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Why was Matthew’s Name Attached to the Gospel according to the Hebrews?

A number of Patristic and Medieval sources make references to the so-called “Gospel according to the Hebrews”. While there are some scholars who continue to argue for the Patristic view that a single Jewish Gospel was a significant source for the early Jesus tradition (e.g., Pritz, Edwards, Sloan), the majority position is that there were at least three different Gospels that the church authorities mistakenly lumped together (e.g., Vielhauer, Strecker, Klijn, Klauck, Frey). The three reconstructed Gospels are an eclectic Greek text cited by the Alexandrian Fathers (i.e. the Gospel according to the Hebrews), a Greek harmony of the Synoptic Gospels cited by the fourth century Epiphanius of Salamis (i.e. the Gospel according to the Ebionites), and an Aramaic Gospel that Jerome (mistakenly?) thought to resemble Matthew’s Gospel (i.e. the Gospel according to the Nazoraeans). The last approach that I support accepts the existence of the first two reconstructed Gospels, but denies the existence of the so-called Gospel according to the Nazoraeans by proposing that Jerome just knew an Aramaic translation of Matthew’s Gospel circulating among Christians known as the Nazoraeans and confused it with the source cited by earlier Greek Christian commentators as the Gospel according to the Hebrews (Luomanen, Gregory).

The next question is how the evangelist Matthew ever became associated with these Jewish Gospels. I believe that this happened over stages:

  1.  Papias’s tradition that Matthew compiled the oracles in the “Hebrew language” before they were translated into Greek hugely influenced the subsequent Patristic tradition (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16). For instance, the Jewish Christian Hegessipus reported that the apostle Bartholomew left a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in the Hebrew language in India (cf. Hist. Eccl. 5.10.3). Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, repeated Papias’s statement about Matthew’s original language and supposes that this Gospel was popular among a Jewish Christian sect known as the Ebionites (Against Heresies 3.1.1; 3.11.7), though Irenaeus may have also assumed that the Ebionites tampered with Matthew’s text since they denied the virginal conception of Christ (1.26.2; 3.21.1; 5.1.3).
  2.  The earliest citations of the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” by the Alexandrian scholars Clement (Stromata 2.9.45.5), Origen (Commentary on John 2.12; Homily on Jeremiah 15.4), and Didymus (Commentary on the Psalms) do not attribute the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” to Matthew.
  3. The fourth-century historian Eusebius clearly distinguishes Matthew’s Gospel from the “Gospel according to the Hebrews.” The latter is a “disputed” book, neither canonical nor heretical (Eccl. Hist. 3.25.5), and Eusebius corrects Irenaeus in noting that the Ebionites’ preference was for the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” (3.27.4). Eusebius also identifies Papias’s oral tradition about the woman accused of many sins as deriving from the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” (3.39.17; cf. Didymus, Commentary on Ecclesiastes 223.6–13).
  4. The fourth-century heresiologist Epiphanius accused the Ebionites of possessing a corrupted version of Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew (Panarion 30.13.2), but a close look at the fragments from the text that he was citing show that he was actually quoting a Greek Gospel (cf. the Greek word play in 30.13.4-5) that harmonized the Synoptic Gospels. Epiphanius also notes that the more orthodox Jewish-Christian Nazoraeans had a Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew (29.9.4), which may either be an inference from Papias about the original Semitic language of Matthew’s Gospel or may be related to the next point.
  5. Jerome boasts that he had translated the “Gospel according to the Hebrews”, a text that many ascribed to Matthew, was used by the Nazoraeans, and was housed in the library of Caesarea (Dialogues against the Pelagians 3.2). Either Jerome had access to a distinctive Gospel that modern scholars dub the “Gospel according to the Nazoraeans” (i.e. three-Gospel-hypothesis) or to the Nazoraeans’ Semitic translation of Matthew’s text (two-Gospel-hypothesis), along with other Jewish traditions, and he confused it with the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” that he knew from other church authorities and hoped to locate in the library of Caesarea.

If you are interested further in these later Jewish Christian Gospels, here is a brief bibliography for you to research further:

  • Edwards, James R. The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. and Plese, Zlatko. The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Evans, Craig. “The Jewish Christian Gospel Tradition” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries. Edited by Oskar Skarsaune and Reider Hvalvik. Peabody: Hendrikson, 2007.
  • Frey, Jörg. “Die Fragmente judenchristlicher Evangelien” in Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung. I. Band: Evangelien und Verwandtes. Teilband 1. Edited by Christoph Markschies and Jens Schroter. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.
  • Gregory, Andrew. The Gospel According to the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Ebionites. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Gregory, Andrew. “Jewish Christian Gospels” in The Non-Canonical Gospels, 54-67. Edited by Paul Foster. London: T&T Clark, 2008.
  • Gregory, Andrew. “Hindrance or Help: Does the Modern Category of ‘Jewish-Christian Gospel’ Distort our Understanding of the Texts to which it Refers?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28 (2006): 387-413.
  • Klijn, A. F. J. Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition. Leiden: Brill, 1992.
  • Klauck, Hans Josef. Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction. Translated by Brian McNeil. London: T&T Clark, 2003.
  • Kok, Michael J. “Did Papias of Hierapolis Use the Gospel according to the Hebrews as a Source?” Journal of Early Christian Studies 25.1 (2017): 29-53.
  • Luomanen, Petri. Recovering Jewish-Christian Sects and Gospels. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
  • Nicholson, Edward B. The Gospel according to the Hebrews: Its Fragments Translated and Annotated with a Critical Analysis of the External and Internal Evidence Relating to It. London: C. Kegan Paul, 1879.
  • Perkins, Pheme. “Jewish-Christian Gospels: Primitive Tradition Imagined.” In The Apocryphal Gospels within the Context of Early Christian Theology. Edited by Jens Schröter. BETL 260. Leuven: Peeters, 2013, 197-247.
  • Pritz, Ray A. Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period until its Disappearance in the Fourth Century. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988.
  • Sloan, David B. “What if the Gospel According to the Hebrews was Q.” Online: http://reconstructingq.com/gospel-of-the-hebrews.pdf.
  • Vielhauer, Philipp and Strecker, Georg. “Jewish Christian Gospels” in New Testament Apocrypha I: Gospels and Related Writings, 560-660. Edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher. Translated by R. McL. Wilson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991.
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