Review of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition

Review of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition July 29, 2010

The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic TraditionI am grateful to Eerdmans for sending me a review copy of James R. Edwards’ book The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition. Edwards’ book seeks to bring much-deserved attention back to a text that is mentioned often in Patristic sources and was the subject of much interest in earlier scholarship, but which has in our time become relatively neglected, namely the claim (found as early as Papias) that Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew.

After an introduction that summarizes key points to follow and offers some background to Edwards’ project, the first chapter surveys references to a Hebrew Gospel in early Christian sources. The meaning of Papias’ oft-quoted statement is discussed, as are other early sources. The material surveyed illustrates not only the widespread awareness of this source in the ancient church, but also the authority the work had (see e.g. p.15). Jerome refers to a copy of the Hebrew Gospel being in the library in Caesarea, and later says he himself translated the work. In addition to such relatively familiar (although in our day still mostly neglected) material, Edwards includes other less familiar sources of information, including scholia in Codex Sinaiticus which make emendations on the basis of “the Jewish (Gospel)” (pp.40-42), even if in the end he discounts these scholia because of their late date. Edwards also includes Islamic hadith, although accompanied by the problematic assumption that “By definition…hadith connote early tradition” (p.42).

Chapter two then turns from mentions of the Hebrew Gospel to quotations from it. Here we begin to encounter problematic aspects of Edwards’ discussion of the specific language the “Hebrew Gospel” was in. Aramaic and Hebrew have both been argued for in the past. In trying to adjudicate between the two in his discussion of Jerome’s quotation of the word mahar from the version in the Hebrew Gospel of the Lord’s Prayer, Edwards writes that “Mahar is Hebrew (Aramaic would be דמהר)” (p.84). Either Edwards thinks that Jerome would necessarily having quoted the word together with the relative particle “d-“, which is not at all persuasive, or Edwards has mistaken the Aramaic word with the relative particle in front of it for the Aramaic word. In either case, this does not bode well for his offering a satisfactory treatment of linguistic aspects of this subject.

Chapter three offers a defense of the ability of church fathers to be critical – not in the modern sense, to be sure, but duly critical nevertheless. Nevertheless, it is fair to point out that, of the twenty church fathers who mention the Hebrew Gospel (p.102), not all would have had an opportunity to see the Gospel themselves, and few who had would have been in a position to evaluate precisely what it was. Nevertheless, the “witnesses to the Hebrew Gospel are as ancient as patristic witnesses to any of the four canonical Gospels” (p.103). The relationship of material quoted from the Hebrew Gospel to what is found in New Testament Gospels is presented by Edwards. There is no instance of agreement with Mark’s unique material, but there is material not found in any NT Gospel, as well as agreement with Matthew’s special material, the double tradition, and a preponderance of points of intersection with Lukan material in terms of specific content as well as themes (pp.109-111). The question of how this relates to the Synoptic problem begins to be explored here, with quotations from and interaction with scholars who have treated this topic. The possibility that the Hebrew Gospel may be the source of Luke’s special material is considered.

This leads naturally to the subject of the fourth chapter, namely the strikingly high number of Semitisms in Luke. This chapter includes another problematic statement related to the linguistic question: “Luke…does not appear to have been a Jew, and it is unlikely that he thought in either Hebrew or Aramaic” (p.128). Apart from the problematic way of depicting how one’s native language affects speech in another, Edwards ignores the fact that Aramaic in its various dialects was not spoken only by Jews. Luke could have been a non-Jew from Syria, for instance, perhaps one raised bilingually, as many educated individuals would have been in that place and time. But this is never considered. Although Edwards draws on sources with linguistic expertise that make a strong case for Luke’s Gospel containing Hebraisms and not merely Semitisms of a vague or indistinct sort, he also mentions the fact that Semitisms and Hebraisms are found not only in the Gospel of Luke, but also in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s second volume. This cries out for explanation, since there is no reason to think that the Hebrew Gospel included an account of the early post-Easter church. Be that as it may, Edwards certainly draws attention to a feature of the Gospel of Luke, which is especially characteristic of Luke’s special material, that deserves more attention. Why Edwards decides to coin the phrase “hyper-Semitic” as a way of referring to these verses is beyond me (pp.145-146). On the whole, however, Edwards’ prose is delightful to read, even if one is not persuaded by a particular argument.

