Essentially, Nehemia Gordon, a Karaite Jew, claims that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, translated into Aramaic, and then Greek and that this original Hebrew version of Matthew survived. (The claim was originally put forward by George Howard, Professor of Religion, University of Georgia, in 1987.)
It is well known that Saint Jerome and others in the early Church asserted that Matthew wrote in Hebrew. Some commentators think that “Hebrew” means the common daily language of the Hebrews, i.e. Aramaic. Others believe that Matthew did write in Hebrew itself, and it was later translated into other languages. Supporting this latter position is the assertion of Saint Jerome that Matthew not only wrote in Hebrew, but quoted from the Hebrew version of Scripture (rather than the Septuagint).
Jerome: “Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew 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 to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it.” Live of Illustrious Men chap 3
Matthew seems to be far more “Jewish” than the other gospels, especially John, which is very Hellenistic. And yes, Jerome did hold that Matthew was originally written in the language of the Jews of the day.
Just to be clear, the claim that Nehemia Gordon makes is not merely that Matthew was originally authored in Hebrew but that this Hebrew version survived and that we have it today.
One of the interesting points he makes purports to solve a mystery: why Jesus would so scold the Pharisees and then command his disciples to obey them (Matthew 23:3-3]):
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
According to Nehemia this is a mistranslation, the result of a single misplaced letter, and that instead it should read:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: 3 all therefore whatsoever he bids you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
Meaning, to do what Moses says to do, not the Pharisees. This is consistent with Nehemia’s Karaite faith which holds that the Pharisees and modern Rabbinical Judaism is man made law, that there was no oral Torah, and that only the written Torah is binding.
His view is that Jesus was calling his disciples to reject the teachings of the Pharisees and their Oral Torah, which is something that Christians have heard before.
Nehemia Gordon is a Karaite and therefore is going to polemicize in that direction. Karaites are those who reject the oral teachings of the Mishna and Gemara, and they supplanted these with their own tradition beginning in the 9th century, although their predecessors were the Sadducees, the ones who basically co-opted the Sanhedrin and who were complicit in the execution of Christ. The Sadducees were reviled, as they were the elite who oppressed the common people, and they were in cahoots with Rome, all while denying essentials such as the Resurrection of the Dead and the hope of the Messianic Redemption.
Jesus seems to acknowledge that for the Jews, the rabbis of the oral tradition were the rightful heirs to Mosaic authority, as far as making halakhic legal decisions goes. His condemnation of them is not so much directed against the institution of Rabbinic Judaism, but more so a condemnation of the hypocrisy seen in religious people. It is a deeply radical and subversive claim He’s making, and it rings true nowadays perhaps even more than back then. Jesus seems to generally agree with what Beit Hillel says, while agreeing with Shammai on divorce law. The Gospels can, and should be, read, with an understanding of the Jewish and Talmudic milieu of Jesus and His disciples in mind. He was a Rabbi, after all. The Jewish sages during Jesus’ lifetime were conservative and the High Priest was (against Jewish law) chosen by the Roman oppressors. Jesus soon appeared in Jerusalem where he conflicting over the law with some leading ‘Pharisees’ (a group of scholars) controlled by the conservative party called ‘Shammaites’ (followers of Rabbi Shammai) and with the ‘Sadducees’, the Priestly class in charge of the Temple. Jesus attracted opposition by his teaching particularly his tolerant views of the law and his attachment to the underclass. More importantly Jesus antagonized the Sadducees when he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, immediately prior to the Passover festival. The Sadducees were less concerned about the law than Temple rituals which they controlled. It must be understood that when Jesus clashed with some Pharisees, it was only some of them. He still operated within that system, and was basically a Pharisee.
harisees. He differs only on the role of rabbinical tradition in interpreting the Law. On the following points, Jesus and the Pharisees find common cause against the Sadducees:
The existence of angels and demons
The resurrection and judgment on the last day
The coming of a Messiah
The necessity for preserving and keeping the Law
If you read 1 Maccabees in the Apocrypha, you understand the historical origins of the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were modernists who saw much value in Greek philosophy. They were materialists who did not believe in angels or demons; they did not believe in an afterlife, let alone a resurrection or a judgment; they did not look for a Messiah, and they believed that the Law had to be adapted to modern times and the current state of knowledge.
For this reason, we very often find Jesus as a guest in a Pharisee’s dinner party, but we never see him hanging out with Sadducees. (Bear in mind that Pharisees would not socialize with anyone outside their party.) Most of Jesus’ followers, as for example Paul, came from the Pharisees. The New Testament does not record a single Sadducee converting to Jesus’ cause.
That is why Jesus tells the people that the Pharisees are good teachers but bad examples.
