Dating Matthew, 2

In the first essay in this series, I presented a case for dating Matthew before AD 70, contrary to the present scholarly consensus. In this essay, I intend to present cultural, personal, ecclesiological, and theological arguments for a very early date for Matthew. 1

The cultural argument concerns literacy in the days of Jesus. There was a time when it was widely assumed that the rate of literacy in Jesus’ day would have been quite low, suggesting that Jesus Himself and His disciples would have probably been illiterate. Research by Biblical archaeologist Alan Millard — not to mention others — contravenes these assumptions. 2Archaeological and other evidence demonstrates that reading and writing were common in Jesus’ day. Furthermore, it is known that among first century Jews disciples of famous Rabbis would take notes on the Rabbis’ teaching that would be copied and distributed among other disciples.

In such a cultural context, it is highly likely that Matthew — though, of course, not necessarily Matthew alone — would have taken notes on Jesus’ teaching and recorded His miracles. As a tax collector, Matthew’s profession would have required him to write on a daily basis. Is it reasonable to assume that upon becoming a disciple of the one he believed to be the Messiah, he would not follow the custom of the time and takes notes about his Rabbi’s teaching and deeds? There was even a system of shorthand in use at the time. Given the disciples’ faith in and devotion to Jesus, the natural assumption is that one or more of them would have been taking notes and that they would share these notes together.

In fact, we should also assume that others outside of Jesus’ most intimate circle would have written down things Jesus said. In addition, of course, with such large crowds hearing Jesus’ teaching there would have been a widespread “oral tradition” even during Jesus’ lifetime. We have no extant records of any of this because they would have been written on perishable material, like so many of the records of the Roman Empire that have also perished with time.

The personal and ecclesiological arguments go more or less together. We actually know very little about Matthew himself, for apart from the story of his call to the ministry, he is only mentioned in lists of the disciples. And in those lists, it is clear he is not a leader among them, never once making it into the top six. However, the story of his call to discipleship is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels: Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, and Luke 5:27-32.

Though Luke tells the story Peter’s call in more detail than Matthew or Mark, the call of Matthew is given a prominence that is hard to explain given his position among the disciples and the utter lack of information about him apart from the call narrative. Of course, if, as church tradition has it, his Gospel were the first one written and most popular, the emphasis on his call is fitting.

What is interesting for my argument is what the three parallel call stories tell us about Matthew (named Levi in Mark and Luke). Though Matthew himself records the story somewhat ambiguously, Mark and Luke make it clear that immediately after his call, Matthew/Levi held a great feast at his own house and invited as many tax collectors and sinners as he could gather. In his generosity and compassion, Matthew was a true disciple of the Messiah, who came to call sinners to repentance.

This brings me to the associated ecclesiological argument, which is simply that from the beginning of the church era there was an evident need for a written Gospel. The early church tradition that Matthew, the earnest evangelist, wrote his Gospel originally in Hebrew/Aramaic fits well the picture drawn in the book of Acts. On the day of Pentecost, 3000 Jews from all over the Roman Empire and beyond were baptized. Most of them would be returning to their homes after the feast. We have to assume that few of them would have known enough of Jesus’ teaching to be able to know how to live as Christians.

What reason for delay would present itself to a generous and passionate disciple, who almost certainly had many notes about Jesus’ teaching and could produce a “Gospel” in a relatively short time? Would not the other disciples also encourage Matthew to put together a book of testimony? Pentecost is the personal and ecclesiological trigger that would have compelled Matthew to write and not delay. The wholly Jewish Pentecostal church of AD 30 needed Matthew’s book.

The theological argument concerns the nature of Biblical revelation and the disciples’ commission as witnesses of Jesus (Acts 1:8). The very notion of “witness” is a covenantal and legal idea (Genesis 21:30; 31:44, 48, 50, 52; Deuteronomy 4:26; Joshua 22:26–28, 24:27; 1 Samuel 6:18; Isaiah 30:8, 43:8-13; Jeremiah 32:9-15, 42:5; John 8:12-18, 15:26-27, 21:24). The ark of the covenant is called the ark of the testimony because it contained the “testimony” of the two tablets of the covenant (Exodus 16:34; 25:16, 21–22; 26:33–34; 27:21; 30:6, 26, 36; 31:7, 18; 32:15; 34:29). The tabernacle itself was called the tabernacle of the testimony (Exodus 38:21).

In short, the legal and covenantal implications of the notion of witness and testimony would have been well-known to Jesus’ disciples. When the disciples had to find a replacement for Judas Iscariot so that the foundation of the New Israel would be a proper 12 leaders, the stipulation was that he be a man who had been with them from the time of John the Baptist until Jesus rose from the dead. To be a apostle means to be an eyewitness, especially of the resurrection, but also of Jesus’ entire ministry (Acts 1:21-22).

Now, covenantal testimony and witness are at the heart of the literary tradition of the Jewish people. From the time of Moses, the inauguration of a new covenant was always accompanied by new written Scripture.3 In the history of Israel, a new covenant means new written revelation — in the time of David and in association with the Davidic covenant, as well as the time of Ezra and in association with the new covenant after the restoration of the Jews to the land. The boundaries of each “new covenant” had to be drawn out and defined in written documents. The history associated with the covenant was related as testimony to what God was doing.

At the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples that the cup He was presenting them was “my blood of the covenant.” The disciples must have received the cup in some amazement. Jews did not drink blood, certainly not human blood. Of course, they knew it was a figure of speech, but for Jesus to call the bread His body and the cup His blood must have been shocking. After Jesus’ resurrection and the 40 days He spent teaching them how to understand all the Scriptures, the disciples would have come to understand the meaning of the Last Supper and the fact that by His death and resurrection, Jesus had inaugurated a truly New Covenant.

They would have also understood that the New Covenant needed written revelation bearing witness to Jesus Himself primarily but also outlining the boundaries of the New Covenant. When 3000 Jews were baptized at Pentecost, there was an apparent need for New Covenant revelation in written form that could be distributed to new believers all over the Roman Empire. There was a zealous evangelist named Matthew who had, no doubt, been taking notes of Jesus’ teaching and miracles. What would have hindered him from writing his Gospel — probably in Hebrew/Aramaic, as the early tradition suggests — within months of Pentecost? After all, he was a chosen witness and Jesus had promised that the Spirit who would be given to them at Pentecost would enable them to bear testimony to Him (John 14:26, 15:26-27, 16:12-15). What is more natural than that Matthew would do just that?

The cultural background of Matthew’s day suggests that it would have been not only possible but highly probable for him to have kept notes during Jesus’ lifetime. From the time of Pentecost, therefore, there were personal, ecclesiological, and theological factors that would have impelled Matthew to put covenantal testimony into a written form. To suppose that he would wait 40 years before picking up his pen is, at the very least, a gross failure of imagination.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.

References   [ + ]

1. Again, I must note that I am following the lead of James Jordan, “The Production of the New Testament Canon: A Revisionist Suggestion,” and Peter Leithart, “Covenant Recapitulation in New Testament History,” though they should not be held responsible for my reckless imagination.
2. Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
3. For a fuller discussion of this, see James Jordan, “Hermeneutical Polytheism.”