This article rounds a corner from the traditions transmitted before the Gospels were written to the Gospels themselves, as we have them now. Do they enjoy eyewitness testimony at their foundation?
A rich Gospel like Matthew has multiple purposes working at the same time. But surely a main one is the mission of Jesus and his commission of the Twelve and some key women, particularly Mary Magdalene.
Matthew is keen on showing us that the Twelve and certain women embody authoritative, participatory eyewitness testimony. They receive their special status by their proximity to Jesus, while he trained, discipled, and commissioned them.
This article is Part Nine in a series on the historical reliability of the Gospels. The series has nothing to do with their inerrancy and inspiration, because if we cannot establish their historical reliability, then how can we move on to discuss their inerrancy and inspiration, as those two doctrines have been traditionally understood? But nothing in this article contradicts the two doctrines.
Two quick comments before we begin. I use the designation “Matthew” without referring to questions of authorship (but see Q-&-A’s Twenty, Twenty-One, and Twenty-Two, below, for more discussion). Second, recall that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called Synoptists. The authors of the four Gospels are also called evangelists. Slashes // mean parallel passages among them.
That question goes right to authoritative testimony in Matthew. And that testimony goes to reliability. So we will spend the next several Q-&-A’s looking into the question.
Their discipleship, though long lasting, is concentrated in their first mission, which is based on the authority of Jesus. It is in this context that Matthew inserts the official list of the twelve apostles (10:2-4). After giving them special authority (v. 1), Jesus then instructs them on how and where to minister (vv. 5-42). He sends them to preach the good news and heal diseases and cast out demons. After their first commission ends, Matthew reiterates in 11:1 that Jesus had instructed the twelve disciples. So the words twelve or twelve disciples cluster together. This is known as the first commission.
However, it is not as though the disciples are on a mission by themselves, after the first one is accomplished. But the main point here is that after they are endowed with authority in Matt. 10:1, their discipleship becomes more intense.
The second commission is found in the last four verses of the Gospel, called the Great Commission (28:16-20). Jesus tells the Eleven (minus Judas) that all authority is given to him (v. 18; cf. 10:1). They should “therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). The twelve disciples and the eleven disciples link the two commissions together (10:1 and 28:16-18).
It must be conceded from the outset that Matthew’s Gospel is concerned primarily with the twelve men. In the Easter narrative, however, they depend on the women to hear about the resurrection and the subsequent Great Commission. Matthew implies that without the women, the Eleven would have never ignited and spread the gospel. He intends for us to draw the conclusion that women also have an authoritative role to play in spreading the gospel.
Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these. That may clarify any confusion about all the verses.
If my thesis about the first commission is correct, then the thesis should be clear before and after this first commission, beginning in Matthew 10:1; namely, do the disciples receive more intense training, testing, and growth after the first commission than before it? How significant is Jesus’ impartation of his authority to the Twelve? What does this mean to the traditions that feed into the other written Biblical Gospels, not just Matthew?
Let’s imagine that we are filming the Gospel of Matthew and following the text to the letter, before Matt. 10:1 and after it, but including verse one (from here on, when I say after 10:1, I include verse one. This saves me from the clumsy in and after Matt. 10:1). It is true that the number of chapters is larger after the first commission than before it, but the data should yield some interesting conclusions, in before-and-after footage.
Before Matt. 10:1, Simon Peter is mentioned once at his calling (4:18) and once at his mother-and-law’s house (8:14). James, John, and Andrew are referred to only once at their calling (4:18-22). Matthew himself fills out the picture (9:9-13). However, after Matt. 10:1, Peter has more close-ups and interacts and gets involved more deeply in the ministry of Jesus. Peter has two close-ups with James and John and seven with the cameras focused only on him, in the following passages:
Peter’s walk on water (14:28-29); his question about a parable (15:15); his great confession and rebuke (16:16-23); Jesus’ transfiguration, with Peter, James and John, as observers (17:1-8); Peter’s questions about temple tax (17:24-27); his question about forgiveness (18:21); his question about discipleship (19:27); his declaration of faithfulness (26:31-35); his falling asleep in Garden of Gethsemane, with James and John (26:37-46); his being in the courtyard of high priest; (26:58, 69); his denial of Jesus (26:69-75).
James and John apart from Peter have one scene, their mother asking about privileged seating in the future kingdom (20:20-28). Yet James and John still triple their camera time after Matt. 10:1, if we factor in their scenes with Peter. But more important than the number of appearances is their discipleship and the lessons they learn after Matt. 10:1.
