Friday, August 17, 2012

Do we rule out a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew?

So I’m reading some material about the synoptic problem. One thing I’ve run across is the fragments of patristic commentary on the order and circumstances of the gospels’ composition. particularly I’m thinking about the seeming mention of Mathew being first composed in Hebrew. This seems to be dismissed as obviously wrong in the scholarship I have seen. No one seems to be arguing for it being in Hebrew so the arguments it are not given in detail. The one time it seemed to be address definatly the argument was just that surely if there had been a hebrew Matthew some of it would have survived.
Apostle Matthew
But as far as I know NO Hebrew copy of an Old Testament book has come down to us through christian hands. That is, if it weren’t for jewish copies we would only have today the old testament in Greek, Latin and other gential langueges. You can see in Justin Martyr that the fact that Christians are using a translation is an issue and difference are being debated but Justin defends the translation as legitimate and having the same sort of inspiration and therefore the same authority as the original scriptures.  When Jerome is doing a new Latin translation the question of differences between the greek and hebrew text comes up again. It is debated within the Church and Jerome recommends that concerned Christian leads check with their local Jewish communities to confirm his translations from the Hebrew. I don’t remember him referring to any authority or community within the Church that has a hebrew manuscript or can check Jerome’s translation. Moreover it the story sounds like not only did Jerome have to go to Jews for Hebrew lessons but also for a manuscript to translate from. If already, still within the Roman period, Christians had lost all or most Hebrew copies of the old testament books, whose translation into greek was a live issue , still being debated, that not copies of a single book would have comes down to us?
If Matthew was translated into Greek during the apostolic age, then the translation itself would bear the same authority as the other books being composed originally in Greek during that same time. With no controversy over the translation there would be no motive for non-Hebrew speaking congregations to hold on to a manuscript they couldn’t read. And though we know second hand of Hebrew congregation surviving into the second or third century I’m not aware of us having any documents from them. We know there are a number of significant early Christian documents that have been lost except for quoted fragments or that survive only in translations in other languages than their original composition. Lossing a version in a language that few Christians or no Christin read and for which there was an elegant and complete translation in wide circulation doesn’t seem a stretch to me.
There are other things that might be motives, if not reasons, for dismissing the claim that Matthew was first composed in Hebrew. First of course is that a Hebrew gospel is more likely if it’s fairly early, when the Jesus movement was still centered around Jewish communities. People who would like devalue or discredit its witness would like it to be late and therefore would like it to be originally Greek. Defenders of Christianity would also like it to be Greek because today we are not as comfortable as Christians of the first couple of centuries with the idea that certain translations can be divinely inspired, just as originals were; and if Matthew was originally in Hebrew then we definitely don’t have the original wording. There is also the desire to see the earliest church as primitive. Those who want to snobbishly look down on the disciples or nostalgically romanticize them can want to portray them all as illiterate peasants. The assumption seems to be that classes stick together so that illiteracy is seen as a group phenomenon; also that you can’t really be a peasant without being illiterate. But the Jewish religious tradition valued the reading of the scriptures and reading and studying were already part of the way non priests would participate in religious ritual. After pentecost there would have been hundreds of Jews involved in this new religious movement among whom might have been one who who could compose and write down an account of Jesus’s life.  There is also the modern tendency to assume anything earlier must always be more primitive then something latter and especially that the very beginning of a new thing should be poor quality and unsophisticated. In literature latter writers can build on earlier writers but it isn’t a universal rule. And the early Christians weren’t starting from scratch. there was a rich and varied tradition in the Old Testament to give them inspiration.
There may be arguments against a Hebrew gospel of Matthew that I just haven’t heard. But I’m not convinced that the possibility has really been explored adequately. I’ll be keeping an open mind on this for now.

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