Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

In doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day, I noticed a peculiarity in the Matthew’s redaction of the Gospel of Mark. The process started when I was looking into the name change between “Levi” son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:13-17) and “Matthew” (Mt. 9:9-13) between the two gospels. The question I was searching for was: “What would motivate the author of Matthew to identify the role of Levi with the disciple Matthew?”

“Matthew” is first mentioned in Mark among the list of twelve disciples in 3:16-19. There, no indication is given that this individual is the same “Levi” mentioned in Mk. 2:13-17. This is a curious omission, since the author of Mark specifies elsewhere when the same individual was known by two names. In the same list of disciples, he clarifies that “Simon” was also known as “Peter” at 3:16 (which is a point also reinforced at 14:37). The former of these identifications help to bridge the reader between the Simon who first appears in 1:16, and the character Peter who first appears solely by that name in Mk. 5:37. I call this a bridge, because the names “Simon” and “Peter” switch, right after the two figures are connected in the list of the twelve at 3:16-19.

But no such identification is provided in Mark to connect “Levi” with “Matthew.” So where did the Gospel of Matthew get the idea to connect the two? To answer this, I think there are a few major clues:

The first clue is the way that the calling of Levi is described in Mk. 2:14. Jesus there tells Levi, “Follow me” (Ἀκολούθει μοι), which is then continued by the description that Levi “stood up and followed him” (ἀναστὰς ἠκολούθησεναὐτῷ).

Similar, though not identical, vocabulary is used for the calling of Peter (Simon) and Andrew, as well as James and John the sons Zebedee. In the former case at Mk. 1:17-18, Jesus tells Peter and Andrew, “Come hither after me” (Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου), then continued by the description that the two brothers “followed him” (ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ). In the latter case at 1:19-20, Jesus “calls out to” (ἐκάλεσεν) John and James, and then they “come after him” (ἀπῆλθον ὀπίσω αὐτοῦ). Each of these two instances are paired with 1) an act of Jesus calling and 2) a description of the disciples following him. 

Notably, the same formula is used for the calling of Levi at Mk. 2:14. But later–in contrast to Peter, Andrew, John, and James–the character Levi is not mentioned among the list of the twelve in Mk. 3:16-19. This lack of continuity, I think, provided a motive to the author of Matthew to redact the narrative, so that the role of Levi was replaced with one of the disciples on Mark’s list. 

The second clue is the patronym attached to Levi’s name, which is the “son of Alphaeus.” Curiously, among Mark’s list of the twelve there is also a “James son of Alphaeus.” The author of Matthew’s gospel may have wondered if Levi and James were brothers by the same father. But, I don’t think that he was certain they were, based on a few details in Mark’s gospel:

  • Mark explicitly identifies elsewhere when two disciples are brothers. The author does this for Peter and Andrew (1:16), as well as for James and John repeatedly (1:19, 3:17, 5:37). But the Gospel of Mark does not use the same fraternal vocabulary to connect Levi and James son of Alphaeus. The only sign that they would be brothers is that they share the same patronym.
  • A second detail is that, when Jesus calls disciples who are among the twelve to follow him, in the other instances they are paired together. Peter and Andrew follow Jesus at the same time, as do James and John. But the calling of Levi is not paired with a description of James son of Alphaeus’ calling. (I think this is because Mark did not consider Levi among the twelve, for reasons that will be discussed below.)
  • There is another subtle detail, relevant as evidence, found in Mark’s list of the twelve at Mk. 3:16-19. There, the author of Mark places disciples who were brothers in succession of one another. This is done back-to-back for James and John the sons of Zebedee. For Peter and Andrew, it’s notable that they are separated by James/John. But I think there is a good reason for this. Elsewhere Mark identifies Peter, James, and John as having a special status as disciples (5:37 and 9:2), in being able to witness certain actions of Jesus apart from the other disciples. For this reason, I think Mark placed James/John right after Peter on the list of disciples. But notably, immediately after this Andrew is the next disciple listed. Apart from the interruption, therefore, Andrew follows in succession of Peter. 
  • There is no similar reason, however, for why Matthew and James son of Alphaeus are separated by Thomas on the list (who plays no special role in Mark and is only mentioned once, merely on the list of the twelve). There are two explanations for this: 1) Mark did not think that Levi and James were brothers, so that, even if he had regarded Matthew and Levi as the same figure (which is never stated), the two would still not be placed side-by-side on the list. Or, 2) Mark did consider Levi and James to be brothers, but he did not think that “Levi” and “Matthew” were the same figure. For this reason, Matthew was separated from James by Thomas, because there was no reason for a different character to have any fraternal connection with James. (I think the second explanation is more probable, for reasons that will be discussed below.)

