Why is the Gospel of the Hebrews ignored by scholars?

A gospel written in Hebrew

When I went to graduate school, we were taught that Mark is the oldest Gospel while Matthew and Luke copied Mark, and that Mark came from a theoretical source named Q (after German word “quelle” meaning “source”). This text has never been found, nor is it mentioned in any ancient source material. Yet, this is the standard teaching, and settled theory, among scholars.

Following graduation, I wrote an article that was eventually published in the late Professor Noel Freedman’s journal “The Biblical Historian” called God’s Wife with a new interpretation on the creation story of man and woman. Having much more to say I started to write a book based on this thesis which centers on the theological significance of the feminine gender of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures.

While doing research for my first book I came across information about an early gospel recorded by early church fathers to be the first one written, by the Apostle Matthew. The more I learned about it, the more perplexed I became as to why I was never taught about this important early text at University. It made no sense. Moreover, I was completely taken aback when I found a quote in it which supported my thesis. Early sources cite Jesus calling the Holy Spirit “my mother.”

Here was an ancient source of Jesus’ own words, verifying what I had found clues for, and I had never even learned about the existence of this manuscript. If it was ever mentioned and I somehow missed it, it must have been a passing side note because Q was the only thing drilled into us as a Gospel source. It also made no sense since the main reason for academia to dismiss the Gospel of the Hebrews is that there is no copy found, while there is no copy found for Q either. But there is a historical record for the Gospel of the Hebrews that does not exist for Q. Q is simply a scholarly invention.

The Gospel of the Hebrews was important in early Christianity and therefore it is a key part of history. To give some examples, there are texts by twenty church fathers who mention it. Codex Sinaiticus—handwritten over sixteen hundred years ago—contains the oldest complete form of the Greek New Testament and has notes about making emendations from the Gospel of the Hebrews.

The earliest testimony for the Gospel of the Hebrews comes from Papias (ca. 60-130 A.D.) bishop of Hierapolis (Turkey). The original writing has not been found and may not exist anymore, but he is quoted in a later work by Eusebius of Caesarea. We read,

“Now, this has been related by Papias regarding Mark, and regarding Matthew he has spoken as follows: ‘Now Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he was able.’ The same writer has used testimonies from the first Epistle of John and likewise from that of Peter, and he has set forth another story about a woman who was accused before the Lord of many sins, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.” (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 1-5, p. 206, book 3, chap. 39).

This tells us that Matthew himself wrote a Gospel in the Hebrew language known as the Gospel according to the Hebrews. It also supports the story in John 8:1-11 about the woman being caught in adultery as an early and authentic story. 4th century Didymus of Alexandria noted that this story was found in “certain gospels” and he also wrote about the Gospel to the Hebrews. (Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 273).

According to Eusebius of Caesarea who was a bishop, theologian, and historian (ca 260-339), Papias belonged to the generation after the Apostles, thus a contemporary with the daughters of the Apostle Philip. This makes him exceedingly close to first-hand accounts. (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 1-5, p. 204, book 3, chap. 31).

Eusebius also mentioned Pantaenus who was the head of the theological School of Alexandria in the 2nd century. His students included Clement and Origen who are extremely significant in early church history. Eusebius wrote that when Pantaenus went to India to evangelize there were already many missionaries there because,

“. . . he discovered the Gospel according to Matthew among some there who knew Christ, which had anticipated his arrival; Bartholomew, one of the Apostles, had preached to them and had left them the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters, which writing they preserved until the aforesaid time.” (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 1-5, p. 303, book 5, chap. 10).

Eusebius also noted how Paul was excellent in language, smart, and “able to express countless ineffable things” yet he “put in writing no more than the briefest Epistles.” (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 1-5, p. 174, book 3, chap. 24). He went on to say,

Yet, of all these, only Matthew and John have left us recollections of the conversations of the Lord, and tradition has it that they took to writing by force. For Matthew, who had first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go among others, by committing the Gospel according to himself to writings in his native language, compensated by his writing for the lack of his presence those from whom he was being sent. (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 1-5, p. 174-175 (book 3, chap. 24).

