Review of Chapter 5 of Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke

This chapter pertains to the ancient testimony to Matthew’s gospel. According to Wenham, the testimony of the early church fathers is unanimous in holding that: the apostle Matthew/Levi, a tax collector and member of the Twelve, is the author; his was the first gospel to be written; and he wrote for Hebrews in the Hebrew language. Important testimonies to this effect include:

  • Papias (c. 60-130): “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able” (Eusebius, HE 3.39.16).
  • Irenaeus (c. 130-200): “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church” (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).
  • Pantaenus (died c. 190):
    • Eusebius, HE 5.10.3: “Pantænus 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.”
    • Jerome, De Vir. Ill. 36: “He [Pantaenus] found that [in India] Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, had preached the advent of the Lord Jesus according to the gospel of Matthew, and on his return to Alexandria he brought this with him written in Hebrew characters.”
  • Origen (c. 185-254): “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” (Eusebius, HE 6.25.4).
  • Eusebius (c. 260-340):
    • HE 3.24.6: “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.”
    • Ad Marinum, Question 2: “[It] has been written by him who translated the scripture, for the evangelist delivered it in the Hebrew tongue” (p. 118).
  • Epiphanius (c. 315-403):
    • Adv. Haer. 29.9.4: “They [the Ebionites and the Nazoraeans] have the Gospel according to Matthew complete and in Hebrew. For this is evidently still preserved among them, as it was originally written, in Hebrew script” (p. 118).
    • Adv. Haer. 30.3.7: “They [the Ebionites] too receive the Gospel according to Matthew. For this they use . . . to the exclusion of all others. But they call it [the Gospel] according to the Hebrews, for, to speak truthfully, Matthew alone of the New Testament writers presents and proclaims the gospel in Hebrew and in the Hebrew script” (p. 118).
  • Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386): “Matthew who wrote the Gospel wrote it in the Hebrew tongue” (Catecheses 14.15).
  • Jerome (c. 340-420):
    • Preface to Matthew: “The first evangelist is Matthew, the publican, who was surnamed Levi. He published his Gospel in Judæa in the Hebrew language, chiefly for the sake of Jewish believers in Christ, who adhered in vain to the shadow of the law, although the substance of the Gospel had come.”
    • De Vir. Ill. 3: “Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek, though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Berœa, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew.”

Wenham notes that Origen and Jerome were familiar with Hebrew and did not find the tradition suspicious. While older scholars found the tradition virtually unquestionable, this has not been the case with more modern scholars.

The references to Jewish Christian gospels in the church fathers are very complex and no consensus has emerged. Jerome mentions a Gospel according to the Hebrews that is clearly not canonical Matthew (De Vir. Ill. 2). A copy of the Ebionite Gospel known to Epiphanius was in Greek and also contained material not in canonical Matthew. None of our sources claim to have seen the Hebrew version of Matthew with their own eyes. It is possible to argue that the later sources received erroneous information through Papias.

Wenham quickly rules out this possibility. Papias had many informants and these informants would have passed on their beliefs to others. Irenaeus was separated from the apostle John through a single intermediary, Polycarp, and had sources other than Papias for his information. The testimony about Pantaenus does not look like an expansion on Papias. Origen shows no trace of being acquainted with Papias and appeals to tradition, not a single source, for his statement. Eusebius had a mediocre view of Papias so it is unlikely he would have just accepted Papias’ view if he did not have other reasons for thinking Papias was accurate on this point.

Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to look closely at Papias himself. The first thing to notice is the very early date of his writing. Philip of Side links Papias with the reign of Hadrian (117-138). However, Philip is an unreliable source and wrote a century later than Eusebius. Eusebius says Papias became famous during the time of Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome (HE 3.36.1-2; 3.38.1-5). He discusses the writings of Papias before he comes to Trajan’s persecution (c. 110). This leads to the conclusion that Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, wrote his work, Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord, in the first decade of the second century.

Papias emphasises that he got his information from those who had known the apostles Andrew, Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew and others, and he is able to say of his interpretations ‘of their truth I am confident’ [HE 3.39.1-4]. He is writing self-consciously as a particularly well-informed person, who has multiple sources and who is only removed from Matthew himself by a single link. Papias implies indeed that during the time of his enquiries most of ‘the Lord’s disciples’ to whom he refers were dead, hence his dependence on those ‘who had followed the presbyters’. He shows, however, by his change of tense from ‘had said’ to ‘are saying’ that two of ‘the Lord’s disciples’, Aristion and the presbyter John, were still alive at the time when he received information from them. Thus he had informants of great reliability whose reports his readers could safely trust. (p. 124-125)

Despite the fact that Papias’ testimony appears to be of the highest quality he still has detractors. His detractors try to discredit his testimony in four ways: (1) insist Matthew is derived from Mark; (2) emphasize the ambivalence of Eusebius; (3) attempt to explain how Papias got it wrong; and (4) attempt to reinterpret Papias’ words.

Most scholars hold that Greek Matthew used Greek Mark. It is said that an apostle like Matthew would not use Mark, someone who was not an apostle, as a source. But this is debatable. Matthew could very well have wanted to preserve material from Mark, especially if he thought the apostle Peter’s preaching stood behind Mark. Of course, Wenham argues for Matthean Priority in chs. 1-4.

A second argument of Papias detractors emphasizes that Eusebius called Papias a man of “small intelligence” because he believed the kingdom of Christ would be set up in a material form on earth. But this statement may say more about Eusebius’ abhorrence of Papias’ eschatological views than it does about Papias himself. For elsewhere Eusebius admits that many Christian writers trusted Papias (we know Irenaeus did for certain). Moreover, Papias makes it clear he had many sources, so we are not relying solely on Papias. If he were wrong an alternative tradition about Matthew’s gospel would have been passed on by others. But the tradition is unanimous that Matthew wrote the first gospel.

Detractors make further attempts to show Papias may have gotten things wrong. F. D. E. Schleiermacher tries to argue that the Greek of Papias’ claim merely means Matthew collected some proverbs or the like, not that he wrote a full-fledged gospel. Wenham counters by citing the works of B. B. Warfield and R. Gryson, who argue the Greek means Papias was referring to sacred utterances or scripture. In other words, “Papias’ work is an exposition of scriptures comprising the Lord’s oracles, and Matthew’s gospel is one of the books of divine oracles which he expounds” (p. 130). Another suggestion is that Papias mistakenly claimed Matthew was written in Hebrew because he knew it was written to Jews. The problem with this suggestion is that Papias does not claim to be guessing. He, and others after him, write as if it is a plain fact.

A final argument of detractors is to interpret Papias to be claiming that Matthew wrote in a Hebrew style instead of the Hebrew language. Wenham finds this understanding of Papias’ words unconvincing but perhaps the best way to harmonize the tradition about Matthew with a modern scholar’s conviction that Matthew was written in Greek. Note: it is debatable whether Papias meant the Aramaic language when he said “Hebrew”.

Wenham closes the chapter with another argument for traditional authorship. Martin Hengel notes that the manuscript evidence indicates there was complete unanimity across the Roman Empire at the end of the second century concerning the titles of the canonical gospels. If the gospels were truly anonymous, as many modern scholars claim, then we would expect them to be given a diversity of titles when a church had to label its multiple scrolls. But, if the traditional authors really did write the canonical gospels, then it makes sense that all our manuscripts have the same titles.

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