The Gospel according to the Hebrews: The Synoptic Solution
By James Scott Trimm
The Synoptic Problem
Mattityahu, Mark and Luke are the synoptic gospels. In many cases these three gospels even use identical phrasing. As a result they are known as the "synoptic gospels." The Synoptic Problem is the problem of explaining these similarities and their interrelationships. This problem was first addressed in the fifth century by the Christian "Church Father" Augustine.
The Semitic Source Document`
Many synoptic variances point to an underlying Semitic text as the common synoptic source document. For example:
The Gospel according to the Hebrews was a Gospel which was once used by the Nazarenes and Ebionites. Eusebius said that GH was “the especial delight of those of the Hebrews who have accepted Messiah” (Eccl. Hist. 3:25:5). When speaking of the Ebionites, Epiphanius calls GH “their Gospel” (Pan. 30:16:4-5) and Jerome refers to GH as “the Gospel which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use” (On Mat. 12:13). The actual document has been lost to history, but about 50 quotations and citations of this document are preserved in quotations and citations from the so-called “Church Fathers” and other commentators even into the middle ages.
It is unlikely that the Hebrews themselves called their own Gospel “according to the Hebrews”. This is likely a title given the book by Gentile Christians. GH was also called “the Gospel according to the Apostles”; “the Gospel according to the Twelve”; and “the Gospel according to Matthew” and one of these may have been its name among the Hebrews who used it.
[Click on the image above to find this Gospel available reconstructed.]
Even the most conservative of scholars have given a very early date to the composition of the Gospel according to the Hebrews. In his book Evidence that Demands a Verdict Josh McDowell (p. 38) assigns GH a date of A.D. 65-100. The book certainly had to have existed before the time of Hegesippus (c. 180 C.E.) who Eusebius tells us made use of GH in his writings (Eusebius; Eccl. Hist. 4:22:8). Ignatious (98 C.E.) quotes from GH in his letter to the Smyraneans (3:1-2 (1:9-12 some editions)). Although Ignatious does not identify his quote as coming from GH, Jerome (4th Century) does later cite GH as the source (Of Illustrious Men 16). GH (in differing versions) was used by both Nazarenes and Ebionites. Since neither group would have been likely to adopt the other’s book after they split from each other around 70 C.E., it appears that GH in its original form must have originated prior to that time.
There has been much debate about the original language of the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Eusebius refers to GH as “the Gospel that is spread abroad among the Jews in the Hebrew tongue” (Theophina 4:12 on Mt. 10:34-36) and “the Gospel [written] in Hebrew letters” (ibid on Mt. 25:14f). Jerome refers to GH as “written in the Chaldee and Syrian language but in Hebrew letters” (Against Pelagius III.2) but seems to refer to the same document in another passage as “in the Hebrew language and letters” (Of Illustrious Men 3). In context however Jerome seems to say that GH was originally written in “the Hebrew language and letters” but that the copy in the library at Caesarea is “written in the Chaldee and Syrian language but in Hebrew letters” (i.e. Aramaic). Thus Schonfield is correct in writing:
The original language of the Gospel was Hebrew. It has generally been assumed on insufficient grounds that this Hebrew was in fact Aramaic (commonly called Hebrew). (According to the Hebrews p. 241)
Many misconceptions have circulated concerning the Gospel according to the Hebrews. For example many scholars have attempted to make GH into several documents. These refer to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazarenes and the Gospel of the Ebionites as three different documents. However nowhere do the “Church Fathers” refer to a “Gospel of the Ebionites”. Epiphanius says that the Ebionites used the Gospel according to the Hebrews” and never refers to a document titled “Gospel of the Ebionites”. The term “Gospel of the Nazarenes” is never used by the “Church Fathers” either and only appears in the middle ages where it is clearly a euphemism for the Gospel according to the Hebrews. The presumption that there were three documents called GH has taken root in scholarship. Part of the basis for this assumption is that Clement of Alexander (who did not know Hebrew or Aramaic) quotes GH in Greek before Jerome translated GH into Greek. However it is quite possible that Clement obtained his quotation from a secondary source who did know Hebrew and that had quoted GH in ad hoc Greek, a secondary source which is now unknown. The fact that Clement of Alexander quotes the book in Greek prior to Jerome’s translation is far to little evidence from which to conclude multiple documents.
