Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 60-140?) reported: “Matthew composed his history in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated it as he was able” (as quoted by Eusebius [ca. 263-339], Eccl. Hist. 3.39.16; translated by C. F. Cruse). An alternate translation is offered by W. J. Harrington: “Matthew, in Aramaic, grouped in order the sayings, and each translated them according to his ability” (Explaining the Gospels 40-41). This idea of the original composition of Matthew’s Gospel in the language of the Hebrew people was also propagated by Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1-2), Origen (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.25.4), Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.24.6; cf. 5.10.3), John Chrysostom (Hom. Matt. 1.7), and Jerome (Epist. 20.5).
This statement, however, is not as simple as the above English translations suggest. Does sunetazeto suggest this was something Matthew purportedly “composed,” “collected,” “compiled,” or “arranged”? What is meant by ta logia: “history,” “sayings,” “oracles,” “gospel”? What is intended by Hebraidi (“Hebrew,” “Aramaic,” “Semitic,” “Jewish-Christian”)1 dialektō (“dialect,” “language,” “style,” “literary form”)? Does hērmēneusen mean this was something “translated,” “interpreted,” or “transmitted”?
Perhaps ta logia is used by Papias in reference to the sayings/teachings of the apostles about the words and deeds of Jesus, i.e., the substance of Matthew’s Gospel. Compare Papias’ previous statement regarding Mark: “… being the interpreter of Peter whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accuracy … he was in company with Peter, who gave him such instruction as was necessary” (quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15). Alternatively, if ta logia is limited to “the sayings” of Jesus, it is interesting to note that in Matthew’s Gospel the Lord’s sayings are arranged in five long discourses (with no such arrangement in Mark or Luke).
Since the Greek of Matthew does not read like a translation and no early Hebrew or Aramaic text of the Gospel has ever been found,2 how is Papias’ allusion to Hebraidi dialektō to be understood? Suggestions include the following:
o The canonical Matthew was possibly based on a Greek translation of the Semitic original (W. J. Harrington, Explaining the Gospels 41-42).
o Matthew could have constructed his Gospel around an Aramaic collection of the Lord’s teachings (F. F. Bruce, The NT Documents 34-38).
o Matthew’s Gospel may have been written in the Greek language with a Semitic style or form, i.e., according to Semitic linguistic patterns (R. H. Gundry, Matthew 619-20).
o Perhaps Papias (and later writers influenced by him) simply made a mistake, confusing Matthew’s Gospel with an Aramaic narrative3 or making a misguided assumption based on the Jewish context of the early Christian movement (D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 146).
At the end of the day, we know the Gospel according to Matthew has been preserved through the centuries in the Greek language of the New Testament. Any questions, concerns, or debates about an alleged earlier form or similar writings do not detract from the inspired truth it conveys.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 “The author here, doubtless means the Syro-Chaldaic, which sometimes Scripture and primitive writers called Hebrew” (C. F. Cruse, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 436 n. 8; cf. W. J. Harrington, Explaining the Gospels 180 n. 2). Cf. John 5:2; Acts 1:19; 21:40; 22:2.
2 This does not count medieval Hebrew forms of Matthew that appear to be translations from the Greek (see R. E. Brown, An Introduction to the NT 210). The numerous OT quotations in Matthew’s Gospel reflect more than one text-form, i.e., LXX, translations from a Semitic original, and other less conventional compositions. This suggests someone knowledgeable of and writing in Greek but acquainted with Semitic languages (cf. D. A. Caron and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 143-44; D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 21-22).
3 A work known as “the Gospel according to the Hebrews,” which circulated among Jewish-Christian groups in Transjordan and Egypt (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.25.5; 3.27.4), apparently bore some affinity to Matthew’s Gospel (see Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1; Jerome, Matt. 1, 2, 4; On Illustrious Men 2; Micah 7.6; Epiphanius, Panarion 29.9.4; 30.3.7; Origin, Matt. 19; cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.24.6; 5.10.3; 6.25.4). Jerome’s allusions to “the Gospel of the Nazarenes” may have been in reference to the same work (cf. On Illustrious Men 3; Isa. 30; Ezek. 6; 16.3; Against Pelagius 3.2) or possibly even to an Aramaic translation of Matthew’s Gospel. In disputes between orthodox Pharisees and Jewish Christians around the turn of the 2nd century, discussions focused on Christian writings referred to as Euangelion, which F. F. Bruce suggests “was most probably an Aramaic form of the Gospel according to Matthew, the favourite Gospel of the Jewish Christians in Palestine and the adjoining territory” (NT Documents 104).
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