Matthew, also called Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, was a tax collector when he first met Jesus. Jesus saw him and asked Matthew to get up and follow him, and Matthew did. In first-century Israel, tax collectors were considered despicable, for they often over-taxed the citizens and kept the surplus for themselves. Matthew was likely no different, so when Jesus not only invited him to be a disciple but had dinner at his house with Matthew’s tax collector friends, it created quite a shock for the religious elite. Jesus used the opportunity to teach that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matt. 9:12).
After the ascension of Christ, the disciples dispersed into the world, following the command of the Great Commission and sharing the Gospel. At the time of Matthew’s martyrdom, Christians were not being systematically persecuted, but they were still a minority and faced persecution, particularly in local areas where Christian teachings conflicted with the aims of government and religious leaders.
Unlike in the cases of many other early Christian martyrs, the account of Matthew’s martyrdom is not generally agreed upon. Many different accounts exist, and they do not reach a consensus; some tell outrightly contradictory stories. With some variation, four stories of Matthew’s martyrdom exist.
1. According to The Passion of Matthew, Martyrium Matthaei, and Acts and Martyrdom of St. Matthew the Apostle, Matthew was sent to preach to a cannibalistic city (in the Passion called Myrna). He was instructed to take a staff given to him by Jesus, who appeared to him as a child, and plant it outside the church in the city. Upon entering the city, he was met by the king’s family, who were possessed by demons. He cast out the demons, preached to the people there, and planted the staff as instructed. Soon the people of the city, including the king’s wife and children, remedied their ways and were baptized. Initially this all pleased the king, but soon the demon who had been cast out of the king’s wife disguised himself as a soldier. The king had already decided he would kill Matthew, and the demon advised the king and tried to assist him. Eventually the king was able to capture Matthew, and he staked him to the ground, covered him with flammable materials and oil and surrounded him by twelve idols of silver and gold. Matthew was set on fire and called out to God, and the fire leapt from his pyre and consumed the king’s idols before forming itself to the shape of a dragon and chasing the king to his palace. At the cries of the king, Matthew commanded the fire to withdraw and then gave up his spirit. He was brought in state to the palace, and those with his body saw him taken into heaven and crowned. His body was placed in an iron coffin and sunk in the sea. Because of all that had happened, the king, whose name had been Bulphamnus (also Fulvanus or Fulbanos), confessed his sins, was baptized, changed his name to Matthew, and became ordained as a priest.
2. A different version is told in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Matthew visited a prison and met a man who was the servant of Festus; he had lost a great amount of Festus’s wealth in the sea during a storm. Matthew told the man that he would find the lost wealth washed up on the seashore in two days. It was as he had said, but when the servant returned it to his master, Festus was doubtful of its source, thinking it had been acquired illegally. He was then told of Matthew’s preaching and the miracles he was performing; he shared this news with the king, who ordered Matthew beheaded and his body fed to the birds. After the martyrdom Matthew’s body and head were retrieved by two men of God and given a proper burial.
3. According to the account Acta Matthaei in Kahenat, Matthew did travel to the city of cannibals, called in this text Kahenat, but the punishment by fire inflicted by the king did not kill him. Rather, he continued to Parthia, where he was killed by Festus, in this account named Augustus.
4. Pseudo-Abdias recounts that Matthew traveled to Naddaver, Ethiopia. With the help of Candacis, the eunuch Philip had converted (Acts 8:26-40), Matthew defeated the two magicians in the city and their dragons. After this the king’s son died, and the magicians could not raise him. Matthew was successful in raising the prince, and rather than allowing the people to sacrifice to him as if he were a god, he persuaded them to build a church. They did, and Matthew presided there for many years, and many people, including the royal family, were baptized. The king was succeeded by his brother, who wanted to marry the princess Ephigenia. The new king asked Matthew to persuade her to marry him, and at first it seemed that Matthew would comply. He preached about the merits of marriage, which pleased the king, but then Matthew declared that because Ephigenia had vowed chastity and was presiding over two hundred sacred virgins, it would be sacrilegious for her to marry the king. Enraged by his inability to marry the princess, the king sent a soldier that stabbed Matthew in the back while he was praying, and Matthew died. Despite the many efforts of the king, Ephigenia never married him, and he died at his own hand.
Matthew is traditionally considered the author of the canonical Gospel of Matthew, one of the four Gospels in the New Testament. His Gospel is the first book in the New Testament, as it begins with the genealogy of Jesus and one of the birth narratives. In Christian iconography, which often uses symbols to designate each of the four Evangelists, Matthew is represented by a winged man, or angel.
Matthew is the patron saint of accountants, bankers, bookkeepers, tax collectors, and civil servants. He is also the patron saint of Salerno, Italy, where his body was brought to the city’s cathedral in the tenth century, although there are other legends that contend that he was buried other places.
The account of Matthew’s martyrdom in Pseudo-Abdias is significant in its treatment of the early Christian practice of chastity. Many early Christians practiced chastity, restraining from sexual activity. In this account, Matthew does not outright condemn marriage and sex, as can be found in many other early Christian martyrdom narratives. Rather, he preaches on the merits of marriage. However, by declaring that violating a person’s vow of chastity is an act of sacrilege, he is placed in line with the early Christian views of chastity.
These accounts were transmitted in many different languages, including Ethiopic, Latin, and Arabic, and place the location of Matthew’s burial in different cities and countries, only some of which are locatable in the modern world.
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