We can direct the cameras at the disciples and Peter in two more quick before-and-after scenes in storms (Matt. 8:23-27 and 14:22-33). Before Matt. 10:1, the disciples, undistinguished from each other, wake Jesus to save them; after Matt. 10:1, the cameras focus on Peter walking on water in the second storm, for he wants to follow Jesus who was also walking on water (14:28-31). If in the first storm the disciples express wonder (“even the winds and waves obey him!” [8:27]), then in the second storm they recognize that Jesus is the Son of God and worship him (14:32).
In a quick comparison with Mark and Luke, an unknown man who was not a formal follower of Jesus was driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but the disciples tried to stop him, for he was not one of them. But Jesus approved of the man’s action (Mark 9:38-40 // Luke 9:49-50). Matthew omits this passage. Authority had to be vested only in the Twelve, without ambiguities.
So now we can ask what happened to Andrew and Matthew, after Matt. 10:1. They get absorbed into the Twelve. Even Peter himself sometimes gets absorbed into them, in comparison with Mark (Matt. 21:19 // Mark 11:21; Matt. 24:3 // 13:3; but see Matt. 15:15 // Mark 7:17). In Matthew’s Easter narrative, Peter is not named, but gets incorporated into the Eleven, though the other three Gospels name him in the culmination and climax of the four Gospels.
After Matt. 10:1, being imperfect, the disciples still make mistakes (18:1-4; 19:20-28) and misjudgments (16:21-23) and have too little faith on one occasion (17:14-21). But that is part of their discipleship.
Bottom line for this Q & A: Matthew’s big point is to authorize, in a special sense, the disciples or the Twelve after the first commission. Peter may represent them in key scenes (see Q & A Eleven, below, for a further discussion on authority).
Peter really comes alive when we compare his scenes in Matthew after the first commission with those scenes in Mark, assuming that Matthew borrows from Mark, which seems likely.
As noted in the previous Q & A, Matthew 14:32 says that the disciples acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God and worship him, after he stilled the second storm. Peter even walked on water with Jesus. By comparison, in the second storm, Mark 6:45-52, after the commission in 6:6-13, does not say that Peter walked on water; and the disciples still merely marvel because they did not understand the loaves of bread, shortly after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21 // Mark 6:30-44). But Matthew says nothing about the disciples’ misunderstanding because of the loaves.
In Matt. 16:16, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, whereas in Mark 8:29, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, omitting the last title (Luke says “the Christ of God” in 9:20). Only Matthew records Jesus’ declaration that Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church (16:18).
During the transfiguration of Jesus in Matt. 17:1-13, Peter says that he should put up three shelters. In comparison, in Mark 9:2-13, after his first commission in 6:6-13, Peter makes the same suggestion to put up shelters, but Mark adds the comment that Peter did not know what to say because he was so frightened. In Matthew’s version, then, Peter’s motive of fear behind his offer is omitted. So his offer does not seem so out of place.
However, as we saw in the previous Q & A Peter does not always have the spotlight shine on him. He may get absorbed into the Twelve. In Mark 11:21, Peter asks about the withered fig tree, but in Matthew 21:9, it is the disciples who ask. In Mark 13:3 Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask about the End Times, yet in Matt 24:3, the disciples ask. In Matt. 28:16-20, Peter is not named, but is included in the Eleven, whereas in Mark 16:1-8 Peter is named in addition to the disciples. But see Matt. 15:15 // Mark 7:17, in which Peter asks for an explanation of a parable in Matthew, whereas the disciples ask in Mark.
Bottom line for this Q & A: in key scenes, despite the exceptions referenced in the previous paragraph, Peter’s discipleship and growth come into clearer focus in Matthew than in Mark, after the first commission. When he gets absorbed into the Twelve in Matthew, then the author is highlighting the role of the Twelve as a group, and this authoritative role is very important in his Gospel, as the next few Q-&-A's will show.
Now we consider the disciples as a group contrasted with the crowds, before and after Matt. 10:1.
Let’s quickly analyze some sheer numbers in a word count. In Matt. 4:12-9:38, the words crowds and people occur 12 times, for an average of 2.0 times per chapter. In the same stretch of text, the words disciple or disciples (of Jesus, not John the Baptist) appear 9 times, for an average of 1.5 times per chapter. Per contra, after Matt. 10:1, the words crowds or people appear 49 times, for an average of 2.58 times per chapter. In the same stretch of text, the words disciple or disciples (of Jesus, not John the Baptist) appear sixty-four times, for an average of 3.37 times per chapter. The numbers for the crowds increase a little, whereas the numbers for the disciples more than double.
