The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew is the first book in the New Testament, and according to ancient church tradition, it was the first of the four gospels to be written. However, when we endeavour to date the time of writing of the New Testament books, we believe the reader may be best served to first read the article on Luke and Acts. There we date Luke between 60-62 A.D., and can use that as a reference to discuss the date of writing for Matthew.
Matthew, Mark and Luke together are called the synoptic ("same eye") gospels. This is due to the close relationship between the three, as all three tell many of the same stories, often in the same way and with the same words. Of the 661 verses in Mark, Matthew reproduces 606 of them and Luke reproduces 320 of them. Of the 55 verses in Mark but not Matthew, 31 are present in Luke.[William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, pp. 2-3] One clear example of the connection between the gospels is the story of the man who was sick of the palsy (Mark 2:1-12, Matt 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26). The accounts are so similar that even a little parenthesis -"he said top the paralytic"- occurs in all three accounts in exactly the same place.
An additional point to make about the relationship between Mark and Matthew is that the connection between the two books is a written connection rather than an oral connection. In other words, the connection is not due to an account passed down by word of mouth, but rather, one book used a written copy of the other. This can be shown by comparing Mark 13:14, which says: “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains” with Matt 24:15-16: “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.” Here both books interrupt a speech by Jesus in the same place, to make the same side note to the reader – “let the reader understand.” This is a “reader”, implying a written book.
Early Christian witnesses indicate that Matthew was the first gospel written, and that it was originally written in Hebrew. Papias (ca. 70-155 A.D.), bishop of Hierapolis, wrote that “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.” This witness by Papias has been treated quite roughly, as modern writers first have assumed he meant Aramaic when he said Hebrew, and then rejected his comment anyway. There are multiple reasons for this, but one primary reason is that a Hebrew Matthew is inconsistent with the modern two-source theory, the predominant theory of the origin of Matthew. (The two-source theory stipulates that Matthew and Luke drew from the gospel of Mark and a second source of Jesus sayings, usually designated as "Q"). Nevertheless, other church fathers repeated and expanded on the comments of Papias. Irenaeus wrote: “Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own language.” Origen, quoted by Eusebius wrote: “Matthew…composed as it was in the Hebrew language.” Finally, Jerome wrote: “Matthew, who wrote in the Hebrew language…” (Epist 20.5). Jerome was a formidable scholar who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin, and he certainly knew the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic.
I believe that Matthew (and Mark) are gospels which had what could be called a complex origin, and this is the reason for the complexities modern in comparisons of Matthew, Mark and Luke. By a complex origin, I mean that both Matthew and Mark were originally written close in time to the life of Christ, perhaps within a year or two of the crucifixion. These gospels were nurtured, revised, and extended by the early church until they came into the form we have today. In the case of Matthew, the modern form of the gospel is in Greek, but I believe the first version was written in Hebrew.
The Original Language of Matthew
Before we address the date of writing for Matthew, I believe we do need to address the language in which it was written. The best source for Matthew as we have it today is, like the rest of the New Testament, the common Greek version, of which there are numerous ancient manuscripts or manuscript fragments. Still, it would not be surprising in principle to learn that Matthew, Mark or any other early Jewish Christian wrote a gospel in Hebrew; Hebrew was the language used in the synagogue, and Christians initially tried to witness within the synagogues. First century Jews would be accustomed to dealing with religious texts written in Hebrew. If Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, this would imply that the Greek Matthew we have today is a translation from the Hebrew.Most modern scholars deny that Matthew was written in Hebrew originally, but the question is actually very complex. It is nearly certain that the dialogue between characters in the gospels was originally almost entirely in Hebrew or Aramaic. Therefore, any verse that quotes someone speaking is necessarily a translation - the only question is whether the translation occurred from a spoken Hebrew/Aramaic into written Greek, or from a written Hebrew/Aramaic into written Greek. For example, Matthew 1:21 says "You shall call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins." This verse, though very familiar, doesn't actually make sense in Greek (or English). It is only when one reads the text in Hebrew, and realizes that the name "Jesus" (Yeshua) is derived from the word "save" (Yoshia) that the sentence makes sense. There are numerous cases like this, and they are not limited to just Matthew.
