Matthias in Tradition
Almost all the early writers who deal with the topic say that Matthias was one of the seventy men chosen by Jesus in Luke 10 to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, and heal sicknesses.1 These men were “sent”2 by Jesus Christ with a mission very similar to the apostles in their “limited commission.”3 Some believe that it is this group of people that Paul was referencing when he said that Jesus appeared to all the apostles (after already mentioning “the twelve”) in 1 Corinthians 15:7.4
It is said by some that the selection of Matthias was a mistake, a “blunder” made by the apostles, and that the real heir to Judas’ spot was Saul of Tarsus.5 In the face of the biblical evidence, however, it’s impossible to take such a view seriously. (1) Peter properly applied biblical prophecy to say Judas needed to be replaced. (2) They prayed for the Lord to make the selection, and there is no indication that the Lord ignored the prayer. (3) God approved of the choice, for Peter stood up “with the eleven” (which would include Matthias) as ones who were speaking in tongues by the power of God.6 (4) Paul never once classed himself as one of the twelve—in fact, he showed that he was not one of them in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.
After Matthias disappears from the biblical stage, there are traditions that say he spent time evangelizing Ethiopia with Rufus and Alexander, the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who bore the cross of Jesus in Mark 15:21.7 A work entitled “The Acts of Andrew and Matthew” is, in a significant number of manuscripts, titled “The Acts of Andrew and Matthias.”8 Because of the similarity in their names, the traditions tend to overlap, with no real certainty about which apostle is supposed to be under consideration.9 In one version of this work, Matthias, Rufus, and Alexander all go to Ethiopia to a city of cannibals, where Matthias is captured, blinded, and thrown into prison before he is healed by God and rescued by Andrew. After they were both captured and thrown back into prison, they caused a flood to come on the inhabitants of the city, and then as they walked out of the prison, the waters divided in front of them like the Red Sea. Though many died in the flood, the apostles prayed and all those who died were raised up. Afterwards, many were baptized.10
The Preaching of Thomas in India claims that Matthias was taken by Peter to Persia.11
The Martyrdom of Matthias12 says that he preached in Damascus, where the people rose up against him, fastened him to a bedstead of iron, and tried to burn him alive on it for 24 days straight, but like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the flames didn’t harm him. Thus, the people in Damascus began to follow Christ. After some more time working among the people, he moved to Judea and there died.13
Though it is now lost to time, a heretical gospel account was written by someone who attached Matthias’ name to it. Meanwhile, a second-century Gnostic sect falsely claimed that they got all of their doctrines from Matthias. Some traditions say he worked in Jerusalem and died there,14 while others say he was martyred in Ethiopia,15 and still others believe he was martyred in Colchis.16
People have been tempted to identify Matthias as someone else in the biblical narrative. At least one writer has suggested that Matthias is the same as Nathanael.17 Clement of Alexandria was of the opinion that Matthias was another name for Zacchaeus, the tax collector mentioned in Luke 19.18
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 12.
2 The Greek word for “sent” in Luke 10:1 is the verb form of “apostle.” Thus, Jesus “apostled” these men, and they were, in a very real sense, apostles of Jesus Christ—just not counted among “the twelve.”
3 Compare the words of Jesus in Luke 10:1-16 with Matthew 10:1-16.
4 See the commentaries of Adam Clarke; Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown; Henrich Meyer; and John Wesley. If this is the case, then it fits together with the requirement that the nominees for Judas’ vacant spot was to be one who had seen the risen Lord.
5 See David Smith’s article in James Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible, “Matthias.”
6 See Acts 2:1-14.
7 See Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, page 163-164.
8 Unfortunately, there is confusion on whether it is Matthias or Matthew that is under consideration in some of ancient Apocryphal Acts. In the stories about the cannibals, some manuscripts say Matthew, while others say Matthias. As such, many of the traditions about Matthias are also said to be traditions about Matthew, simply because no one knows for certain which one is under consideration. See the section “Matthew, According to Tradition” in the chapter on that apostle for more details.
9 The Ethiopian traditions, which were translated by Budge in Contendings of the Apostles say that it was Matthias who went to the city of cannibals, which is what is described in “The Acts of Andrew and Matthew/Matthias.”
10 This version of the story is contained in Budge’s Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, pages 267-288. Pages 370-403 give a fuller version of the story, called The Preaching of Matthias.
11 See Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, page 320. This work appears to be a slightly enlarged edition of the Acts of Thomas, at least of the opening sequence.
12 The title for this work is rather ironic, considering that it records Matthias dying a natural death.
13 Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, pages 289-294.
14 See the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Matthias.”
15 See Smith’s Bible Dictionary, “Matthias.”
16 See Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary.
17 See the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Matthias.”
18 This according to John Gill, in his notes on Acts 1:23.