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In which language was the name "Jesus" written and how was it pronounced in Matthew 1:1 first?

This question is asked to find out if the claims of Nehemiah Gordon in his book The Naming of Jesus in Hebrew Matthew is right.

About the contents of the book:

The Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew before being translated into Greek and other languages. The Hebrew version of Matthew survives in at least twenty-eight manuscripts copied by Jewish scribes in the Middle Ages. Among the most important manuscripts of Hebrew Matthew is the one preserved in the British Museum Library. A full-color reproduction of a section of this manuscript is now available for the first time as an 24" x 18" poster; a miniature reproduction is featured on the front cover of this booklet. The reproduction contains the story of the naming of Jesus as told in Hebrew Matthew 1:18-25 and includes the original form of Jesus Hebrew name: Yeshua. This booklet contains information about the poster reproduction of Hebrew Matthew including a Hebrew transcription, an English translation, and detailed explanations. Learn about the unique features of Hebrew Matthew, about the traditions that guided the Jewish scribes who transmitted this ancient text, and how the name Yeshua became Jesus.

This is not mainly to understand the name as in Matthew 1:18-25. But to find out if any of the apostles wrote in the greek the name Iēsoun Ἰησοῦν instead of Yeshua in Hebrew.

The background is that there is a teaching going on that the name to be called on to be saved is Yeshua and not Iēsoun Ἰησοῦν or Jesus.

It will also be good to know something about how we got the bible in English. The languages in which the books were originally written and whether they are available now. And the languages through which the translations passed for us to get the first English Bible.

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  • Jewish scribes wrote Hebrew renderings of Matthew in the Middle Ages, yes. How is that proof that Matthew ever, himself, wrote in Hebrew ? All of the relevant manuscripts are in Greek. Yeshua is the name of the man who took Israel over Jordan. Jesus is the name given for us to call upon. He was named in Greek, not Hebrew. And this is a subtle attempt to belittle the Son of God and to equate him with the man Joshua.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 2, 2019 at 21:00
  • @Nigel J As far as records go, we have Christians saying that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew and that it was translated into Greek. Anything other than this contradicts the earliest data. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of Christianity is aware of this. It's as reliable as that Matthew wrote Matthew to begin with by definition: the same source ascribes both things to Matthew. Nov 2, 2019 at 23:22
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    @SolaGratia Perhaps you would be able to document this information in an answer, referring to the actual manuscripts.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 3, 2019 at 7:23
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    The information is very readily available online, and as I said, we have just as much reason to believe Matthew wrote Matthew as that he wrote it in Hebrew and possibly wrote it again in Greek or that it was in any case translated into it. Look simply for the earliest references to Matthew writing a Gospel to see. E.g. "He shall be called yeshua for he yushia his people from their sins" only makes sense as a Hebrew-name-explanation episode classically found in the Torah. Or, "Say not we have Abraham for our father, for God is able even from these abanim to raise up benim unto Abraham." Nov 3, 2019 at 17:49
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    @JonahElbert Jonah, nouns change their form based on the case ending in Greek to denote their role in the sentence, including names which are nouns. So to say "of Christ Jesus" you need to denote this grammatically in Greek, as word order doesn't carry meaning in Greek as in English; for example: "Christou Iesou." Or here the accusative requires "Iesoun." This can be confusing if you don't know a language in which nouns are declined, but it's standard for many languages. Nov 12, 2019 at 18:19

7 Answers 7

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The only evidence whether Matthew wrote in Hebrew first is very controversial, it is the fragment of the second century author named Papias of Hierapolis. There are no extant copies of the work in question, and that fragment is only preserved in the writings of Eusebius from the fourth century.

Here is what Eusebius states (in the English Translation):

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.” And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has been already stated.

Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, 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.

The word Logia that Arthur Cushman McGiffert translated as "oracles" is where all of the controversy has raged. Those who hold to some form of historical criticism have suggested that this is should be the word sayings, presupposing that Papias was referring to an early document like the supposed Q document, written by Matthew in Hebrew. Those liberal scholars then suppose that Matthew's gospel is only a free translation of that original group of sayings. Numerous books and articles have been written by writers who take this tiny fragment and they then run with it to flights of fancy. It is a question of whether on believes the gospels to be historically reliable. Those who think them reliable (like myself) reject the fragment of Papias as unreliable. Those who reject the historical reliability of the gospels tend to view Papias as referring to "sayings" so they can reject Matthew in favor of a "Q" document.

