James R. Edwards in The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009), lays out a strong case that the Hebrew Gospel is the principal source for the primitive material of Luke. Edwards proposes that the author of Luke used a single Gospel document in Hebrew both for his special material and for his overall narrative outline. This article summarizes the findings and conclusions regarding the Hebrew Gospel, including its strong affinity with canonical Luke and its lack of correlation with canonical Matthew.
What is the Hebrew Gospel?
In the early centuries of Christianity, various patristic writings attest to an early Hebrew Gospel, also known as the Gospel to the Hebrews, that is now lost apart from patristic citations of it. This gospel was written in Hebrew and circulated prior to the known canonical Gospels. The testimony to the Hebrew Gospel, was extensive in the first millennium of Christianity by more than two dozen patristic witnesses. These witnesses varied in geographical regions from the western end of the Roman Empire to India in the east. The Hebrew Gospel had a high reputation in the early church. Of all the non-canonical documents, it was cited most frequently and positively. Of all the canonical Gospels, Luke has the greatest affinity with the Hebrew Gospel.
Primary Attestations of the Hebrew Gospel
During the early period of Christianity, the Hebrew Gospel is attested by numerous church fathers, many of them prominent authorities. A notable third-century authority is Origen, who had a distinguished reputation as a textual critic and theologian. On occasion, he referred to noncanonical Gospels, including the Gospel of the Hebrews. He made qualified reference to it by using the phrase “if one receives it.” (Hom. Jer. 15:3; Comm. Matt 15:14) This qualified use, also appearing in Eusebius, suggests that the Hebrew Gospel cannot be cited with the same authority as the canonical text but nevertheless was considered an authority. Reference to the Hebrew Gospel, through the early centuries, indicates its widespread recognition and lasting status.
Of critical relevance are the references of Eusebius in the early fourth century. Like Origen, Eusebius follows a threefold classification of Recognized, Disputed, and Rejected books. His summary in his book Ecclesiastical History 3.25 is a primary reference in the development of the New Testament canon. Rather than putting the Gospel of the Hebrews in the category of rejected books that he described as “illegitimate” or “bastard,” he put the Hebrew Gospel in the same category as Revelation. In his summary, he notes that these documents are “known to most.” The fact that the Gospel of Hebrews was not clearly included in the rejected category but mentioned with Revelation, indicates that Eusebius considered it, like Revelation, a book accepted as authoritative by many and rejected by others.
Again, this is key evidence for its high status. Origen and Eusebius in commenting on accepted, disputed and rejected books, put the Hebrew Gospel in a middle category, along with Revelation, in a very short list of disputed books. This placement in a category of divided acceptance and rejection attests to the considerable status it had in many Christian communities in early Christian history.
Summary of the Significance of the Hebrew Gospel in the Early Church
According to Edwards, the tradition of an original Gospel written in Hebrew is attested by twenty church fathers: Ignatius, Papias, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Pantaenus, Hegesippus, Hippolytus, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Ephrem of Syria, Didymus of Alexandria, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Theodoret, Marius Mercator, Philip Sidetes, the Venerable Bede, Nicephorus, and Sedulius Scottus. Jerome alone references the Hebrew gospel twenty-two times. References by Pope Damasus, the Islamic Hadiths, the Scholia of Sinaiticus, and tractate Sabbat in the Babylonian Talmud potentially add to this number. Altogether, there are approximately seventy-five references in the period from the late first century to the tenth century.
