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S. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Sep 26, 2020, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Eusebius, the great historian of the early church, quotes an early second-century bishop named Papias: “Matthew compiled the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew language, and everyone translated them as well as he could”. On first sight, it appears that we have some clear, early evidence for the authorship of Matthew’s gospel. But give it just a few moments’ thought, and it all becomes rather more complicated.

In the first place, Matthew’s gospel as we have it is written in Greek, not Hebrew, and there is nothing in the text itself which identifies S. Matthew as the author.

And second, Aramaic, not Hebrew, was the language that Jesus would have spoken, so why does Bishop Papias say that Matthew wrote in Hebrew?

Third, Matthew’s gospel as we know it consists of far more than “sayings” of Jesus.

Fourth, “everyone translated them as well as he could” raises all sorts of difficulties. Could our Greek version of Matthew’s gospel be based on one of these translations? Possibly. But were there other translations in existence, and what happened to them? And who was the translator?

Biblical scholars mostly agree that what we know as Matthew’s gospel is not simply a translation of a Hebrew original. The Greek is quite good, although obviously written by someone whose mother tongue was a Semitic language. But rumours of a Hebrew original, or at least a Hebrew version, of Matthew’s gospel have persisted through the ages. S. Jerome claimed to have seen such a text. We find a Hebrew version of Matthew’s gospel, with various differences from the text we know, embedded in a fourteenth century Jewish work.

Thinking about the origins of Matthew’s gospel, and by extension the identity of the writer, there are an awful lot of dots, but it is impossible to decide with any confidence how they should be joined.

And as for the gospel, so for the Apostle and Evangelist whose feast we celebrate today. S. Matthew is an enigmatic figure. S. Peter and S. Paul are closely associated with Rome; S. John with Ephesus; S. Luke with S. Paul’s missionary journeys; S. Mark with S. Peter; S. Thomas with India, and so on. But S. Matthew doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels, and no very definite traditions are connected with his life. One story even identifies a supposed Armenian monastery in Kyrgyzstan as the place of his burial. He is a difficult figure to get hold of.

What can we learn about him from the gospel that bears his name? Scholars see two clues to his identity in the text. The first is the story of Matthew the tax collector that we have just heard. Only in Matthew’s gospel is this tax collector called Matthew. Elsewhere he is identified as Levi. The second is the strongly Jewish nature of the gospel. The writer seems to be very well-versed in Jewish traditions, including Jewish traditions of biblical scholarship and debate. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is at his most favourably-disposed towards Jewish religious traditions. And writer has a detailed knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and their interpretation.

These two clues generate a whole lot of new problems. Tax collectors were despised outsiders in first century Palestine, collaborators not so much with the Romans as with the corrupt regime of King Herod. This explains the reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus eating with tax collectors. If S. Matthew is the tax collector, and if S. Matthew is the author of S. Matthew’s gospel, he is an outsider, despised by the religious authorities, and excluded from the life of observant Jews.

But the text of the gospel that bears his name suggests not a religious outsider but an insider. The detailed knowledge not only of the Hebrew scriptures but also of the traditions of interpretation and the content of rabbinical debates that we find in the pages of Matthew’s gospel is difficult to reconcile with the outsider figure of Matthew the tax collector.

Of course there are various ways of squaring this circle, but as I said before there are a lot of dots, but the right way of joining them is not at all obvious.

But the paradoxical and enigmatic figure of S. Matthew, apparently simultaneously outsider and insider, may yet have something to say to us.

In common with S. Luke, S. Matthew sees to have a particular interest in the outsider – the tax collector, the leper, the outcast of one sort or another. There is every reason to believe that this is an authentic tradition handed down from Jesus himself. And this is a great challenge for the church in a nation like ours, with a Christian heritage and culture, and in a town like ours, with its relative prosperity and respectability. Church is widely thought of as being for nice respectable old ladies. And believe me I am all in favour of nice respectable old ladies, and church is as much for them as it is for anyone else. But church is also for tax collectors and lepers and sinners – for the many broken, lonely and overlooked people that we can find even in such a town as this. And how we connect with such people is a real challenge – they may for example never even have heard of such a thing as Choral Evensong. And yet they are beloved of the Lord, and we are called to welcome and to serve them.

But on the other hand, the insider too is dear to the Lord. Those many people who have faithfully attended worship for years, and who have often served the church in many ways through good times and bad, these people too have their treasured place in the church. And so churches have to find ways of feeding and building up in the faith those who are already a part of the community. And apart from anything else, there needs to be an inside community into which outsiders can be welcomed.

So the challenge is to find the right balance between things that tend to feed and build up the existing community, and things that tend to bring in those who feel themselves to be on the margins, and perhaps above all to break down the barriers between insider and outsider. It is surprising how often, when you get to know the people who seem to be insiders, you catch a glimpse of the brokenness within, and you realise that they too have been on the outside and perhaps in some way still feel themselves to be so.

The community of S. Matthew seems, as far as we can tell from his gospel, to have had to have worked out these questions in the very specific setting of relationships between Jewish and Gentile Christians. We do not ultimately know how successful his community was in integrating these two groups – the Jewish insiders and the Gentile outsiders. Scholars continue to argue over the relationship between early Jewish and Gentile Christians. But this was a community which clearly trod a careful path, avoiding the temptation on the one hand of completely casting off their Jewish heritage and traditions, and on the other hand of becoming a more-or-less closed group with a very high bar for Gentile members to jump.

And this I think is our challenge too. There are those who seek to cast off the greater part of the traditions and heritage of the Church of England in the interest of bringing in those on the outside. And then there are those who advocate a rigid traditionalism which is not especially interested in the outsider. Let us pray that with S. Matthew we can find a way of being true to our traditions whilst being open and welcoming to the marginal and broken members of our community, that all may grow together in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and for ever. Amen.