Category: History

Bennett on the Authorship of the Gospel of Matthew

Bennett on the Authorship of the Gospel of Matthew

{Note for simplicity’s sake, I will mention the account as Matthew’s Gospel, without argument. This does not beg the question though, as this is convertible into a statement about the writer, without any assumption of who wrote it. I am not assuming outright that Matthew wrote it}

In this post, we will be looking at the case made by the 19th. Century Lawyer Edmund H. Bennett for the traditional authorship of Saint Matthew’s Gospel in his work “The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint”. Bennett, using his “judicial apologetic”, tries to make a case for the authorship and reliability of all  four of the Gospels solely by looking through the internal evidence found in various scriptural passages, an obviously ambitious project for one who is not a trained theologian or textual critic. The reason we will focus on the Gospel of Saint Matthew is the strength of the peculiarities cited, with none of the other ones appearing to have equal measure in this regard. For instance, while the case Bennett makes for Saint John’s Gospel is good, there is still a reasonable doubt to its authenticity at the end of it in this authors opinion. However, I am not sure this is the case with Matthew’s account, and strangely, the validity of it is actually strengthened by the external evidence that these documents were transferred anonymously (which we will go into later).  Following Blunt and Paley, making a case self admittedly not his own, Bennett reasons from peculiarities, these “Undesigned Coincidences” that you would expect if Matthew were the author, to traditional authorship of his gospel.

To begin, Bennett opens up the chapter speaking of the sort of evidence required to show genuineness and reliability. He provides anecdotal evidence of a particular event in a Massachusetts town that occurred during the American Revolution. That in this case, simply reasoning about the kind of letter it was and the fact there was not any obvious defeater, allowed him to include it as an event in the town’s history, in spite of him not knowing the authorship, nor the state of any of the people attending the event. He then ventures to argue that the Gospels have such clues, that they have features you would not expect a forger to make, and the external evidence can only strengthen this case. He also argues that contradictions cannot call into doubt the big picture of an event, under the consideration that it appears to be at least trying to record real history. To use this pun further, he cites four particular portraits of George Washington, with each having a particular feature absent from the other, despite being drawn during the same period of the Founding Father’s life. Yet as Bennett states “the same George Washington undoubtedly sat for them all”. Now obviously a skeptic could pin the point that these writers had room to express some freedom with their particular narrative, but as scholars like Craig Evans note, that is exactly how Greco-Roman Histories were recorded, and most of these narratives are considered reliable. The basic facts, even if you do not accept inerrancy, will be there. Bennett want’s to press this point further however, and says that an honest man, an honest eyewitness, will record a generally reliable story. Now the question is whether these were honest men. We will focus on his case for Matthew’s authorship and reliability here.

Bennett starts by noting specific stories that only Matthew’s Gospel records, the Temple Tax in Capernaum being the first one mentioned. Why is this notable, and something that only Matthew would in all probability have a keen eye remembering? It could very plausibly be due to his occupation as a tax collector. Now obviously one could say that this is simply a coincidence, but she has to remember that this is a cumulative case. Matthew, obviously being dedicated to this occupation, would write with a bit of a tainted lens, one which would incline him to write this particular feature. Bennett’s next point is admittedly less plausible, which is to note Saint Matthew’s Gospel is the only one to describe the event of the Jewish authorities sealing the tomb. Now Bennett reasons from this that this is what we expect if Matthew was the author, since Jews, under heavy taxation, would obviously try at all costs to secure their particular worldly goods. While this is probably a fact you would expect Matthew to focus on (since he would have to go through this stuff to get the money), it does not seem like this needs to be explained by traditional authorship. This does not seem like enough in and of itself to constitute moral certainty, because it is not even related to money. Bennett moves his focus from this point on to certain features, and writing choices Matthew makes.