Due to discrepancies above, I think that the author of Matthew wanted to be cautious in claiming that “Matthew” (whom he connected with “Levi”) was the brother of James son of Alphaeus. But I also think that he still wanted to suggest it. The evidence for this can be found in the manner that the Gospel of Matthew redacts Mark’s list of the twelve at Mk. 3:16-19, which significantly appears in a different order at Mt. 10:2-4.

Here is Mark’s list of twelve disciples:

These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

And here is Matthew’s list of twelve disciples:

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Notice that the Gospel of Matthew changes the order in two instances: First, the list moves up Andrew so that he is next to Peter, while adding the description that Andrew was “his brother” (missing from Mark in this section). The other disciple that he moves is Matthew, by shifting him after Thomas, so that he is next to James son of Alphaeus. Now, by making this change, all of the disciples who were brothers would be placed directly next to each other: Peter is next to Andrew, and James is next to John.

But curiously, Matthew the disciple is also now placed next to James son of Alphaeus. I think that this change was made, because the Gospel of Matthew wished to suggest that the two were brothers. But as I noted, the author is cautious about doing so. Unlike in the case of Peter, where the author adds (in redacting Mark) that Andrew was “his brother,” no such description is added for Matthew and James. But, the order of Matthew and James is still altered, so that Thomas no longer stands between them. I think that this is because the Gospel of Matthew wanted to create the subtle implication that Matthew and James were brothers, but held off from saying so explicitly, due to the fact that Mark never overtly stated that Levi son Alphaeus was the brother of James son of Alphaeus.

Now, with all that said, we are still left with our original question: “Why did the Gospel of Matthew replace the role of Levi son of Alphaeus with the disciple Matthew?”

As noted above, the author of Matthew likely thought that Levi should have been listed as among the twelve Mark (where he is absent), due to the fact that Jesus calls Levi to follow him in a similar manner as other characters who were disciples. So, the Gospel of Matthew thus changed Levi’s name, by instead naming him one of the twelve on Mark’s list. But the problem is, since Mark never identified Levi with one of the twelve (including Matthew), any of the names on Mark’s list would work for this modification. He could have renamed “Levi” after the disciple “Philip,” for example.

But on this point, I think we should turn to some of the language included in Mark’s account of the calling Levi (2:13-17). There, the Greek word for disciple (μαθητής) is already included twice (at 2:15 and 2:16). In creating a scene where the Gospel of Matthew wanted to add the calling of a disciple included on Mark’s list of the twelve, the author reinforces a further theme of discipleship by adding the verbal form of μαθητής in the imperative at Mt. 9:13 (μάθετε = “go learn!”).

With this change, the word μαθητής is now included three times within scene, for the version in the Gospel of Matthew. So which of the twelve disciples from Mark’s list should the author of Matthew pluck to best suite the passage? Well, the Greek name for the disciple Matthew (Μαθθαῖον) even creates assonance with the rest of the passage. It provides a repetition of sound to be paired with the other three instances of μαθητής, thus reinforcing the theme of discipleship. And so, “Matthew” was the natural choice for replacing the name of “Levi.”

