ITINERARIES
from issue no. 08 - 2009

The tombs of the apostles

St Matthew


Jesus welcomed among his intimates a man who was considered a public sinner


by Lorenzo Bianchi


St Matthew

St Matthew

Matthew or Levi, as he is also called in the Gospels, was a publican, an employee (portitor) tax collector in Capernaum. At the call of Jesus he rose abruptly, left everything and followed Him. Very little is known of his life. He is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles after the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, and at the moment of the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot. He is one of the four evangelists: the tradition of the Church, beginning with Papias bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia about the year 130, agrees in attributing to Matthew the authorship of the first Gospel, considered the earliest, and dated by scholars (according to interpretation of what Irenaeus says on the matter) either between 42 and 44 or between 61 and 67 (and in the latter case it would be later than the Gospel of Mark, which, if the famous Qumran 7Q5 fragment comes from it, will have been written before the year 50). Papias’ testimony is given us by Eusebius of Caesarea: “Matthew collected the sayings (of the Lord) in the language of the Jews, translating each as best he could” (Ecclesiastical history, III, 39, 16). That of Irenaeus is also transmitted to us by Eusebius: “Matthew published among the Jews, in their language, also a written Gospel while Peter and Paul preached in Rome and founded the Church” (Ecclesiastical history, V, 8, 2). And the same Eusebius again writes: “Of all those people (the apostles and disciples who frequented the Lord), however, only Matthew and John have left us some notes, and even these it is said they wrote out of necessity. Matthew in fact, who at first preached to the Jews, when he had to go among others set down in writing in his mother tongue the Gospel for the faithful whom he left, thus replacing his presence with writing” (Ecclesiastical history, III, 24, 5-6). So, while the other three Gospels were written in Greek, Matthew wrote in his native language, almost certainly Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine at the time. And he addressed his first preaching to the Jews. We no longer have the original version of the Gospel of Matthew, but only its translation into Greek. One tradition reports that at the time of the Byzantine emperor Zeno (474-491), when the tomb of Barnabas was discovered in Cyprus by Archbishop Anthemios, on his chest lay the Gospel of Matthew written in his own hand, which was later donated to the emperor. There are various places where Matthew is said to have preached: Syria, Macedonia, Ireland, but the oldest consistent tradition reports the preaching of Matthew in Ethiopia (i.e. in Colchis on the Euxine), accepted also in the Roman martyrology which also indicates his martyrdom there, remembered on the day of 21 September. Whereas on the same day the Jeromian Martyrology reports Matthew’s martyrdom in Persia, in Tarrium, but the city is elsewhere indicated as in Ethiopia: so there would be no contradiction between the sources. According to the apocryphal passions and the Golden Legend, Matthew’s martyrdom is said to have been by the sword while celebrating mass. There is also another minor tradition, reported by Clement of Alexandria, that speaks of Matthew’s natural death. If the date of his death is unknown, the occasion when Matthew’s body was removed to the West is also unknown: a legendary tradition places this event around 370, the work of sailors who are said to have brought it from the Ethiopian coast to Velia. From there, after the city was conquered by the Saracens in 412, it is said to have been removed and hidden in Lucania, in a place called ad duo flumina near Casalvelino. The Roman Martyrology records the 6th of May as the date of the removal of Matthew’s body to Salerno from Lucania, taken there on that day of the year 954 by the Lombard king Gisulph I (946-977). This tradition dates back to the Chronicon Salernitanum, written by an anonymous scribe in the monastery of San Benedetto in Salerno in 978, and to two other medieval texts that agree with it. In Salerno the relics, of which knowledge had been lost for more than a century, were rediscovered in 1080 and placed in the crypt of the cathedral consecrated by Pope Gregory VII, where they still rest. The date 1080 is historically attested by the letter the Pope wrote on 18 September of that year to Alphanus archbishop of Salerno, in which the discovery is mentioned. Minor relics of Matthew are also known in Rome. One, brought to Rome by the future Pope Victor III in 1050 as a gift to Cencio Frangipane, was in a silver reliquary (now empty) found during a survey in May 1924 in the pit of the crypt under the altar of the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian. It is also believed that a part of Matthew’s arm lies in Saint Mary Major, taken there probably as a gift by Pope Paul V (1605-1621).


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