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Gospel according to the Hebrews

The Gospel According to the Hebrews was a work of early Christian literature, already known by the mid 2nd century AD, to which reference is frequently made by the church fathers during the first five centuries of the Christian era, and of which some twenty or more fragments, have been preserved by quotations in their writings.

The book itself has completely disappeared. All that survives to us from the 'Gospel of the Hebrews' are the quotations, made by Clement, Origen, Jerome, and Cyril of Jerusalem. Jerome took a lively interest in this book, an Aramaic copy of which he found in the famous library at Caesarea in Palestine. More than once he tells us (and with great pride) that he made translations of it into Greek and Latin. These translations, which would have made the Gospel of the Hebrews readily available to the Western church, have also not survived.

It has, however, been the subject of many critical surmises and discussions in the course of the last century. Recent discussions have thrown considerable light upon the problems connected with this Gospel, and a large literature has grown up around it.

The original language of the gospel suggests that it was drawn up for Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians in Palestine and Syria.

The time and place of origin are disputed, but since Clement used it in the last quarter of the 2nd century, it is certainly dated before the middle of that century. Alexandrian Egypt is most often indicated as its place of origin by the fact that its principal witnesses are the Alexandrians Clement and Origen and by the conception of Jesus as the Son of the Holy Spirit, which is documented for Egypt by the Coptic Epistle of James.

Reputation of the Gospel of the Hebrews

The only work which was at all generally received, and relied upon, in addition to the four canonical Gospels, though later judged apocryphal, is this Gospel according to the Hebrews. St. Jerome, who knew it in an Aramaic text under the name of The Gospel according to the Nazarenes, regards it as the Hebrew original of our Greek canonical Gospel according to St. Matthew.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) states

'But, as far as can be judged from its fragments which have come down to us, it has no right to originality as compared with our first canonical Gospel. At a very early date, too, it was treated as devoid of Apostolic authority, and St. Jerome himself, who states that he had its Aramaic text at his disposal, does not assign it a place side by side with our canonical Gospels: all the authority which he ascribes to it is derived from his persuasion that it was the original text of our First Gospel, and not a distinct Gospel over and above the four universally received from time immemorial in the Catholic Church.'

It has been regarded as an original record of the life of Jesus. Justin Martyr has been represented as deriving his knowledge of the works and words of Christ from it, and when Justin and other early writers deviate in any measure from the text of the canonical gospels, it has generally been assumed that their variant readings have come from the lost Gospel according to the Hebrews.

It has been regarded as a "disputed" work of the second rank. Eusebius of Caesarea (died 340), when sorting out the universally received books of the Canon as it was known in his time, writes: "And here, among the first, must be placed the holy quaternion (i.e. 'foursome' of the Gospels") while he ranks the Gospel according to the Hebrews among the second rank, that is, among the disputed writings (Historia Ecclesiae book III, xxv).

Ron Cameron, The Other Gospels provides the following information: "The Gospel of the Hebrews may have been known to Papias (a church writer who died c. AD 130, whose five-volume 'Exegesis of the Sayings of the Lord' is now lost, preserved only in a few quotations in the writings of Eusebius).

Fragments are preserved in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (late in the second century), Origen (early in the third century), and Cyril (Bishop of Jerusalem, c. AD 350). Hegesippus (late in the second century) and Eusebius (early in the fourth century) attest to the existence of this gospel, but do not quote from it.

Gospel according to the Hebrews: text and manuscripts

According to the list of 'canonical' and 'apocryphal' books drawn up by Nicephorus (Patriarch of Constantinople, 806-818), (the Stichometry of Nicephorus), the Gospel of the Hebrews contained 2200 lines, only 300 fewer than Matthew. Thus, though the content is lost, its extent is known.

Unlike other Jewish-Christian or Ebionite gospels, surviving fragments of the Gospel of the Hebrews show no dependence upon the Gospel of Matthew. The story of the first resurrection appearance to James the Just suggests that the Jewish-Christian community that produced this document claimed James as their founder. It is reasonable to assume that the remainder of the gospel was synoptic in flavor.

The Gospel of the Hebrews seems to be otherwise independent of the rest of the New Testament too, in the quoted portions; unfortunately it is difficult to know whether unquoted portions of the Gospel of the Hebrews might have shown signs of dependence.

Cameron makes these observations on dating and provenance: "The earliest possible date of the composition of the Gospel of the Hebrews would be in the middle of the first century, when Jesus traditions were first being produced and collected as part of the wisdom tradition. The latest possible date would be in the middle of the second century, shortly before the first reference to this gospel by Hegesippus and the quotations of it by Clement and Origen. Based on the parallels in the morphology of the tradition, an earlier date of composition is more likely than a later one. Internal evidence and external attestation indicate that Egypt was its place of origin."

Geoffrey Trowbridge dates it c. AD 70-150.

It is both odd and unfortunate that no copies of any of the so-called "Judeo-Christian" gospels have survived antiquity, though the texts, kept by early Christians who maintained deep-seated Jewish beliefs, were often quoted by Christian writers throughout the first five centuries. These short citations are our only windows through which we might study the traditions of the communities that used them.

The Gospel of the Hebrews is the most often quoted of the Judeo-Christian gospels, though it must be noted that at least two other texts (Ebionites and Nazoreans) were referred to by the same title, and we can only make educated guesses as to which gospel each fragment was derived from. At least eight early writers had either referenced or cited from Hebrews, each offering their own interpretations and assessment of validity. From these we know the date of composition is no later than mid-second century, possibly much earlier. It was said to have been written in Hebrew, though much of its theology parallels Egyptian tradition.

The gospel shows no direct dependence upon the canonical gospels, though it shares a verse with the Gospel of Thomas (GosThom 2). Among the most distinctive traditions is the depiction of Mary, like the Johannine logos, as divine— in fact, that she was the incarnation of Michael, who was the personification of the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus first appears to his brother James following the resurrection. Since James the Just was traditionally held to have founded the church at Jerusalem, it is no surprise that the Hebrew gospel elevates his authority by making him the first to witness the risen Christ.

Glenn Davis: "Gospel of the Hebrews" (dated Egypt, mid 2nd century AD).

References

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

External links

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