Chapter 5 focuses on whether Hebrew was the language of the “Hebrew Gospel.” Once again, linguistic matters are treated in a way that is problematic. For instance, Edwards calls kai egeneto a “qualified Septuagintism” since it would involve Luke imitating “only those parts of the LXX dependent on a Hebrew Vorlage” (p.158). But that was most of the Septuagint, and constituted the core and most famous parts of the Jewish Scriptures even in Greek. Likewise, the suggestion that Luke was not imitating the Septuagint or heavily influenced by it because of (1) failure to produce the LXX word-for-word in certain instances, or (2) using a phrase that is rare in the LXX, is unpersuasive. The phrase “gird up the loins” does not have to be common in the King James Version for someone using it to be echoing the KJV. Nor is it necessary that the phrase “verily he saith” occur anywhere in the KJV for this to represent an attempt to imitate the KJV’s English, in a way that speakers of modern English could readily recognize. Edwards also hurts rather than helps his case by appealing to Rabbinic texts stressing the importance of writing Scripture verses in tefillin in Hebrew, or reading key passages from the Scriptures in Hebrew (pp.169-170), since this requirement suggest that Aramaic would have been preferred by many were Hebrew not imposed. He also tries to argue for the predominance of Hebrew in Jesus’ time by pointing out that it was the dominant language in the times depicted in stories in the Hebrew Bible (pp.170-172). This is all rather unfortunate, since it detracts from the only point that matters to Edwards’ case, namely the literary use of Hebrew in this period, for which the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Mishnah provide more than ample evidence.
Chapter 6 provides an exploration of possible reasons for the disappearance of the Hebrew Gospel and its current scholarly neglect. There certainly have been anti-Jewish biases in European scholarship as in Christianity historically, and this is indeed likely to be part of the story.

Chapter 7 focuses on the relationship of the Hebrew Gospel to the double tradition and to the Synoptic Problem. Since the double tradition does not share the Semitic character of special Luke to the same extent, it is unlikely that Q can simply be done away with by suggesting that this material derived from the Hebrew Gospel. In surveying the history of the Q hypothesis, Edwards suggests it ought to make us suspicious that scholarship in an era that was embarrassed by miracle stories but valued Jesus’ ethical teaching produced the hypothesis that the Gospels derive from an earlier collection of such teaching, with little or no narrative. This discussion provides but one example of Edwards’ delightful writing style: “The ‘Q’ hypothesis was like a modern farm chemical that contained an herbicide capable of killing the weeds of miracle and dogma, and also a fertilizer capable of nourishing the ethical core of Jesus’ message” (p.223).

Edwards acknowledges that sometimes scholarship produces good results even if the context that favored them should make us cautious, and thus continues to survey internal evidence for Q. But the arguments he offers against it are problematic. That the Gospel of Thomas is on a trajectory that leads towards Gnosticism is hardly relevant, since the issue is whether it provides a comparable genre. Edwards dismisses alleged parallels to the genre of Q as not merely from outside but alien to the context of early Christianity. That Jerome never mentions a collection like “Q” in his Illustrious Men is hardly relevant, since we have no reason to think that Q, if it existed, survived down to Jerome’s time (pp.226-228). In the end, Edwards does not seem to be opposed to the Q hypothesis so much as the characterization of Q as a collection of sayings alone without any narrative framework.

Edwards’ attempt to argue that the Babylonian Talmud mentions the Hebrew Gospel involves special pleading. The Talmud (b. Shabb. 116a-b) has a “philosopher” quote from what seems to be Matthew 5. That this derived from a saying quoted from the Hebrew Gospel by Epiphanius, “I came to destroy the sacrifices,” seems particularly unlikely since the meaning is at odds with the passage from Matthew’s Gospel which is quoted imprecisely in the Talmud, which emphasizes that Jesus “did not come to diminish the Torah” (pp.229-232). Chapter 7 ends with the conclusion that the Q hypothesis could explain the Synoptic relationships, but is not a necessary inference.

Chapter 8 offers an exploration of the possibility of Matthean posteriority, offering a number of examples of material that seems to be more primitive in Luke either in wording or arrangement. The Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament shows no signs of being derived from a Hebrew original. Edwards suggests that Greek Matthew was so named in honor of the apostle who wrote the Hebrew Gospel, and that the church wrongly assumed that Greek Matthew was a translation of the Hebrew Gospel.

An epilogue summarizes the key theses of the book, offering 23 of them, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The last of these includes a diagram of how Edwards views the interrelationship between the canonical Gospels and the Hebrew Gospel – in essence, it takes the place of “L” in typical diagrams of the “four source hypothesis” (p.262). Appendix 1 provides all references to the Hebrew Gospel in the first nine centuries in the original languages. This is an extremely useful collection, even if it begins with the story in the Babylonian Talmud that we have already mentioned, placing it there on the rather naive assumption that the story’s setting in the time of first-century rabbis vouchsafes its preservation of early material. The second appendix sets forth Semitisms in Luke, while a third appendix briefly considers the distinctive version of Luke 6:5 in Codex Bezae. A select bibliography and indexes bring the volume to a close.

