The Scholarly Speculation of Jerome Concerning Matthew's Original Hebrew Gospel

 

Jerome lived from 342 AD – 420 AD. He had been commissioned by Pope Damasus in 382 to revise the Old Latin texts of the Bible and in particular the four Gospels from the best Greek texts. He was asked to produce a standard Latin version of the Bible. By the time of Damasus’ death in 384 Jerome had completed the task of revising the four New Testament gospels.

Jerome is important in a discussion of the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew because he is the first and only church father who mentions that he had seen the original Hebrew text of Matthew’s gospel. Early in his writings he mentions that he had seen it and even translated it. However, later, he seems to have changed his opinion. He is also important because he is the first church father to mention the possibility of a translator of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew into Greek other than Matthew. The comments that he makes on these issues need to be evaluated if a thorough investigation into this subject is to be accomplished.

Are Jerome’s comments based on solid church tradition and careful research or the speculation of a scholar?

Most scholars do not feel confident that Jerome can be trusted in his comments about the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. Some of the reasons for this are in the scholarly comments below.

For a list of the early church fathers, who they were and when they lived, mentioned in this article, click here.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library.

Epiphanius quotes are from The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis Book 1, by Epiphanius, Trans. Frank Williams, Published by BRILL, Boston, Mass. 1987

 

This article is divided into three main points:


The Scholarly Comments of Jerome on Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel
The Scholarly Use of Only the Greek Gospel of Matthew by Jerome
Evaluations of Jerome’s Comments by Later Scholars

 

The Scholarly Comments of Jerome on Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel

The Early Statements of Jerome in his Lives of Illustrious Men (393 AD)

In his earliest work after the Latin Vulgate, the Lives of Illustrious Men, Jerome states the following:

1) Matthew first composed his gospel in Hebrew.
2) It is not certain who translated the gospel of Matthew into Greek.
3) A copy of the Hebrew Matthew is in the library at Caesarea Maritima.
4) Jerome made a copy of this Hebrew Matthew which he received from the Nazarenes.

These above statements are made in the passage below written by Jerome in his Lives of Illustrious Men about 393 AD.

Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Ch.3
“Matthew also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Savior quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” and “for he shall be called a Nazarene.”

The Later Statements of Jerome in his Commentaries

In his later commentaries Jerome connects the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew with the Gospel of the Hebrews which he says was used by the Nazarenes and Ebionites. He makes the following statements:

1) The Nazarenes use the Gospel of the Hebrews.
2) The Gospel which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use which he had translated into Greek is called by many the original Gospel of Matthew.
3) The Gospel used by the Nazarenes is called the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” or the “Gospel of the Apostles” or as most term it, the “Gospel According to Matthew.” It is in the library of Caesarea (which Jerome mentioned in Illustrious Men).

These above statements are made in the passage below written by Jerome in his commentaries.

1) The Nazarenes use the Gospel of the Hebrews.

Jerome, on Isa., Preface to Book 18 “For when the apostles thought him to be a spirit or, in the words of the Gospel of the Hebrews which the Nazarenes read, ‘a bodiless demon’ he said to them...”
(Quote from translation by J.K. Elliott quoted in The New Testament and Early Christian Writings, Bart Erhman, Oxford University Press, 1998, 138)

2) The Gospel which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use which he had translated into Greek is called by many the original Gospel of Matthew.

Jerome, On Matt. 12:13 (398 AD)
“In the Gospel which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use (which I have lately translated into Greek from the Hebrew, and which is called by many (or most) people the original of Matthew), this man who had the withered hand is described as a mason, who prays for help in such words as this: ‘I was a mason seeking a livelihood with my hands. I pray thee, Jesus, to restore me mine health, that I may not beg meanly for my food.’”
(Quote from The Apocryphal New Testament, Montague Rhode James, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1924), 1-8.

3) The Gospel used by the Nazarenes is called the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” or the “Gospel of the Apostles” or as most term it, the “Gospel According to Matthew.” It is in the library of Caesarea (which Jerome mentioned in Illustrious Men).

Jerome Dialogue Against Pelagius, 3.2 (415 AD)
“In the Gospel according to the Hebrews which is indeed in the Chaldaean and Syriac speech but is written in Hebrew letters, which the Nazarenes use to this day, called 'according to the apostles', or, as most term it, 'according to Matthew', which also is to be seen in the library of Caesarea, the story tells: ‘Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brethren said unto him, ‘John Baptist baptizeth unto the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized of him.’ But he said unto them, ‘Wherein (what) have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized of him? unless peradventure this very thing that I have said is a sin of ignorance.’”
(Quote from The Apocryphal New Testament, Montague Rhode James, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1924), 1-8)

The Scholarly Use of Only the Greek Gospel of Matthew by Jerome

Jerome used only the Greek manuscripts of the Gospels for his Latin Vulgate. Even though Jerome mentions that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew, he states in his preface to the Four Gospels that he used only the Greek manuscripts to revise the Latin texts for his Latin Vulgate.

