IN SEARCH FOR THE TWELVE APOSTLES
by William McBirnie, Ph.D.
Matthew was a brother of James the Less and both were the
sons of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). Matthew's other name was Levi. He
was a customs officer (Matt.10:3) in Capernaum, in the territory
ruled by Herod Antipas. He belonged to the class of bureaucrats
called portitores serving under the publicans, the officers who
were concessionaires for taxes according to the Roman custom of
that day. As such he would have had some education and have been
acquainted with the Aramaic, Greek and Latin languages. The tax
collectors of whom he was one, although scorned by the Jews,
seemed as a group to hear the message of Jesus gladly (Matt.
11:19; Luke 17:34,15:1).
By the time Matthew was called, Peter, James and John, who
also came from Capernaun, were already disciples of Jesus (Matt.
9:11; 14:18; Mark 5:37). Unlike some of the other Apostles
Matthew did not enter the group from the followers of John the
Significantly, among the events recorded in his gospel is
the notation that the first thing Matthew did after his call was
to invite Jesus to his home for a feast. Matthew filled the place
with the only people who would set foot in his house, his fellow
"tax gatherers and sinners". The term was an epithet, not a
description. When Jesus was criticized for keeping company with
them He responded, "those who are well need no physician, but
those who are sick." And in a paraphrase of the words of Micah
8:8-8 Jesus added, "Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy
and not sacrifice for I come not to call the righteous but
'sinners'" (Matthew 9:11-12).
Like most of the Apostles, Matthew seemed to have
evangelized in a number of countries. Irenaeus says that he
preached the gospel among the Hebrews. Does this mean in
Palestine or to the Jews abroad? Probably both. Clement of
Alexandria stated that he spent 15 years in this work. Clement
also said that Matthew went to the Ethiopians, the Greeks of
Macedonia (northern Greece), the Syrians and Persians. (Clement
of Alexandria, Strom.,49) An early Christian writer named
Heracleon declared that Matthew did not suffer martyrdom. But
most authorities affirm that he was painfully put to death.
THE WRITING OF THE GOSPEL
Jerome tells the story of the authorship of the gospel by
"Matthew, also called Levi, Apostle and aforetimes publican,
composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew
for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this
was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is
uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present
day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently
gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume
described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who
use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist,
whether on his own account or on the person of our Lord the
Saviour, quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not
follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint, but
the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist, 'Out of Egypt have I
called my son,' and 'for he shall be called a Nazarene'" (The
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Jerome, p.362).
(But the fact is today NO Hebrew MMS exists of the Gospel of
Matthew - Keith Hunt).
Eusebius quotes Papias, who lived 100 A.D., as saying that
Matthew had composed in Aramaic the Oracles of the Lord which
were translated into Greek by each man as he was able. Irenaeus,
about a century and a half earlier than Eusebius had stated that
"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their
own dialect." (The New Testament, A Survey, Tenney, p.151) St.
Augustine also said Matthew had written only in Hebrew while the
other gospel writers wrote in Greek.
(All of this is very unprovable as to if Matthew FIRST wrote in
Greek and THEN it was translated into Hebrew, or if he did indeed
FIRST write in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. All that
said, the sure fact is that we DO NOT have ANY part of Matthew -
some or all - written in Hebrew today. If we did you can be sure
copies of it would be all over the place, published in book form,
written in magazines etc.and etc. - Keith Hunt).
Matthew understood the way in which Jesus fulfilled the
prophecies of the Old Testament. More references appear in his
gospel to this fact than in any of the other three gospels.
We are in Matthew's debt for the only version of the story about
the man who found a treasure hid in a field and sold all he had
to purchase it. Matthew knew from personal experience what that
meant. He, too, had forsaken his profitable and lucrative career
and had followed Jesus.
VARIOUS TRADITIONS OF MATTHEW S MINISTRY AND DEATH
There are so many traditions which seem to be mutually
contradictory that one can but list them all and try to make a
synthesis of them as Barclay has done:
"Socrates said that Matthew was allotted Ethiopia in the
apostolic comity agreement (The E.H.,1,19; cf. Rubinus,1,9).
Ambrose connects him with Persia, Paulinus of Nola with Parthia,
Isidore with Macedonia.
Clement of Alexandria indicates that he died a natural death (The
Miscellanies, 4,9). Clement says he was a vegetarian eating
seeds, nuts, and vegetables without flesh. The Talmud says that
Matthew was condemned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin.
The apocryphal 'Acts of Andrew and Matthew' which later was put
into Anglo-Saxon verse, claims that he was sent to the
cannibalistic Anthropophagi who attempted to put his eyes out and
put him in prison for 30 days before eating him. On the 27th day
he was rescued by Andrew who came by sea miraculously escaping a
storm and thus rescued Matthew. Matthew returned to the
Anthropophagi working miracles among them and the king became
jealous of him. They bound Matthew, covered him with papyrus
soaked in dolphin oil, poured brimstone, asphalt and pitch upon
him, heaped up tow and wood and surrounded him with the golden
images of the 12 gods of the people. But the fire turned to dew
and the flames flew out and melted the metal of the images.
