How do we know Matthew wrote his Gospel?

(3rd century AD papyrus of Matthew 26, courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

In a discussion of the origin of the Gospels, it is not unusual to hear statements like this from an unbeliever: ‘And there absolutely is reason to believe that Christianity is wrong concerning the historicity, authenticity, inspiration, and authority of the NT, not mention the entirety of the Bible (at least depending on your version of Christianity).[1]

Part of a Christian’s response was: ‘Regarding authenticity, Christianity teaches that certain persons wrote the Bible at certain times. As it pertains to this discussion, the Gospels were written by those whose names are on them, all followers of Christ, prior to A.D. 100. In fact, all the NT was written prior to A.D. 100’.[2]

I asked concerning the Gospels written by followers of Christ: ‘Would you please provide evidence to support this statement?’[3] A rather dogmatic reply came:

The authors names are in bold type

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21[4]

This sounds like a reasonable, though somewhat cynical, response as the beginning of each Gospel in English translations has something like, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’, ‘The Gospel according to Mark’, etc. Most people accept that this is what the original text states. But is that the case?

My response was:[5]

Gospel of Matthew: Original or not?

That doesn’t answer the issue of the origin of, say, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’. Was that statement in the original text?

Let’s use Matthew as an example. The language that appears at the beginning of my ESV copy of Matthew, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’, was not in the original text. It is tradition that tells us that Matthew is its author. This article by Olugbenga Olagunju, ‘Provenance [source] of the Gospel of Matthew‘, explains this. The traditional view is that

the apostle Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic…. This tradition stems from the testimony of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (died c. A.D. 130). The record of Papias’s statement about Matthew survives only in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16). It reads, “Matthew collected (synetaxato) the oracles (ta logia) in the Hebrew language (Hebraidi dialekto), and each interpreted (hermeneusen) them as best he could.” On first analysis the tradition of Papias appears to say that the apostle Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic, and various translations were made of this work. So it was apparently understood, with minor modifications, in the early churches (McKnight 1992:527).

Eusebius’s statement about Papias and Matthew is: ‘But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able’ (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16).

This fellow’s response to me was, ‘Where are you going with this “original text” statement?’[6] My reply was, ‘From where do we obtain the evidence that Matthew wrote ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’? Was it stated in the first document that Matthew wrote – the original text?’[7]

His comeback was: ‘When did you find it necessary to have evidence to believe Gods (sic) word, I’ve been reading the same bible for over 40 years and have never doubted its contents’.[8] How do you reply to someone who keeps repeating the same idea that God’s Word says Matthew wrote it. My response was:[9]

‘The Gospel according to Matthew’ is not in the original text of God’s Word. We receive that understanding from the tradition handed down to us from Papias.

You can ‘never doubt its contents’, as I do, but we have to be truthful about the ‘contents’. The title, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’, is not in the contents of God’s word. We have to be careful not to attribute to Scripture what is not there in the original text. We know from Papias’s statement that the people of his day were unsure who wrote Matthew. The text obviously didn’t say so, but he knew from other sources that the original was written by Matthew in Hebrew or Aramaic. But this information is not enshrined in the absolute authority of Scripture in the original manuscripts.

I’ve believed God’s word for 53 years, but my study of Scripture and its background has helped me to learn that the title, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’, is from Papias. It is not from the original Scripture. That does not make the content of the Gospel any less authentic.


Traditionalists who have been reading the Bible for many years and have accepted the title, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John’, as in Scripture, find it nigh impossible to reject that view that this title is not a part of Scripture as I’ve been trying to show this fellow.

Therefore, the evidence points to the fact that the heading, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’, in our New Testaments is based on tradition, starting with Papias (now Papias’s statement is only available in Eusebius’s writings and he died ca. 339),[10] and is not stated directly in the original Greek text. There would be no point in Papias making such a statement if it was clearly stated in the original text that Matthew wrote the Gospel.

Works consulted

Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

McKnight, S 1992. Matthew, Gospel of, in Green, J B; McKnight, S; Marshall, I H (eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 526-541. Downers Grove, Illinois / Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.


[1] Christian 2014, ‘A statement from a recently turned non-Christian’, Blue-lightning#7. Available at: (Accessed 19 February 2015).

[2] Ibid., Free#10.

[3] Ibid., OzSpen#53.

[4] Ibid., turnorburn#54.

[5] Ibid., OzSpen#55.

[6] Ibid., turnorburn#56.

[7] Ibid., OzSpen#57.

[8] Ibid., turnorburn#58.

[9] Ibid., OzSpen#59.

[10] Christian historian, Earl Cairns, gave the lifespan dates for ancient church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, as ‘ca. 265 – ca. 339’ (Cairns 1981:143).

Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 30 July 2019.

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