Having conducted this exhaustive survey, Edwards states:
No other noncanonical document occupied the “disputed” category in canonical deliberations in the early church as long and consistently as did the Hebrew Gospel. To my knowledge, no other noncanonical text was cited as frequently and positively alongside canonical texts in early Christian exegesis. More important, witnesses to the Hebrew Gospel are as ancient as patristic witnesses to any of the four canonical Gospels. The Hebrew Gospel was the most highly esteemed noncanonical document in the early church. (James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, 2009, p. 103)
A factor that diminished the Hebrew Gospel in the eyes of the early church was its use by Jewish Christian sects such the Ebionites, Nazarenes, and others, who often exclusively used it. A major objection to these groups was that their Christological views did not conform to later orthodoxy, as they were characterized as adoptionists who denied the deity of Christ. Negative judgments toward them were likely a primary factor in the Hebrew Gospel not being embraced as a primary canonical authority. According to Edwards, John especially is seen as having jeopardized the standing of the Hebrew Gospel in later Orthodox Christianity and most likely played a role in debarring it from being included in the NT canon. (Ibid, p. 105)
Despite its non-canonical status, the Hebrew Gospel had a prominent and pervasive role in the early church on account of the references to it by early church authorities. The Hebrew Gospel is the most common patristic proof text, outside the canon, used in patristic writings.
Of critical significance is the use of the Hebrew Gospel as an auxiliary resource in hermeneutical writings of church authorities. It is sometimes quoted as Scripture, although not given that designation. By Clement it is regarded more highly than Plato. In all of Jerome’s exegesis, the Hebrew Gospel is only one of two noncanonical texts that he employs. The Hebrew Gospel is used as a reference for the proper interpretation of sacred Scripture by Origen, Didymus, and Jerome.
O. Holtzmann, in The Life of Jesus, on page 46, claims the Hebrew Gospel “rank[ed] as equal to the Johannine Gospel in value.”
A. F. Findely in Byways in Early Christian Literature, on page 50, observed that several church fathers, including Origen, felt compelled to show that their opinions did not conflict with the Hebrew Gospel.
The Hebrew Gospel correlates to Luke
P. Parker, in “A Proto-Lukan Basis for the Gospel According to the Hebrews,” states on page 472, “it can be shown that … the Gospel according to the Hebrews is not Matthean, and is to be related to the non-Markan portions of Luke.”
Quotations from the Hebrew Gospel occur in Ignatius of Antich, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Didymus of Alexandria, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Jerome, Sedulis Scottus, and possibly others. A pattern of correspondence with the Gospel of Luke can be observed by the mass of references. The large correspondence with Luke greatly exceeds that of Matthew or Mark. An example is Luke 24:39 in which there is an unmistakable correlation with four citations of the Hebrew Gospel including those of Ignatius, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome. The most complete witness to the citation comes from Jerome, who ascribes it to the Hebrew Gospel. Jerome said that Origen made frequent use of the Hebrew Gospel, and from the works of Origen that have been preserved, five references to the Hebrew Gospel can be identified, including three quotations from it.
Example 1: Origen’s use of the Hebrew Gospel to validate Luke 18:18-23
One such citation of Origen of the Hebrew Gospel is to resolve an issue he sees in the version of the rich man in Matt 19:16-22. Compare this with Luke 18:18-23 below.
Matthew 19:16-22 (ESV)
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Luke 18:18-23 (ESV) / The Hebrew Gospel
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
Origen sees a redundancy in Jesus requiring the rich man to dispense with his wealth after having confessed to keeping all the commandments, including the commandment to love your neighbor. Because it is redundant, Origen argues it is a later addition of canonical Matthew. He saw it as unwarranted considering the command to “Go, sell all you possess and distribute it among the poor, and come, follow me,” which contains the substance of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Origen believed the Hebrew Gospel preserved the most primitive version of the story, which did not include “love your neighbor as yourself.” Since Origin uses the Hebrew Gospel for exegesis and is investing it with authority over canonical Matthew, he treats the Hebrew Gospel as an authority despite an opening disclaimer to the contrary. In this case, Luke 18:18-23 reflects the Hebrew Gospel, exhibiting a reading that is preferred over the account of the rich man in Matt 19:16-22. Also, when comparing Luke 18:18-23 with Mark 10:17-22, the wording of Luke is nearer to the wording of the Hebrew Gospel. The wording of the Hebrew Gospel, “Sell all you possess and distribute it among the poor, and come, follow me,” more closely matches the wording of Luke than either Matthew or Mark.
