by Luke Wayne
Nehemia Gordon was born in an Orthodox Jewish family in Chicago in 1972 but moved to Israel in 1993. Though raised Orthodox, as an adult he converted to Karaite Judaism, a form of Judaism that rejects the authority of the Talmud and Rabbinic sources and denounces the Orthodox concept of an inspired oral Law. He has been a Prominent promoter of Karaism and coauthor of a small book making a case for the movement. He holds a master's degree in Biblical studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has been an assistant on various projects related to the translation and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Gordon was a devoted student of the Karaite teacher Mordecai Alfandari who was a very vocal anti-missionary (a Jewish leader who seeks to undermine Christianity and draw Jewish people away from belief in Jesus as Messiah). Gordon, however, has taken a different approach and is famous for his affiliations with Messianic Jews and with other Christian groups (usually groups with some pre-existing affinity toward Jewish identity and practice). He has even published several books on the subject of Jesus, who he openly rejects as Messiah.1 While some uphold this as an example of bridge building, Gordon has received criticism from both sides of the fence. Fellow Karaites have accused Gordon of compromise because of his Christian affiliations, while many Christian leaders have noted Gordon's teachings among Christians explicitly subvert the biblical teachings on who Jesus is and accuse Gordon of seeking to covertly lead Christians away from the Christian faith. Regardless of his motives, Gordon does indeed undermine the authority and reliability of the New Testament text as we have it and seeks to promote the idea that Jesus was, in fact, a sort of proto-Karaite whose real message was simply that people should obey the law of Moses while rejecting the oral human traditions of the Pharisees. As so many before him, Nehemia Gordon went looking for the "real, historical Jesus" that is hidden from us by our New Testament and found a Jesus that instead looks an awful lot like, well, Nehemia Gordon.
Hebrew Matthew and The Real Jesus?
Nehemia Gordon's case for his reinvention of Jesus is based on the claim that there is a Hebrew original of the gospel of Matthew that reads differently than the Greek texts on which our New Testament is based. He further claims that we can know some of what this original Hebrew Matthew said. His claims are based on the following assertions:
1. A 14th Century Jewish physician in Spain named Shem-Tov published a work in Hebrew presenting arguments against Roman Catholicism. In this work, he quoted from Matthew in Hebrew.2
2. A study was published by an associate professor of religion at the university of Georgia named George Howard claiming that the text of Matthew quoted by Shem-Tov was written originally in Hebrew and goes back very early in church history.3
3. The early church writer Papias claims that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and was translated badly into Greek and other languages.4
4. Shem-Tov's text shows signs of corruption where people attempted over the years to change it to fit the Greek text, so anywhere it agrees with the Greek we can assume is a corruption in the text, but anywhere it disagrees with the Greek may be the Hebrew original of Matthew and so should be preferred to the traditional New Testament reading.5
5. Therefore, we should use this medieval Hebrew text to reinterpret the words of Jesus and see him in a new light.
All of Nehemia Gordon's claims about Jesus are utterly dependent on this idea that he has uncovered the real Jesus from the secret Hebrew original. If this claim is wrong, the rest of his points fall flat. Unfortunately, most of the above assertions are problematic at best and utterly ludicrous at worst. Those that are true are often missing key information. When the dust settles, the foundation for Gordon's teachings is found utterly wanting.
As to point 1, Shem-Tov did indeed publish a work against Roman Catholicism (and against Christianity) in the 14th century in which he interacts with the gospel of Matthew, and he did write the work in Hebrew. This point is essentially true. What Gordon all but leaves out is that we don't have an early copy of Shem-Tov's work. Howard's work (which Gordon relies on) is based on eight late manuscripts of Shem-Tov's work which differ from one another in several key places. In a footnote, Gordon admits that one of his key points is based on a reading found in two of the manuscripts but not in the other six. Gordon assumes that because the other six agree with the traditional New Testament text, the manuscripts that disagree must be the accurate ones6, but this is hardly obvious, especially since the difference comes down to a single stroke of the pen.7 It is quite possible that Shem-Tov's text originally read like the standard New Testament here, and that the variation that Gordon so prizes is based on a later copying error of Shem-Tov's work. Even George Howard's own study disagrees with Gordon and prefers the traditional reading in this place.8 The point is that we are being asked to trust Gordon to tell us for sure what Shem-Tov really said, so that he can tell us what Shem Tov's copy of Matthew really said, so that he can then tell us what the supposed Hebrew original of Shem-Tov's copy of Matthew really said, so that he can tell us what Jesus really said, so that He can show us that the New Testament is wrong about what Jesus really said. This is a bit of a stretch, to say the least.
