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Did Matthew Write his Gospel in Hebrew?

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Question #1:  I am in touch with someone who claims that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew. Here is some information from the Early Church Fathers he adduces as proof. What do you think?

Matthew composed the words in the Hebrew dialect, and each translated as he was able. (Papias, 150-170 CE, quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3:39)

Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect. (Ireneus, 170 CE, Against Heresies 3:1)

The first is written according to Matthew, the same that was once a tax collector, but afterwards an emissary of Yeshua the Messiah, who having published it for the Jewish believers, wrote it in Hebrew. (Origen circa 210 CE, quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6:25)

The epistle to the Hebrews he asserts was written by Paul, to the Hebrews, in the Hebrew tongue; but that it was carefully translated by Luke, and published among the Greeks. (Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes, referred to by Eusebius in Eccl. Hist.6:14:2)

He (Shaul) being a Hebrew wrote in Hebrew, that is, his own tongue and most fluently; while things which were eloquently written in Hebrew were more eloquently turned into Greek. (Jerome, 382 CE, 'Lives of Illustrious Men,' Book V)

Response#1:  As to this list of quotations, I suppose I would be in a better position to give you my take on these things if I knew what point this fellow was trying to prove. I can say that relying upon the quotations in Eusebius (please note that most of these quotations are from Eusebius, fourth century, and/or go back to Papias whose work has not survived except in rough quotation, mostly in Eusebius) is a very questionable practice, no matter what point one is trying to prove. This is evident just from the Smorgasbord of quotes your correspondent provides.

For instance, you can see the "Paul wrote Hebrews in Hebrew" quotation morphing right before your eyes as it travels from Eusebius to Jerome. The underlying story is the same, but the facts change. When one adds to this the need to explain the anonymous nature of the book of Hebrews, one can see how speculation becomes fact which then gets embellished. This happens in the most careful of historical traditions, and believe me when I say that early Church history is not methodologically precise (quite an understatement). Eusebius was playing Herodotus, and incorporated into his history, which is more of series of anecdotes really, whatever he found that was interesting. The analysis that he appends to certain stories is often incredibly dense and misleading, making it quite clear for anyone who takes the time to actually sit down and read him at length that if one relies on anything he says without critical judgment, one is leaning on a slender reed indeed.

Like all such documents from antiquity (Plutarch provides a rough parallel), these "library histories" are only as good as their sources. It is quite possible that Papias (to whom most if not all of the quotes here should be attributed as the original source) was not a half bad collector of stories he had heard - but he was not writing inspired history. In addition to the fact that he was a fallible human being not under the inspired direction of the Spirit, we also have the very large problem that what we do have of Papias has been "filtered", mostly through Eusebius who, as I have suggested above, is both intellectually and theologically suspect (on the latter point, he ridicules the idea of a literal millennium in a way that suggests a gross ignorance of certain parts of the scripture).

Finally, on the issue of "Matthew first in Hebrew", all we have is Eusebius' word that this is what Papias said. But what Eusebius actually says in the particular passage quoted is "and each translated (Gk. hermenusan, plural) them as best he could".  This suggests then that there should be a goodly number of versions of Matthew that differ one from the other (because no two translations would be close in word choice or word order, even if they meant essentially the same thing). In fact this is most assuredly not the case. The textual variation in Matthew is no greater or less than that of the other gospels - a situation which is virtually inexplicable if we are to take this story of a Hebrew gospel being the original source as true.

There is a lot of strange information in Eusebius and in the Church fathers generally. Anything past Eusebius is essentially worthless from a historiographical point of view being certainly derivative of earlier writings (in the same way that if you or I wrote about the Civil War what we wrote would only be as good as the documents we consulted, since none of the original actors are alive). And Eusebius himself is highly suspect, largely because by his time (and possibly even by Papias time) these and many other "stories" had been invented to answer questions to which we would all like the answers: "Who wrote Hebrews?"; "Why is Hebrews anonymous?"; "Why are the four gospels different?" Or also of the sort "What else do we know about the lives of Jesus/Paul/Peter". To this last question responds an entire genre of pseudepigraphical "Gospel of ____-'s”, and there are any number of other apocryphal works that date to the early centuries of the Church. The bottom line is that on the one hand we have more than enough information to know all we need to know from a close inspection of the canon itself, and, on the other hand, most of the "stories" of the sort quoted by your correspondent have been developed to answer questions to which we itch to know the answer, often based entirely upon clues in the scripture themselves (cf. Origen's analysis of Hebrews quoted in Eusebius 6.25). Unless we profess Roman Catholicism, we need not accept the judgment of these early churchmen anymore than that of our own contemporaries if said judgment does not comport with scripture. Otherwise, I find it dangerous in the extreme for believers to put as much weight upon extra-biblical evidence as upon the Bible.

