Saint Matthew: Tax-Collector, Apostle and Evangelist

Saint Matthew: Tax-Collector, Apostle and Evangelist


Alexandros Christodoulou


In the lists of the Twelve disciples who are recorded in the New Testament, the name Matthew is mentioned. He calls himself this in the list of disciples he quotes in his Gospel (Matth. 10, 3), and also in the narrative of his call to the role of apostle. In the narrative of his call, he talks about a man who was sitting at his tax booth, which is why he calls himself “Matthew the Tax-Collector [Publican]”. In Mark’s Gospel (2, 4), this tax-collector is called “Levi, the son of Alpheus” and in Luke’s (5, 27) he is called simply “Levi”. We should mention that in the list of disciples, the apostle James is also called “the son of Alpheus”, but he was not Matthew’s brother. Had he been, this would have been mentioned in the Gospels, as is the case with other apostles who were brothers, such as Peter and Andrew, and James and John.

Matthew the tax-collector and Levi are the same person [in this instance]. The name Matthew, which he received after the call from Jesus, means “Gift of God”. It is a contraction of the Hebrew Mattityahu. At Matth. 10, 3, Tatian adds “also the Lebbaeus”. We do not know when or why the Lord gave him the name by which he is now best known in the Church. Out of respect for their fellow apostle, neither Luke nor Mark mentions Matthew’s profession, because tax-collectors were hated. Matthew himself, however, reports that the Lord “saw a man called Matthew, sitting at the tax-booth”, that is a man already known as Matthew. As Saint John Chrysostom notes: “The apostle is deserving of admiration for not concealing his former life, and also giving his name, which the others concealed with another appellation”. The apostle does not deny his former life, but acknowledges his alteration after being called. This demonstrates his humility.


Apostle Matthew. Manuscript from Sinai, 12th Century

Matthew lived in Capernaum, a city that belonged to the jurisdiction of Herod. As a clerk, he would have been in the service of some larger employer who had paid the tax revenues of the city, or even the region, to the Romans and then had the right to keep whatever monies he had raised. Matthew would certainly have known the Aramaic spoken by the Jews in the area, and Greek as well.

When the Lord said: “Follow me”, he left immediately, abandoning everything without hesitation This indicates that he already knew and respected the Lord. He, too, belonged to the tax-collectors who approached the Lord and concerning whom the Pharisees condemned Him for being “a friend of tax-collectors” (Luke 7, 35; 15, 1). Matthew must have been a rich man. This is apparent from the fact that he had his own house. It was there that, to celebrate his call and the abandonment of his profession, he gave a farewell meal, to which he invited a good many people. It is not clear from the Gospels whether he, too, was a disciple of Saint John the Baptist, as other disciples of Christ seem to have been.

After his call, he was not prominent among the circle of disciples. Not when the Lord was alive, nor after the resurrection. His name is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament [except as we have indicated above]. This was almost certainly because of his humility. Clement the Alexandrian provides us with details of his strictly ascetic life: “ For the Apostle Matthew ate cereals, nuts and vegetables, without meat”.

Clement, Efsevios [Eusebius] and Irinaios [Irenaeus] report that, after the Lord’s resurrection, Matthew preached Christ for about eight years to the Jews. It was here that, between 60-66 A.D., he wrote the Gospel, originally in Aramaic, and then either translated it himself or had it translated into Greek [There is also a school of thought that the Gospel was written first in Greek. While it is certainly true that some of the expressions are Hellenized versions of Aramaic equivalents, it is not possible to know whether this is because of the translator or because they had passed into the ordinary Greek of the region and were therefore included in an original text. Rather like using, say, “a blank slate” [tabula rasa] in English. WJL]. It contains narratives of the events in the life of the Lord and also teachings which He used in His catechesis. Irinaios is the first to mention that “the Gospel according to Saint Matthew was written to the Jews”, meaning that the recipients were Jews who had become Christians or, as Origen says: “those who believed from Judaism”.


Apostle and Evangelist Matthew. Contemporary fresco by hand of Diac. Nicolae Bălan

The purpose behind the writing of the Gospel of Saint Matthew was to make manifest that Christ came “from the seed of Abraham”, which is why the narrative begins with His nativity. As Saint John Chrysostom says: “He wanted nothing more than to show that He was of the seed of Abraham and David… for nothing would soothe a Jew so much as to know that Christ was the descendant of Abraham and David”. This is why he selects important events in the life of Christ, compiles His sayings and presents them in such a way that they demonstrate that Jesus Christ is, indeed, the Messiah Who was foretold for the Jews. By quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament, he makes it clear that they were fulfilled in the person of Christ.

As for his later activities, we cannot regard what has been handed down to us as either accurate or historical. Rufinus, Gregory the Great and the Church historian Socrates, all declare that he went to Ethiopia. Paulinus of Nola mentions that he converted the pagan Parthians to Christ, while Saint Nikodimos the Athonite declares that: “later he was put to death by fire by the infidels”, in Ierapolis, in Syria. It may be that this is confirmed by a verse in his Life: “‘Jesus You also save tax-collectors; grace belongs to You’. This is what Matthew cried, when he was in the midst of the fire”.

By the prayers of Your apostle, God, have mercy upon us. Amen.




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