As to point 2, George Howard did indeed publish this study, so this is also true. A full analysis of the merit of Howard's work is beyond the scope of this article, but as Gordon again has to admit in a footnote, Howard's conclusions on Shem-Tov's text, and on the Greek text are substantially different from Gordon's,9 that Howard's own conclusions have had to be scaled back significantly with each edition as his work has been scrutinized and challenged by scholars,10 and that even at their strongest in his first edition, Howard never presented the Greek as a mere translation of the Hebrew (much less as a bad translation of it) but acknowledged it as an independent edition of Matthew that was clearly originally composed in Greek.11 Thus, even if one were to (for the sake of argument) allow some plausibility to Howard's own claims, they do not lend credence to Gordon's entirely different claims. It is worth noting that the Shem-Tov text shows a character in many ways similar to the kind of gospel translations and harmony texts that we find in other common languages of the time, and the idea that Shem-Tov was simply using an existing medieval translation of Mathew in Hebrew, perhaps a stylized version written by a Jewish convert to Christianity of Roman Catholicism, fits the data well without having to assume an ancient Hebrew Matthew preserved by Rabbis with no clear motive for preserving a Christian gospel and no evidence left behind. It should also be noted that Gordon would never know this as he shows very little understanding of the 14th-century era in view here, often making basic historical errors like frequently assuming Catholics in western Europe in the middle ages possessed and read the bible in Greek, when it is common knowledge that they were using the Latin Vulgate, and well known to scholars that common language translations and paraphrases of the gospels and of gospel harmonies existed in various places at this time. Gordon thus assumes there are only two options: Shem-Tov made the text himself, or the text is the original Matthew. The idea that a Hebrew translation could have been made by anyone else and later used by Shem-Tov doesn't seem to even occur to Gordon.
As to point 3, the early church father Papias is reported by the later Christian Historian Eusebius to have said, "Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best they could."12 Eusebius interpreted Papias to be speaking about Matthew's gospel, but not all scholars today agree that this was necessarily the context of Papias' original words, though it is not an unfair assumption that this is what Papias was talking about. If he was talking about Matthew's gospel, what he meant is still not perfectly clear. His words have been read by some to mean the first copy of Matthew was in Aramaic or in Hebrew, though many others regard Papias' words to mean the Hebrew dialect of Greek prevalent in Palestine at the time and distinct from Greek in other regions. This would be a very true description of the Greek text of the gospel of Matthew as we have it today. Many of the scholars that do think Papias wrote Matthew in the actual Hebrew language also think that the overall evidence points to Papias being wrong on the matter. The point is, while Papias is an important witness in early church history and should never simply be written off, his words on this are unclear without further evidence. They certainly do not provide evidence that a Hebrew original of Matthew was secretly preserved and copied by unbelieving rabbis and is testified to us today only by late copies of a pamphlet written by a medieval Jewish physician in Spain. No reasonable interpretation of Papias words is enough to get you anywhere close to something like that.
As to point 4, when Gordon discusses the corruption in Shem-Tov Matthew, he points out that there are significant parallels between the traditional Greek Matthew and Shem-Tov and that sometimes there are even Greek words written in Hebrew letters included in the text without translation. He combines these two details and asserts that it, "seems as if someone sat down with Hebrew Matthew in one hand and Greek Matthew in the other and "corrected" the Hebrew according to the Greek."13 This is simply not an accurate description. In appendix 2 of Gordon's work, he himself addresses the fact that the Greek word for "anti-Christ" is in the Shem-Tov text of Matthew 24,14 but, of course, the Greek text does not have this word there at all. Many such foreign words in the Shem-Tov text come from outside Matthew entirely. There are also passages from the other three gospels in the text, as well as medieval Hebrew concepts like replacing the name of God with the term "ha-Shem" ("the name") or its abbreviation "H" in old testament quotations. This is one reason why Howard points to corruption from a variety of sources, including by Jewish scribes, rather than Gordon's theory of a guy trying to force the Hebrew to fit the Greek. Gordon needs the corruption to be this simplistic because he needs to be able to claim that only the portions where Shem Tov Matthew agrees with the Greek are likely corruption. When you look at the whole picture, however, the text as a whole is so influenced by sources outside of Matthew and by the explanatory changes of those who wrote it down that, no matter one thinks about theories of an early Hebrew Matthew, one simply cannot overturn the massive testimony of numerous manuscripts of Matthew going back to the earliest days of Christianity by pointing to differences in this Hebrew text that we have preserved in late manuscripts of an ant-Christian polemical text.