However, we must not over-interpret these numbers, for the disciples and crowds always seem to be in the background and sometimes the foreground. Also, the numbers do not separate out the long teaching sections before and after Matt. 10:1. But the numbers reflect an emphasis or more camera time for the disciples, after the first commission. Yet what is more important than the quantity is the quality time given to the disciples, as opposed to the crowds.
Matthew separates off the disciples from the crowds. In nearly every instance when the words crowds and disciples are used, they are not merged. For example, the disciples and the crowds – the two groups are distinguished – hear the Sermon on the Mount (5:1 and 7:28). However, in Luke 6:17 “a large crowd of his disciples” listens to the Sermon on the Plain (vv. 17-49).
Before Matt. 10:1, the crowds, not only serving as the background, must get their fair share of camera time. But after Matt. 10:1, the cameras focus on the disciples, while the crowds stand only in the background, maybe getting a few close-ups. The crowds were part-time eyewitnesses of the words and deeds of Jesus. And maybe some told their story of what they saw (cf. Matt. 9:30-31; Mark 1:45; John 5:15; 9:7-12), particularly in Jerusalem where the church was based at first, after Easter.
Jesus gladly ministered to the crowds, but they come and go. They were not with him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so it was not possible that they would have the same level of knowledge of him and his day-to-day training, as the disciples enjoyed. The crowds do not have the same epistemological status as the disciples do (epistemology is the study of knowledge, how we acquire it, and so on). Therefore, they are not part of the Twelve, on whom Jesus bestows his authority.
The disciples are the Twelve in Matthew (but see 8:21). They are not a “large crowd of his disciples” as we found in Luke 6:17. Nor does Matthew record the commission of the seventy-two, as Luke does (Luke 10:1-24). Matthew omits the short passage about an exorcist who was not a formal disciple of Jesus, though Jesus approved of the man’s efforts (cf. Mark 9:38-40 // Luke 9:49-50). Succinctly stated, it is far from clear that when the word disciples (plural) appears in Matthew, it means more than the Twelve.
Before Matt. 10:1, Peter, James, and John have a few camera shots together, when they are called. Peter has an additional scene at his mother-in-law’s house. But after Matt. 10:1, they have more. This follows the earliest traditions that these three (or two after James was martyred in Acts 12:1-2) played a significant role in the early church, cohering with the Book of Acts (1-5; 6:1-7; 9:32-43; 10:1-11:18; 12:1-19; 15:1-35) and Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1:17-2:10), for example.
Matthew intends that the disciples’ growth should appear stronger after the first commission than before it. Before Matt. 10:1, all of this growth is merely implied or potential or small, about to surge upwards. But this does not mean that the disciples did or understood next to nothing before Matt. 10:1. They heard the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). They observed Jesus doing the works of the kingdom. Yet they received his special authority to do the works of the kingdom and to apply what they learned after Matt. 10:1, particularly during the first commission.
After Matt. 10:1, the cameras focus on the disciples’ training. Despite their misjudgments and misunderstandings, they are put on a trajectory or storyline to witness everything that Jesus says and does, up close and personal, with God’s special authority given during the first commission. This authority sustains and feeds the disciples’ growth.
The word disciples (plural) occurs far more times than disciple (singular). This means that Matthew is interested in the Twelve as an authoritative group of eyewitnesses. Revealing this chain of authority or chain of command is one main purpose in Matthew’s Gospel, though not the only one. The first commission is exceedingly important in Matthew’s Gospel, laying the foundation for the Great Commission. Eventually, the Eleven (minus Judas) will go out to all nations, proclaiming the gospel. This flow of the narrative is confirmed, not only in the other three Gospels, but also in the Book of Acts. (Mark is a special case; see Q & A Fourteen, below, and the next article or Part Ten.)
Yes! The narrative or storyline throughout Matthew conforms to a psychological fact that many experience. When anyone is invested with authority from a legitimate leader, the recipient changes, develops new perspectives, and enjoys more confidence, whether rapidly or gradually. This is what the disciples experienced after they received authority for the first commission and during their training after it. They will grow in their authority even more, after Pentecost (Acts 2). I have no doubt that the author of the Gospel of Matthew experienced this, too. He certainly observed it during Jesus’ ministry (if we take the traditional view that Matthew wrote this Gospel); he certainly observed it in the growth of the Jesus movement and church after the crucifixion (and resurrection).
