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Fun with the Jewish Christian Gospels: A Blast from the Past

I was looking through the blog archives today, and ran across this interesting one from four years ago.  In additional to being rather informative about Gospels outside the New Testament, it shows how even in antiquity Christians had to figure out how to reconcile minor discrepancies among the canonical Gospels.  Enjoy!


Yesterday in my graduate seminar we spent three hours analyzing the three so-called “Jewish-Christian Gospels.” These are very tricky texts to deal with. We don’t have any manuscripts of them – even small fragments. They come to us, instead, in the quotations of church fathers such as Origen, Didymus the Blind, Jerome, and Epiphanius. These (orthodox) church fathers sometimes quoted or referred to one or the other of the Gospels in order to relate what it said; and sometimes it was in order to attack what it said. There are all sorts of questions raised about these no-longer surviving Gospels in these quotations.

A good part of the problem is that some of these fathers – especially Jerome, on whom we depend for most of our information for two of the three Gospels – quite obviously confused things, or were confused themselves in what they had to say, since what they have to say about these Gospels doesn’t add up and in the end doesn’t make sense. On this every scholar who works on these things agrees.

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Too Much Money and the Afterlife
Looking at Hell



  1. Avatar
    awakenedmachine  September 8, 2017

    Hmm, for that I think your trial, to see what amazing conclusion is behind the curtain, should be a dollar. *grumble*

  2. Lev
    Lev  September 8, 2017

    I understand the gospel of the Hebews was 12% shorter than the Greek gospel of Matthew (Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople, in his Stichometry claims the Gospel of the Hebrews is 2200 lines, 300 fewer than Greek Matthew). This missing 12% seems to correlate with the unique material found in Matthew.

    Epiphanius complained that Hebrews misses out the first two chapters of Matthew, starting with introducing John the Baptist, as Mark’s opening does.

    Perhaps Hebrews was Q with an Aramaic translation of Mark following (with elements of Mark’s opening transferred to the beginning)? That does seem to fit with how we see Matthew 3-28 today, with chapters 3-11 corresponding closely with reconstructions of Q and ch 12-28 closely following Mark (with some movement of Mark’s opening moved to ch 3).

    It seems to me there was an evolution of Matthew’s gospel as follows:

    Q (Aramaic) – Maybe the work Papias reports Matthew wrote?
    Q+Mark (Aramaic) – Gospel of the Hebrews
    Q+Mark+M (Greek) – Gospel of “Matthew”

    Do you know if there have been any scholarly works that have considered the evolution of Matthew’s gospel along similar lines?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      One problem: what we now have of the Gospel of the Hebrews does not appear to be based on Q.

      • Lev
        Lev  September 10, 2017

        Jerome states in his commentary of Matt vi.11 (the Lord’s Prayer): “In the Gospel according to the Hebrews for ‘super-substantial’ bread I found mahar, which means ‘of the morrow’, so that the sense is: Our bread of the morrow, that is, of the future, give us this day.”

        In Adversus Pelagianos 3.2, Jerome cites the saying over serial forgiving and then adds: “The Jewish Gospel has after “seventy times seven times”: For in the prophets also, after they were anointed with the Holy Spirit, the ord of sin (sinful discourse?) was found.”

        Aren’t the Lord’s Prayer and the saying over serial forgiving found in Q?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 11, 2017

          The way to tell if a particular saying of Jesus was found in Q is to see if it is found (in roughly if not exactly) the same form in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.

          • Lev
            Lev  September 11, 2017

            Yes, I realise that. The saying of the serial forgiver and the Lords’ prayer are only found in Matthew, Luke and Hebrews – they are not found in Mark. Therefore Hebrews uses Q material.

            Does this not solve the problem you presented to me above: “One problem: what we now have of the Gospel of the Hebrews does not appear to be based on Q.”?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 12, 2017

            It doesn’t mean that Hebrews used Q; he could have gotten it (probably did) from Matthew. But yes, he would have used Q material — as found in Matthew.

          • Lev
            Lev  September 12, 2017

            Have you come across Codex Schøyen before?