Please see also the following links:

Christians Beware (contains a critique of the "Hebrew gospel" fallacy)

Gospel Questions

Literacy and the Canon of Scripture in Apostolic Times

In our Lord.

Bob L.

Question #2: 

I didn't see any mention in your response of St. Irenaus's statement that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew. What you think about what Irenaeus wrote? Thanks.

Response#2:  

To elaborate concerning Irenaeus, like Eusebuius, his information is clearly derivative of Papias. Here's what Irenaeus actually says: "Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect". To me, this is not new information but a rephrasing of the same exact story from Papias. It may or may not be true. What is almost certainly not true is the claim based solely upon this one Papias' story variously reported that the Greek gospel of Matthew is derivative. As I suggested in the previous e-mail, that supposition is suspect on its merits because if the gospel was originally in Hebrew, we would have many different versions of Matthew, since no two translators could possibly handle the material in anything approaching a unified way (and we in fact we only have one version of the Greek gospel of Matthew). For this scenario to work, the Hebrew gospel would have had to disappear almost immediately upon being issued, with only one single Greek translation ever having been made (from which all subsequent Greek versions derive). The likelihood of either of these events playing out this way is, in my opinion, nil.

Irenaeus cleans up what Papias apparently said (notice in his quote, he doesn't say that Matthew did the Hebrew first or only, just that there was a Hebrew gospel by Matthew [too]). As I mentioned before, in my experience with ancient history, stories of this kind, especially when they do not jibe with the evidence available, are often to be explained as answers to questions people had in the past. Two obvious such questions here are "How did Matthew, a Hebrew, come to write his gospel in Greek?", and "Why is Matthew's gospel different from the others in some respects?". Positing an original Hebrew gospel that was then altered and translated into Greek would answer both of these questions (which are common even today). But just because this hypothesis might answer these questions does not make it a correct hypothesis. The true answer to the second question is complicated, but suffice it to say that I think most Christians who have read the gospels over enough times realize how much we benefit from having these multiple inspired accounts of our Lord's life and work. In regard to the first question, the use of Greek by Jesus and His disciples is under-appreciated largely because of a very popular (and wrong) 20th century academic theory that they spoke only Aramaic. It is not and has never been uncommon for people living in areas where cultures collide to speak multiple languages by necessity. There is plenty of evidence in scripture that these men spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic (e.g., Peter's language giving him away and occasioning his denial of Christ), and that they also spoke Greek (e.g., Peter's epistles are in pretty good Greek). This seems odd to Americans who don't see any utility in speaking languages other than English, but elsewhere in the world and in previous history being bi- and even tri- lingual is not at all terribly unique.

Bottom line: Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek. That is what all of the textual evidence and internal scriptural evidence suggests (and on the other hand there is zero evidence for a Hebrew gospel apart from this one very questionable story). Irenaeus is repeating Papias' story as others do as well later on. It doesn't matter if 100 church fathers repeat the same story - it has the same source. Notice that neither Irenaeus nor Papias claims to have actually seen this Hebrew gospel or even fragments or quotes from it. This story is the sort of thing that in secular history would impress few historians, but for some reason in Biblical studies gains many adherents. My suspicion is that this is because it casts doubt upon the quality and validity of scripture, and that has always been a popular cause in cynical circles. After all, if this part of the Bible is derivative, how accurate can any of it be? Next thing you know we have source criticism et al., nothing is solid, and we start looking elsewhere for answers (just what the devil wants).

Irenaeus says some good things (i.e., he is an adherent of the seven millennial days of human history: see the link: “The Seven Days of Human History” in SR#5), but also has a lot of stuff that is really "out there". I wouldn't put too much weight on this particular statement. Even were there a later Hebrew version of Matthew, it would still be the Greek version which is the original, inspired Word of God, with the other being merely a historical curiosity.

Yours in our Lord.

Bob L.


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