“Who would dare to say that this passage had been composed in Greek by Matthew . . . ?”

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by Neil Godfrey

Murder of Zechariah / William Hole: Wikipedia

Of course, the same passage can contain at the same time several Semitisms mixed together, the conclusive force of which becomes more pronounced. Let us take a single example:

Matthew 23:25 . . . and so you will draw down on yourselves the blood of every just man (= justs) that has been shed on earth from the blood of Abel the just to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the Altar.

Luke 11:50-51 … in order that there be demanded the blood of all the prophets poured out since the creation of the world to this generation, since the blood of Abel up to the blood of Zachariah, who had been murdered between the Altar and the House.

This passage contains two Semitisms of vocabulary (both of them in Luke): to demand the blood of someone means to hold him responsible for a murder and House refers to Temple. This passage contains (also in Luke) a Semitism of transmission: NQY: innocent, just (or, in the plural, NQYYM, as in Jeremiah 19:4) has been confused in Luke with NBY ’ (prophet), which can be written NBY in the spelling of Qumran. This necessitated the altering of the sentence to obtain: the blood of all the prophets. But why compare, in this fashion, the murder of this Zachariah, committed around the year 790 before Jesus Christ, with the murder of Abel committed at the very beginning of the world? One is actually at the beginning of a series, the other is far from being at the end of a series! It is because the murder of this Zachariah in the precincts of the Temple is reported toward the end of the second book of Chronicles, which is the final book of the Hebrew Bible but which is not the last book in the Greek Bible of the Septuagint. In Hebrew this means from the first page of the Bible to the last, but in Greek this no longer signifies anything (and actually for a long time commentators had no understanding of it). Behold, moreover, a Semitism of composition, at one and the same time in Matthew and in Luke! Who would dare to say that this passage had been composed in Greek by Matthew, or Luke, or anyone?

Carmignac, Jean. 1987. The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels. Translated by Michael J. Wrenn. Chicago, Ill: Franciscan Pr. p. 39


For Jean Carmignac, the evidence that the original language of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and documents used by Luke was Hebrew makes his hypothesis secure.

In order to contradict this conclusion, it would be necessary to provide satisfactory explanations, valid in Greek, for all the cases that have been mentioned. (p. 40)

Arguing a fortiori Carmignac presented only the evidence relating to three of the nine types of Semitisms.

Only the Semitisms of the final three categories (composition, transmission, translation) have been retained in order that no objection could be made regarding either the mother tongue of the authors or their desire to imitate the Septuagint. But even in the first five categories (borrowing, imitation, thought, vocabulary, syntax) and especially in the sixth (style), the abundance of evidence presented goes far beyond any possibility that the author was influenced by his mother tongue or by the prestige of a venerable text. For the Greek of our Gospels testifies to a good knowledge of the language: nouns are correctly declined, the verbs accurately conjugated, and the vocabulary is relatively rich. Our Greek Gospels were not written by semiilliterates; they were written by people who possessed a good solid Greek culture, but who did not express themselves with the independence of a redactor, and who believed themselves obliged to render these precious documents in the most slavish fashion possible. Our Synoptic Gospels are not compositions which were realized in Greek; they are translations made upon the Hebrew (except for the Prologue and the introductions of Luke). And therefore the real authors of Mark and Matthew are their Hebrew redactors. For Luke, the situation is less clear, for we do not know if he himself was the translator or if he relied on the competence of some bilingual collaborator; we cannot be specific about which revisions he inserted into the documents which he found before him. But, in general, these reworkings must have been superficial, as the numerous Semitisms which still exist bear witness. (p. 40)

Carmignac acknowledges that his arguments as set out so briefly for a wide audience will not be enough to persuade specialist scholars. They will want more in-depth technical discussions. No doubt. But till then surely his work makes it difficult to ignore a real possibility of a Hebrew background to the gospels.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on ““Who would dare to say that this passage had been composed in Greek by Matthew . . . ?””

