Last weekend I presented a paper at an Education in Antiquity academic conference, in which I discussed how one’s occupation and social status was tied to literacy and education in the ancient world. Knowing nothing about an individual, except for one’s profession, gives us a general estimate of that person’s probable education and can inform the question of whether he or she could author a complex piece of literature. Since our knowledge of early Christian figures is exceptionally sparse, sometimes the best guide to assessing their background and education is to know the region that they came from, their social status, and their means of making a living.
This question is particularly relevant to the issue of Gospels’ authors. As I discussed in a previous article, the large majority of scholars doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels for manifold reasons. Part of the problem is that many of the figures to whom complex Greek scriptures were attributed were rural Aramaic-speaking peasants with a low probability of having recieved the necessary education to author the work in question.
For one of these traditional authors, Matthew the tax collector, however, I was less than certain about his probable level of education. Tax collectors would have had to recieve education in accounting and a certain degree of functional literacy for managing records, but how complex of an occupation was tax collecting? Would a tax collector be of high status or low status? To what extent would a tax collector be literate? These questions are important for assessing the disciple Matthew’s probable education and abilities. To answer it, I checked out a copy of Fabien Udoh’s To Caesar What Is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine (63 B.C.E.-70 C.E.), in order to learn more about the occupation of tax collector and the system of taxation in Judea and Galilee during the time of Jesus. What I found was quite interesting.
So what do we know about Matthew the disciple? Not much. Matthew is first mentioned in Mt. 9:9 to be working at a τελώνιον (typically translated as “tax collector’s booth”) in Capernaum, Galilee, and is described in Mt. 10:3 as a τελώνης (typically translated as “tax collector”). This individual appears to be described under the same occupation, but with the alternative name Levi, in Mk. 2:14 and Lk. 5:27-28.
In the verses following each of these three passages (Mt. 9:10-13; Mk. 2:15-17; Lk. 5:29-31), Matthew (or Levi) then hosts a dinner party at his house for Jesus, with a large number of tax collectors in attendance. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, seeing this, then accuse Jesus of associating μετὰ τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν (“with tax collectors and sinners”). Walker in “Jesus and the Tax Collectors” explains that tax collectors in the Synoptic Gospels are frequently associated with sinners and Gentiles, and that the Pharisees repeatedly accuse Jesus for associating with them. This view of Matthew’s occupation does not cast Matthew, a tax collector, as someone deeply familiar with Jewish Law or with extensive religious training.
The problem is, however, that the Gospel of Matthew is in many ways the most Jewish out of the canonical Gospels. As Bart Ehrman explains in “Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations,” the author even structures much of the gospel based around allusions and quotations of the Old Testament scriptures. Based on this fact, Barbara Reid in The Gospel According to Matthew (pgs. 5-6) argues:
“The author had extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and a keen concern for Jewish observance and the role of the Law … It is doubtful that a tax collector would have the kind of religious and literary education needed to produce this Gospel.”
The goal of my conference paper was to investigate Reid’s claim further. In particular, I wanted to know what exactly the occupation of τελώνης would like and what it could tell us about Matthew’s social status and probable education.
First, I was very interested to learn that there were no Roman tax collectors in Judea during the time of Jesus. Julius Caesar had banned Roman publicans in Judea since 47 BCE. Part of the reason that taxes were not collected by the Romans is the fact that, in a region where there was already a large amount of anti-Roman tension, it would serve as a very direct reminder of the Roman occupation, if the Romans themselves did the collection. Instead, the Roman policy was more tactful in allowing the Jewish authorities to collect taxes, so that tribute to the Romans could be paid indirectly only after it had first been collected by Jews.
It should be noted that this local system of taxation, collected from the local Jews by the local Jews, did not require a sophisticated tax bureaucracy. Hezser (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, pgs. 155-156) explains, in the Roman provinces of Arabia and Syria-Palestine, current evidence suggests that “no extensive bureaucratic system existed, neither at the provincial nor the local level.” Isaac (The Near East Under Roman Rule, pg. 331) describes the system of tax payment as “simple and crude.”
