The Disappearance of Matthew's Original Hebrew Gospel

 

The historical literary evidence demonstrates that Matthew’s original Hebrew Gospel was not widely used because few in the Christian world could read Hebrew (Aramaic) and the Greek Gospel of Matthew was more suitable for both Jewish and Gentile Christians who lived across the Roman Empire. The Greek Matthew was the Gospel circulated with the other three New Testament Gospels, which were in the Greek language.

The Hebrew Matthew in its original form eventually passed away from disuse. However, it is also likely that it was taken by the Ebionites and textually corrupted in the late second century with many additions, deletions, and changes and called by them the Gospel of the Hebrews.

Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel was not used by the churches at large.

It is a held by virtually all scholars that the early church fathers had only the Greek Gospel of Matthew. Hence, all statements made by the church fathers about the prominence and widespread use of the Gospels always refer to the Greek Gospel of Matthew.

There were references to the existence of a Hebrew Matthew, but no church father actually possessed it and used it. Only Origen and later Jerome even understood Hebrew and could have used it. Jerome is the only one who said he had seen it and even translated it, but he later changed his statements about it.

For a discussion of Jerome and his view, see Jerome’s scholarly speculation.

 

This lack of possession of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is a commonly accepted position among Biblical scholars based on the following historical literary evidence:

1. No early church father quotes from a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew or claims to have seen or used it.

When the early church fathers quote from the gospel of Matthew, it is always from the Greek Gospel of Matthew. When the early church fathers compare gospel passages from each of the gospels, it is always using the Greek text of Matthew. No reference is ever made to what a Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew actually said. Augustine mentions the possibility that there might have been a Hebrew text, but he implies that he did not have it and he had never seen it.

William Smith, noted English lexicographer and classical scholar, in his Dictionary of the Bible, states, “The original Hebrew of which so many speak, no one of the witnesses ever saw. And so little store has the church set upon it, that it has utterly perished.”1

J. W. McGarvey wrote,
“All of the ancient writers, whose extant writings allude to the question, represent Matthew as having written a narrative in Hebrew; but not one of them claims to have seen it except Jerome, and he subsequently expresses doubt as to whether the book which he saw under this name was the genuine Matthew. If a genuine Hebrew narrative at anytime existed, it perished with the age which gave it birth.”2

Johann David Michaelis writes,
“…amongst all the writers who have asserted that St. Matthew wrote in Hebrew, not one has pretended to have actually seen and used the original.”3

2. There are no extant manuscripts of copies of an original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew.

There are more manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient work and yet none have been discovered which could be identified as a copy of an original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew.

There are manuscripts of Gospels of Matthew in Hebrew from later centuries, but they are not accepted by the majority of scholars as copies of an original Hebrew Matthew.

Louis Berkhoff writes,
“In all probability no one has ever seen the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, and no trace of it can now be found. All the quotations from Matthew in the early Church fathers are taken from the present Greek Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew always stood on an equal footing with the other Gospels and is cited just as much as they are.”4

3. There are no translations or versions of the Gospel of Matthew that have been discovered that are based on a Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew.

George Clark writes,
“All the Versions, even the Peshito Syriac, the language in which the Gospel is said to have been originally written, conform to the present Greek text. All the quotations of the early writers are from the Greek copy…It should be further noted that although so many of the early writers assert that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, yet we do not find that any of them ever used it or saw it. Hence if there ever was a Hebrew copy, it must have been lost very early, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem…”5

Clark further comments concerning Jerome’s testimony,
“It should be further noted that Jerome thought he had discovered the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew in the one used by the Nazarenes; but afterward he found reason to doubt it…Jerome, who knew Hebrew, as other Latin and Greek fathers did not, obtained in the fourth century a copy of this Hebrew Gospel of the Nazarenes, and at once asserted that he had found the Hebrew original. But when he looked more closely into the matter, he confined himself to the statement that many supposed that this Hebrew text was the original of Matthew's Gospel. He translated it into Latin and Greek, and made a few observations of his own on it.”6

Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, writing of the early versions (translations) of the New Testament, state that they were translated from Greek texts which include the Gospel of Matthew,
“The earliest versions of the New Testament were prepared by missionaries, to assist in the propagation of the Christian faith among peoples whose native tongue was Syriac, Latin, or Coptic. Besides being of great value to the Biblical exegete for tracing the history of the interpretation of the Scriptures, these versions are of no less importance to the textual critic in view of their origin in the second and third centuries…As for other questions, however, such as whether or not a given phrase or sentence was present in the Greek exemplar from which the translation was made, the evidence of the versions is clear and valuable.”7

F.F. Bruce writes about Jerome’s translation of the Latin Vulgate,
“He revised the Gospel text apparently on the basis of the best existing form of the European text [Latin], correcting it with the aid of Greek manuscripts, and produced his edition of the four gospels in 384AD.”8

How could the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew pass away?

