Louis Berkhof Admits the New Testament Was “in substance” Originally Written in Hebrew and Translated into Greek

Introduction to the New Testament, “the Gospel of Matthew” by Louis Berkhof,


  1. Original Language. A hotly debated question is that regarding the language in which Matthew originally wrote his Gospel. The difficulty of the problem arises from the fact that external testimony and internal evidence seem to disagree. As a result the camp is very much divided, some scholars ardently defending a Hebrew, others with equal zeal a Greek original. The earliest testimony in regard to this matter is that of Papias and runs as follows: “Matthew composed the oracles (λόγια) in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone interpreted them as he was able.” It is clear from the original that in these words the emphasis falls on the phrase “in the Hebrew language.” But Papias does not stand alone in this assertion; a similar statement is found in Irenaeus: “Matthew among the Hebrews did also publish a Gospel in writing in their own language.” Pantaenus is said to have gone to India, where he found “the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters.” Origen quoted by Eusebius also says that “the first Gospel was written by Matthew . . . who delivered it to the Jewish believers, composed in the Hebrew language.” Eusebius himself makes the following statement: “For Matthew, having first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other people, delivered to them in their own language the Gospel written by himself.” Jerome also states that “Matthew wrote a Gospel of Jesus Christ in Judea in the Hebrew language and letters for the benefit of those of the circumcision who believed. Who afterwards translated it into Greek, is uncertain.” To these testimonies might be added those of Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Ebedjesu and Chrysostom.

On the other hand it is pointed out that the present Greek Gospel does not impress one as a translation, but has all the appearance of an original work, since: (1.) The hypothesis of a translation fails to account for the identity seen in certain parts of the Synoptic Gospels. (2.) While the author himself indeed quotes from the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the quotations of our Lord are almost uniformly taken from the Septuagint. Is it conceivable that this would be the case in a Hebrew Gospel? (3.) The Gospel contains translations of Hebrew words, as: “They shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us,” 1: 23 [How does admitting the writer is translating contradict that he is making a translation? Isn’t it confirming our position  -DS]; “A place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull,” 27: 33. (4.) There are certain explanations of Palestinian customs and habitual occurrences that would have been altogether superfluous in a Hebrew Gospel, naturally intended only for the natives of Palestine, f. i. in 22:23; 27:8, 15; 28:15.

The conclusion to which this evidence leads is corroborated by the following facts: (1.) In all probability no one has ever seen the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, and no trace of it can now be found. [As is true of all the originals of the New Testament but of course he is going to leave that part out. -DS](2.) All the quotations from Matthew in the early Church fathers are taken from the present Greek Gospel. (3.) The Gospel of Matthew always stood on an equal footing with the other Gospels and is cited just as much as they are. This evidence both external and internal has given rise to several theories, which we can briefly state in the following manner: (1.) Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew and someone else translated it into Greek. This position was held by the Church in general until the time of the Reformation. Since then several Protestant scholars took another view, because Rome defended the ultimate authority of the Vulgate by pointing out that the Greek Matthew was also merely a translation. The attacks of Rationalism on the so-called second-hand Matthew, and the dubious character of a part of the ancient testimony, also served to bring this theory into discredit. Notwithstanding this, however, some of the ablest scholars have defended it up to the present. The prevailing idea among them is that the Greek Matthew is not so much in all parts a literal translation as a new redaction. According to Westcott it gives in writing the Greek counterpart of the Hebrew Gospel, that had taken shape in oral tradition from the beginning. Zahn regards it as the ripe fruit of the interpretation of the Hebrew original in the congregations to which Papias refers.

In formulating our opinion in regard to this question. we desire to state first of all that we have no sufficient reason to discredit the testimony of the early Church. It is true that Eusebius says of Papias that he was “a credulous, weak minded, though pious man,” but in connection with this we must bear in mind: (1) that Eusebius says this in connection with the chiliastic opinions of Papias that were odious to the historian; (2) that he himself elsewhere testifies that Papias was a man “in the highest degree eloquent and learned and above all skilled in the Scriptures,” and (3) that the peculiar views of Papias did not necessarily impair his veracity, nor invalidate his testimony to a historical fact. Let us remember also that it is inconsistent to believe Papias, when he says that Matthew wrote the Gospel, and to discredit his further testimony that the apostle wrote in Hebrew, as some scholars do. It is indeed almost certain that Pantaenus was mistaken, when he thought that he had found the Hebrew Gospel in India; and that Jerome labored under a delusion, when he imagined that he had translated it at Cesarea. What they saw was probably a corruption of the Hebrew original, known as, “the Gospel according to the Hebrews.” But this possible mistake does not invalidate the other independent testimony of Jerome and that of all the early fathers to the effect that Matthew wrote the Gospel in Hebrew.

In the second place we desire to point out that Papias in speaking of the λόγια of Matthew undoubtedly referred to his Gospel. The word λόγια does not mean speeches or sayings, as is now often asserted. It is found four times in the New Testament, viz, in Acts 7: 38; Rom. 3 : 2; Heb. 5:12I Peter 4:11, and in every one of these places it has its classical meaning of oracles. It is applied to the divine utterances of God in his Word. In later writers the word is generally employed to indicate inspired writings. There is no reason to think that Papias used the word in the sense of λόγοι. If in addition to this we take in consideration that in all probability the testimony of Irenaeus is based on, that of Papias and that he takes the word as referring to the Gospel of Matthew, the presumption is that Papias had the Gospel in mind. The meaning of his testimony is therefore, that the first Gospel was written in Hebrew. The so-called Logia-source is a creature of the imagination.

In the third place the internal evidence of our present Gospel proves conclusively that this is not a mere translation of a Hebrew original. The evidence adduced seems quite sufficient. The Greek Matthew may be and most likely is in substance a translation of the original Hebrew; yet it must be regarded as in many respects a new recension of the Gospel. The loss of the Hebrew original and the general substitution for it of the Greek version is readily explained by the scattering of the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem, and by the early corruption of the Hebrew Gospel in the circles of the Ebionites and the Nazarenes.”



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