Also, you need to understand that Jesus came in the Spirit of the Prophets who came before Him, especially Jeremiah, who was reviled by many of his own people, as well, for being a gadfly. People don’t like being questioned, and the powers that be don’t like to be challenged. That’s what Prophets do, though. They subvert, challenge, and question the existing mechanisms at play in society and draw people to an Awakening and awareness of the need to repent.
Just as Isaiah writes that ethics must precede ritual, and that without the right commitment to social justice and mercy, ritual behaviors are worthless and even detestable in the eyes of God, Jesus, too, is instructing us to be on guard against religious people and the forces that be.
Some Pharisees burden people down with their teachings, then stand back to watch them squirm. Jesus says to the religious folk who are quick to condemn others to instead, use their gifts to help others come closer to God rather than abuse them. Indeed, the crux of Jesus’s life and ministry were focused on helping people achieve a relationship with the Father through actualization of their Divinely-implanted gifts and potentials.
The motivation behind a Pharisee’s spiritual life is to be admired and recognized as religious. Pharisees like being the guests of honor at banquets, and they make sure they have the best seats in the synagogue. Pharisees love to be called by their academic or ecclesiastical titles in public.
When you see televangelists raking in funds from their unsuspecting television congregants, or when you see missionaries offering bibles without rice, or when you are confronted by the big kehunas in your church who like sitting in the front row, making a spectacle of their religiosity and piety, these are the behaviors and people Jesus condemned. Public displays of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and people who seek honor, rather than allowing honor to pursue them, are the subject of Christ’s harshest condemnations.
Sadly, religious people fail to see this, and too many of our clergy and church-goers miss the mark on these points. As an aside, I should say that in the Mishnaic tractate Avot, also known as Ethics of the Fathers, as well as throughout the Talmud, we see other rabbis saying like Jesus that humility trumps honor, and that for the one who seeks honor, honor will evade him.
The originator (or at least, the first written record) of the idea of a gospel written by Matthew in ‘Hebrew’ is Papias.
Papias (in a snippet quoted by Eusebius) spoke about two gospels, Mark and Matthew. Of Mark, Papias says that he was Peter’s ‘interpreter’ (hermēneutēs) and that he wrote down “as many things as he remembered of the things either said or done by the Lord.”
However, this written account of his, Papias claims, while ‘accurate’, was not ‘in order’, “for he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s sayings/oracles (kyriakōn … logiōn).” He next claims that “Matthew therefore in the Hebrew dialect (hēbraidi dialektō) ordered the sayings/oracles together, and each one interpreted them as he was able.”
So for Papias, there’s the accurate-yet-disorganized (“not in order”) account written by Mark, and the more ‘ordered’ compilation of Jesus’ logia (the word literally means ‘sayings’, ‘words’ or ‘oracles’, but Papias seems to use the term in a very broad sense, as he says “the things either said or done by the Lord”) written by Matthew in the hēbraidi dialektō.
That phrase, hēbraidi dialektō is a bit unclear. Does it mean ‘in the Hebrew language’ (as the early Church Fathers interpreted it) or simply ‘in the Hebrew style’ (i.e. written following Jewish literary conventions, but with no indication of what language this was written in)?
In any case, starting from St. Irenaeus, many Fathers (who usually follow Irenaeus’ lead) generally interpreted this saying as meaning that Matthew literally wrote a gospel in ‘Hebrew’. In fact, many of them when they speak of Matthew writing his gospel, they tend to talk about him writing this supposed Hebrew gospel rather than the canonical (Greek) version. When they actually mention Greek Matthew, they usually simply claim it to be a translation of the ‘Hebrew’ one.
I disagree about John being ‘very’ Hellenistic. Yes, it does have Hellenistic influences in it (the Logos, for example), but at its core John is actually as Jewish as Matthew. There’s the whole emphasis on the Jewish feasts and Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, and there’s the anti-Jewish polemic it shares with Matthew, which makes sense within a Jewish context.
The Shem Tov Matthew is essentially a version of Matthew’s gospel interpersed in a medieval (late 14th century) anti-Christian Hebrew commentary written by a Spanish Jew named by Shem Tov ben Isaac ben Shaprut called The Touchstone (Eben Bohan).
The Shem Tov Matthew’s text is interesting because it sometimes diverges from the canonical version (it has passages that are unique to it), and because a couple other Hebrew versions of Matthew from the 16th century are similar to it (they share some unique readings). A few scholars were quick to claim that this could mean that the Shem Tov Matthew is actually an ancient version representing a stream of textual tradition independent from the canonical Greek one; the more sensationally-minded authors went further and went on about this being the long-lost ‘original’ gospel of Matthew (with the usual implication: “this will shake the foundations of Christianity” and all that. :rolleyes:)
Here’s a nice critique of George Howard’s Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (which reproduces this Hebrew version extracted from the commentary). The author argues that rather than being an ancient version (as Howard claimed), the Shem Tov Matthew is simply a late medieval Spanish work based on medieval gospel harmonies.