Although this gospel is anonymous, it traditionally has been ascribed to the apostle Matthew. This ascription stems almost entirely from a statement made by Papias, a Syrian Christian who wrote around a.d. 125: “Matthew composed the Logia in the Hebrew tongue, and everyone translated (or interpreted) them as he was able.” Although later church fathers took this declaration to refer to the gospel of Matthew, the meaning of the statement from Papias is not clear. Many modern scholars believe that either Papias was in error or was not speaking of this gospel at all.
Those who object to Matthean authorship cite the following considerations. First, the most natural meaning of Logia in the statement from Papias is “sayings,” not “book” or “narrative.” Second, in contrast to Papias's statement, the language and style of the gospel indicate it was written in Greek and not a translation from a Hebrew (Aramaic) original. Third, many contemporary scholars, including some conservative ones (e.g., Martin, 139-60; Bruce, 3-4), believe that the author of this gospel used the gospel of Mark as his primary source. Yet it seems strange that an apostle would depend on a document written by a nonapostle. Fourth, the gospel of Matthew contains little in the way of personal remembrances and narrative detail that one would expect from an eyewitness. Indeed, this gospel contains less narrative detail than does the gospel of Mark.
Although these considerations do not rule out the possibility of Matthean authorship, they do raise questions concerning it. Discussions regarding the identity of the writer can be found in Guthrie (pp. 33-44), Kümmel (pp. 120-21), and Martin (pp. 238-40).
Who, then, wrote the gospel of Matthew? Conservative scholars are divided on this issue. It seems best to conclude that Matthean authorship is possible but improbable. Evidence for Matthean authorship is thin, and there are indications within the gospel that point in the opposite direction. Thus the exact identity of the writer remains a mystery. (For the sake of convenience, however, we will refer to the evangelist as “Matthew.”) Fortunately, our inability to identify with certainty the person of the writer in no way diminishes the authority of this book or our capacity to understand its message.
The author of this gospel appears to have been a Jewish Christian. His Christology bears a distinctive Jewish coloration far beyond that found in the other gospels: Jesus is “the son of Abraham” (1:1, 17), “Son of David” (1:1, 6; 15:22), “king of the Jews” (2:1-12; 27:11, 29), “Immanuel” (1:23), and the culmination and fulfillment of the whole history of Israel beginning with Abraham (1:1-17). The writer repeatedly interrupts the narrative to indicate how specific events in the life of Jesus fulfill OT Scripture (1:22-23; 4:14-16; 12:17-21). Moreover, the evangelist underscores expressions that were especially at home in Judaism, such as “righteousness,” “the kingdom of heaven” instead of “the kingdom of God” (see commentary on 4:17), and “your heavenly Father.”
This gospel apparently was addressed to a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The many Jewish terms and motifs point to a large Jewish element in the congregation. On the other hand, constant allusions to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the community of God (8:5-13; 21:43) and interest in the Gentile mission (4:14-16; 22:9; 28:18-20) suggest that many in the church had come to Christ through that mission.
The church to which this gospel is addressed was experiencing persecution from both Jews (10:16-29; 23:34-36) and Gentiles (10:18, 22; 24:9). In addition, it was forced to deal with internal strife and divisions caused by false prophets (7:15-23; 24:11) and others who argued that ethical conduct was of no concern to Christians (“antinomianism,” 5:17-20; 28:20). Nonetheless, this church seems to have been a “missionary” church, engaged in evangelistic efforts toward its Jewish and Gentile neighbors (ch. 10; 24:14; 28:18-20). Unfortunately, these evangelistic efforts were resulting in general rejection and persecution (10:16-39; 23:34-36). Most scholars believe that all these factors point to a church located in Syrian Antioch between a.d. 75 and 85.
What was the purpose behind the writing of this gospel? Some scholars argue that Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses who presents a new law to combat the lawlessness that was rampant in Matthew's church. Others suggest that the gospel was written as a catechism to provide instruction in Christian beliefs and lifestyle to new converts. Some argue that this book was designed as a manual to help church leaders carry on instruction and administration within the church. Still others contend that Matthew wished to provide a theological foundation for the mission to the Gentiles.
Certainly the gospel addresses all these issues. Yet the gospel of Matthew is primarily the story about Jesus. The primary purpose of the gospel was to present the story of Jesus in such a way as to address the problems and challenges that faced Matthew's church. And since these same problems and challenges have remained with the Christian church throughout its history, the church has returned to this gospel repeatedly for guidance and inspiration.
Discussions regarding the background of the gospel are found in Kingsbury, Matthew, 1-32, 96-107; and Martin, 224-43.