The Gospel According To Saint Matthew With An Explanatory And Critical Commentary by Rev. A.J. Maas S.J.

We have already pointed out the passages of the Fathers testifying that St. Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew, i. e. in Syro-Chaldaic, the vernacular language of the Hebrew Christians in Palestine: Papias [cf. Eus. H. E. iii. 36, 39]; Iren. hær. iii. 1; Euseb. H. E. iii. 24; v. 10; Orig. comm. in Matt. [cf. Eus. H. E. vi. 25]; Epiph. hær. xxix. 9; xxx. 3; Jer. præf. in Matt.; de vir. ill. 3; præf. in quat. evang. ad Damas.; ep. 20. Damas. de Osanna, 5; ep. 120 Hedib. quæst. viii. 1; comm. in Os. xi.; de vir. ill. 36; Naz. Chrys. Aug. Isidore of Seville, Theophyl. Euth.

Erasmus [in Matt. 8:17] and Cajetan [in Matt. proleg.] began in the sixteenth century to attack this general belief, and they were soon followed by the whole school of Protestant theologians, who had to deny on dogmatic grounds that the original language of our first gospel was the Hebrew. Since in their rejection of the deutero-canonical books they had committed themselves to the thesis that the original text of an inspired book cannot be lost, they had either to deny the inspiration of the first gospel or its Hebrew authorship. Most Protestant writers have followed in the footsteps of their leaders, though not always on dogmatic grounds. Among the scholars who have pronounced for a Greek original we find Erasmus, Cajetan, Calvin, Le Clerc, Fabricius, Lightfoot, Wetstein, Paulus, Lardner, Hey, Hales, Hug, Schott, De Wette, Moses Stuart, Fritzsche, Credner, Thiersch, Bengel, Masch, Schubert, Keil, and many others. On the other side are ranged the names of Simon, Mill, Michaelis, Marsh, Eichhorn, Storr, Olshausen, Comely, Knabenbauer, Kaulen, Meyer, and of nearly all the Catholic commentators that have treated the question [cf. Danko, Hist. Rev. N. T. p. 272].

The reasons against a Hebrew original of the first gospel may be reduced to the following: 1. Greek was commonly used and generally understood by the Jews in Palestine, so that the evangelist would naturally address his readers in Greek. 2. It is highly improbable that the original text of an inspired book of the New Testament should be lost in spite of the watchful care of the Church. 3. The present Greek text of our first gospel bears no sign of a translation, but has all the appearance of an original composition: a. It is cited as early and as constantly as the Greek text of St. Mark and St. Luke; b. it contains Greek idioms and even plays upon words; c. it coincides with the other synoptic gospels in certain parts of the text, mainly in the discourses and words of our Lord, while it diverges from them in the narrative portions; d. in citing the Old Testament our Lord almost uniformly uses the lxx. version, even where it differs from the Hebrew, while the evangelist himself usually quotes the Hebrew text, a phenomenon that could not occur in a mere translation.

1. The first argument misrepresents the national condition of the Jews about the time of the apostles. Josephus [B. J. V. ix. 2; VI. ii. 1] testifies that he dealt in Hebrew with his countrymen. According to Acts 21:37, 40; 12:2, St. Paul spoke Hebrew to the listening crowd, who became more attentive on hearing him speak their native tongue. The national feeling of the Jews at this time was so intense that any attempt to suppress their customs or language was always met by a strong resistance. Thus the Machabees struggled against the Seleucidæ, the zealots under the leadership of Eleazar ben Simon, and Simon ben Giora fought against Rome. Each time Hebrew money was circulated to excite the enthusiasm of the multitude [cf. Levy, Geschicht. der jüd. Münzen, Breslau, 1862, pp. 27 ff.; 8 ff.]. About the same time the Targumim were published, not in Greek, but in Hebrew; the inscription on the cross was written in three languages, one of which was Hebrew; the field bought with Judas’ treason money was named Haceldama, the Hebrew for “field of blood.” According to the first principle of our opponents, then, the first gospel must have been written in Hebrew.