Although he had said that he possessed the original Hebrew Matthew when he wrote Illustrious Men, he never used it in his translation of the Gospel of Matthew for the Latin Vulgate. This demonstrates that he did not really believe in its authenticity as the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew or that he did not believe that he could discover what part of the text of the Gospel of the Hebrews was authentically part of the Original Hebrew Matthew and what part had been changed and corrupted.

Jerome, Preface to the Four Gospels (383 A.D.)
“I am now speaking of the New Testament. This was undoubtedly composed in Greek, with the exception of the work of Matthew the Apostle, who was the first to commit to writing the Gospel of Christ, and who published his work in Judaea in Hebrew characters. We must confess that as we have it [New Testament] in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead [the Greek manuscripts]…I therefore promise in this short Preface to the four Gospels only, which are to be taken in the following order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, as they have been revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used.”

Scholars, Bart Erhman and Bruce Metzger write about Jerome’s use of the Greek text of the Gospels in translating the Latin Vulgate.

Bruce Metzger and Bart Erhman, in writing of the old Latin versions (translations) of the New Testament which formed the basis of Jerome’s Vulgate along with the Greek texts, state,
“In the opinion of most scholars today, the Gospels were first rendered into Latin during the last quarter of the second century in North Africa, where Carthage had become enamored of Roman culture. Not long afterward, translations were also made in Italy, Gaul, and elsewhere. The wooden and literalistic style that characterizes many of these renderings suggests that early copies were made in the form of interlinear renderings of the Greek.”1

In discussing the Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s important Latin revision, they write,
“Toward the close of the fourth century, the limitations and imperfections of the Old Latin versions became evident to leaders of the Roman Church. It is not surprising that about A.D. 382 Pope Damasus requested the most capable biblical scholar then living, Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, known today as St. Jerome, to undertake a revision of the Latin Bible. Within a year or so, Jerome was able to present Damasus with the first fruits of his work, a revision of the text of the four Gospels, where the variations had been extreme. In a covering letter, he explained the principles that he followed: he used a relatively good Latin text as the basis for his revision and compared it with some old Greek manuscripts. He emphasized that he treated the current Latin text as conservatively as possible and changed it only where the meaning was distorted. Though we do not have the Latin manuscripts that Jerome chose as the basis of his work, it appears that they belonged to the European form of the Old Latin. The Greek manuscripts apparently belonged to the Alexandrian type of text.”2  

Summary and Comments on Jerome’s position regarding the Hebrew and Greek Gospel of Matthew

Jerome along with many other church fathers believed Matthew first composed his gospel in Hebrew. But unlike many church fathers, he was not sure who had translated it. This comment must have been based on his perception of a lack of evidence from the earlier church fathers concerning who wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew. However, there was evidence that Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius clearly indicated that Matthew himself wrote it (See article entitled “Matthew’s Authorship of a Hebrew and Greek Gospel – Main Evidence”).

It is possible that Jerome did not see this evidence or like many scholars today did not give it its proper prominence as evidence. Also, Bible teachers contemporary with him and after him held to the conviction that Matthew did indeed write the Greek Gospel. (See Epiphanius, Augustine, and Leo the Great in article entitled “Matthew’s Authorship of a Greek Gospel – More Evidence”).

Jerome also stated that there was a copy of the Hebrew Matthew in the library at Caesarea Maritima and that he had made a copy of a manuscript of it he had received from the Nazarenes. Based on his later comments, this text was the Gospel used by both the Nazarenes and the Ebionites and was called the “Gospel According to the Hebrews” or the “Gospel of the Hebrews” or the “Gospel of the Apostles.” Jerome says he had translated this text into Greek and Latin.

For more information on the Gospel of the Hebrews, see article entitled, Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel and The Gospel of the Hebrews.

In his earlier comments in his Illustrious Lives Jerome’s seems to agree with what people were saying about the Gospel of the Hebrews being the original Matthew. Later, however, when he writes his other works, he does not mention what he thinks. He only mentions what many or most say.

There is no question that many people at the time of Jerome believed that the Gospel of the Hebrews was indeed based on the text of the original Matthew. However, it seems that Jerome when he wrote later did not want to put his stamp of approval on this view as he had earlier.

As seen earlier, we do know that when Jerome had the opportunity to use the Hebrew Gospel in his translation or exegesis, he did not give it an authority equal to the Greek Gospel of Matthew. Also, Jerome must have realized that the Gospel of the Hebrews did not entirely match the Greek Gospel of Matthew since he would not have had to translate it because it was already translated into Greek.

Jerome’s and his contemporaries’ views of the Gospel of the Hebrews does reflect the view of this author and many scholars that the Gospel of the Hebrews was most likely a severely corrupted version of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew with many additions and deletions. It was corrupted in the second century with Jewish and Gnostic views. Other church fathers who lived at the time of Jerome indicate that they believed that the Greek Gospel was written by Matthew. (See Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel and the Gospel of the Hebrews for what Epiphanius states)

Evaluations of Jerome’s Comments by Later Scholars

These comments are arranged in chronological order.

