Monday, February 13, 2017

Word Magazine # 68: Levi son of Alpheus and the Synoptic Gospels

Image: Closeup of tax collector, Roman mausoleum relief, c. second century A.D.

I recorded WM # 68 Levi son of Alpheus and the Synoptic Gospels today and posted it to Here are my notes: 

One of the interesting distinctions in the so-called Synoptic Gospels is the name difference in the call to discipleship of Matthew/Levi (bold added):

Matthew 9:9
Mark 2:14
Luke 5:27
And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.
And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.
 And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me.

Tradition assumes that all three of these passages refer to the same individual who is variously identified as Matthew (Matt 9:9), Levi the son of Alpheus (Mark 2:14), and Levi (Luke 5:27).

Recently, a student in class asked, about Levi’s identification as the son of Alpheus uniquely made in Mark 2:14 and what connection, if any, this might have with the disciple identified in Mark 3:18 as James the son of Alpheus. Indeed, this disciple appears in all four canonical lists (bold added):

Matthew 10:2-4
Mark 3:14-19
Luke 6:13-16
Acts 1:13
Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;
Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus;
Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.

14 And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,
15 And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils:
16 And Simon he surnamed Peter;
17 And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:
18 And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite,
19 And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house.

13 And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles;
14 Simon, (whom he also named Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew,
15 Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called Zelotes,
16 And Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.

13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.

If we assume that Matthew=Levi (the son of Alpheus), what is the relationship, if any, between Matthew/Levi and the disciple, James the son of Alpheus? The name Alpheus does not appear in the OT and the name appears but five times in the NT (all listed above) with no other information given.

One possibility is that Matthew/Levi and James the son of Alpheus are brothers, both the sons of the same man named Alpheus.

The other possibility is that they are not brothers, but the sons of two different men who had the same name Alpheus.

Given what I perceive to be a lack of tradition linking the two as brothers (as with Peter and Andrew, or James and John, the sons of Zebedee), the latter appears more likely. It remains an interesting distinction that Mark 2:14 uniquely identifies Levi as the son of Alpheus.

Two more notes:

First, on text criticism: There is a minor textual variation noted in the apparatus of the NA 28 at Mark 2:14. A handful of mss. read James (Iakobon) rather than Levi. These include D, Theta, family 13, 565, and the Old Latin in an apparent effort to harmonize the verse with Mark 3:18 and identify the tax collector as James the son of Alpheus.
Note also that for the texts that read Levi there is a variation in the spelling, either with the uninflected nominative form Levi (as in the original hand of Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, K, etc.) or an accusative form, with a final nu, Levin (as in p88, second corrector of Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, etc.).

NA28: Levin
Hodges/Farstad: Levin
Robinson/Pierpont: Levi
Pickering (fam 35): Levin
TR (Scrivener/TBS): Levin

Second, on the so-called Synoptic Problem. If one assumes a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, Luke, how does one explain the variations in the three readings here? Does the difference argue for independent composition?



Unknown said...

Wow, you went deep with this subject. But I thought about this a little more and I decided that your first explanation in class seemed to make sense and therefore possibly is the right answer.... Both Matthew/Levi and James were the sons of Alphaeus but different men named Alphaeus. And it could also be possible that both Matthew and James were tax collectors as well.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Thanks for the comment and the question Sandy.