Is Matthew the same as Levi? Matthew 9:9

The parallel story in Mark 2:14-22 and Luke 5:27-38 agree Jesus called Levi the to leave his tax booth and follow him. Virtually every detail is the same except the name and the citation of Hosea 6:6. Why does Matthew 9:9 have Matthew and not Levi?

Jesus calls Matthew Giovanni Paolo Panini

The name Matthew is Μαθθαῖος (or Ματθαῖος) in Aramaic it is either מתי or מתא. The name is likely an abbreviation of Mattaniah or Mattithiah (2 Kgs 24:17; Neh 8:4) which means “gift of Yahweh.” The name Matthew is therefore not related to the Greek noun translated disciple (μαθητής). Mark calls Levi “the son of Alphaeus” complicating this issue since in Matthew 10:3, Matthew is “the tax collector” and James is the “the son of Alphaeus.” Luke 5:27 has Levi but not Alphaeus, perhaps to avoid confusion (Dulling, 619). If this was not confusing enough, there are a variety of textual variants which try to sort out the problem.

I agree with Hagner (WBC, 238) that is most likely Matthew and Levi are the same person. Like Joseph the Levite who was also called Barnabas (Acts 4:36), Matthew may have had two names (France, Matthew, 352). There are a number of people in the New Testament with two names; Simon bar Jonah is also called Cephas (on Aramaic) or Peter (in Greek). Some scholars suggest Levi was his pre-conversion name. After following Jesus, he was known as Matthew (similar to Saul/Paul in Acts; Hagner, Matthew, 238; Turner, Matthew, 12)

If Matthew is indeed the author of the first Gospel, then this he made this editorial change himself. The main problem with this view is there is no name-change story, either canonical or non-canonical.

There are several other less-likely suggestions. First, Levi may not be a name, Albright and Mann suggested Matthew was a Levite (Albright and Mann, Matthew, clxxviii). Second, some suggest there were two different tax collectors called by Jesus, the author of the fourth Gospel used the name “Matthew” since that was the name he knew (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 99). Third, the use of Matthew in 9:9 is the author’s self-identification. Fourth, the author of the first gospel may have replaced Levi with Matthew for theological reasons.

Regardless of whether the name is Levi or Matthew, when Jesus calls the tax collector as a disciple, he demonstrates the kind of mercy God requires. This stands in contrast to the Pharisees, who question Jesus when he eats with “sinners” (9:10-13) and the disciples of John who wonder why Jesus is eating at all (9:14-17).

Bibliography: Dennis C. Duling, “Matthew (Disciple),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 619; J. G. Bashaw, “Matthew the Apostle,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

4 thoughts on “Is Matthew the same as Levi? Matthew 9:9

  1. I agree with you that Matthew was probably Levi. Richard Bauckham, however, points out that we have no ancient example in Palestine of a Jew with two common Semitic names. Second Semitic names were taken, at least in part, to distinguish a person from others of the same original name. Second names in another language (Greek or Latin) were taken to allow the person to fit in in non-Semitic circles. Bauckham concludes that Matthew was not Levi and that the author of Matthew’s gospel has replaced Levi with Matthew, but he cites no parallel for that kind of thing. In my view he does not pay enough attention to the special circumstances of Levi’s case. Levi was a hated tax collector and therefore needed a new identity for his own protection. He needed a new birth name and not just a new “nickname” (which is the term that Bauckham uses for “Cephas”, “Barnabas” etc.). The name “Matthew” was a very common, patriotic, Hasmonean name so it would rouse no suspicion.

    We can assume that James, son of Alphaeus was a brother of Levi-Matthew, son of Alphaeus, because “Alphaeus” was not a common name. This is confirmed by the fact that both Matt 10:2-4 and Acts 1:13 place Matthew next to James, son of Levi. The author of Matthew’s gospel and the author of Acts did not inherit his order from Mark’s gospel because Mark places Thomas between Matthew and James, son of Alphaeus. Their re-ordering of the list in Mark is therefore significant. Mark lists the disciples in strict order of their prominence (as far as we can tell), naming James and John ahead of Andrew, but Luke 6:14-16 and Matt 10:2-4 promote Andrew so that he is named next to his brother, Peter. The authors of the “first” and “third” gospels liked to put brothers together. This supports the view that Levi was Matthew.

    Bauckham objects that no gospel explicitly equates Matthew with Levi. However, we should not expect them to do so. If they had revealed this use of an alias they would have endangered Matthew, his brother James, and the whole church.

    • Thanks for the detailed response, you are the go-to guy on biblical names! I ought to have included the lack of evidence for two Semitic names, nicknames being the only exception as you list above. Would Old Testament examples count? Jacob/Israel or Jedidiah/Solomon are two that come to mind, or the use of throne names like Tiglath-Pilesar III / Pul.

      The problem (in my mind) is the change is in Matthew. Assuming the standard two-source hypothesis for Matthew (or assuming Markan Priority at the least), the author of Matthew modified Mark’s story by changing Matthew to Levi. This is an intentional modification, although the reason is not clear. I have not done the work, but is there a single other example of Matthew changing a name found in Mark’s gospel?

  2. I see a couple issues with this, though.

    One is that Luke, who also wrote Acts, does NOT keep Matthew and James, son of Alphaeus together.

    Secondly, in the other two groupings of brothers, Matthew both times indicates that “x was Y’s brother.” but he does not do this with Matthew and James.

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