Was the Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew?  Did Jesus have a Last Supper?  And does Josephus mention Jesus’ brother James?  These are the three questions I will be addressing in this week’s Reader’s Weekly Mailbag.   If you have any question for me to address, let me know!




Just a short question: is there any possibility that Matthew gospel’s was written in Hebrew or Aramaic ?


There was a long tradition throughout early and medieval Christianity that maintained that Matthew – commonly called the “most Jewish” of the Gospels – was written in Hebrew (or Aramaic).  Given its heightened Jewish concerns (see, for example, 5:17-20, verses found in no other Gospel), wasn’t it probably written to Jews in their native language?

There are two preliminary points to be made.  First, a number of scholars doubt if Matthew, or his community, was Jewish.  It is widely thought, instead, that Matthew portrays a Jesus who insists that his followers keep the Jewish law precisely because they were not accustomed to doing so, that is, that they are gentiles who have entered into a Christian community and are just learning that this community needs to follow the dictates of Scripture.

Second, even if Matthew and his audience were Jewish, that would not be evidence that he wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic.  Very few people wrote in Hebrew at this time, since the language of Palestine was Aramaic (a closely related language).  But there is little to suggest that Matthew’s Gospel was written in Palestine or to Aramaic speakers.   Few Jews outside of Palestine spoke Aramaic, and Jewish literature from outside (think Josephus, or Philo) was written in Greek.

There are compelling reasons for thinking Matthew wrote in Greek as well.  Here is one.  Since the 19th century it has been widely thought (on very convincing grounds that I won’t go into here) that Matthew used as one of his sources for his stories about Jesus the Gospel of Mark.   That would explain their massive word-for-word agreements in places.  But Mark was certainly composed in Greek.  Matthew therefore had to use a Greek version of Mark.  He copied it in places.  In Greek.  As a consequence, he must have been writing in Greek as well.  There’s no other plausible explanation for his verbatim alignments with Mark.


While Jesus’ last supper with his disciples is most likely historical, is the institution of the Eucharist itself historical? In other words, did Jesus really tell his disciples that the bread is his body, and the wine is his blood? Or is this something his followers invented after his death and resurrection? What are the arguments for or against its historicity? If we believe what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 11:23-25, it sounds like he received it directly from Jesus.



I don’t think there is any reason to doubt that Jesus had some kind of last meal with his disciples.  My own sense is that he did not know this would be his last meal.  It would take a book to explain why in full, but I do lay out a lot of the argument in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  In short, I don’t think Jesus planned on being arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified.  Later Christians of course, certainly said that this was his plan.  But in my judgment they were explaining that he was not caught unawares but was fulfilling the plan of God that he knew from all along.

Even so, maybe he did see the writing on the wall and expect that his time was up.  Suppose he did.  Could he then have instituted the last supper, saying that the broken bread represented his body and the cup of wine represented his blood?

It is certainly possible, of course, and it is worth nothing, as the questioner points out, that he is attested as doing so not only in Mark (on which Matthew and Luke are dependent) but also before that in Paul, who says that he got this information “from the Lord.”   My sense is that Paul is not saying that Jesus personally told him this when he saw him alive after his crucifixion, but that he has learned this and believes that it has come straight from heaven (just as I have had Christians tell me what “the Lord has taught me.”  I don’t think Jesus really showed up one day with a blackboard to sketch out his thoughts for them).

It is also my sense that this passage in Paul does not represent what Jesus really said at his last meal.  The passage presupposed that Jesus death was to be an atonement for sin.  That certainly was the later Christian belief.  But I don’t think it is what Jesus himself thought.  Jesus had a completely different message about what was about to happen with the coming of God’s kingdom on earth and his role in it.  Later, as Christians after Jesus’ death, told stories about Jesus’ last days, they reinterpreted his final words in light of their own beliefs, and the “institution of the Lord’s supper” became a fixed part of the Christian ritual, obviously prior to the writings of Paul.

In Did Jesus Exist? you mention that you shall tackle the James the brother of Jesus part in Josephus’ writing (p. 59). But you never did. What happened? Did it get edited out or what?


Ha!  I have never noticed this.  I did say that I was going to discuss the question, and I got off on another point, and never returned to it!   I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before.  But if I have, I’m sure one of you will point it out to me.  (!)

On p. 59 I am talking about the two references to Jesus in the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. I spend almost all my time on the first reference in book 18, the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum,” an entire paragraph devoted to Jesus.  I argue that, contrary to what some people have claimed, the bulk of the paragraph probably was indeed written by Josephus, even though a later Christian scribe has clearly inserted some Christian views into it (about Jesus being the messiah who was raised from the dead in fulfilment of the prophets, views that Josephus himself certainly did not have.)

The second reference that I apparently had planned to discuss comes in book 20, where Josephus refers to the summary execution of James, whom he calls “the brother of Jesus, who is called the messiah.”   I wanted to discuss the matter (as I point out on p. 59!) because this brief reference to Jesus seems to presuppose that the reader knows whom he is talking about based on what they have already read.  In other words, Josephus is indicating which of the many Jesuses he elsewhere discusses he is referring to now, “the one who is called the messiah.”   If that reading of him is correct, then it would mean that he did indeed already discuss Jesus.  And that would suggest that the passage of book 18 really does go back to Josephus, it is not a later insertion into his writing (even if a scribe altered it in some ways.)

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