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I recently came across a post which suggested that Mathew was originally written in Hebrew. I had never heard this before... is this a significant scholarly position? If so, what evidence supports it?

Also, how do New Testament textual critics normally handle this; have there been attempts to reconstruct the original Hebrew? For those who believe in inspiration, would it then be the Hebrew that is inspired?

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One of the most significant differences often quoted from the Shem Tov Matthew is in 23:2-3 where most of our translations read: "...The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that THEY tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds;..." But in the Shem Tov version, the Hebrew actually replaces the "THEY" with "HE" which makes the meaning to obey the Torah of Moses, but not necessarily what the Pharisees say. –  Patrick Jun 30 at 23:54
As I understand it, from an extensive study on this a while back, there are actually about 20 different translations of the book of Matthew, all with substantial differences, many of which are in Hebrew. However, the most authoritative (oldest) Hebrew version is named the Shem Tov Matthew and only veers slightly from the Greek version on which most of our English translations are based. –  Patrick Jun 30 at 23:54
One of my seminary profs (Wave Nunnally) holds this position. Scholars in the field who would be most likely to hold it whom I am familiar with are: Brad H. Young, David Flusser, Marvin Wilson, and David Bivin. –  Frank Luke Jul 2 at 13:27
Note that when Papias says "Hebrew language" he may have meant Aramaic. –  Noah Jul 2 at 14:24

3 Answers 3

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Is this a significant scholarly position?

Significant enough that it is discussed regularly in various scholarly places. For example, there is extensive discussion in a fairly recent work: D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 142-150 (hereafter referred to as C&M).

In that work they discuss the credibility of the earliest witness of authorship, Papias, whose original works are lost, but is quoted by Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39.16 as

ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ἱστόρηται τῷ Παπίᾳ περὶ τοῦ Μάρκου: περὶ δὲ τοῦ Ματθαίου ταῦτ̓ εἴρηται: ‘Ματθαῖος μὲν οὖν Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήνευσεν δ̓ αὐτὰ ὡς ἦν δυνατὸς ἕκαστος.’

Translated to English in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine Vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 173:

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.”

As C&M state, however, the passage from Papias "is notoriously difficult to translate," and they give various translation possibilities in parenthesis of this expanded translation of theirs (p.143):

“Matthew συνετάξετο (synetaxeto, ‘composed’? ‘compiled’? ‘arranged [in an orderly form]’?) τὰ λόγια (ta logia, ‘the sayings’? ‘the gospel’?) in Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (Hebraïdi dialektō, ‘the Hebrew [Aramaic] language’? ‘Hebrew [Aramaic] style’?), and each ἡρμήνευσεν (hērmēneusen, ‘interpreted’? ‘translated’ ‘transmitted’?) them as best he could.”

C&M further state that (p.143):

There is no doubt that the early church understood this to mean that Matthew first wrote his gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic (the same Greek word was used to refer to both cognate languages) and that it was then translated by others.

Which they later support this view of the church fathers, stating (p.145; note that I have added links to English translations in brackets following links to original text):

for instance, of Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1 [English], quoted in Eusebius, H.E. 5.8.2 [English]), Tertullian (Adv. Marc., 4.2 [this support seems weak to me, as the English translation is not clear that he ascribes Matthews gospel to Hebrew; I do not read Latin]), Origen (quoted by Eusebius, H.E. 6.25.3–6 [English]), Eusebius himself (H.E. 3.24.5–6 [English]), and Jerome (De vir. ill. 3 [English])

Some scholars holding this view are noted by C&M (p.143 n.17):

C. F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925); C. C. Torrey, Our Translated Gospels (London: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.); A. Schlatter, Der Evangelist Matthäus: Seine Sprache, sein Ziel, seine Selbständigkeit, 6th ed. (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1963); P. Gaechter, Die literarische Kunst im Matthäusevangelium (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1966); J. W. Wenham, “Gospel Origins,” TrinJ 7 (1978): 112–34.

For one site's listing of quotes from scholarly supporters, see the page on hebrewgospel.com.

What evidence supports it?

The main evidence is from the early church testimony—see links given above and perhaps points as argued on hebrewgospel.com. An issue, however, is whether these are independent witnesses or not. In other words, are all the witnesses that testify to it themselves relying on Papias's testimony, or did they in fact know of a written form in Hebrew themselves. For that matter, did Papias witness such a document himself, or is he also testifying second hand?

The fact is, at present, no ancient extant Hebrew version of Matthew is known to exist confirming the actuality of such a document being the source for the Greek Gospel of Matthew. That does not itself exclude the possibility, but finding such would confirm Papias.

C&M hold that "substantial linguistic evidence is against" the view because of a "mix of text forms" within the gospel and that the gospel does not "read like translation Greek" (143; they also hold to a Markan priority, which if true, complicates things by the similarities between Mark/Matthew).

Have there been attempts to reconstruct the original Hebrew?

Not that I am aware of, but if I run across anything otherwise, I'll add it here.

For those who believe in inspiration, would it then be the Hebrew that is inspired?

This I can answer for myself (since I "believe in inspiration"), though my answer could vary from others also so believing. For me, there is not doubt that the Greek is the inspired text because it is the preserved text. Whatever (if any) background writings were in Hebrew/Aramaic as "source" material, it is the forming of the Greek text that is deemed the point of inspiration (i.e. when the Holy Spirit was involved in moving Matthew to write it), in part because that was the text God preserved through the human copying process.