So, Eusebius boasted over Paul’s literacy and strongly suggested that there were several literate Apostles, but only Matthew and John wrote their eyewitness accounts down. Part of Matthew’s evangelizing was putting his testimony into writing for those he could not personally visit once he broadened his mission to non-Hebrews. Eusebius also explains that John’s Gospel was written last to fill in the gaps of what the others did not cover, and he probably started with Jesus’ divinity, not the genealogy, since Matthew and Luke had already covered that.

The Gospel of the Hebrews was also on the verge of being included in the New Testament. Eusebius lists what books were accepted as true and genuine and which were disputed and false. He mentions the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) among those that was accepted by some and disputed by others and wrote that some had placed the Gospel of the Hebrews “in which the Hebrews who have accepted Christ especially delight” in this same category (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 1-5, p.179, book 3, chap. 25). So, the Gospel of the Hebrews and our canonical Matthew’s Gospel had later developed into two different manuscripts. In other words, an original Gospel by Matthew written in Hebrew was the original source. When church fathers disagreed on the Gospel of the Hebrews’ and Revelation’s authenticity, Revelation finally made it into the canon in the early 5th century while the Gospel of the Hebrews did not. But this is how close the Gospel of the Hebrews was to make it into our canon. It was initially in the same category as the Book of Revelation.

Eusebius mentions several times how early writings were penned down in Hebrew. He also wrote that Origen, “learned the Hebrew language thoroughly and obtained personal possession of the original writings in the actual Hebrew characters, which were in circulation among the Jews” (Eusebius, Eccl Hist, Books 6-10, p. 29, book 6, chap. 16). According to Eusebius several New Testament texts were originally written in Hebrew which he describes and cites.

Clement of Alexandria, (lived in the 2nd century A.D. and had Origen as one of his prime students) cited the Gospel of the Hebrews. While debating philosophy and Plato, he said,

“Similarly, in the Gospel according to the Hebrews it is written, ‘The man with a sense of wonder shall be king; the man who has become king will be at rest.’” (The Fathers of the Church: Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, p. 189, Book 2, chap. 9).

This quote is unknown to our canonical texts and demonstrates again that this Hebrew Gospel was different from our Matthew. This is verified in another early source where it states that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was 300 lines less than our canonical Matthew. (The New Apocryphal Testament, Oxford, Clarendon Press, first edition 1924, latest edition 1980, p. 3).

Epiphanius of Salamis was a fourth century bishop who wrote that not only was the Gospel of the Hebrews the Gospel penned by Matthew and first written in Hebrew. He also stated that he had learned about compositions of John and Acts in Hebrew that were preserved in the treasuries in Tiberias (The Apocryphal New Testament, p. 8-9).

My final example of an early church father testifying to the Hebrew Gospel is St Jerome (347-420 A.D.) who translated the Bible into Latin, referred to as the Latin Vulgate, and is a famous early authority on the Bible and one of the first four Doctors of the Latin church. Versed not only in Latin, but Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, a lot of his writings still exist today. Jerome mentions the Gospel of the Hebrews more than anyone else. When discussing Matthew 12:13, starting with a Gospel quote, he wrote,

“Then he said to the man: ‘Stretch forth your hand.’ And he stretched it forth, and it was restored to soundness, [to being] just like the other. In the Gospel that the Nazarenes and Ebionites use, which we recently translated into Greek from the Hebrew language, and which many call the authentic Gospel of Matthew, this man who has a withered hand is described as a stonemason.” (The Fathers of the Church: St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, Translated by Thomas P. Scheck, Ave Maria University, the Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C. 2008, p. 140-141).

These lines suggest that there indeed was an earlier version of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew which was understood as “authentic.” The Nazarenes were an early Christian group who kept the original name for the followers of Jesus, long before they were called Christians, and they preserved this manuscript referred to as “the Gospel of the Hebrew” as did the Ebionites, who were another early Christian group.

In Jerome’s homilies on Matthew, we find several references to the Gospel of the Hebrews. In one he examines Matthew 2:5 concerning the wise men’s answer to Herod where the Messiah was to be born. Beginning with a Matthean quote Jerome writes,

“But they said to him: ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.’ This [Judea] is an error of the copyists. For we think that it was first published by the evangelist as we read in the actual Hebrew: Judah, not Judea.” (The Fathers of the Church: St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, p. 64 (Book 1, chap. 2).

