Saint Matthew and Apocryphal Gospels

Depiction of Saint Matthew in an eight-century Irish Evangelary, Saint Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 51 (c.750), p. 2.

September 21 is the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, in the Western Christian tradition. (The feast for his nativity is May 6 in the West, and he also enjoys a number of other feast days throughout the year.) With these titles, he’s most well known as one of Jesus’ twelve disciples in the gospels, and for his role as writer of his own Gospel. He’s also patron saint of accountants, bankers, tax collectors, perfumers, and civil servants–because he was a civil servant/tax collector for the Roman Empire before following Jesus.

In the early Christian and medieval periods, Matthew became associated with many other traditions about him. Some of these traditions are related to the most popular of apocryphal literature in Western Europe.

For example, in late antiquity Matthew’s name became attached to non-canonical gospels now known (by modern titles) as the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and the Gospel of the Nazarenes. Unfortunately, these apocrypha survive only in fragments quoted by patristic authors; but it is clear that these are later compositions, from the second and third centuries.

Apparently early Christians who encountered such apocryphal texts believed them to have been written by Matthew in Hebrew for the emerging Jewish-Christian communities. In fact, this logic of attribution was related to the early belief that Matthew had written his (canonical) Gospel in Hebrew first, after which it was translated into Greek. Modern scholarship has largely set this claim aside, but it was a claim made popular by Christian authorities like Origen (184/5-253/4) and Jerome (347-420). These same ideas continued throughout the medieval period, as exegetes continued to associate Matthew with these works.

Later, in the early Middle Ages, Matthew’s name became attached to another apocryphon, known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (read more about my work on this work here). This attribution of authorship didn’t appear along with the composition of the work, however. Since this text was based on the earlier (second-century) Protevangelium of James, it likely circulated at first with a prologue naming the apostle James as the author (as is found in some manuscripts of Pseudo-Matthew).

Depiction of Saint Matthew in the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk (Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 8; c.1340), fol. 14r, a work reliant on the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew for its narrative and images.

By about the year 800, the representative of the oldest version of Pseudo-Matthew (the A-text) had gained a set of prefatory materials linking it to Matthew as author. This prefatory material contains a series of letters forged as if by Jerome and Chromatius and Heliodorus, two bishops who acted as patrons. In the second letter, this “Jerome” responds to the bishops’ request to translate the apocryphon. He also claims that the gospel was written by Matthew in Hebrew, and passed it on only to the most religious men worthy of reading it.

Once these letters were added to Pseudo-Matthew in the manuscripts (from the ninth century onward), the association with Matthew as author became part of the tradition that followed the apocryphon in the medieval period. Later, an adaptation of Pseudo-Matthew known as the Nativity of Mary emerged, probably around the year 1000. This text also participated in the same tradition.

In a similar way, another letter forged in the name of Jerome circulated with the Nativity, perpetuating the same story about Matthew composing the source story in Hebrew. This letter states that, “it is said that the holy Evangelist Matthew composed the same little book sealed with Hebrew letters and placed it at the head of his gospel.” In other words, according to this letter, Pseudo-Matthew was supposed to act as a prequel to the canonical Gospel of Matthew.

As one of the four Evangelists, Matthew has remained a prominent figure in the Christian tradition. This was no less the case in the medieval period, which produced thousands of manuscripts containing the Gospel of Matthew. Yet Matthew’s name flourished as the author of not only this canonical gospel but also a host of other related works. Indeed, as medieval audiences knew him, Matthew’s legacy was as an author of other narratives that provided significant details about the lives of Mary and Jesus beyond the canonical Bible.


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