See Q & A Fourteen, below, for more discussion on authority.
Samuel Byrskog convincingly argues that Peter was very important in the Matthean community/ies, particularly in Antioch (on the left side of the map, under Syria). We saw this when, for example, Peter was shown to walk on water (Matt. 14:28-31). Peter is also declared the rock on which Jesus will build his church (16:18). Thus, in Matthew, the cameras focus on Peter more than any other disciple. Byrskog writes:
. . . “there is . . . a cumulative likelihood that the oral history of the primary eyewitness of Jesus’ active ministry, as he is pictured in the New Testament, had developed into an oral tradition and re-oralized tradition of decisive importance in the Matthean community” (Story as History, p. 296, emphasis original).
Byrskog concludes this after a discussion of Peter in the rest of the New Testament. So Matthew coheres with much of the New Testament.
Next, we can consider the other two Synoptics, along with Matthew. It is likely that Peter, James, or John was responsible for transmitting and shaping at least some of the traditions that involved the three alone, such as Mark 5:22-24, 35-42 // Matt. 9:18-19, 23-25; Luke 8:40-42, 49-56; or Mark 9:2-13 // Matt. 17:28-36; Luke 9:28-36 (Gerhardsson, Reliability, p. 28).
This is especially true about Peter, who stands behind Mark’s Gospel, as the next article will argue (go to Part Ten on Mark). If we assume Markan priority (it was written first and borrowed from), which is likely, then Matthew seems to have put about ninety percent of the Gospel of Mark in his own Gospel, but only after critical thought. So Matthew’s Gospel has Peter’s eyewitness testimony embedded in it (see Part Ten on Mark).
As for the Twelve generally, Richard Bauckham is on target:
The Twelve are listed as the official body of eyewitnesses who formulated and authorized the core collection of traditions in all the Synoptic Gospels. They are named, not as the authorities for this or that specific tradition, but as responsible for the overall shape of the story of Jesus and much of its content. (p. 97; see also Gerhardsson, Reliability of the Gospel Tradition, pp. 37-38; 73; Byrskog, Story as History, pp. 233-35)
That assessment fits the Twelve’s role in Matthew perfectly, and in Mark and Luke. But in Matthew along with Luke (Mark is a special case; see Q & A Fourteen, below), the Twelve (or Eleven, minus Judas) become future eyewitnesses and examples for us all, after they receive the Great Commission. They had received on-the-job training, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The Twelve’s proximity to Jesus bestows on them authority. From this authority, the Twelve, after a replacement for Judas is found (Acts 1:23-26), become the authoritative sources and transmitters of the traditions about the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. As they established a church base in Jerusalem and later fanned out into the world outside of the Holy City and Israel, their stories about Jesus were cherished, and so were they – maybe too much (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12 and 3:22).
The disciples’ transmissions and storytelling were written down, and evidence shows that this was done very early. It may have been done during Jesus’ ministry (see the previous article “Did Some Disciples Take Notes during Jesus Ministry?” or Part Eight). Matthew highlights this outreach, from his investigation of his sources and his knowledge of the flow of events in the early church, corroborated and confirmed by Luke and Acts (which scholars call Luke-Acts) and John, as future articles will show.
Indeed it does! We can be sure that the Twelve, while on their first mission, kept their message simple, namely, the basics of the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 10:7). But surely they went a little beyond that specific declaration. Also, the Twelve did the deeds of Jesus. This is not to say that the disciples required the crowds and distant followers of Jesus to remember in an authoritative way that passes on what he was saying and doing. Rather, the Twelve themselves were remembering, teaching, and doing what he had taught and done. They were responsible for the message of the gospel. Surely they wanted to get things right. Surely they wanted to pass on accurately and reliably what he had said in the basics and to imitate closely what he did, in his authority. Jesus was training them to go out on their own, for the time when he would not be with them in his earthly life (Matt. 28:20).
Does all of this mean that the disciples went out on a mission for the express and only purpose of learning how to pass on traditions? Of course not. They were on a mission to minister to people. However, to judge from the cultural interaction between a master and his students, the net result of the disciples’ first mission is clear: they practiced how to repeat what he had said and to imitate what he had done, in his authority; then the traditions were handed on accurately and reliably and his deeds were imitated closely, after his crucifixion (and resurrection), on their second, lifelong mission.