It can also be noted above that Matthew adds other interpolations, shown in bold, as compared to the more primitive Luke. These interpolations correspond to Matthew’s emphasis on righteousness and perfection through keeping the commandments.
Example 2: Quotes from Origen and Eusebius exhibiting Lukan terminology
Another example of how Luke is the closest match with the Hebrew Gospel is the absolute use of “the Lord.” In the narrative that is common in the Hebrew Gospel, this appears more frequently in Special Luke (the material of Luke not seen in Mark or Matthew) than in sections paralleled by Mark or Matthew. Another example is that only in Luke 12:14, Luke 22:58, and Luke 22:60 is “man” used as a form of address as is used in the Hebrew Gospel. The content, imagery, and wording of the Hebrew Gospel, as quoted by Origen, also bears a distinct relationship with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 19:19-31.
Eusebius in Theophania 4.22 makes reference to “the Gospel that has come to us in Hebrew characters” when he quotes a passage that is related to the parable of the Talents/Minas of Luke 19:11-27 and Matt 25:14-30. Much of the Greek terminology and phraseology in the quotation is special or unique to Luke, This includes nine Greek terms that are all characteristic of or unique to Luke-Acts among the Gospels. Both lexically and thematically, Eusebius’s quotation of the Hebrew Gospel bears a close relationship to the Gospel of Luke.
Example 3: Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.2-3
Epiphanius of 315-403, who was Bishop of Salamis, is known to have made eight references to the Hebrew Gospel. Epiphanius associates the Hebrew Gospel with the Ebionite sect when he addresses the “Ebionite” heresy. Modern scholars often refer to the Hebrew Gospel that Epiphanius associates with the Ebionites, as “the Gospel of the Ebionites.” This naming does not come from Epiphanius or any other church father. Epiphanius simply references to it as “Hebrew Gospel” which he further describes as a corruption of the Gospel of Matthew.
The eight quotations of Epiphanius confirm (1) the quotations correspond predominately with Luke (not nearly as close to canonical Matthew) and (2) they are quotations from an original Hebrew Gospel authored by the apostle Matthew.
The first quotation of Epiphanius is as follows:
In what they [the Ebionites] call the Gospel according to Matthew, which, however, is not complete but forged and mutilated—they call it the Hebrew Gospel—it is reported: “There appeared a certain man by the name of Jesus about thirty years of age, who chose us. And having come to Capernaum, he entered the house of Simon who was called Peter, and having opened his mouth, said, “As I passed beside the Lake of Tiberias, I chose John and James the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew and Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the Iscariot, and you, Matthew, I called while you were sitting at the tax table, and you followed me. You therefore I desire to be twelve apostles for a witness to Israel.’” (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.2-3)
There are six specific ways that this passage is linked to the Gospel of Luke:
- The mention of Jesus being “about thirty years of age” parallels Luke 3:23. Luke is the only gospel that mentions Jesus’ age.
- Reference to “the Lake of Tiberias” is only made in Luke. Moreover, the word for “lake” is not used in Mark, Matthew, or John, which uses sea, but is exclusive to Luke among the canonical gospels.
- Luke 4:38 is verbatim with the mention of entering the house of Simon. Mark and Matthew’s wording of the same event does not match the way Luke does.
- As compared to the wording of Mark 3:16 and Matt 10:2, the wording of Luke 6:14 more closely corresponds to the further clarification of Simon’s name as “Peter” as indicated by the quote.
- With respect to the list of apostles, the reference to “Simon the Zealot” is unique to Luke 6:15, and the order of “John and James,” rather than “James and John,” is found only in Acts 1:13.