There were also different kinds of taxation in Judea during Jesus’ time. For one, there was the Temple tax, which was paid in Tyrian shekels, and collected by Levites (or priests) for the upkeep and expenses of the Jewish Temple . Then there were forms of direct taxation, which included the poll tax and land tax, that were not farmed out to individual lessees, but collected by the central authorities. These direct taxes, during the time of Jesus, appear to have been under the control of the priestly aristocracy and the Sanhedrin (or Herod Antipas in Galilee), who would employ their slaves and agents for the task of collection. Finally, there were also forms of indirect taxation, most notably tolls and duties, which were farmed out to individual lessees, who would privately organize the collection and derive a profit from part of the tax revenue. Udoh (To Caesar What Is Caesar’s, pg. 241) explains, “If toll collection was leased out to contractors in Judea, it appears that both the contractors and their agents were Jews.”
Donahue in “Tax Collectors and Sinners: An Attempt at Identification” made the important discovery that the τελῶναι (“tax collectors”) in the New Testament belong to this last category. In fact, it is more accurate to call them “toll collectors.” Donahue (pg. 59) explains the τελῶναι consisted of “functionaries or employees at the toll center [τελώνιον] as well as the rich man who buys the right to collect the tolls.” Zacchaeus who is described in Lk. 19:1-10 as an ἀρχιτελώνης (“chief toll collector”) and πλούσιος (“wealthy”) appears to be a manager who bought the right right to collect tolls. However, Matthew, who is identified as an ordinary τελώνης (“toll collector”) in Mt. 10:3 and who is described in Mt. 9:9 to be working at a τελώνιον (“toll booth”) appears to only be a regular employee sitting at a booth to collect tolls. This distinction is important, since it casts Matthew as the lesser of these occupational roles. In fact, Matthew is merely a toll booth collector, sort of like those we hand change to when we drive through toll booths today on the freeway.
Now, what, if anything, about this job role suggests that Matthew could author a complex Greek gospel, complete with intricate allusions to the Old Testament, along with the incorporation of previous literary materials, such as the Gospel of Mark and Q? Very little. In fact, it is not clear that Matthew would have even needed to know how to write in Greek. Cockle (pg. 107) in “State Archives in Graeco-Roman Egypt from 30 BC to the Reign of Septimius Severus” explains:
“In legal contracts or documents the language of the contract determined the law which would apply. In case of disagreement a Greek contract was judged by Greek law, an Egyptian Demotic contract by Egyptian native law, and a Latin contract by Roman law.”
Since tax collectors and toll collectors in Judea were jobs performed by Jews collecting either for the Jewish authorities or Jewish contractors, we have every reason to expect that the language of the tax bureaucracy was Hebrew or Aramaic. In fact, Hezser (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, pg. 156-157) explains:
“The rabbis would try to keep people from registering Greek contracts in public archives, since they would then automatically be taken out of their own sphere of influence. Only Hebrew and Aramaic documents would be subjected to native law, i.e. Torah and rabbinic law in the case of Palestine.”
Now, toll booths were an extremely simple form of tax collection. Udoh (To Caesar What Is Caesar’s, pg. 171) explains, “Tolls and duties were easy to impose and collect.” Whatever records they employed would have been simple and almost certainly would have been in Hebrew or Aramaic, as the contractors and agents of collection were all Jewish. At most what can be claimed is that, since toll booths were stationed along routes of transit, Matthew would have perhaps needed to be partially fluent in Greek for communicating with Greek speakers, but that hardly entails that Matthew was trained in advanced Greek prose composition.
Now, all of this is important because we can compare this kind of occupational background to the internal evidence within the Gospel of Matthew. As Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 211) points out:
“Matt’s Greek is probably not translation Greek: the evangelist often corrects Mark’s style, and there are Greek wordplays. This linguistic skill could suggest Diaspora upbringing (witness Paul).”
Likewise, Hezser (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, pg. 241) explains:
“Only Jewish intellectuals and members of the upper class will have had a clearer notion of higher Greek culture and seen the language as a part of it … [Such as] the children of upper-class immigrants from the Diaspora.”
This background suggests that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was probably a wealthy Diasporic Jew, who was educated outside of Palestine. This portrait aligns perfectly with the fact that most scholars place the composition of Matthew in Antioch c. 80-100 CE . Furthermore, there are internal reasons within the Gospel of Matthew to doubt that the author was a native Hebrew or Aramaic speaker. These reasons include the fact that the author was dependent on the Greek Septuagint, as well as sources already recieved in Greek, such as the Gospel of Mark and possibly Q. In fact, the author of Matthew appears to even be dependent on Greek translations for his exegesis of Old Testament verses. For example, when interpreting Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth, the author of Matthew interprets the passage using the Greek Septuagint παρθένος (“virgin”), rather than the Hebrew original עלמה (“young woman”). Now, Jews with rabbinic training, who would have had an extensive understanding of the Old Testament, but understood it through Greek translation, rather than the Hebrew original, would have been Diasporic Jews educated outside of Palestine. Thus, we get a relatively cohesive picture of the author of Matthew as a Jew educated in the Diaspora of a probable Syrian origin. This portrait does not align with Matthew the toll collector, who would have been an Aramaic-speaking and low-level functionary collecting tolls near the rural village of Capernaum in Galilee .