Now, here the author of Matthew also recognized a problem. As noted above, on Mark’s list of the twelve, disciples who are brothers are placed in succession of each other. John follows James, and Andrew follows Peter only after an interruption of James/John (due to the fact, noted above, that the three disciples–Peter, James, and John–were assigned a special status). The author of Matthew likely recognized the paradigm of Mark’s organization, and he even reinforced it by decided that it wasn’t necessary to mention James/John after Peter, and shifting Andrew up next to Peter along while adding the mention that Andrew was “his brother.”

Now, here the author of Matthew probably also inferred that Levi son of Alphaeus was the brother of James son of Alphaeus, due to the fact that they share the same patronym. The question is, did Mark originally intend this? I think that the author actually did.

For one, the name “Alphaeus” is only included twice in Mark (each time when Levi and James are named). In other instances in Mark, the author tends to differentiate two characters of the same name who are not the same person. Take, for example, the name “Philip” (which also only appears twice in Mark), when the author adds a different description for Philip, the “brother” of Herod (6:17), than Philip the disciple (6:17). Or take any of the various Marys (Magdalene, mother of James the less and Joses, mother of Jesus), or various Simons (Peter, brother of Jesus, the leper, the Cananaean, of Cyrene). But the two different instances of “Alphaeus” include no such differentiation. In fact, these two mentions even use the same Greek vocabulary (τὸν τοῦ Ἁλφαίου), which reinforces that they are the same person. 

Now, the remaining question is why didn’t Mark explicitly say that Levi and James were brothers? I think this is because they are never named side-by-side with each other, the way that Peter and Andrew are (1:16), and that James and John are (1:19, 3:17, 5:37). In order to link the two, then, the author of Mark chose to give them the same patronym.

But, if the Gospel of Mark did consider Levi and James to be brothers, then I do not think that he considered him to be the disciple Matthew. The reason why is not only because “Levi” is never connected with “Matthew” in Mark, but also because Matthew is separated from James son of Alphaeus on Mark’s list of the twelve. As noted above, Mark’s paradigm is to list members of the twelve who are brothers in succession of each other. As such, James and John the sons of Zebedee are named in succession, and Andrew follows after Peter (only after an interruption of James/John, due to the three’s special status as disciples). There was no reason, however, to place Thomas (who has no special status in Mark) in between Matthew and James son of Alphaeus, if they really had been considered brothers. The author of Matthew likely recognized this problem, and so he changed the order of Thomas to place Matthew and James side-by-side.

A final implication of my interpretation above, is that the differentiation of Mark’s Levi from the disciple Matthew, likely underscores the traditional authorship of the Gospel Matthew (attributed to the latter figure). One of the reasons why scholars think that the first gospel was named “according to the Matthew” is because of the name change between “Levi” in Mk. 2:13-17 and “Matthew” in Mt. 9:9-13 [1]. Sometimes the change in names is interpreted as a form of authorial signature (through the disciple Matthew specifying that he was Levi son of Alphaeus).

Now, even some conservative scholars do not accept this interpretation. Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 112), for example, argues that, if the disciple Matthew had actually written the gospel, then he wouldn’t have needed to borrow the scene of his calling by Jesus from Mark (which is previously described in almost exactly the same way). Instead, Matthew could have related his own eyewitness experience of how Jesus called him to discipleship. As such, Bauckham thinks that the names “Levi” and “Matthew” were switched by another editor, who was not the disciple Matthew.

But the interpretation I have provided above also provides two further reasons to think that the disciple Matthew did not author the Gospel of Matthew: 1) The figure of the disciple Matthew is now jumbled, since if the Gospel Mark had not considered “Levi” and “Matthew” to be the same person, nor Levi one of the twelve, then we already have confusion over the identity of who Matthew was (due to the Gospel of Matthew’s conflicting testimony on this). Furthermore, the author of Matthew would have known (if was really the disciple Matthew) that he was not the same person as “Levi,” and so he probably would not have changed the name to “Matthew,” as a form of signature.

