A Hebrew Matthew and Jerome (Q&A)

Q:  [In response to our Q&A on the Du Tillet manuscript:]  ...I believe, based on the statements of various "early church fathers," that the Gospel of Matthew WAS written in Aramaic. I do not agree with those who try to "prove" that the other Gospels or even the entire New Testament were written in Hebrew or Aramaic!!!!!!!!!! If you would like I can e-mail you a website that I know about that shows many of the textual variants of the New Testament. Yet the issue of who the manuscripts of the New Testament come from bothers me. What do you think of the fact that it is said that Jerome got manuscripts for his gospel of Matthew from Jewish believers in Yeshua?...--Jeremy J.

A:  You are right that there is quite a bit of evidence among the early church fathers for a non-Greek original to the gospel of Matthew.  This evidence comes from places as diverse as India (in the early Christian community there), Arabia, and Israel itself.  In all of these reports, this original Matthew is reported as being in Hebrew.  There is no similar historical evidence for a Hebrew original of any other book in the New Testament. 

That Matthew was originally written in Hebrew is sometimes contested by scholars who cling to the outdated notion that Jesus taught in Aramaic.  But the evidence for Hebrew literacy in Israel in the Second Temple period is clear, both from archeology and textual sources. Today there is no legitimate reason to deny that these church fathers knew what they were talking about when they said that Matthew wrote in Hebrew. 

I also agree with you that there are difficulties with attempts to reconstruct Hebrew or Aramaic originals behind other New Testament books.  Even if this might have possibly been true in certain cases (and this is by no means certain), any reconstruction lacking an original manuscript is just a guess, whereas the Greek we have is certain. 

The issue of textual variants is minor compared to this.  Most textual variants can be resolved as simple copying errors.  None affects any major doctrine, and only a tiny minority affect the meaning of any sentence in the Bible in any significant way. 

The claim that Jerome obtained a copy of the Hebrew version of Matthew from Jewish believers in Jesus (Nazarenes) is one that he makes himself (in his "Concerning Illustrious Men" section on Matthew).  He claims not only to have seen it, but to have made a copy of it.  Unfortunately that is now lost to us, aside from a few comments he made about its contents.  

On the other hand, Jerome's Latin translation of Matthew's gospel, or rather his "correction" of the Latin as he puts it, was made from the Greek (as he says in his preface to the Gospels), which it closely matches.  Why he didn't make more direct use of the Hebrew is not explained.  However, I can't imagine that he was not influenced in some way by the Hebrew original he had copied.  

Jerome, by the way, also had access to some scrolls from the Dead Sea area--the first reported Dead Sea scrolls--that he used in his translation of the Old Testament!

(For more on this topic, see the index category Matthew.)

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