Still, there are reasons to believe that beyond just transcribing spoken Hebrew/Aramaic into written Greek, Matthew may have originally been written in Hebrew. The genealogy of Matthew 1:1-16 uses the identical wording pattern as many of the Hebrew Old Testament geneologies (X begat Y, Y begat Z, etc.). This could be just coincidental, but by comparison the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 uses wording unlike any Old Testament genealogy (Luke being originally written in Greek). Furthermore, Matthew ends his genealogy with the comment that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and 14 generations from the exile to Christ. Hebrew letters double as numbers, and as a result, every Hebrew word has a number associated with it, the number usually being calculated by summing the individual letters. David's name has a very low number - 14. This would have been common knowledge to Jewish Hebrew language readers, and Matthew is perhaps using the three 14's to further point to Jesus being the Son of David, the Messiah. This interesting point of course makes sense only in Hebrew and is obliterated in any translation. Matt 1:25 says Joseph did not "know" his wife before Jesus was born, using a familiar Hebrew (but not Greek) euphimism for sexual relations between a husband and wife. Note that the examples we have offered so far are all limited to just the first chapter of Matthew. We could offer more, but for purposes of brevity, will stop at this point.
It has been much observed that the New Testament writers quote more from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, than they do from the Masoretic Text, the most common Hebrew Text. Now often it is impossible to tell which Old Testament version is being used, since the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text are frequently essentially identical. Still, when there are differences, the New Testament writers usually draw from the Septuagint. This is understandable, since the New Testament was written in Greek, and the Septuagint was a readily available Greek translation of the Old Testament. Also, in a Greek speaking congregation, the Septuagint would be the Bible used by the people, providing the apostles all the more reason to quote from it. However, Matthew (along with the letter to the Hebrews) goes against the trend. In places where the Hebrew Old Testament Masoretic Text differs from the Septuagint, Matthew's quotes usually (not always) more closely match the Masoretic Text. An example of this can be seen in Matt 2:15: “Out of Egypt I called My Son”. This is a case where the Hebrew Text and the Septuagint are substantially different, as the Septuagint of Hosea 11:1 says “Out of Egypt I called his children” and misses the point of the prophecy. Matthew’s quote exactly matches the Hebrew of Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I called my son."
At this point, we will introduce an unusual piece of evidence in the discussion of the original language of Matthew. A complete Hebrew text of Matthew appears in a 14th century text entitled Even Bohan. This book was written in Aragon, Spain by a Jewish man named Shem-Tov ben-Isaac ben Shaprut. This is a lengthy text written in opposition to Christianity, so Shem Tov uses his Gospel of Matthew in a hostile fashion, to attack it. It is beyond the purpose of this book to deal with the Shem Tov Matthew in great detail. For this, the reader is directed to George Howard’s Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. However, there are still some useful points that can be made.
Some fringe organizations have seized on the Shem Tov Matthew as being a significant text, but mainstream scholarship has largely set it aside. The weaknesses of the Shem Tov Matthew are very apparent:
I believe these weaknesses render the Shem Tov Matthew essentially useless for any religious purpose, and it also should not be trusted as a primary source in any textual criticism study of Matthew. However, there are two things about the book that seem instructive:
Bases on the testimony of the Early Church Fathers, the characteristics of the Shem Tov Matthew, and the internal evidence of Matthew itself, I would conclude that the earliest version of the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew. Furthermore, the differences between the Shem Tov Matthew and the canonical Matthew give evidence that various significantly different renditions of Matthew once existed. Our canonical Greek Matthew would necessarily be the final, most polished rendition. Luke would have had access to an earlier rendition of Matthew (one which still retained the sermon interruptions found in the Shem Tov Matthew but not the canonical Matthew) and also an early rendition of Mark, along with other sources. I believe this is the best explanation for the similarities and the differences between the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
This would mean the first Hebrew rendition of Matthew was written close in time to Christ's earthly ministry - probably not more than a year or two after the founding of the church. The earliest rendition was refined, perhaps in multiple stages, and eventually translated into Greek for use in the larger church.
When then, would Matthew have reached its final canonical form? There are clues to the answer in the passages dealing with Matthew's attitude toward Jewish institutions. In Matt 17:24-27, Peter is challenged as to whether or not Jesus pays the two-drachma tax. This was a tax collected to maintain the temple. The short account ends with Jesus and Peter both paying it. The most immediate application of the story seems to address Jewish Christian readers, to inform them that they ought to continue to pay this tax. Needless to say, this points to a date of writing before 70. Matthew also has a good deal to say about the Sadducees, a sect controlling the priesthood and dependent on Roman favor. The Sadducees essentially disappeared after 70. Matt 12:6 quotes Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." This Old Testament passage may have been chosen instead of other similar passages, in order to negate the requirement for sacrifices for Jewish Christians.
So overall, the culture behind the book of Matthew seems to indicate an audience of Jewish Christians, who still have a connection to the Jewish faith and ought to continue paying the temple tax, but who are beginning to separate themselves from non-Christian Jews in other ways, such as the practice of animal sacrifice. The Jewish Christians abandoned Jerusalem some time after 62 A.D., but either before the Roman Jewish war or shorty after its start in 66 A.D. This would have been a major step in the breach between Christians and Jews. The gospel of Matthew was likely completed before such a permanent breach was in sight. A date around 60 A.D. would seem reasonable.