Recall that this hypothetical document is derived or extracted from passages that Matthew and Luke share, but not Mark. We already examined this issue in the article on Q (What is the Q “Gospel”? or Part Seven). If it existed, then it only strengthens the historical reliability of Matthew, because it embodies a very early source. And Greco-Roman biographers and historians used sources in their writings. If Matthew incorporated it, then he saw nothing wrong with it, so why should we?
Even though this article is on Matthew, we can gain a better understanding of its purpose if we compare it to Mark and Luke-Acts on the topic of authority; it gets us to the heart of the Gospels: mission.
In Mark’s commission passages (3:15, a summary; and 6:7, an abbreviated commission), Jesus imparts authority (exousia in Greek) for the same purpose as in Matt. 10:1. But Mark does not have a commission at the end of his Gospel, in the best manuscripts. However, Jesus does predict that his Gospel shall be preached in all nations (Mark 13:10 // Matt. 24:14). (Go to Part Ten on Mark.)
Matthew and Luke-Acts cohere especially closely together. Specifically, in the context of commissioning, Matt. 10:1 says that Jesus gave the Twelve authority (exousia), and Matt. 28:18 repeats the word. Luke 9:1 says authority (exousia) and power (dunamis in Greek); Luke 24:49 says power; and Acts 1:8 says power. In both words, the reality comes out the same, for in Matthew and Luke-Acts the disciples drive out demons and heal the sick and preach the good news of the kingdom.
Next, the wording of the second commission’s goal in both Matthew and Luke-Acts are exact or very close. Matt. 28:19 says that Jesus sends the Eleven to all nations. Luke 24:47 says all nations. And Acts 1:8 says the ends of the earth. In all three global commands, the disciples depend on God’s authority and power. At Pentecost, the birth of the church, the disciples receive even more power (and hence authority), in the fulness of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).
As we shall see in a future article, John also highlights eyewitnesses and their commission. So the four Gospels are unified on this point.
Their eyewitness participation is framed briefly, but significantly. Matt. 27:55-56 says that “many” women followed Jesus from Galilee, caring for his needs (cf. Luke 8:2-3). And 27:56 names Mary Madgalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John). These three and “many women” are watching the crucifixion from a distance.
Next, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are at the tomb (27:61 and 28:1). Then an angel commissions them to report to the male disciples on Christ’s resurrection (28:5-8) and to tell the men to meet Jesus in Galilee.
Finally, Jesus meets the two women and repeats the angel’s commission (28:9-10). Their double commission corresponds to the double commission of the men. The women are the ones who first have to testify as eyewitnesses of the resurrection to the Eleven in Matthew (cf. Luke 24:9). Thus, to return to our cameras again, they focus on named individual women, whereas the eleven unnamed men are filmed as a group.
Mark 16:7 adds Peter’s name to his account that parallels Matthew closely, but Mark does not have a second commission in the best manuscripts, though he says the gospel shall be preached to all nations (13:10). In Mark 16:7, an angel also commissions the women who fear and hesitate (v. 8). In Luke, the men do not think much of the women’s testimony (24:11), but Peter runs to the empty tomb (24:11-12), and so do some others (24:24). Matthew omits the men’s scoffing attitude. Maybe he does not include it because neither does Mark, but even Mark says the women hesitate to tell the men and ends there (Mark 16:8).
Bottom line for this Q & A: it is clear that only in Matthew does the women’s report get the sequence of events moving forward without negative attitudes and the women's hesitation, though 28:8 says that the women were afraid, "yet filled with joy." But if not for the women’s swift obedience to their double commission (they "ran to tell the disciples"), then the Eleven, so Matthew implies, would not have fulfilled the Great Commission (28:16-20).
In Matthew, as in the other Synoptics, the Twelve “formulated and authorized the core collection of traditions in all the Synoptic Gospels . . . and were responsible for the overall shape of the story of Jesus and much of its content” (Bauckham p. 97). Now, however, the spotlight and cameras are on the women. The Twelve (or Eleven) and the women “formulated and authorized” and “were responsible” for the Easter narrative.
However, it must be conceded that the specific word authority is connected to the Twelve and then the Eleven. But we must not believe that only they receive authority, because surely other disciples did too, in the earliest church (Acts 2:1-4). Plus, the women’s own double commission to tell the Eleven surely reflects a greater and more expanded role as missionaries and ministers of the Word, serving in the early Christian communities. At the very least their participation in the Easter narrative and in following Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem would encourage them carefully and scrupulously to hand on the traditions that involved them. They embody authoritative testimony.
