March 25, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – Many faithful lay Catholics, I suspect, look at the conclusions that Catholic scripture scholars and theologians have come to in their studies over the last 50 plus years and have come to a conclusion of their own: theology is too important to be left to the theologians. That is not to say there are not good scholars and theologians who are perfectly fine. While that is no doubt true, it is also true in past decades that theologians have been sort of like the toddlers the adults shoo into the backroom to play while the adults entertain their adult guests. At some point in the evening, an adult goes to check on the toddlers and discovers to his or her horror that the little ones have torn up the sofa, smashed family heirlooms and colored the walls and paintings with crayons and indelible-ink markers. The shouted reaction of course is:”Oh my God, what have you done to my house!”
That is something of the reaction I recently experienced while debating an atheist via an internet list site. We were discussing the historicity of the Resurrection. Attempting to rebut my use of the Gospel of Matthew as a historical book written by an eyewitness to relevant events, the atheist cited an authority to show that I, a Catholic, could not use Matthew as a reliable historical source written by an eyewitness. What was his authoritative source? Was it some scholar-atheist? No. Was is some wacko, liberal protestant theologian? No. It was none of above. No, the atheist had cited an article found on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). To be more specific, he provided a link to the bishops’ introduction to the Gospel of Matthew (see the USCCB’s introduction to this gospel here).
The introduction to the gospel on the USCCB website states that the true author of the Gospel of Matthew is an “unknown author.” Perhaps not to disturb the faithful too much, the article gently tells its reader: “we shall continue” to call Matthew the author of the gospel simply “for the sake of convenience.” Wow. Thanks, your Excellencies and Eminences. Thank you for ‘allowing’ me to still “call” St. Matthew the author of the Gospel of Matthew. That is very convenient. Now, you might ask, ‘ah, but surely the introduction affirms-at least- that the author derived his teaching directly or indirectly from Matthew?’ No, actually not, as the writer of the article goes on to say that any connection between the gospel and traditions associated with St. Matthew the Apostle are “far from certain.”
So, there it is. The writer of the article does not know who wrote “Matthew” or even if St. Matthew, the apostle, or any traditions deriving from him actually ended up in the gospel that goes by his name. We could just as well, I suppose, theoretically, posit with equal probability that someone named “Bob” wrote the gospel. How does that sound, the “Gospel according to Bob?” To me, that does not sound as good as “The Gospel According to Matthew“- so I, for one, am glad the early Christians chose that name out of convenience instead of “Bob.” But, perhaps I am biased because my middle name is “Matthew.” Now, of course, I jest. Certainly, I am well aware that scripture scholarship has gone down this road for a long time, and that most Catholic scholars would approve of the introduction found on the USCCB website. What perturbed me though was that it was found on the website of the U.S. Catholic bishops. The website of shepherds who are supposed to mind and protect the sheep, i.e., the bishops are supposed to be the “adults” of my prior analogy.
We do not know who was commissioned to write the introduction found on the USCCB website. The scholar’s name is not provided as far as I can tell. Ironically enough, he is an “unknown author.” However, fear not! For the “sake of convenience” we will call the author of the article “the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or USCCB.” So, there you have it: the USCCB does not know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew. However, dear Catholic, you do not need to accept such drivel which masquerades as the fruit of true Catholic scholarship. Not only should you not accept it, you should object to it. Consider the following from the USCCB’s introduction to the Gospel of Matthew (emphasis added below):
The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following.
The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.
The unknown author, whom we shall continue to call Matthew for the sake of convenience, drew not only upon the Gospel according to Mark but upon a large body of material (principally, sayings of Jesus) not found in Mark that corresponds, sometimes exactly, to material found also in the Gospel according to Luke. This material, called “Q” (probably from the first letter of the German word Quelle, meaning “source”), represents traditions, written and oral, used by both Matthew and Luke. Mark and Q are sources common to the two other synoptic gospels; hence the name the “Two-Source Theory” given to this explanation of the relation among the synoptics.
In addition to what Matthew drew from Mark and Q, his gospel contains material that is found only there. This is often designated “M,” written or oral tradition that was available to the author…
The USCCB-authored introduction suggests that none of the theories regarding the authorship, sources and time of composition can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. Ridiculous! The USCCB claims the apostolic origin-i.e., St. Matthew as author- of the gospel is “untenable” on the following grounds: almost all of the Gospel of Mark is found within Matthew. This is not something, the USCCB says, a companion of Jesus would have needed to do if he had his own memories. This suggestion by the USCCB is utter nonsense. Not only is it a non sequitur with regard to logic and offensive to common sense, it is dangerous to both seekers of the truth of Jesus Christ, as well as to Catholics researching the historical basis of their faith. The USCCB’s claims nullify the apostolic witness of the Gospel of Matthew.
