Bible Question:

Was the book of Matthew originally written in Aramaic? Is it true that the Greek autographs should not be used because they are corrupted by Greek heathen beliefs and names of their heathen gods?

Bible Answer:

There have been many articles and books written, some of them dogmatic, that supposedly demonstrate that the gospel of Matthew was written in Semitic Hebrew or Aramaic. Emotions and passion are not always helpful in discovering the truth. Therefore, the objective question that needs to be addressed is, “Was the book of Matthew originally written in Aramaic?” That is, was the autograph of Matthew written in Aramaic? The truth is we cannot know for sure, but the evidence strongly implies that the answer is no.

Greek Manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew

External Evidence – Early Church Father Testimony

Copies of the gospel of Matthew do exist in both Greek and Aramaic. Since it is well-known that Greek copies of Matthew exist, it is important to know that there is at least one Syriac Aramaic manuscript in the British Library (Add. 14470) dating from the 5th Century AD. One can objectively state that this Syriac Aramaic manuscript is most-likely a copy of a previous version.[1]

This Aramaic manuscript of Matthew illustrates a statement that was made by the early church father Papias of Hierapolis (A.D.  125–150)  that Matthew had collected the oracles or sayings of Christ in Hebrew (Aramaic),

 . . . So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”[2]

As a result of Papias’ statement and subsequent comments made by other early church fathers, some biblical experts claim that the autograph, the original version of Matthew, was written in Semitic Hebrew or Aramaic and not in Greek. What follows are a series of quotes by recognized biblical scholars. These quotes will provide a historical sketch and a summary of the external evidence regarding the original language of the book of Matthew.

Greek Scholar R. C. Lenski

The Greek scholar R. C. Lenski wrote the following excellent summary regarding the testimony of some early church fathers’ view about the origin of the gospel of Matthew. It is quoted here since it provides a concise summary.

While the ancient church is absolutely unanimous in ascribing the First Gospel to Matthew, the man who occupies the seventh or the eighth place in the New Testament lists of the apostles, a number of ancient writers report that Matthew wrote something in Hebrew. The first word to this effect was written by Papias (125 A. D.) … “Now Matthew compiled the logia in the Hebrew dialect.” Papias adds that each person translated these Hebrew logia as best he could. The main question is as to just what Papias understood by these logia. He does not say that he ever saw them or found them in use. He uses the aorist … when he tells about the use to which they were put. This means that he is reporting an interesting historical fact, and that in his time these logia were no longer used and probably were not even any longer known. We next hear of Irenaeus in the second half of the first century, who writes that Matthew issued “a gospel” in Hebrew at the time when Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the church in Rome (about 64-65 A. D.). Yet the church in Rome had been founded long before this time, and not by an apostle but by the Christian converts who had moved to Rome and brought their faith with them. Aside from this error, the question here is whether Irenaeus has in mind the same writing as Papias, only calling the logia a Gospel, or whether he has in mind a different writing, an actual Gospel written in Hebrew by Matthew. Few would be willing to believe that Matthew wrote two different books in Hebrew.[3]

R. C. Lenski’s point is what did Papias mean by logia. Did logia refer to just a collection of quotes from Christ or was he referring to the gospel of Matthew?

Biblical Scholars Walvoord and Zuck

The following is another summary but from the highly regarded Bible scholars John F. Walwoord and Roy B. Zuck. They explain that Matthew most likely wrote the gospel in Greek and a group of Jesus’ sayings in Aramaic for his listeners.

While all the extant manuscripts of the First Gospel are in Greek, some suggest that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic, similar to Hebrew. Five individuals stated, in effect, that Matthew wrote in Aramaic and that translations followed in Greek: Papias (A.D. 80-155), Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202), Origen (A.D. 185-254), Eusebius (fourth century A.D.), and Jerome (sixth century A.D.). However, they may have been referring to a writing by Matthew other than his Gospel account. Papias, for example, said Matthew compiled the sayings (logia) of Jesus. Those “sayings” might have been a second, shorter account of the Lord’s words, written in Aramaic and sent to a group of Jews for whom it would have been most meaningful. That writing was later lost, for no such version exists today. The First Gospel, however, was probably penned by Matthew in Greek and has survived until today. Matthew’s logia did not survive, but his Gospel did. This was because the latter, part of the biblical canon and thus God’s Word, was inspired and preserved by the Spirit of God.[4]

Biblical Scholars Beale and Carson

G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson concur that a group of Jesus’ statements were written in Aramaic but it should be noted that these sayings or logia were not the gospel.

Although one persistent early church tradition argues that Matthew wrote something, probably a collection of sayings of Jesus in Hebrew or Aramaic . . .[5]

Philip Schaff  – Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers

Philip Schaff was an outstanding scholar of biblical history and author on church history. He complied and edited the monumental Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series that contains a great volume of ancient documents from the early church fathers. In a footnote he made a comment about the gospel of Matthew in regards to a statement made by Eusebius. In the quote he states that the existing Greek copies of Matthew were not derived from Aramaic.

Our Greek Gospel of Matthew was certainly in existence at the time Papias wrote, for it is quoted in the epistle of Barnabas, which was written not later than the first quarter of the second century. There is, therefore, no reason for assuming that the Gospel of Matthew which Papias was acquainted with was a different Gospel from our own. This does not prove that the logia which Matthew wrote (supposing Papias’s report to be correct) were identical with, or even of the same nature as our Gospel of Matthew . . .  Still, our Greek Matthew is certainly not a translation of a Hebrew original . . .[5]

The conclusion of R. C. Lenski, G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Walvoord, Zuck and Schaff is that our current gospel of Matthew was originally written in Greek. The logical conclusion that follows is that Papias referred to a Semitic Hebrew copy of sayings that Christ made.