Firstly, Bennett notes that Matthew records himself last in the traditional dual grouping of the Disciples, something you would expect an honest man to do, and something which the other writers, noting Matthew’s special significance, do not do. Luke, for example, in both of his recording’s of the duo’s, states the group Matthew was in as “Matthew and Thomas”. Now the writer of Matthew, with utter humility, does the opposite of this and mentions Matthew last, plausibly out of humbleness, and something you would expect a writer recording himself in a third person manner would do. Hence, in contrast to the other Gospels, it is recorded “Thomas and Matthew”. This fact is actually strengthened as an explanation for traditional authorship by the supposed anonymous transfer of these documents, because a forger would have no incentive to add this feature. Bennett, not seeking to stop there, forcibly makes the case that traditional authorship offers so much more explanatory power than other accounts, particularly from the writer’s humbleness and simplicity. Proceeding, Bennett argues from the fact that Matthew’s account included the occupation of Matthew in this aforementioned listing, alone among the Gospel’s to note this exclusively in a way not strictly narrative in nature. He thinks this solid evidence for as Bennett says “simplicity and truth”, in the Gospel attributed to Matthew. Matthew, being a tax collector, would obviously have a high degree of “odious”ness surrounding himself. Being a tax collector was never a job for a person who is universally loved by the people, and it most certainly could not have been during the Roman occupation of Judea.  None of the other Gospel’s mention his occupation outside of the initial narrative and the feast (which we will speak of soon), probably due to respect for his position, and this is quite fitting. The author however in Matt. 10:3 states “Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;”, which is unarguably something a person writing a list which he is included in would do, and appears to work quite better with the traditional view. The simple account is that Matthew was recording the truth, and in such a way that would be expected of him if he did write it. The author of the Gospel singles out only two particular peculiarities in his full listing of the Disciples, noting the often derided status of Simon being a Zealot, and Judas, who betrayed Christ. The writer, naming himself among these figures, would both display the reliability of the account, along with its authenticity. For it is quite odd that while he notes Matthew’s closeness with Thomas (who he easily could have pinned for doubting Jesus, to make this symmetrical) , the author groups both Simon and Judas together, something odd if, say Simon wrote this account (since obviously Judas could not have written it).

The last argument for Matthew’s reliability and authenticity Bennett makes is by noting how Matthew’s account of the Feast among Tax collectors is unusually bare compared to Saint Mark’s and Saint Luke’s accounts. He notes how Luke records that the feast occurs in  Matthew’s house rather emphatically in Luke 5:29,  stating not just that the house was Matthews but that the feast was made by Matthew as well, a stupendous one at that.  “Levi (Matthew) made a great feast for him in his house. There was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining with them” exemplifies the fantastic description of Luke’s account. Matthew, being a key disciple, one who had contact with Paul, was quite well known and hence would receive some glorification. However, Matthew’s own account on the subject is quite less strong  in Matt 9:15: “As he sat in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples“. Notice none of the virtuous actions are attributed to Matthew, like the making of the feast, plus the ownership of the housing is predicated of no one. Matthew’s account of this verse is important in two ways: 1. The humbleness here seems to be something that a writer would do, particularly one who was changed morally, and who followed the commands of his Lord. You would expect a barer description of this would be absent if this was copied straight out of Mark without any additions 2. This statement seems rather off the cuff, something one would say if the acquaintance they have with the subject is second nature. Rather than stating that it is Matthew’s  house, and not wanting to shift into a first person account, the author simply omits the possessiveness here. This seems most reasonable under the consideration that this is good history, one that is self consistent and matches up with predictions you would make if this was written by Saint Matthew.

Now one might contest that even having Matthew as an explanation is contrived, and I seem to be begging the question at times by saying that this is what we should expect if Matthew wrote it. The beginning note was important here, because I am simply arguing under the assumption Matthew wrote it, and moving from there. This is a cumulative case. I think an argument such as this, combined with the limited amount of argument about its authenticity in the early church (with contesting not foreign, take Hebrews for example), seems rather plausible, to the point I feel it can lead to moral certitude. Of course some of the examples are stronger than others, but given the assumption that it is at least plausible, if perhaps probable Saint Matthew was the author, plus the fact that we do have these internal evidences which comport best under this assumption, we are warranted in holding to traditional authorship. This is simply a proper abductive inference.

Overall, while the veracity of the examples of the internal evidence concerning the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel varied, it seems more plausible than not in light of them to conclude that it is a genuine and authentic account. Why would one not, when presented evidence comporting with an explanation so well, in the absense of an equally sound competing explanation, follow the evidence where it leads? It seems in this case, we have just that, and hence, traditional authorship can be vindicated just by looking at the Scriptures

All Citations from the Bible

Bennett’s work is in the Public Domain