The Ebionites were a Christian sect that claimed to preserve the original autograph of apostle Matthew in Hebrew. It is quoted often by Epiphanius in the 300s. He said its official title was "The Gospel according to Matthew." (Epiphanius, Panarion 30, 13, 2-3.)
Papias, a pupil of Apostle John, around 90 A.D. explained about this book of Matthew: "Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 39, quoting Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, which in turn quotes Papias.) Irenaeus likewise says: "Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter I, quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chapter VIII.)
Origen near 236 AD refers to the sole tradition handed down about the origin of the Greek Matthew -- it was a translation of a Hebrew original. When read in context, one realizes the importance of Origen's comment:
Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a publican and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first; and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism. The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, " The church that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you ; and so doth Mark my son." And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles. Last of all, that according to John. (Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in Ante-Nicene Fathers at 412.) (Also quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6:25.4.)
Next, Jerome around 404 A.D. wrote of the original Hebrew version that he was able to see: "The Hebrew [Matthew] itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered." (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter III.)
Is there any reason to believe this is significantly unlike our current Greek Matthew? Between Jerome and Epiphanius, we have twenty-eight quotes. With Origen and others we have 49.
Jerome is always intrigued by the differences and has no charge of unorthodoxy. You can find Jerome's full quotes in footnotes to Matthew in the Gospel Parallels edited by Throckmorton. (This editor identifies the source as Gospel of the Ebionites but Jerome referred to it as the Hebrew Matthew from the Ebionites-Nazarenes.)
In 1879, Edward Nicholson wrote The Gospel According to the Hebrews—a scholarly collection and defense of the orthodoxy of the forty-nine quotes from it in the early church. He synopsizes that the early church overwhelmingly accepted this gospel as authoritative and canonical—a fifth gospel. He explains:
The Fathers of the Church, while the Gospel according to the Hebrews was yet extant in its entirety, referred to it always with respect, often with reverence: some of them unhesitatingly accepted it as being what tradition affirmed it to be—the work of Matthew—and even those who have not put on record their expression of this opinion have not questioned it. Is such an attitude consistent with the supposition that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was a work of heretical tendencies? This applies with tenfold force to Jerome. After copying it, would he, if he had seen heresy in it, have translated it for public dissemination into both Greek and Latin, and have continued to favour the tradition of its Matthaean authorship? (Nicholson: 82.)
Epiphanius, however, complained that the geneology in the Greek Matthew was absent in the Hebrew version of Matthew. For him this made it "incomplete, corrupt, [and] mutilated." However, scholars now realize the absence of portions of this geneology would enhance the validity of the Hebrew Matthew just as its presence weakens the validity of the Greek Matthew.
Putting aside this one difference, all the other differences raised by Epiphanius are slight. In fact, what is often overlooked is that Epiphanius was nit-picking at just a few slight differences. Otherwise, the verses he quotes from the Ebionite Matthew in Hebrew read identical to our Greek Matthew. This demonstrates the balance of the Ebionites' Gospel according to Matthew must have been virtually identical to the Greek version we all have now. Otherwise Epiphanius would have skewered them on those variances as well. Epiphanius' failure to do so allows an inference the Hebrew Matthew of the Ebionites otherwise matches our current Greek version.
Jerome appears convinced the Hebrew Matthew to which the Nazarenes gave him access was the true autograph of Matthew. Jerome notes how it was protected in a private library at Caesarea. He writes in On Illustrious Men ch. III (404 A.D.):
Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it.
The Hebrew version of Matthew which Jerome had access to from the Nazarenes of Beroea is most likely identical to the version from the Ebionites. Jerome thought they were identical. In Jerome's Commentary on Matthew (Matt. 12:13), he begins a remark, stating: "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...."
In this quote, we can see Jerome even included mention that some believe this version is the more authentic original version. Jerome appeared to regard it this way. He did not excoriate the Ebionites or Nazarenes for heresy based on the variances between the Greek and Hebrew Matthew, as Epiphanius had done. Instead, Jerome treated this Hebrew Gospel of Matthew seriously and respectfully. Jerome's Commentary on Matthew demonstrates twenty variances with the Hebrew version of Matthew from the Greek version. Yet, not once does he suggest there is something wrong in the outlook of the Hebrew Matthew.
What proves Jerome's high regard for this Hebrew Matthew is Jerome translated the entire Hebrew version. "I have lately translated into Greek from the Hebrew...." (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew (Matt. 12:13).)
Yet, mysteriously, this translation of the Hebrew Matthew among all of Jerome's works has alone failed to survive. Likewise, nowhere in Western Christendom did this Hebrew version of Matthew survive. (It did apparently survive among Jews who were critical of it, and that is how it has been preserved. More on the Shem Tob version later.)
More Proofs that The Hebrew Matthew Is More Valid than the Greek
There are more reasons to believe this Hebrew Matthew of the Ebionites and Nazarenes is a true autograph of the apostle Matthew. In Matthew 23:35, in our Greek version, Jesus utters an incorrect statement. Jesus is attributed to having said "upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar." However, this is wrong. Jehoiada was the father of Zechariah the prophet, a high priest. It was not Barachias. (2 Chronicles 24:20.)
By contrast, let's see whether the Hebrew Matthew is correct. Jerome in his Commentary on Matthew 23:35 says: "In the [Hebrew] gospel [of Matthew] which the Nazarenes use, for `son of Barachiah' we find written, `son of Jehoiada.'" The Nazarene-Ebionite version of Matthew is the correct account. Zechariah was not the son of Barachiah. The Greek version of Jerome's day and our own is incorrect.
