The Church fathers quoted here lived in the first to third centuries. They are unanimous that Matthew wrote the first Gospel, and it was authoritative for them–so it should be for us too.
They lived before the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, so they are called the Ante-Nicene Fathers (“ante” means “before”).
They are not modern historians, but their opinions are still interesting and revealing–they did not express doubts.
Early church leaders and one rival to orthodox Christianity affirm not only the first Gospel’s authority, but also that Matthew the Apostle wrote it. These passages to the early church leaders should be used critically, but they clearly affirm the Apostle Matthew’s authorship. Often they assume it matter-of-factly, as if there is no need for further discussion.
All dates in the list are AD, d stands for died, and c stands for circa, which means about or around.
These early church leaders, among others, unambiguously quote or use the Gospel of Matthew as an authoritative source.
Ancient Christian Sermon (A.D. 100-140)
The (unknown) author quotes from Matthew and says “Scripture”:
“And another Scripture says, ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Matt 9:13) (2.4).
Throughout this sermon, the author quotes from Matthew and Mark, introducing the passages with “the Lord [Jesus] says.”
Ignatius (d. 117, but see link)
He was the bishop of Antioch (on the left side of the map, under Syria). While journeying to his place of martyrdom under armed guard, he wrote seven letters, six to churches, and one to Polycarp (see next).
In his Epistle to the Ephesians (19.1-3) (Paul wrote an epistle to a Christian community there around six decades earlier), Ignatius recounts the birth of Jesus in Matthean terms. He also quotes from Matthew in the same epistle (14.2).
In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (1.1), he again quotes from Matthew.
Ignatius does the same in his Epistle to Polycarp (2.2). (For a map of these cities, click on “Smyrna,” next.) Ignatius’s letters come in a Long Version and a Short Version. I have used the latter, following this specialist as my guide.
Polycarp (c. 69-155)
He was the bishop of Smyrna (look under “Asia” on the map). He was a disciple of John the Apostle and a hearer of other apostles. He was martyred when he was eighty-six years old.
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)
He was a Christian apologist (defender of the faith).
In the same work (63), he quotes from the Old Testament and from the Gospel of Matthew, equating the two Scriptures, but he implies that New is the fulfillment of the Old.
That is Justin’s point in his Dialogue with Trypho, as he cites the Old Testament and Matthew (e.g. 49, 51, and 76).
Tatian (c. 110-172)
He was a student of Justin Martyr and put together a harmony of the four Gospels, called the Diatessaron in a continuous narrative. He depends heavily on Matthew’s Gospel. The Diatessaron has been translated from Arabic, though this is not the original language.
Claudius Apollinarius or Apollinaris (d. before 180?)
He was the bishop of Hierapolis.
He matter-of-factly refers to Matthew’s Gospel by name.
Apparently some, with whom Apollonius disagreed, quoted the Gospel to support their views. What is important for our purposes is that both they and he assume that it is authoritative and that he uses the title “Matthew.”
The Muratorian Canon (c. 170-180, but see link)
It is a write up of New Testament books (and others). The fragment discusses John and Luke in detail, but it alludes to the Gospels that have the genealogies, that is, Matthew (and Luke) in context.
These early church leaders say that Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name:
Papias (c. 60 to c. 130)
He was the bishop of Hierapolis. His words are preserved only in the church history of Eusebius (History of the Church, 3.39). Papias possibly was a hearer of John the Apostle (Irenaeus affirms it; Eusebius denies it).
In any case, Papias researched the followers of the apostles – apostles like Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew (the last name is not irrelevant to our article here). He may have interviewed some apostles themselves (follow the link and read note 944).
Papias goes on to say (3.39.16) that Matthew wrote the “oracles of the Lord,” first in Hebrew (or Aramaic). Scholars debate whether there was in fact a Hebrew (or Aramaic) original, though the trend nowadays moves away from the assumption. But for our purposes Matthew’s authorship of a written Gospel is affirmed.
But with regard to Matthew he has made the following statements]: Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.
The Epistle to Barnabas (between 70-137)
The unknown author says “it is written” and then quotes from the Gospel of Matthew, indicating its Scriptural status (4.14; see also 5.9)
Irenaeus (c. 115-c. 202)
He is a rich source of Christian traditions. He was the bishop of Lyons, France. As a boy he knew Polycarp personally (see above).
He says that Matthew issued a Gospel (Against Heresies 3.1.1).
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.
Eusebius records Irenaeus’ views on Matthaean authorship, as well, in History of the Church 5.8.2.
Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter XI.8
- It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.” For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,” symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but “the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,”—an evident description of His advent as a human being; “the fourth was like a flying eagle,” pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church.