As an example of another who holds to "inspiration" of the text, yet allows for the possibility of an earlier Hebrew version, John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew, 1879 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008) resolve the issue like so (regarding their view of inspiration, see p.11-12):

The Gospel of Matthew, originally written in Hebrew, was translated at a very early period, and probably by Matthew himself, into our present Greek Gospel, which has ever since been received as canonical in the Church (p.22)

So the "canonical" version is considered the Greek. The quote seems to state they believe there was such an earlier version, however, later they note with respect to this possibility:

an independent examination of our present Greek Gospel by Matthew, and especially of the independent form of his quotations from the Old Testament as compared with the Septuagint, leaves the impression of an original work, whether it was written by Matthew himself, or by some other person clothed with apostolic authority. Papias relates that this Gospel was repeatedly interpreted, and the apostolic Church undoubtedly retained its most trustworthy rendering. This translation was preserved in its purity, and obtained canonical authority; while the Hebrew original was afterwards corrupted and interpolated by the Jewish-Christian sects, and in this heretical form called the Gospel of the Hebrews, which lost or rather never enjoyed canonical authority (p.42)

So the Greek is "an original work" (which implies inspired if they are holding to that) and while the Greek may be a "translation," it is one they state "was preserved in its purity." So that is how they deal with the issue.

I do feel there may be warrant for Matthew having some "source" material in Hebrew/Aramaic. Personally, I think with him being involved as a tax collector (and thus used to keeping records), that he may well have taken "notes" about his time with Jesus contemporaneous to it happening (i.e. a daily/weekly journal, so to speak). This may have been a source of his later inspired writing in Greek. But one can only conjecture about this possibility—the only extant evidence of any text is the Greek we have.

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I'm confused when you believe in the inspired text, and every word counts, in reality we don't have this text in a single book form now do we? Every single word counts, so where is this book/version and this version should not be in flux? –  public static Oct 15 at 19:12
@publicstatic: My answer is "yes" we do have the "text" located "in a single book form now" (though the "text" would not need to be in a single book for it to still be preserved and useful), as the text exists as one of the few variants noted in any particular passage that has a variant (many do not) in the modern critical editions of the Greek NT. Those editions generally do not "flux" because of new textual information, but rather opinion of parameters for determining the best reading from the variants, but the text is still there. –  ScottS Oct 15 at 20:33
In my opinion (and I have my reasons), I generally consider the majority reading is the correct one (and a far more objective measure). Also, to clarify, "every word counts" is a bit misleading, since some words count more than others when determining the meaning of a text (e.g., the presence/absence of the article in some cases), and some variants more than others (spelling need not matter, e.g. color vs. colour). I hope that at least eliminates your confusion on my view (whether you agree or not). –  ScottS Oct 15 at 20:34
yes that clarifies it, and I very curious how you resolve the various apparent contradictions and if there are variants that can get you out of those problems (genealogy, who the 12th apostle was, when Jesus is said to have died, math errors, etc.) You would have to find a variant(s) that makes all of this correct. And then you have the issues (beyond the 4 Gospels) around Paul's writings and how they are mutiple letters Jammed into a single letter. –  public static Oct 16 at 15:35
Also, to me this claim is very theoritcal in nature b/c to me the whole idea of preservation is for the masses to benefit from the idea that what they are reading is 100% word for word correct. The sad reality is it is not, 99.9999% of people think it is, as did someone living in th e 4th century when they read which is now deemed apocrypha. So yes I don't agree but I hope you also see my contentions. I appreciate you detailing your thoughts on the matter and hope you take what I say into light. –  public static Oct 16 at 15:38

There are a few scattered scholars who did believe this, though it is certainly not the prevailing opinion. The Wikipedia article, as well as most Biblical Encyclopedias, write that the text of Matthew doesn't look like a translation.

However, at least a few scholars did believe that the Gospel of Matthew was first written in Hebrew. The Wikipedia article doesn't cite any, but does imply that scholars have thought as much due to a statement by Papias of Hierapolis (bishop, c.100-140 CE), as cited by Eusebius (Church historian, 260-340 CE). Several other church fathers seem to indicate this as well, though the exact meaning of their comments are subject to dispute. These fathers include Iranaeus (Historiae Ecclesiasticae V:8) and Origen (VI:25).

Jehoshua M. Grintz is more contemporary scholar who also argues that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, which he does using internal proofs, i.e. by showing that the book does bear the marks of a translation from Hebrew. He writes, (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Mar., 1960), pp. 41):

Taking into account all the evidence adduced, one can assert that the original language behind the Gospel of Matthew was Hebrew

As mentioned, however, this isn't the commonly accepted view today. As far as I know, there has never been any attempt to reconstruct the Hebrew text, and as far as divine inspiration... that's a religious/theological question not meant to be discussed here (try Christianity.SE)

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There is no textual evidence to suggest that the Gospel we call "Matthew" was written in Hebrew, as opposed to Greek.

The only scrap of evidence for this view is a statement made by Eusebius (an early Christian historian) that "Matthew collected the saying of Jesus in the Hebrew Language." It is not clear at all that this statement refers to the book we now call "the Gospel of Matthew."

Additionally, nothing in the received Greek text suggests it is a translation. Translations tend to bear certain nuances and weirdnesses which original works do not exhibit.

Details and further reading can be found in the (quite excellent) Wikipedia article on Matthew's Gospel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Matthew

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That quote is originally from Papias. –  Noah Jul 2 at 14:25

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