Revelations from the Hebrew Version of Matthew
by Lonnie Lane
A man wrote: “I am from Goa, in India.… I am under the impression that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. I would appreciate if you would clarify this. Thank you.” There is much evidence to confirm that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew and with this understanding has come a good bit of revelation of what Yeshua was really saying.
It had been assumed that the language of Yeshua’s day was primarily Aramaic, but since the re-birth of Israel, archaeological data and linguistic research have provided enough evidence to open up the Gospels to us, including the confirmation that at the least Matthew was initially written in Hebrew, and possibly other Gospels as well.
When reading Matthew and asking if it was written in Hebrew and not Greek, apart from reports of finding actually original texts, the first question one might ask is to whom was Matthew writing? A read through Matthew with this in mind brings an awareness of a number of matters that would be of no interest to Gentiles, but would mean a great deal to Hebrews. For instance, Matthew begins his gospel account of Yeshua’s life with an extensive genealogy. To the Hebrews, this would be greatly significant as ancestry was very meaningful to them. A Gentile would not likely be the least interested in who begat whom, whereas to the Hebrews these genealogies had to do with their identities and their inheritances. They also delineated that a king could only be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of David. And only those from the tribe of Levi, as in Levites, could serve in the temple or be priests.
Today, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of the Bar Kokhba letters, study of these and other manuscripts give evidence that most people were fluent in Hebrew. There is actually no ground for assuming that Jesus did not speak Hebrew. Hebrew appears to have been the common language at that time. Additionally, regarding Paul it is said that “they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect” (Acts 22:2). We are told in Acts 21:40 that Paul spoke Aramaic but the marginal note says, “or possibly Hebrew.” It has been suggested by scholars that the margin note that Paul spoke Hebrew should be considered as valid information and some scholars think that it was Hebrew and not Aramaic that was in fact spoken. Because of the occasional Aramaic word found in the Gospels it was assumed that was the language spoken then, but there are far more Hebrew than Aramaic words and idioms sprinkled through the Gospels, particularly in Matthew. Many of the supposedly Aramaic words are actually Hebrew words. (With the exception of portions of Daniel, all of the Old Testament was, of course, written in Hebrew.)
A recently published tenth-century Arabic document, which is partially based on an earlier fifth century Aramaic document, identifies the language of “the prophets,” “Christ” and “the true Gospel” as being Hebrew. Furthermore, it speaks against the non-Jewish Christians for discarding Hebrew in favor of foreign languages not spoken by the Savior. Evidently some people realized the dangers involved in diverting from the original language. There are sayings of Yeshua which can be taken back into both Aramaic and Hebrew, but none can be rendered into Aramaic only. Some make sense only when rendered into Hebrew. These facts demonstrate the Hebrew origins of Matthew and in fact, the other Gospels, by retranslating the Gospels into Hebrew.
More than Mark and Luke, the gospel of Matthew explicitly cites Old Testament messianic prophesies and shows how Yeshua fulfilled them. Why would non-Jews really care that He fulfilled Hebrew Scriptures? Matthew’s audience was clearly the Hebrew people. It stands to reason that he would write it in their own language. Such prophesies would be important to the Hebrews, but not to the Gentiles. Several examples follow.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The fulfillment in Matthew would be, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel which means, ‘God with us’" (Matt. 1:23). This would be quite significant for God said He would give a sign to Israel that would be 1) a virgin giving birth, 2) the baby would be a son, and 3) this son would be one to bring God’s presence to Israel. These must and could only be fulfilled by Messiah.
Further, Messiah’s birth place was specific: “But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for Me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times" (Micah 5:2). The fulfillment verse would be, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6). It’s doubtful that a non-Hebrew audience would care much where Yeshua was born. Bethlehem Ephratah is equivalent of saying “Little Bethlehem,” a town too small to have much to brag about. However, the prophecy also said that He would be a ruler who would be a shepherd of the people. The “flocks” of people following Yeshua may reveal why the people wanted to crown Yeshua as King.
