Church Fathers

Irenaeus’ “at Rome” affirms an early Matthew!

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 3.1.1 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.8.2–4) has long been a mixed blessing for those who want to leverage the church fathers to argue that Matthew was published early:

For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), 414.

Irenaeus’ testimony can be a challenge to reconcile. On the one hand, Irenaeus (as recorded by Eusebius) uses sequential language in the Greek text (prōtas, meta, epeita) to convey that the Gospels were written in the order found in our modern Bibles, with Matthew being first. This aligns with the other church fathers. On the other hand, Irenaeus indicates that (1) Matthew published in the Hebrew dialect (e.g., Aramaic) and that (2) Matthew published “while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the church.” Yet, (1) we have no copies of a Hebrew or Aramaic version of our Matthew, nor (2) were Peter and Paul together at Rome prior to the AD 60s, to our knowledge, and by that time the Roman church had long been established (ref. Romans 16). Scholars, over the centuries, have offered various approaches for reconciling these statements; nonetheless, these discontinuities have broadly served to undermine the credibility of all of the church fathers relative to Gospel origins, and has encouraged scholars to leverage textual comparisons between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), along with various speculations, to advance alternative theories of Gospel development, with the frequent assertion that the first Gospel was not published until decades after the resurrection, nor were the Gospels published in the traditional order. In this post, I address the second of the two issues above.

Quite simply, I propose that for Peter and Paul to preach “at Rome” was to preach within the Roman empire, to preach to those other than to “the Hebrews.”

  • First, note that there is a contrast within Irenaeus, between “the Hebrews” and “Rome,” such that to preach “at Rome” meant that they were not preaching among Hebrews.
  • Second, note that the same Greek preposition (en) is used to introduce both “the Hebrews” and “Rome.” This is not obvious in English translations, as translators generally take the unusual step of selecting two different ways of expressing the same Greek word within the same sentence (among vs. at). Perhaps a more consistent translation might be “amongst the Hebrews … amongst Rome.”
  • Third, note that in the ancient literature, people were sometimes identified as citizens of (en) Rome, rather than of the Roman empire (e.g., Plutarch, Cato the Younger 2.1; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 14.137). Michèle Lowrie reminds us that “cities bear a symbolic weight that goes beyond their manifold physical and social structures.”1 Accordingly, Rome was not merely the capital city, but Rome was also the empire to its fullest extent, encompassing those regions under significant Roman influence and dominion. Lowrie cites Ovid and other Latin authors to demonstrate the correspondence between the city and the empire. For those familiar with the Old Testament, this is akin to Samaria, which could refer to both the city and the northern kingdom.
  • Fourth, note that Caesarea Maritima (Acts 10) was a significant Roman administrative center during the apostolic era and had even been designated as a Roman colony before Irenaeus wrote.
  • Fifth, note that Irenaeus ties the writing of Matthew’s Gospel with the founding “of the church,” which therefore demands a date much earlier than the AD 60s, whether he is referring to the church in Rome or to the church at large.

In summary then, I contend that to preach in Rome was to preach within the Roman empire, to those other than Hebrews. Hence, Irenaeus can be understood as declaring that Matthew was written as the apostles first began preaching to those such as Cornelius in Caesarea Maritima, and to the Greeks in Antioch, as described in Acts 10–11. Indeed, Irenaeus can be understood as affirming not only that Matthew was the first Gospel, but as also declaring that it was published within roughly a decade of the resurrection!

  1. Michèle Lowrie, “Rome: City and Empire,” The Classical World 97, no. 1 (Autumn 2003): 57. ↩︎

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