The spotlight shines brightest on Mary Magdalene, so the cameras follow her. She appears in all three Synoptics (and John) in the Easter narratives. Byrskog draws the obvious conclusion:
Perhaps, therefore, the female eyewitnesses and informants did not, at first, consist merely of a collection of a body of women. The members of the early Jerusalem community might have realized that one woman in particular carried memories worthwhile telling and preserving. They knew to whom to turn for information. (Story as History, p. 81, emphasis original)
Byrskog does not omit mentioning the other women, in addition to Mary Magdalene. But it is clear that she has the lead role.
Thus, after the author of Matthew checked his sources, he included the women’s story in his Gospel. His version esteems the women in a special way. This is all the more remarkable when we consider that, generally speaking, women did not have the same status and prestige as men did, in their own class (see my book, below, for more information). This also means that Matthew wanted to get things right, even if he goes against society’s norm in his day.
Joseph may indeed be a source of authoritative testimony. Matthew’s version of the Nativity or Infancy narrative (1:18-2:23) focuses on Joseph and is told from his point of view (apart from the magi). The point of view of the main character, especially as focused as it is in the Infancy narrative, is significant in a story that intends to tell things as they really happened. What does this mean for originating and handing down this tradition? “It is not easy to think of a more likely explanation for this unusual interest in Joseph than the very traditional view that the stories derive ultimately from Joseph himself” (France, p. 256).
It may be objected that Joseph may have died early, so how could his story be known? In response, we have already learned in previous articles (Parts Five, Six, and Eight) that the earliest disciples were keen on preserving traditions as they stood, with very little alteration. Perhaps family members took it on themselves to keep Joseph’s traditions alive, with great care. It is not difficult to imagine their motive for doing so.
Go to Rev. Dr. Mark D. Robert’s website here to see a discussion of the historicity and similarities between Matthew and Luke in their Infancy narratives. See “References and Further Reading,” below, for my series on the possibility of miracles generally, back then and now.
If anyone would like to read a short Gnostic “gospel,” then he or she may click on “The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles,” translated by two reputable scholars who do not push the Gnostic texts too far onto the public. The text's setting is ethereal and outlandish, not at all corresponding to Jesus' real-life world, in Israel, about four decades before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. Some things in this Gnostic text are clearly derivative from the four Biblical Gospels. This Gnostic writing, like the other ones, presupposes the Biblical Gospels. It may be true that some passages in the later "gospels" come from early sources outside the Biblical Gospels. But in the vast majority of instances, the Gnostics capitalized on the widespread fame of the Biblical Gospels and the Twelve, particularly Peter.
On the other hand, the Gospel of Matthew enjoys the earliest authoritative testimony as its foundation. In the ancient world, quite often, the closer a report gets to the origins, the more reliable it becomes. This is particularly true when the account has eyewitness testimony embedded in it. With the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the words (e.g. aphorisms) and voice of the real Jesus. The Gnostic texts do not enjoy close proximity to the actual, real-life ministry of Jesus, so the texts lurch into errors and flights of fancy. It is clear that the Gnostic authors never intended to write a true-to-life gospel of the real Jesus, but to do their own thing, so they did not mind one little bit if they swerved into foreign and other-worldly ideas and scenes, compared to the Biblical Gospels.
Therefore, we as a Church should not mind one little bit if we consider the Gnostic texts as heretical; we can be confident that other claimants to the truth about Jesus in later generations must submit to and be judged by the authoritative Gospel of Matthew and the other three Gospels. The Gnostic "gospels" do not measure up at all.
Personally, after research on the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, I have reached the conclusion that the evidence for the Apostle Matthew’s authorship is stronger than the evidence against it. The early church was unanimous that Matthew wrote the Gospel (and the fathers go beyond Papias’ comments, for any scholar who may be reading this article). It seems odd that the church fathers would claim a somewhat obscure disciple as the author, unless they believed the tradition handed down to them that says he wrote the Gospel.
Incidentally, this is the exact opposite of the Gnostic texts, which proudly and loudly (and wrongly) place the names of the apostles on the front of their pseudonymous texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Philip.