            Prof. Dr. Hans-Martin Schenke believes it is a Coptic translation of Hebrews, rather than the Greek Matthew, and claims that the Hebrew original predates the Greek Matthew. He writes (http://www.schoyencollection.com/bible-collection-foreword/coptic-bible/codex-schoyen-ms-2650):

            “The text is not representing a free text transmission in relation to all the other extant Greek and Coptic manuscripts of Matthew, but that it is a correct translation of an entirely different Gospel of Matthew. There is only one other Gospel of Matthew known, the lost Hebrew Gospel of the Jewish Christians mentioned by the church fathers. **This would have been the Hebrew exemplar of the Greek translation the present manuscript is based upon.**”

            It is notable that Codex Schøyen agrees with Hebrews on its variant of the Lord’s prayer “our bread for the morrow” rather than Matthew’s “daily bread” – just as Jerome observed.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 14, 2017

            I’m just distantly familiar with it. Are you sure that he thinks it is a translation of the Gospel of the Hebrews? That is very *different* from saying that it may reflect some of the readings of the Gospel of the Hebrews.

          • Lev
            Lev  September 14, 2017

            That what he appears to say:

            “There is only one other Gospel of Matthew known, the lost Hebrew Gospel of the Jewish Christians mentioned by the church fathers. This would have been the Hebrew exemplar of the Greek translation the present manuscript is based upon.”

            I know one scholar who disagrees with Schenke, thinking that the differences aren’t that great between this Coptic gospel and Greek Matthew.

            However, the variant in the Lords’ prayer found in both the gospel of the Hebrews and this manuscript, tips it in favour of Schenke – in my humble opinion.

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 8, 2017

    Here’s a link for a controversial commercial about lamb that pokes fun at famous religious figures, pagan gods, and current trends in science fiction and spirituality. Personally, I thought it was pretty funny. Needless to say, my favorite character is Jesus.

    It’s called You Never Lamb Alone–

  4. Avatar
    bensonian  September 8, 2017

    It is interesting that they were written in Aramaic. How do we know whether or not the original gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were not written in Aramaic, or Syriac (which is a middle form of Aramaic)? How do we know for sure that they were written in Greek originally?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      There are solid linguistic reasons for seeing them as original Greek compositions. But in any event, the fact they are words for word the same in many places shows they are not independent translations out of Aramaic (or any other language), but Greek compositions all of them.

  5. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 9, 2017

    Interesting post! Dr, if John the baptist really heard that voice of God saying, “you are my beloved son in you I am well pleased”… Confirming Jesus to be the messiah, Why then did he later sent his disciples to Jesus to asked him if he was the messiah?
    My second question is: what do you think of the Jesus in the Talmud who was also hanged for doing magic, is there any correlation?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      Yes, that’s exactly one of the problems. But note, in Mark where the voice says “You are my beloved son” there is nothing to indicate that anyone other than Jesus heard the voice.

  6. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 9, 2017

    What do you think of Dr Eben Alexander book “proof of Heaven”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      It’s pretty interesting until he meets OM. It’s really hard to believe that a neurosurgeon doesn’t / can’t see how much of his own prior mental make-up went into his “objective” vision of “reality.” But then again, he is a neurosurgeon, not a neuroscientist, and that’s a big difference.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 9, 2017

    This attempt to harmonize three accounts reminds me of the attempt to harmonize the two different accounts of when Jesus had his outburst in the temple by reaching the conclusion that maybe Jesus had two temple outbursts.
    I think a much better explanation for such discrepancies is outlined in your “Jesus Before the Gospels” where you explain that different oral traditions changed and passed on different stories.

  8. Avatar
    Tony  September 9, 2017

    The source for the heavenly wording is Ps 2:7 “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” The variants may be a function to the degree of adoptionism by the authors or redactors.

