Levi or Matthew, Which is It?
by Don R.Camp
One of the stories found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is the story of the calling of Levi to be a disciple of Jesus. If you are not familiar with it, I quote it here from chapter two in the Gospel of Mark:
14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
But Matthew adds something interesting. He changes the name of this man from Levi to Matthew. Here is the passage from chapter 9:
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.
Paul M. Tobin on his webpage rejectionofpascalswager.net says of this similarity:
Note that the only change [between Mark and Matthew] is the name of the person called, from Levi to Matthew. If the gospel of Matthew really was written by the apostle of that name, one would expect a vivid eye-witness account of his own personal call to discipleship. Yet, all we have is a slavish and wooden word-for-word copying of Mark. This is, according to Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, "difficult to believe" if the author was actually Matthew.
At the risk of differing with the respected New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, I wonder if there is not a better solution.
First, the assumption that Matthew copied Mark. A better way of reconciling the similarity between Mark and Matthew is to consider a separate common source, sometimes referred to as Q. If Q was the source, then Matthew is not copying Mark. Not only that but I argue elsewhere that Q was most likely the oral and finally written teaching of the Apostles of whom Matthew was one. In fact, it is my opinion that Matthew is the most likely of the Apostles to have written down the stories and sayings of Jesus since he was the most capable. So it may be that Matthew is himself the source of the passage. In other words, it is an eye-witness account.
The second reason given by Tobin and Ehrman for an author other than the Apostle Matthew was that if the gospel were an eye-witness account it would be more vivid. Perhaps that would be true if the gospel was a modern biography. The style today is to write in the first person if that is possible and to include as much of the author’s personal story as possible. It simply makes the biography more interesting and authentic. But that was not the style in ancient Jewish histories or biographies as Matthew Ferguson, a scholar of ancient biography, notes in his blog adversusapologetica.wordpress.com. Far more characteristic of ancient Jewish writing is authorial anonymity.
So it is not surprising that Matthew, as well as the other gospels writers do not identify themselves. But still wouldn’t Matthew as an eye-witness and the subject of this little story telling of his calling include more of himself? The answer is yes - and he did. That is what we have in the name Matthew.
Matthew alone identifies the tax collector/disciple as Matthew. The others call him Levi. Levi was a name that implied some status in the Jewish culture. It identified the person as a member of the tribe of Levi which ministered at the temple. But Matthew/Levi was not ministering in the temple. He was collecting taxes for Rome and Herod. As such he was despised and counted among the worst of sinners by the Jews. And that is how Matthew wanted to be known in his gospel: tax collector and sinner.
Matthew did not identify himself as the illustrious Apostle who had the wisdom to follow Jesus. He did not claim status as a son of Levi. He wanted not to call attention to himself but to his Lord who rescued him from his past and made him a new man. He did that by inserting himself in this short passage as Matthew the sinner saved by grace.
So was the Apostle Matthew the author of the gospel attributed to him by every ancient source and respected by the early church as the author of the first of the gospels? Almost assuredly yes.