- Virtually verbatim with Luke 1:5 is the phrase “there appeared a certain man by the name of”
Example 4: Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.7-8
After many things had been said, it continues, “When the people had been baptized, Jesus also came and was baptized by John. And as he arose from the water, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit of God in the form of a dove descending and entering into him. And a voice came from heaven, saying ‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am pleased”; and again, “Today I have begotten you.’ And immediately a great light shone on the place. When John saw it, it is recorded that he said to [Jesus], ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And again a voice from heaven came to him, ‘This is my beloved Son, on whom my pleasure rests.’ And then, it is reported, John fell before him saying, ‘I beg you, Lord, to baptize me.’ But he prevented it saying, ‘Let it be, for in this way it is necessary for all things to be fulfilled.'” (Epiphanius Panarion 30:13.7-8)
- The indication that Jesus was being baptized with the people corresponds solely to Luke 3:21, as also does the reference to the “Holy Spirit” in “the form of a dove” corresponding to Luke 3:22.
- The first expression of the voice from heaven addresses Jesus in the second-person singular, which Luke does, but Matthew uses the third-person singular
- With regard to the voice coming from “heaven,” Luke is in the singular corresponding to the citation, whereas Matthew and mark are in the plural (heavens).
- The reference to the “opening” of the heavens corresponds to the verb of Luke 3:21 as opposed to Mark.
- The divine pronouncement, “Today I have begotten you,” a quote from Psalms 2:7, only occurs in the Western text of Luke 3:22 but is absent from any texts of Matthew or Mark.
Example 5: Epiphanius, Panarion 30.14.3
Another notable quotation of Epiphanius regarding the Hebrew Gospel is:
For having removed the genealogies of Matthew, they begin, as I said earlier, by saying that “It came to pass in the days of Herod king of Judea, when Caiaphas was chief priest, a certain man named John came baptizing a baptism of repentance in the Jordan river,” etc. (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.14.3)
This quotation is related more specifically to Luke 1:4 and Luke 3:2 than to the Synoptic parallels of Mark 1:4 and Matt 3:1-2 as follows:
- Various phrases are a verbatim match to the opening line of Luke’s infancy narrative of Luke 1:5.
- The reference to the high priesthood of Caiphas is found only in Luke 3:2.
- The reference to “the baptism of repentance in the Jordan River” matches Luke 3:3 more closely than the parallels of Matt 3:1 or Mark 1:4
- This introduction by Epiphanius indicates that Luke 1:5 corresponds to the beginning of the body of the Hebrew Gospel. The body did not begin the birth of Jesus, as recorded in Matt 1:18.
Summary of Lukan Correlation with the Hebrew Gospel
Other quotes by Epiphanius also demonstrate that the Hebrew Gospel is of a higher affinity with Luke than with Matthew. For example, specific verbs are used that are characteristic of Luke and Acts, but are absent from Matthew. With respect to the Gospel of the Ebionites, we see the closest correlation with Luke than with Matthew.
James Edwards summarizes his findings regarding the Gospel of the Ebionites understood from the citations of Epiphanius as follows:
The Hebrew Gospel cited by Epiphanius is not, as is often assumed, a general harmony of the Synoptic Gospels. Nor again are Epiphanius’s citations of the Hebrew Gospel default reproductions of Matthew, nor do they favor Matthew. A synopsis of the above evidence, divided between passages in the Gospel of the Ebionites, that are either clearly or possibly related to the various Synoptic Gospels, reveals the following:
Luke: 13 Clearly, 14 Possibly
Matthew: 6 Clearly, 5 Possibly
Mark 3 Clearly, 3 Possibly
(James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition,Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009, p. 76)
We see more than twice as many correlations between Luke and the Gospel of the Ebionites than with Matthew and Mark combined. Epiphanius’s citations of the Gospel of the Ebionites show clear and repeated similarities to material unique to Luke.
The citations from Jerome of the early fifth century reveal many more correspondences of the Hebrew Gospel with Luke than with Matthew. In numerous instances, and especially in Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, Jerome appealed to the Hebrew Gospel, as Origen and Didymus also did, to interpret a canonical text, especially canonical Matthew. Thus, at least three church fathers attest to the Hebrew Gospel being a hermeneutical authority in the patristic period, despite its non-canonical status.
