Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that the gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.
The Truth from Scholars.
- The Wycliffe Bible commentary: Matthew, Pfeiffer, C. F.
- A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Matthew, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown.
- New Bible commentary, Matthew, Carson, D. A.
- The Bible knowledge commentary, Walvoord, J. F.
- Matthew, J. W. McGarvey, p8
- C. H. Lenski, Gospel of Matthew, p 11-19
The Wycliffe Bible commentary: Matthew, Pfeiffer, C. F.
Composition and Date. The great frequency of citations and allusions to Matthew found in the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and others attests its early composition and widespread use. The literar connections of this Gospel must be considered in its relations to the other Synoptics, and also to the statement of Papias that “Matthew wrote the words in the Hebrew dialect, and each one interpreted as he could” (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.39). Many have explained Papias’ statement as referring to an Aramaic original from which our Greek Gospel is a translation. Yet our Greek text does not bear the marks of a translation, and the absence of any trace of an Aramaic original casts grave doubts upon this hypothesis. Goodspeed argues at length that it would be contrary to Greek practice to name a Greek translation after the author of an Aramaic original, for Greeks were concerned only with the one who put a work into Greek. As examples he cites the Gospel of Mark (it was not called the Gospel of Peter) and the Greek Old Testament, which was called the Septuagint (Seventy) after its translators, not after its Hebrew authors (E. J. Goodspeed, Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, pp. 105, 106). Thus Papias is understood to mean that Matthew recorded (by shorthand?) the discourses of Jesus in Aramaic, and later drew upon these when he composed his Greek Gospel. Though it is surely possible that Mark was written first, and may have been available to Matthew, there was no slavish use of this shorter Gospel by Matthew, and many have argued for the complete independence of the two books.
A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Matthew, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown.
But by far the most interesting and important point connected with this Gospel is the language in which it was written. It is believed by a formidable number of critics that this Gospel was originally written in what is loosely called Hebrew, but more correctly Aramaic, or Syro-Chaldaic, the native tongue of the country at the time of our Lord; and that the Greek Matthew which we now possess is a translation of that work, either by the Evangelist himself or some unknown hand. The evidence on which this opinion is grounded is wholly external, but it has been deemed conclusive by Grotius, Michaelis (and his translator), Marsh, Townson, Campbell, Olshausen, Creswell, Meyer, Ebrard, Lange, Davidson, Cureton, Tregelles, Webster and Wilkinson, &c. The evidence referred to cannot be given here, but will be found, with remarks on its unsatisfactory character, in the Introduction to the Gospels prefixed to our larger Commentary, pp. 28-31.
But how stand the facts as to our Greek Gospel? We have not a title of historical evidence that it is a translation, either by Matthew himself or anyone else. All antiquity refers to it as the work of Matthew the publican and apostle, just as the other Gospels are ascribed to their respective authors. This Greek Gospel was from the first received by the Church as an integral part of the one quadriform Gospel. And while the Fathers often advert to the two Gospels which we have from apostles, and the two which we have from men not apostles—in order to show that as that of Mark leans so entirely on Peter, and that of Luke on Paul, these are really no less apostolical than the other two—though we attach less weight to this circumstance than they did, we cannot but think it striking that, in thus speaking, they never drop a hint that the full apostolic authority of the Greek Matthew had ever been questioned on the ground of its not being the original. Further, not a trace can be discovered in this Gospel itself of its being a translation. Michaelis tried to detect, and fancied that he had succeeded in detecting, one or two such. Other Germans since, and Davidson and Cureton among ourselves, have made the same attempt. But the entire failure of all such attempts is now generally admitted, and candid advocates of a Hebrew original are quite ready to own that none such are to be found, and that but for external testimony no one would have imagined that the Greek was not the original. This they regard as showing how perfectly the translation has been executed; but those who know best what translating from one language into another is will be the readiest to own that this is tantamount to giving up the question. This Gospel proclaims its own originality in a number of striking points; such as its manner of quoting from the Old Testament, and its phraseology in some peculiar cases. But the close verbal coincidences of our Greek Matthew with the next two Gospels must not be quite passed over. There are but two possible ways of explaining this. Either the translator, sacrificing verbal fidelity in his version, intentionally conformed certain parts of his author’s work to the second and third Gospels—in which case it can hardly be called Matthew’s Gospel at all—or our Greek Matthew is itself the original.