As further evidence of Matthew being written to appeal to a Hebrew audience, is found in what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” It reads like Moses might have written it, like it came right out of Torah. Those not familiar with Torah are likely to read the Sermon as either a spontaneous burst of prophetic wisdom or a list of new requirements Yeshua is now giving his followers. But to those to whom He was speaking, His words were meant to put the people back in touch with how God thinks. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (5:6) would restore a sense of righteousness being a longing for God and His righteousness rather than a following of all the “traditional” (added) rules in self-righteous satisfaction. He was lifting God’s original Torah teachings out of what the rabbis had imposed upon them with their traditions and complex interpretations with their added requirements. Rather than His statements being extraneous or unrelated to Torah, Yeshua was in fact redefining how to live the commandments by the grace and spirit of God. This, of course, is missed unless one is familiar with the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets in the Old Testament. An understanding of the Sermon from a Hebrew perspective tends to realign His words with the rest of Scripture (remember, there was only Old Testament Scripture then) by lifting them out of some of our own Christian “traditional” teachings. (Yes, we have traditions too.)
Let’s take, for instance, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Our English translations somewhat distort what the original (Hebrew) text is saying. If we read the text in a Hebrew context we find that the word for poor does not mean to be materially destitute or in contrast to being well-to-do; it means to be “humble” or “meek.” Morford in his Power New Testament’s footnote on 5:3 says, “Poor is a Hebrew idiom for repentant.” To be poor/meek/humble before God necessarily requires that one be repentant. Remember that Numbers 12:3 describes Moses as the “meekest” man on earth. It certainly does not mean he is the most financially lacking of all men, but from his face-to-face encounter with the Lord on the mountain, he was undoubtedly the meekest man on earth. The closer one is to God, the meeker one becomes. Citing Isaiah’s messianic passage early on in Yeshua’s ministry He declared, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). What He had to say, even today, are words of salvation only to the meek, the repentant, the “poor in spirit.”
Another misunderstanding of the phrase is taking it to mean that to be truly blessed one must live in a spirit of poverty as a sign of true reverence. This interpretation has often been used to inspire vows of poverty. He was not saying that any person who really wants to be god-fearing had better not appear to be other than materially poor. This misunderstanding of the Hebrew context of the word poor has caused suffering for many ministers and missionaries and their families, and has been the cause of prideful judgment or pity of them. (I am reminded of a story from the 1930’s or so in which the church ladies all saved their used and dried teabags to send, along with their discarded clothing, to the “poor” missionaries overseas, thereby protecting them from any pride that new teabags or clothing might bring.)
Additionally, it has also been interpreted as
God favoring the poor, with disdain toward the rich, which is just as
unbiblical as it would be if God were favoring the rich to the neglect of the
poor. Both perspectives misrepresent Him because God shows no partiality. “The rich and the poor have this in common;
The LORD is the maker of them
all” (Proverbs 22:2). Admittedly there are verses in Scripture that warn of
self-sufficiency of the rich as opposed to the meekness of those who recognize
their need of God and His provision. One can be rich in material wealth and still
be meek or ‘poor in spirit’ before God. King David is a prime example. Yeshua
was not saying that being rich in itself is bad or ungodly. To the contrary,
there are many Biblical examples of God’s riches blessing His people. Nowhere
did Yeshua call a state of poverty “blessed.” Anyone who has ever been poor can
agree, it’s not a blessing. Rather, Scripture puts it this way: "It
is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it” (Prov.10:22).
Getting back to the Sermon on the Mount, now that we’ve cleared up the issue of poor not meaning financially needy, Yeshua also had this to say: “Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth: (Matthew 5:5), Again, the word “meek” does not mean weak, but a quality of humility and gentleness, that of someone who acknowledges their need of God. It is to such people that Yeshua came to preach. Matthew records Yeshua quoting directly from Psalm 37:11 which says, "The meek shall inherit the earth.” He had just mentioned the “Kingdom of heaven” (:3) and now He’s talking about inheriting “the earth” (:5). Which is it? Here we find more Hebrew roots nuggets that give clarity to what He’s saying that tie them both together. Matthew alone uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven” 32 times while Mark and Luke use “Kingdom of God” 68 times collectively. Both “kingdom of heaven” and “Kingdom of God” mean the identical thing for the reason that “heaven” is a Hebrew synonym for God Himself. For example, "…whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:22).
