Gospel of Hebrews

HEBREWS, GOSPEL OF. A Gospel according to the Hebrews is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria who quotes from it a saying also found, with some variation, in the Oxyrhynchus Logia (POx 654) and in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (log. 2). This has led to the claim that the Gospel of the Hebrews was the source of the other two, but the evidence is too meager to permit far-reaching conclusions. Only fragments are extant, and it is not certain that all the fragments quoted under this or similar titles belong to the same work. The document was known also to Origen, who quotes from it a statement of Jesus that His mother, the Holy Spirit, took Him by one of His hairs and carried him off to Mt. Tabor (a variation of the Temptation story, although Tabor was traditionally the mountain of the Transfiguration). Thereafter patristic testimony is highly confused.

Eusebius mentions a Gospel of the Hebrews, in which Jewish converts take special delight (Euseb. Hist. III. 25. 5); he links with it a story adduced by Papias, which may be the pericope adulterae (John 7:53ff.; see Euseb. Hist. III. 39. 17), and says that the book was used by Hegesippus (Euseb. Hist. IV. 22. 8), who also quoted some things “from the Syriac” and “from the Hebrew language.” Some Ebionites used only the Gospel of the Hebrews, esteeming the others as of little value (Euseb. Hist. III. 27. 4; according to Irenaeus, the Ebionites used only Matthew). Eusebius also mentions a Heb. Gospel of Matthew, said to have been taken by Bartholomew to India (Euseb. Hist. V. 10. 3). In his Theophania he quotes a gospel current among the Jews in Heb. but gives no name. He may thus have known two documents: a Gr. Gospel according to the Hebrews known to Clement and Origen, and before them to Papias and Hegesippus, and an Aram. gospel known also to Hegesippus (Vielhauer, NTAp. I. 123).

According to Epiphanius, the Nazoreans had the Gospel of Matthew complete in Heb. (Pan. XXIX. 9. 4), but evidently he had not himself seen the book. Like Irenaeus, he says that the Ebionites used only the Gospel of Matthew, but he adds that they called it the Gospel of the Hebrews (Pan. XXX. 3. 7). The documents are not identical: while for Epiphanius the Gospel of the Nazoreans was Matthew complete in Heb., that of the Ebionites was merely a “so-called Matthew,” and in comparison with the real Matthew was falsified and abridged (Vielhauer, NTAp. i. 125). Epiphanius is the first to identify the Nazorean Gospel of the Hebrews with the Heb. “original” of Matthew, and it looks as if he has combined the statements of Irenaeus and Eusebius concerning the Ebionites. The documents appear, however, to be distinct: the Nazorean gospel he knows only by repute, the Ebionite he quotes (but for this he is the sole authority). Suspicion is cast upon his testimony by the fact that elsewhere (Pan. 46. 1) he says that Tatian’s Diatessaron “is also called the Gospel according to the Hebrews.”

Confusion is increased by the statements of Jerome, who uses various formulae to introduce his quotations: Gospel according to the Hebrews (seven times), Gospel of the Hebrews (twice), the Hebrew Gospel (thrice), the Hebrew Gospel according to Matthew (twice). He speaks of its use by the Nazarenes (the various forms of this name constitute another problem) or by the Nazarenes and Ebionites, and claims to have tr. it from Heb. into Gr. and Lat. One of his quotations, however, is the statement cited above from Origen, who gives no hint that it was not already before him in Gr. After a detailed chronological review Vielhauer concludes that the measure of confidence to be placed in Jerome’s statements is very small (NTAp. I. 132). He had only one gospel in mind, which he called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and identified (wrongly) with the Aramaic Gospel of the Nazareans. His claims to have obtained the latter from the Nazoreans and to have tr. it into Gr. are open to serious question.

The problems are, therefore, (a) to determine how many documents are involved, and (b) to allocate the surviving fragments among them. Vielhauer argues cogently for three: a Gr. Gospel of the Hebrews known already to Clement and Origen, a Gr. Gospel of the Ebionites known only from Epiphanius (who also supplies the only extant fragments), and an Aram. Gospel of the Nazareans, attested by Hegesippus and Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome. On the other hand, his allocation of the fragments may at some points be open to question. James e.g., (ANT 1-8) distinguishes two documents, the Gospel of the Hebrews and that of the Ebionites, and assigns to the former the fragments allocated by Vielhauer to the Gospel of the Nazareans; but he isolates as from a different document a Coptic fragment assigned by Vielhauer to the Gospel of the Hebrews (it has a partial parallel in Epistula Apostolorum, ch. 14, and hence while unorthodox, is not necessarily completely heretical). Two other fragments frequently quoted in modern lit. as from the Gospel of the Hebrews are both assigned by Vielhauer to the Gospel of the Nazareans: the note that the man with the withered hand (Matt 12:9ff.) was a mason, and Jerome’s comment that it was not the veil of the Temple that was rent (27:51), but the lintel that collapsed. Both, however, are introduced in terms similar to those used for fragments assigned to the Gospel of the Hebrews.

In the circumstances it is difficult to be certain of the character, form, and compass of these documents, and precarious in the extreme to build hypotheses upon the little that is known. All three seem to stand in some relation to Matthew, but the extent of modification or abridgement is not clear. The Gospel of the Hebrews is, however, commonly mentioned by the Fathers with a certain respect, and hence was not obtrusively heretical. It was probably the gospel of Jewish Christians in Egypt, distinguished by its title from the Gospel of the Egyptians (which may have been more Gnostic); but to go much further is to enter the realm of speculation. On the whole question, see NTAp. I. 117ff. and the lit. there cited.