The Gospel of Matthew Was First Written in Hebrew

Though no copies are extant, there is good historical evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was first written in Hebrew.  Around 130 A.D., Church father Papias (a former student of the Apostle John) explained:

So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted them as he was able.  (Recorded by Eusebius in Church History, 3:39)

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John.  Around 170 A.D., Irenaeus confirms and elaborates upon Papias’ report:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.  (Against Heresies, 3:1)

Not only did Irenaeus teach that Matthew’s Gospel was first written in the Hebrew dialect, he also provided the order in which all four of the Gospels were written.  Note that the order is in harmony with how the Gospels are arranged in the Canon and not in line with modern liberal theories.

Origen Adamantius was a highly influential theologian who produced many works covering several areas of Christian thought, including textual criticism.  Around the middle of the third century, Origen wrote:

Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism and published in the Hebrew language.  (Recorded by Eusebius in Church History, 6:25)

Origen affirmed both the canonical order of the Gospels and that Matthew’s was first written in Hebrew.  He says that he came to learn this through tradition.  In combination with the other material provided it seems that this tradition was one that was consistently taught from the time of the Apostles.

During the early fourth century, preeminent church historian Eusebius of Caesarea wrote:

For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.  (Eusebius, Church History, 3:24)

Matthew first made disciples out of his fellow Hebrews.  He later fulfilled the Great Commission by serving other races.  According to Eusebius, before Matthew left his own people he wrote his Gospel in their native language.  This was done out of necessity because an actual witness to the ministry of Jesus would no longer be with them.  This makes sense given that Matthew has the greatest Jewish emphasis among the Gospels.

The historical evidence and the tradition of the Church strongly indicate that Matthew’s Gospel was indeed first written in Hebrew.  This being the case, the question as to where the Greek version came from arises.  The Greek copies of Matthew’s Gospel do not bear the marks of being a translation and were therefore written separately.  Matthew was responsible enough to leave the first group of people he witnessed to a copy of his Gospel in their own language.  It only follows that he did the same with a subsequent group (or groups) who read Greek.

Some desire to ignore or question the scholarship of the men quoted here out of a fear that a Hebrew copy of Matthew would undermine the reliability of Scripture.  This fear is unfounded, for the Greek copy of Matthew was still written by an apostle.  And it is the Greek rendition which God chose to preserve through the ages.  While the once existence of a Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel changes nothing in regards to the Canon, it is nevertheless a fascinating thing to ponder.

Comments

  1. I have heard this before but lost the references. I really appreciate this article, and not just because it confirms my suspicions. I have also heard from those who minister primarily to and among Jewish people that the gospel of Matthew resonates particularly with them.

    • Thank you. Yes, Matthew’s Gospel certainly seems to be the most influential among the Jews. I don’t think I’ve met a Messianic Jewish believer who preferred a different one.

  2. Hello Ervin,

    Thank for recording all of this information here. I have also read that Mark, Luke and the first 15 chapters of Luke written in Hebrew, Have you ever heard or read this? Thanks

    Scott Whittle

    • I have heard several theories regarding New Testament books first being written in Hebrew. But I cannot find any solid early evidence that this was the case aside from what supports the Hebrew Matthew. Of course it’s certainly possible and even makes sense that at least some Hebrew copies of books existed.

      In Christ,
      Matt Ervin

  3. Anchal Samuel says:

    Hello Erwin. I really appreciated this article. I also would like to point out certain things about Luke’s gospel. He spends a lot of time giving details of thebirth of John the baptist, then how Jesus’ was received at the temple, he also points out about the destruction of the temple in clearest terms. Obviously,he pays a lot of attention to the temple and Jesus activities related to it. I do think Luke’s gospel might have been in Hebrew as well. It obviously sounds very Jewish.

  4. Could the existence of both a Greek and Hebrew original (possibly both from Matthew’s own hand) explain some of the variants found within the extant Greek MSS? Related to that, do any of the Greek MSS of Matthew appear to be translation Greek, as if translated from Hebrew?

    • Matthew Ervin says:

      Brother,

      That’s entirely possible. In regards to your other question; some people do speculate that Greek Matthew or parts of it was translated from the Hebrew version. Parts of of it coming from the Hebrew is much more likely than the entire Gospel. I cannot think of any solid passage that comes off as having been translated from Hebrew. So I could not speculate myself much in either direction.

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