So then, as to point 5, this conclusion is unwarranted because the entire premise is flawed. There is no case to be made for Gordon's revision of Jesus because it depends on a source that doesn't tell us what he wishes it to tell us.
A Karaite Jesus?
What is it, exactly, that Gordon desires us to believe using his understanding of this medieval Hebrew copy of Matthew? He says in His conclusion:
"I still do not believe Yeshua to be the Messiah; like all Karaites I eagerly await the coming of the anointed Davidic king who will reign as king over Israel, ushering in an era of eternal peace (Isaiah 11; Ezekiel 34:24-25; even Luke 1:32-33). To my knowledge Yeshua has yet to fulfill this fundamental criterion of the Davidic Messiah."15
He goes on to explain who he thinks his Hebrew Matthew reveals Jesus to really be:
"It seems more and more that Yeshua may have been a first century Karaite opposing man-made laws of the Rabbis and returning people to the Torah."16
He further quotes a historic Karaite as saying:
"Some of the Karaites say that Yeshua was a good man and that his way was that of Zadok, Anan, and others; and that the Rabbanites conspired against him and killed him just as they sought to kill Anan also, but without success"17
He goes on to explain that by the "his way was that of Zadok", he is essentially saying that Jesus was a Sadducee. Karaites erroneously trace their origins to the Sadducees 18 and Gordon contends that while Jesus disagreed with certain other Sadducees of his day only on the issue of the future resurrection, that most historic Sadducees actually believed in the resurrection, and like Jesus opposed the Pharisees only on the issue of the Oral Law.19. Even Gordon's own Hebrew Matthew, however, records in chapter 16 that Jesus confronted both Pharisees and Sadducees and warned his disciples to beware of their doctrine. Gordon offers this by way of response:
"In Matthew 16:6 Yeshua warns of 'the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.' It is significant that in the two parallel passages in Mark 8:15 and Luke 12:21 no mention is made of the Sadducees, only the Pharisees"20
Thus, Gordon shows himself to start with his conclusion and to judge the sources based on whether or not they agree with him. If Hebrew Matthew won't do the job, throw it under the bus and all of the sudden trust Mark and Luke as accurate sources. But of course, Mark and Luke agree with the traditional Greek Matthew text on all the verses he reinterpreted earlier in the book, so he has to assume that Mark and Luke are accurate only in this one place where he can twist their silence on the matter of Jesus and the Sadducees to mean that they somehow refute Matthew's clear testimony that Jesus did plainly denounce the doctrine of the Sadducees, not to mention the fact that Matthew 3:7 also tells that John the Baptist called the Sadducees a "brood of vipers." Gordon actually defends a change in Jesus words found in Hebrew Matthew that puts even greater emphasis on John the Baptist as a prophet foretold in the Old Testament.21 If Jesus was some kind of proto-Karaite-Sadducee defending the doctrines of the Sadducees, why would he speak so highly of John who called the Sadducees a brood of vipers under the wrath of God? The answer is that Gordon is wrong. Whether one looks at Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, the letters of Paul, the letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude, the letter to the Hebrews, Revelation, or the writings of the earliest Church fathers, the answer is always the same. Jesus is not a Karaite, nor is He a Sadducee. He taught on His own authority, something no mere Karaite calling people back to an older form of Torah observance could do, and He claimed to be the Messiah. He worked great miracles, rose from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and foretold His future return at the restoration of all things. He was not a mere "good teacher", and the Sadducees certainly opposed Him. He was and is the Messiah, son of David, and the divine Son of God, Lord of all nations. No medieval translation can change what Jesus said or who He truly is.
- 1. Nehemiah Gordon, The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus (Hilkiah Press, 2005) 71
- 2. ibid, 37
- 3. ibid, 39-44
- 4. ibid, 75-77
- 5. ibid, 45-46
- 6. ibid, 49
- 7. ibid, 48
- 8. ibid, 49
- 9. ibid, 44
- 10. ibid, 45
- 11. ibid, 44
- 12. ibid, 76
- 13. ibid, 45
- 14. ibid, 79
- 15. ibid, 71
- 16. ibid, 72
- 17. ibid, 72
- 18. Shawn Lichaa, Nehemia Gordon, Meir Rekhavi, As it is Written: A Case for Karaism (Hilkiah Press, 2006) 2
- 19. Nehemiah Gordon, The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus (Hilkiah Press, 2005) 72-73
- 20. ibid, 73
- 21. ibid, 43