Hebrews, Gospel According to The

(Euaggelion kath' Hebraious, to Hebraikon, to Ioudaikon; Evangelium Hebraeorum, Judeorum):

1. References in Early Church History

2. Its Character and Contents

3. Its Circulation and Language

4. Relation to Matthew

5. Time of Composition

6. Uncanonical Sayings and Incidents

7. Conclusion


"The Gospel according to the Hebrews" was a work of early Christian literature to which reference is frequently made by the church Fathers in the first five centuries, and of which some twenty or more fragments, preserved in their writings, have come down to us. The book itself has long disappeared. It has, however, been the subject of many critical surmises and discussions in the course of the last century. It has been regarded as the original record of the life of Jesus, the Archimedespoint of the whole gospel history. From it Justin Martyr has been represented as deriving his knowledge of the works and words of Christ, and to it have been referred the gospel quotations found in Justin and other early writers when these deviate in any measure from the text of the canonical gospels. Recent discussions have thrown considerable light upon the problems connected with this Gospel, and a large literature has grown up around it of which the most important works will be noted below.

1. References in Early Church History:

Speaking of Papias Eusebius mentions that he has related the story of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the "Gospel according to the Hebrews." This does not prove that Papias was acquainted with this Gospel, for he might have obtained the story, which cannot any longer be regarded as part of John's Gospel, from oral tradition. But there is a certain significance in Eusebius' mentioning it in this connection (Euseb., HE, III, xxxix, 16). Eusebius, speaking of Ignatius and his epp., takes notice of a saying of Jesus which he quotes (Ep. ad Smyrn, iii; compare Lu 24:39), "Take, handle me, and see thatI am not an incorporeal spirit." The saying differs materially from the saying in Luke's Gospel, and Eusebius says he has no knowledge whence it had been taken by Ignatius. Jerome, however, twice over attributes the saying to the "Gospel according to the Hebrews," and Origen quotes it from the "Teaching of Peter." Ignatius may have got the saying from oral tradition, and we cannot, therefore, be sure that he knew this Gospel.

The first early Christian writer who is mentioned as having actually used the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" is Hegesippus, who flourished in the second half of the 2nd century. Eusebius, to whom we owe the reference, tells us that Hegesippus in his Memoirs quotes passages from "the Syriac Gospel according to the Hebrews" (Historia Ecclesiastica, IV, xxii, 7).

Irenaeus, in the last quarter of the 2nd century, says the Ebionites use only the "Gospel according to Matthew" and reject the apostle Paul, calling him an apostate from the law (Adv. Haer., i. 26, 2). There is reason to believe that there is some confusion in this statement of Irenaeus, for we have the testimony of Eusebius, Jerome and Epiphanius that it was the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" that was used by the Ebionites. With this qualification we may accept Irenaeus as a witness to this Gospel.

Clement of Alexandria early in the 3rd century quotes from it an apocryphal saying with the same formula as he employs for quotation of Holy Scripture (Strom., ii.9). Origen, Clement's successor at Alexandria, has one very striking quotation from the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" (Comm. in Joann, ii), and Jerome says this Gospel is often used by Origen.

Eusebius, in the first half of the 4th century, mentions that the Ebionites use only the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" and take small account of the others (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, xxvii, 4). He has, besides, other references to it, and in his widely known classification of Christian Scriptures into "acknowledged" "disputed," and "rejected," he mentions this Gospel which he says some have placed in the last category, although those of the Hebrews who have accepted Christ are delighted with it (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, xxv, 5). Eusebius had himself in all probability seen and handled the book in the library of his friend Pamphilus at Caesarea, where Jerome, half a century later, found it and translated it.

Epiphanius, who lived largely in Palestine, and wrote his treatise on heresies in the latter half of the 4th century, has much to say of the Ebionites, and the Nazarenes. Speaking of the Ebionites, he says they receive the "Gospel according to Matthew" to the exclusion of the others, mentioning that it alone of the New Testament books is in Hebrew speech and Hebrew characters, and is called the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" (Haer., xxx.3). He goes on to say, that their "Gospel according to Matthew," as it is named, is not complete but falsified and mutilated, "and they call it the Hebrew Gospel" (Haer., xxx. 13). The quotations which Epiphanius proceeds to make show that this Gospel diverges considerably from the canonical Gospel of Mt and may well be that according to the Hebrews. It is more likely that "the Gospel according to Matthew, very full, in Hebrew," of which Epiphanius speaks, when telling about the Nazarene, is the Hebrew "Gospel of Matthew" attested by Papias, Irenaeus, and a widespread early tradition. But as Epiphanius confesses he does not know whether it has the genealogies, it is clear he was not himself acquainted with the book.