1. William Lee
“It would appear, too, from many parts of his writings, that he regarded S. Matthew's Hebrew Gospel as agreeing substantially with that received by the Nazarenes and Ebionites, and which he himself had translated… A writer in ‘The Edinburgh Review’ (July, 1851, p. 39) observes: ‘Jerome himself at first thought that it was the authentic Matthew, and translated it into both Greek and Latin from a copy which he obtained at Boroea in Syria. This appears from his Catalogue of Illustrious Men, written in the year 392. Six years later, in his Commentary on Matthew, he spoke more doubtfully about it. Later still, in his book on the Pelagian heresy, written in the year 415, he modifies this account still further.’”

Later on Lee wrote,
On all such statements two remarks are to be made: (1) S. Jerome would surely not have translated this document into Greek, had it not differed considerably from the Canonical Gospel. (2) Whenever S. Jerome refers to the Gospel of S. Matthew, he quotes it according to our present Greek text; and when he introduces diverging statements of the ‘Hebrew Gospel,’ he does so in a manner which proves that he regarded it as of no authority whatsoever.”3

2. George Clark
“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. 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.

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.”4

3. James Morison
“It will be noticed that, in the passage quoted from the book On Illustrious Men, Jerome says that the Nazarenes made use of the Hebrew Matthew. It will also be noticed that he mentions that a copy of the work was preserved in the Pamphilian library at Caesarea. These statements are proof that at the time, at least, when Jerome wrote his Illustrious Men, he was fully convinced that the Gospel, generally known as the Gospel according to the Hebrews, was Matthew's original Hebrew Gospel. This is rendered still more evident, if additional evidence were necessary, by what he says in the third book of his Dialogue against the Pelagians, written in the year 415: ‘In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, written in the Syro-Chaldaic language, but with Hebrew letters, the Gospel which the Nazarenes use to the present day, and which is also the Gospel according to the Apostles, or, as most suppose, the, Gospel according to Matthew, and which is preserved in the library of Caesarea, it is narrated, etc.’

It is noteworthy, however, that in this passage, written in his old age, Jerome does not speak so positively regarding his own conviction of the identity of the Gospel according to the Hebrews, used by the Nazarenes, and the Hebrew Gospel according to Matthew, as he did, three and twenty years before, in his Illustrious Men. He now only says that ‘most believe’ that the two works are identical. Indeed, in his Commentary on Matthew, which was written just six years after his Illustrious Men, he speaks with the same bated breath, and makes, in addition, another rather remarkable statement. He says, ‘In the Gospel, which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use, and which I lately translated into Greek from the Hebrew tongue, and which is called by most the authentic Gospel of Matthew, the ‘man who had the withered hand is described as a mason,’ etc.

Not only does he here say that the Gospel according to the Hebrews is identified ‘by most’ with the authentic Gospel according to Matthew, he mentions what is very remarkable, that he himself had some time ago translated it into Greek. He had translated it, indeed, more than six years before. For he says in the second chapter of his Illustrious Men, that ‘the Gospel, which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which was lately translated by me both into Greek and into Latin, which also Origen ‘frequently used, relates,’ etc. Jerome had, it seems, translated the Gospel according to the Hebrews both into Greek and into Latin.

It is nothing wonderful that he should have translated it into Latin, but it is certainly remarkable that he should have thought of translating it into Greek, if it was really the case, as so many assumed, that the common Greek Gospel, which was in every one's hands, was but a translation of that original Hebrew text. There is evidence of some confusion here. And the confusion gets worse confounded when we take into account, that, in the last three passages which we have quoted from Jerome, as well as in a good many others, there are quotations made from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which have nothing corresponding to them in our Greek Gospel, as we have it now, and as Jerome had it in his day!”5

4. M.R. James
M.R. James commenting on Jerome’s change in perspective in his later years concerning the Hebrew Matthew writes, “In later years Jerome ceased to regard the Hebrew Gospel as the original Matthew.”6

5. R.C.H. Lenski
“We may add that Jerome (second half of the fourth century) thought that he had discovered Matthew's Hebrew Gospel in the Aramaic ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes,’ or ‘Gospel of the Hebrews,’ a Jewish Christian sect, but he himself later discovered his mistake.”7

For more information Jerome’s and others’ views specifically on the Gospel of the Hebrews see the article entitled “Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel and The Gospel of the Hebrews.”

 

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. Metzger, Bruce, Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2005, 100-101

2. Metzger, Bruce, Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2005, 105

3. Lee, William, The Inspiration of Holy Scripture: Its Nature and Proof: Eight Discourses, Preached Before the University of Dublin, R. Carter & Brothers, 1860, 470-471

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

5. Morison, James, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Hodder and Stoughton, 1902, xxxv-xxxvii

6. James, Montague Rhode, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1924), pp. 1-8.

7. Lenski, R.C.H., Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Augsburg Publishing House, 1964, 11