Study of a document, whether ancient or modern, is aided by data outside the document that may tell us important things about the circumstances and context in which the document was originally composed, circulated, and read. This is especially so in the case of the New Testament Gospels. Yet, as is almost always the case when we study a document from the distant past, we possess little external data and so find ourselves making educated guesses. The Gospel of Matthew is no exception. Nevertheless, the limited external data we have, when interpreted in the light of the text of Matthew itself, at least give us a general sense of the world in which this Gospel was written and why it was written.
ORIGINS OF THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew?
Sometime in the early second century a.d. (some say between 130 and 140; others think before 110), Papias apparently linked the apostle Matthew with the Gospel of Matthew, or at least that is how some interpret his comment. Papias also seems to contrast the Gospel of Matthew with the Gospel of Mark, although just how is also disputed. Here is the passage in question (frags. 3.14–16 from Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.14–16):
For our present purpose we must add to his statements already quoted above a tradition concerning Mark, who wrote the Gospel, that has been set forth in these words: “And the elder used to say this: ‘Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statement in them.’” Such, then, is the account given by Papias with respect to Mark. But with respect to Matthew the following is said: “So Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each person interpreted them as best he could.”
What have just been quoted are extracts from a five-volume work entitled Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, authored by Papias, who for a number of years served as bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). Eusebius, apologist and church historian of the early fourth century, says these volumes still circulated in his time (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.1). Today we only have some two dozen quotations from this work.