    The baptism scene itself seems partially created by reading prophecy fulfillment from the OT (LXX):

    2 Sam 7:14 “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”

    Ezek. 1:1 the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

    Hebrews 1:5 also quotes Ps 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14, but with no noticeable connection to a baptism. As Hebrews is thought to predate the Gospels, could these scripture references have arrived at Mark’s writing table through Hebrews? Either way, the end result was the same.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  September 9, 2017

    You’ve said that some of the Jesus sayings make more sense when translated back into Aramaic than they do in Greek. Was this the point at which the transmission went from oral to written, when oral Aramaic sources were written down in Greek? Or is it not so cut and dried as that? I am aware we don’t seem to have any evidence of Aramaic written materials (other than hints in the later church writers) and I can see the gospel writers collecting materials available to them already in Greek but I’m wondering where the touch point is between an oral Aramaic transmission and a written Greek one? Doesn’t it make more sense to think that there was at least some Aramaic written transmission even though it does not survive?


    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      I suppose the big problem is, as you say, that there isn’t any actual hard evidence of any Gospel writings in Aramaic, although later church fathers claimed that Matthew wrote in that language. Our Matthew, though, is certainly a Greek composition. My sense is that the Gospels are a purely Greek literary phenomenon, but the oldest sayings of Jesus (both those he spoke and others attributed to him by Aramaic story tellers early on) were Aramaic and had to be translated by story tellers as they told the tales in Greek.

  10. Avatar
    anthonygale  September 9, 2017

    I find it interesting that the early church fathers rejected an attempt to harmonize the gospels. Were any of their views more liberal that what conservative Christians nowadays might think? Having once been pretty conservative myself, I was initially surprised to learn of things such as early church fathers arguing that the authors of Revelation and John almost certainly had to be different people. After having thought about it more, I realized how foolish it was to have assumed their ignorance. Did they reject harmonization out of recognition for the gospel writers independent emphases? Or was it for other reasons?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      Many church fathers were very interested in harmonizing the Gospels. They actually produced Gospel Harmonies that got rid of the contradictions (e.g., Tatian’s Diatessaron)

  11. Avatar
    ardeare  September 9, 2017

    It’s a little difficult to reconcile but I’m going to go there anyway. In Matthew, we read “THIS is my…….” which would seem to be a proclamation of Jesus to all those who were present. In Mark, we read “YOU are my beloved son….”. Mark, being a primary source for the Gospel of Luke, makes Luke’s account somewhat irrelevant for my discussion if it were placed there only to agree with Mark. Do you believe that the use of the pronoun “You” may imply that Jesus was the only one to hear the voice and thus, the “Messianic Secret” remains intact in Mark’s narrative? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      Yes, I think it’s a distinctively Markan idea that gets changed in the other Gospel accounts.

  12. Avatar
    Morphinius  September 9, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, to make matters more confusing weren’t there different sects, existing at different times, identified as Ebionites by those who disagreed with them? The quotation from Epiphanius would indicate that the Gospel of the Ebionites he refers to was written after the gospels included in the New Testament. However, Irenaeus stated that the Ebionites used only the Gospel according to Matthew and makes no reference that it was an altered version. (ANF01, p.352) Presumably, these are different works. I have also heard that there was a Jewish gospel written prior to the New Testament gospels–whose existence Luke may have been hinting at. Would you agree, or were they likely all written after Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      Yes, the entire issue is hugely vexed. If you want to pursue it and see all the intricate interworkings, check out the book by A. F. J. Klijn, Jewish-christian Gospel Traditions.

      • Avatar
        Morphinius  September 10, 2017

        Thank you. I will do that.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 11, 2017

    From the apparent attempt to harmonize Mk, Mt, & Lk, it seems to me the gospels in question were written late enough that all three synoptics were in wide enough circulation that one (or two or three) person(s) had read all three. Does that make it possible to propose an earliest possible dating for these 2 or 3 gospels? A cursory googling of the names you mentioned looks like Origen is the earliest of the fathers you name. Could it be Origen was dealing with new material (early 3rd c?)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      Yes, but the three Gospels would not necessarily have to be in (very) wide circulation. They would simply have to be known in the community that the author belonged to. (Not lots and lots of communities) All three were known to several mid to early 2nd century authors, e.g.

  14. Avatar
    nbraith1975  September 11, 2017

    Bart – Were there any “Jewish” Christian bishops involved with the founding of the Roman Catholic Church (From Constantine to Theodosius I) and its doctrines? Or that were influential in the early Catholic Church?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      No — Jewish Christians were a tiny group on the margins by that time, hardly known in the church at large.

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