The Gospel According to the Hebrews
by Joe Viel
What were the early Christian writers refering to when they talked about the "Gospel according to the Hebrews"? In the following I will demonstrate it was a collection of writings accepted as canon by Jewish believers in the Messiah that included:
PARTS of what was called the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" - namely the part written by Matthew - were translated into Greek as what we know today as the "Gospel according to Matthew".
Jerome (340-420 AD) tells us
"Matthew,30 also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Messiah at first published in Judea in Hebrew31 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 [some translators render "copied"] to me by the Nazarenes32 of Beroea,33 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 Saviour 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,"
"for he shall be called a Nazarene."
(Jerome in Lives..., Chapter 3, CCEL translation)
Now it's clear Jerome is talking about the canonical Matthew we know today in that his argument assumes the reader (assumed most like to be a Christian reader) is already familiar with these quotes and is commenting on a familiar passage. He quotes from it to provide evidence of why it was first written in Hebrew, and we know these quotes to come from today's canonical Matthew. We're also told that the Nazarenes use it, so we know it was part of the canon accepted by early Jewish believers in Messiah.
Jerome also attributes canonical Matthew to the APOSTLE/Shaliach Matthew in vs Jovinianus, Book I, 26.
Elsewhere, Jerome says
"In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is written in the Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters, and is used by the Nazarenes to this day (I mean the Gospel according to the Apostles, or, as is generally maintained, the Gospel according to Matthew, a copy of which is in the library at Caesarea), we find,
Behold, the mother of our Lord and His brethren said to Him, John Baptist baptizes for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him. But He said to them, what sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, haply, the very words which I have said are only ignorance.
(this does not match anything in canonical Matthew and probably comes from the "Gospel of James" or some other part of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews")
And in the same volume,
"If thy brother sin against thee in word, and make amends to thee, receive him seven times in a day." Simon, His disciple, said to Him, "Seven times in a day?" The Lord answered and said to him, "I say unto thee until seventy times seven."
(this could be an attempt to describe the basic content of how Jerome remembered canonical Matt 18:21-22 reading in Hebrew/Aramaic to his best memory, also giving some translational levity here, or it could be a quote from the Gospel of James or some other part of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews".)
(Jerome in Against the Pelagians, Book III, 2, CCEL translation)
Was Jerome talking about canonical Matthew here? The second quote could indeed be. The first seems to come from something else that was also a part of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews", but not part of the "Gospel according to Matthew".
In Lives..., Chapter II, Jerome talked about "the Gospel according to the Hebrews,28 and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin", which I thought was a reference to the Gospel of Matthew the first time I read it. But now I think he was talking about the Gospels written not just by Matthew, but by James as well and perhaps other work(s) considered part of the same volumn. Note that in Lives..., Chapters 1-3 he talks about
In Chapter II, Jerome quotes from the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" and I believe what he is saying is that he is quoting from a work that was written by James. He says:
"James,24 who is called the brother of the Lord,25 surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary ...<snip>...ordained by the apostles bishop of Jerusalem, wrote a single epistle, which is reckoned among the seven Catholic Epistles ....<bio info on James omitted here>....
...Josephus records the tradition that this James was of so great sanctity and reputation among the people...<more omitted>...
The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews,28 and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen29 often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says,
"but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had. sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep)"
and again, a little later, it says
"`Bring a table and bread,' said the Lord." And immediately it is added, "He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, `my brother eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.'"
And so he ruled the church of Jerusalem thirty years, that is until the seventh year of Nero..." (Jerome, in Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter II, CCEL)
Now it would appear that from the context that Jerome is quoting from the "Gospel of James", which is one of the works in the entire volume known as the "Gospel According to the Hebrews", of which , a Hebrew original of canonical Matthew was also part of the collection.
Now the Gospel of James existed in Jerome's day - what happened to it? What happened to Jerome's translation of it? Here's a possible hint:
Origen (185-232 AD) says in Commentary on John:
If any one should lend credence to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, where the Saviour Himself says,
"My mother, the Holy Spirit took me just now by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great mount Tabor," (Origen's Commentary on John, 6)
This is not in Matthew, but apparently either the Gospel of James or some other work in the volume of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews". It described the Holy Spirit as a Maternal figure. This would sure get in the way of the Mariolatry promoted by the RCC in which Mary was described as the "Mother of God" (See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15464b.htm for a Catholic reference). So we can see why the RCC may have been severely opposed to the "Gospel according to the Hebrews". This might also explain why they promoted a Greek origin of the NT, instead of an Aramaic one, since the Aramaic NT sometimes refers to the Holy Spirit as "She" (more on that later).