Most likely, the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew was not useful for the church at large since Hebrew Aramaic was spoken only in Palestine and a few other areas. Greek was the lingua franca, the common language, at the time and was understood by the greatest number of people in the Mediterranean world including Jewish people. Most of the church fathers except Origen and Jerome did not know Hebrew and thus could not read it. All the New Testament documents were written in Greek including those addressed to Jewish Christians such as James and Hebrews.

They also believed that the Greek version of the Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew himself so there would be no need to consult the Hebrew version even if they possessed it. This is most likely the main reason, it was not preserved.

The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew which may have formed the basis of the Gospel of the Hebrews could not be recognized or trusted because it was so corrupted by the Ebionites. For further discussion of the Gospel of the Hebrews and its relationship to the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, see “The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of the Hebrews.”

Josephus’s Aramaic Original of the Jewish Wars was lost as was Hebrew Matthew.

It is similar to Josephus who first wrote his Jewish wars in Aramaic and then in Greek. The Aramaic one is gone, only the Greek one remains. If this happened to Josephus’ Aramaic version, it certainly could happen to Matthew’s Aramaic version.

Scholarly Support for the Disappearance of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew

These statements are arranged chronologically.

1) Johann David Michaelis
“Now there are many books besides St. Matthew's Gospel, which are no longer extant in the language in which they were written, and yet we do not doubt, that those books once existed. It is surely not incredible that a Gospel written in Hebrew might dwindle into oblivion, and become gradually extinct, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the Hebrew Jews. Palestine ceased at the end of the first century to be a seminary for Jewish converts, who understood Hebrew: and to the Greek Christians, a Hebrew Gospel was of no value.

But suppose the Hebrew Gospel continued several centuries in existence, yet, if we except Origen and Jerome, perhaps none of the fathers, who have spoken of this Gospel, were able to read it. The objection therefore applies chiefly, if not entirely to Origen and Jerome. But Jerome not only declares that he had seen the Hebrew Gospel, which was believed to be St. Matthew's original, but even that he made a translation of it. Origen indeed rejects the Hebrew Gospel used by the Nazarenes, which is the Gospel that Jerome translated, whence it is inferred that in Origen's opinion the author of it was not an Apostle. But this inference is liable to many objections: for the Gospel used by the Nazarenes, which Jerome translated, may have been originally the work of St. Matthew, and afterwards so corrupted by alterations and additions, as deservedly to lose all canonical authority…But whether it is admitted that the Hebrew Gospel used by the Nazarenes was originally the work of St. Matthew or not, yet, if we may credit the accounts of Eusebius and Jerome, Pantaenus at least saw it in the hands of the Christians in Arabia Felix, a country where we may not unreasonably suppose that a Hebrew Gospel must have been longer preserved than in Palestine itself.”9

2) Joseph Benson
“The sacred deposit was first corrupted among them, and afterward it disappeared; for that ‘the gospel according to the Hebrews,’ used by the Nazarenes, (to which, as the original, Jerome sometimes had recourse, and which, he tells us, he had translated into Greek and Latin,) and that the gospel also used by the Ebionites, were, though greatly vitiated and interpolated, the remains of Matthew's original, will hardly bear a reasonable doubt.”10

3) Archibald Alexander
“It has been considered a strong objection to the Hebrew original of this gospel, that no person, whose writings have come down to us, has intimated that he had ever seen it; and from the earliest times it seems to have existed in the Greek language. But this fact is perfectly consistent with the supposition now made; for the desolation of Judea, and dispersion of the Jewish Christians, having taken place within a few years after the publication of Matthew’s gospel, the copies of the original Hebrew would be confined to the Jewish converts; and as other Christians had copies in the Greek, of equal authenticity with the Hebrew, no inquiries would be made after the latter. These Jewish Christians, after their removal, dwindled away in a short time, and a large part of them became erroneous in their faith; and though they retained the Hebrew gospel of Matthew, they altered and corrupted it to suit their own heretical opinions. There is reason to believe, that the gospel of the Nazarenes, was the identical gospel of Matthew, which in process of time was greatly mutilated and corrupted by the Ebionites…”11

