Sunday, January 15, 2012

On the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew

At some point in your journey through Koine Greek and the Greek New Testament, you will hear that the Gospel of Matthew was originally penned in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. The argument for such a claim is fairly compelling, and more and more Biblical scholars are giving it credence, but it does rest largely on cultural and linguistic textual insights rather than strictly archeological evidence. That is by no means a comment as to its veracity, but rather a caution against any absolutist statements proffered by the (almost exclusively) Messianic apologists. In the case of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, the only thing we can know for certain is that, as yet, we cannot know anything for certain.

Here is part 1 of 10 of an exellent presentation on YouTube about the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew called Raiders of the Lost Book, from self-described Messianic Jew, Michael Rood. The greater and by far the more fascinating part of the presentation is given by Nehemia Gordon, a Karaite Jewish textual scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of The Hebrew Yeshua vs the Greek Jesus.

As for me, I'd be delighted if it were true. For far too long Christian scholarship has ignored the Jewish Jesus (Yeshua). Anything that helps us recreate the cultural milieu in which the Gospel was written would be a blessing to Biblical exegesis.

However, let me state for the record, that a Hebrew Matthew would in no way shatter my trust in the Greek text; which is, I think, the hope of far too many of the Hebrew Matthew's proponents.

And there's the rub. There always seems to be this underlying implication that, if the Gospel of Matthew was originally Hebrew, then it's possible that other Gospels might've been, too—particularly John's. And if that's true, then, really, Paul's epistles probably were written in Hebrew as well. Before you know it, the idea of the original NT being Greek would be utterly abandoned and a massive historical (and textual) revision would take place. Hebrew, rather than Greek, would become the primary language of New Testament scholarship. And, in my opinion, that would be a disaster.

Those who want Hebrew to eclipse Greek because they think it is the Holy Tongue are ignoring a very important fact and a very important theological insight.

Fact: God preserved the New Testament record of Christ's earthly Mission in Greek. He arranged things so that Greek would be the lingua franca of the Gentile world at the moment in time when He took exclusive access to His Word from the Jewish nation and gave it to "all flesh", to any Jew or Gentile who would believe that Jesus was the Savior of the World.

Theological Insight: As with the confusion of tongues after the tower of Babel episode, God punished Israel by changing the language through which He chose to speak to them. Their understanding was darkened in large part through the demotion of their language. In this way, as Joseph was hidden from his brothers by being dressed as an Egyptian, the Messiah was to become unrecognizable to them after they "killed" Him.

As well, with the revelation of Spiritual Israel that came with the advent of Messiah, there was a need for a language that could reveal the spiritual aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures. Biblical Hebrew is a simple, naturalistic language suited to expressing concrete thoughts. Greek, on the other hand, is a complex, conceptual language, highly adept at expressing abstract and esoteric thinking. In chosing Greek as the language of ἀποκάλυψις [apokalupsis], of "taking off the cover", and not Hebrew, God fulfills even more of the prophetic elements of the Josephine story. Here is the "famine" that the brothers had to go through before they finally, and humbly, approached their Savior. Jesus is the Word (John 1:1), which is the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 48), and the Word was the Spirit of Truth (John 14:6) hidden within the letter of the Law (2 Cor 3:6). Access to this spiritual Bread is now gained through the Greek language, a Gentle language.

A humbling thought for Jewish Believers, no doubt, but one I'm sure they'll eventually embrace once they realize that even if they themselves speak Hebrew, they now think like Greeks, rather than ancient Israelites. They, like Joseph's brothers, have also come around to the Messiah's way of thinking.

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