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There is a noteworthy scholarly position that Matthew was the first Gospel written. As such, it may have even been the first New Testament book written. If this is correct, it is likely that Matthew was of unparallelled importance in the early church, and that it would have been a major source of information about Jesus for most (if not all) of the remainder of the books in the New Testament.1

I read a JETS article a while back which argued via literary connections that Matthew was almost certainly the source of Paul's teachings on eschatology in 1 and 2 Thessalonians.2 I occasionally come across other evidence that Paul used Matthew as his primary source on Jesus' teachings.3 More recently, one of my professors commented that he is becoming increasingly "struck by" the literary connections between Paul's writings and Matthew.

My question here is: What is the primary evidence in support of this theory, that Paul relied heavily on Matthew for his understanding of Jesus' teachings? I have the data point from 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and the generic argument that Matthew was early and important, but beyond that all I have are vague impressions and general comments from others.


1) Of course, this is not the only scholarly position, but it is the one I am interested in for this question.

2) As most hermeneutics books will point out, recognizing intertextuality is an important step in the interpretive process -- whether explicit ("as it is written") or implicit (such as allusions, echoes, etc.) There are different approaches to identifying the latter, but in general it is agreed that if two passages share a large number of identical (or very similar) words, and context permits, it is likely that a reference was intended by the author.

3) For example, the way Matthew crafts his Gospel is very unique, and some of his major themes also have a unique prominence in Paul's writings. In other places (if memory serves), Paul's citations of what Jesus said and did while on earth are only found in Matthew.

NOTE: For this question, please assume that all 13 canonical Pauline letters were authored by Paul, and that Paul was a Christian (i.e. not at odds with Jesus and His teachings.)

NOTE: Please don't take me down the rabbit trail of why Mark is earlier than Matthew, or why Paul's eschatology is different than Jesus', or why Scripture is supernatural and the normal conventions of human language do not apply. I'm looking for the arguments in favor of a particular perspective.

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    Mod notice: Comments are not the correct venue to discuss the subject matter of question. If you have an answer to provide, do that. If not and you think the question needs clarification to be answerable, then comment and ask for clarification. But if you want to discuss the issue raised by the question, please take it to Biblical Hermeneutics Chat.
    – Caleb
    Jul 13, 2014 at 5:06

3 Answers 3

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The Idea in Brief

After his conversion and through the ministrations of Barnabas, Paul (then Saul) had met "the apostles" in Jerusalem (to include Cephas for fifteen days) who had provided him first-hand accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Later, Paul traveled on his missionary journeys with Barnabas, John Mark and Luke, who also had access to information concerning the life and teachings of Jesus (cf. Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Luke). However, there is one exclusive example in Paul's writing that is parallel to the Gospel of Matthew, and therefore suggests direct contact by Paul with Matthew and/or his writings. Thus Paul's sources of information concerning the life and sayings of Jesus appear to have been various; that is, with direct personal contact with living people who knew Jesus, Paul had access to information beyond the scope of what we have written in the four Gospel accounts.

Discussion

Paul and Luke had spent extensive time together (during Paul's second missionary journey), and of course Luke authored the Gospel of Luke in addition to the Book of Acts.

For example, in the Book of Acts, Luke is quoting Paul:

Acts 20:35 (NASB)
35 “In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

None of the Gospel accounts (to include the Gospel of Luke) ever mention this saying by Jesus, except by Paul (recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts). So Paul learned of this saying from some source other than the information we have today contained in the Gospel accounts. That is to say, the Gospel accounts were not exhaustive summaries regarding the life and ministry of Jesus on earth, and of course (as the above verse demonstrates) the Apostle Paul had relied on some source regarding the quote from Jesus (other than the information we have today contained in the four Gospel accounts).

In this regard, the Apostle John closes his Gospel account with the following caveat, which is to suggest that no account could capture an exhaustive compilation of the life and sayings of Jesus, because they were so prolific.

John 21:25 (NASB)
25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

In other words, Paul had direct access to the life and sayings of Jesus through his direct personal contact with Peter (Gal 1:18) and James (Gal 1:19) in addition to others such as John Mark and Barnabas, who introduced Paul after his conversion to "the apostles" in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). Thus Paul had extensive personal (verbal) contact with people who had direct contact with Jesus and His sayings.

Notwithstanding that Paul also had extensive personal contact with Luke (during his second missionary journey) and with the author of the second Gospel, John Mark (during his first missionary journey), there is parallel in the writings of Paul to indicate that he had familiarity with exclusive information found in the Gospel of Matthew, which does not appear in any of the other Gospel accounts.

Matthew 11:25-26 (NASB)
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.

Paul makes the same contrast in his first epistle to the Corinthians.

