Matthew’s Gospel, unlike the latest popular paperback, leaves its readers to form their own opinion of the person behind the pen, to discover him as an individual well educated in Judaism and sharing the interests of its temple servants. As this author explores the relationship between Jesus and the Law of Moses, they adopt the mantel of a teaching priest, juggling complex concepts and subtle scripture references with an ease that would put many professors to shame. Their style is meticulous to the point of obsession, with even tiny textual details crafted to carry significance. However, amidst all this they exhibit they exhibit the peculiar habit of singling out tax collectors for special mention (Matt 5:46, 11:19, 18:17, 21:31-32).
A dual named follower of the Baptist
The Gospel is coy about its author, leaving its title to reflect the Church’s traditional understanding1. However, various gospel accounts provide biographical evidence that suggest the apostle Matthew was precisely the sort of person to produce the Gospel that bears his name (esp. at Matt 9:9-10, Mark 2:14-15, Luke 5:27-29).
We know him as Matthew, yet his peers also called him Levi. In his culture, an individual’s name would often be a useful clue to their temperament or background. Matthaios, the Greek for Matthew, meant ‘gift of God’ but was also a shortened form of machomai, a word that expressed the idea of contending using force, words or the law2. Levi meant ‘joined to’ (Gen 29:34), but that name was also given in honour of the forefather of the Jewish priesthood.
The canonical gospels use the epithet ‘of Alphaeus’ for both the apostles Levi and James the younger (Mark 2:14, Luke 6:15), leading some early commentators to suggest that they were brothers. However, the gospels never mentioned them together in quite the same way as, for example, James and John, the sons of Zebedee3.
Matthew’s abandonment of tax collecting may look like a sudden and divinely orchestrated change of heart. However, Jesus’ call for him to follow was more to do with rounding up the scattered sheep of a pre-existing flock than any front-line evangelism. All twelve apostles had already come under the teaching of John the Baptist and were present at Jesus Baptism4. Following John’s testimony to Jesus’ greatness and his subsequent arrest, it would have been natural for his scattered disciples to transfer their allegiance (Matt 3:14, Mark 6:17)5. Thus, Matthew had shown an early interest in following the Way and, when Luke mentions John advising a group of tax collectors, it is tempting to envisage the apostle-to-be amongst them (Luke 3:12-14).
The wealthy businessman
The idea, that Jesus’ disciples were all common and uneducated, arises primarily from the derogatory comments of the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 4:13. However, this conflicts with other gospel evidence and with the picture presented by rabbinical sources6. Matthew, in particular, appears to have worked in or near the important city of Capernaum7 and we know that he was on good terms with others in his profession (Luke 5:27-29, Matt 9:9-10). He was wealthy enough to host a great banquet (literally a ‘mega-feast’) and to live in a house capable of serving as its venue (Luke 5:29). We may therefore safely dispense with the idea that Matthew was some downtrodden minion who spent his days leaning out the window of a tollbooth.
The Gospels, by using the Greek word telones for Matthew’s occupation, single him out as a member of the Roman professional class known as toll buyers8. Toll buying, or ‘tax farming’ as we used to call it in the UK, was a pragmatic solution to the administrative nightmare of uncertain tax revenue. It amounted to outsourcing the collection of taxes in return for a fixed income9. The monarch (or administration) would approach a selection of suitable individuals and invite (or require) them to bid for a contract. The winning bidder received the right to collect and keep any taxes due in the period covered by the contract. Successful tax farmers were therefore high-profile businessmen.
Although it was usual for a proscribed legal framework to set the levels of taxes to be collected, toll buyers frequently abused such regulations and were therefore unpopular. Although the precise arrangements for tax farming under which Matthew operated are unclear, we can infer that he only collected indirect tax and that he would have done so for the Romans10. Furthermore, the indirect taxation levied upon the transport of goods meant collectors had frequent contact with foreigners, for which reason many considered such collectors intrinsically unclean.
In Galilee, tax collection would have operated within a well-established local framework, for Roman administrative arrangements typically took account of pre-existing local bureaucracy11. This Roman preference for adopting local arrangements might well explain both Matthew’s alternate name (Levi) and how such deep insight into the scriptures might come to reside with an unpopular tax collector. To appreciate how, we will need to take a brief look at the history of taxation in Israel.
Ready made tax collectors
At first Israel’s people paid no taxes or tribute to a king, for they had no human ruler. Instead, they placed at God’s service a proportion of their increase. This tenth, or tithe, supported the Levites, a community of faith who lived in the land without inheriting any themselves and whose sole purpose was the service of God.
