Feast Day: September 21st | Patronage: accountants, tax collectors, bankers, and civil servants | Iconography: Bearded, Holding or Writing Book, Inspired by an Angel, sometimes his Call is Depicted with Jesus pointing for him to join the apostles.
One of the oldest fragments we have of St. Matthew’s Gospel is academically called “Papyrus 104”, and is a tattered page containing Matthew 21:34-37 on its front, and Matthew 21:43 and 45 on the back. We only have part of the whole page, hence the missing in-between verses, though verse 44 is missing on a handful of other ancient papyri, so it could be that some copies of Matthew’s Gospel lost it along the way. Now, if you knew ancient Greek, you could determine that this page dates back to between 100 and 200 AD (primarily because of the shape and style of the letters and the types of punctuation that are present). But here’s the amazing thing, among ancient documents, the ones we have for the New Testament are massively closer to the events they describe than almost any other ancient texts. For instance, this page from Matthew’s Gospel comes from less than a century after Matthew wrote his Gospel. Compare this to The Gallic Wars, a famous writing of Julius Caesar which historians wildly accept as a legitimate record of that particular campaign, of which our earliest fragment/copy comes from 750 years after it was written! We have thousands of fragments from all throughout the New Testament that attest that the Gospels and Letters and Acts that we read and believe is the same one written by Paul and Matthew, Mark and John, and many of them date back to within a century or two of when those books of the New Testament were first written. Almost every other ancient text has at most a dozen such fragments, some like The Gallic Wars not until several centuries after the fact. (Another example: Homer’s Odyssey was written 7 or 8 centuries before Christ, and the oldest fragment we have of it is 13 verses, chiseled into a clay tablet from about 300 years after Christ.)
Ok, that’s cool enough, but there’s another amazing part of this story. That fragment you can see of St. Matthew’s Gospel is part of what is called a “codex”, a fancy word for a stack of vellum, papyrus, or metal pages held together in some fashion. In other words, it’s a page out of a book, that you can flip around in, with text printed on both sides of the page. There are a few examples of codex-like objects from before the time of Christ, but the vast majority appear in the first century AD (most of these being the Christian New Testament!), and codices outstrip scrolls in popularity around AD 300. Christians didn’t just want libraries or synagogues to contain the Word of God; they wanted to carry it with them, to see the intricacies of God’s word, to see the connections between Old and New Testament, to tease out Who God reveals Himself to be in its pages. (Plus, it’s a bit easier to hide a small book of Matthew’s Gospel in your pocket than it would be to lug around a few scrolls, especially if the government is out to get you and is looking for such things…) Lastly, codices, besides being more accessible and portable, can also contain a lot more text, even up to the entirety of the New Testament.
And one of the first pages, from one of the first books, is from St. Matthew’s Gospel. How cool is that?!
Here’s the front side of this amazing page. (Bold indicates the letters we have; the others have to be filled in from the other copies that we have of this passage.):
“…he sent his servants to
the vine-growers to collect the harvest
that was his. And the vine-growers took
his servants; indeed,
they beat one and they killed another,
and another they stoned. Again, he sent
other servants, more than
the first: and they did …
unto them likewise. But last of all he sent…”
– Fr. Dominic has always liked reading books but never realized that proclaiming the Gospel was the impetus that made books popular in the first place!
– Fr. Dominic