And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Also, “all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.” For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is His person. But that according to Luke, taking up [His] priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham;” and also, “The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise.” This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the character of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with [a reference to] the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Esaias [Isaiah] the prophet,”—pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character.
Irenaeus used a fanciful method to limit the number of Gospels to four because he had to protect the church from Gnosticism. He was right in his motive because the Gnostic “gospels” were too far afield–wacky and wild. Irenaeus had a good shepherd’s heart.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215)
He was the head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria, Egypt. His view is summarized in Eusebius (History of the Church, 6.14.7), this section mentioning the Gospels that contain the genealogies, that is, in context, Matthew and Luke.
In his Miscellanies (1.21) Clement also says matter-of-factly “the Gospel according to Matthew” and then quotes from Matt. 1:17, in the context of Old Testament Scriptures.
See also his sermon, Salvation of the Rich Man, here, where he quotes from Matthew many times: 2, 8, 10, 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 36, and 39.
Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225)
He was an apologist (defender of the faith) who wrote in Latin. He is known as the founder of Latin Christianity, specifically North African Latin Christianity.
He refers to the Holy Scriptures, mentions Matthew’s name explicitly in that context, and then quotes from his Gospel (On the flesh of Christ, 20).
Two chapters later, he calls Matthew “that most faithful chronicler of the Gospel” (22).
He says that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle (Against Marcion 4.2).
Three chapters later, he also names the Gospel of Matthew (and the other three) and affirms that they were recognized by the apostolic church (4.5).
In the same work, he also matter-of-factly says “the Gospel of Matthew” and then quotes from it (4.34).
Against Marcion, Book IV, Chapter II
He summarizes the authority of the four Gospels writers:
Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.
Against Marcion, Book IV, Chapter V
The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.
Origen (c. 185-c. 254)
He was a Bible scholar and theologian in Alexandria, Egypt. He was a student of Clement (see above).
Origen affirms that Matthew wrote a Gospel. Origen is quoted by Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.25.3-4.
In the same work (1.34) he matter-of-factly says “the Gospel of Matthew” and then refers to passages in it.
From the First Commentary on Matthew
Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a publican and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first; and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism. The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, “The church that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.” And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles. Last of all, that according to John.
Dionysius (third century)
Epistle to Bishop Basilides, Canon I
For the evangelists have given different descriptions of the parties who came to the sepulchre one after another, and all have declared that they found the Lord risen already. It was “in the end of the Sabbath,” as Matthew has said; it was “early, when it was yet dark,” as John writes; it was “very early in the morning,” as Luke puts it; and it was “very early in the morning, at the rising of the sun,” as Mark tells us.
Victorinus (third and fourth centuries)
Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John
From the Fourth Chapter
“The first living creature was like to a lion, and the second was like to a calf, and the third had a face like to a man, and the fourth was like to a flying eagle; and they had six wings, and round about and within they were full of eyes; and they had no rest, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord Omnipotent. And the four and twenty elders, failing down before the throne, adored God.”] The four and twenty elders are the twenty-four books of the prophets and of the law, which give testimonies of the judgment. Moreover, also, they are the twenty-four fathers—twelve apostles and twelve patriarchs. And in that the living creatures are different in appearance, this is the reason: the living creature like to a lion designates Mark, in whom is heard the voice of the lion roaring in the desert. And in the figure of a man, Matthew strives to declare to us the genealogy of Mary, from whom Christ took flesh. Therefore, in enumerating from Abraham to David, and thence to Joseph, he spoke of Him as if of a man: therefore his announcement sets forth the image of a man. Luke, in narrating the priesthood of Zacharias as he offers a sacrifice for the people, and the angel that appears to him with respect of the priesthood, and the victim in the same description bore the likeness of a calf. John the evangelist, like to an eagle hastening on uplifted wings to greater heights, argues about the Word of God.
Constitution of the Holy Apostles
It is not clear when this excerpt was written, but it appears in the multi-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles, XLVII (47):
But our sacred books, that is, those of the New Covenant, are these: the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the fourteen Epistles of Paul; two Epistles of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; two Epistles of Clement; and the Constitutions dedicated to you the bishops by me Clement, in eight books; which it is not fit to publish before all, because of the mysteries contained in them; and the Acts of us the Apostles.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of Scripture?
Matthew was an apostle of Jesus. He was there. As a tax collector, it is possible that he took notes and did his own research, which explains why Matthew and Mark have similar passages, and Matthew and Luke have similar passages, which Mark does not have. He was a careful researcher and wanted to get things right.
But we still would not know if the author was really Matthew unless the church fathers confirm it, and they do.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN SERIES
1. Church Fathers and Matthew’s Gospel
Reliability of the four Gospels
Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts (Part 4 is the summary)
Roberts, Alexander; James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe: The Ante-Nicene Fathers vols.1-10: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.