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Matthew’s Authorship of a Hebrew and Greek Gospel
In our main article we saw the testimony of three early church fathers, Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius indicate that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew (Aramaic) and in Greek. In this article is more testimony from other early church fathers.
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
For a list of the early church fathers, who they were and when they lived, mentioned in this article, click here.
Testimony for Matthew’s Authorship of a Hebrew Gospel
The historical literary evidence demonstrates that the early church understood Matthew the Apostle to have been the author of an original Hebrew (Aramaic) Gospel of Matthew.
1. The Testimony of Papias (100-120 AD)
Papias was an early church father who ministered in the first half of the second century.
James Morison explains his significance to the question of a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew,
“But let us look…at the earliest and most important of all the testimonies on the subject. It has been singularly preserved in a fragment of the writings of Papias, that has itself been happily preserved by Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History. Papias flourished in the beginning of the 2nd century. He was, says Irenaeus, ‘a companion of Polycarp.’ He became bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia. He had been a hearer of Aristion and John the Presbyter, personal disciples of the Lord.”1
Papias as quoted by Eusebius 3.39.16
“But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: ‘So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.’”
There are several views that scholars take regarding what Papias’ brief statement means. It is the view of the author that Papias is most likely describing a Hebrew original version of Matthew’s Gospel, which at the beginning needed to be translated into Greek to be understood by Greek speaking Gentiles of which there were many. Once Matthew wrote the Greek version a Hebrew version was no longer necessary.
Robert Thomas holds this view as he writes,
“A final view, distinct from the others (and also from their synoptic hypotheses) is that Papias referred to an earlier edition of Matthew. This was written entirely in Hebrew (namely, Aramaic) and preceded the Greek version of the gospel. That was perhaps a proto-Matthew, namely, a shorter version that eventually came to be incorporated into (not necessarily translated from but contained within) an expanded Greek version, namely, the canonical gospel of Matthew.
Thus, Papias indicated that Matthew wrote first (prior to the other gospels) and that in so doing, he produced an initial Aramaic edition. The Aramaic edition served as a model and/or source for some of the contents of his Greek edition that he most likely produced as a fresh work soon after he wrote the Aramaic one.”
2. The Testimony of Pantaenus (d.c.200 AD)
Eusebius writes concerning the testimony to the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew of an important church leader named Pantaenus. Pantaenus had become leader of the Catechetical School of Alexandria previous to Clement who was followed by Origen.
Eusebius, History of the Church 5.10.3-4
“Pantaenus was one of these and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time. After many good deeds, Pantaenus finally became the head of the school at Alexandria, and expounded the treasures of divine doctrine both orally and in writing.”
Jerome also mentions Pantaenus and his testimony in his work, The Lives of Illustrious Men.
Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men, 36
“Pantaenus, a philosopher of the stoic school, according to some old Alexandrian custom, where, from the time of Mark the evangelist the ecclesiastics were always doctors, was of so great prudence and erudition both in scripture and secular literature that, on the request of the legates of that nation, he was sent to India by Demetrius bishop of Alexandria, where he found that Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, had preached the advent of the Lord Jesus according to the gospel of Matthew, and on his return to Alexandria he brought this with him written in Hebrew characters. Many of his commentaries on Holy Scripture are indeed extant, but his living voice was of still greater benefit to the churches. He taught in the reigns of the emperor Severus and Antoninus surnamed Caracalla.”
William Lee comments concerning Pantaenus’ testimony,
“To the foregoing passages must be added the strictly independent, and, therefore, from the nature of this controversy, most important, testimony of S. Pantaenus (A. D. 181). Eusebius tells us that S. Pantaenus preached the Gospel as far as India; and that he there found some persons acquainted with S. Matthew's Gospel, to whom S. Bartholomew the Apostle had already preached (Hist. Eccl. lib. v. ?. 10, p. 223). The evidence, of which a sketch has thus been given, must be held to establish the fact that S. Matthew originally wrote in Hebrew, or rather Syro-Chaldaic.”3
3. The Testimony of Epiphanius (c.320- 403AD)
Epiphanius was bishop of Salamis, a city on the east coast of the island of Cyprus.
Epiphanius indicates in his Panarion that Matthew wrote first and in Hebrew (Aramaic) for the Hebrews.