2. The loss of the original text of St. Matthew is not without parallel. The original texts of Baruch and of the first book of Machabees were thus lost in the Synagogue; in the early Church disappeared in the same manner the original texts of Tobias, Judith, and Ecclesiasticus. Our opponents here again fail to appreciate the condition of the early Christians. They suppose that in the nascent Church existed all the literary acumen and the critical accuracy of the nineteenth century. Those sects that endeavored to amalgamate Christianity with Judaism held the original text of the first gospel in the greatest honor. St. Irenæus, St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Epiphanius, the Clementine homilies, and especially St. Jerome, show that the Ebionites and the Nazarenes kept Matthew’s gospel, though in a mutilated form and somewhat altered, till the fourth century [cf. the foregoing testimony concerning the Gospel according to the Hebrews]. The Greek-speaking Christians took little interest in the Hebrew form of a gospel which they possessed in Greek, so that the original text ceased to be used by Catholics. This was the easier because at that early date the belief in the inspiration of the New Testament writings was not yet clearly formulated.

3. Concerning the seeming Greek original of the first gospel, our opponents have advanced nothing that does not admit of a satisfactory answer. a. That the Greek text of the first gospel should be cited as often and as early as the Greek text of St. Mark and St. Luke was antecedently to be expected. The earliest ecclesiastical authors wrote in Greek, and cited the lxx. version of the Old Testament as of equal value with the Hebrew text. It would be strange indeed if they appealed to the Hebrew text of the first gospel, while using the Greek version of the Old Testament, especially since they were fully convinced of the sacredness of the Old Testament, and since Hebrew had become so uncommon in Palestine at the time of St. Jerome that he found it extremely difficult to learn the language.

b. If the Greek text of the first gospel is written in idiomatic language and contains even plays upon words, the translator must have done his work well. On the other hand, Eichhorn [Einl. i. pp. 167 f.; 281 f.] and Bertholdt [Einl. p. 1260] find mistakes of translation in the Greek text of the first gospel. But the “Emmanuel” of 1:18 is retained because it is a proper name; in 27:46, “Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani” is retained to explain the context, “this man calleth Elias.” The plays upon words in the Greek text are worse and fewer than the accidental ones in the Latin version, so that the first gospel must have been written in Latin, according to the principles of our opponents. Finally, the 91 occurrences of τότε, the 62 of ἰδού, the 52 of προσέρχεσθαι, the ἀποστρέφειν in 26:52 and 27:3, the ἐγὼ Κύριε in 21:30, point rather to a Hebrew original than a Greek.

c. If the text of the first gospel verbally agrees with the other synoptics, its original text must have been Greek, since a mere translator could not have rendered the sense of an independent gospel in the exact words of another inspired record. But this difficulty remains a difficulty even if St. Matthew wrote in Greek; for the solution depends on the solution of the “synoptic problem,” and not on the original language of the evangelist. The former question once fairly answered, the latter can be settled without delay. According to the mutual dependence theory, e.g., the first gospel might have been translated early enough to be used by St. Mark and St. Luke, or the translator of Matthew could use the phraseology of the second and third gospel. Or if the synoptists depend on a source, either written or oral, distinct from the gospels, Matthew’s Greek translator might adhere to the very words of that source from which the three evangelists had copied. The additional fact urged by our opponents, that the synoptists agree commonly in our Lord’s discourses and disagree in the merely narrative portions, yields no argument for either side of the present question. Nor can a conclusion be drawn from the Old Testament citations in the first gospel; for the agreement with the Hebrew text or with the lxx. version may be owing to the translator as well as to the evangelist. In point of fact, neither all quotations agree with the Hebrew text, nor do all agree with the Greek version. In 2:15 and 8:17 the gospel adheres to the Hebrew text because the Greek version would not yield the needed argument; in 12:21 the Greek version is followed because the Hebrew text does not suit the scope of the evangelist; in 2:6; 4:15; 5:21, 43; etc. it is hard to determine whether the Hebrew or the Greek text has been followed; in 2:5; 11:10; 27:9; etc. the gospel follows neither the Hebrew nor the Septuagint text. Bleek [Beiträge zur Evangelienkrit. Berlin, 1846, p. 57] concludes that in the discourses the Greek text of the first gospel quotes the Septuagint, while in the narrative portions it follows the Hebrew text; this result may be considered as correct if we except the discourse matter of 11:10 and also v. 21, 23; 19:4, 18, 19 [cf. Cornely, Introd. 3. p. 46, n. 12]. At any rate, if there be a system followed in the Old Testament quotations, it may be owing to the translator as well as to the evangelist.