Jerome, toward the end of the 4th century, is our chief authority for the circulation and use of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews," although his later statements on the subject do not always agree with the earlier. He was proud of being "trilinguis," acquainted with Hebrew as well as with Latin and Greek. "There is a Gospel," he says, "which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use, which I lately translated from the Hebrew tongue into Greek and which is called by many the authentic Gospel of Matthew" (Commentary on Mt 12:13). The fact here mentioned, that he translated the work, seems to imply that this Gospel was really something different from the canonical Mt which he had in his hands. In another place, however, he writes: "Matthew .... first of all composed the Gospel of Christ in Hebrew letters and words, in Judea, for behoof of those of the circumcision who had believed, and it is not quite certain who afterward translated it into Greek. But the very Hebrew is preserved to this day in the Caesarean library, which Pamphilus the Martyr, with such care, collected. I myself was allowed the opportunity of copying it by the Nazarenes in Berea who use this volume. In which it is to be observed that the evangelist, when he uses the testimonies of the Old Testament, either in his own person, or in that of the Lord and Saviour, does not follow the authority of the Septuagint translators, but the Hebrew. Of those, the following are two examples: `Out of Egypt have I called my Son' (Mt 2:15 the King James Version); and `He shall be called a Nazarene' (Mt 2:23)" (De Vir. Ill., iii). It certainly looks as if in the former instance Jerome meant the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and in the latter the well-authenticated Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. At a later time, however, Jerome appears to withdraw this and to introduce a confusing or even contradictory note. His words are: "In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was written indeed in the Chaldee-Syr (Aramaic) language, but in Hebrew characters, which the Nazarenes use as the `Gospel of the Apostles,' or as most people think `according to Matthew,' which also is contained in the library at Caesarea, the narrative says" (Adv. Pelag., iii.2). As he proceeds, he quotes passages which are not in the canonical Mt. He also says: "That Gospel which is called the Gospel of the Hebrews which was latedly translated by me into Greek and Latin, and was used frequently by Origen" (Catal. Script. Eccl., "Jacobus"). Jerome's notices of the actual Gospel were frequent, detailed and unequivocal.

Nicephorus at the beginning of the 9th century puts the Gospel according to the Hebrews in his list of disputed books of the New Testament along with the Apocalypse of John, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas. This list is believed to rest upon an authority of about the year 500 AD, and, in the stichometry attached, this Gospel is estimated to have occupied 2,200 lines, while the canonical Mt occupied 2,500.

Codex Lambda of the 9th century, discovered by Tischendorf, and now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, has marginal notes affixed to four passages of Matthew giving the readings of to Ioudaikon, the lost Gospel according to the Hebrews (Scrivener, Textual Criticism, I4, 160; see also PlateXI , 30, p. 131).

2. Its Character and Contents:

All that survives, and all that we are told, of this work, show that it was of the nature of a Gospel, and that it was written in the manner of the Synoptic Gospels. But it seems not to have acquired at any time ecclesiastical standing outside the very limited circles of Jewish Christians who preferred it. And it never attained canonical authority. The Muratorian Fragment has no reference to it. Irenaeus knew that the Ebionites used only the Gospel according to Matthew in Hebrew, although, as we have seen, this may be really the Gospel according to the Hebrews; but his fourfold Gospel comprises the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which we know. There is no reason to believe that it was the source of the quotations made by Justin from the Apomnemoneumata, or of quotations made anonymously by others of the early Fathers. Like the Synoptic Gospels, however, it contained narratives of events as well as sayings and discourses. It had an account of John the Baptist's ministry, of the baptism of Jesus, of the call of the apostles, of the woman taken in adultery, of the Last Supper, of the denial of Peter, of appearances of Jesus after the resurrection; and it contained the Lord's Prayer, and sayings of Jesus, like the forgiveness of injuries seventy times seven, the counsel to the rich young ruler, and others. One or two sayings have a Gnostic tinge, as when Jesus calls the Holy Spirit His mother, and is made to express His unwillingness to eat the flesh of the Passover Lamb. There are apocryphal additions, even where incidents and sayings are narrated belonging to the canonical Gospels, and there are sayings and incidents wholly apocryphal in the fragments of the Gospel which have survived. But these superfluities do not imply any serious deviation from Catholic doctrine; they only prove, as Professor Zahn says, "the earnestness of the redactor of the Gospel according to the Hebrews to enrich the only Gospel which Jewish Christians possessed up to that time from the still unexhausted source of private oral tradition" (GK, II, 717).