Lukan Material yet Matthean Authorship?
Church Fathers imply that the Hebrew Gospel is independent of the canonical Gospels and that several, including Origen and Jerome, give the impression that it was written earlier than the canonical Gospels. Jerome attributes the Hebrew Gospel to the apostle Matthew, but he is not the only one. (Vir. Ill. 2. 11) At least twelve fathers attribute the Hebrew Gospel to the apostle Matthew, eleven further specifying that it was written in Hebrew. The Church fathers widely ascribe the Hebrew Gospel to the apostle Matthew, and there are no attributions to anyone else.
A major quandary with respect to the Hebrew Gospel remains:
- The material quoted from the Hebrew Gospel is much more Lukan than Matthean
- Church Fathers assign the Hebrew Gospel to the apostle Matthew
- How is predominately Lukan Material assigned to Matthew?
More than a century ago, in 1922, the French scholar M. J. Lagrange asked the question: “If the Gospel (of the Ebionites) is no nearer to Matthew than it is to Luke, why is it named for Matthew?”
Some German scholars attributed this discrepancy to a blunder, especially with respect to Epiphanius. However, This is unlikely the case because Epiphanius provides a factual and historical description of the Ebionites that agree with Irenaeus and other ancient sources.
The Hebrew Gospel, often attributed to the Apostle Matthew, may have been translated into Greek at an early date. It is also very likely that this primitive gospel tradition was subject to textual alterations in accordance with the tenets of those Jewish Christian sects that used it as their principal authority. This explains why two different recensions appear in Epiphanius as compared to Jerome’s citations. The Gospel of the Ebionites could be understood as being a later modified version of the Hebrew Gospel that was partially falsified and distorted. Jerome wrote, “Now that the stream [of the Hebrew Gospel] is distributed into different channels, we must go back to the fountainhead.” (Jerome, Preface to the Four Gospels to Pope Damasus, 384)
At the hands of sectarian communities and interest groups, the original Hebrew Gospel apparently suffered changes. However, such corruption might not have been major, since Epiphanius mentions only eight cases where he attempts to highlight “mutilations” in the Hebrew Gospel. Whatever variants were exhibited in versions of the Hebrew Gospel, it remained consistent enough to be referred to as “the Hebrew Gospel” through several centuries. This suggests that, for the most part, the “Hebrew Gospel” can be characterized as a textual tradition that is “continuous” and “integral.”
The evidence is conclusive that the Hebrew Gospel is one of the sources of the Gospel of Luke, which the author alludes to in the prologue (Luke 1:1-4)
Two identifiable streams thus extend from the fountainhead of the original Hebrew Gospel:
- The canonical Gospel of Luke
- The Corrupted Gospels of the Ebionites, Nazaranes, ect.
The above assessment, explains why the Hebrew Gospel, as quoted, corresponds predominantly to the Greek text of Luke, and that the version of the Hebrew Gospel used by the Ebionites or Nazarenes would have only minor variations in reference to the original version of the Hebrew Gospel used as a source for Luke. The Gospel of Luke can be seen as providing a reliable standard of what was the earliest tradition—the “fountainhead” of the Gospel tradition.
This is not to suggest that the original Hebrew was the sole source of canonical Luke, but that likely it was a primary, if not the principal, source of the material unique to Luke. Accordingly, the Hebrew Gospel is a primary reference implied by the prologue of Luke 1:1-4. This is substantiated by the increase in Hebraisms in Lukan material which is independent of, and not paralleled with, Mark or Matthew. This is documented in the article Validation of Special Luke: Semitisms.
