Matthew the Tax Collector
February 4, 2020

Richard Bauckham’s groundbreaking work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, is profoundly insightful, but the message of the book is hampered by the presupposition of Marcan priority. Ironically the place where this assumption perhaps does its most damage is in Bauckham’s discussion of the apostle Matthew and his relationship to the tax collector whose name in Mark and Luke is Levi (Mark 2:13-14; Luke 5:27-28; compare Matthew 9:9). Bauckham thinks it unlikely that a disciple would have two semitic names (what about Simon and Cephas?) and hypothesizes that the author of Matthew — according to Bauckham, not the apostle himself — borrowed Levi’s “call-story” from Mark in order to authenticate himself as an apostle. Bauckham wrote:

“The most plausible explanation of the occurrence of the name Matthew in 9:9 is that the author of this Gospel, knowing that Matthew was a tax collector and wishing to narrate the call of Matthew in the Gospel that was associated with him, but not knowing a story of Matthew’s call, transferred Mark’s story from Levi to Matthew.”[i]

In fact, other, more plausible explanations come to mind, especially if one assumes the priority of Matthew, which I have argued for in another essay.[ii] Bauckham believes that the name “Matthew” must have been associated with Matthew’s Gospel from the beginning, since there is no evidence that titles were added later (from the earliest times, all four Gospels have what we might call “title pages”). The story of the call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) from his tax-collecting business fits with the identification of Matthew as “the tax-collector” in the list of disciples, only referred to as such in Matthew’s Gospel (10:3). So far, we can agree with Bauckham.

But the following, assuming the priority of Matthew, is more plausible than Bauckham’s guess. To begin with, the author of the Gospel of Matthew — who really is the apostle Matthew — is telling us how he was called to be a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 9:9) and clearly identifying himself as “the tax collector,” Matthew the apostle (Matthew 10:3). This is a subtle form of the author signing his book, the first of the four Gospels to have been written, probably not long after Pentecost. Thus, the title of the book — the Gospel According to Matthew — is explained by the story of the call to discipleship and the list of apostles.

But if that is the case, why, then, should Mark and Luke have changed Matthew’s name to “Levi”?

I think the answer to this question might lie in the realization that it is the wrong question. What we should be asking is, Why did Levi change his name (or have his name changed) to Matthew? If we can answer this question, it might be easier to understand why Mark and Luke would refer to the call of “Levi,” the tax-collector, rather than “Matthew.”

Remember, there are many examples of men with multiple names, and in some famous cases, the second name is given to a believer in Jesus as a post-conversion name or a new name as a servant of God. Simon bar Jonah became Peter, and Saul became Paul. The most obvious reason for Levi to have changed his name to Matthew would be that Matthew was his post-conversion/post-commission name.

Now, Levi is a good Jewish name and probably points to Levi/Matthew as having been from the tribe of Levi, and thus having a Levitical or even priestly background. So, why would he change his name to Matthew? The most likely answer is found in a play on words. The name Matthew probably points to the word Greek word for “disciple,” “mathetes.” Levi had become a disciple and so took on, or was given, the new name “Disciple.” It was the name by which he identified himself as a follower of Jesus and an appointed apostle, the name which would have been associated with his Gospel from the beginning.

Why, then, would Mark and Luke refer to the well-known Gospel author by his pre-disciple name? The answer to that question is no doubt more than the simple fact that people often had two names. It seems equally indubitable that the apostle we know as “Matthew” must really have been formerly called “Levi.”

Beyond that fact, I must speculate. My sanctified guess is that in all probability, by the time the Gospel of Mark was written, sometime around AD 40 or so, the story of the disciple Matthew, the tax collector and author of the first Gospel, was already well-known in the early church. But that he had previously been known as “Levi” might well have been forgotten, or at least may no longer have been common knowledge, especially among the Gentile Christians to whom Mark and Luke were addressed.

What would early Christian Gentiles discover from learning that Matthew’s original name was Levi? At least two things. First, the simple fact that Matthew, like Paul and Peter, was a man who was given a new name because of his relationship to Jesus. Second, and much more striking, we are confronted with the profound irony that a man from the tribe of Levi had been a tax collector. He had essentially been betraying his people by working for Herod and the Romans.

What makes the irony profound is that the Levites and priests were indeed supposed to receive taxes from the other tribes for their sustenance. Receiving tax money was a Levitical responsibility! But instead of being supported by fellow sons of Jacob, Levi, the son of Alphaeus, was obtaining his financial support from the Roman oppressor. By being a tax collector, Levi had actually joined the oppressors. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, a tax collector was a man who had betrayed his people. He was a sinner.

So, from Mark and Luke, we learn that this sinner from the tribe of Levi is the well-known tax collector, Matthew, that had been introduced to us in Matthew’s Gospel. He was almost universally known by his new name “Matthew/Disciple.” But rather than using his new name to describe him in his pre-disciple days, Mark and Luke tell the story of his calling so as to emphasize the great transformation that had occurred in his life: From Levi to Matthew.

To make sure that we do not miss the point, Mark and Luke make clear to us what Matthew himself, because of his modesty no doubt, partially obscures. The story that follows the call of Matthew in all three synoptics is the story of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. But in the Gospel of Matthew, the relationship between the call of Matthew and the story of Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners is not clearly linked. As in many other places, the association could conceivably be merely topical.

But Mark and Luke make it clear that the feast was held in Levi’s house — Mark says “his,” but Luke makes it even more clear: “Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house” (Luke 5:29). Note that Luke also stressed that it was a “great feast” — gourmet-dinner evangelization sponsored by Matthew/Levi’s generous contribution. Many sinners came to meet Jesus and hear him.

Knowing the story in Matthew and adding to it the account in Mark and Luke, we see that Levi, having been converted to Matthew/“Disciple,” was zealous to spread the message of the kingdom to others — a ministry to which the Levites and Priests had originally been appointed.

Thus, the irony is wonderfully deeper: by becoming Matthew, Levi became a true Levite. A betrayer of his people and a sinner from the tribe of Levi became a “Disciple” who was among the twelve appointed apostles — one who from the day of his calling was most earnest to communicate the story of the kingdom of God to the sinners in Israel.

Mark and Luke fill out the story for us so that we can hear the whole testimony of the man who wrote the first Gospel. They encourage us too, to become like Levi/Matthew, the kind of disciples who imitate Jesus and have compassion on tax collectors and sinners.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

[i] Excerpt From: Bauckham, Richard. “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.” iBooks.


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