’s Gospel that seem to indicate a translation. The style is uniform, almost monotonous. Hebraisms are regularly and evenly distributed, not as in St. Luke, prominent in some parts and altogether absent in others. The actual Hebrew words are few. This is what we should expect in a translation, but not in an original Gospel addressed principally to Jewish converts. St. Matthew’s Gospel deals with quotations from the Old Testament in a two‑fold manner. When the narrative is closely parallel with the other Synoptic Gospels, the quotations are also parallel following generally the text of the LXX., but presenting the same variations from that text which appear in the other Synoptic Gospels. But in those portions of this Gospel which are independent of the others, the quotations approach more nearly to the Hebrew text. This phenomenon must be taken into account in drawing any conclusion as to the existence of the Aramaic original.
The following theory is advanced as a natural way of explaining the facts. It can hardly be doubted that St. Matthew in the first instance composed a Gospel for the use of the Palestinian Jews. But on the disruption of the Jewish polity Aramaic would cease to be intelligible to many, and the demand would come for a Greek version of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. How would this demand be met? Either Matthew himself, or else some faithful scribe, would use the Hebrew Gospel as the basis of a Greek version. Many of the familiar parables and sayings of Jesus, which were orally afloat in all the Churches, he would (for the sake of old association) incorporate with little alteration, but he would preserve throughout the plan of the original, and, in passages where the special teaching of this Gospel came in, the version would be a close rendering of the Aramaic. This theory explains the verbal coincidence of some parts of St. Matthew’s Gospel with the parallel Synoptic passages, and accounts for the facts in regard to the quotations stated above.
Such a version, especially if made by St. Matthew himself, would indeed be rather an original work than a translation, and would speedily in either case acquire the authority of the original Aramaic. Accordingly we find that even those writers who speak of the Hebrew Gospel themselves quote from the Greek version as authoritative.
EXTERNAL HISTORY DURING THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF JESUS CHRIST
BC3 – Octavianus Augustus had been sole ruler of the Roman Empire from BC30. Twice during that period the temple of Janus had been closed in sign of peace.
BC1 – Death of Herod. Rising of the Jews against the Procurator Sabinus. Repression of the revolt by Varus: 2000 Jews crucified.
AD6 – Resistance to the Census of Quirinus by Judas the Gaulonite and his Galilaean followers.
7 Banishment of Archelaus.
1‑12 Campaigns against the Germans, Pannonians, and Dalmatians, conducted by Tiberuis and Germanicus. The disastrous defeat of Varus in Germany. Final success and triumph of the Roman Generals.
14 Death of Augustus and succession of Tiberius.
15‑17 Germanicus continues the war against the Germans, and triumphs.
18 Death of Ovid and Livy.19
19 Death of Germanicus. Jews banished from Italy.
20‑31 Hateful tyranny of Tiberuis. Ascendancy of Sejanus. Fall of Sejanus AD 30.
26 Pontius Pilate appointed as the sixth Procurator of Judaea.
2. The Imperial Rule
It will be seen from this summary, that while Jesus was passing a quiet childhood in the Galilaean valley, few startling events disturbed the peace of the world. But it was an epoch of the greatest historical interest. It was a crisis in the kingdoms of the world as well as in the Kingdom of God. Rome had completed her conquests – no formidable rival was left to threaten her power in any direction. But the moment when the Roman people secured the empire of the world, they resigned their own liberties into the hands of a single master.
Caesar Octavianus, afterwards named Augustus, the successor of the great Julius Caesar, was the first to consolidate this enormous individual power; it was he who bequeathed to the world the proudest titles of despotic rule – Emperor – Kaiser Czar. With him the true nature of the monarchy was veiled over by the retention of Republican forms, and by a nominal re‑election at intervals. The justice and clemency of his rule kept out of sight the worst abuses of unlimited power. And partly owing to the fact that the most brilliant age of Roman literature coincided with the reign of Augustus, his name is associated rather with literary culture and refinement, than with despotic sway.
When Jesus grew up to manhood, the grace and culture and the semblance of liberty which had gilded the despotism of Augustus vanished under the dark influence of the morose and cruel Tiberius. If ever men suffered from hopeless tyranny and wrong, it was in this reign. It is a miserable history of lives surrounded by suspicion and fear, and of the best and purest citizens yielding to despair or removed by secret assassination.
