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When Was the Gospel of Matthew Written?

If the Gospel of Matthew was written after 70 C.E., why does he minimize the destruction of Jerusalem?

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Q. If the Gospel of Matthew was written after 70 C.E., why does Matthew minimize the destruction of Jerusalem? For example, in Matt 22:7: “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” That seems like an understatement to describe such a huge and terrible event. Is there any evidence this parable was added to a pre-70 C.E. Matthew’s Gospel?

A. The date of Matthew’s Gospel is far from certain. Three pieces of evidence have usually been advanced to demonstrate that Matthew wrote after 70 C.E. First, Matthew is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark and Mark is normally dated to the late 60s or early 70s. Secondly, the Gospel of Matthew has a developed Christology, which suggests a late date towards the end of the first century. Thirdly, the reference to the destruction of a city in Matt 22:7 can and should be taken as a direct reference to the Jewish War and to the destruction of Jerusalem in particular. None of these arguments is entirely persuasive.

With respect to Matthew’s use of Mark, the date of Mark is itself not certain. Some scholars date it earlier than the 60s. As for Matthew’s developed Christology, it is no more developed than Paul’s and the Pauline letters were written in the 50s. This leaves the reference to the destruction of the city in the parable of the wedding feast as the final piece of evidence for dating Matthew after the Jewish War. As the question correctly maintains, this is hardly decisive, especially when we take into account the metaphorical nature of the Gospel parables.

Many scholars think Matthew took this passage from a hypothetical sayings source called “Q” and made major revisions; if so, Jesus did not speak the parable in precisely this form. But even if we assume that this is a direct allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, the question remains as to why the evangelist referred to this calamitous event in such an indirect way and why there are no further mentions of it in the Gospel.

One answer is perhaps tied up with the Gospel’s location. If Matthew was written in Antioch or another location that was well away from the war zone, then we can understand the evangelist’s lack of specific focus on the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem. This is one reason why we should be cautious about locating this Gospel in Galilee. We would expect a Galilean Matthew who lived through the horrors of the conflict to have referenced it in more detail in his Gospel. The apocalyptic discourse in chapters 24-25 afforded such an opportunity, but Matthew chose not to take advantage of this. However, if Matthew wrote well away from the war zone and was not directly involved in it, then a post-70 C.E. dating is consistent with his lack of interest in the Jewish war.

A further factor is how late we date the Gospel. Most scholars date Matthew to the 80s or 90s, within 25 years of the destruction of Jerusalem, but it might well be the case that the evangelist wrote his work some decades later than this. Such a later dating is more consistent with the common scholarly view that the community represented by Matthew was in conflict with formative Judaism (or prerabbinic Judaism), which developed into an identifiable entity many decades after the Jewish revolt. Based on this dating the war would not have been an event of the recent past, and it would be understandable that Matthew did not focus on it in his Gospel.

Thus the more distance that can be put between the destruction of Jerusalem and the writing of Matthew, either geographical distance or temporal distance (or both), the more easily we can explain why this Christian Jewish author did not refer more concretely to the calamity of the Jewish War.

  • David C. Sim

    David C. Sim is Professor of Biblical Studies at Australian Catholic University. He is the author or editor of many books on the Gospel of Matthew, including Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism: The History and Social Setting of the Matthean Community (T & T Clark, 1998).