From various strands of recent scholarship Altman gathers evidence that Hebrew was the common language of Jews at the time of Jesus. The Talmudic scholar Dov Brisman says that in 100 BC Hillel and Shammai "spoke Hebrew to one another." George Howard, The Gospel of Matthew According to the Primitive Hebrew Text, says that "Hebrew documents from Palestine show Hebrew to have been alive and well in the first century." This confirms the fact that Paul gave his defense to his own people in Hebrew (Acts 21:40-2:21), not as generally supposed in Aramaic. It also makes it probable that Matthew first wrote about Jesus in Hebrew.
We already knew the quote from Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History V.10 that Pantaenus (c. 180) traveled to India, and that "he there found his own arrival anticipated by some who were acquainted with the gospel of Matthew, to whom Bartholomew, one of the apostles had preached, and had left them the gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, which was also preserved until this time." But now Samuel Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, gives evidence that Pantaenus brought back this Hebrew text of Matthew's Gospel to Alexandria. And then adds the explosive fact that it "was probably written before AD 50."
I immediately wondered whether this Hebrew text might not be the -logia- referred to by Papias, and which some scholars think might have been used in the document called Q. But then George Howard writes of a "remarkable Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew" that appears in a 14th century rabbinical text by Shem-Tob, which was written "In a kind of Hebrew one would expect for a document composed in the first century."
What are the implications of all this new evidence? Bishop Robinson set out the argument that there is no lexical or any other kind of evidence that the Gospels were written after AD 70 (Redating the New Testament, London: SCM press, 1976, Can we Trust the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1977).
But his arguments were generally dismissed as fanciful by New Testament scholars. To my mind they are now unanswerable.
The accepted theory was that Mark was written first, the document Q was pasted in, and Matthew's Gospel and Luke's Gospel began with the dubious birth narratives stories. At the least we are into a new ball game for dating the Synoptic Gospels. And our earliest Christian historian may finally be vindicated. "Matthew also having first proclaimed the gospel in Hebrew, when on the point of going also going to other nations committed it to writing in his native tongue, and thus supplied the want of his presence to them by his writings" (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, III.24). Which will require a thousand academics to change their class notes for September, and put another nail in the coffin of those who thought that we are a bunch of meatheads.
(This is posted for discussion on the CETA list, July 5, 99, sent to
Les Potter for the review section of the Model Theology web site, and a
copy to Doug Koop to note in Christian Week).