From amongst the Levitical community, who oversaw Israel’s cultic objects and organised the day-to-day running of their sanctuary, were drawn the priests who offered sacrifices, and the Levites who taught the sacred texts and advised on the law. To read the sacred texts they needed to be literate. Furthermore, at least the priests amongst them required mathematical competence, for their duties obliged them to carry out routine numeric tasks, ranging from valuations to calculating proportionate payments and cash redemption values (Lev 27:1-34). To facilitate these educational and judicial roles, the Levites lived in cities that were scattered throughout the tribal lands (2 Chr 15:3, Deut 33:8-10).
When the nation’s eventual adoption of a king brought with it the burden of taxation, the Levites would have looked like ready-made collectors. Down the centuries, they had become used to gathering dues and managing finances. Amongst them were numerate individuals who had many opportunities for contact with the people. They travelled regularly and easily throughout the countryside and their social and religious status offered a measure of protection from attack. They ministered in the seats of power such as Jerusalem, and yet they lived, at other times, in cities scattered throughout the provinces (Num 35:8, Josh 21:1-45, Deut 18:6). Furthermore, people made routine annual visits to the places of worship that they maintained (2 Chr 8:12-13). The Levites were also less likely to resort to theft than most, for they already had their basic welfare provided for (Deut 14:27-29) and their religion required them to deal honestly (Lev 19:11, Exod 20:15).
The art of funding building projects
Both King Joash and the later King Josiah involved Levites in official money gathering (2 Chr 24:4-5, 34:8-9). Moreover, when Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., some suggest that the Roman also used them to perform that role12. Pompey was interested in collecting tribute, however both Josiah and Joash wanted to finance temple restoration work. It is therefore, perhaps no coincidence that, at the time of Jesus birth, Herod the Great had just such a project underway, re-building the Jerusalem temple in spectacular fashion and, no doubt, at spectacular cost. Concerning this temple, the Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod spent so much on it that it seemed as if his adornments must surpass those of any previous king (Antiquities 15.396). Surely, Herod could not have financed such a vast project solely through his own means. Somewhere, behind the scenes, someone was collecting a large amount of money. Matthew himself refers to the half-shekel tax (Matt 17:24), a poll tax providing funds for the service of the tabernacle and originally collected by temple officials only following a census (Exod 30:12-15). By Jesus’ time, collection of that tax had become an annual fund raising event13.
The involvement of Levites in tax collecting leaves us with an intriguing possibility, that Herod had once again pressed them into service and that his arrangements formed the basis, or at least provided some of the manpower, for the subsequent Roman system. The idea is enticing, for it would explain why a man with such a detailed knowledge of the scriptures was involved in tax farming, why Mark and Luke both refer to Matthew as ‘Levi’, and why Matthew’s gospel shows such an interest in the Law of Moses and cleanliness.
The other Matthew
There is a popular perception in some quarters that Jesus disciples were ordinary, uneducated and untrained folk14. Some certainly may have been, at least up until Jesus called them. However, in the case of Matthew, we have to set aside any such preconception. Matthew was an educated and successful businessman. He may also have been a Levite, who, before encountering John the Baptist, had found no use for his education other than tax collecting. I therefore see no reason to search further for an author for Matthew’s Gospel. I shall (in the company of at least the occasional distinguished academic15) approach it as the work of the apostle Matthew; an eyewitness of John the Baptist’s activities, a close companion of Jesus, an intellectual concerned with theological issues, and a man whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures means his book is definitely worth reading.
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1 D. A. Hagner, "Matthew," ISBE, 3: 280.
2 James Strong, The exhaustive concordance of the Bible, (Electronic ed.; Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996), G3156.
3 A. W. Fortune, "Alphaeus," ISBE, 1:100.
4 Following Judas’ death, Peter insisted that the replacement apostle should share the experience of Jesus enjoyed by the remaining eleven, including presence at the Lord’s baptism (Acts 1:15-22). The apostles’ presence at that event may also explain Jesus statement that they would be witnesses because they had been with him from the beginning (John 15:26).
5 See also Luke 7:29 for evidence of tax collectors who had been baptised by John choosing to support Jesus in a confrontation with Pharisees and lawyers.
6 Krauss, Samuel, “Jesus of Nazareth,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, 1904. 7:160-178.
7 Matt 4:13 taken with 9:1, 9, place Jesus moving on to the Capernaum area when he met Matthew.
8 James Strong, The exhaustive concordance, 1996, G5057.
9 Otto Michel, “τελώνης,” TDNT, 8:88-105. Specifically 8:95.
10 Sweet, L.M., & Gay, G.A., “Tax,” ISBE, 4:734-42. Specifically 4:741.
11 Michel, TDNT, 8:88-105. Specifically 8:98.
12 Otto Michel, TDNT, 8:88-105. Specifically 8:96.
13 Louis Matthews Sweet and George A. Gay, “Tax; Tribute,” ISBE, 4:739-42. Specifically 4:742.
14 Samuel Krauss, “Jesus of Nazareth,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, 1904. 7:160-178.
15 E.g. Tom Wright in his popular commentary on this Gospel, Matthew for Everyone (SPCK, 2004).