Jerome believed there was a scribal error when this Gospel was translated to Greek, which he verified by looking at the parallel passage in the Hebrew version because it was the original language the Gospel was written in. Likewise, when Jerome examines Matthew 6:11, which is the Lord’s Prayer, he discusses the Greek word translated as “daily” because it is a rare word. He wrote,

“We have therefore examined the Hebrew and have found that wherever they had rendered πεϱιούσιον, in Hebrew it is the word sogolla. . . . In the Gospel which is called ‘according to the Hebrews,’ I have found, instead of ‘supersubstantial’ bread, maar, which means ‘tomorrow’s.’ Thus the sense is: ‘give us today our’ tomorrow’s, that is, future, ‘bread.’ (The Fathers of the Church: St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, p.88-89, book 1, chap. 6).

Interestingly, in the “Didache,” also called “Teachings of the Apostles,” which is a pastoral manual written sometime in the mid to late first century, the Lord’s Prayer is recited, and the above relevant line is, “Give us today our bread for the morrow.” (Van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, p. 13). This further supports the Gospel of the Hebrews being the genuine article.

In another of Jerome’s commentaries he addresses Galatians 3:13. In it there is a line saying, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree,” which is a quote from Deuteronomy 21:23. Jerome discusses what Paul was thinking when he wrote this. While debating the different versions of this quote, he says,

“I cannot ascertain why the Apostle either added to or took away from the statement, ‘Everyone who hangs on a tree is cursed by God.’ For if he was exclusively following the authority of the Septuagint translators, he was obligated to insert the phrase ‘by God,’ just as they had done. But if, as a Jew among Jews, he thought that what he had read in his own language was the closest to the truth, he had to omit both ‘everyone’ and
‘on a tree,’ which are not found in the Hebrew original.” (The Fathers of the Church: St. Jerome, Commentary on Galatians, Translated by Andrew Cain, the Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C. 2010, p.142-143, book 2).

What I want to draw attention to here is not the debate about Deuteronomy but what he says about Paul. Jerome emphasizes that Paul was “a Jew among Jews” who would consider Hebrew to be the language “closest to the truth.” He also refers to the Hebrew text as the “original.” When it came to the Old Testament it was Hebrew Scriptures that were authoritative, not the Greek Septuagint. This alone suggests that the first disciples wrote the earliest texts in Hebrew. Note that of all the disciples Matthew was most likely literate because he was a tax-collector.

There are more scattered testimonies for both the Gospel of the Hebrews as well as other early relevant texts composed in Hebrew in Jesus’ time (I document many more in my first book). Yet, despite this the Gospel of the Hebrews went from having a high status to becoming nearly lost to history and still ignored. This is quite a leap. Additionally, there is a virtual consensus among scholars that the Gospels were first written decades after Jesus’ death and in Greek, not Hebrew. There is a minority view of those who think they were written in Hebrew, which is partly based on the texts themselves revealing mistranslations from the Hebrew exposed in things such as misunderstood Hebrew idioms.

So why is the academic world so set on declaring Greek to be the original language of the Gospels? Why is the Gospel of the Hebrews ignored while they champion Q? Also, for every argument that the canonical Gospels were authored decades after Jesus’ death, there are counter arguments proposing they were authored much earlier that should be taught at Universities so that students can make up their own mind.

An example of an argument used to say that the Gospels were written later is that they entail allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem found in Jesus’ prophecy about the apocalypse (see Mt chap. 24-25 and more specifically Mt 24:1-3, 24:5, Mk 13:1-4, Lk 21:5-6. In Jn 2:19 it is believed he talked about his bodily resurrection, not the Temple). Jesus told his disciples when they were right outside of the Temple, “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Mt 24:2). So, because he said this, and the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., the thesis is that this is a sign that the Gospels were composed with that knowledge at hand. However, Jesus elaborated on past warnings about the “Day of the Lord” from several ancient prophets such as Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Zephaniah. In Daniel this included the “Sanctuary” (9:26). Yet, many scholars think that Jesus’ prophecy, or parts of it, was made up sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple to make it look like his predictions came true. The problem with this, and other similar takes on Biblical readings, is that secular historians assume prophetic abilities are impossible. For this reason alone, other explanations are favored.