The very title of the work suggests that it circulated among Jewish Christians. Those Christians of Palestine to whom Jerusalem was the ecclesiastical center betook themselves, after the troubles which befell the Holy City, to the less frequented regions beyond the Jordan, and were thus cut off from the main stream of catholic Christianity.

3. Its Circulation and Language:

It was accordingly easier for the spirit of exclusiveness to assert itself among them and also for heretical tendencies to develop. The Ebionites went farthest in this direction. They denied the supernatural birth of our Lord, and insisted upon the binding character of the Law for all Christians. The Nazarenes, as all Jewish Christians were called at first, observed the ceremonial law themselves, but did not impose it upon GentileChristians. And they accepted the catholic doctrine of the person of Christ. It was among a community of these Nazarenes at Berea, the modern Aleppo, that Jerome, during a temporary residence at Chalcis in Northern Syria, found the Gospel according to the Hebrews in circulation. No fewer than 9 times does he mention that this Gospel is their one Gospel, and only once does he connect the Ebionites with them in the use of it. Epiphanius draws a clear line of distinction between the Ebionites and the Nazarenes; and we can scarcely suppose that a Gospel which satisfied the one would be wholly acceptable to the other. There is reason to believe that the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew was most to the mind of the Hebrew Christians, and that it took different forms in the hands of the sects into which the Jewish Christian church became divided. Thus the Gospel of the Nazarenes was the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which in all probability had some affinity with the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of the Ebionites, which seems to have been the same as the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, was something of a more divergent doctrinal tendency suited to the exclusive and heretical views of that sect. But it is not easy to reconcile the statements of Epiphanius with those of Eusebius and Jerome.

That the Hebrew tongue in which Papins says Matthew composed his Logia was the Aramaic of Palestine is generally accepted. This Aramaic was closely akin to the Syriac spoken between the Mediterranean and the Tigris. It was the same as the Chaldee of the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, of which examples have so recently been found in the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine at Assouan. Eusebius and Jerome are emphatic and precise in recording the fact that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was not only Hebrew or Aramaic in composition, but written in the square Hebrew characters, so different from the Old Hebrew of the Moabite Stone and the Siloam inscription. That there was a Greek translation before the time of Jerome of the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was used by Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and others, is strenuously affirmed by Professor Harnack (Altchristliche Literatur, I, 6 ff) and as strenuously denied by Professor Zahn (GK, II, 648 ff). One reason why the book never attained to any ecclesiastical authority was no doubt its limited circulation in a tongue familiar, outside the circle of Jewish Christians, to only a learned few. For this reason also it is unlikely that it will ever be found, as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd, and other works have been.

4. Relation to Matthew:

It is natural to seek for traces of special relationship between the Gospel according to the Hebrews, circulating among communities of Jewish Christians, and the Gospel according to Matthew which grew up on the soil of Palestine, and which was originally composed in the interest of Jewish Christians, and circulated at a very early period in a Hebrew recension, soon superseded by the canonical Gospel of Matthew and now altogether lost. We have already seen that Irenaeus in all likelihood confused the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" with the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew; and that Jerome says the Gospel used by the Nazarenes was called by many the authentic Gospel of Matthew. Moreover, among the fragments that have survived, there are more which resemble Matthew's record than either of the other Synoptics. E.B. Nicholson, after a full and scholarly examination of the fragments and of the references, puts forward the hypothesis that "Matthew wrote at different times the canonical Gospel and the Gospel according to the Hebrews, or, at least, that large part of the latter which runs parallel to the former" (The Gospel according to the Hebrews, 104). The possibility of two editions of the same Gospel-writing coming from the same hand has recently received illustration from Professor. Blass' theory of two recensions of the Acts and of Luke's Gospel to explain the textual peculiarities of these books in Codex Bezae (D). This theory has received the adhesion of eminent scholars, but Nicholson has more serious differences to explain, and it cannot be said that his able argument and admirably marshaled learning have carried conviction to the minds of New Testament scholars.