It should also be noted that both Eusebius of Caesarea and Clement of Alexandra maintained that Luke had the proficiency to translate a difficult Hebrew text into high-caliber Greek. In Ecclesiastical History, written by Eusebius in the early fourth century, he quotes Clement’s Hypotyposeis, written in the second century. This is of significant historical value in reference to Luke’s knowledge of Hebrew:
“As for the Epistle to the Hebrews, [Clement] says indeed that it is Paul’s, but that it was written for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue, and that Luke, having carefully translated it, published it for the Greeks.” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.14.2)
Here Luke is identified as a Hebrew translator. This also explains why, in Eusebius’s mind, the epistle of Hebrews bears the same stylistic complexion as the book of Acts. For both Clement and Eusebius, Luke’s knowledge of Hebrew is not only a received tradition, but it requires no explanation (as if it were a contested position). It would be an unlikely assumption to make that the only Gentile author in Scripture, was proficient in Hebrew, unless, in fact, he was.
What about Canonical Matthew?
The Hebrew “Gospel of Matthew,” is not a Hebrew version of canonical Matthew, nor is it closely related to the gospel called Matthew in the traditional canon. This Hebrew Gospel, used as the principal source for canonical Luke, cannot have been canonical Greek Matthew, since the Hebrew Gospel shows no strong affinity with canonical Greek Matthew. As compared to the Special Material in the Gospel of Luke, few Hebraisms appear in the double tradition, and fewer even in the Matthean versions of it. This makes it clear that the Matthew of the traditional Canon represents a textual tradition independent of the Hebrew Gospel.
Canonical Matthew being a later tradition is further demonstrated by all the evidence for Matthean Posteriority, as covered in the article Evidence of Matthean Posteriority.
Examining the Greek of canonical Matthew as compared to that of Luke gives further clues as to its later dating. Edwards makes the following observation:
Luke’s Greek is technically superior to Mark’s but is generally more complex, not the least because of its Hebraisms. Matthew’s Greek, on the other hand, is clean and consistent, and his style and wording rarely need to be (or can be) improved. The Gospel of Matthew appears to have passed through many editorial filters. The result is a Gospel that affords memorization and is eminently suitable for public reading. (James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, 2009, p. 248)
Considering its structure as well, canonical Matthew can be characterized as a later Liturgical document. For a related article, see Matthew is a Liturgical Document.
As compared to Luke or Mark, Matthew also exhibits a more developed Christology. This is evidenced by the frequent use of terms and titles including Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God, and the Coming One, which appears in greater frequency in Matthew than they do in Luke or Mark. In Matthew, Jesus is often made the object of the Greek verb meaning to “prostrate to,” which may seem to imply divine status. There is no explanation why Luke, who features many Hebraisms in his Gospel, would omit this term if he were drawing on canonical Matthew or another source using this language.
Furthermore, a number of specific Matthean texts are best explained as embellishments of earlier Lukan texts. Such examples given in several articles on this site are clear proof that the Matthean form of the Gospel tradition is a later development of a more primitive Lukan form. Additional evidence for a later dating of canonical Matthew is that it appears to represent a low view of women and non-Jews while also catering to the wealthy. These views reflect a period later than the Gospel of Luke and pertain to a wealthy Jewish-centric sect of Christianity. See more on this in Matthean Revisionism: Women, Non-Jews, and Wealth.
Martin Hengel in The four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (pp. 169-189, 254-255, and 303-305) argues that Luke belongs to an earlier period than Matthew and that Luke displays better knowledge of Judaism prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Hengel makes the case that Matthew presupposes the consolidation of Judaism under later rabbinic programs. Hengel further argues that gospels named after apostles are likely later than those attributed to non-apostles, on account of the need to give later documents apostolic authorship to be considered authoritative.