Now, here’s some food for thought. The Hebrew idea of heaven is not an ethereal other-worldly kingdom but of a messianic millennial kingdom on earth with God dwelling with man. The Hebrew expectation is not that we would ascend to be with God to some ‘other’ place, but that once He banishes sin and evil from the earth, He comes again to dwell with man and walk with him much as He did with Adam in the Garden of Eden, as He had intended to dwell with mankind from the beginning. The earth will be renewed to be without any sign of the Fall. Take a read through Revelation 21 and 22 with this in mind. If you compare the picture of the earthly eternal reign of God in these two chapters in the book of The Revelation, you can see that to “inherit the earth” is the same as inheriting the Kingdom of God. In both we experience His eternal rule. When Yeshua said, “My Kingdom is not of this world…not of this realm” (John 18:36), this is what He meant. The realm of which Pilate spoke was of an earthly realm not submitted to the reign of God. What Yeshua meant was not this worldly order or even this age, but of “an age to come, eternal life” (Matthew 12:32; 13:39; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Eph. 2:7; Heb. 6:5) which would be both.
It is to the repentant and those who know their need of God that the Kingdom of God’s reign and presence belong! This is what He was saying. The Pharisees made it seem that only those who studied as they did and lived scrupulous lives of cleanliness, searching the Scriptures and writings all day were worthy of heaven or God’s acceptance. All of these “works” were attempts to earn or insure God’s favor, in itself a good thing, to want to please God, but it sees only from the limits of man’s minds, and not from the expanse of Who God is. Who could possibly earn their way to God? Yeshua was saying that God looks at the hearts, the motives of men and He is well aware of who basks in the pride of their own accomplishments verses the repentant ones who know their need of God’s mercy.
By inference, Yeshua’s words meant that those who are sure that they have earned a place with God and boast of it have no part in His Kingdom. All they stood for was counter to everything that He stood for in terms of relating to God. Now can you understand why the leaders were so inflamed against Him and what He was teaching the people? One would have to own up to being repentant to receive Him and what He was saying, which would mean exposing your vulnerability and admitting you weren’t what all the Pharisees and scribes worked so hard to be. It would mean a complete turn around of values. Or, you would be one who considered Him someone to be done away with. There is no fence-sitting for those who truly hear what Yeshua has said.
This issue of the language of Yeshua is critical, for when Yeshua was extricated from His Hebrew background, including that He spoke Hebrew to people whose language it was, what was subsequently written and said about Him in Christian circles created a profound misunderstanding of who and what he was. Dr. Brad Young explains at least some of the reasons for this: "Although Jesus was Jewish, his theology is sometimes treated as if he were Christian. But Jesus never attended a church. He never celebrated Christmas. He never wore new clothes on Easter Sunday…Jesus worshipped in the synagogue. He celebrated the Passover. He ate kosher food. He offered prayers in the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish religious heritage of Jesus impacted his life in every dimension of his daily experience. Jesus must be understood as a Jewish theologian. His theology is Jewish to the core….” This would include the language He spoke and in which, at the least, the Gospel of Matthew was written.
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2010.
Lonnie Lane comes from a family of four generations of Jewish believers, being the first one saved in 1975. Lonnie has been in church leadership for many years, and has planted two “one new man” house fellowships, one in Philadelphia suburbs and the other in Jacksonville, Florida, where she now lives near 6 of her 8 grandchildren. Lonnie is the author of “Because They Never Asked” and numerous articles on this website. She has been the Producer of Messianic Vision's radio and TV shows and the International Prayer Co-Coordinator for Messianic Vision's intercessors. Click Here to order Lonnie's book, "Because They Never Asked."
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.