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
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- It could be that Matthew was originally composed in Greek, but it preserved a statement that was originally made in Hebrew
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).
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.
James Shewey has argued from manuscript & scholarly evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally composed in Greek.
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".