Biblical Hebrew and its New Testament application. Matthew's Hebrew Gospel. Was the first gospel written in Hebrew?

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Matthew's Hebrew Gospel

Early church evidence

The early churchman, Papias, wrote that "Matthew wrote down the sayings in Hebrew and each translated it as he was able", (Eusebius, H.E. [the History of the Church], 3.39; cf. 3.24).
"Matthew published a written gospel for the Hebrews in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their passing, Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter. Luke ... . Lastly, John ..." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.2; cf. Eusebius, H.E., 5.8)
Pantaenus, c.180s, an early church missionary and Bible scholar, travelled to India to preach the gospel but found that the apostle Bartholomew had gone there before and left behind Matthew's gospel,
"in the actual Hebrew characters" (Eusebius, H.E., 5.10; cf. Jerome, De.Vir.Ill. 36).
Origen, around the end of the 2nd century, wrote in his commentary on Matthew that he only accepted,
"the traditional view of the four gospels which alone are undeniably authentic in the church of God on earth. First to be written was that of the one-time exciseman who became an apostle of Jesus Christ - Matthew; it was published for believers of Jewish origin, and was composed in Hebrew letters/language. Next came that of Mark, who followed Peter's instructions in writing it ... Next came that of Luke, who wrote for Gentile converts ... Last of all came John's." (Origen cited in Eusebius, H.E., 6.25).
Athanasius and Epiphanius (Synops. sacr. Script. p. 134. Vol. 2.; Contra Haeres. 1. Haer. 29. & 30) confirm the above traditions as does Jerome (4th century, Catalog. Script. Eccles fol. 90. Tom. 1. ad Hedib. fol. 46. Tom. 3).

The early Arabic, Persian and Syriac manuscript versions also assert the original primacy and Hebrew language of Matthew.

Matthew's is the only gospel apart from John's which was written by an original apostle of the 12. Are we really to think that the one who heard Jesus' words in person had to copy Mark's second-hand reporting of Peter or Luke's 3rd hand narrative via Paul?

Carsten Thiede recently reviewed some manuscript fragments of Matthew's gospel and redated them to sometime in the 40s or 50s because of a number of reasons. Firstly, the writing style was that of a scribal copyists hand which was not used later. More interestingly, the name of Jesus was written ΙΣ rather than ΙΕΣΟΥΣ, i.e., 'J-S' rather than 'Jesus', in English transliteration. This is similar to the Jewish practice of rendering Yahweh as YHVH, YH or YY. This implies that the author of Matthew was Jewish, of an early date, and probably writing before the major influx of gentiles into the church after Acts 11/15.

The actual date of Matthew

The time when this Gospel was written is said by some (Vid. Fabricii Biblioth. Graec. 4.5. sect. 2. p. 197 & Vales. not. in Euseb. Eccl. Hist. p. 52; cf. 3.24,39) to be in the eighth or ninth, by others, in the fifteenth year after the ascension of Christ. This is in part based upon Irenaeus' comment above about Peter's preaching in Rome, held by traditionalists to be A.D. 42 (the second year of Claudius by one tradition (Eusebius Chronicle 153), of Peter's going to "another place" (Acts 12:17) and building a foundation for the church of Rome (Romans 15:20-24) and the year of the apostles' dispersion from Jerusalem), some 9 or 12 years after the ascension depending on the date of that in 30/33. The dates have varies considerably from A.D. 33 (A 6th century writer) to 150! Eusebius, writing in the 3rd century, favoured A.D. 41.

Modern scholars normally relegate Matthew and indeed the other gospels to after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is due to their denial of prophecy when Jesus' predicts the fall of Jerusalem. Even for those that accept a pre-70 date, Mark is 99% of the time considered to be first, with Matthew and Luke copying later. Luke refers (1:1-3) to previous accounts (plural) of the gospel and of his as a more ordered one, so his can neither be first or second. Some scholars are now coming full circle and accepting an early Matthew. For example:

J.B.Orchard, Matthew, Luke and Mark, 1976
John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, H&S, 1991
John A.T.Robinson, Redating the New Testament, SCM, 1976
Carsten Peter Thiede, The Jesus Papyrus, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996

Further proofs of the priority of Matthew

Deuteronomy 6:5 appears to divide man up into "heart, soul and might", however only Matthew preserves the 3-fold imagery, Luke and Mark, writing later, realise that in Greek a 4-fold example is necessary to fully translate the sense.

In Jesus' words about the 'end' or the destruction of Jerusalem, he says "pray that your flight will not be in winter" (Mark 13:18) but Matthew gives a fuller version, adding, "or on a Sabbath" (Matthew 24:20). This fact would not likely be added by Matthew if he was copying Mark, rather the reverse is true. Matthew's additional statement would only be relevant to his Jewish readers.

The Didache ('teaching of the 12 apostles', an early Christian writing) refers to a single gospel as either 'his' or 'the' gospel in existence and which is closest in form to Matthew (Didache 8:2; 11:3; 15:3; 15:4; cf. John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, SCM, 1976). Both the Didache and Matthew are sometimes considered to have derived from Syrian Antioch, a thriving early church base from which Paul's missionary journeys began.

Matthew also contains the most typically Jewish passages (e.g., 5:18f.; 10:5; 15:26; 18:17; 23:2f.).


More material like this can be found in our bible course "What's in the Bible and what is not" and Hebrew Unit N, Hebrew in the New Testament.

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