Blomberg stated the following about the issue in Papias:

Several key words in this sentence, however, might be rendered quite differently. Dialektos (“language”) has been taken to mean style so that Papias’s remarks could be applied to canonical Greek Matthew without postulating a lost Aramaic original. But this is an extremely rare meaning for the term and not a likely interpretation. Others translate hermēneuō (“translate”) as “interpret,” a common meaning but not as likely in a context that seems to be contrasting Hebrew and Greek texts. Most significant is the debate over the meaning of logia, which does not naturally mean Gospel but sayings. Perhaps Papias is claiming that Matthew wrote down in Aramaic or Hebrew something less than a full-fledged Gospel but a collection of Jesus’ sayings (conceivably something like what modern scholars have labeled Q).

This issue is the value of any internal evidence that it was written in another language and then translated into Greek. Some have rightly pointed out that the existence of Hebraisms in Matthew are not evidence it was written in Hebrew but insistence that it was written by a Hebrew writing in Greek.

In the end one's presuppositions greatly affects how one views this controversy, as it applies to the historic reliability directly and the Synoptic Problem indirectly.

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Claims by Nehemiah Gordon can be debunked with some relatively basic research. Wikipedia notes of the Gospel of Matthew:

The oldest relatively complete manuscripts of the Bible are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, which date from the 4th century. Besides these, there exist manuscript fragments ranging from a few verses to whole chapters. P 104 and Magdalen papyrus are notable fragments of Matthew.

These fragments are notable because they are the oldest extant manuscript fragments for the Gospel of Matthew.

P 104

P 104

Magdalen papyrus

The Magdalen papyrus

In addition to the images above, you can study Codex Siniaticus in the British Librarary's digital collection and Codex Vaticanus in the digital library hosted by the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

At first glance, it appears that Gordon may be basing this idea off of the Hypothesis of George E. Howard, who postulated that tehse 28 texts were copies of origionals. however, this was largely rejected by the majority scholars who believe them to be copies of Hebrew translations.

The basis for rejecting this hypothesis can be seen by studying these early manuscripts, and you will notice that all of these texts are in greek. Furthermore, in The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text., John Nolland states that The author of Matthew was most probably writing for a community of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians located in Syria (and this generally agrees with most mainstream scholarship). Several justifications for this are provided such as the frequent mention of Antioch and the fact that even the Old Testament copies used by rabbis during that time were typically a Greek translation of the Hebrew texts called the Septuagint.

Furthermore Were the audience of Matthew not native Greek speakers, they most likely would have spoken Aramaic and if we were able to rule out Greek primacy, Aramiac would be the more likely choice for the language the Gospels were written in, not Hebrew.

Thus, for claims by Gordon to be accurate, this would have to be based on as yet undiscovered archaeological evidence contradictory to most scholarship. For each new manuscript date-able to the first and second century which is not in Hebrew, the likelihood of Hebrew or Aramaic primacy is diminished, as we would expect to see at least one or more manuscripts if Howard's/Gordan's hypothesis is correct.

The earliest translations of the Bible, such as the Tyndale Bible were directly from Greek -> English (for the book of Matthew).

Ultimately, the name Jesus is a derivative or transliteration of the Greek Ἰησοῦς. This is itself the greek transliteration/form of the name Yeshua (ישוע).

Conclusion

In answer to your question, the name of Jesus was most likely first written in greek in Matthew 1:1 which reads:

Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ (Jesus) Χριστοῦ (Christ) υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ

