For you who like me enjoy some "technical" studies now and again.
WAS GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ORIGINALLLY
WRITTEN IN HEBREW?
From the 1986 edition of "Bible Review" (a no longer punlished
magazine - Keith Hunt)
New evidence indicates that the Gospel of Matthew was an original
Hebrew composition. Indeed, it is now possible to recover much of
this original Hebrew composition from an extant manuscript. But
before explaining how this can be done, let me set the stage with
a little background. Until now, the four canonical Gospels -
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - have come down to us only in
Greek. The Gospels we use today - in English or in other
languages - are translations from old Greek manuscripts. By
contrast, what Christians call the Old Testament - the Hebrew
Bible - was written in Hebrew, with a few short sections in a
sister language called Aramaic.
Were the canonical Gospels originally written in Greek? Over
the centuries, scholars have argued various positions. Some
indeed have suggested that one or more of the Gospels were
originally written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek.
Others have argued that one or more of the Gospels were written
in Aramaic and then translated into Greek. Still others have
contended that the Gospels were written in Greek, but that their
authors used collections of Aramaic or Hebrew sayings or
traditions then extant but now lost. But no original Hebrew or
Aramaic manuscripts of the Gospels have ever been recovered.
One early Christian writer named Papias, who lived between
about 60 and 130 AD in Hierapolis in Asia Minor (he was bishop of
Hierapolis), wrote that "Matthew arranged the oracles in the
Hebrew language and each interpreted them as best he could." 1
Many other early Christian writers - like Irenaeus, 2 Origen, 3
Eusebius, 4 Epiphanius 5 and Jeromeb 6--assert that Matthew
wrote in Hebrew.
Whether these ancient authors were referring to Hebrew or
Aramaic, however, is not entirely clear. Some scholars have
argued that when Papias said "Hebrew" he really meant "Aramaic."
7 The difference between Aramaic and Hebrew is not great. The
two languages are related to each other roughly like Spanish and
French. Both languages share many words, either in an exact or
similar form, and have a similar grammar; there are of course
many differences as well, both in vocabulary and grammar, as one
would expect in different though cognate languages. By the first
century AD. both languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, also used the
same script, so that by that time they even looked alike.
The argument that Matthew originally wrote in Aramaic,
rather than Hebrew, was made as early as the 16th century. 8
Support for this position is sometimes sought in the
supposed fact that Hebrew was no longer in use as a vernacular in
first-century Palestine, but had been replaced by Aramaic. Jesus,
it is said, spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. This is by no means clear,
however. In 1954 the Scandinavian Semitist Harris Birkeland
published his seminal book entitled "The Language of Jesus," 9
which collected the evidence and reopened the debate as to what
language Jesus spoke. A spate of studies soon appeared in which a
number of prominent scholars concluded that Jesus indeed spoke
Hebrew or that the sayings of Jesus and other traditional
materials were preserved in Hebrew and that Hebrew served as a
primitive base for the canonical Gospels. 10
One leading specialist, Joseph Fitzmyer of The Catholic
University in Washington, D.C., has summarized the situation this
way. Aramaic was the most commonly spoken language in
first-century Palestine; Greek was a second language to many
Palestinian Jews, but "pockets of Palestinian Jews used Hebrew,
even though its use was not widespread.""
But quite apart from whether Hebrew was widely used as a
spoken language in first-century Palestine, it seems clear that
it was used as a literary medium. The many Hebrew documents among
the Dead Sea Scrolls easily provide the evidence. A rabbinic
classic known as the Mishnah, compiled about 200 A.D., also shows
that Hebrew continued to be used as a literary medium.
Scholars who contend one or more of the canonical Gospels
were originally written in Aramaic or were based on collections
of sayings or traditions in Aramaic base their arguments on a
variety of linguistic clues. For example, in 1905 the famous
German scholar Julius Wellhausen (see "Julius Wellhausen," Bible
Review, Winter 1985, p.25) argued that some differences between
the Gospels were the result of different translations from an
Aramaic original. In one instance, where Matthew has "cleanse"
(Matthew 23:26) Luke has "give for alms" (Luke 11:41) in a
parallel passage. According to Wellhausen these words represent
"zahhau" and "dakhau," respectively, in Aramaic. Luke, says
Wellhausen, misread "zahhau" for "dakhau" in the Aramaic original
and thus produced a different translation in Greek. 12
(Nope, Luke misread nothing - he and his translation was
inspired, but many so-called "scholars" do not believe in the
inspiration of the Bible - Keith Hunt)
In 1946 a British scholar named Matthew Black published a
book on the Aramaic background to the Gospels and Acts;
subsequently this book went through two revisions (1954,1967). 13
It is a comprehensive study that analyzes all the various
linguistic and textual evidence for Aramaic influence on the
Greek text. Black concludes that Aramaic sources, especially a
collection of sayings, lie behind the Gospels.
