A Historical-Critical Introduction to Matthew

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.


Writing around 324 CE, church historian Eusebius of Caesarea recorded this saying from Papias, a second-century bishop of Hierapolis, concerning the Gospel of Matthew: “And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [Or: translated] them to the best of his ability.”[1] This comment has been thoroughly examined by contemporary scholarship, which has come to the general consensus that Papias either incorrectly thought Matthew composed his gospel in Aramaic or that Matthew translated the Aramaic sayings of Jesus into the koine Greek of his gospel.[2] Papias’s confusing remarks about Matthew’s Gospel aside, modern scholarship also problematizes the first part of his statement: that the Apostle Matthew composed the Gospel bearing his name.

Given the gospel’s anonymity, many scholars conclude that little may be said about its author other than that he was an organized, literate Jewish-Christian whose mission field was largely Jewish.[3] While traditional attribution to the Apostle Matthew goes back to at least Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 185 CE),[4] if not Papias himself (c. 140 CE), this paper will proceed on the dictum of Hagner, that “Matthew the apostle is…probably the source of an early form of significant portions of the Gospel, in particular sayings of Jesus…[and] narrative material. One or more disciples of the Matthean circle may then have put these materials into the form of the Gospel that we have today.”[5]

Date and Provenance

Most contemporary scholarship concludes that Matthew’s Gospel was written post-70 CE, most likely between 80-90 CE in the region of Syrian Antioch.[6] Donald Hager, however, has rightly noted that the dating of Matthew’s Gospel often hinges on whether scholars deem Matthew 24:15-28 an authentic prophetic utterance of Jesus or not.[7] As the particulars of this series have little to do with Matthew’s specific darting, we will proceed with the possibility that Matthew was written sometime between 65-90 CE. Further, although other possible locations for the composition of the gospel are possible—Harrington notes Damascus, Edessa, and Palestine are relatively popular options[8]—Craig Keener suggests that Antioch’s cultural orientation toward Rome rather than the Parthian east best explains Matthew’s Greco-Roman form alongside the numerous traditional Middle Eastern conceptions and sayings of Jesus.[9]

Place in Life

Generally, the Sitz im Leben of Matthew’s community seems to have been an urban or suburban, relatively well-to-do, primarily Jewish fellowship of Jesus-followers.[10] Certainly a knowledge of the Jewish scriptures forms an important backdrop for much of Matthew’s gospel, which consistently resources Old Testament passages, images, and language to convey its messages. Preoccupying this community, however, was the relationship of those following Jesus as Messiah to the faith and practices of the people of Israel. As Harrington notes, Matthew’s gospel seeks to answer the questions, “Is the God of Israel still powerful and faithful to his promises? Is there any benefit in keeping the Torah?”[11] Closely related to this issue are concerns with boundary formation, determining who is included within the church and who is not, whether the gospel of Jesus is particular or universal.[12] In addressing these questions, the First Gospel inhabits two worlds: those of Second Temple Judaism and Messiah-infused early Christianity.

More specifically in Matthew 18:21-35 and other passages relating to the theme of forgiveness, the Christian community was attempting to determine how to best respond to wrongs committed. Jesus-followers needed to understand if forgiveness should be extended, to whom it could rightly be offered, and what limits forgiveness entailed. In answering these questions, Jesus (and Matthew) draw on a number of images with which the community would have been familiar, including sheep and goats, familial relations, and basic knowledge of antique economics. All of this historical-critical context informs the duration of this study and its conclusions.

[1] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History (trans. G.A. Williamson, ed. A. Louth, London: Penguin Books, 1989), 3.39.16 Papias, Fragments (trans. B.D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: Volume Two, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 102-103. περὶ τοῦ Μάρκου. περὶ δὲ τοῦ Ματθαίου ταῦτ᾿ εἴρηται· Ματθαῖος μὲν οὖν Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήνευσεν δ᾿ αὐτά, ὡς ἦν δυνατὸς ἕκαστος.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), xliii-xlvi. Scot McKnight, “Matthew, Gospel of,” 784-800 in The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (ed. D.G. Reid, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 785-6. McKnight remarks: “(1) that Matthew betrays no evidence of being a translated Gospel; (2) that the Greek expression Hebraidi dialekto, when investigated carefully in its Asia Minor context, means not ‘in the Hebrew language’ but ‘in a Hebrew rhetorical style’…; (3) that the context shows that Papias is comparing Matthew’s style…with Mark’s style….”

[3] Hagner, lxxvi. Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 8-9. John  P. Meier, “Matthew, Gospel of,” 622-641 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 4 (K-N) (ed. D.N. Freedman, New York and London: Doubleday, 1992), 625-7. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation: Revised Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 189. McKnight, 787. Abel argues for two authors with different purposes and audiences: “M1” composing a more Jewish redaction between 64-70 CE and “M2” a more apologetic and universalizing edition between 80-105 CE. See Ernest L .Abel, “Who Wrote Matthew?” NTS 17.2 (1971): 138f, esp. 148, 152.

[4] Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses (trans. R.M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, London: Routledge, 1996), 3.1.2; 3.11.8. Hagner notes that the only internal evidence suggesting this designation comes in the substitution of Matthew for Levi in 9.9 and the addition of “the tax collector” in 10.3. See Hagner, lxxvi.

[5] Hagner, lxxvii.

[6] Meier, 623-4. Harrington, Matthew, 8. Hagner, lxxv.

[7] Hagner, lxxiii-lxxv. Hagner also notes that if Matthew relies on Mark, it only needs to be written after it—and not necessarily ten years after the fact. Further, Matthew seems to expect the parousia right after the judgment of Jerusalem, suggesting he writes before 70 CE. For a fuller discussion, see Hagner, lxxiv-lxxv.

[8] Harrington, Matthew, 9-10.

[9] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2009), xxvi.

[10] Hagner, lxv. Meier, 625. Harrington, Matthew, 1, 14. For an outline specific options regarding Matthew’s audience, see Hagner, lxv.

[11] Harrington, Matthew, 13.

[12] Richard S. Ascough, “Matthew and Community Formation,” 96-126 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study: Studies in Memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. (ed. D.E. Aune, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 125-6. Johnson, 206. Harrington, Matthew, 19. Meier, 625. Hagner, lxv-lxxi.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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