In any case, however, it is far from clear that Matthew’s point of view is presented in his own writing. It is not as if he writes, “Jesus and I went over there, and he talked to me privately.” Nor does Matthew reveal himself in his Gospel in the same (intimate) way that the Beloved Disciple does (e.g. John 13:22-26). (Recall that the Beloved Disciple wrote the Gospel; see John 21:20, 24). Rather, Matthew subordinates his perspective in deference to his sources. He highlights the importance of the Twelve, especially Peter. Recall, though, that the Easter narrative and the Great Commission never mention even the lead apostle Peter by name, but the Eleven as a group (minus Judas). It seems that Matthew was more interested in recounting the teaching and ministry of Jesus and the expansion of his movement than in hinting about Matthew himself (but see Matt. 9:9-13; 10:3 and possibly 13:52 and 17:24-27).
However, Peter is important in Matthew. Note Peter’s camera time in Q & A Three and Four, above. And as we saw in Q & A Ten, the Matthean community/ies valued Peter’s eyewitness testimony very highly. This explains, to a large degree, why Matthew, an apostle, would incorporate much of Mark’s Gospel, not written by an apostle. It is probable that Matthew knew that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s preaching. This partnership was widely known in the early church, just a generation or two after the apostles. And the post-apostolic community (and after) received this tradition from the earlier generation. Peter and Mark knew each other in Jerusalem and Rome (Acts 12:12; 1 Peter 5:13).
Since Matthew’s identity is submerged in the larger story of Jesus, I do not pick up on or perceive Matthew’s personal reminiscences in his old age, when we read his Gospel, in my opinion. (By comparison, we may indeed perceive some level of the [now elderly] Beloved Disciple's personal testimony in John.) Rather, I observe in Matthew a skilled author / apostle who understands his reliable sources and knows how to incorporate them into his Gospel.
How skilled? By comparison, Luke announces in his preface that he carefully researched everything from the beginning, including those who were, from the first, eyewitnesses (1:1-4). If Luke incorporates material unique to his Gospel, then so does Matthew for his own Gospel. If Luke incorporates Q, then so does Matthew. If Luke incorporates Mark’s Gospel, then so does Matthew, up to ninety percent of it. If Luke skillfully arranges his material for chronological, theological, or literary purposes, then so does Matthew. Does this mean that Matthew or Luke borrowed from the other, depending on which source theory that one holds? Maybe. But that’s not the main point.
Here is the main point: Matthew was a careful researcher and thinker and author, equal to Luke and his preface, except Matthew did not announce any of this in a preface of his own. Matthew wrote his Gospel while the transmitters of the traditions of Jesus, like the Twelve (including Matthew himself) and other lead disciples like Mary Magdalene, were still alive, but were perhaps about to die out. By the time Matthew wrote, it appears likely that the storyline of Jesus, seen in Mark (and Luke), was well established. Matthew fit his Gospel to the traditions that had achieved fairly fixed forms due to their being reliably transmitted. We shall explore this storyline in a future article on the large number of similarities in at least one Synoptic on the one hand and John on the other.
Using sources does not take away from Matthew's historical reliability. Biographers and historians in a Greco-Roman context borrowed or drew from sources. Thus, Matthew fits into his historical context very nicely.
Nonetheless, we shall see in the next three articles on the other Gospels that eyewitness testimony as such, even in Luke and Mark who were not eyewitnesses, is a clearer theme in them than in Matthew.
As discussed in the previous two Q-&-A’s, authorship is important; and so is the dating of the Gospel. We should probably follow a reasonable date and put the Gospel in the AD 70’s, after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70, but I’m open to an earlier date. Indeed, many scholars have supplied very convincing arguments for a time before AD 70.
However, I believe that authoritative testimony and the coherence of the Synoptics put the questions of authorship by an apostle and dates in second place. This is a genuine option for me, provided we do not adopt an excessively late date, like the late first century or the early second century, and provided we do not conclude that the Gospel emerged outside the apostolic community. (Think of Mark and Luke who were not apostles, but who wrote when many or all of the apostles and other original eyewitnesses were still alive). As long as such testimony and coherence exist, then we have reached back as far into Jesus’ ministry as necessary to hear his words (e.g. aphorisms) and voice. No Gnostic or other “Gospel” outside of the Bible can say that.