Another misconception is the presumption that thirteen readings in marginal notes found in certain manuscripts of Greek Matthew and which refer to alternate readings taken form “the Judaikon” (i.e. the “Jewish version) refer to the Gospel according to the Hebrews. While one of these readings (a note to 18:22) agrees with the reading of GH as given by Jerome (Against Pelag. III 2) that in itself is not enough evidence to jump to the far reaching conclusion that the “Judaikon” is the same as GH. The “Judaikon” readings may also be readings from a Jewish (Hebrew or Aramaic?) version of canonical Matthew and not to GH at all.
While there is no reason to presume that there were three different Gospels called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, it is certainly clear that Nazarenes and Ebionites used different versions of GH. Epiphanius describes the version of GH used by the Ebionites as “called ‘according to Matthew’, which however is not wholly complete but falsified and mutilated” (Pan. 30:13:2) however in speaking of the Nazarenes he refer to the “Gospel of Matthew quite complete in Hebrew… preserved… as it was first written, in Hebrew letters” (Pan. 29:9:4). So it would appear that the Ebionite version of GH was “now wholly complete but falsified and mutilated” while the Nazarene version was “quite complete… preserved… as it was first written.”. This explains why the Ebionite version omitted the birth narrative and opened with the ministry of Yochanan (Pan. 30:13:6) while the Nazarene version is known to have included material parallel to the first two chapters of Matthew.
There are also some important parallels between the Gospel according to the Hebrews and our Hebrew and Aramaic versions of the Synoptic Gospels. To begin with Jerome indicates that GH tended to agree with the Hebrew Tanak against the Greek LXX in its quotations from the Tanak (Of Illustrious Men 3).
In the account of the immersion of Yeshua GH as quoted by Epiphanius says that the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) descended “in the form of a dove”. This reading not only agrees with Luke (3:22) against Matthew (3:16) it also agrees with DuTillet Hebrew Matthew and the Siniatic Old Syriac text of Matthew 3:16. GH as quoted by Jerome also says that the Ruch HaKodesh “rested” upon Yeshua at this event. This agrees with the Old Syriac reading of Matthew 3:16 against Greek Matthew. The Shem Tob Hebrew Matthew similarly has that the Rucah HaKodesh “dwelt” upon Yeshua in Mt. 3:16.
There may also be a tendency of GH to agree with the Greek Western type text of the canonical Gospels. For example the immersion event GH (as recorded by Epiphanius) has the voice say (in part) “I have this day begotten you” which is also found in the Greek Western type text of Codex D in Luke 3:22 (compare Ps. 2:7; Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). Moreover GH as cited by Jerome has the voice at the immersion of Yeshua speak “to him” as does the Greek Western type text of Codex D in Mt. 3:17. This is important because as I have shown elsewhere the Greek Western type text is the oldest most Semitic type of Greek text.
The Gospel according to the Hebrews: a Synoptic Source Document?
Many scholars have seen within GH possible answers to questions about synoptic origins.
A. S. Barnes proposed an identification between GH and the Logia document which many scholars closely associate with "Q". Barnes writes:
Is it possible seriously to maintain that there were two separate documents, each of them written at Jerusalem during the Apostolic age and in the Hebrew tounge, each of them assigned to the Apostle Matthew, and each of them dealing in some way with the Gospel story? Or are we not rather forced to the conclusion that these two documents, whose descriptions are so strangely similar, must really be identical,... (A. S. Barnes; The Gospel according to the Hebrews; Journal of Theological Studies 6 (1905) p. 361)
Pierson Parker concluded:
...the presence in this gospel of Lukan qualities and parallels, the absence from it of difinitive... Markan elements... all point to one conclusion, viz., that the source of the Gospel according to the Hebrews... was most closely related to sources underlying the non-Markan parts of Luke, that is, Proto-Luke. (Pierson Parker; A Proto-Lukan Basis for the Gospel according to the Hebrews; Journal of Biblical Literature 59 (1940) p. 478)
And Hugh Schonfield concluded of GH:
...it may be argued that there has been dependence not of 'Hebrews' on the Synoptics but vice versa-- that 'Hebrews' was one of the sources on which one or more of them drew. (Hugh Schonfield; According to the Hebrews; 13-18)
As this article will demonstrate, the Gospel according to the Hebrews does indeed lie at the root of all four of our canonical Gospels.