It is unconscionable that such material is to be found on a website run by Catholic bishops who are shepherds of souls. While all this is true, do we need to accept the USCCB’s conclusions? No. Should we do so as Catholics? No. St. Matthew the Apostle is the author of the gospel bearing his name. First, all testimony of the early Church and Church fathers are unanimous in affirming this. There is no dissent. Second, there are various ways to reasonably account for the correspondence of the synoptic gospels without rejecting the aforementioned testimony. One way to account for the similarities of the gospels of Matthew and Mark is as follows. According to Church fathers, Matthew’s gospel was written first in the “Hebrew tongue” (i.e., Aramaic). Peter would certainly have had a copy of it. He would have used this written gospel to frame an orderly outline and presentation for his own public preaching. The testimony of the early Church fathers is that Mark, Peter’s follower, was asked by disciples in Rome to write down Peter’s public preaching. This Mark did. This explains a correspondence of material between Matthew and Mark. Luke attests in the opening of his gospel that he used other written sources (cf Luke 1:1-4). This admission explains the correspondence of Luke’s gospel to Mark and Matthew. Others from whom Luke may have acquired written accounts include, in my view, the apostle James. This theory is consistent with the writings of the Church fathers.
While there are other theories, such as the “Two-Gospel” theory, which explain the “synoptic problem,”the point is that there are a number of ways to account for the synoptic correlations without separating St. Matthew from the gospel he authored. In other words, we do not need to throw an apostle underneath the bus. Furthermore, these theories have the benefit of being consistent with past, authoritative statements of the magisterium on the issue. Vatican II affirmed the gospels of Mathew and of John were authored by Apostles, and that the gospels of Mark and of Luke were authored by
“apostolic men” (emphasis added below):
“The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” (Dei Verbum, 18)
If that were not enough, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) had already answered dubia related to the Gospel of Matthew (emphasis added):
I: Having regard to the universal and unwavering agreement of the Church ever since the first centuries, an agreement clearly attested by the express witness of the Fathers, by the titles of the Gospel manuscripts, the most ancient versions of the sacred books and the lists handed on by the holy Fathers, by ecclesiastical writers, by Popes and Councils, and finally by the liturgical use of the Church in the East and in the West, may and should it be affirmed as certain that Matthew, the Apostle of Christ, was in fact the author of the Gospel current under his name?
Answer: In the affirmative.
II: Should the verdict of tradition be considered to give adequate support to the statement that Matthew wrote before the other Evangelists and wrote the first Gospel in the native language then used by the Jews of Palestine for whom the work was intended?
Answer: In the affirmative to both parts.
(Pontifical Biblical Commission. Concerning the Author, the Date, and the Historical Truth of the Gospel according to Matthew. June 19, 1911)
Having addressed the authorship of Matthew, there is one more thing the USCCB goes on to say in its introduction to the Gospel of Matthew. The USCCB comments on the dating of this gospel as follows (emphasis added below):
Since Mark was written shortly before or shortly after A.D. 70 (see Introduction to Mark), Matthew was composed certainly after that date, which marks the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans at the time of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66–70), and probably at least a decade later since Matthew’s use of Mark presupposes a wide diffusion of that gospel. The post-A.D. 70 date is confirmed within the text by Mt 22:7, which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Here to, the USCCB analysis may be rejected. The USCCB analysis above rests on the erroneous premise that Matthew was based on the Gospel of Mark. This erroneous premise does not follow from either fact, right reason, or common sense. Lacking not only proof to recommend it, it runs counter to all external evidence and the unanimous and historical testimony of the early Church and the Church fathers. Yet, the USCCB claims that an authorship date post A.D. 70 “is confirmed within the text by Mt 22:7, which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem” (emphasis added). The claim that an authorship date for Matthew after 70 A.D. is “confirmed within the text by MT 22:7,” is a gross non sequitur. It is no proof of anything of the sort. Matthew 22:1-7 says the following:
“And Jesus answering, spoke again in parables to them, saying: The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king, who made a marriage for his son. And he sent his servants, to call them that were invited to the marriage; and they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying: Tell them that were invited, Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my calves and fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come ye to the marriage. But they neglected, and went their own ways, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise. And the rest laid hands on his servants, and having treated them contumeliously, put them to death. But when the king had heard of it, he was angry, and sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city.” (Matthew 22:1-7)
Here Jesus tells the parable of the king sending his son who is then murdered. Then the king, hearing of it, becomes angry and destroys their city. While the parable refers to the fate of Jerusalem as punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus, this hardly demonstrates it was written after its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D. To say that Matthew 22:7 proves the gospel was written after A.D. 70 is to essentially deny- by implication- that Jesus said the words before A.D. 70, i.e., that he never really said them at all. It either means that or that these words of Jesus, even if spoken by him, were only inserted in remembrance of a fulfilled prophecy that Jesus had made. However, if these actual words of Jesus were inserted as a remembrance, why could they not have predated A.D. 70 in written form as well, i.e., in the gospel itself-which is a record of the actions and words of Jesus? Why must it be assumed the writer inserted a post-dated prophecy rather than admitting a more obvious solution: that Jesus actually said the words attributed to him and these were recorded before the destruction of Jerusalem either in ignorance of their full import or in pious confidence of their eventual fulfillment. Regardless, the USCCB contradicts itself in that it admits the possibility of Mark being authored before the destruction of Jerusalem even though Mark records a prophecy of Jesus regarding the same (cf Mark 13:1-23). As with the authorship of the gospel itself, we see that the game of dating the gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem-whatever the intent, serves only to undermine the historical credibility of the gospel and the facts it relates-and, as a consequence, it undermines the faith they describe and sustain.