Epiphanius Panarion 51.5.1
“For Matthew was the first to become an evangelist. He was directed to issue the Gospel first. (I have spoken largely of this in another sect; however I shall not mind dealing with the same things again, as proof of the truth and in refutation of the erring.) As I said, Matthew, was privileged to be the first Gospel, and this was absolutely right. Because he had repented of many sins, and had risen from the receipt of custom and followed him who came for man’s salvation and said, ‘I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, it was Matthew’s duty to present the message of salvation first as an example for us, who would be saved like this man who was restored in the tax office and turned from his iniquity. From him men would learn the graciousness of Christ’s advent.”
(Quote is from The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Tr. Frank Williams, BRILL, Boston, Mass. 1987)
Epiphanius Panarion 51.5.3
Matthew himself wrote and issued the gospel in the Hebrew alphabet, and did not begin at the beginning, but traced Christ’s pedigree from Abraham. ‘Abraham begat Isaac’ he said, ‘and Isaac begat Jacob’ and so on down to Joseph and Mary.
(Quote is from The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Tr. Frank Williams, BRILL, Boston, Mass. 1987)
4. The Testimony of Augustine (354AD-430AD)
Augustine is important because he lived at the same time as Jerome and most likely reflects the views of the bishops and other leaders of the church apart from Jerome’s scholarly speculation concerning the Gospel of Matthew.
Augustine indicates in his Harmony of the Gospels that Matthew wrote his gospel in the Hebrew language.
Augustine Harmony of the Gospels, 1.2.4
“Of these four, it is true, only Matthew is reckoned to have written in the Hebrew language; the others in Greek. And however they may appear to have kept each of them a certain order of narration proper to himself, this certainly is not to be taken as if each individual writer chose to write in ignorance of what his predecessor had done, or left out as matters about which there was no information things which another nevertheless is discovered to have recorded. But the fact is, that just as they received each of them the gift of inspiration, they abstained from adding to their several labours any superfluous conjoint compositions. For Matthew is understood to have taken it in hand to construct the record of the incarnation of the Lord according to the royal lineage, and to give an account of most part of His deeds and words as they stood in relation to this present life of men.”
5. The Testimony of Jerome (342-420 AD)
Jerome was a Biblical scholar who studied Greek and Hebrew, wrote the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible and several commentaries.
Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 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…”
For more testimony on the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew by Jerome, see the article “Jerome’s Scholarly Speculation.”
Testimony for Matthew’s Authorship of the Greek Gospel
The historical literary evidence demonstrates that the early church understood Matthew the Apostle himself to have been the author of the Greek Gospel of Matthew.
Note: It is held by virtually all scholars that the early church fathers had only the Greek Gospel of Matthew. Any commentary on the text they make comes from their reading and study of the Greek text 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 at one time, but there is no clear evidence that a church father actually possessed it and used it.
Only Origen and later Jerome even understood Hebrew and could have used it anyway. Jerome mentions that he had what people in his time were calling the “Original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew,” but he never uses it as if it were indeed the original Hebrew Matthew. For more information on Jerome’s statements see “Jerome’s Scholarly Speculation.”
1. The Testimony of Tertullian (c.160 – c.220)
1) Tertullian refers to the impact and widespread use of the Greek Gospel of Matthew and then names its author as Matthew the apostle.
In the following two passages from chapter 4 of Tertullian’s work Against Marcion Tertullian states that John and Matthew “first instilled faith into us” referring to their authorship of their respective gospels which had spiritually impacted the lives of believers throughout the Mediterranean world (4.2). He then states that the churches “possessed” the four gospels, referring to the widespread use of the four gospels (4.5). Both comments about the widespread use of the gospels could only have been true of the Greek Matthew since the churches at large didn’t possess the Hebrew Matthew. His indication that Matthew was the author of his gospel refers to the Greek Matthew.
Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2
“We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles; because the preaching of disciples might be open to the suspicion of an affectation of glory, if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters. Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith, so far as relates to the one only God the Creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfill the law and the prophets.”
Tertullian Against Marcion, 4.5
“…The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage--I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew--whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke's form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”
2) Tertullian indicates that Matthew wrote the Greek gospel he quotes. He uses standard phrases that express authorship.
This is especially significant in that Tertullian never mentions the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. All his references to the Gospel of Matthew come from the Greek text.
Tertullian, On The Flesh of Christ 20
“It is, however, a fortunate circumstance that Matthew also, when tracing down the Lord's descent from Abraham to Mary, says, ‘Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Christ.’”
Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 22
“There is, first of all, Matthew, that most faithful chronicler of the Gospel, because the companion of the Lord; for no other reason in the world than to show us clearly the fleshly original of Christ, he thus begins his Gospel: ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’”
2. The Testimony of Epiphanius (c.320- 403AD)
As mentioned above, Epiphanius is significant because he lived the same time as Jerome and reflects what was held by the bishops of the church concerning the authorship of the Greek Gospel of Matthew.
Quotes are from The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Tr. Frank Williams, BRILL, Boston, Mass. 1987
Epiphanius indicates in his Panarion that Matthew wrote the Greek gospel he quotes. He uses standard phrases that express authorship.
Epiphanius Panarion 8.2
“For St. Matthew enumerated the generations (of Christ’s genealogy) in three paragraphs, and said that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David till the captivity, and fourteen until the captivity until Christ.”
Epiphanius Panarion 51.5.4
“And he wrote at the beginning, ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David,’ and then said, ‘the son of Abraham.’ Then, coming to his main point, he said, “The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.”
Epiphanius Panarion 51.6.2
“Didn’t God give each evangelist his own assignment, so that each of the four evangelists whose duty was to proclaim the gospel could find what he was to do and proclaim some things in agreement and alike to show that they were from the same source, but otherwise describe what another had omitted, as each received his proportionate share from the Spirit?”
3. The Testimony of Augustine (354AD-430AD)
Augustine, like Epiphanius is important because he lived at the same time as Jerome and balances out any scholarly speculation by Jerome concerning the Greek Gospel of Matthew. Augustine’s views most likely represented the ones held by the bishops of the church.
1) Augustine also indicates that Matthew wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew by quoting a passage that could only have come from Greek Matthew and naming Matthew as its author.
In the passage below, like Eusebius, Augustine quotes the words of Jesus on the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. These words are first given in the Hebrew Aramaic which Jesus spoke to explain why people thought Jesus was crying out for Elijah. It is then translated into Greek by the author whom Augustine says is Matthew when he writes “Matthew continues [in his narrative].” This could only be true of the Greek Matthew where the author would have translated them into Greek to help his readers understand what Jesus was saying. There would have been no need for this in the Hebrew Matthew.
The Harmony of the Gospels, 3.17.54
“Matthew proceeds in the following terms: ‘Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.’ The same fact is attested by two others of the evangelists. Luke adds, however, a statement of the cause of the darkness, namely, that the sun was darkened. Again, Matthew continues thus: ‘And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani! That is to say, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, ‘This man calls for Elias.’ Mark's agreement with this is almost complete, so far as regards the words, and not only almost, but altogether complete, so far as the sense is concerned.”
2) Augustine also indicates in his Harmony that Matthew was the author of the Greek Matthew in his statement that Matthew gave the world his gospel which could only have been the Greek Gospel of Matthew.
Augustine Harmony of the Gospels, 1.1.1
“In the entire number of those divine records which are contained in the sacred writings, the gospel deservedly stands pre-eminent. For what the law and the prophets aforetime announced as destined to come to pass, is exhibited in the gospel in its realization and fulfillment. The first preachers of this gospel were the apostles, who beheld our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in person when He was yet present in the flesh. And not only did these men keep in remembrance the words heard from His lips, and the deeds wrought by Him beneath their eyes; but they were also careful, when the duty of preaching the gospel was laid upon them, to make mankind acquainted with those divine and memorable occurrences which took place at a period antecedent to the formation of their own connection with Him in the way of discipleship, which belonged also to the time of His nativity, His infancy, or His youth, and with regard to which they were able to institute exact inquiry and to obtain information, either at His own hand or at the hands of His parents or other parties, on the ground of the most reliable intimations and the most trustworthy testimonies. Certain of them also - namely, Matthew and John - gave to the world, in their respective books, a written account of all those matters which it seemed needful to commit to writing concerning Him.”
Again, Augustine indicates that Matthew was the author of the Greek Matthew with his statement that his gospel, along with the other evangelists, had remarkable circulation over the whole world which could only be true of the Greek Matthew.