  1. Again very interesting and persuasive, but again I’d want to hear from those specialists scholars that may not be persuaded. This is a case where I definitely lack the expertise to make a conclusive decision on my own. I do notice that Able starts with A and Zachariah starts with Z. I don’t know if this A-Z pattern holds in Hebrew or in Greek. Could it be that the phrase from Able to Zachariah held even in Greek because of the Alpha – Omega implications? Is Zachariah spelled with an Omega in Greek?

    These are the types of questions and issues that I’m not really equipped to counter with because I simply don’t know enough about the languages or their usage in this period.

    1. No, the A-Z patten doesn’t hold in Hebrew. In Hebrew Abel’s name is ‘הבל’ starting with the 5th letter of the alphabet, and Zacharia is ‘זכריה’ starting with the 7th letter of the alphabet.

  2. What does Carmignac say is the significance of the claim, if accepted, that the gospels have a “Hebrew background,” and how does this tie in with the well-founded claims that the gospels are midrashic variations of Old Testament stories?

    1. The answer is not good. He concludes that a Hebrew background to the gospels forces us to redate them much earlier than the standard views and to connect them much more closely with the “witnesses of the life of Jesus” (p.6). By “much more closely” I mean that he dates the Semitic Mark no later than around the years 42—45. That is, before the composition of 2 Corinthians in which we read of Paul speaking of new readings on a par with the Old Testament.

      Where Carmignac stands on the midrashic interpretation of OT passages I don’t know. I would think that his inferences that a Hebrew Mark is the closest record we have to a historical Jesus suggests he takes them as some sort of historical memories or reflections. He ties his argument in neatly with various statements by the Church Fathers, good Catholic that he is.

      Charbonnel aligns herself, on the contrary, with other French scholars like Mergui who point to a distinctly midrashic character of the “original” Hebrew of the gospels. By “midrashic” in this context I think we will see that it is far more than a series of narrative variants on OT stories.

      I wonder if such early dating and coherence of findings with Catholic doctrine has had something to do with the apparent lack of attention to the Semitic hypothesis by scholars in countries not so dominated by Roman Catholicism.

      1. Right. I wonder the degree to which his interpretation of the data is influenced by his desire to date the gospels are early as possible. Of course, in reality whether Mark was written in Hebrew or not has no real implications on dating, or at least minimal.

        Yet I think it could explain some things, like why we don’t really see acknowledgement of the Gospels until around the mid 2nd century. If Mark and Matthew were circulating in Hebrew it could be that they didn’t get acknowledged by the Greek and Roman commentors that we find disusing them until they were translated into Greek.

        I don’t think there is any particular problem with accepting an original Hebrew Mark into a mythicist framework or into my particular framework anyway.

        Carmignac may have viewed it as evidence of the Gospels being “more authentic” but its just not the case. Its just as easy to fabricate narratives in Hebrew as in Greek. And as I’ve always said, the dating of the Gospels really has no bearing on their historical validity. Its just as easy to write fiction in year 10, 30, 40, 70 or 100. I think Mark was written after 70, but only due to the nature of what it talks about. If it turns out that Mark was written in 35 I’d have no particular problem with that (indeed it would explain the us of Pilate) other than trying to make sense of the prescient references to the Temple, etc.

        People seem not to grasp this whole concept. The ONLY thing we have that dates the life and death of Jesus is the Gospels. In other words, Mark itself what tells us that Jesus was killed during the reign of Pilate. Whether Mark was written during the reign of Pilate or 100 years after has no bearing on the fictional status of the work. When people talk about “reliability” then recency matters. If one assumes that the goal of the writers was to try and faithfully record real facts, then the closer to the time of the events, arguably the more likely they are to get them correct. But if the writer is fabricating the events then whether he’s making up the story the same year it’s set or 300 years after it’s set is irrelevant.