Origen also said elsewhere in this
"Should the piece; entitled "The prayer of Joseph," one of the apocryphal works current among the Hebrews, be thought worthy of credence?" (Origen's Commentary on John, 25)
suggesting that there could have been more in the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" than the Gospels of Matthew and James.
Eusebius (circa 320 AD) mentioned
"Peter..... also set forth another story about a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains. " (Ecclesiastical History, III, 39:17)
John/Yochanan chapter 8 contains a story that could be considered to fit this description. John/Yoch chapter 8 is not in the Peshitta as well as being omitted from many most of the earliest Greek manuscripts as well. Did Greek scribes decide to add this story to the Gospel of John/Yoch, taking it from the "Gospel according to the Hebrews", so that it would be part of the Gentile canon as well? Perhaps so. That of course would not invalidate the story in any way, since it was part of a believing group of canon, just not part of the canon accepted by the Gentiles Christians.
In the earliest days, it seems both Jewish and Gentile believers accepted what we know today as the New Testament as canon, but Jewish believers used additional Gospels that Gentile believers did not use. Epiphanius (315-403 AD) tells us that the Nazarenes used "the New Testament...the Old Testament as well...they have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirity in Hebrew...as it was first written" (Panarion 29) (See http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qnazonly.html for more detail) . But he also tells us that the Ebionites had another work which they called "The Gospel According to the Hebrews" that was different from the one used by Nazarenes. He said
"In the Gospel that is in general use among them which is called "according to Matthew", which however is not whole and complete but forged and mutilated - they call it the Hebrews Gospel....." (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.2-3)
At http://essenes.crosswinds.net/goeb.htm are more quotes from Epiphanius that discuss in detail some of the differences between the Nazarene and Ebionite version of the "Gospel According to the Hebrews", and how the Nazarene version is considered to have matched the version the Gentile Church in the "Gospel of Matthew" portion of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews". Eusebius also confirms these words saying the Ebionites possessed a "so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews" (Eccl. Hist., Book III, Chapter 27). All of these comments help us understand that the Gospel of Matthew that was in the Gospel according to the Hebrews was substantially the same work as what appears in the New Testament, but in Hebrew, and possible combined with other writings.
Jerome wrote a commentary on Matthew in which he made a lot of comparisons of the Hebrew version used by Jewish believers in the Gospel According to the Hebrews and the Greek version of his time, letting us know that they are substantially the same Gospel, with only minor reading differences here and there that can easily be attributed to issues like translator's choice of interpretation of words and/or scribal omission of a certain sentence or phrase. Among the examples of his analysis:
Now it's obvious from this list that Jerome was citing very small differences between the Hebrew and Greek versions that exist even in variances within the same language at times. And to be citing differences this small, it's obvious that their overall phraseology of the sentences must be substantially the same, or he would not be analyzing the two works at this finely detailed of a level.
In both cases from Matthew 11, the modern duTillet agrees with the ancient rendering of Matthew over the Greek. It agrees with the minority reading of the ancient Hebrew copies of Matthew 5:22 (where the phrase in question is missing). But then some of the differences Jerome cites do not match any existing Hebrew version of Matthew. For example, he says that in Matt 4:5, where the Greek says "holy city", the Hebrew says "Jerusalem", which is not how any Semitic versions read (duTillet, Peshitta, Old Syriac, etc). Enough other differences exist to suggest that our modern Hebrew versions have at least evolved somewhat from the original Hebrew version, making the more ancient Peshitta and Old Syriac versions important witnesses as to what the original contained alongside any input from possible existing Hebrew versions that may have descended from the original Hebrew version.
However, even within the same family of manuscripts and within the same languages, we see variants like this. For example, Some Greek manuscripts say in Matt 3:14 "John was hindering" while others say "he was hindering" and 5 of 7 TR publishers omit the phrase "in which the Son of Man comes" from the Greek Matt 25:13. But modern experts can't even agree on what was and wasn't in Erasmus' original Textus Receptus word for word either, and that wasn't so long ago. Comparisons of one manuscript with another frequently vary based on spelling variances, omissions of words or phrases, and interchanging pronouns with proper names.