This is different, however, from saying that the Gospels are
translations of Aramaic originals. That contention has been made
in a recent study by Frank Zimmermann, reviving an earlier theory
of C.C.Torrey 14 that the four canonical Gospels are
translations of Aramaic originals. 15 Building on the work of
Wellhausen, Torrey, Black and many other scholars, and adding
some 200 new examples of his own, Zimmermann concludes his
Aramaic hypothesis is irrefutable.
That there is at least a Semitic flavor to the Gospels
cannot be doubted. But many scholars trace this not to original
Aramaic gospels that were later translated into Greek, or even to
Aramaic sources that stand behind the canonical Gospels. They
trace it primarily to the Greek that was used by Palestinian (and
even Diaspora) Jews at the time. These scholars - men like Henry
J. Cadbury, 16 Edgar J. Goodspeed 17 and E.C. Colwell 18--point
to the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible,
which, like the Gospels, is full of Hebrew idiom, or simply to
the common Greek used in that day. These scholars thus defend the
Greek Gospels as originals, despite the sometimes obvious
Semitisms and occasional Semitic sources and translations.
Although the debate has been extended and widespread, no one
has ever claimed, however, to have found an original canonical
Gospel in either Aramaic or Hebrew. I now make that claim, though
with some qualification.
I found it embedded in a 14th-century Hebrew treatise
written by a rabbi named Shem-Tob Ben Shaprut, which means "the
good name, son of Shaprut." The treatise is called Even Bohan,
In the medieval period, Christian theologians for some
reason needed to prove the superiority of Christianity over
Judaism. To do this, they forced rabbis to engage in public
debates, which the Christian theologians always won. But the
rabbis did not lose willingly or easily. Some vigorously argued
the superiority of Judaism. In this context, a vast polemical
literature, both Christian and Jewish, was created. The Even
Bohan is Shem-Tob's polemical treatise against Christianity.
Shem-Tob himself was born in Tudela in Castile in the middle
of the 14th century. He later settled in Tarazona in Aragon where
he practiced medicine. There he completed the Even Bohan about
1380. He revised it several times: in 1385, about 1400 and, even
later, by adding to the original 12 books or sections another 5.
In the polemical literature of the period, it is not uncommon to
find Hebrew translations of the Greek Gospels. The Jewish
defenders of their faith would translate the Gospels from Greek
(or from a Latin translation of the Greek) to Hebrew so that
their co-religionists could understand the arguments and also so
that they themselves might have a Gospel text they could work
with more easily than the Greek originals.
Shem-Tob's Even Bohan contains a Hebrew text of the Gospel
of Matthew. Until now, it was thought that this Hebrew Matthew is
a 14th century Hebrew translation of the Greek, or its Latin
version. It is interesting how this came to be accepted. In 1537
and 1555 two Hebrew Matthews were published, one by Sebastian
Munster in Basel and the other by Jean du Tillet in Paris. Both
reflect to a minor degree the same Hebrew tradition of Matthew
preserved in Shem-Tob. In their ancestry, however, wide-scale
revision had occurred, designed to make the Hebrew read like the
Greek. So extensive was the revision that these texts, as
published, basically represent fresh translations from Greek or
Latin to Hebrew, not original Hebrew compositions. 19 They are
therefore virtually worthless for determining the original
language in which the Gospel of Matthew was written. In 1690
Richard Simon - in his "Histoire Critique des Versions du Nouveau
Testament" (Rotterdam: R. Leers, 1690, p.231) - mistakenly
identified the Hebrew Matthew in Shem-Tob's work with the Hebrew
Matthew in Munster and du Tillet. All three were essentially the
same, Simon said. If true, Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew would
likewise have been worthless for determining the original
language of the Gospel of Matthew. For centuries no one bothered
to check Simon's statement - perhaps because it is not easy to
Shem-Tob's Even Bohan has never been published; it exists
only in manuscript form. It can be examined only by locating a
handwritten copy in a library or museum. Such manuscripts exist
primarily in various 15th-to-17th-century rabbinic scripts and
are often difficult to decipher. As a result few scholars in
modem times have read the Even Bohan and even fewer have sought
to determine whether, as Simon wrote in 1690, the Hebrew Matthew
contained in it was the same as the Hebrew Matthew published by
Munster and du Tillet.
In the course of my own research on the Semitic origins of
the Gospels, I came across a reference to a Hebrew Matthew
preserved in ShemTob's Even Bohan, and, out of sheer curiosity, I
ordered a photostat of a manuscript of it from the British
Library in London. To my surprise, I found Shem-Tob's Hebrew
Matthew radically different from the texts of Munster and du
Tillet. 20 Munster and du Tillet might be worthless in
determining the original language of Matthew, but this was not
necessarily true for Shem-Tob.
When I examined Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew more carefully, I
was astounded to discover that its core was an original Hebrew
composition, not a translation. Moreover, the kind of Hebrew in
which it was written is just what one would expect of a document
composed in the first century AD. and preserved by Jews during
the Middle Ages.
I have now made a thorough and detailed study of this
document, which has confirmed my initial findings. This study
will soon be published in book form. Only in this way can the
scholarly community be satisfied with the correctness of my
In the meantime I would like to explain to the readers of
Bible Review the kind of evidence that supports my conclusion.
