Matthew, According to Tradition
With Matthew, perhaps more than any of the other apostles, there is confusion about some of the traditions surrounding him. This is due, for the most part, to confusion among some ancient writers between him and Matthias (whose name is almost identical in Greek). So there is uncertainty as to which of the two apostles is spoken of.
It is said by Clement of Alexandria (AD 153-217) that “the apostle Matthew partook of seeds and nuts [hard-shelled fruits], and vegetables, without flesh [meat].”1 The same author asserts that Matthew was one of the apostles who did not die a martyr’s death.2
The Gnostics had a tradition that, “Matthew the apostle constantly said, that ‘if the neighbor of an elect man sins, the elect man [also] has sinned. For had he conducted himself as the Word prescribes, his neighbor also would have been filled with such reverence for the life he led as not to sin.’”3
A man claiming to be Clement of Rome (who lived in the first century)4 recorded that Matthew engaged the high priest at the temple in Jerusalem in a public debate. The priest began:
…exalting with many praises the rite or sacrifice which had been bestowed by God upon the human race for the remission of sins, he found fault with the baptism of our Jesus, as having been recently brought in in opposition to the sacrifices. But Matthew, meeting his propositions, showed clearly, that whoever will not obtain the baptism of Jesus shall not only be deprived of the kingdom of heaven, but shall not be without peril at the resurrection of the dead, even though he be for-titled by the prerogative of a good life and an upright disposition. Having made these and such statements, Matthew stopped.5
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
This writing, whose date is unknown, was written to try to advance the importance of Mary. It details the miraculous birth of Mary to Anna (probably meant to be the same one who prophesied in Luke 1), and how Joseph got her as a wife. It is a Catholic Church production through and through, which claims to have been written in Hebrew and translated into Latin by Jerome, though most scholars doubt both parts of that claim.6
The Acts of Andrew and Matthew
There are discrepancies in the Greek manuscripts of this apocryphal work. Most have “Matthew,” though one manuscript reads “Matthias.”7 Most of the Latin writers who referenced this work believed it was talking about Matthew. In the story, the apostles got together to decide who was going to which place to preach the gospel. Matthew’s lot was to go to the country of cannibals. Instead of eating meat and drinking wine, they ate human flesh and drank blood. Matthew, upon arriving, was captured and his eyes were thrust out, and he was given a drug to make him deranged, but it didn’t affect him. Instead, he kept praying, and then a light shone around him and he heard a voice say “receive your sight,” and Matthew could see again. He was instructed, then, to stay in that city and preach for 27 days. At the end of 27 days, the Lord sent Andrew to go rescue him.
After Andrew was captured as well, they both prayed and began to heal the blind men in the prison whose eyes had also been thrust out. They then freed the prisoners and sent them out to safety, and Andrew “commanded a cloud, and the cloud took up Matthew and the disciples of Andrew; and the cloud set them down on the mountain where Peter was teaching.”
The sequel to this story, The Acts of Peter and Andrew, finds Matthew on the mountain with Peter, but doesn’t give any other details about him.8
The Acts and Martyrdom of Matthew
In this tale, Jesus sends Matthew back to deal with more cannibals. He casts out a demon named Asmodaeus from the king’s wife, son, and daughter-in-law, and for a time the king was happy until they started following Matthew. He sent soldiers to capture the apostle, but Jesus appeared in the form of a little boy with a torch, and burned out the eyes of the men. The king pretended repentance, using it as a ruse to capture him. Matthew, rebuking the king, was afterwards sentenced to a painful death.
[Telling the soldiers], “Having laid him, therefore, on the ground on his back, and stretched him out, pierce his hands and feet with iron nails, and cover him over with paper, having smeared it with dolphins’ oil, and cover him up with brimstone and asphalt and pitch, and put … brushwood above. Thus apply the fire to him; and if any of the same tribe with him rise up against you, he shall get the same punishment.”
But when the fire was lit, it simply turned to dew.
Then he ordered a multitude to carry coals of fire from the furnace of the bath in the palace, and the twelve gods of gold and silver; and “place them,” says he, “in a circle round the sorcerer, lest he may even somehow bewitch the fire from the furnace of the palace.” And there being many executioners and soldiers, some carried the coals; and others, bearing the gods, brought them. And the king accompanied them, watching lest any of the Christians should steal one of his gods, or bewitch the fire. And when they came near the place where the apostle was nailed down, his face was looking towards heaven, and all his body was covered over with the paper, and much brushwood over his body to the height of ten cubits. And [the king] ordered the soldiers to set the gods in a circle round Matthew, five cubits off, securely fastened that they might not fall, again he ordered the coal to be thrown on, and to kindle the fire at all points.
Matthew prayed, and the fire did not consume him, but instead burned up the idols and chased the king as a dragon, destroying everything in its path until the king in fear truly repented. It was soon thereafter that Matthew gave up the ghost. But he appeared in a vision that Jesus gave the king, and when the king awoke, he came to the elders of the church and begged for baptism, and changed his name to King Matthew, and changed his son’s name to Matthew as well.9
[Another] tradition states that he preached for 15 years in Palestine and that after this he went to foreign nations, the Ethiopians, Macedonians, Syrians, Persians, Parthians and Medea being mentioned. He is said to have died a natural death either in Ethiopia or in Macedonia.10
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, chapter 1. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, page 241.
2 However, Clement gives “Matthew” and “Levi” as different men in the list. The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book 4, chapter 9. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, page 422.
3 Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book 7, chapter 13. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, page 547.
4 There is debate as to whether this is truly written by Clement, one of his hearers, or someone over 200 years later. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, pages 73-74 for more details.
5 “Pseudo-Clement,” Recognitions, Book 1, chapter 55. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 92.
6 See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, pages 351-352, 368 for more details.
7 The editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, following Tischendorf, chose to go with “Matthias,” though all the Latin writers use “Matthew.” (See the introduction to the apocryphal Gospels and Acts in volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The spelling in the original is very similar: Matthaios or Mattheias
8 This work only exists in fragment form, there being no known complete manuscript. The name “Matthias” shows up halfway into the extant portion, and it may be that it should read “Matthew” as well, but there aren’t multiple manuscripts to compare. What there is of this story appears in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8.
9 See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8.
10 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Matthew.”