Gospel of the Hebrews

From Academic Kids

The Gospel of the Hebrews (see "About titles" below), is a lost gospel that is only preserved in a few quotations in the Panarion of Epiphanius, a church writer who lived at the end of the 4th century C.E.. The work was earlier than that, however: Irenaeus attested to a Matthew already used by Ebionites late in the 2nd century. (See the relevant section at Gospel of Matthew and Aramaic or "authentic' Matthew). This Gospel of the Hebrews was little known among the churches founded by Paul of Tarsus, for even among Paul's literate followers few were fluent in Aramaic written in Hebrew script.


About titles

The name Gospel of the Hebrews appears to have also been ascribed as a generic term for Judaeo-Christian gospels, and has lead to some confusion with the "Gospel of the Nazarenes", and the "Gospel of the Ebionites" and with the gospel of Matthew in Aramaic , called "Authentic Matthew". In their fragmentary states it is unfruitful to attempt to establish identities, derivations or connections except as noted in passing by mainstream Patristic writers. One point is clear: mainstream Christian writers withheld an authenticating name in labelling these gospels and intentionally characterized them solely by those who read them, perhaps giving a false impression of multiplicity.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 considered that the Hebrews probably was the slightly modified Aramaic original of the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew characters.


In addition to Epiphanius, other mainstream Christian writers knew this text. Cyril of Jerusalem quoted from it. Eusebius mentions (Historia Ecclesciae, IV.xxii.8) that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was known to the church historian Hegesippus, who history he was using as source material. Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis, II.ix.45) and Origen used it, according to Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, ii:

"Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered., a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour, quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist: 'Out of Egypt have I called my son,' and 'for he shall be called a Nazarene.' "

Jerome took a lively interest in this book. More than once he mentions that he made translations of it into Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, even these translations have been lost. Jerome's commentary on canonic Matthew ( ch. 2) refers to "the Gospel which the Nazarenes and the Ebionites use which we have recently translated from Hebrew to Greek, and which most people call the Authentic Gospel of Matthew...". It was called Authentic Matthew because a tradition, reported by Jerome, asserted that it was actually written by the apostle Matthew, with the Gospel of Matthew derived from it. Unfortunately, Jerome makes the choice of identifying all these texts as the same, which many consider to be in error, thinking them instead to be slight (but in some ways significant) variations on the same principle.


One of the unique features of the text, and one point where it differs from the canonical Gospel of Matthew, is that it portrays Mary as the incarnation of the archangel Michael, and portrays the archangel Michael (and thus Mary) as the personification of the Holy Ghost

Some modern scholars, seeking to hold the canonic Gospel of Matthew as an original text, take a quite different view. They read from the extant fragments quoted by Epiphanius that much of this text was a harmony, composed in Greek, of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and, probably, the Gospel of Mark as well).The most famous such harmony was the Diatessaron.

Ironically, we know just how long the lost Gospel of the Hebrews was: 2200 lines, just 300 lines shorter than the canonical Greek Matthew. The figure comes from the Stichometry of Nicephorus, appended by Nicephorus, the 9th century Patriarch of Jerusalem, to his Chronography. The Stichometry lists scriptural books, in three categories, each with the count of its stichoi (lines). Nicephorus lists the canon and the apocrypha, and a secondary list of books that are the antilegomena "disputed": The Revelation of John. the Revelation of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas and this Gospel of the Hebrews.

Though modern commentators generally aver that its original title is unknown, Epiphanius is perfectly clear about what it was: "the Gospel that is in general use among them which is called "according to Matthew", which however is not whole and complete but forged and mutilated— they call it the Hebrews Gospel."

Of the lost text Epiphanius records in another place in his Panarion:

"And they [the Ebionites] receive the Gospel according to Matthew. For this they too, like the followers of Cerinthus and Merinthus, use to the exclusion of others. And they call it according to the Hebrews, as the truth is, that Matthew alone of New Testament writers made his exposition and preaching of the Gospel in Hebrew and in Hebrew letters."

Again Epiphanius records:

"They say that Christ was not begotten of God the Father, but created as one of the archangels ... that he rules over the angels and all the creatures of the Almighty, and that he came and declared, as their Gospel, which is called Gospel according to Matthew, or Gospel According to the Hebrews" reports: "I am come to do away with sacrifices, and if you cease not sacrificing, the wrath of God will not cease from you." (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.16,4-5)

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