St. Philip and St. Matthew (November 14 and 16)

THERE IS VERY LITTLE INFORMATION in the New Testament about any of the apostles apart from the chief apostles, Peter and Paul. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles tell us a good deal about St Peter. The bulk of Acts concerns the story of St Paul whose epistles also give us some information about his life. The others are mentioned only in passing.

The Gospels do tell us something about two of the apostles whom we commemorate in November: Philip and Matthew. Only mentioned in the other Gospels, Philip has a larger part in John. We read that Philip was one of the first called, when the Lord Jesus was with John the Baptist at the Jordan. “Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples.  And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’” (John 1:36). The two followed Jesus and stayed with Him. One of them was Andrew who called his brother, Simon Peter.

St Philip (November 14)

John then introduces St Philip: “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’” (John 1:43-45). Philip is thus one of the first called by Christ at the start of His public ministry.

Andrew, Simon and Philip were all Jews from the fishing town of Bethsaida, near Capernaum. None of them were scholars –why, then, did Andrew and Philip have Greek names? Then, as now, tradesmen had to deal with customers of all sorts and that meant learning their languages. Perhaps while Peter was the brother who captained the boats, Andrew was the brother who dealt with the customers, some of whom would have been Greek-speaking.

One incident mentioned in John suggests that Philip too was experienced in commerce. It was Philip to whom Jesus turned when faced with a hungry audience and asked, “Where shall we buy bread that these may eat?” (John 6:5)

It is both Philip and Andrew whom we later find dealing with “Greeks” (Greek-speaking Jews or proselytes?) who wanted to see Jesus. “Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast. Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip told Jesus” (John 12:20-22). Andrew and Philip were comfortable with speaking Greek and they were the followers of Jesus who dealt with Greek-speakers.

John’s Gospel mentions one other incident featuring Philip. When Jesus was preparing His disciples for His arrest, “Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?’” (John 14:8-10). This incident would be referred to time and again as the early Church developed its understanding of the Trinity.

The Scriptures do not mention Philip in their stories of the early Church. When the Acts of the Apostles speaks of Philip it is referring to Philip the Evangelizer of Samaria, one of the first deacons. A number of later Christian writings confuse the two.

Several non-Scriptural Acts of Philip exist but they all seem to be from later centuries. One common thread in these works is the mention that Philip was martyred in the Roman city of Hierapolis in Phrygia (western Turkey today). This city was a well-known resort in the first century, famous for its thermal baths. There was a church there from the days of the apostles; St Paul mentions it in Colossians 4:13.

In 2011 archaeologists unearthed a first-century tomb while they were excavating a fourth-century church in Hierapolis. The church had been built over the tomb which had contained the relics of St Philip. The relics were very likely moved from Hierapolis to Constantinople at the end of the sixth century when fire destroyed the shrine. Portions of the relics were later taken to Rome and placed in the newly dedicated Church of St. Philip and St. James where they are enshrined beneath the high altar. Some of St Philip’s relics remained in Constantinople until 1204 when they were taken to Cyprus during the Crusader’s attack on the city. They are venerated there to this day.

St Matthew (November 16)

The first mention of this apostle is found in the Gospel of Matthew. As Jesus was leaving Capernaum, “He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him” (Matthew 9:9). Thereafter Matthew is listed as one of the Twelve.

The Gospel continues: “Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard that, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Matthew 9:10-13).

In the Gospels of Mark and Luke the tax collector is called “Levi, son of Alphaeus” and the dinner is held at Levi’s house. The three texts tell the same story and so Matthew/Levi is clearly the same person. Why is he given two different names?

There is a clue is the Greek text of Mt where the tax collector is called Mattheion legomenon (the one called Matthew – i.e. God’s gift). Perhaps Levi the tax collector came to be called “God’s gift” (Matthew) in the community of believers. St Jerome thought that Levi had changed his own name; some Eastern commentators had thought that the Lord had changed it.

The first ancient testimony to a Gospel of Matthew comes from the second century Bishop of Hierapolis, Papias. In a work now lost but quoted by others, Papias says that “Matthew composed the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew dialect [of Aramaic]”. As a tax collector this apostle would have been literate in both Aramaic and Greek

If Papias is correct, Matthew’s original work may have been simply a collection of sayings, written for Jewish Christians who spoke the Palestinian (“Hebrew”) dialect of Aramaic, and later incorporated into the Greek narrative we now have.

Our Matthew, although written in Greek, was still written for Jewish Christians. There were many Jews who understood and spoke Greek – it was the universal language of the Mediterranean – and many who no longer spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. It is thought that the Gospel was written in a Jewish Christian community in Syria, probably at Antioch.

St. Irenæus tells us that Matthew preached the Gospel among the Hebrews, St. Clement of Alexandria claiming that he did this for fifteen years, Ancient writers are not as one as to the countries evangelized by Matthew, but almost all mention the so-called Ethiopia Secunda to the south of the Caspian Sea (not Ethiopia in Africa but in today’s Armenia and Georgia). Some say he also preached in Persia, Macedonia, and Syria.

The relics of St Matthew are entombed in an Armenian monastery in Kyrgyzstan. Other relics are housed in Salerno, Italy. Brought there in 984. they were unearthed in 1080 during an excavation of a Lombard castle. The Cathedral of St Matthew was then built to house them.