|The Historical Jesus
The Jewish Gospels
The impression has unwittingly
been created over time that the Christian Church broke away from the
Jewish Church within a few decades of the death of Jesus. This impression
is not surprising since history is usually written by the victors in any
The victors in this case were "orthodox" Christians who,
in the fourth century, became part of the Roman Empire's civil service. As
such they sought to eliminate, with the help of the Roman Emperor, any
source of unrest and dissent.
Part of the Christian victory consisted in suppressing
rival versions of the Gospel. This gradual destruction of early written
material about Jesus was completed by the establishment of the biblical
"Canon", or "measure" of what is revealed written authority for Christian
The ancient attitude which sought to protect doctrinal purity at the
expense of evidence is long gone. We usually (in the West and increasingly
elsewhere) now seek to preserve evidence from the past, and to use it to
gain as accurate a picture of that past as we can. Our quest for good
evidence of what really happened has radically changed the way we regard
In particular, we have realised the degree to which the formation of
the Canon of approved biblical material has destroyed much good evidence.
R W Funk maintains, correctly in my opinion, that the
"...quest for the historical Jesus ... has made the New Testament
incredible ... scholars have shown the gospels to be statements of faith
mixed with some historical reminiscences" . The
quest has also helped us understand a little more about the pre-Canon
What I have here called the Jewish Gospels comprises three versions,
all originally attributed to "the Hebrews". We know about them only
because they were quoted later by early Christian commentators and
theologians who were attempting to silence heretical teachings:
 The Gospel of the Hebrews seems to have had little in common
with the gospels which were later chosen as acceptable sources of
knowledge about Jesus. That the Gospel of the Hebrews was judged to
contain bad theology doesn't mean, of course, that it did not contain
valuable historical evidence. If it did, however, almost all of that
evidence is now lost to us.
 The Gospel of the Ebionites seems to have been based either
directly on the the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) or on the
same original source material used by the authors of the Synoptics - that
is, probably a combination of written and word-of-mouth material.
 The Gospel of the Nazoreans has similarities with Matthew's
Gospel. But is sufficiently unlike it to suggest that it may have derived
from the same or similar original sources as Matthew's author used.
Somewhat ironically, everything we know of these three gospels comes
from those who sought to erase them from the Christian tradition. The
passages we have are quoted by various Christian bishops and theologians,
and then criticised to show that they must be wrong. The implication is
that we know only those parts of the gospels which didn't suit the
theological tastes and orthodoxies of the critical writers - and not that
what they contained wasn't good history.
The Christian authors who quote these gospels seem to think that they
all come from a single gospel. But modern scholars now generally agree, on
the grounds of style, various inconsistencies and other internal evidence
that there were almost certainly three distinct Jewish Gospels. Of course,
we have no way of knowing if the quotations were accurate since we have
nothing to compare them with.
Christian authors quote the Jewish Gospels as early as the first half
of the second century. Irenaeus (140-200) reports that the Ebionites used
only Matthew's Gospel and that they denied the Virgin Birth. As R J Miller
This means that they must have been using their own gospel and not
the canonical Matthew, which clearly attests to this belief
Another possible conclusion is, one should note, that the story of the
Virgin Birth was added in later to Matthew's Gospel - though I doubt that
many biblical scholars would much like that idea.
Apart from the intrinsic value of the texts themselves (even though
they are mostly very brief and fragmentary), their existence gives us a
tantalising glimpse of the nature of the early Church.
I have tended to imagine the early Church as a primitive, simple form
of the institutional Church which came later. I have every indication that
this perception is shared by many - which is hardly surprising, given the
centuries over which Christian leaders have succeeded in destroying
alternative, unorthodox pictures.
The existence of these three gospels indicates that there were probably
Jewish communities in what we now call Palestine until at least the middle
of the second century, and probably much later. If this is correct, then
they existed in parallel with the earlier Christian community at Jerusalem
and the fast-growing "Gentile" churches in Syria and elsewhere. At some
point, perhaps centuries later, these groups of Jews who thought of Jesus
as the Messiah but remained in their original tradition were probably
either absorbed into the Christian mainstream or reverted to a more
orthodox Jewish faith.