Mark: A Secondary Gospel
The original documentary theory claimed that Mattitiyahu and Luke were dependent on a collection of sayings known as the Logia or as "Q". "Q" is from the German word "Quelle" meaning "source" and a narrative document usually identified as Mark. This may be illustrated as follows.
Streeter developed this theory further. He realized that Luke and Mattitiyahu contained narratives in common which could not be found in Mark. He attributed these to a third document, which he called "Proto-Luke". Proto-Luke was said to have had incorporated into it "Q", the non-Markan portions of Luke and the narrative material which Luke and Matthew held in common.
The late Dr. Robert Lindsey made further observations. Lindsey points out that the phrase "and immediately" occurs in Mark over 40 times. Luke contains this phrase only once and then in a portion with no parallel in Mark. Lindsey pointed out that it is unimaginable that Luke systematically purged the phrase "and immediately" from every portion of Mark which he used, especially since he uses the phrase himself elsewhere. This means that Luke could not have copied from Mark and that Mark therefore copied from Luke. If we eliminate all of the Lukan passages from Mark then almost everything else can be found in Mattitiyahu. In fact only 31 verses of Mark cannot be found in either Luke or Mattitiyahu. It is clear as a result that Mark was compiled using Luke and Mattitiyahu. The following three facts also support this conclusion:
1. When Mark and Matthew differ in chronology Luke agrees with Mark.
2. When Mark and Luke differ in Chronology, Matthew agrees with Mark.
3. Matthew and Luke never agree in chronology against Mark.
Mark therefore is secondary, compiled from Matthew and Luke with only 31 lines of original material. It plays no part in synoptic origins.
Matthew: An Abridgement of the Gospel according to the Hebrews
The so-called “Church Fathers” do not hesitate in hinting to us that Matthew’s source document was the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Jerome writes of GH:
In the Gospel which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use which I have lately translated into Greek from the Hebrew and which is called by many people the original of Matthew… (Jerome; On Matt. 12:13)
Jerome is not the only “Church Father” to identify GH with Matthew. Irenaeus says that the Ebionites used only the Gospel of Matthew (Heresies 1:26:2), Eusebius says they “used only the Gospel called according to the Hebrews” (Eccl. Hist. 3:27:4) while Epiphanius says that the Ebionite “Gospel” “…is called "Gospel according to Matthew, or Gospel according to the Hebrews” (Panarion 30:16:4-5). Moreover Jerome seems to refer to the original Hebrew of Matthew and GH interchangeably.
This led Hugh Schonfield to conclude:
My own opinion is that the canonical Gospel [of Matthew] is an abridged edition of a larger work, of which fragments still survive,… I believe that this Protevangel was written in Hebrew, not in Aramaic,… Whatever may have been its original title, we have early allusions to it under the name of “the Gospel” “the Gospel of the Lord,” “the Gospel of the Twelve, or of the Apostles,” “the Gospel of the Hebrews” and “the Hebrew Matthew.” - Hugh J. Schonfield (An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel; 1927 p. viii) However ten years later Schonfield writes:
The only difficulty in fact that stands in the way of accepting the Greek [of Matthew] as really translated from the Hebrew [of Matthew], instead of vice versa, is undoubtedly the irrefutable evidence that Greek Matthew has largely used Mark. - Hugh J. Schonfield (According to the Hebrews; 1937; p.248)
Schonfield finally comes to the conclusion of…
…the strong probability that Hebrews was one of the sources of canonical Matthew. (ibid p. 254)
The pseudo-fact that Matthew used Mark as one of his sources (a theory Lindsey has since disproven) is the only thing which held Schonfield back from concluding that Greek Matthew is a translation of Hebrew Matthew and that Hebrew Matthew was an abridgement of the Gospel according to the Hebrews. With the barrier of presumed Markan priority being removed we may now adopt the logical conclusion that Schonfield hesitated from.
The Gospel according to the Hebrews as Luke’s Source
Now having explained the origin of Mark as secondary we need not look to Mark as a primary Gospel source for Luke either. Instead we need concern ourselves only with Proto-Luke (and perhaps “Q”). Proto-Luke or the Proto-Narrative would be the common source behind Matthew and Luke, explaining their common material.