Moved by these considerations, some advocates of a Hebrew original have adopted the theory of a double original; the external testimony, they think, requiring us to believe in a Hebrew original, while internal evidence is decisive in favor of the originality of the Greek. This theory is espoused by Guericks, Olshausen, Thiersch, Townson, Tregelles, &c. But, besides that this looks too like an artificial theory, invented to solve a difficulty, it is utterly void of historical support. There is not a vestige of testimony to support it in Christian antiquity. This ought to be decisive against it.
It remains, then, that our Greek Matthew is the original of that Gospel, and that no other original ever existed. It is greatly to the credit of Dean Alford, that after maintaining, in the first edition of his Greek Testament the theory of a Hebrew original, he thus expresses himself in the second and subsequent editions: “On the whole, then, I find myself constrained to abandon the view maintained in my first edition, and to adopt that of a Greek original.”
One argument has been adduced on the other side, on which not a little reliance has been placed; but the determination of the main question does not, in our opinion, depend upon the point which it raises. It has been very confidently affirmed that the Greek language was not sufficiently understood by the Jews of Palestine when Matthew published his Gospel to make it at all probable that he would write a Gospel, for their benefit in the first instance, in that language. Now, as this merely alleges the improbability of a Greek original, it is enough to place against it the evidence already adduced, which is positive, in favor of the sole originality of our Greek Matthew. It is indeed a question how far the Greek language was understood in Palestine at the time referred to. But we advise the reader not to be drawn into that question as essential to the settlement of the other one. It is an element in it, no doubt, but not an essential element. There are extremes on both sides of it. The old idea, that our Lord hardly ever spoke anything but Syro-Chaldaic, is now pretty nearly exploded. Many, however, will not go the length, on the other side, of Hug (in his Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 326, &c.) and Roberts (“Discussions of the Gospels,” &c. pp. 25, &c.). For ourselves, though we believe that our Lord, in all the more public scenes of His ministry, spoke in Greek, all we think it necessary here to say is that there is no ground to believe that Greek was so little understood in Palestine as to make it improbable that Matthew would write his Gospel exclusively in that language—so improbable as to outweigh the evidence that he did so. And when we think of the number of digests or short narratives of the principal facts of our Lord’s history which we know from Luke (Lu 1:1-4) were floating about for some time before he wrote his Gospel, of which he speaks by no means disrespectfully, and nearly all of which would be in the mother tongue, we can have no doubt that the Jewish Christians and the Jews of Palestine generally would have from the first reliable written matter sufficient to supply every necessary requirement until the publican-apostle should leisurely draw up the first of the four Gospels in a language to them not a strange tongue, while to the rest of the world it was the language in which the entire quadriform Gospel was to be for all time enshrined. The following among others hold to this view of the sole originality of the Greek Matthew: Erasmus, Calvin, Beza, Lightfoot, Wetstein, Lardner, Hug, Fritzsche, Credner, De Wette, Stuart, Da Costa, Fairbairn, Roberts.
New Bible commentary, Matthew, Carson, D. A.
Authorship and date
Early Christian tradition unanimously attributed this gospel to the authorship of Matthew the apostle, the former tax-collector of Capernaum, whose call it records in 9:9 (Mark and Luke call him Levi). There was also a persistent tradition that it was written originally not in Greek but in Hebrew or Aramaic. Both of these traditions are doubted by most modern scholars.
The Greek of the gospel as we know it does not read like ‘translation Greek’, and the close literary relationship of Matthew with the (Greek) gospels of Mark and Luke makes its origin in any other language unlikely. It is quite possible that Christians in the first few centuries ad were familiar with a Hebrew or Aramaic work which was traditionally associated with Matthew, but unlikely that it was our gospel. Papias, the earliest writer to mention Matthew’s writing, attributes to him a compilation of ‘sayings’ in Hebrew or Aramaic, and some believe that he was referring not to the gospel we know but to one of its sources (perhaps the source ‘Q’ which many believe was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke; see the relevant section in ‘Reading the gospels’). But Papias’ statement is too brief to be clear, and its original context is unknown.