Furthermore, we have virtually no reliable evidence of what happened to the disciple Matthew following Jesus’ crucifixion, and whether we can trace any probable trail getting him to Antioch c. 80-100 CE in order to author the Gospel attributed to his name. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges:
“Of Matthew’s subsequent career we have only inaccurate or legendary data … Ancient writers are not as one as to the countries evangelized by Matthew, but almost all mention Ethiopia to the south of the Caspian Sea (not Ethiopia in Africa), and some Persia and the kingdom of the Parthians, Macedonia, and Syria.”
Perhaps Matthew made it to Antioch sometime around 80-100 CE (at a point when he would have been an extremely old man), but we have no reliable data to confirm such an itinerary. Was Matthew even alive at this date? Once more, we have completely contradictory data that is unreliable. The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:
“There is a disagreement as to the place of St. Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded.”
Likewise, the church fathers have many problems in their description of the Gospel of Matthew when attributing it to this figure. Papias (Euseb. Hist. eccl. 3.39.15-16), the earliest witness, claims that Matthew authored the gospel in the Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (“Hebrew dialect”). However, as scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 210) explains:
“The vast majority of scholars … contend that the Gospel we know as Matt was composed originally in Greek and is not a translation of a Semitic original … Thus either Papias was wrong/confused in attributing a gospel (sayings) in Hebrew/Aramaic to Matthew, or he was right but the Hebrew/Aramaic composition he described was not the work we know in Greek as canonical.”
Confusion with another, otherwise unknown, Hebrew/Aramaic work could explain how the church fathers later spuriously attributed the Gospel of Matthew to the disciple Matthew when misinterpreting Papias’ statement . Likewise, the church fathers also agreed upon Matthean priority, believing the Gospel of Matthew to have been authored before Mark, which is why Matthew is placed first in the New Testament. However, the vast majority of scholars today agree upon Markan priority, and that the Gospel of Matthew was written later than and used Mark. If the church fathers could be mistaken about something so central to the Gospel of Matthew as the fact that it was written before Mark and used Mark, they could easily be just as mistaken about the author of the text, which would be no greater an error.
Finally, I learned another interesting piece of evidence in the course of my research that went against the traditional author Matthew the tax collector. Certainly, one of the most famous quotes attributed to Jesus is the saying “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” which is attested in all of the Synoptic Gospels (Mt. 22:15-22; Mk. 12:13-17; Lk 2o:20-26). Now, in the context of this saying, Jesus demands a Roman denarius and asks whose face is on it, to which those questioning him reply “Caesar’s” (presumably the face of Tiberius Caesar). Now, many scholars (with whom I used to agree) have argued that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. Why not? After all, the Jews in Judea had to pay Roman denarii as part of the taxes, right? Well, actually, Udoh, after an extensive analysis of the coins in Judea, has found that the primary silver currency would have been Tyrian shekels.
Donald Ariel in “A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem” through a systematic analysis of surface excavations and coin finds concludes that significant numbers of denarii are found in Jerusalem only after 69 CE, particularly after the reign of Vespasian. This was because, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the currency and government in Judea changed dramatically. However, prior to this time (and during the time of Jesus) the primary silver currency in Judea (that used for taxation) was the Tyrian shekel. For example, a coin hoard discovered at Isfiya, which contained coins dating from 40 BCE -53 CE, contained 4,400 Tyrian coins to 160 denarii of which about 30 were of Tiberius (Udoh, To Caesar What Is Caesar’s, pg. 235). To be sure, a few denarii made their way to Judea through circulation, but this proportion shows that Tyrian shekels were the dominant currency that would have been used in taxation.