It can perhaps be scarcely a matter of surprise, that a Jewish patriot, alive to the horrors of this despotism and recalling the prophetic images of a triumphant Messiah, should sometimes have dreamed that the Kingdom of God would be manifested by the overthrow of this monstrous evil, and in turn establish itself as an external power stronger and more resistless than Rome. It is this thought that gives point to the third temptation presented to our Lord. (Matt. 4: 8,9)
3. The Provincial System
A glance at the Provincial system of Rome with especial reference to Palestine will show how truly, in an external sense, Christ came in the fullness of time.
Under the Empire the condition of the provinces was happier than formerly. The rapacity of individual governors was checked by the imperial supervision. Moreover, great consideration was in many cases shown to a conquered people. National customs were allowed to continue; even native princes were in several instances confirmed in their rule on condition of becoming tributary to Rome.
In accordance with this principle, the Herodian dynasty was tolerated in Palestine. Observe how the changes in that dynasty affected the life of Christ. When Jesus was born, Herod was reigning in Jerusalem; hence the events that led to the flight into Egypt. On the return of Jesus with Mary and Joseph, the kingdom was divided; hence the possibility of taking refuge from the cruelty of an Archelaus under the more tolerant Antipas in the home at Nazareth. The banishment of Archelaus a few years afterwards brought about the establishment in Judaea of the Roman government, which with its accustomed liberality left the national system represented by the Sanhedrin, not wholly unimpaired, indeed, but still influential.
Important consequences followed this precise political position. The Jewish nation was still responsible. It was Israel and not Rome that rejected the Messiah Israel that condemned to death the Lord of Life. But it was Rome that executed the will of the Jewish people. Jesus suffered, by the law of Rome, death on the Roman cross, with all its significance, its agreement with prophecy, and its divine fitness. The point to be observed is that under no other political conditions could this event have taken place in that precise manner, which was wholly in accordance with the Scriptures that foretell the Messiah.
4. A Time of Peace
The lull of peace that pervaded the Roman world, was another element in the external preparation for the advent of Christ. In the generation which preceded and in that which followed the life of Christ on earth, Palestine, and indeed the whole empire, was disquieted by the greatest political confusion. In the generation before the Christian Era, Anthony and Augustus were contending for the mastery of the world, and a disputed succession disturbed the peace of Palestine. The succeeding generation was filled with the horrors of the Jewish war, of which Galilee was the focus, and which culminated in the fall of Jerusalem. It is clear that the conditions of Christ’s ministry could not have been fulfilled in either of these conjunctures.
5. The Various Nationalities in Palestine
A further point of interest at the particular period when Jesus lived on earth, is the variety of nationalities which the special circumstances of the time brought together in Palestine.
A political epoch that found a Roman governor in the south (where the native ecclesiastical rule still prevailed), Idumean kings in the north and east, wild mountain and desert tribes pressing on the frontiers in one direction, peaceful Phoenicians in another, involved a mixture and gathering of populations which made Palestine an epitome of the whole world. The variety of life and thought, which must have resulted from these different social elements, is one of those external circumstances which have rendered the Gospel so fit to instruct every age and every condition of men.
6. The Religious Condition of the Empire
The wider and more interesting question of the religious state of the world at this epoch, cannot be fully discussed here. In Greece and in Rome, the most civilized portions of the earth, Religion allowed, or at least was ineffectual to prevent, a state of morality which St. Paul describes with terrible plainness in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. Gross immorality entered even into the ritual of worship; Religion raised no voice against the butchery of gladiatorial shows, or against infanticide, or slavery, or suicide, or even against the horrors of human sacrifice.
Little real belief in the gods and goddesses remained; and though ancient superstitions still lingered among the vulgar, the interested motives on the part of priests and communities kept alive the cult of special deities, and supported shrines and temples in various parts of the world, and though, credulity gaining ground as true religious feeling passed away, the mysterious rites of Egypt and the East, the worship of Isis and of Mithras flourished at Rome in spite of repressive edicts ‑ all this was external and unreal, a thin cover for deep‑seated and wide‑spread skepticism.
Philosophy did but little to fill the void. Stoicism, the favorite creed with the practical Roman, though apparently nearest to Christianity in some respects, was deeply opposed to the Christian spirit by its pride, its self‑sufficiency, its exclusiveness, its exaltation of human nature, its lack of love, its approval of suicide. Epicurism had degenerated from a high ideal to a mere pursuit of sensual pleasure.
It was in the midst of a world thus corrupt to the core, that the beautiful and novel conception rose of a religion, which recognizing no limits of race or language, should without distinction draw all men to itself by its appeal to the sin‑stricken conscience, and by the satisfaction it brought to the deepest needs of humanity.
(Written by A. Carr, M.A., an imminent Bible scholar of England)
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