Still, this does not explain why there is such a resistance to acknowledging the Gospel of the Hebrews, or that any Gospels were originally written in Hebrew close to Jesus’ lifetime. Scholars readily accept that Paul was literate, but what about the 12 Apostles? There was a strong tradition of fathers teaching their sons Scripture and that may have included rudimentary reading and writing (Dt 6:7, 11:19). Just because there was a gap between Rabbis who studied the Law and regular people, that does not automatically mean that everyone else was illiterate. Synagogues were used as schools and Jesus himself taught in them. Jesus was by every indication literate because he read from the Hebrew Scriptures, cited them, and asked if others had not read them. Some of Jesus’ own disciples could have taken notes of sayings and events and some could have been literate enough to write a Gospel such as Matthew and John just like tradition teaches. Matthew as a tax collector would also have been literate for that reason alone.

Additionally, there are plenty of explanations why we have not (yet) found any early Hebrew textual Gospel remains. Papyrus disintegrates and many libraries containing ancient texts were burnt down. Also, when the Apostles and disciples evangelized to Gentiles, they grew so numerous that Hebrew speaking Jewish Christians eventually became a minority. Because of that, they translated, copied, and distributed the Gospels in Greek not Hebrew. In time, knowledge of Hebrew among Christians became rare.

When the Romans burned the Temple 70 A.D. the common denominator and meeting place of Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus was destroyed. This expanding divide could also have contributed to Hebrew texts disappearing right around the time when scholars date the earliest Greek Gospels to have been written. The early Christian groups Ebionites and Nazarenes kept Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel, or at least a later version of it, hundreds of years after the fall of Jerusalem as their sacred Gospel. It remained widely known among Christian historians, theologians, and bishops in the earlier part of the first millennia A.D. and is even cited later in the Islamic Hadith written in the 9-10th century.

The quotes we have left from the Gospel of the Hebrews show that it is not the same as Matthew’s Gospel today. There are similarities and differences. This does not exclude that the first Gospel was written by the Apostle Matthew in Hebrew. Moreover, one of the signs that the Gospel of the Hebrews was originally written in Hebrew is the quote where Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “my Mother.” Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and for that reason alone he would refer to the Holy Spirit as a feminine entity. This is momentous but virtually ignored.

The bias against the Gospels being written, in Hebrew, by any Apostles during the lifetime of Jesus and/or immediately after his death denies the importance of the Hebrew language in the first decades of Christianity as well as a more widespread early Jewish literacy. It also seems as if once there is a scholarly consensus on something, evidence to the contrary is automatically minimized or even ignored.

When early church fathers recognized that Hebrew was the original language of Matthew while today’s scholars are convinced that it was not, it is worth remembering that modern scholars live 2000 years removed, while people like Papias, Eusebius, Origen and Jerome lived between ca 1900-1600 years closer to the actual events.

There is plenty of evidence for the early high status of the Gospel of the Hebrews. This text is far more important than an invented Q that there is no historical record of. Given this, is it an accident that the Holy Spirit’s feminine gender in Hebrew has been ignored for two millennia just like this first Hebrew Gospel which contains the only reference to Jesus calling the Holy Spirit his “Mother”? It is a question worth asking.

About the Author
I am a native of Sweden who lives in Ann Arbor, MI where I received my B.A. in Religion & International Politics and M.A. in Near Eastern Studies with a concentration in the Hebrew Bible, from the University of Michigan. My two books: “Our Mother – the Holy Spirit” (Relevant Publishers LLC. US, 2019) and “God is not Alone: Our Mother – the Holy Spirit” (Avalon publishing, UK, 2015) developed out of a thesis that was published 2005 in the late Professor Noel Freedman’s journal “the Biblical Historian” and called “God’s Wife.” On a personal note I love animals and work on a private horse-farm, and have many other interests such as dancing, judo, ping-pong, running, swimming and skiing. I also have two grown children.
Related Topics
Related Posts