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Support for the Authenticity of Book of Matthew

Comes from an Unlikely Place

Special to The Star

As reported in the Kansas City Star

Posted on Sat, Jun. 07, 2003  to

Buried in ancient texts of Jewish historical works are fragments of evidence that appear to show the first book of the New Testament actually was written by one of Jesus' apostles.

One of these texts also challenges a long-held assertion that no ancient text except the Bible mentions Jesus' birth.

Taken together, the information lends support to the claims of some Christian scholars that Matthew actually wrote the Gospel bearing his name, a Gospel that more than the three others emphasized Jesus' Jewish roots.

"One of the reasons that people have not come to grips with the Jewishness of Jesus is that it makes the accounts of the Gospels plausible," Craig Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Theological Seminary, said in an interview this week. "For the Jewish or Christian believer, it helps them better understand who Jesus was, what he stood for and what to do with this Gospel."

Since the 1800s groups of scholars have argued that Jesus might have been a real person, but that he wasn't the son of God, that he didn't perform miracles and that the four Gospels are mostly myths composed by people who assigned to Jesus godlike powers.

More recently the scholarship has taken the form of the Jesus Seminar, a group of about 200 academics who have been studying the Gospels since the mid-1980s. The seminar created a media splash a decade ago when it publicly announced its conclusions that Jesus said only 18 percent of what's conventionally attributed to him in the New Testament. The Gospels, they concluded, are not historically reliable.

But as scholars of Judaism continue to research the history of early Christianity, they are uncovering evidence that appears to show the Gospels of the New Testament may be more reliable than some thought.

Matthew as parody

In the New Testament, none of the authors of the Gospels identifies himself as the writer. The names -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- belong to followers of Jesus who early church leaders believe wrote the texts.

Until the 1800s Gospel authorship was rarely, if ever, questioned. Then scholars in Germany shook up conventional belief by questioning the authorship and challenging commonly accepted dates for when the Gospels were written.

One of the first Gospels to be doubted was Matthew. Church tradition said it was written by Matthew, a tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus, a witness to events. Conservative Christian clergy and scholars said they believe the book of Matthew was written between A.D. 40 and 60, within Matthew's lifetime.

But other scholars concluded the Gospel wasn't written any earlier than A.D. 85, perhaps as late as A.D. 135, long after Matthew's death. If the author wasn't a witness, the thinking goes, the Gospel becomes less credible.

So to scholars the dating is important.

In an essay written for the book Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, Israel J. Yuval of Jerusalem's Hebrew University reported a find in the Talmud that appears to show Matthew could have been written earlier than some scholars contend.

Yuval wrote that a leading rabbinical scholar of the time was "considered to have authored a sophisticated parody of the Gospel according to Matthew."

The parody, written by a rabbi known as Gamaliel, is believed by some well-respected liberal Christian scholars to have been written about A.D. 73 or earlier.

The fact the parody exists and the date when it was believed to be written "would undercut badly (biblical critics') claims of a late date of A.D. 85-90 or later," said Bob Newman, professor of New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

"That is very significant and very important," said Tim Skinner, associate professor of Bible and theology at Luther Rise Seminary in Georgia, because that validates the legitimacy of Matthew's confirms the truthfulness of the biblical account in Matthew and confirms the truth of what Jesus did."

Blomberg said a close study of the parody's wording indicates it was based on an existing text. If that text was Matthew, the Gospel existed much earlier than some scholars believe.

Similarly the earlier the Gospel was written, the more likely eyewitnesses to Jesus' life would still be alive.

"(Which) would mean that Matthew's Gospel would be seen by other eyewitnesses who could check and authenticate it," Blomberg said.

Praise and pronouncements

Among the challenges to Christianity was the charge that Jews had rejected Jesus and that no Jewish leaders or scholars ever accepted Jesus as the Messiah. But even one of the most revered Jewish texts, the Talmud, a collection of rabbinical writings from 100 B.C. to A.D. 500, suggests otherwise.

In the second century A.D., Rabbi Judah Ha Nasi (A.D. 135-200) purged the Mishnah, part of the Talmud, of many references to Christianity and those who adhered to it. But not everything was edited out.

In his classic work, The History of the Talmud, Jewish Talmudic scholar Michael L. Rodkinson wrote: "There were passages in the Mishnayoth concerning Jesus and his teaching...the Messianists...(were) many and considerable persons and in close alliance with their colleagues the Pharisees during the (first) two centuries."

Those words from the Mishnah appear to correspond to New Testament accounts that many Jews, including Pharisees and "a great company of priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7).

The Talmud mentions that the Romans hanged Jesus from a tree, while in another text section the Talmud does something done nowhere else but the New Testament -- mentions Jesus' birth.

English scholar R. Travers Herford, in his book Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, wrote that rabbinical writings mention that Jesus' mother, Mary, was "descended from princes and rulers."

Despite the noble lineage, Herford noted, the Talmudic text referred to Jesus as "Ben Pandira," roughly translated as "son of a virgin," which was considered an epithet.

"While the Jesus Seminar was making radical pronouncements (among them that Jesus was not the Son of God) and courting the media," Blomberg said, "what is less well-known to the public is the study in which scholars have been growing in their appreciation of Jesus' Jewish roots."

He said, "These things have never been presented in any popular forms of consumption to the American public."

Neil Altman is a writer who lives in Pennsylvania and specializes in the Dead Sea Scrolls and religion. His others works have appeared The Times of London, the Toronto Star and The Washington Post.

David Crowder, an investigative reporter with the El Paso Times, and Bill Norton, of The Star, contributed to this story.