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Gospel of the Hebrews
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Gospel of the Hebrews

The Gospel of the Hebrews, probably identical to the Gospel of the Ebionites, is a lost harmonic gospel that is only preserved in a few quotations in the Panarion of Epiphanius, a church writer who lived at the end of the 4th century C.E.. The work was earlier than that, however: Irenaeus attested to a Matthew already used by Ebionites late in the 2nd century.

Other mainstream Christian writers knew this text. Eusebius mentions that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was known to Hegesippus (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV: xxii, 8). [Clement of Alexandria]] (Strom., II, ix, 45) and Origen used it, according to Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, ii:

"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. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour, quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist "Out of Egypt have I called my son, " and "for he shall be called a Nazarene."

Jerome took a lively interest in this book. More than once he mentions that he made translations of it into Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, even these translations have been lost.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 considered that the Hebrews probably was the slightly modified Aramaic original of St. Matthew, written in Hebrew characters.

Cyril of Jerusalem quoted from it.

Ironically, we know just how long the lost Gospel of the Hebrews was: 2200 lines, just 300 lines shorter than canonical Matthew. The figure comes from the Stichometry of Nicephorus, appended by the 9th century Patriarch of Jerusalem to his Chronography. The Stichometry lists scriptural books, in three categories, each with the count of its stichoi (lines). Nicephorus lists the canon and the apocrypha, and a secondary list of books that are the antilegomena "disputed": The Revelation of John. the Revelation of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas and this Gospel of the Hebrews.

Some modern scholars take a quite different view. They read from the extant fragments quoted by Epiphanius that much of the text was a harmony, composed in Greek, of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and, probably, the Gospel of Mark as well). (rationale for this reading needs to be presented)

Though modern commentators generally aver that its original title is unknown, Epiphanius is perfectly clear about what it was: "the Gospel that is in general use among them which is called "according to Matthew", which however is not whole and complete but forged and mutilated— they call it the Hebrews Gospel."

Of the lost text Epiphanius records in another place in his Panarion:

"And they [the Ebionites] receive the Gospel according to Matthew. For this they too, like the followers of Cerinthus and Merinthus, use to the exclusion of others. And they call it according to the Hebrews, as the truth is, that Matthew alone of New Testament writers made his exposition and preaching of the Gospel in Hebrew and in Hebrew letters."

Leaving aside for the moment any modern title, what was Epiphanius reading? A variant gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew letters that had been used by the followers of Cerinthus. (Merinthus is a mere duplicative invention with no historical reality.) This Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew was apparently not identical to the canonical manuscript tradition, any variant from which would have appeared to Epiphanius "forged and mutilated." A skeptic might mildly interpret Epiphanius' phrase as meaning simply "with unauthorized variants and not containing certain passages considered canonical."

Again Epiphanius records:

"They say that Christ was not begotten of God the Father, but created as one of the archangels ... that he rules over the angels and all the creatures of the Almighty, and that he came and declared, as their Gospel, which is called Gospel according to Matthew, or Gospel According to the Hebrews" reports: "I am come to do away with sacrifices, and if you cease not sacrificing, the wrath of God will not cease from you." ( —Epiphanius, Panarion 30.16,4-5)

The alternate designation customary today, Gospel of the Ebionites, is based on the fact that this was the only gospel apperently used by the Ebionites, a group of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who were prominent in Syria and Palestine during 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The Gospel of the Ebionites omitted the infancy narratives. The gospel presented both John the Baptist and Jesus as vegetarians, and Jesus says that he has come to abolish sacrifices. Cameron says, "Together with the sayings about the passover, this intimates a polemic against the Jewish Temple." This indicates that the Gospel of the Ebionites, like the Gospel of Matthew, addresses the issue of "Jewish identity after the destruction of the Temple." The solution offered to this problem is "to believe in Jesus, the true interpreter of the Law." Cameron suggests that the Gospel of the Ebionites was written in the mid-second century in Syria or Palestine.

Is this identical with the Gospel according to the Hebrews? Montague Rhode James, in The Apocryphal New Testament 1924 , pp. 8-10, found that this gospel in its fragmentary quotes was "intended to support a particular set of views. They enable us also to distinguish it from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, for, among other things, the accounts of the Baptism in the two are quite different."

Which views? "Most importantly, the Ebionites believed in an "adoptionist" Christology—that Jesus was fully human, but was chosen as the son of God at his baptism. However, Epiphanius also states that they believed Jesus to have been "created like one of the archangels." The gospel also makes vegetarians of Jesus and John the Baptist by modifying Luke 22:15, and changing the Baptist's diet from locusts (Greek=akris) to cake (egkris)." (Geoff Trowbridge, The 'Whole' Bible.)

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