. . . “Never for a moment do the evangelists yield to the temptation to supplement what Jesus has to say with a speech of Peter or James or John. Their intention is to present Jesus and no one else” (Gerhardsson, Reliability, p. 28). Thus, the Gospel writers were scrupulous in recording the traditions about what Jesus said or did, not what the early church invented and then imposed on Jesus and his ministry, which semi-fictions eventually made it into the written Gospels. This point agrees with the main one in Q-&-A’s Twenty to Twenty-Two.
As the guarantors of the overall content of the story about Jesus, the disciples as a group are clearly distinguished from the crowds. Matthew’s two-stage commission of witness, combined with the commissions in the other Gospels and Acts, and the reality of their God-given authority and power, is a seamless storyline. The Twelve safeguard it by their proximity to Jesus. The New Testament coheres together on this point. This coherence implies reliability; this can be seen by contrasting Matthew and the other Biblical Gospels with the Gnostic texts (see Q & A Nineteen).
During the disciples’ first mission, they no doubt accurately and reliably repeated and did what Jesus had taught and done. They were in training to proclaim his message and do his works, after he was crucified (and resurrected).
As noted in Q & A Twenty-One, Matthew draws or borrows from sources that he perceived were early and reliable. This strategy coheres with his own historical context, for biographers and historians also borrowed or drew from sources that the authors considered reliable.
In several Q-&-A's, we compared the three Synoptics and noted that one of the Gospels may omit some things, while the others may include them. A reader may wonder whether this calls into question the reliability of the Gospels.
Answer: it does not. Even the most conservative scholar recognizes that a Gospel writer is free to add and omit things, depending on his own purposes. (In a future article, we will look at the issue of [supposed] contradictions in the Gospels.) But biographies or histories in the Greco-Roman world writing on the same subject, like the life of Socrates, have variations, so there is no problem if the Gospels have them also, according to their own times. None of this threatens historical reliability.
In the bigger picture, the Gospel of Matthew serves as an on-the-job training manual for the Church and its commission. The manual and commission are bigger than Matthew himself and even bigger than Peter, James, and John. The manual and commission are all about Jesus.
Following the storyline threaded through the early church, Matthew puts the disciples in the context of training and mission. They succeeded. Their authoritative and eyewitness testimony has gone around the globe, just as Jesus had commanded and predicted (Matt. 24:14; 28:16-20). Matthew is keen on our knowing this; that is one of the main purposes of his Gospel, though not the only one.
These human disciples – not just saints – in the Gospel of Matthew followed Jesus closely. He gave them a new life-story.
Do individuals in the Church today have their new life-story, while they follow him?
This article has three companion pieces in the series:
10. Eyewitness Testimony in Mark's Gospel: Was Peter a Portrait Painter?
11. Eyewitness Testimony in Luke's Gospel: Ready? From the Beginning Now!
12. Eyewitness Testimony in John's Gospel: The "Eyes" Have It!
See Part Two in the series: "Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels: Which way do the rocks roll?" Also see Part Three: “Archaeology and the Gospel of John: Is skepticism chic passé?”
Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006.
Samuel Byrskog. Jesus the Only Teacher: Didactic Authority & Transmission in Ancient Israel, Ancient Judaism & the Matthean Community. (Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series, No. 24). Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1994.
---. Story as History, History as Story: the Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Brill, 2000.
R. T. France. “Scripture, Tradition and History in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew.” Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Ed. R. T. France and David Wenham. Vol. 2. (Wipf and Stock, 1981, reprinted 2003). Pp. 239-66. This article is one of the best on the historicity of the Infancy narrative in Matthew (see Q & A Eighteen). It is advanced, though.
Birger Gerhardsson. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Tradition in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Rev. ed. Eerdman’s, 1998.
---. Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson, 2001.
Mark D. Roberts. “Gospel Authorship by Mark and Luke: Some Implications.” July 2006.
---. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section A.
---. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section B.
---. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section C.
My contributions to the discussion on women in early Christianity:
Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts. Hendrickson, 1997.
Doubting the miracles in the Infancy narrative, for example, has to do with philosophical assumptions before studying a text or miracles that happened back then or today – miracles today that look a lot like the ones in the Gospels, particularly the healing ones. Here is my series on miracles and skepticism.
Part One: Miracles and New Testament Studies
Part Four: Miracles and the Laws of Nature
Part Five: Do Miracles Happen Today?
This series has been updated and posted at biblicalstudies.org.uk (look under Hosted Articles, Authors A-B).
See Postmodern Truth Soup in a series on postmodernism. The link goes to a critique of Karen King’s What is Gnosticism? (Harvard 2003), but the article explores other things too.