Audio of the pronunciation of Ἰησοῦ is available here

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  • 1
    1. The fact that the oldest extant manuscripts are in Greek doesn't preclude a Hebrew original; the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament are also in Greek. 2. The mainstream scholarship that Matthew was writing for Greek speaking Jews is based on the assumption that the original form of the gospel is Greek, and would have to be revised if his gospel were in fact originally written in Hebrew. 3. The Hebrew characters in the poster aren't nonsense. You seem to be suspecting forgery for no reason. These arguments don't really bear on the question in my opinion
    – b a
    Nov 13, 2019 at 11:37
  • @ba - I'm entirely sure I covered points 1 and 2, but re: #1 - this is not an apples to apples comparison for a lot of reasons. Regarding point #3, could you link me to a similar character set in Hebrew? I'm suspecting this poster is bunk because the text in the British Museum text referenced by Gordon either don't exist, or aren't what he is claiming it to be. That's separate from me not recognizing the character set or font used towards the bottom left of the poster - that may just be a linguistic knowledge gap that I may have been unaware of. Nov 13, 2019 at 14:56
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    I don't quite see how the points are covered in your answer. Cursive Hebrew. The poster is clearly written and starts ויהי כאשר היתה אמו ארוסה ליוסף.... Wikipedia confirms that there are manuscripts that fit his presentation of the manuscript
    – b a
    Nov 13, 2019 at 19:50
  • @ba - Thanks. I can barely read cursive in English! That makes some sense and I wondered if the explanation might be something along those lines. For #1 - for claims by Gordon to be accurate, this would have to be based on as yet undiscovered archaeological evidence and the consensus of mainstream scholarship would have to be wrong. For #2) John Nolland states that The author of Matthew was most probably writing for a community of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians located in Syria I then go on to link to a discussion of Aramaic primacy. - pretty sure that's exactly what you are saying, no? Nov 13, 2019 at 22:08
  • @ba - updated my answer in response to our discussion. Thank you for providing those additional links. Nov 13, 2019 at 22:29
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This question appears to be a question of primacy, as in determining in which language the autographs of the scriptures were composed. On this I have nothing to add.

However, the question seems to be also interested in how the word "Jesus" appears at the earliest time and that would be much earlier than Matthew. The name appears many, many times in the Greek "LXX". Joshua the son of Nun is one example and in each case it is written just as it is in the NT, in Greek.

In other words, because the Tanach is translated from Hebrew it roughly transliterates as "Joshua" while the LXX translators roughly transliterated it as IESUS, which is then roughly rendered in English as "Jesus".

The takeaway is that the writers of the NT were not sticklers for sticking as close to the Hebrew pronunciation as possible. They followed their Bible which was a Greek text.

In the absence of any extant scripture to indicate that the apostles used YOSHUA or YEHOSHUA because it is the only way to get saved is without a mandate from the scriptures.

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The critical issue in this question seems to be: "the name to be called on to be saved is Yeshua and not Iēsoun Ἰησοῦν or Jesus".

There's really no reason to think that the literal name itself is important.

When the police call and tell you to open the door in the name of the law, the actual name itself isn't important. One can say "the name of the law" or "nombre de la ley", or "nom de la loi" and it doesn't really matter which language is used, just so long as you understand what it means.

One can be saved by calling on Jeshua, or Jesus Christ, or 耶稣基督, or Gesù Cristo. The literal name itself doesn't matter. It is the person that the name represents that matters, not how the word is pronounced.

If that weren't the case, it would mean that deaf people could never be saved.

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  • ...Or mute people. Nov 15, 2019 at 20:15
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I'd like to argue the opposite perspective, from what has been shared in the most extensive, existing answers. Gordon's observation is not trivial, nor do I believe it should be lightly dismissed. (That said, the implications may not be so weighty theologically as they are historically).

This post will:

  • Review Jesus' name and its significance in Matthew 1:21
  • Offer a response to the OP on the use of Jesus' name
  • Respond to competing views


Thou shalt call His name Jesus

As noted by Nehemiah Gordon, George Howard, and others, Matthew 1:21 makes a play on words:

thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

The pun is no more evident in Greek than it is in English--it doesn't work in either language--this is a pun in Hebrew. "Jesus" (Yeshua) in Hebrew refers to a savior or one who saves.

George Howard reviewed this and many other Hebrew puns in Matthew in The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. This statement in Matthew does not make sense as something that originated in Greek. That said, this does not by itself answer the question of the original language in which Matthew was composed.

  • It could be that Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew
  • It could be that Matthew was originally composed in Greek, but it preserved a statement that was originally made in Hebrew

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The Use of Jesus' Name

It is common to hear that first-century Galileans (such as Jesus and most of the original apostles) spoke only Aramaic, and that by this time Hebrew was a dead language--this was a popular argument a century ago, but it hasn't kept up with the evidence that has come forth in subsequent years. The Dead Sea Scrolls in particular put the nail in the coffin on this argument--Hebrew was clearly alive and well in the region around Jerusalem in the first century.

