cMatthew & eMatthew: A Mystery and a Reconstruction
Of all the reports of Jesus’s life, the Gospel of Matthew may end up being the most mysterious. By church tradition, the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, and from early on, the most popular of the four gospels (to judge by the number of surviving manuscripts), Matthew has over the last two centuries been dethroned from its place of eminence. Scholarship has established that in fact the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four to be written, and that Matthew appears to be, in the main, a compilation of Mark and the (reconstructed) Gospel of Q.
Still, one is struck by the many assertions from early church fathers that a gospel by Matthew “in Hebrew letters” was the first to be written. Could such a gospel have existed? Here are RT’s thoughts on the possibility of an earlier version of Matthew than the one incorporated into the New Testament:
1) The Gospel of Mary. This gospel, the extant fragments of which focus on a debate over Mary of Magdala‘s fitness to receive inspired visions from the risen Jesus, ends (in the Greek fragment) in a most peculiar way: with Matthew the disciple going out alone to preach the good news. Now, only about half of GMry is extant, and, in particular, the first six pages of the surviving manuscript are missing. It seems to RT that GMry might have started with a question or statement from Matthew. So, given the fact that the middle of the gospel is apparently devoted to a revelation from Jesus, could Matthew have been on a par with Mary, or even the leader of the disciples in their response to Jesus?
2) Other Gnostic Gospels. Matthew, along with several other of the disciples, questions Jesus in various of the recently recovered Gnostic or discourse gospels. Could assembling the materials related to Matthew’s questions in these gospels give us a glimpse of his earlier gospel? RT has been collecting some of these materials and offers a reconstructed fragment below.
3) The Gospel of the Hebrews. The fairly large number of quotations by church fathers of the Hebrew Gospel (and other quotations from it in GMatt manuscript margins) have been carefully examined, and it seems that not one, but three of these gospels existed: a) The Gospel of the Hebrews; b) The Gospel of the Ebionites; and c) The Gospel of the Nazarenes. Of these three, Ebionites appears to be closest in content to canonical Matthew (though espousing vegetarianism and lacking the Nativity), Nazarenes preserves some powerful alternatives to scenes in cMatthew, and Hebrews is based on a (to RT’s eye) radically different christology than cMatt (or at least, as reported by Cyril of Jerusalem).
4) Hebrew Matthew. Starting in the 7th century and continuing through the Middle Ages, quotations and translations of cMatt appeared in Hebrew. None of the materials seem to be ancient, but some of the readings offered are distinctive.
Of all these materials, RT would vote for The Gospel of the Hebrews as the likeliest candidate for an early Gospel of Matthew. Its fundamentally Jewish worldview (from RT’s perspective) accords with the Jewish emphasis of cMatt. But other of the listed materials give additional ideas of what an early Matthew (eMatt) might have contained. And please note: of all the listed materials, RT has found arguments for original composition in Aramaic only for GNaz.
Here is RT’s reconstructed fragment (based on materials in the Gospel of Mary and the Dialogue of the Savior):
“You will have no vision of Eternal Life or Radiant Light, where no evil exists, until you put off your clothing of flesh. Therefore, array yourself in a true humanity and do only what you are told. Do not invent any rules or laws.”
Painting: The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel. Rembrandt. WikiCmns; Public Domain.