If it is improbable that Matthew’s gospel was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, can we take the other aspect of early tradition, the identity of the author as Matthew the apostle, any more seriously? Or does Papias’ statement suggest that this tradition arose in connection with a document other than our gospel? We cannot be sure, but the writers of the early Christian centuries offer us no other candidate for authorship, and a tradition which is both early and unanimous should not be simply assumed to be false unless the nature of the book itself makes it clearly inappropriate.
The Bible knowledge commentary, Walvoord, J. F.
The Original Language of the First Gospel.
While all the extant manuscripts of the First Gospel are in Greek, some suggest that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic, similar to Hebrew. Five individuals stated, in effect, that Matthew wrote in Aramaic and that translations followed in Greek: Papias (A.D. 80-155), Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202), Origen (A.D. 185-254), Eusebius (fourth century A.D.), and Jerome (sixth century A.D.). However, they may have been referring to a writing by Matthew other than his Gospel account. Papias, for example, said Matthew compiled the sayings (logia) of Jesus. Those “sayings” might have been a second, shorter account of the Lord’s words, written in Aramaic and sent to a group of Jews for whom it would have been most meaningful. That writing was later lost, for no such version exists today. The First Gospel, however, was probably penned by Matthew in Greek and has survived until today. Matthew’s logia did not survive, but his Gospel did. This was because the latter, part of the biblical canon and thus God’s Word, was inspired and preserved by the Spirit of God.
Matthew, J. W. McGarvey, p8
There has been much difference of opinion among scholars as to whether Matthew originally wrote his narrative in Greek, or in the Hebrew dialect of his age. The most satisfactory statement of the evidence pro and on accessible to the general reader may be found in Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Art. MATTHEW, gospel. or. The essential facts in the case are the following: All of the ancient writers, whose extant writings allude to the question, represent Matthew as having written a narrative in Hebrew; but not one of them claims to have seen it except Jerome, and he subsequently expresses doubt as to whether the book which he saw under this name was the genuine Matthew. If a genuine Hebrew narrative at anytime existed, it perished with the age which gave it birth. All of the writers just named were familiar with the Greek Matthew; and none of them speak of it as a translation. A large majority of the modern writers regard the Greek as the original, and it is a singular confirmation of the correctness of this opinion that Alford, who, in the first edition of his commentary, took ground in favor of a Hebrew original, in the later editions acknowledges that he has been constrained to abandon that position.
- C. H. Lenski, Gospel of Matthew, p 11-19
The Hebrew Composition of Matthew
While the ancient church is absolutely unanimous in ascribing the First Gospel to Matthew, the man who i occupies the seventh or the eighth place in the New Testament lists of the apostles, a number of ancient writers report that Matthew wrote something in Hebrew. The first word to this effect was written by Papias (125 A. D.) … “Now Matthew compiled the logia in the Hebrew dialect.” Papias adds that each person translated these Hebrew logia as best he could. The main question is as to just what Papias understood by these logia. He does not say that he ever saw them or found them in use. He uses the aorist … when he tells about the use to which they were put. This means that he is reporting an interesting historical fact, and that in his time these logia were no longer used and probably were not even any longer known. We next hear of Irenaeus in the second half of the first century, who writes that Matthew issued “a gospel” in Hebrew at the time when Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the church in Rome (about 64-65 A. D.). Yet the church in Rome had been founded long before this time, and not by an apostle but by the Christian converts who had moved to Rome and brought their faith with them. Aside from this error, the question here is whether Irenaeus has in mind the same writing as Papias, only calling the logia a Gospel, or whether he has in mind a different writing, an actual Gospel written in Hebrew by Matthew. Few would be willing to believe that Matthew wrote two different books in Hebrew.
