Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Jerome, and probably Didymus the Blind were acquainted with gospels of a Jewish‐Christian character and quoted from them. The question is whether their quotations are from one, two, or more gospels, and whether these gospels originated within one or more of the Jewish‐Christian sects mentioned in early Christian literature.
Early Christian writers usually connected Jewish‐Christian gospel tradition with the supposed Aramaic or Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew. They all assumed that only one Jewish‐Christian gospel existed, although possibly in various versions and languages, and attributed it to one or other of the well‐known Jewish‐Christian sects such as the Ebionites and the Nazaraeans (cf. Eusebius, HE 3. 27, 4 (Schwartz, GCS 9.1, p. 256) on the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and Epiphanius in his description of the Nazaraeans in adv. Haer. 29 and of the Ebionites in adv. Haer. 30 (Holl, GCS 25, pp. 372–5)). These ideas have been criticized during the last two centuries. It appears that some of the ancient presuppositions can be explained from historical facts, but the conclusions which have been drawn from those have to be corrected.
The existence of the original Aramaic or Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew is still a matter of dispute, but a relation between Matthew and a Jewish‐Christian gospel used by Palestinian Christians called Nazaraeans is evident. The nature of this relationship is not quite clear, but both gospels must have had roots in the same environment and the use of similar sources cannot be denied. This Jewish‐Christian gospel must have been present in the famous library of Caesarea, where it was probably read by Eusebius, who speaks in his Theophania of a gospel ‘in Hebrew letters’, and by Jerome, who adds that he also received the gospel from the Nazaraeans themselves (de Vir. Ill. 3 (Richardson, pp. 8–9)). This gospel enjoyed a great popularity because it was supposed to be a witness to the Aramaic version of Matthew. It was referred to until well into medieval times, but such references were usually based merely on Jerome's writings. From the time of Jerome a tendency has existed to ascribe (a) interesting historical traditions not known from the canonical Gospels and (b) supposed Semitisms in their text to the ‘Jewish‐Christian Gospel’.
Further evidence of the existence of a Jewish‐Christian gospel is provided by marginal notes in some New Testament manuscripts dated around the tenth century that refer to To Ioudaïkon, ‘The Jewish (Gospel)’. Their origin is unknown, but they may have been taken from a commentator on Matthew unknown to us.
This Aramaic gospel has to be distinguished from that quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Didymus the Blind 1 Comm. in Ps. 33. See M. Gronewald (ed.), Didymos der Blinde: Psalmenkommentare (Tura‐Papyrus), iii (Bonn, 1969), 198 f. (= Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen 8). under the name ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’, since it is evident from their quotations that that gospel must have been written in Greek. The text does not show a relationship with the Gospel of Matthew. It seems to have been the gospel of Jewish‐Christians in Egypt, but not those who belonged to a particular sect. From one of these references to this gospel (concerning Jesus’ words about his mother, the Holy Spirit) we know that Jerome used it in his own works, but he erroneously supposed it to be from the gospel in Aramaic (cf. on Micha 7. 6 and de Vir. Ill. 2 infra).
This means we are not always certain whether Jerome is quoting from the Aramaic gospel or the Gospel according to the Hebrews. But it is usually assumed that those of his references to a Jewish‐Christian gospel that have obviously been taken from a Greek original and are of a non‐Matthaean character are from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and it is on this basis that Jerome's citations have been divided between (a) and (b) below.
Epiphanius quoted from a Jewish‐Christian gospel in his chapter about the Ebionites (adv. Haer. 30). The contents of the references show that this gospel has been composed with the help of the three synoptic Gospels of the New Testament. Its contents widely differ from that of the two gospels mentioned earlier. Epiphanius was convinced that this gospel is a heavily distorted version of the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. It does not bear a particular name, but some modern scholars suppose that its title may have been ‘The Gospel of the Twelve’, an apocryphal gospel mentioned under this name by Origen (Hom. 1 on Luke (Rauer, pp. 3 ff.)).
(a) The Gospel According to the Hebrews
This Gospel was quoted by Clement, Origen, and probably by Didymus the Blind. Jerome also appears to be a witness for its contents. The Gospel must have been written at the beginning of the second century in Egypt in the Greek language. Its theology appears to be based upon Jewish Wisdom thinking.
The citations from the patristic sources are given below.
(b) The Gospel of the Nazaraeans
A number of references come from Jerome's works, particularly from his Commentary on Matthew. References to the ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’ in the Latin translation—though not in the original Greek version—of Origen's Commentary on Matthew seem also to be to the present gospel. They show a definite Matthean character. References to To Ioudaïkon are present in the margin of the Greek text of some manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew, and because one of them can also be found in Jerome we may assume that we are dealing with the Gospel of the Nazaraeans. The gospel would have been used by the Nazaraeans who lived in the neighbourhood of Beroea, and would have been written in (Palestinian) Aramaic in the first half of the second century.
Patristic citations and the annotations in New Testament Greek cursives 4, 273, 566, 899, 1424 are given below.
(c) The Gospel of the Ebionites
This is the name given by modern scholars to a gospel supposed to have been used by the Ebionites. All our knowledge of it is derived from Epiphanius, adv. Haer. 30.3, 13 f., 16, 22. Attempts to locate citations from this gospel in other places have not been convincing.
Origen (Hom. 1 on Luke), Ambrose, and Jerome (on Matt. prol. and Dialogi contra Pelagianos 3. 2) refer to a ‘Gospel of the Twelve’ or a Gospel ‘according to the Apostles’, and it has been convincingly argued (by Zahn) that this is to be identified with the Gospel of the Ebionites, on the ground that in the fragments located in Epiphanius it is the apostles who are the narrators.
The fragments we have in Epiphanius show that its contents included accounts of the Baptism (with which the work is said to have begun), the Last Supper, and the Passion and Easter (for which details are lacking). Its original language was Greek, and there is a familiarity with the contents of the canonical Gospels (especially the synoptics). In character it is likely to have been of the synoptic type.
The ignoring of the birth of Jesus seems to have been deliberate in so far as the Ebionites’ Christology denied the virgin birth. The account of the Baptist's food (eliminating locusts) points to the vegetarianism practised by Ebionites. These and other elements are said to confirm the origin of this Gospel as being not only separate from any other Jewish‐Christian gospel but belonging to the Jewish Christianity of the Ebionites.
The work seems to have originated in the first half of the second century (Irenaeus knew of its existence by hearsay). Its provenance is likely to have been Transjordan, which is where the Ebionites were based, and where Epiphanius is known to have worked.
Extracts are given below.
1 Comm. in Ps. 33. See M. Gronewald (ed.), Didymos der Blinde: Psalmenkommentare (Tura‐Papyrus), iii (Bonn, 1969), 198 f. (= Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen 8).