Now we may easily conclude that the Gospel according to the Hebrews is the Proto-Luke or Proto-Narrative which served as the common source for both Luke and Matthew.
To begin with Luke admits to having had source documents when writing his gospel (Luke 1:1-4).
Secondly we have already established that the Gospel according to the Hebrews served as the source for canonical Matthew. If Matthew and Luke had a common source (which is clearly the case) then that source was almost certainly the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
Finally several of the surviving readings from the Gospel according to the Hebrews parallel Luke only and not Matthew. For example only Luke gives Yeshua’s age as being 30 (Lk. 3:23); only Luke includes the account of Yeshua being comforted by an angel (Lk. 22:43); only Luke includes the discussion about eating the Passover as described in Luke 22:45 and only Luke includes Yeshua’s words at the crucifixion “father forgive them…” (Lk. 23:34). There are also Lukan elements even in the material that also parallels Matthew. As shown earlier the immersion account as cited by Epiphanius also included the words “in the form of [a dove]” (as in Luke’s account) and the phrase “I have this day begotten you” (as in Luke’s account in the Greek Western type text of Codex D). In fact we should expect that the Proto-Narrative would have readings which parallel Matthew only, readings which parallel only Luke and readings which are common to Matthew and Luke (and sometimes Mark) but should not expect readings which parallel only Mark. This is exactly the case with the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
The Gospel according to the Hebrews and John
The Gospel of Yochanan (John) also seems to have made some use of the Gospel according to the Hebrews but on a much smaller scale. The GH account that Yeshua “kissed the feet of each one of them” recalls the foot washing of Jn. 13:5. The account that one of the talmidim were known to the High Priest also found in GH is found in John only (Jn. 18:15) and the crucifixion as described in John 19 was said to parallel somewhat that of GH. Thus it appears that even the non-synoptic Gospel of John made some use of the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
The Five Fold Gospel
While the Gospel according to the Hebrews is at the root of the four canonical gospels, this in no way reduces the value of the four Gospels. While the Gospel according to the Hebrews was the original Gospel used by the Nazarenes (and in a variant form by Ebionites) other gospels were fashioned to meet various needs. I believe the four canonical Gospels were composed to present the Gospel story to four specific non-Nazarene groups.
I believe that Matthew was an abridgement of the GH designed to present Yeshua as the Messiah to the Pharisee audience. This is evidenced by: 1) The many parallels with the wisdom sayings in the Mishna, Talmud, Midrashim etc. 2) The frequent citations of the Tanak (128 quotations) aimed at establishing the Messiahship of Yeshua. 3) The defense of Nazarene Halachic authority (16:18-19; 18:18; 21:20-21, 23-27 & 23:1-34) 4) More discussion of halachic issues than any other Gospel (5:21-7:12; 9:14-17; 12:1-14; 15:1-6; 17:24-27; 19:3-9; 22:15-22; 23:1-34).
I believe that Luke used GH as a source document in writing a Gospel account aimed at Sadducees. The book of Luke was written originally to Theophilus, who served as High Priest from 37 to 42 C.E.. Theophilus was both a priest and a Sadducee. It would appear that the Gospel was intended to be used by others as well and was likely targeted at Sadducee readers. Theophilus was the son of Annas and the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, as a result he grew up in the Temple. This explains many features of Luke. Luke begins the story with an account of Zechariah the righteous priest who had a vision of an angel at the Temple (1:5-25) he quickly moves on to an account of Miriam's purification and Yeshua's redemption rituals at the Temple (2:21-39) and then to the event of Yeshua teaching at the Temple at the age of twelve (2:46). Luke makes no mention of Caiaphas' role in Yeshua's crucifixion and emphasizes Yeshua's literal resurrection (24:39) (Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead).
I believe that Mark used elements of Matthew and Luke to compile a shortened simplified Gospel account for the Gentiles. He probably wrote the book for use by Aramaic speaking Syrians and Assyrians he encountered while in Babylon with Kefa (1Kefa 5:13). Since Mark was addressing Gentiles he did not include Yeshua's genealogy, the Sermon on the Mount, makes fewer quotations from the Tanak and makes less mention of Jewish customs that the other Gospels.