Pantaenus (about 180 A. D.) claims to have seen a Hebrew Gospel by Matthew in southern Arabia, which was brought there by Bartholomew. This report, however, has never had much influence. Next is the statement of Origen (born about 185 A. D.) which he makes on the basis of a tradition, that Matthew was the first to write and that he composed and issued a Gospel in Hebrew for the Jewish believers. Eusebius himself, who collected these opinions for his church history, expresses himself to the same effect. We may add that Jerome- (second half of the fourth century) thought that he had discovered Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel in the Aramaic “Gospel of the Nazarenes,” or “Gospel of the Hebrews,” a Jewish Christian sect, but he himself later discovered his mistake.
The Hypothesis of an original Hebrew Matthew
Various forms of this hypothesis have been offered. One is that the logia of Papias were a collection of sayings by Jesus, which Matthew collected and published in Hebrew. In course of time, in the hands of the church, this nucleus received many additions, but these were not made by Matthew. Eventually this expanded Hebrew or Aramaic original was translated into Greek by some unknown writer and was at once accepted by the church without a single dissenting or questioning voice as “the Gospel according to Matthew,” on a par with the Gospels according to Mark, Luke, and John. The translation into Greek may be dated as early as the year 65. Another prominent form of this hypothesis is that the logia of Papias really formed an entire Hebrew Gospel, originating from Matthew’s pen in the years 64-67 and being translated into Greek by an unknown writer in the year 90 or thereabout. In some forms of this hypothesis Matthew furnishes but a small part of the Gospel which always bore his name. To overcome this obviously unpalatable view the logia of Papias are converted into a complete Hebrew Gospel with only the translation into Greek ascribed to the unknown writer. To support this view the effort is made to show that our present Greek Matthew in various places betrays the fact that it is not a Greek original but is written in translation Greek. In these hypotheses the idea of divine inspiration is openly or quietly set aside. In fact, these hypotheses are thought to offer freedom of interpretation. We may now emancipate ourselves from the task of harmonizing the four Gospel accounts. We may allow contradictions between Matthew and the other Gospels, especially John, or, if not open contradictions, then at least corrections. The field for this freedom is widened or narrowed according to what is made of the translator. He may be conceived as more than a translator, as a man who used his Hebrew sources in his own free way, or as a man who worked strictly according to his original.
A new hypothesis for the so-called synoptic problem is thus also produced. If Matthew wrote his Hebrew Gospel a little before Mark wrote his Greek Gospel, Mark could have used this Hebrew Gospel of Mat-thew’s; and afterward, when the unknown translator rendered Matthew into Greek, he could have used Mark’s Greek Gospel. The synoptic problem thus receives a new turn. And with these hypotheses to start from, the Gospels are re-examined to see what traces can be discovered in support of the hypotheses. Yet this method never leads to satisfactory results.
The Hypothesis of a Hebrew Matthew Breaks Down
Whatever Matthew wrote in Hebrew was so ephemeral that it disappeared completely at a date so early that even the earliest fathers never obtained sight of the writing. Nor can this undeniable fact be reduced by the remark that when Matthew was translated into Greek, this Greek at once superseded the Hebrew. Anything written in any language by one of the Twelve must have been highly prized and treasured accordingly. The translation could not have been made as late as the year 90. Then the Hebrew original would have been at hand at this late date. But Mark and Luke were available in Greek for a score of years prior to 90. Why, then, did the Hebrew Matthew continue in use to such an extent that finally a translation into Greek was deemed necessary? Again, if besides the Greek Mark and Luke the Hebrew of Matthew held its place until a translation was made in the year 90, it cannot be assumed that the original Hebrew should have disappeared completely so soon. However generally the Greek translation was used in the churches, it would be only a translation. The original of Mat-thew’s Gospel would have been retained as being hallowed by the apostle’s name and as being highly valuable for comparison with the translation. Even if the translation be dated much earlier, the value of the original would have led to its preservation. The conclusion is inevitable, Matthew himself never wrote an entire Gospel in Hebrew. The ephemeral nature of what he wrote and the early complete disappearance of his writing attest this fact. To assume the contrary is to surrender this decisive fact.
