Historical Champions

AD 32? James Knowles, thou dost go too far!

In my search for historical authors who have speculated concerning the early date of Matthew’s Gospel, it is tempting to latch onto every author who might be “on my team.” However, there is need for circumspection.

This morning, I found this interesting book from James Sheridan Knowles, Irish actor and playwright, who later became a Baptist preacher and author, according to Wikipedia. In his The Gospel Attributed to Matthew is the Record of the Whole Original Apostlehood, he contends that “The first of the Gospels was out of hand, or was upon the verge of completion, before ‘Samaria received the word,’ AD 32; else what John relates in the fourth chapter of his gospel, would have appeared in the Gospel assigned to Matthew.”1 Knowles contends that the account of the Samaritan woman (John 4) was excluded from Matthew lest it suggest that the Samaritans had already received the word.2 Knowles also pushes back against those who contend that the first Gospel was published in AD 37 or 38, as “this allows a lapse of nine or ten years—time for impressions to grow faint, if not wear out.”3

I do find this earliest of early publication dates to be appealing, as it offers an explanation for why Matthew did not include the events of Pentecost in his Gospel. The absence of which, I believe explains Apollos’s lack of knowledge concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 18:24–25). Accordingly, one can even envision Christ as being involved in the preparation of the text, as He appeared to the disciples over the forty days before His ascension (Acts 1:3)—this has always been a pet theory of mine, yet because it lacks any biblical or patristic support, it is a theory which I should be keeping to myself! Nonetheless, I am reluctant to forego the testimony of the church fathers, whom I believe spoke of Matthew’s Gospel as being published when Peter and Paul began preaching “in Rome,” coincident with Acts 10–11, or perhaps even Acts 8–9.4 At the least, within a decade of the resurrection.

Yet, what I really have to push back against is Knowles’s theory that the author of the first Gospel is not Matthew, the tax collector, but rather Matthias, the disciple who replaced Judas (Acts 1:12–26). According to Knowles, “Matthias was chosen to bear witness to the resurrection … If Matthias was selected for the sole purpose of bearing witness to that event … [then] where is such a work to be found? … In the first of the Gospels! In the master Gospel! In the key to all the succeeding sacred writings.”5

Aside from the above points of disagreement, Knowles does remain a worthwhile read for some of the arguments which he advances for why an early publication was necessary. For example, when he protests against the proposition that Matthew was published in AD 37, Knowles asserts: “To leave the church for eight years without a formal authentic account of their Master’s ministry would have ill consisted with the devotion to his cause, with which the apostles, one and all, could not have failed to be animated.”6 I have certainly expressed similar concerns about yet later publication dates, as often advocated by modern scholars. Further, “Christ had nominated them his trustees for the world throughout all future ages; how then could they fulfill their duty except by recording his bequest, or causing it to be recorded? … The last words of Christ commanded the teaching of all nations to the end of the world; and no sooner had they taken their last look of him than they set about fulfilling the injunction which was freshest in their hearts.”7 “It was the whole world which was to constitute the field of their labors.”8

One other line of argumentation which I find appealing is Knowles assessment of the apostles’ extended stay in Jerusalem, when the rest of the disciples had been scattered due to the persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:2). Knowles asks, “why do the apostles remain in Jerusalem? They cannot now preach the word there. … The church is their flock! The flock is dispersed! Why do not the shepherds follow the flock? … What kept them, then, in Jerusalem? Their duty. … What was the nature of that duty? The placing beyond all hazard of loss, or corruption, in case of their undergoing a violent death, … the details of their Master’s ministry. How? By conjointly and formally recording these details. What record, among the apostolic writings, presents us, fully, the characteristics of such an instrument? The Gospel assigned to Matthew.”9

Well said!

As I state in my book, “These years in Jerusalem would have provided an excellent opportunity for the apostles to collaborate on collecting, editing, and translating the Jesus narrative.”10 However, my presumption is that, while this collaborative effort may have began during the time of persecution, the effort was not completed until later, during the subsequent time of peace (Acts 9:31). Of course, what we don’t have is a dated timeline for all of this, but I’m assuming that a number of years passed before the events of Acts 10–11, as discussed above. Bottom-line is that the AD 32 date seems quite early!

  1. James Sheridan Knowles, The Gospel Attributed to Matthew Is the Record of the Whole Original Apostlehood (London: James Blackwood, 1855), 17. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 40–41. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 40. ↩︎
  4. Refer to the “Irenaeus’ ‘at Rome’ affirms an early Matthew!” blog post. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 12–13. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., 33 ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 33–34. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 34. ↩︎
  9. Ibid., 52–54. ↩︎
  10. Daniel B. Moore, A Trustworthy Gospel: Arguments for an Early Date for Matthew’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf  and Stock, 2024), 11. ↩︎

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