I have been very critical, but I do not think undeservedly so, of problematic aspects of the treatment of matters of linguistics in the book. But I would not like those criticisms to detract from the author’s main thesis, which is that the patristic references to a Hebrew Gospel need to be taken more seriously in scholarly study of the Synoptic problem, and this lost source can plausibly be connected with Luke’s reference to “many” who wrote before him and his preservation of material that has not only a Semitic, but in places a Hebraic character. And so hopefully if nothing else, this volume will spark further discussion of the Hebrew Gospel and of the Semitisms in Luke. And so even if they echo many of the criticisms and reservations I have presented here, I nonetheless hope that many scholars interested in the New Testament Gospels will read James R. Edwards’ book The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition. If it contains much that can be criticized or that is unpersuasive, there is also much that is thought-provoking and worthy of serious consideration, not to mention much that is delightful and entertaining to read even if it doesn’t persuade. And so I encourage other scholars to read Edwards’ book, and hope that the coming years will see more attention devoted to the question of the Hewbrew Gospel.

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  • A helpful, critical review. Wouldn't have known about this otherwise.I searched this work via Amazon and was surprised that the author does almost nothing with the hypothesis of George Howard and the Hebrew translation of Matthew. I know there has been some back-and-forth as to the strengths of Howard's thesis, but it seems to me engaging with such work and the manuscripts would have been worth while.Any thoughts?

  • It certainly would have been good for him to engage the subject Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew. Likewise the Toledot Yeshu gets only a brief mention.

  • I don't think the Hebrew version of Matthew that Papias claims exist need be related to other Gospels according to the Hebrews or Hebrew language gospels (apparently not synonymous, since one Gospel of the Hebrews was said to be in Greek if I read Ehrman correctly). Could it have been a Hebrew(or Aramaic, I think there may be confusion what language is meant) version of perhaps Matthew's special material or "Q" material? Could there have been multiple simultaneous versions of Matthew or independent works called Matthew? A work that had incorporated a lot of Matthew into a version of Mark might be called Matthew also if the original Matthew became obscure and people still used the unedited mark. Either way the Hebrew Gospels are interesting to researching the development of Christianity because as speakers of Hebrew we can expect them to be closer to the Jewish-Palestine congregations, the one likely to have been the earliest in Christianity. It is less likely, I think for these to be from recent Jewish converts to Christianity (recent relative to the works mentioning them) since Christianity became more antagonistic with Judaism in theology and practice. Even less likely is the prospect of non Jewish ethnic groups in the region to convert to Christianity then make devotional material in Hebrew, even if they accepted Jewish religious law. If the Hebrew gospels have a lot of overlap with the synoptics then it could indicate that the synoptic gospels circulated in those communities and the communities that produced them were not considered heretical by them yet. Initially they would have been communities of Jewish and Gentile Christians involved with the same apostles but arguing over issues of whether the Gentiles would have to be circumcised, eat kosher, etc. Where the issue was unresolved we could or where language differences would lead separate congregations. A number of Jews in a city like Alexandria would be unable or uncomfortable communicating in Greek or would maintain communication with Jews in other parts of the world by writing in Hebrew as modern Israel uses Hebrew as a common language among the dozens Jews now speak as native tongues. Such side by side communities may at first borrow each others works, but over time differences would put the other groups books on the banned list. What does every one else think?

  • Gary H.

    Mikew said "as modern Israel uses Hebrew as a common language among the dozens Jews now speak as native tongues".I've been to modern Israel 7 or 8 times over several years, and like most modern cultures, the common language is English. Maybe in academic of religious settings, Hebrew rules. But the modern Israeli is more concerned about which night club to go to, or American TV program to watch. I don't think too many books are going to be banned in Israel, or anywhere else today (with the exception of Moslem cultures, but that's another story). I'm only answering, because you said "What does every one else think?"

  • Thanks Gary, Hebrew is still an official language in Israel, and It seems to have #1 status officially judging by its top billing in signs. But I'm sure your right about the actual use of English. You may have misunderstood what I was saying though, the book banning is speaking of ancient Alexandria, not modern Israel and speaks of sects not using certain religious text, not government censorship. The idea here is diverse Jewish communities would have the ability to read Hebrew works before Greek speaking neighbors since they could be expected to have a couple of people learned in the language. British works are probably discussed in the U.S. before France and Spain despite proximity and E.U. membership bonds.