Hebrew Matthew and Hebrew Josephus

Hebrew Matthew and Hebrew Josephus December 18, 2018

I was reminded a while back (actually, looking at when I first wrote a draft of this post, it was a couple of years ago, when watching the movie Carmel, which includes Josephus’ account of the Jewish war and other quotes from his writings) that Josephus claimed that his work was translated from Hebrew or Aramaic. It seems to me that that claim is worth thinking about in relation to the claim that there was a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, which to most scholars seems at odds with the Gospel of Matthew in Greek that we have, which does not show any telltale signs of having been translated. Of course, good translations very often don’t show those signs. And Josephus’ work certainly seems every bit as much to be a composition in Greek rather than a translation into that language from another. I can’t off the top of my head think of any study that systematically looks at both of these works in terms of claims that they are translations from earlier versions in a Semitic language. Does anyone know of such studies? If there aren’t any, this might be a topic worth pursuing for some current or future graduate student.

See also Bart Ehrman’s response to a question from a reader of his blog about this very same question, and my review of James Edwards’ book on Hebrew Matthew (which in his case looks more like a Hebrew Luke, as I recall). I would also note that Dennis Macdonald’s recent work on the Synoptic Problem attempts to tackle this issue directly, identifying Q with the Hebrew work by Matthew that early Christians were aware of, and treating Matthew in Greek as a work mistaken for a “translation” of that work precisely because so much of Q was incorporated into it. I’m not always persuaded by his treatment of the Gospels in mimetic terms, but I think that the very possibility of a solution to the Synoptic Problem that is not simply rehashing well-worn options, and which seeks to posit the existence only of sources that early Christians mention, deserves very serious consideration indeed. And of course, George Howard’s work on the possibility that Shem Tov’s Hebrew Gospel of Matthew known in later times might be that lost work, or bear some relationship to it, must also be taken into consideration.

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  • robrecht

    If I recall correctly, George Howard does not defend the view that Matthew Greek is a translation of Matthew Hebrew, but rather both would have been two essentially parallel versions. One would have been used by the other as a type of literary model, and he may want to believe that Matthew Hebrew is older, but he dose not defend that view because it is untenable and he does not contest the consensus that Matthew Greek primarily used Mark’s Greek text.

    The idea that Papias was speaking of an Aramaic sayings source written by Matthew goes at least as far back as Schleiermacher, but he did not think thus source was also used by Luke, thus it was not yet our Q. That idea became popular for a while but most scholars today leave Papias out of the discussion and do not consider him to be speaking of a sayings source.

  • robrecht

    Also, with respect to Josephus’ Judean War, scholars do not consider the Greek version to be a simple translation of an Aramaic Vorlage.

    Steve Mason: “Profound influences from Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, later Hellenistic historians, and possibly Strabo, as well as a heavy investment in politically and philosophically charged Greek vocabulary, make it impossible nowadays to imagine that Josephus wrote this Judean War first in Aramaic and then brought it over into Greek (Ladouceur 1980, 1983, 1987; Eckstein 1990; Chapman 1998; Mader 2000, 6– 10, 156– 157; Shahar 2004; Mason 2008 passim). … Recent scholarship on the Judean War either marginalizes it (e.g., Mader 2000, 153 n. 6; Landau 2006, 211 n. 24) or more often simply ignores it.”*

    Mason speculates that it might have been merely a series of letters written by Josephus.

    *”Josephus’ Judean War“, pp 16-17, in A Companion to Josephus, edited by Honora Howell Chapman and Zuleika Rodgers, 2016.

    • I’m aware of that, and the consensus about Matthew is similar. But if we have two works that claim to be translated from a Semitic original which seem clearly not to have been, then I wonder whether we need to entertain the possibility that something slightly different unfolded, such as drafting in Aramaic and then writing in Greek without working through the Aramaic in any direct way, but having first expressed the major ideas in the primary mother tongue before doing likewise in Greek.

      It might be interesting to relate that scenario to the Synoptic problem, too!

      • robrecht

        “… two works that claim to be translated from a Semitic original …”

        Unlike Josephus, none of the evangelists claim to have written an original in Aramaic. That is merely a later view of Papias. Matthew’s Greek text is clearly secondary to Mark’s Greek. Do you want to entertain an alternative solution to the synoptic problem, other than the basic two-source theory?

        • I’m open to entertaining just about anything – it is always worth considering new ideas, even though most turn out to be unpersuasive. It’s like sifting for gems.

          None of the Gospel authors says anything about their authorial aims or process, except for a tiny bit in the intros to Luke and Acts as well as in the epilogue to John.

          One of the things I like about Dennis Macdonald’s unconventional approach to the Synoptic problem is that he tries to find a solution that only posits works that we find early church sources attesting. He brings in Q as the work that was (incorrectly) identified as a translation of a Semitic Matthew, as well as the Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord by Papias as an influence on Luke. I’m still not sure what it would take to persuade me that what he envisages is preferable to the two-source theory, but I appreciate the creative thinking!

          • robrecht

            I am certainly open to a 2nd-century Luke-Acts, but is there any evidence for Lukan dependence on Papias? I like Dennis MacDonald and I like creativity in general and I believe reality is typically much more complicated than we are able to grasp with our hypotheses and theories but, given the limits of what we really know about Christian origins, I am generally wary of overly complicated hypotheses. The two source theory and Farrer’s simpler hypothesis may be about as far as we can go in trying to reconstruct these ancient literary relationships. What do you find particularly appealing about MacDonald’s theory?

          • He does, but it is rather a lengthy argument and difficult to summarize. I have a review of the book which I can send you if you don’t have access to it here: https://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=8565

          • robrecht

            Thank you; please send. I’ve let my SBL membership lapse since I left academia and other professional commitments won’t allow me to attend the annual meeting for several years to come.

          • What’s the best way to send it to you?

          • robrecht

            I emailed you. Thanks again.

          • On its way!

  • Somewhat tangentially, did you like Carmel?

    • On the one hand, I remember finding it engaging as I watched it. On the other hand, it clearly wasn’t memorable since I’m not sure I can articulate why. I think some of it was simply the fact that it conveyed to an American audience the normalcy of life in Israel, in the sense that people mostly do things that people in other countries do, and yet also have integrated into it a state of perpetual war.