Our opponents do not only advance positive arguments for their view, but they also impugn the tradition argument on the strength of which we maintain the Hebrew authorship of the first gospel. 1. Much of this tradition, they say, rests on the testimony of Papias, who was a man of weak judgment. 2. The Fathers who testify for the Hebrew original of the first gospel often confound the gospel according to the Hebrews with the gospel according to St. Matthew.

1. Eusebius [H. E. III. xxxix. 3] calls St. Papias a man of weak judgment on account of his millenarian views. That St. Papias was in other respects considered as very competent follows from the numerous adherents he had even in his errors. Besides, the context shows that St. Papias quotes the testimony of John the presbyter in the passage bearing on the present question [cf. Eus. H. E. III. xxxix. 3]. St. Irenæus, Origen, and Eusebius are, as we have already seen, more explicit in their testimony than St. Papias, and cannot therefore have copied him. As to the other patristic passages, it has not even been seriously tried to derive them from St. Papias [cf. Hug, Einl. ii. 17].

2. That St. Papias identified Matthew’s Hebrew gospel with the gospel according to the Hebrews is an almost arbitrary inference from Eusebius [H. E. III. xxxix. 13]. Even if such an identification be proved, it confirms the view already expressed that the gospel according to the Hebrews is the mutilated and corrupted Hebrew gospel of the first evangelist [cf. Danko, Hist. Rev. div. ii. 268].

Supposing, therefore, the Hebrew authorship of our first gospel, when and by whom has the text been translated into Greek? 1. The version must have been made in the apostolic age. The apostolic Fathers [Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp] quote the Greek text; St. Papias says that “each interpreted them [Matthew’s oracles] as he was able,” so that at the time of this last writer there existed already a commonly received Greek version. Probably, even at the time of John the presbyter [properly the time of εἴρηται], to which the aorist [ἡρμήνευσε] of the verb “interpreted” refers, there existed a Greek “textus receptus.”

2. A number of suppositions have been made concerning the first translator of the first gospel: Glaire [Introd. Paris, 1843, iv. p. 104], Bisping [Exeget. Handb. i. ed. 2, Münster, 1867, p. 33], Bacuez [Manuel biblique, Paris, 1878, iii. p. 79], among Catholics, and Bengel [Gnomon N. T. ed. 2, Tuebingæ, 1749, p. 2], Guericke [Beiträge zur hist. krit. Einl. Jena, 1828, pp. 36 ff.], Thiersch [Herstellung eines geschichtl. Standpunkt. für die Krit. des N. T., Erlangen, 1845, pp. 192 f.], among Protestant writers, believe that the Greek text of St. Matthew has been written by the evangelist himself, being rather a new edition than a mere version of its Hebrew original. Others ascribe the Greek text of the first gospel at least to an inspired writer, to an apostle [Gerhard], to James the brother of the Lord [Ps. Athan. and Greek codd.], to John [Theoph. and Greek codd.], to the body of the apostles, to a disciple of St. Matthew who wrote in Greek, while another disciple of the apostle wrote in Aramaic. More probability attaches to the opinion of St. Jerome [De vir. ill. 3] that we have no certainty as to the person of the translator. However, the high esteem in which the Greek text was held by the early patristic writers seems to demand an apostle or a person of high authority for its author.

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