Augustine Harmony of the Gospels, 1.2.3
“Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four—it may be for the simple reason that there are four divisions of that world through the universal length of which they, by their number as by a kind of mystical sign, indicated the advancing extension of the Church of Christ—are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John. Hence, too, [it would appear that] these had one order determined among them with regard to the matters of their personal knowledge and their preaching [of the gospel], but a different order in reference to the task of giving the written narrative. As far, indeed, as concerns the acquisition of their own knowledge and the charge of preaching, those unquestionably came first in order who were actually followers of the Lord when He was present in the flesh, and who heard Him speak and saw Him act; and [with a commission received] from His lips they were dispatched to preach the gospel. But as respects the task of composing that record of the gospel which is to be accepted as ordained by divine authority, there were (only) two, belonging to the number of those whom the Lord chose before the Passover, that obtained places—namely, the first place and the last. For the first place in order was held by Matthew, and the last by John. And thus the remaining two, who did not belong to the number referred to, but who at the same time had become followers of the Christ who spoke in these others, were supported on either side by the same, like sons who were to be embraced, and who in this way were set in the midst between these two.”
Thomas and Farnell comment that this passage reveals Augustine’s belief that Matthew authored both the Hebrew and Greek versions of Matthew’s Gospel.
“Here Augustine implicitly accepts that the Greek Matthew came from the apostle Matthew as its author and that John was written by the apostle John...Augustine goes on to note that prior to the Greek version of Matthew, the apostle wrote first in the Hebrew language, once again confirming the tradition set forth in the other church fathers: ‘Of these four, it is true, only Matthew is reckoned to have written in the Hebrew language; the others in Greek.’ Yet as with other church fathers, Augustine does not explain the transition from Aramaic to Greek, but accepts without question that the Greek version was from the apostle. He confirmed that latter point by following up his comments on the order of the Gospels and on Matthew's composition of his gospel in Greek before the others with his analysis of the Greek Matthew (as well as the other Greek gospels) as to their themes and character, thereby leaving the strong impression that he saw no significant difference between the Aramaic and Greek versions of Matthew's gospel.”4
4. Jerome (342-420 AD)For the comments by Jerome, see article entitled “Scholarly Speculation of Jerome.”
5. Leo the Great (395-461 AD)
Leo was a significant leader in the church of the 5th century who lived after Jerome. He also shows that the bishops of the church believed that Matthew wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew.
1) Leo, like Augustine, indicates that Matthew wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew by quoting a passage that could only have come from Greek Matthew and naming Matthew as its author.
He states “Matthew says” and then quotes the same Greek text that Irenaeus quotes Emmanuel which is interpreted ‘God with us.’ This is a translation of the Hebrew (Aramaic) word “Emmanuel” which Matthew added to explain the word to Gentile readers and would have only appeared in the Greek text. Like Irenaeus, Leo therefore must have assumed Matthew wrote the Greek text.
Leo the Great (d. 461A.D.), Sermon 23, On the Feast of the Nativity III
“And so God, the Son of God, equal and of the same nature from the Father and with the Father, Creator and Lord of the Universe, Who is completely present everywhere, and completely exceeds all things, in the due course of time, which runs by His own disposal, chose for Himself this day on which to be born of the blessed virgin Mary for the salvation of the world, without loss of the mother’s honour. For her virginity was violated neither at the conception nor at the birth: ‘that it might be fulfilled,’ as the Evangelist says, ‘which was spoken by the Lord through Isaiah the prophet, saying, behold the virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is interpreted, God with us.’ For this wondrous child-bearing of the holy Virgin produced in her offspring one person which was truly human and truly Divine.”
2) Leo indicates in his other works that Matthew wrote the Greek gospel he quotes. He uses standard phrases that express authorship.
Leo the Great, Letter 28, To Flavian commonly called "the Tome"
“But if he could not draw a rightful understanding (of the matter) from this pure source of the Christian belief, because he had darkened the brightness of the clear truth by a veil of blindness peculiar to himself, he might have submitted himself to the teaching of the Gospels. And when Matthew speaks of ‘the Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.’ he might have also sought out the instruction afforded by the statements of the Apostles.”
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. Morison, James, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Hodder and Stoughton, 1902, xl-xli
2. Thomas, Robert L. and Farnell, F. David, Jesus Crisis, Kregel Publications, 1998, 44-45
3. Lee, William, The Inspiration of Holy Scripture: Its Nature and Proof, R. Carter & Brothers,1860,469
4. Thomas, Robert L. and Farnell, F. David, Jesus Crisis, Kregel Publications, 1998, 44-55