In light of this evidence, Udoh (To Caesar What Is Caesar’s, pg. 236) concludes, “the imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region. The connection that is made in the Gospels, especially in Matt 22:19, between Roman taxation in Judea and the denarius does not offer any specific historical information about taxation in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.” The passage is anachronistic and reflects tax collection practices after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE. This makes perfect sense, as all four of the canonical Gospels were composed after 70 CE and were thus depicting a later development. However, it does not make sense if the Gospels’ authors would have had personal memory and knowledge of the state of affairs in Judea prior to 70 CE (which the hypothesis that the authors of the Gospels were eyewitness natives of Judea, rejected by the large majority of scholars, would assume).
Now, here is the real clincher. If the saying is not authentically one of Jesus, then the first place it would appear is in Mk. 12:13-17. It makes good sense that, if the saying is spurious and anachronistic, it may have arisen from the author of Mark’s (or his sources’) often inaccurate descriptions of the social and geographical features in Palestine, noted elsewhere in the gospel .
Now, the author of the Gospel of Matthew was using Mark, and he often corrects him. For example, in Mark 1:2-3 the author misquotes the Book of Isaiah by including a verse from Malachi 3:1 in addition to Isaiah 40:3. As scholar Pheme Perkins (Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, pg. 177) points out, “Matthew corrects the citation” in Mt. 3:3 by removing the verse from Malachi and only including Isaiah 40:3. There are also other instances where Matthew adds Jewish elements that Mark overlooks. For example:
- Mark 9:4 names Elijah before Moses. Instead, Matthew 17:3 puts Moses before Elijah, since Moses is a more important figure to Jews than Elijah.
- Mark 11:10 refers to the kingdom of “our father” David. Ancient Jews would not have referred to “our father” David, however, since the father of the nation was Abraham, or possibly Jacob, who was renamed Israel. As such, not all Jews were sons of David. Instead, Matthew 21:9 does not refer to our father David.
Now, this form of redaction makes perfect sense, if the author of Matthew was an educated Jew in the Diaspora correcting aspects of Jewish theology and teachings in the previous Gospel of Mark, which many scholars argue was authored by a Gentile. However, these changes do not really make sense if Matthew was authored by a low-level toll collector working in a rural village of Galilee.
But, if the Gospel of Matthew was really authored by someone who was familiar with tax practices in Judea, as the disciple Matthew would have been, he missed his one opportunity to make a redaction that would fit this description! Matthew could have corrected Mk. 12:13-17 to reflect actual tax practices in Judea during the time of Jesus. Nevertheless, Mt. 22:15-22 repeats the same mistake and has anachronistic tax practices described in Judea during the time of Jesus. This makes little sense if the Gospel of Matthew was actually authored by a tax collector, who would have known better. But this problem, in addition to the other ones discussed above, is a further reason why a toll collector working a booth at an obscure village in Galilee is an unlikely candidate to have authored the first gospel of the New Testament.
 There is a speculative argument made by Albright and Mann, which postulates that, if Matthew was a Levite, he may have had the Jewish education reflected in the Gospel of Matthew. Albright and Mann (Matthew, pg. CLXXVIII) argue, “Levi is not (as usually held) a personal name, but the tribal designation of the man who was called by Jesus from his tax collecting … Everything which we judge to be characteristic of this gospel – its conservatism, its interest in the traditional oral law, in lawyers and Pharisees, its traditional eschatology – all this fits admirably into the background of an author who was a Levite … A Levite of the time of Jesus would normally have been a Pharisee, educated, and from an orthodox (i.e., non sectarian) background. With lower status than the Jerusalem-centered priesthood, more numerous than the temple cult could readily absorb, most Levites would be compelled to seek a livelihood apart from the worship of the temple. If Matthew the Levite found a living as a tax collector for the political authorities – and his education would certainty fit him for such a responsibility – then his rejection by his fellow Pharisees would follow inevitably. So too would inevitably follow carefully collected reminiscences of Jesus’ attitude to the Law and to those who made their living by oral interpretation of that Law.” There are numerous problems, however, with this argument. To begin with, Matthew as a τελώνης (“toll collector”) would not have been working for the political authorities, rather than for a private lessee who had bought the rights to a τελώνιον (“toll booth”). Furthermore, Matthew is not described as a ἀρχιτελώνης (“chief toll collector”), such as Zacchaeus, but rather as an ordinary τελώνης working the toll booth. That Matthew, as an educated Levite, would have picked such a low-level occupation is highly improbable. Finally, this scenario of a Levite working as a toll collector is highly implausible, as Levites had the right to collect for the Temple tax. In fact, different vocabulary is used in the Gospels to distinguish between toll collectors (τελῶναι) and those collecting the Temple tax (οἱ τὰ δίδραχμα λαμβάνοντες, Mt. 17:24-27). The disciple Matthew is never connected with the Temple tax collectors (a religious tax), and the fact that the Gospels associate Matthew with Gentiles for collecting tolls (a political tax), for which he is even accused by the Pharisees (who would never make such a protest against Temple tax collectors), strongly goes against any such affiliation. What is left is the possibility that Matthew, an educated Levite, as Albright and Mann speculate, took a low-level occupation, opting to be a toll booth collector, when he would have been able to collect Temple taxes as a Levite. Such a scenario (which has absolutely no evidence in anything written about the disciple Matthew) would be, needless to say, highly improbable.