The best concise, admittedly ever-so-slightly oversimplified description that I've encountered of the trilingual milieu in which Jesus lived is this:

  • Aramaic was the language of the home
  • Hebrew was the language of the synagogue
  • Greek was the language of the marketplace

A well-traveled Galilean man of this time would have been conversant in all three. In the eastern Roman Empire, however, the common man would not have spoken Latin. Though Roman officials/soldiers could communicate among themselves in Latin, they communicated with the local population in Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern portion of the empire.

For a more extended discussion, see the video on my channel: What languages did Jesus speak?.

For a review of the political (and anti-Semitic) reasons for which 19th-century German scholars tried to convince the world that Jesus did not speak Hebrew, see Baltes' work here.

That said, Jesus' family and relatives would not have referred to Him in Greek, they would have principally conversed in Hebrew & Aramaic (Government officials may have referred to Him in Greek though). And whatever the original language of the composition of Matthew, the angel's statement is not something that would have been said or invented in Greek--this name was given in Hebrew.

Sometimes a mountainous theological claim is made out of this evidence. I respectfully disagree. It is sometimes claimed that we must call upon Jesus in whatever language the original believers did (or in the language of Matthew's declaration), or we will call in vain. This entirely misses the point of what Matthew is saying here. The angel wasn't giving a command to the world, he's telling Joseph what to name the boy.

Even granting that the original apostles would have regularly conversed with and referred to Jesus in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, Paul, who wrote nearly a quarter of the New Testament, regularly preached about Jesus in Greek, and referred to Him in Greek.

Furthermore, Peter dispelled the idea that we must comply with an esoteric original-language requirement to be acceptable to God--from his experience with Cornelius he declared:

34 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:

35 But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. (Acts 10:34-35)

Fearing God & working righteousness are expected, not speaking Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, and that is true in every nation (most of which, historically, haven't spoken any of those 3 languages).

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Response to Competing Views

I enjoy a good, healthy debate, and hope my colleagues on this site don't disagree.

Ken Banks suggested that the only evidence for a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is the statement of Papias preserved by Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39. This simply is not the case. Irenaeus, Origen, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Jerome, and others all provide evidence that Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew. And even if we throw out the weight of the evidence from Irenaeus & Eusebius, because they weren't well-versed in Hebrew and had clearly read Papias, this does not impeach the credibility of the single greatest Hebrew-speaking Christian scholar of the Ante-Nicene church: Origen of Alexandria.

If Origen says Matthew was written in Hebrew, that is a weighty scholarly statement. I respectfully suggest that efforts to blame this all on a misunderstanding of Papias miss the mark. Well into the time of Jerome people were claiming this or that document was (or was derived from) the Hebrew original of Matthew (source). Some of these documents clearly originated in the 2nd century and were forgeries...but the fact that 2nd century Christians were writing Gospels in Hebrew and claiming they were the original only worked in a world that knew that the original was, in fact, in Hebrew.

Another evidence supporting a Hebrew original to the Gospel of Matthew is Shem Tob Matthew (translated by George Howard, see link above), which is a Hebrew copy of the Gospel of Matthew preserved by a Jewish writer in the 14th century. Though it's clearly a corrupted text centuries removed from the original, Howard showed multiple ways that the text is not conceivably a translation from Greek, it genuinely looks like a composition originally created in Hebrew.

As briefly noted in other answers, there are numerous plays on words in Matthew that work only in Hebrew. One play on words might happen by accident (such as the one really famous play on words in Greek in Matthew 16), but scores of puns are no accident. With each pun it becomes more implausible to argue that a Greek writer carefully preserved a Hebrew play on words that had no comparable significance in Greek.

Finally, as I have argued elsewhere, I believe the Synoptic Problem demands an original composition of Matthew in Hebrew. My work on the Synoptic Problem can be found here and here.

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James Shewey has argued from manuscript & scholarly evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally composed in Greek.

Manuscripts

All of the early manuscripts of Matthew are in Greek. Does this mean nothing preceded them? No. No more so than would the fact that the earliest manuscripts of Matthew date to the 2nd century would mean that Matthew was written in the 2nd century (it wasn't; it was written in the 1st; the original and earliest copies are long since lost).

If Matthew was written in Hebrew, it would have had limited utility outside of Jerusalem and its environs. When the apostles took the Christian message beyond Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (they were already doing this in the 40s AD), they would have been teaching in Greek. A translation of Matthew into Greek would have been necessary.