If Matthew’s Hebrew composition consisted only of a small collection of the Lord’s sayings, called logia by Papias, these could never have grown into the complete Gospel we now have, for the present Gospel is a literary work built on an excellent plan. A work that grows by slow accretions would by its very nature be entirely different. Besides, too much is asked of us when we are requested to believe that this slowly growing work was able to retain the significant title “According to Matthew” only on the strength of its original nucleus of logia from Matthew’s pen. This holds equally for the variant hypothesis that an unknown writer took Matthew’s Hebrew logia and worked them into the present complete Greek Gospel. This clashes, with
what we note in the case of the Second Gospel. Mark drew his material from Peter; Papias himself tells us this, as Eusebius 3, 39 reports. Yet the Second Gos-pel was never named “According to Peter,” but from the start “According to Mark,” the actual writer. In the face of this incontestable fact it is unwarranted to assume that, with far less of original material from Matthew, and that only in Hebrew, the First Gospel should have been called “According to Matthew” and not “according to its actual writer” who composed the entire work in Greek. Moreover, this writer was unknown, hence not a man of standing in the church as Mark was. Is it likely that a work from his hand, even if it contained certain Hebrew material from Matthew, would at once be ranked on a par with the other Gospels? We know that the authorship of other New Testament writings was questioned by some, so that these writings were called the antilegomena. Was the entire church satisfied regarding this unknown writer of the Greek Matthew? Did no one ever raise
a question about him and his qualifications? And this the more, since his work never bore his own name but that of one of the apostles?
These hypotheses are sometimes modified. The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, we are told, was translated into Greek with Matthew’s consent and under Matthew’s eyes. Or, his logia were expanded into our present Greek Gospel by some pupil of Matthew’s under the apostle’s supervision. But this view, too, breaks down. Was Matthew so lordly or so lazy that he was not willing to do this work himself? Or was he not quite competent and in need of help? The assumption of an amanuensis, resting on the interpretation of two passages, is also untenable. The various hypotheses melt under the flame of undeniable facts. Matthew himself wrote his Gospel, and he wrote it as we have it now, in Greek.
In this connection let us add, what has long been noted, that the tax collector Matthew, as a portitor or gatherer of port dues in Capernaum, must have been conversant with the Greek, otherwise he could not have held a position of this kind. His knowledge of this language must have advanced as time went on. It is well to note the influx of Hellenists into the church, beginning at Pentecost; proselytes followed in increas-ing numbers. Acts 10 reports the conversion of the entire connection of Cornelius by Peter; and Gal. 2:1-3 indicates the presence of a Greek like Titus, the companion of Paul, among the brethren at Jerusalem. It is altogether in order that Matthew should have written a Greek Gospel.
Is the Greek Matthew a Translation?
Papias says that the Hebrew logia of Matthew were interpreted or expounded by each person as best he knew how. This refers to oral exposition by individuals here and there. Papias speaks of no writ-ten Greek translation, nor has he ever seen one. The others, who speak of a Hebrew “Gospel,” say nothing about a translation. This is strange if the Greek Matthew in the hands of these fathers was a translation of the Hebrew Gospel of which they make mention. Not until we come to Jerome in the fourth century are we told that he does not know who the translator was … We see that even he only supposes that a translation had been made. Yet it is still asserted that our Greek Matthew is a translation. If our Greek Matthew is a translation, it ought to be easy to demonstrate this linguistically. A book the size of Matthew’s would afford all manner of evidence that it was translated into Greek from a Hebrew original if this were the case. Yet it has often been remarked that the Greek Matthew reads like an original. Moulton calls the language “colorless Hellenistic of the average type,” and R. 119 adds that “the book is not intensely Hebraistic” even though it was evidently intended for former Jews. All that R. ventures to say is that Matthew has an instinct for Hebrew parallelism and Hebrew elaboration, his thought and outlook being Hebraistic.
