Matthew, Whose Name was also Levi
Mark and Luke both record the call of Matthew, but they don’t call him “Matthew” in that account. Instead, they call him “Levi.” Some have surmised that they did this so as to not embarrass him;1 but that argument seems weak, since Matthew’s gospel was written and distributed before either of the others began theirs.2 Others have suggested that “Levi” was his Hebrew name, and that “Matthew” was the name he used as a tax collector,3 though Matthew is a Hebrew name as well. The suggestion that seems most likely is that upon being called to follow Jesus, he changed his name (or perhaps Jesus did, as He did with Simon Peter) to reflect his new life.4 From the time he was selected by Jesus to be an apostle, he was called “Matthew,”5 which is another version of the name “Matthias.”
Given that his original name was “Levi,” it seems safe to conclude that he was most likely from the tribe of Levi. If this assumption is correct, then it also gives us some knowledge of one of the other apostles, James the son of Alphaeus.6
Matthew, the Son of Alphaeus
Mark is the only writer who informs us that Matthew’s father was named “Alphaeus,” but that presents us with another piece of the apostolic puzzle; because there is another apostle who is also known as “son of Alphaeus,” James. Thus, contrary to the opinion of several learned writers, Matthew and James were brothers.7
“Alphaeus” is a Greek name which means “Chief.”8 Many writers identify him as Cleopas.9 Other writers, specifically among the Catholics and Anglicans, try to make him the brother-in-law of Jesus’ mother, Mary, which is absurd.10 If indeed Alphaeus and Cleopas are the same person, then Matthew’s father was also a disciple, one of the two on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. It would also mean that Matthew’s mother was a disciple, one of the women who were at the cross,11 as well as one of the women who were in the upper room prior to Pentecost.12
Matthew the Author
The Gospel which bears the name Matthew was written early.13 Though some have attempted to dispute the authorship, there exists no copy of the first gospel which has any other name attached to it as author. The early church writers quoted from it as authoritative, and identified the tax collector as the one who wrote it.
Papias says “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language.”14 To this, Irenaues (AD 120-202) agrees, saying that “Matthew issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect.”15 Tradition is pretty consistent in saying that Bartholomew took with him a copy of it in Hebrew when he went on his missionary journeys. And the Acts of Barnabas repeatedly related the tradition that Matthew gave Barnabas a copy of his gospel in order to help him teach the Jews.16
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 Bridgeway Bible Dictionary, “Matthew.”
2 I realize there is debate among some liberal scholars about the “Primacy of Mark,” but it was the universal belief of the ancient writers that Matthew wrote his gospel first. Additionally, though space forbids a more detailed explanation, Matthew’s gospel was clearly written to the Jews, the ones to whom the gospel was first taken. There are some traditions that place the death of Bartholomew in AD 44, and those same traditions also say that he took a copy of Matthew’s gospel account with him as he preached. Mark was a man whose influence was almost non-existent until the late 50s/early 60s; and Luke’s gospel was written around AD 60 as well. See H. Leo Boles Commentary on Matthew, pages x-xi (introduction), as well as J.W. McGarvey’s Commentary on Matthew and Mark, pages 9-10. “Some of the ancients give the eighth year after the ascension as the date, others the fifteenth” (Edwin W. Rice, People’s Dictionary of the Bible, “Matthew”).
3 American Tract Society Bible Dictionary, “Matthew.”
4 James Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, “Matthew.” See also Easton’s Bible Dictionary, “Matthew.”
5 Lest anyone decide to argue that Matthew the tax collector is different from Matthew the apostle, the man himself makes it clear: the apostle was “Matthew, the tax collector” (Matthew 10:3).
6 For more on this apostle, see the next chapter.
7 Mark calls both men “son of Alphaeus,” and there is no reason for doing so if there was no connection. Fausset, James Hastings, and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia disagree, but the only argument they give is that Matthew and James aren’t together in the lists of the apostles. Apparently when Matthew himself lists James right after himself, that doesn’t count (Matthew 10:3).
8 Hitchcock’s Bible Names, though Thayer gives the meaning as “changing.”
9 It is said that the Greek name Alphaeus is the same as the Aramaic name Cleopas. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (see article “Alphaeus”) gives the arguments for this identification, but concludes that each of the points are nothing more than suppositions which cannot be proven.
10 The reasoning behind this will be detailed in the next chapter, and will be proven false.
11 John 19:25
12 Acts 1:13-14.
13 As mentioned in a previous footnote, the ancients universally agreed that Matthew was the first gospel written. Some of them even said it was written within eight years of the ascension, AD 38.
14 Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, page 155.
15 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 1. Ante Nicene-Fathers, Vol. 1, page 414. The same author (Against Heresies, Book 1, ch. 26, par. 2) said that the Ebionites (A group of militant Christian Jews who rejected Paul’s writings and the possibility of Gentile salvation) only used Matthew’s gospel. This points to its continued existence in Hebrew form.
16 The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, pages 494-495