The Gospel of the Hebrews seems to have contained mainly
narrative, interwoven with quite extensive theological interpolations by
the author. Among the subjects the fragments allude to are:
- Jesus' pre-existence and birth;
- Jesus' temptation;
- the call of Levi;
- an appearance of the risen Jesus to James the Just (not the Apostle,
but the brother of Jesus and leader of the pro-Law faction in
Jerusalem), who is here portrayed as the first person to have seen the
resurrected Jesus; and
- various sayings, such as "Whoever marvels will rule and whoever
rules will rest" and "Never be glad except when you look at your brother
and sister with love".
The Gospel is unusual in that it depicts the Holy Spirit as female,
probably stemming from the traditional Jewish idea of Wisdom, one of God's
most important attributes, as female.
One of those who quotes a passage from the Gospel is Jerome (345-420),
one of the Church's greatest early scholars. He claims to have translated
the quote from the Hebrew. But it's almost certain that he got it from
Origen (185-254) or that they both translated it identically from the
original, a rather unlikely possibility. It was most probably originally
written in Greek, not Hebrew.
R J Miller records that
Most of its citations come from, or can be traced to, Christians who
lived in Egypt. Parallels to some of its teachings are found in Egyptian
Christianity, so it may well have been written there, though this is only
an educated guess.
The Gospel of the Ebionites is known entirely from the works of
Epiphanius of Salamis (313-403), in his discussion of the Jewish-Christian
group called the Ebionites. He founded a monastery in Judea and in 367 was
elected Metropolitan of Cyprus and Bishop of Salamis (then known as
This is a mainly narrative gospel, more like Matthew's Gospel than like
the others, but nevertheless having definite connections with Mark and
Luke as well. What few fragments we have allude to:
- John the Baptist;
- the baptism of Jesus;
- the choice of the Twelve Apostles;
- the Last Supper; and
- two sayings of Jesus.
Epiphanius tells us that the Gospel left out the accounts of the birth
of Jesus and the genealogy of Jesus. This may indicate that these elements
were added to the Synoptic Gospels after the formation of the main body of
these gospels. But we shall probably never know for sure, since we don't
know either when the Ebionites Gospel was written nor where it came from.
The Ebionites were attacked by the Church for a heresy known as
"adoptionism" in which it's taught that Jesus became God's son at his
baptism - that is, he was adopted by God at this point.
The fragments indicate that the Ebionites followed the Greek text of
the Synoptic Gospels closely, even though Epiphanius asserts that this was
a "Hebrew" gospel.
Indications are quite strong that the Gospel was written in the first
half of the second century, even though Epiphanius' quotations are our
only source. Irenaeus knows about the Ebionites and tells us that they
used Matthew's Gospel. Some sources indicate that the Ebionites lived in
the area east of the Jordan, but our evidence is too imprecise for
The Gospel of the Nazoreans is closely related to Mathew's
Gospel, although there are tantalising differences between the two.
Because the Nazorean Gospel is quoted to show at which points it differed
from Matthew, it's possible that what was not quoted was
acceptably similar to the canonical gospel. Sometimes the Nazorean Gospel
explains the correct theology of difficult words; sometimes it fills in
small details for clarity's sake; and sometimes it corrects something
Matthew seems to have got wrong.
Our authorities for the text are Jerome, Epiphanius, Eusebius of
Nicomedia (died 342) and Hegesippus (180). They say it was written in the
Hebrew alphabet, which makes it likely that its original language was
Aramaic. But scholars think, on analysing the text, that it was more
likely to have been taken originally from a Greek version of Matthew and
then translated into Aramaic. Judging its accuracy becomes even more
difficult when we note that the documents in which it was quoted were also
translated into Syriac and Latin.
The importance of alternative sources of information about what Jesus
really said and did as a matter of good history has increased in the last
50 years or so. It seems to me that the objectivity of our knowledge of
the historical Jesus has increased as the institutional Church's grip on
the "correct" Bible gradually weakens. In short, these "Jewish" gospels
have contributed in a small way to a clearer vision of the real Jesus.
 Christianity in the 21st Century,
Ed Deborah A Brown
 The Complete Gospels, 1992