Book Reviews

The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition

James R. Edwards Grand Rapids 2009-10-16

Edwards, of the faculty of Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington, claims Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew before it was published in Greek. Luke made use of this Hebrew Gospel, along with the Gospel of Mark (pp. xxi–xxii). Though Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel is lost to history, Edwards argues that its existence can be determined by noting the combination of patristic evidence and the apparent Semitic imprint it left on Luke’s Gospel, particularly in its unique material.

Edwards navigates with tightly woven, disciplined scholarship that makes carefully weighed and sober use of the available evidence. Eusebius’s well-known statement attributed to Papias that Matthew composed an account (tav logiva) of Jesus “in the Hebrew dialect” has long puzzled students of the Synoptic problem, especially because the Gospel of Matthew does not read like known examples of translation Greek. Thus the document to which Papias refers cannot be identified with Greek Matthew. But Papias is not the only church father to address the apostolic roots of the Gospel tradition. Edwards takes three chapters to examine and weigh every possible reference to a gospel in Hebrew, and Matthew’s association with it, for the first nine centuries of Christian writings. Edwards places all the patristic testimony to a Hebrew Gospel in an appendix, with the original-language (Greek and Latin) text in footnotes.

However, the references to a Gospel in Hebrew are far from clear. Whether Papias’s logiva account by Matthew is to be identified with a gospel in use among Hebrew-speaking Ebionites and Nazarenes is difficult to assess, because the patristic writers who report it usually accuse them of some kind of heresy. Perhaps for this reason, Edwards responds, the Hebrew Gospel was not preserved in Christian circles, especially as the distance from Judaism began to grow in the centuries after the New Testament was written.

Edwards joins a growing number of scholars who reject the “Q” hypothesis but hold Markan priority. But his view is not to be confused with the so-called Farrer hypothesis—Markan priority without Q, most recently championed by scholars such as Mark Goodacre. Nevertheless Edwards questions the existence of Q first by questioning whether the early church would likely have produced a written document approximating Q. Yet an explanation for the so-called “double tradition” (i.e., what can be found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark) still must be found. But Edwards does not simply say that the Hebrew Gospel takes the place of Q. The evidence here is “inconclusive” to say whether the Hebrew Gospel can completely account for the double tradition (pp. 238–39).

Chapter 4, “Semitisms in the Gospel of Luke,” and Appendix II are the most valuable contributions of the book. Scholars have long struggled to explain why Luke’s Greek has so many evident Semitisms, and the standard explanation—that Luke consciously imitated the style of the Septuagint—is inadequate. Though Semitisms appear clustered in the first two chapters of Luke, they occur throughout the book. Even more striking is the fact that they appear most frequently in material unique to Luke; Edwards so identifies 653 of 703 Semitisms (p. 141).

Regarding the order of the Synoptic Gospels, Edwards ends up arguing for posteriority for the Gospel of Matthew (p. 245). He says Greek Matthew is last in the order and may even show signs of some dependence on Luke (pp. 249–50). Edwards is cautious on this point, and admits that the evidence could go either way. He suggests that Greek Matthew bears the marks of genuine Matthean tradition (pp. 256–58). One may object that there is no a priori reason why, if the Hebrew Gospel existed, that Matthew himself could not have been the author and also have later written a Gospel in Greek.

Edwards’s book is well worth reading for its contribution to the study of the Synoptic Gospels. He takes into account a broad range of relevant data, and his solution honors the nearly unanimous patristic testimony of Matthew having begun the literary enterprise about Jesus’ life and ministry. This work will no doubt influence the direction of Synoptic studies for some time to come.

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J. William Johnston
Before Dr. Johnston was a believer he doubted the accuracy of Scripture translations, and therefore the integrity of the Bible. After coming to faith he decided that the only way to find out whether the translations were reliable was to learn the original languages. After majoring in the classics at the University of Texas, he came to Dallas Seminary and discovered that teaching was his passion. Prior to joining the full-time faculty at Dallas Seminary, he taught Greek at The Criswell College and as an adjunct teacher at Dallas Seminary. His research interests are in Greek grammar, syntax, and Septuagint studies.
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