Was There an Original Semitic Gospel?

There’s one purported ancient document that, were it ever found in a pot or monastery somewhere, would probably explode like a buried nuclear bomb beneath the edifice of today’s scholarship on the canonical Gospels and (by extension) the Historical Jesus. The document (or documents, depending on who’s telling the story) in question is the putative Semitic Gospel, composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic, which would have been later translated into the Greek Synoptic tradition that we know today. To be clear, without the actual text in hand, we’re only working with some very interesting hints; my goal here is to reference some of those hints for the readers, basically to explain why we shouldn’t be utterly surprised if this text shows up one day.

In the first place, there’s a veritable mess of patristic testimonies that are quite insistent about a Semitic Gospel. Unfortunately, the names and terminology are badly mixed up in these references, so that it’s not always clear what putative document we’re talking about. (Interested readers can find most of this information presented in Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha, 1:134–178.[1] I’ll stick to some highlights.)

For the earliest clue, Irenaeus (c. 190) knows of (what he believes to be) a heretical adaption of Matthew used by Jewish Christian sectarians, the Ebionites. Later, Origen (fl. 231–253) refers to a “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” which appears to be different from Irenaeus’ intended text. A generation after Origen, Eusebius (c. 312) has considerably more to say on this subject. In Ecclesiastical History 3.25.5 and 3.27.1–4, he speaks of a “Gospel according to the Hebrews” favored by apparently orthodox Jewish Christians, but which Eusebius himself considers nothos: a non-apostolic text which comes close to apostolic teaching and style but remains an “illegitimate” candidate for the “covenanted” or “registered” New Testament. Looking back to an earlier period, Eusebius did also record the opinion of the early, enigmatic patristic figure Papias of Hierapolis (fl. 150), who himself claimed Matthew had originally collected sayings of the Lord in the Hebrew tongue (3.39.16­–7).

Most interestingly in my mind, Eusebius reports that another mid-second-century author, the Christian historian Hegesippus, quoted from two Semitic Gospels. For the historical intrigue that hangs on it, Eusebius’ Greek in this passage is maddeningly compact and oblique. One translation: Hegesippus “quotes some things from the gospel according to the Hebrews and from the Aramaic (gospel), and in his own way from the Hebrew language.” Because of Hegesippus’ apparent linguistic abilities, Eusebius insisted that Hegesippus was an ethnically Jewish Christian.[2] Unsurprisingly, both Hegesippus’ alleged Jewish origins and his knowledge of Hebrew have been contested by modern scholars. But barring blatant deceit—and it’s a rather odd bit of trivia to invent de novo—Eusebius knew enough about Hebrew and Aramaic to make it hard for us to dismiss his claims out of hand.[3] If he’s right, then Hegesippus already knew (and quoted approvingly?) two different Semitic gospels by the mid-100s, which is pretty early.

Jump forward about another century from Eusebius to Jerome, who had the most to say of our ancient sources about these supposed Semitic Gospels. According to Schneemelcher, even though Jerome called it by several different names, he seems to always have the same text in mind and to consider it the Hebrew original of Matthew. Jerome makes a few direct, interesting claims. First, he claims that a copy of the text was kept in Eusebius’ grand library at Caesarea. Moreover, he alleges he had even seen a copy of it himself in Syria. In Schneemelcher’s view, however, Jerome confused two different books, only one of which he had actually seen with his own eyes, which was probably just an Aramaic translation of Matthew, rather than Matthew’s original.

Generally, scholarship on Jewish Christianity is divided on whether our patristic sources were referring to two or in fact three distinct texts; everyone basically agrees that the information is too slim to draw any exciting conclusions. It appears that only one of these, the so-called Gospel of the Nazoreans, could even make of colorable claim of offering any insight into the pre-Greek Synoptic Tradition. Altogether, then, it’s a lot of patristic smoke without much flame.

That could always change, of course. Two such black-swan discoveries occurred within about a decade of each other in the twentieth century, which significantly affected how experts reconstructed ancient Judaism (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and ancient Christianity (the Nag Hammadi codices). As recently as the 1980s, we even found a hitherto lost set of Augustine’s genuine letters tucked away in an archive, letters which gave us a different side of Augustine’s day-to-day life as a bishop in Hippo. Discovery of an original Semitic Gospel would probably prove much more dramatic than these other examples: it would almost instantly incinerate generations of (what everyone acknowledges to be) overgrown secondary literature on the Historical Jesus.

Personally? I think that would be quite a lot of fun.

  1. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, trans. R. McL Wilson, Rev. ed, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Louisville: J. Clarke & Co. ; Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991). See also the more extensive, more recent work of Petri Luomanen, Recovering Jewish-Christian Sects and Gospels (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
  2. ἔκ τε τοῦ καθ’ Ἑβραίους εὐαγγελίου καὶ τοῦ Συριακοῦ καὶ ἰδίως ἐκ τῆς Ἑβραΐδος διαλέκτου τινὰ τίθησιν.
  3. See an example of Eusebius’ apparent knowledge of Hebrew from E. Nestle, “Alttestamentliches aus Eusebius,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 29 (1909): 57–62.


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