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Clues in the black stones

23 March 2010

John Court considers what the ‘special material’ in Luke might point to


The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition
James R Edwards
Eerdmans £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.60

“CAN I discover fresh information about the Jewish origins of Chris­tianity by studying the Ebionites?” This is the kind of research proposal, presented to me, which is likely to founder for lack of precise data. And the same could be true for alterna­tive studies of the Gospel of the Nazarenes and the Gospel of the Hebrews.

But, after a decade of work, James Edwards offers a specific approach to this material, reinforced by twin support from two areas of evidence, which could stand a chance of success.

The context is the enigmatic relationships and differences be­tween the first three canonical Gospels that constitute the synoptic problem. Edwards’s solution con­centrates on the material special to Luke’s Gospel; he catalogues the high incidence of Semitisms in this material (contrasted with Luke’s good Greek style), and explains this as due to the use of the Hebrew Gospel as an unmodified source (the “eyewitnesses” that Luke’s prologue tells us he used).

But how do we know about this Hebrew Gospel? Here Edwards catalogues both references to and quotations from the Hebrew Gospel in 19 Church Fathers and other ancient sources in the first nine centuries of the Christian era. He argues the thesis that such quota­tions correlate more closely with Luke’s special material than with the existing Greek texts of Matthew and Mark.

The argument for the link with Luke is not new, but Edwards certainly treats it more com­prehensively. An English scholar, E. B. Nicholson, in The Gospel according to the Hebrews (1879), had suggested that Matthew wrote two versions of his Gospel: one in Greek, which we have, and another in Hebrew, which was used by Luke. In the 20th century, discussions of the Hebrew Gospel traditions have tended to divide the material into three (the Gospels of the Ebionites, the Nazarenes, and the Hebrews); in 1992, A. F. J. Klijn’s Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition attributed the Hebrew Gospel to Egyptian Christians of the mid-second century. There is scepticism about the patristic evidence and the his­torical usefulness of this Gospel tradition.

Edwards tries hard to sustain his case. He uses a lovely image of Dresden’s Frauenkirche in which Luke’s “Semitisms” (not the more usual “Septuagintalisms”) are the rescued black stones used in the reconstructed building. He seeks to explain why no copy of the Hebrew Gospel is extant. His simplified chart of synoptic relationships is able to dispense with the equally hypothetical “Q” source. And some 70 pages of appendices that docu­ment original texts and trans­lations allow readers to form their own opinions.

Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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