4) Thomas Horne
“From a review of all the arguments adduced on this much litigated question, we cannot but prefer the last stated opinion as that which best harmonizes with the consent of antiquity, namely, that St. Matthew wrote first a Hebrew Gospel for the use of the first Hebrew converts. Its subsequent disappearance is easily accounted for, by its being so corrupted by the Ebionites that it lost all its authority in the church, and was deemed spurious, and also by the prevalence of the Greek language, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Jewish language and everything belonging to the Jews fell into the utmost contempt. It also is clear, that our present Greek Gospel is an authentic original, and consequently an inspired production of the Evangelist Matthew…”12

5) Louis Berkhof
“The evangelist after writing his Gospel in Hebrew with a view to his countrymen, possibly when he had left Palestine to labor elsewhere, translated or rather furnished a new recension of his Gospel in the Greek language with a view to the Jews of the Diaspora. The former was soon lost and altogether replaced by the latter.

In formulating our opinion in regard to this question, we desire to state first of all that we have no sufficient reason to discredit the testimony of the early Church [that there was a Hebrew original]…the internal evidence of our present Gospel proves conclusively that this is not a mere translation of a Hebrew original. The evidence adduced seems quite sufficient. The Greek Matthew may be and most likely is in substance a translation of the original Hebrew; yet it must be regarded as in many respects a new recension of the Gospel. The loss of the Hebrew original and the general substitution for it of the Greek version is readily explained by the scattering of the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem, and by the early corruption of the Hebrew Gospel in the circles of the Ebionites and the Nazarenes...it seems most plausible that Matthew himself, shortly after he had written the Hebrew Gospel, translated it, adjusting it in several respects to the needs of the Jews that were dispersed in different lands.”13

5) Henry Thiessen
“It is evident that when the Greek Matthew had once become current in the Church, the Aramaic edition of it dropped out. Josephus wrote his Wars of the Jews in Aramaic and secured the help of Greek writers in freely reproducing and improving it in the Greek language. The Greek edition alone has come down to us. We believe that in the same manner, though perhaps without the assistance of Greek writers, Matthew reproduced his Gospel in Greek.”14

 

ENDNOTES

References are given without use of abbreviations such as “ibid.” to make it simpler to understand and follow the references for those unfamiliar with reading the various abbreviations.

1. Smith, William, Dictionary of the Bible, Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 1834-5

2. McGarvey, J.W. (1875), Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight AR: Gospel Light Reprint), 1875, 8

3. Michaelis, Johann David, Introduction to the New Testament, tr. and augmented with notes by H. Marsh Vol. 3, 1823, 146

4. Introduction to the New Testament, Louis Berkhof, Eerdmans, 1915

5. Clark, George W., Notes on the Gospel of Matthew; Explanatory and Practical, Sheldon and Company, 1870, x

6. Clark, George W., Notes on the Gospel of Matthew; Explanatory and Practical, Sheldon and Company, 1870, x

7. Metzger, Bruce, Erhman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2005, 94-95

8. Bruce, F.F. The Books and the Parchments, Fleming H. Revell, p.205

9. Michaelis, Johann David, Introduction to the New Testament, tr. and augmented with notes by H. Marsh Vol. 3, 1823, 146

10. Benson, Joseph, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (according to the Present authorized Version) with Critical, Explanatory, and Practical Notes Vol.4, G. Lane & C.B. Tippett, 1846, 17

11. Alexander, Archibald, The Canon of the Old and New Testaments Ascertained, or the Bible Complete Without the Apocrypha and Unwritten Traditions, 1851, p.154-164

12. Horne, Thomas Hartwell (author and editor), Ayre, John, and Tregelles Samuel Prideaux (editors), An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, 1877, 420

13. Berkhof, Louis, New Testament Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdman Sevensma, 1915), 64-71

14. Thiessen, Henry, Introduction to the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1943, 134