The conclusion that Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew is an original
Hebrew composition is based in large part on the fact that many
literary elements of the composition "work" in Hebrew, but not in
Greek or Latin. These elements include puns, word-connections and
alliterations. Let me give just a small sampling from a very
Consider first some of the puns in Shem-Tob's Hebrew
Matthew: In Matthew 7:6 the Shem-Tob text reads: "Do not place
your pearls before swine lest they chew them before you and turn
to rend you." The word used for "swine" is "hazir" and for
"turn," "yahzeru." Both come from the Hebrew root h-z-r. The pun
is lost in the Greek language.
In Matthew 10:36 the Shem-Tob text reads: "The enemies will
be loved ones." The word for "enemies" is "haoyevim;" for "loved
In Matthew 18:27, the Shem-Tob text reads: "Then his master
had pity on him and forgave him everything." The word for "had
pity" is "hamal;" for "forgave," "mahal."
These puns are completely lost in Greek and could never work
A famous pun does occur in the Greek Matthew at 16:18: "You
are Peter (petros) and on this rock (petra) I will build my
church." Because of the petros/petra wordplay, some have argued
that this saying originated in Greek and goes back to the
Greek-speaking segment of the Church rather than to Jesus. 21 In
Shem-Tob's Matthew, however, there is a totally different pun-one
that works in Hebrew but not in Greek. The Hebrew text reads:
"You are a stone (even) and upon you I will build (evneh) my
house of prayer."
(The rest of the New Testament proves Christ did not build His
church on Peter as the Roman Catholic church wants you to
believe. Peter was not the first Pope, and was never "head" of
the NT church. Hence the Greek is correct and the Hebrew is
incorrect - Keith Hunt)
In addition to puns, the Hebrew text of Shem Tob's Matthew
is replete with Hebrew word-connections that intensify the text.
Many of these are not reflected in the Greek text at all. They
consist of words that are the same or of similar appearance and
either give structure to individual sayings and episodes or tie
together different sayings and episodes. Here are some examples
taken from Shem-Tob's Hebrew text:
9 "Blessed are those who pursue peace for they shall be called
the sons of God."
10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for
theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"To pursue" is "radaph" in Hebrew; "to persecute" is the same
(Makes little difference as to the bottom line of the truth. You
can persue both peace and righteousness, and you can be
persecuted for both peace and righteousness. Either way a
Christian is to be peaceable and to be righteous, many other NT
verses make this clear, just as they make clear that a Christian
can be persecuted for both peace and righteousness - Keith Hunt)
28 "There met him two demon-possessed men."
31 "Then the demons entreated him."
"Met" is "paga" in Hebrew; "entreated" is the same word.
(So what? The truth of the passage is that the demons within the
people were in front of Jesus, they (demons or men) talked with
Jesus - the author is making a mountain out of an ant hill -
36 "The enemies will be loved ones."
37 "He who loves his father and mother more than me...."
38 [Lacking in Shem-Tob j
39 "He who loves his life will lose it."
"Loved ones" comes from "ahav" in Hebrew; "to love" comes from
the same word.
(The context shows the truth of the matter. The basic truth being
if you love anything more than Christ, you will loose everything,
and love ones can indeed turn to be your enemies - Keith Hunt)
35 "They brought to him all those who were sick ..."
36 "They implored him ..."
"Sick" comes from "halah;" "implored" comes from "hilah."
(So very similar Hebrew words mean different things - big deal -
the English word "present" can have TWO meaning, depending on the
context used. You who are English speaking will see the point I
make with the word "present" - Keith Hunt)
28 "This is my blood of the new covenant which was poured out for
many for the atonement of sins."
34 "Jesus said: 'Truly I say to you, this night before the
cock-crow you will deny me three times.'"
35 "Peter said to him: 'If it is possible for me to die with you,
I will not deny you ...'"
36 "Then Jesus came with them to the village of Geshemonim and
said: 'Sit now until I go there and pray.'"
"Atonement" is "kaparah;" "deny" is "kaphar," and "village" is
(So what? Similar Hewbrew or Greek or other language words can
have different meanings, even if they are very similar in
structure - Keith Hunt)
In addition to puns and word-connections, Shem-Tob's Hebrew
text of Matthew has many other words that are similar in
appearance, rhyme, or are otherwise alliterative. Here is a
"It came to pass in those days Jesus heard that John had been
delivered up (nimsar) into prison (bemaasar)."
"He turned from there and saw two other brothers (ahim aherim)."
"The crowds saw (vayiru) and feared (vayiru)"
"If your eye causes you to stumble (takhshileha) ... cast
(tashlikheha) it from you."
(So what is the point really. The author seems to want to hang is
hat on this type of semantics of words, to prove the Hebrew he's
looking at is original. Which later you will see he ends with
saying we do not know which came first the Hebrew or the Greek.
The plain truth is that God chose to use the Greek - hundreds of
MSS to uphold and teach the New Testament, not some obscure
Hebrew that is hidden away on some dusty book shelf is some dusty
part of a few Libraries in the world - Keith Hunt)
To be continued