Edwards sums up his assessment of the dating of Matthew as follows:
“The Gospel of Matthew looks like the terminus of a long process of … incubation in the early church. If Matthew were prior to the other two Synoptics, it would be difficult to conceive why its symmetry, practical design, topical organization, and structural felicity would be dismembered and parceled into more pedestrian roles in both Mark and Luke. According to the generally accepted standards of literary creativity and development, the design and content of canonical Matthew suggest a later provenance in the Synoptic birth order.” (James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, 2009, p. 252)
A Corrected Understanding of the Relationship Between the Gospels
For nearly two centuries of modern scholarship, many have held to the mistaken presumption that the Hebrew Gospel is a precursor to the later conical Greek Matthew. Because Matthew was named by church fathers as the author of the Hebrew Gospel, this was inevitably conflated with the canonical Gospel given the same name. Both were collapsed into a presumption of one and the same person. Many also in the early church and afterward made the error that a Hebrew Gospel written by Matthew was the precursor of the canonical Greek Gospel called “Matthew.” The large body of evidence shows this is not the case. Canonical Greek Matthew exhibits minimal indications of having been grounded in a Hebrew original. Canonical Matthew is unlike Special Luke, which naturally translates back into Hebrew. Rather, Canonical Mathew is problematic when rendering into Hebrew, as many Hebrew scholars have observed.
The apparent reason for the absence of material from the Hebrew Gospel in canonical Matthew is that, unlike Luke, the author did not use the Hebrew Gospel as a source. This eliminates the possibility of the apostle Matthew being the author of Matthew. The “Matthew” of the traditional canon was clearly a Greek document from its inception. Luke is the only Gospel to contain content with a high level of affinity to the Hebrew Gospel. The only thing canonical Matthew seems to have in common with the Hebrew Gospel is that they were both composed for and addressed to Jewish Christian communities. However, they were composed in opposite stages in the development of the gospel tradition, and they were written under different pretenses. The Hebrew gospel is best understood as the fountainhead of the Gospel tradition, with this primitive tradition being best exhibited by Luke. Canonical Matthew is a later corruption and embellishment at the final stages of the development of Synoptic Gospel traditions.
Among other thesis points, Edwards comes to the following conclusions as part of his summary of thesis points:
- Patristic quotations from the Hebrew Gospel exhibit a stronger correlation with the Gospel of Luke, and especially material in Special Luke, than they do with either Matthew or Mark
- The Hebrew Gospel was most plausibly a source of the Gospel of Luke, and specifically either the primary or sole source of Special Luke.
- The Semitisms in Luke cannot be properly explained as “Septuagintisms;” i.e., as imitations of the language and style of the LXX. Nor can they be explained as reliance on an Aramaic spoken Vorlage. Semitisms in Luke are most plausibly explained by reliance on the Hebrew language of the original Hebrew Gospel.
- The Hebrew Gospel was not a compilation of the Synoptic Gospels, but repeatedly and distinctly similar to Luke.
- Semitisms appear in Special Luke nearly four times as often as they appear in those sections of Luke that are shared in common with Matthew and/or Mark.
- The distinct and unusually high number of Semitisms in Special Luke is most plausibly explained by Luke’s reliance on the Hebrew Gospel for those parts of his Gospel not shared in common with Matthew and/or Mark.
- The Hebrew Gospel, although not specified, is most probably one of the eyewitness sources that Luke used as a source of the Third Gospel and to which he refers in the prologue.
- It appears that the Hebrew Gospel, at least in order and sequence, forms the Grundtext of the Gospel of Luke, into which Luke integrated grated material from Mark.
- A sum of 177 verses in Luke does not appear to derive either from the Hebrew Gospel or from Mark. These verses, which are present in one form or another also in Matthew, could be accounted for in various ways, none of which is conclusive. The verses, which I refer to as the double tradition, do not appear to have derived from a hypothetical sayings source, however, and thus cannot be explained or associated with the traditional “Q” hypothesis.
- A plethora of evidence, including factors related to the design, style, vocabulary, and historical allusions in canonical Matthew, argue for Matthean Posteriority, i.e., that the Gospel [of Matthew] was the final and consummate Gospel in the Synoptic tradition
(James R. Edwards. The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (2009). pp. 260-261)