        Thus, in my view, the historical validity of the narrative has nothing at all to do with when it was written, it has to do with analyzing the nature of material. So, my long-winded point here is, that while Carmignac may have believed that pushing up the dates of the Gospels and showing they were originally in Hebrew did something important to strengthen the historical reliability of the Gospels, I don’t believe that to be the case at all. Indeed, if it was written in Hebrew I think it just makes it all the more likely that writer of Mark was connected to Qumran, which was a fountain of scriptural divination and imaginary messiahs.

  3. If Mark was composed in Hebrew it could explain something that has stood out to me for some time, which is that while many of the parallels with the Jewish scriptures match word-for-word, essentially all of the references to Paul’s letters are paraphrases. This may make sense if the writer was translating from Greek to Hebrew, which was then translated back to Greek.

    I think one thing I’d like to investigate regarding this is if the references to Pail’s do appear to be Hebrew translations from Greek.

  4. My problem with this Reductio ad Judaeum applied on the Gospels, very much similar to the Reductio ad Paulum applied on the Gospels by authors as Tarazi, Dykstra, Adamczweski, etc, is that giving too much emphasis on midrash and symbolisms possibly found inside the text, makes people escape sometimes the real polemical (hence: found outside the text) nature of some Gospel episodes. A telling case is, for example, when Danila has written:

    It seems to me more likely that the scene was inserted in one gospel to legitimize married apostles (in contrast to Marcionite celibacy), then subsequently copied to the other synoptic gospels.

    Another example, one I have found today reading Georges Ory, Le Christ et Jésus:

    The Jesus who doesn’t want to drink :

    “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

    …seems to be a direct polemic against the Jesus accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19), the drink allegorizing the descent and death of the Son in the lower heavens.

  5. We know that Christianity began as a sect of Judaism. Conflict between Sadducees and Pharisees appears in the gospels. Matthew is about the comparative legitimacy of Jews in this or that camp. The Book of Revelation makes reference to this idea as well. The synoptics are Jewish-oriented stories, and only John turns against Judaism in a marked way. From that alone, one could expect a Hebraic connection. Then you have the gospel-as-midrash idea, which essentially argues that there is an older version of the gospels, and it’s called the Old Testament. If the gospel writers are re-working OT ideas and stories, they might be expected to re-work the language structures of the older works, what Carmignac (apparently) is calling “Semitisms.” I would want to explore that idea, in looking at the “Semitisms” before (1) claiming a connection to “eyewitnesses” who exist only as characters within the gospel stories themselves (and we don’t know of any others); or (2) assuming an early date for the composition of the gospels which forces us to assume that reference to the destruction of the Temple was miraculous foresight, rather than historical knowledge–since the latter is a much more rational explanation.

    1. Yes Clarke. And I often see scholars who try to get around the issue of the temple by saying that maybe the man part of the narrative comes to us from early traditions, but the temple is a later addition. Thus, even if the whole story was written after the destruction of the temple, most of the anecdotes come from early traditions.

      The problem with this is that the temple scene and its implications as well as the later prophecy against the temple in Mark 13 are centerpieces of the whole plot. The temple scene is foreshadowed in Mark 1 and its the justification for the Crucifixion. So its the main driver of the whole story. The whole story is a journey to the temple.

      So yeah, trying to dismiss the temple scene as something that could be just a late addition to an otherwise already fleshed out early account is nonsense.

  6. I see that you consider Mark essentially as a theodicy for the destruction of the Temple.

    My view is that Jesus was euhemerized because some Christians claimed that he was the Christ, and the Christ had to appear “in the last days”. Hence, the reason of the fact that some Christians claimed that Jesus was the Christ is the existence of other Christians who denied that Jesus was the Christ. We have evidence of the latter Christians only in II CE. Hence, Mark couldn’t be written before that date. Carmignac is wrong a priori.

  7. “Behold, moreover, a Semitism of composition, at one and the same time in Matthew and in Luke! ”

    Doesn’t this rather suggest that Matthew and Luke both got it from a common Greek source in which that mistake had been made?

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