Since the oldest surviving manuscripts overwhelmingly come from Egypt & Sinai (arid climate allows papyrus to survive) and Constantinople (it had the longest-lived major Christian library), of course all of the early manuscripts will be in Greek! A Hebrew copy of Matthew would have been of little utility in Egypt, Sinai, or Constantinople.

Through a Darwinian process, the original Hebrew would have readily gone out of circulation, since the overwhelming majority of Christian churches beyond the first two generations would have needed the text in Greek (and later Latin), and could not read Hebrew.

Did the Gospel of Matthew originate in Syria? Probably not. This is a modern hypothesis which depends upon a very speculative premise: that Matthew was not written until after AD 70. In my video series linked above, I provide extensive arguments to the contrary.

Modern skeptical scholarship has sought to locate Matthew's composition in Syria, a generation after Easter (as opposed to near Jerusalem, shortly after Easter) in furtherance of a naturalistic agenda: if Matthew's claims could have been made in the time and place where Jesus' ministry occurred, they are almost certainly a reliable historical account--otherwise, people who were there could have quickly dismissed Matthew as fiction.

So the skeptics assume--since in their naturalistic view there are no miracles--Matthew must have been published far away in time and place from the events it describes. This argument is circular.

Regarding Aramaic vs. Hebrew, see my post here. Jesus' early audience would have spoken Aramaic, but they would not have read their scriptures in Aramaic--the scrolls of the Tanakh were Hebrew documents. It would be only natural for an early and authoritative record of Jesus' ministry, published near Jerusalem, to be penned in the language of Jewish scripture: Hebrew.

The scholarly "consensus" against spoken and written Hebrew in the time of Jesus relies upon very weak premises and outdated data. As discussed further on this site by Frank Luke (here), there's good reason to believe:

  • Jesus spoke Hebrew AND
  • Jesus' words could have been recorded in Hebrew

The evidence from the Synoptic Problem, and Hebrew plays on words, leads me to conclude that the Gospel of Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew.

If so, Matthew 1:1 originally recorded Jesus' name in Hebrew, and it would have been pronounced "Yeshua" or "Yehoshua".

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    Wow, this is interesting stuff. I learned just a few months ago that "Jesus" is the English transliteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ‎), which most likely derives from the Hebrew word יָשַׁע(see Strong's H3467), pronounced yasha, which means "to save/to deliver". So, Yeshua is "salvation" or "one who saves", hence why the angel said for he shall save his people from their sins (indeed, this is not realized in either Greek or English). Great answer. +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    Apr 26 at 21:31
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Well. This is interesting. And seems to leave out the fact that the Israelites did not speak what we call "Hebrew" today. Paleo Hebrew was their language before their captivity in Babylon, where they were forced to change their original Greek Paleo Hebrew names (See Daniel), and accept the pagan Assyrian language, which linguistically is what we call Hebrew today. Aramaic and Hebrew are from the same language family, almost identical. The original Paleo Hebrew alphabet is almost identical to Greek - same language family. And Paleo Hebrew is much older than the Hebrew we have today. So, there you have it. Do your research on languages. That is why the Septuagint is written in Greek, and why Jesus himself, as well as the disciples quoted from the Septuagint. Jesus would have spoken multiple languages. Also the older Dead Sea scrolls are written in Greek. The original is Greek, and the Jews today do not speak the original language of the Israelites. They kept the pagan traditions and are the descendants of the Pharisees - the synagogue of Satan. They hate the Messiah and have lied to everyone that they are God's chosen. God only cares about 2 groups -- believers and non-believers, and it has nothing to do with ethnicity (that's another subject about mistranslated Bible words).
Compare the charts below and learn about the languages. The truth will set you free.

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A maioria dos nomes muda até certo ponto quando passa de uma língua para outra. Jesus nasceu judeu, e seu nome era talvez pronunciado Ye·shú·a‛ em hebraico, mas os escritores inspirados das Escrituras cristãs não hesitaram em usar a forma grega do nome, I·e·soús. Na maioria dos outros idiomas, a pronúncia é ligeiramente diferente, mas usamos livremente a forma comum em nossa língua.

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  • Welcome to BHSX, Julio, so glad to have you with us. Please take the tour to get yourself familiar with the site. Enjoy ! hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour
    – sara
    Nov 17, 2019 at 13:43

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