Like the USCCB’s doubt on the authorship of the Matthew, must we share the USCCB’s doubt as to the dating of Matthew’s gospel? Must we admit with the USCCB it was authored post-A.D. 70? No. The argument for the late dating of the Gospel of Matthew is not supported by any recourse to the testimony of the early Church or the Church fathers. It is based on a set of dubious premises. Early Christian writing indicates Mark wrote down Peter’s public preaching. Peter died sometime between 64-67 A.D. Common sense suggests the latest date for the Gospel of Mark would have been in the period soon after Peter’s death, which would have absolutely necessitated the writing down of his words if they had not already been committed to writing. Regarding this latter possibility, there are reasons to believe the Gospel of Mark was written much earlier, possibly during the reign of Emperor Claudius, circa 42 A.D. In either case, Luke would have had access to Mark’s gospel, at the latest, when Paul arrived in Rome but perhaps much earlier. As Luke’s gospel predates the Acts of the Apostles, which shows no knowledge of Paul’s martyrdom, we can reasonably conclude both were written before Paul’s death (c. 67 A.D.). The timeline, thus suggested, is that Matthew’s gospel was written before Mark’s. Regardless, all theories recognize that Luke used Matthew as a source, and therefore, it follows that Matthew was written before the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) and possibly before 42 A.D. As the PBC taught (emphasis added):
III: Can the composition of this original text be postponed till after the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, so that the prophecies it contains about that destruction were written after the event ; or should the oft-quoted text of Irenaeus (Ads. Haer. Lib. 3, cap. 1, n. 2), of uncertain and controverted interpretation, be considered to have such weight as to impose the rejection of the opinion more in harmony with tradition according to which the composition of the Gospel was completed even before the arrival of Paul in Rome?
Answer: In the negative to both parts.
(Pontifical Biblical Commission. Concerning the Author, the Date, and the Historical Truth of the Gospel according to Matthew. June 19, 1911)
Unfortunately, in the age in which we live, Catholics cannot assume the good faith of recent Catholic scripture scholars or theologians. A grain of salt is necessary when reading them, and evaluating their conclusions in light of history, common sense and the Faith. Sometimes, theology is too important to be left to theologians. Theology and scholarship in the Catholic Church, which once clearly proclaimed the apostolic authorship of the Gospel of Matthew [cf PBC of 1911 and Dei Verbum (18) of Vatican II], has degenerated to such a degree and state it now asserts as a fact that this gospel’s author is “unkown” and that any link whatsoever between it and St. Matthew the Apostle is “far from certain.” Too often, over the last several decades or more, toddler-theologians have been left alone and unsupervised with their crayons and indelible markers to run amok. The popes and bishops are supposed to be the adults monitoring their activities, insuring the toddler-theologians do not scribble outside of the lines of their coloring books or- God forbid- on the walls. Again, I do not mean to denigrate all Catholic scholars or theologians. It is just that much of what has passed for scholarship over the last 50-60 years has been a celebration of a cult of doubt. The test of the sophistication of a scripture scholar seems to rest not on his knowledge but in the degree of doubt he can create with regard to the received understanding and order of things; all the while smugly considering the Catholic faithful as rubes who do not realize how little reason they have to believe what they do believe with certainty. Either we believe too much, or they too little. It cannot be both.
Instead of fighting global warming (see The Road to Hell is Traveled by Bishops in a Prius), the bishops should fight to protect the sheep. While one should care for the trees, grass and landscape around the yard, it is perverse to do so when one’s house is in flames. What is on the USCCB website is undeniable. The U.S. bishops allowed it. The bishops own it. Those who read the site as a resource on the Gospel of Matthew– whether a Catholic or a sincere seeker of the truth – might be led to rash and false conclusions dangerous to a either a nascent or long-held faith; while the atheist-skeptic is confirmed in his error. If this perturbs you, as much as it did me, then we can do something about it. It is time to take away the crayons and indelible markers from the toddler-theologians, and to start cleaning the walls. Ask your bishop: “who wrote the gospel of Matthew?”and then show him the link to the USCCB website. Tell your bishop: “Yes, St. Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel attributed to him.” Then, spread the word to fellow Catholics to (respectfully) demand of the USCCB that it either remove or fix its introductory comments to the Gospel of Matthew to reflect this fact. It is time our shepherds not only smelled us sheep, but they hear from us as well!
[If you do contact your bishop and the USCCB, please let me know via this blog (www.RomaLocutaEst.com) or by email below).]
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. Book one of the trilogy will be completed in 2017. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, June 19, 1911. “Concerning the Author, the Date, and the Historical Truth of the Gospel according to Matthew. June 19, 1911.” Translation by E.F. Sutcliffe, S.J. Found on 3/25/2017 at: http://www.catholicapologetics.info/scripture/oldtestament/commission.htm