I believe that John made some use of GH in composing a Gospel account aimed at the Essenes. This is evidenced by the fact that only Yochanan reveals the fact that Yochanan the immerser had an (Essene) community of talmidim living with him in the wilderness (Yochanan 1). This is further evidenced by the mystical nature of Yochanan's account. (The Essenes were mystics and in fact many scholars see the roots of what we now call "Kabbalah" as stemming from the Essenes.).
The result was four Gospels which covered all four levels of understanding of the original Gospel according to the Hebrews. The Hebrew/Aramaic word PARDES is spelled in Hebrew and Aramaic without vowels as PRDS. PaRDeS refers to a park or garden, esp. the Garden of Eden. The word PRDS is also an acronym (called in Judaism "notarikon") for:
[P]ashat (Heb. "simple") The plain, simple, literal level of understanding. [R]emez (Heb. "hint") The implied level of understanding. [D]rash (Heb. "search") The allegorical, typological or homiletically level of understanding. [S]od (Heb. "hidden") The hidden, secret or mystical level of understanding.
These are the four levels of understanding. The Four Gospels each express one of these four levels of understanding of The Gospel according to the Hebrews. Each also expresses a different aspect of the Messiah and corresponds to each of the four faces of the living beings in Ezekiel 1.
The Pashat Gospel is Mark. Mark presents the Messiah as the servant (the servant who purifies the Goyim in Is. 52:13, 15) the "my servant the Branch" of Zech.3:8 who is symbolized by the face of the Ox in Ezekiel 1 (the Ox being a servant, a beast of burden). Mark does not begin with an account of the birth of Messiah as do Matthew and Luke because, unlike the birth of a King, the birth of a servant is unimportant, all that is important is his work as a servant which begins with his immersion by Yochanan. Thus Mark's simplified account omits any account of Yeshua's birth or preexistence and centers on his work as a servant who purifies the Goyim.
The Remez Gospel is Luke. Luke wrote a more detailed account for the High Priest Theophilus (a Sadducee). The Sadducees were rationalists and sticklers for details. Luke presents Yeshua as the "Son of Man" and as "the man whose name is the Branch" (Zech 6:12) who is presented as a High Priest and is symbolized by the face of the man in Ezekiel 1. Luke wants to remind by remez (by implication) the High Priest Theophilus about the redemption of the filthy High Priest Joshua (Zech. 6) and its prophetic foreshadowing of a "man" who is a Messianic "Priest" and who can purify even a High Priest.
The Drash Gospel is Matthew. Matthew presents his account of Yeshua's life as a Midrash to the Pharisees, as a continuing story tied to various passages from the Tanak (for example Mt. 2:13-15 presents an allegorical understanding of Hosea 11:1).. As a drash level account Matthew also includes a number of parables in his account. Matthew presents Messiah as the King Messiah, the Branch of David (Jer. 23:5-6 & Is. 11:1f) symbolized by the face of the lion in Ezekiel 1.
The Sod Gospel is Yochanan (John). Yochanan addresses the Mystical Essene sect and concerns himself with mystical topics like light, life, truth, the way and the Word. Yochanan includes many Sod interpretations in his account. For example Yochanan 1:1 presents a Sod understanding of Gen. 1:1. Yochanan 3:14; 8:28 & 12:32 present a Sod understanding of Num. 21:9 etc.).
The Gospel according to the Hebrews which was the “especial delight of those of the Hebrews who have accepted Messiah” was a primary source document either directly or indirectly for all four of our canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew was an abridgement of that Gospel made originally to bring the message of Yeshua to the Pharisees. The Gospel of Luke was drawn largely from GH and was composed to present the message of Yeshua to the Sadducees. The Gospel of Mark was compiled from Matthew and Luke in order to present a shorter, simpler account to the Gentiles. And the Gospel of John made some use of GH in composing a Gospel account aimed at the Essene community. The resulting four Gospels covered all of the levels of understanding (PaRDeS) of the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Mark gives us the pashat, Luke the remez, Matthew the drash and John the Sod. Thus the four canonical Gospels provide us with a complete understanding of the Gospel according to the Hebrews which lies at the root of all of them.
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