Hebrew or Greek Jesus?

Nehemiah Gordon has written an interesting book The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus


I have read it and throughout the book I constantly said to myself “sure, but…” and found Gordon to be treating a portion of the evidence fairly, but missing the majority of the facts.

Needless to say, I remain thoroughly unconvinced of his claim that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. It just doesn’t add up.

There is verbal agreement, that is, word for word, and letter for letter, in Greek, agreement between matthew and Mark as well as Luke and Mark. Whenever only two (synoptic) gospels agree, it is almost always Mark and either Luke or Matthew. Without going into the whole synoptic problem here, it is very easy to see how Matthew and Luke expand upon Mark throughout.

In other words, Mark came first, and Matthew has a literary dependance on Mark, and that literary dependance is in Greek. There are thousands of ways to write the same phrases in Greek. To suggest that Matthew and Mark just happen to agree to the extent that they do is utterly ridiculous.

My friend (at least on Facebook, twitter, and via email back and forth) Derek Leman has begun a review of Gordon’s book and based on Part 1, I think Derek’s critique will be a helpful one.

Gordon’s claim that the medieval Hebrew manuscript of Matthew known as the Shem Tov manuscript gives evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew. This idea is a non-starter. It is impossible. Gordon is clearly wrong about it. Ask a hundred New Testament scholars and you’d be hard-pressed to find one who agrees. Is this because New Testament scholars are Hellenists? Is it a conspiracy in our universities to deny the Jewishness of Yeshua?

Far from it. The Jewishness of Yeshua is assumed and is considered the correct historical approach by all but a a few New Testament scholars today (there are some like Crossan who see Yeshua as more comparable to a Greek Cynic philosopher). So, how can Gordon claim otherwise? The truth is, he makes a compelling case if you don’t know what is missing from his explanation. Given that his case is compelling, how can I say he is wrong?

About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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  • Timothy Jones

    I am not convinced by this hypothesis either, but I do believe there is one way the Shem Tov text could represent an earlier recension of Matthew:

    It was not unknown for a text to be issued in two different languages, sometimes at different times, with intervening time between them. Some of Josephus’ writings, for example, and (as I recall) Tobit—and often, the versions would be quite different, even with both (at least in the case of Josephus) coming from the same author. A Hebrew version of Matthew could have preceded a Greek version, and the Greek version could have incorporated text from Mark. This could explain Papias’ reference to Hebrew Matthew.

    Granted, I don’t think that’s what this text is arguing, and the text of Matthew received by the church remains the Greek text. But the Shem Tov text does bear at least a few marks of being ancient, and I don’t think the possibility of a multiplicity of versions has been adequately explored.

  • Thanks Tim:

    With the Greek “loan words” and though the Hebrew Matthew seems old, but not first century old, as well as no evidence what so ever (contemporary references or manuscripts) to a Hebrew Matthew. It’s “pie in the sky”

    This Hebrew text is best viewed as a copy of the Greek, not visa versa.
    Conversely, you can practically recreate the Gospel of Matthew from early church quotations from the first century.

    It’s also not at all clear that This one church father who mentions a Matthew in the “Hebrew’s dialect” even means the actual language Hebrew either. The majority of Jews in the first Century had Koine as their first/primary language.

    The only reason I see to argue for Hebrew Matthew is not from being convinced first by the evidence, but by beginning with an agenda that would be helped by having a Hebrew language Matthew earlier than Mark. It just does not pass muster…

  • Timothy Jones

    I agree that a preconceived agenda is the only reason for arguing for a Hebrew Matthew–and that Shem Tov as we have it is most assuredly not first century (it is at best a distant derivative). At the same time, it’s difficult to take Papias’ reference to Hebrew dialect as a reference to anything but Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic, a reference to the alphabetic characteristics rather than the language itself. But again, that’s not actually what this text that you rightly dismiss is arguing.