1 Cor 1:26-29 (NASB)
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29 so that no man may boast before God.

These verses provide the most striking parallel between Paul and Matthew, which is not found in the other Gospel accounts. That is, the Lord hides wisdom from those who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (cf. 2 Tim 3:7), and instead discloses wisdom to those who are humble and who love Him.

Summary

Paul had direct contact with "the apostles," and so he had personal (verbal) access to people who had walked and talked with Jesus. However, there is one exclusive example where information in the Gospel of Matthew appears in the writings of Paul, which is not found in any other Gospel account. This parallel suggests that Paul had direct personal contact with Matthew and/or to the written information that today forms the Gospel of Matthew. In conclusion, Paul's sources of information concerning the life and sayings of Jesus appear to have been various, which would include Matthew and/or his writings. This wide-swathe access to various first-hand accounts would have been beyond the scope of what we read in the Gospel accounts, as is evident by Paul's quote of Jesus in Acts 20:35, which is not found in the four Gospels.

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  • This is good. I suspect there's more to the story though, as I mentioned in my question (in light of the article I linked, thematic similarities, linguistics, etc.) But you have given me another data point to consider. +1
    – Jas 3.1
    Jul 14, 2014 at 3:00
  • I read the article, and the author points to The Fragments of Papias, where there is mention of the writings of Matthew as one of two source documents for the gospel accounts--the other being Mark's Gospel. (Please click here.) Finally, eschatological passages in Thessalonians had possible referents to Mark (Chapter 13). So there appeared only one passage in Matthew that aligned in concept with one passage from Paul, and that concerned the wisdom of the Lord hidden from "the wise and intelligent," who never seem to arrive at truth.
    – Joseph
    Jul 14, 2014 at 15:48
  • Assuming you can discern a literary dependency between Matthew 11:25-26 and 1 Cor 1:26-29, do you have an opinion as to which direction the dependency took? In other words, is it possible that Matthew was dependent on Paul, who (according to nearly all NT scholars) wrote his epistles well before Matt was written? Jan 19, 2017 at 7:29
  • Give, and take, and sanctify thy soul; for there is no seeking of dainties in the grave. (Sir. 14:16 KJA) Jesus preached a lot the teachings contained in this book.
    – Betho's
    Jun 27, 2023 at 19:12
  • Add not more trouble to an heart that is vexed; and defer not to give to him that is in need. (Sir. 4:3 KJA) Give to the godly man, and help not a sinner. (Sir. 12:4 KJA) Give unto the good, and help not the sinner. (Sir. 12:7 KJA) e.g. "And to turn away thy face from to gaze upon another man's wife". (Sir. 41:21 KJA)
    – Betho's
    Jun 27, 2023 at 19:51
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I suggest that it's actually the other way around. Matthew used Paul as a source. In other words Matthew put into the mouth of Jesus the words of Paul "out of love for Paul." The Acts of Paul and Thecla is another example of this literary technique. Matthew created his life of Jesus based on the life of Paul.

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    Jun 27, 2023 at 9:52
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"The Order of the Synoptics:Why Three Gospels?" makes the same point about Paul's use of Matthew in Thessalonians ( and also makes a very good argument that Mark is actually a kind of synopsis of Matthew and Luke and thus postdates both of them). A book you might want to look at is "The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul; The Use of the Synoptic Tradition in the Regulation of Early Church Life".

To my way of thinking the main arguments against this are that:

  1. Paul himself claimed to have learned the gospel from Jesus himself and not from any human source
  2. Paul's teaching on faith is completely at odds with that of Jesus: in the Synoptics Jesus applies faith only to the performance of miracles and not to salvation (which Jesus attributes to repentance, obedience, non-judging, forgiving, being merciful, and coming to the aid of those in need)
  3. The teachings of Marcion, an early heretic and zealous promoter of a 'Paul only' gnosticism, are also completely at odds with Matthew. (Conversely, the Ebionites completely rejected Paul as being a 'false apostle')
  4. If Paul was familiar with the Gospel of Matthew, why didn't he make more extensive use of that Gospel?
  5. Paul himself makes an error in claiming that after his resurrection Jesus appeared 'to the twelve' when according to the Gospel of Matthew, he appeared to the eleven (Judas was dead), an error he wouldn't have made if he were familiar with that Gospel.

(It is interesting that Jesus' description of the Pharisees in Matthew that they "travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." could almost be a description of Paul!)

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    – agarza
    Oct 16, 2023 at 21:37
  • Are "repentance, obedience, non-judging, forgiving, being merciful, and coming to the aid of those in need" not indications of faith? Can you give examples of where Jesus does talk about salvation? Oct 17, 2023 at 3:02

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