'The Evangelist Matthew and the Angel' by Rembrandt. Wikimedia Commons

The Foreseen and the Unforeseen

Matthew, the Old Usurer Who Left Everything for Jesus. A publican and hated tax collector. No one would ever have imagined him at the Messiah's side. But he ended up among the Twelve, drawn by an attraction
Alessandro Zangrando

'The wind blows where it pleases,' said Jesus during His conversation with the eminent Pharisee Nicodemus. (Jn 3:8) Just as does the breath of the Holy Spirit, which upsets all the plans and expectations of men. And the wind blew also on Matthew. He was a publican; that is, a businessman who was given a contract by the Roman procurator for the collection of tariffs, the portorium, a form of customs duty and toll that wayfarers had to pay as they crossed the boundaries between the tetrarchies ruled by Herod Antipas and Philip. Matthew, in short, was a tax collector by profession, a figure that then, as now, was not greatly liked among the inhabitants of Galilee. As tax collector, he had the right to go through people's pockets and baggage. At his desk, piled with papers and documents, he did accounts, counted coins.

And Jesus' gaze fell right on him. It was in Capernaum. The Messiah had just healed the paralytic, then 'when He went out after this, He noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, 'follow me.' And leaving everything, Levi got up and followed Him.' (Lk 5:27-28) So for Matthew too, life changed in an instant. After meeting Jesus, he left his business immediately and prepared a great banquet at his house. 'With them at table was a large gathering of tax collectors and others. The Pharisees and their scribes complained to His disciples and said, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?' Jesus said to them in reply, 'It is not those that are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have come to call not the upright but sinners to repentance.'' (Lk 5:29-32)

Little more is known about Matthew. His name derives from the Greek 'Mathaios,' a translation of the Hebrew 'Mattai' which means 'gift of the Lord.' In the other synoptic Gospels, the evangelist is cited as 'Levi the son of Alphaeus' in Mark (Mk 2:14) and in Luke as 'a tax collector, Levi by name.' (Lk 5:27) This is explained by the Jewish custom of coupling with the Semitic name another Greek or Latin name. Matthew is also recorded in Acts (1:14), when Luke lists the apostles who gathered together after the Ascension.

Uncertain information
According to some traditions, in his work of evangelization he reached Ethiopia, Persia, Syria, Macedonia, and even Ireland. There is no certainty even about his death; some say he died of old age and others say he was martyred, run through by a sword while celebrating Mass. Still others assert that Matthew had converted Iphigenia, daughter of King Hegesippus of Ethiopia, after bringing her back to life. She then refused to marry King Hiarticus, and Matthew defended her virtue, a gesture he paid for with his life.

At the end of the 4th century, sailors coming from Ethiopia brought his body to Velia. Subsequently the inhabitants, threatened by invasion by the Visigoths, transferred his remains to Lucania. In 954, finally the evangelist's body reached Salerno at the behest of the Longobard King Gisulph I, who hid them in the cathedral. The bones were found in 1080, and since that date rest in the crypt.

Is Matthew the apostle the same person who wrote the first Gospel? Historians divide on the issue. Some attribute the Gospel to another Matthew, because there is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem (verse 22:7, 'the kingÖ burned their town'), which suggests it was written after 70 A.D. Other exegetes, including the authoritative Oscar Cullmann, think that the Gospel is based on an Aramaic source compiled by the apostle (a collection of the sayings of Jesus, the so-called 'logia'). According to Apollonius, an Asian bishop cited by Eusebius, the Gospel was compiled around 42 A.D., before the apostle left Palestine to preach in other countries. For St. Ireneus of Lyon, the book was published 'while Peter and Paul were evangelizing and founding the Church of Rome,' thus the date would slide to the year 60.

Signs of his profession
In all probability, the Gospel of Matthew was compiled initially in Aramaic, and subsequently in Greek. The tax collector was used to writing 'because without writing things down daily, he would not have been able in the past to keep the lists of payments in order on his counter,' as Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti explains in his Life of Jesus Christ. And signs of his profession appear in the narration; in his Gospel, money is described in detail, every coin is cited with its proper name and value. He reveals his precision, too, concerning the tax laws. 'Among the synoptic Gospels,' the abbot goes on, 'Matthew is the one who gives the most space to the words of Jesus, which take up about three-fifths of the entire text.' The narrative is structured around five great speeches: the Sermon on the Mount, the Mission of the Twelve, the parables, the discussions of the Church, and the coming end. Matthew was speaking to a well-defined public. These were Christians whose origins were Jewish. His Gospel contains numerous lexical and stylistic elements of Semitic origin, transmitted from the original text to the Greek version. The best known is the expression 'Kingdom of Heaven,' which we find only here, a formula which arose as a result of the rabbinic concern not to utter the name of God. Matthew's aim is to report an event that had meaning for readers whose faith was that of Moses, as Ricciotti explains: in his Gospel, more than in any other, Jesus appears as the Messiah promised by the Old Testament, who fulfills all prophecies in His person. As Oscar Cullmann noted, Matthew insists particularly on showing the correspondences between the Old Testament prophecies and the figure of Jesus. 'Perhaps among all the documents written earlier, he already uses a sort of anthology of Old Testament texts applied to Christ,' wrote Cullma