5. Time of Composition:

If we could be sure that Ignatius in his Epistle to the Smyrneans derived the striking saying attributed to our Lord, "Take, handle me, and see thatI am not an incorporeal spirit," from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, we should be able to fix its composition as at any rate within the 1st century. The obscurity of its origin, the primitive cast of its contents, and the respect accorded to it down into the 5th century, have disposed some scholars to assign it an origin not later than our Synoptic Gospels, and to regard it as continuing the Aramaic tradition of the earliest preaching and teaching regarding Christ. The manifestly secondary character of some of its contents seems to be against such an early origin. Professor Zahn is rather disposed to place it not earlier than 130, when, during the insurrection of Bar-cochba, the gulf that had grown up between Jews and Jewish Christians was greatly deepened, and with an exclusively Gentilechurch in Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians had lost their center and broken off into sects. The whole situation seems to him to point to a date somewhere between 130-50 AD. The data for any precise determination of the question are wanting.

6. Uncanonical Sayings and Incidents:

There is a saying which Clement of Alexandria quotes from it as Scripture: "He that wonders shall reign and he that reigns shall rest" (Strom., ii.9). Origen quotes from it a saying of Jesus, reminding us somewhat of Ezek (8:3): "Just now My Mother the Holy Spirit took me by one of my hairs, and bore me away to the great mountain Thabor" (Orig., In Joann., ii; it is quoted several times both by Origen and Jerome). Jerome more than once quotes from it a saying of the Lord to His disciples: "Never be joyful except when ye look on your brother in love" (Hieron. in Eph 5:4; in Eze 18:7). In his commentary on Mt (Eze 6:11) Jerome mentions that he found in the third petition of the Lord's prayer for the difficult and unique Greek word epiousios, which he translates "supersubstantialis," the Aramaic word machar, crastinus, so that the sense would be, "Tomorrow's bread give us today." Of unrecorded incidents the most notable is that of the appearance of the Risen Lord to James: "And when the Lord had given His linen cloth to the servant of the priest, He went to James and appeared to him. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour wherein he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he saw Him rising from the dead. Again a little afterward the Lord says, Bring a table and bread. Immediately it is added: He took bread and blessed and brake, and afterward gave it to James the Just and said to him, My brother, eat thy bread for the Son of Man has risen from them that sleep" (Hieron., De Vir. Illustr., "Jacobus").

Jerome also tells that in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, there is the following passage: "Lo, the mother of the Lord and His brethren said unto Him: John the Baptist is baptizing for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him. But He said to them: What sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perchance this very word which I have spoken is a sin of ignorance" (Hieron., Adv. Pelag., iii.2).

7. Conclusion:

This Gospel is not to be classed with heretical Gospels like that of Marcion, nor with apocryphal Gospels like that of James or Nicodemus. It differed from the former in that it did not deviate from any essential of catholic truth in its representation of our Lord. It differed from the latter in that it narrated particulars mostly relating to our Lord's public ministry, while they occupy themselves with matters of curiosity left unrecorded in the canonical Gospels. It differs from the canonical Gospels only in that it is more florid in style, more diffuse in the relation of incidents, and more inclined to sectional views of doctrine. Its uncanonical sayings and incidents may have come from oral tradition, and they do lend a certain interest and picturesqueness to the narrative. Its language confined it to a very limited sphere, and its sectional character prevented it from ever professing Scriptural authority or attaining to canonical rank.



E.B. Nicholson, The Gospel according to the Hebrews (1879); R. Handmann, Das Hebrder-Evangelium: Texte u. Untersuchungen, Band V (1889); Zahn, GK, II, 642-723 (1890); Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, I, 6 ff; II, 1, 625-51 (1897); Neutestamentliche Apocryphen (Hennecke), I, 11-21 (1904).

T. Nicol

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