Internal Evidence – Textual Considerations

External evidence about the original language of the gospel of Matthew has been considered. Now lets examine some evidence within the gospel of Matthew. That is, our examination is not complete unless we consider both external and internal evidence. Emerton, Cranfield and Stanton make that point when they write,

Combining the external and internal evidence, then, the situation would appear to be this: the external evidence points to a Palestinian or Hellenistic-Jewish author who wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic., the internal to someone who wrote in Greek . . . . It is, accordingly no surprise to learn that many modern scholars have come to reject the external evidence altogether . . . [6]

The message is that the internal evidence is more weighty in this discussion. R. C. Lenski makes an important statement that will help us understand that the gospel of Matthew was originally written in Greek and is not a translation from Aramaic,

If our Greek Matthew is a translation, it ought to be easy to demonstrate this linguistically. A book the size of Matthew’s would afford all manner of evidence that it was translated into Greek from a Hebrew original if this were the case.[7]

His comment simply states that we should be able to look at Matthew and find evidence that it was not translated from Aramaic but was originally written in Greek. Consequently, we will examine one important internal evidence. If Matthew was written in Aramaic and not Greek, then one should expect to find evidence that this occurred. One would expect to find problematic translations from Aramaic into the Greek language. But when we consider the Greek copies of Matthew, we find an amazing fact. Matthew inserts Aramaic into his text and explains the meaning of the words. Why would he do that if the language of the original Matthew was written for and distributed to Aramaic readers?

For example, consider Matthew 27:46 in which the apostle inserts the Aramaic words “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” into the Greek text of Matthew and then explains the meaning of the Aramaic words.

And about the ninth hour Jesus  cried out with a loud voice, saying,  “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 (NASB)

If the original version of Matthew was written in Aramaic, then there would be no need to explain the Aramaic words to Aramaic readers. But if Matthew was written in Greek, then it makes sense that the Aramaic words would have to be explained. Further, if the Greek is an accurate translation of an Aramaic original why state what Jesus spoke in Aramaic? That is, Matthew would not have needed to explain the words to Aramaic readers, but he would have to for Greek readers.

R. C. Lenski makes this helpful comment,

Later in the second century, around A.D. 180, Irenaeus in Her. 3.1.1 reports that Matthew wrote “a gospel . . . for the Hebrews in their own language”. The language overlap with Papias suggests dependence either on Papias or on a common source. The important difference is that Irenaeus is referring to a Gospel, not simply to a collection of sayings . . . The difficulty for us is that the Greek Gospel of Matthew shows not the slightest sign of having been translated from a Semitic language.[8]

Conclusion:

W. Graham Scroggie offers a positive perspective on the issue. He states that the Aramaic logia and Greek gospel show that there were two languages at the time of Christ.

A Hebrew collection of Logia, and our Greek Gospel, serve to show that at the time of Christ two languages were spoken by Jews. Aramaic was the language of the common people, and Greek was the literary language, so that those who spoke Aramaic could read Greek.[9]

In summary, the external and internal evidence points to the possibility of an Aramaic logia and a Greek gospel. The Greek gospel of Matthew is what we possess today. The following quotes will demonstrate that this is the conclusion of the majority of biblical scholars. Bruce M. Metzger, R. C. Lenski and John Nolland agree that the original gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. The first quote is from Bruce M. Metzger, the late biblical scholar, Bible editor, translator and textual authority, a former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. The second quote is from R. C. Lenski. The last quote is from John Nolland.

“The earliest versions of the New Testament were prepared by missionaries, to assist in the propagation of the Christian faith among peoples whose native tongue was Syriac, Latin, or Coptic. Besides being of great value to the Biblical exegete for tracing the history of the interpretation of the Scriptures, these versions are of no less importance to the textual critic in view of their origin in the second and third centuries.

As for other questions, however, such as whether or not a given phrase or sentence was present in the Greek exemplar from which the translation was made, the evidence of the versions is clear and valuable.”[10]

Matthew himself wrote his Gospel, and he wrote it as we have it now, in Greek. [11]

. . . Matthew not only seems to have been written in Greek but also to have drawn on sources which were at least predominantly in Greek.[12]

D. A. Carson summarizes the issue with these words,

It is difficult to decide which interpretation is correct. A few still argue that Matthew’s entire gospel was first written in Aramaic. That view best explains the language of Papias, but it is not easy to reconcile with Matthew’s Greek.[13]

 

References:

1. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol A–D. Wm B Eerdmans. 1979, p. 571.
2. Eusebius Pamphilus. Church History. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers. 1995. Eusebius. Chapter III, Section 16. p. 173.
3. R. C. Lenski. Matthew. Commentary on the New Testament. Hendrickson Publishing. 1961. p. 10
4. Walvoord and Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Chariot Victor Publishing. p. 15.
G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Baker Academic. 2007. p.  2.
5. Eusebius Pamphilus. Ibid.
6. Emerton, Cranfield and Stanton. Matthew. The International Critical Commentary. T&T Clark. 1988. p. 9.
7. R. C. Lenski. Ibid., p. 15.
8. John Nolland. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Eerdmans Publishing. 2005. p. 3.
. W. Graham Scroggie. A Guide to the Gospels. Fleming H. Revell Company. 1973. p. 251.
9. Bruce M. Metzger. The Text Of The New Testament – It’s Translation , Corruption and Restoration. Oxford University. 1968, p. 67-68. 10. Thomas, Robert L. and Farnell, F. David. Jesus Crisis. Kregel Publications., 1998.p. 43.
11. R. C. Lenski. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
12. Nolland. Ibid.
13. D. A. Carson. Matthew. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Regency Reference Library. 1984. p. 13.