Finally the fire took the form of a dragon, chased the king into
his palace and curled around about him so that he could not move.
Then Matthew rebuked the fire and prayed and gave up the ghost.
The King was converted and became a priest and with two angels
Matthew departed to heaven." ("The Master's Men," William
(I think we can see the Roman Catholic fanticies here, and the
story gaining more mystery religion as time went - Keith Hunt).
According to E.J.Goodspeed (Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist)
there was a confusion in the early stories between Matthias and
Matthew. The tradition of the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43 a.)
tells of the trial and execution of one "Matthai." Matthew
probably did not die in the same country as Matthias.
The difficulty in knowing for certain the countries which
Matthew probably visited lies in the identification of the
country called "Ethiopia." The Ethiopia in Africa is well known
to us, but there was also an Asiatic "Ethiopia" which was south
of the Caspian Sea in Persia. It was in the kingdom of the
Parthians, but from all accounts was off the well-traveled trade
(This is probably the area where Matthew went, for that was the
area where Israelites were dwelling, not down in the African
nation by the same name - Keith Hunt).
As we have seen, St.Ambrose links Matthew with Persia. The
associations of St.Thomas with a "Gospel of Matthew which was
reputedly found in India are well known. This would seem to
indicate at least a tradition of the Apostle Matthew as having
been near the Asiatic "Ethiopia." It would be natural for a copy
of Matthew's gospel to have found its way to India if Matthew
himself had been in Persia, which he probably indeed did visit,
for Persia was on the direct trade route from Antioch to India.
(Indeed, much more sense for Matthew to be in that part of the
world, where Israelites were dwelling in the first century A.D. -
THE PRESENT BURIAL PLACE OF MATTHEW'S BODY
Next door to the cathedral in Salerno, Italy, which contains
the body of Matthew there is an archeological museum which
publishes a guide book for those who make pilgrimages to the
church. It is written by Arturo Carucci and offers the following
information about the tomb of the Apostle:
"A fresco on the side of the center balcony shows John, Bishop of
Paestum receiving Athanasias the monk who found the body of
Matthew. Another shows Gisolfo I ordering the Abbott John to get
the body of the evangelist Matthew at Capaccio to bring it to
Salerno. Above the seats of the chorus (choir) there is a
reminder of the moving of the body of St.Matthew. It shows a
procession with the body of the Apostle being brought into the
In the center of the crypt there is the tomb of Saint Matthew
located at about 2 meters of depth and surmounted by a
two-fronted altar, rich of marble and dominated by an ample
'umbrella canopy', finely embroidered, which covers two bronze
statues representing the Evangelist: one for each front of the
altar. They were made in 1808 by Michelangelo Naccarino (1822);
the Saint is in the traditional position. The sculptor knew how
to give the bronze a great expression of power. The tomb and the
altars are adorned in an elegant marble base which has enormous
candelabras at each corner. They were a gift from the School of
In 1989 the floor at the north side was opened and the altar was
erected at the tomb of the Evangelist, altering the harmony and
the original design of the two fronted altar." (II Duomo di
Salerno e il suo Museo, Arturo Carucci, pp.66,69).
Carucci gives us the date of the building of the cathedral
and the interment of the body of the Apostle Matthew:
"Inside is the 'holy seat' [special chair] said to be that of
Saint Gregory VII; because, from the 11th century the Holy
Pontiff ascended during the consecration of the temple in 1084.
The seven circular steps, instead, are new like the chairs of the
'bema.' The inscription celebrates the millennium (1954) of the
translation of the relies of Saint Matthew.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary the church was elevated over the
tomb of St.Matthew by the Norman Duke, Robert Guiscardo right
after the conquest of Salerno in 1078.
Not everybody knows that the body [of St.Matthew] is entrusted to
and honored in Salerno. It is enclosed in a magnificent crypt
deserving of the veneration of the people of Salerno and
deserving of St.Matthew." (op. cat. p.11)
(It could be possible the RC church has the remains of Matthew.
We need to remember the RC church does go back to the first
century, as it came OUT OF the TRUE Church of God. Then again it
may also be the fancy Babylon mysteries it promolgates even in
claiming it has this or that body of this or that disciple of our
Lord - Keith Hunt).
LEGENDS ABOUT ST.MATTHEW
It is evident from the legends and traditions of the
Apostles that the confusion in the records in the Middle Ages
about place names have made it impossible to be sure which
"Ethiopia" is associated with St.Matthew. For example, did the
following story arise out of imagination or does it correctly
associate Matthew with the Ethopia in Africa?
"It is related in the Perfetto Legendario, that, after the
dispersion of the Apostles, he travelled into Egypt and Ethiopia,
preaching the Gospel; and having arrived in the capital of
Ethiopia, he lodged in the house of the eunuch who had been
baptized by Philip, and who entertained him with great honor.