The attempt to prove that Matthew’s Gospel is a translation on linguistic evidence has been unsuccessful. Thus 1:21 is said to be “simply unintelligible” because “Jesus” is elucidated by means of vatetv, although English readers have always found the English verb “save” quite intelligible in this connection and are not perplexed because “Savior” or “the Lord’s salvation” is not added as an interpretation of the name “Jesus.” In 10:25 “Beelzebub” is without a Greek equivalent; likewise … in 27:6, for which 15:5 has the Greek Upov, “gift”; and again … in 5:22 has no elucidation. But all these are original Aramaic terms, used as such in the discourses of Jesus, and are altogether intelligible to Jewish Christians. A late translator, writing for Gentile Christians, would have rendered them in Greek (as Matthew did in 15:5 with regard to 8%opov) or would have added an explanation in Greek. These terms prove the opposite of a translation. The obscurity found in … in 2:23 no more proves that this Gospel is a translation than any other obscurity in writing would. To call… , when used as a noun in 4:25, and … and ‘… genitives after a7ro in 4:25,.15, evidence of translation is to place undue emphasis upon trifles. In 16:19 and 18:18 … , “to bind” and “to loose,” are said to be unintelligible to Greek readers on the supposition that these verbs are intended to reproduce the rabbinic “declare forbidden” and “declare permitted,” and that they have nothing to do with John 20:23. This rabbinic exegesis may be challenged and, even if it were correct, would not prove that these expressions are a translation. To call Bar-Jonah in Matt. 16:17 a translator’s mistake on the claim that Peter’s father was named Jochanan, is to play one reading against another and proves nothing. And why object to the Aramaic bar in Matthew when John 18:40 has “Barabbas”? The same is true regarding …. in 10:4 and 15:22, which are correct transcriptions.
This exhausts the list of linguistic proofs for a translation. We are told that these are “modest conjectures” which might be multiplied if the original Hebrew Matthew were available. But these few in-stances are scarcely sufficient to convince the thoughtful reader that Matthew’s Gospel as we now have it is a translation and not an original production.
If the Greek Matthew was a late translation by an unknown writer, or if it was an outgrowth of certain logia written by Matthew, it is difficult to explain how it was received as authoritative in the church. But the fact stands that Matthew held a higher place in the regard of the church than Mark, although the authority of Peter stood back of the latter. When the pagan Celsus made his attack on the Biblical books in the second century he chose Matthew’s Gospel not Mark’s because he considered Matthew the more prominent citadel. Nor did he assail its authority in the church as being a translation, or its authorship as not being that of an apostle.
The heretic Marcion, in the middle of the second century, called all the apostles pseudo-apostles, but neither he nor any other critic ventured the conjecture that the Greek Matthew was not written by Matthew. What a telling blow could have been struck by these early opponents of Christianity if they had had a suspicion that the First Gospel in its current form was not written by the apostle whose name it bore! When
Tatian compiled his Diatessaron, the very title of his book shows that he considered the Greek Matthew on a par with the other three Gospels. The attempt to show that this Gospel is a translation from the way in which the LXX and the Hebrew original are utilized in the quotations from them found in Matthew needs no refutation until it produces more tangible results.
The Old Tradition
We may accept the statement of Papias that Mat-thew compiled certain logia in Hebrew and that these were used for a time and then disappeared without leaving a trace. Just what these logia contained will always be open to question. If they consisted of say-ings of Jesus, Matthew may have embodied them in his Greek Gospel. This would argue for the view that he wrote his Gospel at a comparatively early date, so that the older logia soon disappeared. When others after the time of Papias speak of a Hebrew “Gospel” written by Matthew they may have in mind the logia of which Papias spoke, of which they, too, had heard either from Papias or from others. These others could hardly have in mind the sectarian “Gospel of the Hebrews” or the volume that Pantaenus may have seen in Arabia. No one has ventured to assert that in addition to the Hebrew logia Matthew also composed a complete Hebrew Gospel. The fathers, from Papias to Eusebius, who perpetuated the old tradition regarding the Hebrew Gospel, themselves rest their assertion on tradition, i. e., on reports that they had heard. And none of these fathers, not even Papias himself, was able to name a single person who had seen – not to say hand-led – this alleged Hebrew Matthew. The reports of the fathers regarding a Hebrew “Gospel” must be considered as hearsay, unsupported by a tangible fact. and contradicted by all the probabilities involved as well as by several uncontested facts.