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Antioch and the Gospel of Matthew

Scholars tend to agree that the Gospel of Matthew may have been written in Antioch (in modern-day Turkey).

The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew. Mosaic from the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

We do not know for sure where any New Testament gospel was written. Nevertheless, scholars use various clues and observations to propose places of origin. The hope is that persuasively establishing a place of origin might assist our understanding of any given gospel. As possible places of origin for Matthew’s Gospel, scholars have proposed Sepphoris or Tiberias in Galilee, Caesarea Maritima, and the Transjordan at Pella. The most supported option, however, has been the ancient province of Syria, particularly the city of Antioch, which lies on the Orontes river.

One factor supporting this suggestion is Antioch’s size and strategic location. As the capital city of the Roman province of Syria, and located on major east-west and north-south trade routes, Antioch was the Roman Empire’s third-largest city, behind Rome and Alexandria. During the second century, Matthew became the most commonly quoted gospel. Its origin from and association with a group of Jesus followers in an influential city assisted its widespread popularity.

Moreover, the earliest citations of Matthew’s gospel appear in writings associated with Syria and Antioch. The early second-century church leader and letter writer Ignatius from Antioch refers to material found only in Matthew (the star at Jesus’ birth; Jesus’ baptism by John to “fulfill all righteousness” in Matt 3:15). Another document from Syria, the Didache, or Teaching, cites Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) rather than Luke’s version (Luke 11:1-4).

Matt 4:24 refers to Jesus’ fame spreading “throughout all Syria.” This reference to Syria is missing from the likely source passage in Mark 1:28 and Mark 1:39. It is a somewhat surprising reference in Matt 4:24 since the narrative emphasizes Galilee (Matt 4:12-15, Matt 4:23, Matt 4:25). One explanation is that the author of Matthew writes his own location and audience into the story.

Further, we know from Gal 2:11-14 that Peter, or Cephas as he is also known, was prominent in Antioch where Paul had a fight with him. Peter is also prominent in Matthew’s Gospel. He is the first disciple to be called (Matt 4:18-20), and his is the first name on the list of disciples (Matt 10:2). He tries to imitate Jesus in walking on the water (Matt 14:28-32) and confesses Jesus correctly as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Jesus designates him the rock on which Jesus will build his church (Matt 16:18) and gives him “the keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16:19). He witnesses the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8). He is often a spokesperson for the disciples (Matt 15:15, Matt 16:22, Matt 18:21, Matt 19:27). He is prominent in events leading up to Jesus’ death (Matt 26:1-75). Peter’s significant role in Matthew’s Gospel may reflect his importance in the church at Antioch.

There are, finally, significant resonances between emphases in Matthew’s Gospel and features of life in Antioch. Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, draws extensively on Jewish scriptures. It debates Jewish practices and heightens conflict between Jesus and Jewish leaders and synagogues (Matt 5:17-6:18, Matt 23:1-39). Antioch had a significant Jewish population among which such debates would be familiar. Likewise, Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with making sense of the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 C.E. It explains this destruction as God’s punishment for rejecting Jesus (Matt 21:12-22, Matt 22:1-10) and declares Jesus to be greater than the destroyed temple (Matt 12:6) in manifesting God’s presence, forgiveness, and will (Matt 1:21-23, Matt 5:17-48). Antioch was a marshaling place for troops and supplies in Rome’s campaign against Jerusalem. After 70 C.E., Jewish groups in Antioch, including Matthew’s Jesus followers, faced the difficult task of negotiating this freshly asserted Roman power. This Gospel can be read as offering guidance for this context to followers of Jesus, whose Messiah had been crucified by Rome yet raised by God.

  • Warren Carter

    Warren Carter is Meinders Professor of New Testament  at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa OK. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).