Here's another insight as to why we can safely say that the canonical Greek Matthew is a translation from a Hebrew version. In one of Jerome's many comparisons of the Hebrew and Greek versions of Matthew, he comments on the phrase "Bethlehem of Judaea" in Matt 2:5 by saying "this is a mistake of the scribes, for I believe that the evangelist wrote it as we read it in the Hebrew "of Judah" not "Judaea"." This is a significant quote, because it suggests several things:
So we see that the original (not Ebionite) version of the Gospel According to the Hebrews contained
John may have been included since the story of the accused woman was moved to his Gospel. Note also that Origen comments from the Gospel According to the Hebrews while he's analyzing the Gospel of John. But there's no solid evidence that this is the case, and we can only speculate as to whether Mark, Luke or other works were included as well.
But it seems that Gentile canon of what we know today as the New Testament was only part of the entire work of canon that was accepted by the earliest Jewish believers in the Messiah with the Gospel according to the Hebrews being another part of it. Was this due to the references of the Holy Spirit as a maternal figure? Was it because of Torah? Was there something else the Roman Church found offensive? We don't know for sure. But for whatever reason, the Gospel According to the Hebrews has no extant copies other than the Matthew of the Church's New Testament and quotations of it from various sources.
It may be possible that The Gospel According to the Hebrews was written in 2 languages. Note that Jerome said
"In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is written in the Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters"
Reading this in English, it sounds like he's saying it was written in two different dialects of Aramaic. But he could also be saying it was written in, what we would call in English, "Hebrew" and "Aramaic". "Syrian" was the Greek/Latin term for "Aramaic", though today in English we might use that term to refer to the particular dialect of Aramaic spoken in the Syrian area. While English speaking people often use "Chaldean" to refer to a specific dialect of Aramaic, it was used in Jerome's time as a generic term for "Semitic". That is, Aramaic, Sumerian, Arabic, and Hebrew were all considered "Chaldean" languages. Perhaps this is because the society of their day all viewed Babylon as the source of all Semitic culture and that Hebrew and Syrian all evolved from Chaldean form of Aramaic. Irregardless of whether that's right or whether that's wrong, if they believed that, it would explain why they used this term this way.
Evidence of this is found in the writings of Philo. Philo says the Jews "original ancestors belonged to the Chaldeans, but this people migrated from Syria to Egypt" (Apology for the Jews, 6.1). In On Moses, he says "Moses was, by race, a Chaldean" (On Moses, 5) and then only a little later calls his mother a "Hebrew" (On Moses, 16). Often, when a Hebrew word agrees with an Aramaic cognant, he simply calls it a "Chaldean" word and he sometimes refers to the Hebrew language as "Chaldean" (On Moses , 29-32). He says the "Law" (Torah) was originally written "only in Chaldean in ancient times" (On Moses II, 29), referring obviously to Hebrew and then says that Ptolemey had Torah translated from "Chaldean" to Greek. But elsewhere he uses "Chaldean" to refer to something Babylonian, and not Jewish at all. Examples include
So he does indeed use the term "Chaldean" at times in ways that are exclusive of Hebrew. This double usage of the term is best explained in light of his comments from Apology for the Jews, 6.1, in which he describes Jews as "ancestors" of Chaldeans, and therefore saw "Hebrew" as a subset of the term "Chaldean", which also included Babylonians, Syrians, Sumerians, etc.
So we see that "Chaldean" was used similar to how we use "Semitic" today (though not with all the same connotations/etymologies/etc). Getting back to Jerome's quote, he's says that the Gospel According to the Hebrews was written in more than one language. We know from several sources it included the original Hebrew Matthew. So it's quite like that one or more of the additional works that were in the Gospel According to the Hebrews may have been written in Syrian or Aramaic. Jerome said it was written in "Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters". Now why did he say "Chaldean" rather than "Hebrew"? Probably to emphasize the mix of Hebrew and Aramaic. He was probably trying to emphasize how the various books that were in GH were a mix. We understand Matthew to have been one of the books in GH, and Jerome, as well as others, described it as written in "Hebrew". It probably had other books written in Aramaic, and maybe others written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic (perhaps similar to Daniel or Ezra). But according to Jerome, even the Aramaic parts were in Hebrew letters.
Now many critics of the Gospel claim that when ancient writers say Matthew was written in Hebrew, they really MEANT Aramaic. One weakness in that argument lies in the fact that if that were true, why didn't they use the word "Chaldean" ? "Hebrew" is getting more specific, thus there's no reason to try and reinterpret the wording history has handed us.