Why does Matthew's account of the life of Jesus use the phrase "the kingdom of the heavens". And why is this blatantly mistranslated as singular (heaven) and without the definite article (hey - the heaven)? It strikes me that it is translation by tradition due to some past translator's misunderstanding, confusion or agenda and now no one, in English anyway, translates it as originally written.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the Gospel of Matthew is its overt Jewishness. For example, Matthew's Gospel -
- shows Jesus as the rightful king of Israel (chapter 1)
- often says "as it is written" to repeatedly show that Jesus was the Messiah of fulfilled prophecy
- contains many Hebraisms
- is the only Gospel to have the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven(s)"
The last is quintessential example of a Hebraism - in the Hebrew the word Shamayim (= heavens) is never singular and never plural but dual. By the time of the first century, Greek had lost its dual form and Matthew had to use the common plural.
Ellicott observes the same point in his comments on Matt 3:2 -
The kingdom of heaven.—The phrase is used by St. Matthew about thirty times, and by him only among the New Testament writers. In the Greek the form is plural, “the kingdom of the heavens,” probably as an equivalent for the Hebrew word, which was dual in its form. The name, as descriptive of the kingdom of the Messiah, had its origin in the vision of Daniel 7:13, where the kingdom of “one like the Son of Man” is contrasted with those of earthly rulers. To Gentile readers—to whom the term would convey the thought of the visible firmament, not of the invisible dwelling-place of God—the term might have been misleading, and therefore in the Gospels intended for them “the kingdom of God” (which occurs sometimes in St. Matthew also, 6:13; 12:28) is used instead of it. It is probable that both terms were used interchangeably by the Baptist and our Lord, and the systematic change is suggestive as showing that the writers of the Gospels did not feel themselves bound to a purely literal report or rendering of their words.
Thus, if we understand "heavens" as dual" only two are involved - the earthly heaven and the greater heavens of God. In any case, God was about to establish, via the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new Kingdom of heaven as predicted in Dan 2:44, 7:13, 14. That Kingdom shall never be destroyed or fade away.
Matthew's gospel is the only one reported to have been written in Hebrew. Accounts vary as to whether this was then translated into Greek, or if Matthew himself wrote a Greek version, but in any case, the Greek manuscripts were the ones more commonly preserved, being associated with the other New Testament scriptures that had been written in Greek and bundled along with them.
It is unclear whether a Hebrew original from Matthew's gospel was preserved or if it was retranslated to Hebrew from Greek, but a copy of a Hebrew version was discovered fairly recently in the Vatican library, and 28 manuscripts are known to exist. (See references below.)
In Hebrew, the word "heavens" is never singular: it is always a duality, i.e. "two." This is a form of plural, but does not refer to more than two, only two, and is usually used for things that come in pairs, such as body parts like eyes.
Matthew's gospel is reported to include many Hebraisms, using idioms peculiar to Hebrew which may not translate well into another language. The plural of "heavens" is one such minor point. In fact, many Hebrew words, like "heavens", "faces", "waters", etc. have no singular form: they are known as "tantum plurale." In Hebrew, adjectives and verbs must agree with their subject noun, so if the adjectives or verbs are in plural form, the noun is considered plural, and if the adjectives or verbs are singular, then the noun is also singular.
If no verbs or adjectives are connected with a noun of this tantum plurale type, as can be the case when a noun is the object of the verb and not its subject, the interpretation may be ambiguous. Translators then get to decide whether to interpret the noun as plural or singular--a rather arbitrary or subjective decision.
In the expression "the kingdom of heaven(s)," the word "heavens" is the object of a preposition, and is not connected to either a verb or an adjective. For this reason, any translator must make a good-faith, but arbitrary, decision whether to represent the word as plural or as singular. The presence or absence of a definite article has no bearing on whether the word is plural, because either form could be made definite by the presence of the article.
It is not necessarily more correct to translate "heavens," a Hebrew tantum plurale, as plural than as singular. If this translation principle were not true, then everyone in the Bible would be literally two-faced, because "faces" (Hebrew: panim) would likewise be translated as plural in every case.
Whether English speakers may like it or not, the Hebrew is simply ambiguous on the number of some nouns, and Matthew, writing from a Hebrew perspective, may be interpreted as equally ambiguous with his usage for this noun.
I am asking this question because it seems that the incorrect translation, which everyone seems to be holding onto, may lead us in the wrong direction. Matthew's selection of the term "the kingdom of the heavens" (as originally written in the Greek) may be his way of defining a more accurate view of the kingdom.
The traditional view of the Jewish populace, including the disciples, was that the Messiah (the Christ) would come to earth, destroy the Roman authority and establish Himself as King over an earthly Israel. We know this was not His intention then or in the future, "Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”(John 18:36)
So, is Matthew using this phrase, "the kingdom of the heavens" (at least 28 times) to establish the validity of Jesus' kingship while at the same time showing that it is not a physical, earthly, political kingdom but a kingdom of God worshiping disciples who are obedient to Him, according to His teachings and commandments?
Matthew's use of this terminology, in conjunction with all of Jesus' descriptions of the kingdom, clearly seem to indicate that the kingdom is not a future apocalyptic event but a long, slow growth over time and imbedded with difficulties (see Mt. 13:24-30;36-43) Take note that when Jesus speaks about the kingdom it is often in response to questions asked of Him and as regards the people of His day.