 For arguments in favor of Antioch c. 80-100 CE as the probable place and date of the composition of the Gospel of Matthew, see Streeter in The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates (pgs. 500-527). Likewise, Early Christian Writings has an article about Matthew that can be accessed online discussing the probable location of the Gospel of Matthew in Antioch.
 A not uncommon claim is that, even if a given individual was uneducated, he or she may have employed a scribe to “aid” in authoring a complex piece of literature. However, this speculation confuses the role of scribes, who were typically used to record dictation from a literate and educated author speaking to them (cf. Rom. 16:22 and Gal. 6:11). That scribes were used to help illiterate/uneducated people author complex pieces of literature, as the Gospel of Matthew would be, is not, so far as I know, attested by any ancient evidence. In fact, scholar Bart Ehrman doubts that scribes would even be used to “aid” in authoring much shorter works, such as letters like 1 and 2 Peter. As Ehrman (Forged, pg. 77) explains, “Where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it – the name of the person who did not write it – rather than his own name? So far as a I know, there is not a single instance of any such procedure attested from antiquity or any discussion, in any ancient source, of this being a legitimate practice. Or even an illegitimate one. Such a thing is never discussed.” Employing a scribe to “aid” in authoring a far larger and more complicated work, such as the Gospel of Matthew, is even more problematic than the unlikely scenario that Ehrman describes above.
 Other reasons for how the Gospel of Matthew could have been spuriously connected with the disciple Matthew include the fact that the name ‘Levi’ in Mk. 2:14 and Lk. 5:27-28 appears differently as ‘Matthew’ in Mt. 9:9. Examples of the same individual having two names is common in the New Testament, such as ‘Simon’ also being named ‘Peter’ and ‘Saul’ also being named ‘Paul.’ However, the use of another name in this passage may have led to later speculation over an authorial signature indicated by the name change, even though there is no evidence within the text to suggest this. Another possibility is that the name Μαθθαίος (“Matthew”) served as a pun on the Greek μαθητής (“disciple”). Since the Gospel of Matthew was by far the most popular in the early church, being reproduced in more manuscript copies than the other Gospels and also being placed first in the New Testament, a name that would pun as “the disciple’s gospel” seems plausible. However, in order to explain the spurious attribution, confusion over an otherwise unknown work in Hebrew or Aramaic, referred to with no quotation by Papias and later conflated with the Greek Gospel of Matthew, is sufficient. Furthermore, several early Christian writings were attribute to obscure figures, such as Phillip, Thomas, Nicodemus, Bartholomew, the traitor Judas Iscariot, the prostitute Mary Magdalene, doubting Thomas, the heretical Basilides, etc., so that a spurious attribution to the disciple Matthew the toll collector would not be out of place among other works that scholars agree are misattributed.
 Examples of inaccurate descriptions of Palestine in the Gospel of Mark include the following: A problematic route in Mk 7:31 in which Jesus is described to have traveled out of Tyre through Sidon (North of Tyre) to the Sea of Galilee (South of Tyre). In the words of scholar Hugh Anderson in The Gospel of Mark (pg. 192), this would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” Another problematic route is described in Mk 11:1, which has Jesus and the disciples, in approaching Jerusalem from Jericho, come first to Bethphage and then to Bethany. As Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 6) explains, “Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of the several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine.” Nineham (The Gospel of St. Mark, pgs. 294-295) agrees, “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.” Another problem concerns the location of Geresa (modern Jerash). As Theissen (The Gospels in Context, pg. 242) explains, “According to 5:1ff, the town of Gerasa and its surrounding lands lie near the Lake of Galilee, although in reality Gerasa is about 65 kilometers southeast of the lake.” Likewise, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes, “No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala.”