But also, 2) the Gospel of Matthew is cautious in inferring that Levi son of Alphaeus and James son of Alphaeus are to be regarded as brothers. As I noted, the author still probably wanted to suggest this, by placing “Matthew” (with whom he replaced “Levi”) and James side-by-side on his list of the twelve (Mt. 10:2-4). But he does so less overtly than when he changes the order of Mark to place Andrew side-by-side with Peter, where he adds the further specification that Andrew was “his brother.” The disciple Matthew likely guessed that the two were brothers (correctly, I think) because they shared the same patronym. But if he had to guess at this, and thus chose not to make the fraternal connection more explicit, then the text was likely authored by someone other than the disciple Matthew. The person Matthew would not need to guess who his brother was.

But furthermore, the need to link Matthew and James son of Alphaeus, as brothers, only resulted from the Gospel of Matthew’s decision to change the name “Levi” to “Matthew” (which I think was motivated by of a desire to create assonance in the passage, through the repetition of sounds created with the three instances of μαθητής). Had Mark originally intended “Levi” and “Matthew” to be different persons (whom he never states were the same), then there would be no problem with placing Thomas in between Matthew and James son of Alphaeus on his list of the twelve (Mk. 3:16-19). But, since the Gospel of Matthew chose to connect “Levi” and “Matthew,” that created a problem for the paradigm of fraternal succession, and so the author redacted the passage to place Matthew and James son of Alphaeus side-by-side (Mt. 10:3)

In any event, these were some thoughts that occurred to me while doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day…

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] How the name changed influenced the authorial attribution of the Gospel of Matthew is discussed by David Trobisch in The First Edition of the New Testament (pg. 47).

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4 Responses to Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

  1. Nice piece, Matthew. I really do appreciate the detail you drop into with your posts. Just perfect.

    One point, assuming your hypotheses is correct, any thoughts as to why Mark would make a point of detailing Levi’s calling if he was not going to be a disciple. There is nothing else like that in the rest of the gospel is there?

    • Celsus says:

      Hi John,

      Yes, that is indeed one of the unanswered questions. Notably, the other disciples who are called (Peter/Andrew and James/John) also play a much larger role in the narrative. But, Levi completely disappears after his calling in Mark. Even the Gospel of Matthew does not include another pericope with the character (changed to “Matthew”), aside from the fact that he adds him to the list of the twelve. So, it’s not just that there is a calling of someone not mentioned explicitly on Mark’s list of the twelve, but it’s also unusual that a lone figure (Peter/Andrew and James/John are called in pairs) gets this attention, and then drops out of the narrative.

      One possibility for explaining the calling may have to do with the context in the passage. In the pericope, Jesus calls a toll collector, who then leaves his toll booth to follow Jesus. Later, Jesus is having dinner at Levi’s house with “toll collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees protest against this, but Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The pairing of “toll collectors” and “sinners” together suggests that it was a negative occupation (something elaborated upon by Wm. O. Walker in “Jesus and the Tax Collectors”). So, Jesus demonstrates that even a toll collector can be a follower of him. (Notably, a crowd is mentioned right before in Mk. 2:13, so perhaps this was a public demonstration.)

      The only issue with this interpretation is that Mark (12:13-17) elsewhere specifies that it is acceptable to pay taxes to Caesar. Though, the passage also describes a different kind of tax. It’s a “poll tax” (κῆνσος), whereas the pericope with Levi discusses “tolls” (using vocabulary connected with τέλη). Those are two different kinds of taxes (cf. Matthew 17:25). Likewise, the poll tax is paid to Caesar, whereas the toll collectors in Galilee (where Levi is described) would have been collecting for Herod Antipas.

      The passage may reflect underlying resentment against Antipas, for imposing overly harsh tolls in order to support his state projects. Note that John the Baptist is also depicted having animosity against Antipas (Mark 6:14-29), so the pericope of Levi may be reflecting continuity with this. That’s one possibility for how to interpret the matter.

  2. Pingback: Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus? — Κέλσος | James' Ramblings

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