Thus, this demonstrates the Ebionites-Nazarenes must have been preserving the original autograph of the apostle Matthew himself.
Shem Tob Differences From Original Hebrew Matthew
Shem Tob's version does not appear to be 100% identical to the original Hebrew Matthew. The geneology of chapter one is missing in the Hebrew Matthew which Epiphanius mentions in the 300s. Yet Shem Tob's has it. Also, Shem Tob's version does not contain the correct description of Zechariah's father in Matthew 23:35. Shem Tob's follows the Greek text's error in that regard. Yet, we know from Jerome that the true Hebrew Matthew had Zechariah's father correct in Matthew 23:35. Thus, someone tampered with the Hebrew Matthew that Shem Tob used. They changed it to fit the Greek, even though the Greek text was wrong. This was not likely Shem Tob's alteration. Thus, the error in Matt. 23:35 most likely was because someone altered the Hebrew Matthew upon which Shem Tob relied to fit the canonical Greek Matthew.
Despite there being some reversion to the errors in the Greek text, the Shem Tob Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew once more proves the Greek Matthew is flawed and needs slight corrections to restore the true original inspired text. This fact also highlights that the original Hebrew version was inspired and 100% accurate.
Shem Tob Is The Closest To The Original
What the Shem Tob Gospel of Matthew represents is the closest to the original Matthew that we will find. It reads almost identical to our Matthew, but with minor and subtle differences. There is nothing heretical.
Howard's Claim of Significant Issues on Claim of Messiah
George Howard tries to find significant differences in Shem Tob's Hebrew Matthew and our Greek Matthew. However, he largely takes them out-of-context and then exaggerates its meaning. He tries to claim, for example, that the Hebrew Matthew never claims Jesus is Messiah ("never equated with Jesus.") (Id. at 212.) Yet, this is completely false. To do this, he makes much of the fact the Greek Matthew has five times the word Christ used with Jesus's name, but it is missing in the Hebrew. (Matt. 1:1, 1:17, 1:18, 11:2 and 16:21). Yet, this is just as likely an addition by the Greek translator.
Moreover, the assertion that Jesus is Messiah is blatant in the Hebrew Matthew. For it clearly says Jesus is Messiah expressly in Matthew 16:16. This is Peter's declaration that Jesus is Messiah. Howard acknowledges this, but then claims it was "clearly" an addition. (Id. at 218.) However, he cites as proof his own argument at page 183. When you go there, you find sheer speculation of how Shem Tob's comments should be interpeted to imply an original text missing this claim. Why would Shem Tob add it? He was trying to find fault with Matthew. He would not add such a passage. This is nonsensical.
Furthermore, even if the Messianic assertion were not in the Hebrew version of Matthew 16:16, the Hebrew Matthew often implies Jesus is Messiah. Not only are all the Messianic prophecies cited in the Hebrew Matthew as in the Greek Matthew, but there are many other clear references. For example, John the Baptist tells Jesus he should be baptized by Jesus, obviously because Jesus was on a higher level. (Matt. 3:14.) Jesus is the light to shine to the Gentiles. (Matt. 4:16.) Jesus is "worshipped" without comment. (Matt.8:2.) John the Baptists' followers ask if Jesus is the Christ, to which Jesus gives an implicit affirmative, citing the blind see, the lame walk, etc. (Matt. 11:1-5.) The Son of God is not merely akin to us. He alone knows the Father. (Matt. 11:22.) And on and on it goes. (See Matt. 21:9 "savior of the world"; Matt.23:10, "one is your Rabbi, Messiah;" Matt. 24:23.) Howard's motives are unclear, but his conclusion is misdirected.
Proof Of Antiquity Of Shem Tob Hebrew Matthew
The proof of its antiquity is multifaceted. Its variants are found in some very early Greek translations. Its variants are what early Christian bishops and leaders were quoting. Furthermore, the Greek majority text we use today and trace back to the 4th century clearly derived from a Hebrew text just like Shem Tob's Gospel of Matthew. We can deduce this because it is obvious in over eight places that the Greek translator mistook a single letter in Hebrew and then rendered the Greek equivalent of that unconscious mispelling in his head. (Howard, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (1995) at 226-28.)
For example, Jesus actually says in Hebrew "blessed are those who wait" but if you mistakenly read just one little letter of Hebrew, it comes out "blessed are those who mourn." (Matt. 5:4.)
Likewise, Jesus at the Last Supper says one of them will "sell me" in Hebrew, but if you mistake just one little letter, it comes out "betray me." (Matt. 26:23.) The Shem Tob Matthew clearly demonstrates it is more original than the Greek version we depend on today.
The Shem Tob Matthew contains the obvious original substratum upon which our Greek Matthew is based. This means it is the translation closer to the Apostle Matthew than any other of which we know.
If we take the Shem Tob Hebrew Matthew, and restore some of the Hebrew Matthew mentioned by Jerome, then we are rediscovering the closest text to the original autograph of Matthew. When we do this exercise, we see the Hebrew Matthew is the only text that rescues Jesus from flagrant error in Matthew 23:35 (son of Barachias defect) and 27:9 (30 pieces prophecy incorrectly cited to Jeremiah). There are no Greek variants at all that provide any kind of escape. Hence, the Hebrew Matthew deserves serious attention.
A recent work by Nehemiah Gordon, The Naming of Jesus in Hebrew Matthew gives further important background. For our discussion of the same, see this link.