Who Wrote Matthew?
When I teach research, I stress how important the quality of sources is. Today’s students have grown up with no (or little) knowledge of what life was like before the Internet, so they’ve always grown up with information at their fingertips. One of the most popular sites for them is, of course, Wikipedia.
Don’t ever use this as a source for one of your papers, I tell them; it’s a great tool, but a bad source. A few students roll their eyes (yes, we know), many look upset, for it had been fine in the past (i.e. high school)—or so they believe, and some appear angry: what do you mean?
And so I share this story: a few years ago—more like 6 at this point—when I taught a pop culture-themed composition course, students had to research pop culture figures—there’s more to the assignment, but I leave it at this. Anyway, several chose Michael Jackson for one of their people. One of those papers contained a chestnut of information about how charitable Mr. Jackson was. The evidence: After Hurricane Katrina, in order to raise money for those affected by the devastation, he wrote and recorded “We Are the World.”—cited with a Wikipedia entry.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we need to verify our sources.
As Helms points out, Mark didn’t do a very good job checking his sources—though how one would have went about this back then, I have no idea. So if Mark used flawed sources, Matthew, however, saw an opportunity, for he clearly recognized the need for much of Mark’s content. It just needed to be fixed first.
To clarify the amount of barriers between Matthew’s author and the information he discusses, Helms mentions the “levels of remove from the historical Jesus”:
- Personal associates of Jesus
- Christian oral traditions about Jesus
- Written documents based on oral traditions
- Matthew. (42)
Why mention this? Well, the idea is that how close can a person—any person—come to the truth from this much distance? He’s not making this point (although how could he not be?); rather, he’s suggesting that Mark and Matthew—representing the fourth and fifth removes—are just as relevant.
Aside from fixing key details related to Jesus’ baptism story, Matthew fixes Mark’s confusion over how the parables were intended to be used: they elucidate Jesus’ meaning, not obscure it (48). This change makes sense, for why would a teacher purposefully convey his ideas in a way that confused his audience (students)?
Matthew also has a different impression of Jesus: he’s angrier. This first surfaces in his return to Nazareth. Since Jesus was not acknowledged or welcomed with open arms, he refuses to help out a neighbor (ease his suffering). In Matthew’s eyes, “he is a much less likeable figure” (50). Perhaps portraying Jesus as a benevolent figure to whom you can say or do anything and still receive his love made him too soft for Matthew? After all, shouldn’t we have some fear of our rulers?
And then there is the description of the fig trees. When Jesus leaves Nazareth and is hungry, he comes upon the fig tree, which in Mark bore no fruit because it was not in season. Matthew, however, drops the “not the season for figs,” which, according to Helms places the blame of the lack of fruit on the tree, not Mother Nature (51). So when Jesus immediately punishes the tree by making it wither (not the one-day delay in Mark), this shows he not only has more power than described in Mark, he’s also a bit spiteful.
One of the last significant changes involves the apocalyptic foretelling, covered in Matthew’s 24th chapter and Mark’s 13th. Mark’s turned out to be incorrect, and since Matthew wrote later than Mark, he has the ability to correct the mistake in the name of theological accuracy. Basically, he increased the amount of time between the destruction of Jerusalem and Jesus’ second coming (56).
So why these changes, and what makes Matthew “right” over Mark? I guess if you are a reader looking for more theological “accuracy,” than Matthew is tighter than Mark. Helms doesn’t state this claim explicitly, though all his evidence makes this clear. But given that now we have information neither author had access to—such as the time of the Second Coming (tick tock, tick tock)—how can we see either as accurate? And if Matthew corrected flaws in Mark, he was still working with a flawed source, so although he corrected mistakes he understood to be inaccurate, what about the errors he (or we) didn’t know about? A flawed source is a flawed source, even if he had the best intentions.