There were two terrible magicians at that time in Ethiopia, who
by their diabolical spells and incantations kept all the people
in subjection, afflicting them at the same time with strange and
terrible diseases; but St. Matthew overcame them, and having
baptized the people, they were delivered forever from the
malignant influence of these enchanters. And further, it is
related that St. Matthew raised the son of the King of Egypt from
the dead, and healed his daughter of the leprosy. The princess,
whose name was Iphigenia, he placed at the head of a community of
virgins dedicated to the service of God: and a certain wicked
heathen king, having threatened to tear her from her asylum, was
struck by leprosy, and his palace destroyed by fire. St.Matthew
remained twenty-three years in Egypt and Ethiopia, and it is said
that he perished in the ninetieth year of our era, under
Domitian; but the manner of his death is uncertain; according to
the Greek legend he died in peace, but according to the tradition
of the Western Church he suffered martyrdom either by the sword
or the spear" ("Sacred and Legendary Art" Mrs.Anna Jameson, pp.
(I may be possible that an apostle like Matthew did visit the
African nation as the eunuch that Philip baptized was there, and
it would have been natural for an an apostle to vist him and help
him preach the Gospel. Maybe Matthew did do some miracles also,
but in time traditions tend to get fancier and embelished upon.
The "virgin convent" sounds too Roman Catholic to take it
seriously - Keith Hunt).
The Roman Catholic tradition of the life and death of
Matthew is given us by Mary Sharp in "A TraveUer's Guide to
Saints in Europe":
"Matthew's body is reputed to be enshrined in the Cathedral of
San Matteo at Salerno, Italy, and other relics in many churches,
including Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
After the Ascension, St.Matthew is said to have traveled to
Ethiopia where he was entertained by the eunuch whom St.Philip
had baptised. He performed several miracles, including the
healing of the King of Egypt's daughter of leprosy. Accounts
differ as regards his death. Some say that he was beheaded,
others that he died a peaceful death" (p.152).
A SUGGESTED BIOGRAPHY OF MATTHEW
Matthew, also called Levi, was the son of Alphaeus and the
brother of James the Less. It is apparent that Alphaeus was a
godly man, but though Matthew was given the priestly name of
Levi, he was probably far from godly in his early life. It
required a great deal of ambition and greed for a Jew to
willingly be known as an associate of the House of Herod Antipas
and a servant of the hated Romans by becoming a tax gatherer for
them. The way this term (publican) is used in the Bible indicates
that to be a tax gatherer was to obtain a position in which graft
and corruption were not only possible, but likely. Also there was
the embarrassment of being known as a collaborator with Rome. The
Roman occupation troops were hated with the same kind of scorn
that the Jews in the 20th century felt toward the Nazis.
Nevertheless, Jesus sought to reconcile James, who may well have
been a nationalistic Zealot, with his brother, Matthew, the
collaborator with Rome. Both became in time ardent disciples of
Jesus. Matthew probably remained in the Holy Land, as tradition
says, for 15 years. After this, encouraged by the reports of the
success of other Christian leaders among the Jews of the
Diaspora, and also among the Gentiles, he went forth on several
It is possible that he wrote his Gospel first in the Aramaic
language which was well understood by the people of northern
Palestine. Later he may have made copies in Hebrew and
distributed them in several places where he went. This is most
likely as it is evident that Matthew directed his appeal more to
potential converts among the Jews than to the Gentiles. The
Gospel of Matthew is filled with many references to Old Testament
prophecy about the Messiah as being fulfilled in Jesus. Those
quotations would have been of only passing interest to Gentiles.
But, like other Apostles, Matthew eventually incurred the wrath
of the Jewish establishment and was forced to turn to the
Gentiles who gave him a more ready hearing.
(But remember all the arguments to one side, the clear fact is
that we have NO part of Matthew preserved in any Hewbrew text. It
was the Greek text of all the NT that God decided to preserve -
There are too many references in the traditions and legends
of Matthew's ministry to kings and other high government
officials for us to ignore the possibility that his evident
literacy and his former experience as a bureaucrat may well have
fitted him to understand just how to present the Gospel to people
in high places. It is certain that he did indeed go to Persia and
to the mysterious area there known as "Ethiopia." It is possible
that he was in grave danger of his life there. It is not
impossible that he may also have journeyed to the Ethiopia in
Africa as Roman Catholic tradition indicates.
We do not know just how or when his body was eventually
discovered. But it is evident that the monk, Athanasias, appeared
before the Norman Duke of Salerno and confidently announced that
the body had indeed been found, and he advised the Duke to bring
it to Salerno as an Apostolic relic deserving of the great
Cathedral which was built there. Probably a few of the same bones
were later transferred to Rome. (There is no good reason to deny,
however, that the majority of the bones remain in Salerno to this
There are too many stories of Matthew's death to be certain
just where he died. It is likely that it was not in Ethiopia in
Africa, but rather in Egypt. The connection of the legends of
Matthew with the Sanhedrin is significant. The Sanhedrin was a
body of important Jews in Alexandria, Egypt.
This would hint as to an historical relationship of Matthew
to Egypt. It is perhaps possible that Matthew was martyred in
Egypt upon his return from Ethiopia in Africa, but this
conclusion is not certain.
What is certain is that Matthew was a gifted writer, an
ardent disciple and had perhaps had the best education of any of
the Twelve. Thus he was well equipped to witness to people in
places of authority, and was a vessel well chosen to write the
great gospel which bears his name.
Entered on this Website April 2008