The Feast of St. Matthew

Today is the Feast day of St. Matthew, Apostle and evangelist of the Gospel of Matthew. He is identified as a tax collector for the Roman authorities (Mt 9:9 and 10:3) In passages parallel to Matthew 9:9, both Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 describe Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi, the son of Alphaeus, but Mark and Luke never explicitly equate this Levi with the Matthew named as one of the twelve. As a tax collector, his fellow Jews would have despised him for what was seen as collaborating with the Roman occupation force. The Pharisees lumped them with “sinners” (Mt 9:11-13) He is noted as being a witness to the Ascension, otherwise, he is unnamed among the accounts of the gospel that often only mention a select few of the Apostles by name.

After Jesus’ Ascension, Matthew preached the Gospel, as Jesus asked his disciples to do. Later Church fathers such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria tell that Matthew preached the Gospel to the Jewish community in Judea, before going to other countries. It is believed that he established Christian communities in Ethiopia and other sections of the continent of Africa. Interestingly not all scholars agree about the geographical region referred to as “Ethiopia.” Some hold that “Ethiopia” refers to a region south of the Caspian Sea that would include Persia, Macedonia, and/or Syria in Matthew’s evangelical travels. But then again there is no complete consensus about the location of these regions either  In any case, tradition tells us that he died as a martyr.

As a tax collector he would probably be, at best, minimally literate, and certainly could not write highly educated Greek. There is no record of his putting “pen to paper,” but then it would have been perfectly normal to retain the services of a scribe to write the accounts as narrated to him. The words “according to Matthew” are not part of the core text of the Gospel, but as a superscription “according to Matthew” was added some time in the second century. The tradition that the author was the Apostle Matthew begins with the early Christian bishop Papias of Hierapolis (d. AD 163), who is cited by the Church historian Eusebius (d. AD 340), as follows: “Matthew collected the oracles (logia: sayings of or about Jesus) in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” The word used for ‘interpreted,’ hērmēneusen – can also be understood as ‘translated.’ There is interesting debate among scholars about the relationship between the Hebrew (or Aramaic) writings referred to by Papias and the extant Greek version of Matthew. In any case, even if the author is anonymous and wrote the original in Greek, there is evidence that the writer depended on the collected accounts stemming from Matthew.

In the early Church, the “four living creatures” that encircle God’s throne in the Book of Revelation (4:7-8) became symbols for the evangelists. These symbols originated from the four-sided creatures described by the prophet Ezekiel 600 years before the birth of Christ. “Within it (a storm wind) were figures resembling four living creatures that looked like this: their form was human, but each had four faces and four wings … Each of the four had the face of a man, but on the right side was the face of a lion, and on the left side the face of an ox and finally each had the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 1:5, 6 & 10)

St. Jerome, in the latter part of the fourth century, attributed these symbols to the four canonical evangelists. The symbol for Matthew’s Gospel is a man with wings. Matthew wrote about Jesus’ Incarnation and his Gospel makes clear that Jesus was true God and true man.

And in case you were wondering, Mark begins his Gospel with John the Baptist whose “voice crying out in the wilderness” and was as solitary and powerful as a lion’s roar. Luke stressed the theme of sacrifice, so the figure of the ox was associated with him. And John’s Gospel, according to St. Jerome, achieved spiritual heights and therefore soared like an eagle.

Image credit: Call of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, Public Domain, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

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