Tag Archives: Tax Collector

The IRS Agent in Jesus’ Company (Part 2)

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

The IRS Agent in Jesus’ Company (Part 1)

Welcome to yet another installment of our upcoming book on the apostles.  We hope you’re enjoying it!

Scripturally speaking, there are not a lot of things that we know about Matthew, but the few things we do know are interesting for certain.

Matthew the Tax Collector

The name “Matthew,” which means “Gift of God,” appears five times in Scripture—all but one of those is the listing of the names of the apostles.1  If not for Matthew himself writing his gospel account, we would not know anything about him except for the fact that he was one of the apostles.2  Matthew 9:9 is the key to everything else we know about this disciple of Jesus Christ:

As Jesus passed forth from there [the house], he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office: and He says to him, “Follow me.”  And he arose and followed Him.

This tax office, or tax booth3 was located on the outskirts of Capernaum,4 next to the Sea of Galilee in order to charge taxes on the merchandise that came into Galilee from the ships on the sea, as well as the merchants who came from the north.  This port was quite busy, necessitating the employment of several “publicans” or “tax collectors” for the job.  Matthew was one of these men.

Apparently, Matthew did quite well as a tax collector, for he had a “great feast in his own house” immediately after being called by Jesus, and there “was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them.”5  Jesus’ disciples6 were also present, along with some of the Pharisees and disciples of John.7  This shows that Matthew didn’t live in a small house.

This feast, according to several commentators, was a farewell feast to his friends and family. 8   It may indicate that Matthew sold his ancestral property, or turned it over to the nearest male relative. However, it may have also simply been a great feat in honor of Jesus, the miracle-working Man of God who had been teaching in that area for some time.

The tax collectors were hated by the Jews at large, but especially by the Pharisees and Zealots, because ultimately they were collecting taxes for the Roman government—the government that was ruling over the Jews (plus, no one really like the IRS today, either).  Being a tax collector was, to the Pharisees, the same as renouncing Judaism and removing yourself from the family of God.  It is because of how the Pharisees treated the tax collectors that Jesus gave the parable of the Lost Son (usually called “the Prodigal Son”), showing that the tax collectors were still God’s children, and still loved by Him.9

The zealots were revolutionaries who would even stoop to assassinating government officials (like tax collectors) in their quest to overthrow Roman rule.  One of the other apostles, Simon the Canaanite, was a Zealot.10  But in Christ, these two political enemies were united in love, peace, and mission for their Master.

-Bradley S. Cobb

1 Matthew 10:1-3; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16; and Acts 1:13.

2 Of course, the fact that he was one of the apostles tells us that he was also (1) a Jew, (2) a Galilean, (3) religiously-minded, (4) one who forsook Jesus, (5) one who preached on Pentecost, and (6) all the other things that involved all of the apostles.  But as far as any personal information about him, we have only what we know because of Matthew’s own writing.

3 This was not a walled building, but more of an open stand where all incoming and outgoing merchandise was taxed by Herod.

4 Compare Mark 2:1, 13-14.

5 Luke 5:27-29.  Here, Matthew is called “Levi.”  We will see in a later section that they Levi and Matthew are one and the same person.

6 At this point, it certainly included Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Bartholomew (Nathanael), if not more.

7 These groups both approached Jesus and His disciples at this feast in Mark 2.

8 See Eastman’s Bible Dictionary, “Matthew.”

9 Read Luke 15.

10 See Section on Simon (coming later).  Compare Matthew 10:4 with Luke 6:15.