Did Matthew Write his Gospel First in Hebrew?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 160 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

For the Bible critic or the liberal-moderate  Bible scholar who feeds on skepticism and uncertainty, there will is never enough evidence to establish anything as a fact. Their thirst for uncertainty and skepticism can never be quenched. Thus, this article was not written for them but rather for the reasonable and rational mind. There are numerous reasons for concluding that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew.

Why would anyone state that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew, considering it is assumed that Hebrew was a dead language in the first century day? Let’s take a moment to debunk this myth before addressing the evidence of whether Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew first.

But first, here are three articles that offer insights into the mindset of modern-day scholarship:

For a deeper dive into this subject, after reading this article, see:

The Synoptic Gospels In Early Christianity: Why Is the Preferred Choice the Testimony to the Priority of the Gospel of Matthew?


When Did the Hebrew Language Begin to Fade In Use?

Hebrew is the language in which the thirty-nine inspired books of the Old Testament were penned, apart from the Aramaic sections in Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26; Dan. 2:4b–7:28; Jer. 10:11, as well as a few other words and phrases from Aramaic and other languages. The language is not called “Hebrew” in the Old Testament. At Isaiah 19:18 it is spoken of as “the language [Literally “lip”] of Canaan.” The language that became known as “Hebrew” is first shown in the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, an Apocrypha[1] book. Moses, being raised in the household of Pharaoh, would have been given the wisdom of Egypt, as well as the Hebrew language of his ancestors. This would have made him the perfect person to look through any ancient Hebrew documents that may have been handed down to him, giving him the foundation for the book of Genesis.

Later, in the days of the Jewish kings, Hebrew came to be known as “Judean” (UASV) that is to say, the language of Judah (Neh. 13:24; Isa. 36:11; 2 Ki. 18:26, 28). As we enter the period of Jesus, the Jewish people spoke an expanded form of Hebrew, which would become Rabbinic Hebrew. Nevertheless, in the Greek New Testament, the language is referred to as the “Hebrew” language, not the Aramaic. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Acts 22:2; Rev. 9:11) Therefore, for more than 2,000 years, Biblical Hebrew served God’s chosen people, as a means of communication.

However, once God chose to use a new spiritual Israel, made up of Jew and Gentile, there would be a difficulty within the line of communication as not all would be able to understand the Hebrew language. It became evident, 300 years before the rise of Christianity; there was a need for the Hebrew Scriptures to be translated into the Greek language of the day, because of the Jewish diaspora who lived in Egypt. Down to our day, all or portions of the Bible have been translated into about 2,287 languages.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

Even the Bible itself expresses the need for translating it into all languages. Paul, quoting Deuteronomy 32:43, says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles [“people of the nations”], with his people.” And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’” (Rom 15:10) Moreover, all Christians are given what is known as the Great Commission, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt 28:19-20) In addition, Jesus stated, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” (Matt 24:14) All of the above could never take place without translating the original language into the languages of the nations. What is more, ancient translations of the Bible that are extant (still in existence) in manuscript form have likewise aided in confirming the high degree of textual faithfulness of the Hebrew manuscripts.

[1] The Old Testament Apocrypha are unauthentic writings: writings or reports that are not regarded as authentic.


Many Hebrew Old Testament scholars hold the belief that the Jews switched from Hebrew over to Aramaic while they were exiled in Babylon for 70-years. However, there is no real strong evidence to support such a claim. History has shown us that groups of people who have been defeated, crushed, and enslaved for much longer than seventy-years have retained their native tongue. We must keep in mind, the Jews were well aware of the prophecies that one day God would intervene and return them to their homeland. It, therefore, stands to reason that they would not be moved to set aside Hebrew in favor of either Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) or Aramaic, the common languages of the day. Some will point to the fact that Aramaic passages and words are found in the exilic and postexilic books of Daniel, Ezra, and Esther. However, we must keep in mind that Daniel, Ezra, and Esther include records of events that took place in Aramaic-speaking lands, as well as formal communication, and they deal with the Israelite people who had been made subjects of foreign powers, who used Aramaic as a diplomatic language.

Nehemiah 8:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
They continued reading aloud from the book, from the Law of the God, explaining it and putting meaning into it, so that they could understand the reading.

Many have used Nehemiah 8:8 to say that the returned exiles could not perfectly understand Hebrew, so there was some Aramaic paraphrasing being done. While that might have been the case, what Nehemiah meant concerning this text is the exposition of the sense and how the Law was to be applied. (Compare Matt. 13:14, 51, 52; Lu 24:27; Ac 8:30-31) Look as you may, there is not one Scripture in all of the Bible that says the Jewish people abandoned their language, Hebrew, at any time as the tongue of their people. Yes, it is true, Nehemiah said, “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples but could not speak Hebrew.” (Neh. 13:23-27) However, looking at the context of the indignation of Nehemiah at the Jews, who were involved in these pagan marriages with non-Israelites means that such slighting of Hebrew was very much disapproved. we would expect such when we think of the value they placed on the reading of the Word of God, which was primarily in Hebrew at this time.


From the close of the Hebrew Old Testament (Ezra and Malachi) from mid-fifth century BC (450) down until the penning of the book of Matthew, about 50 A.D., the Hebrew language is not mentioned in Scripture, for there are no canonical Old Testament books for this period. We have very few secular records as well. Of those scant few that we have, there is no major support for a move from Hebrew to Aramaic as far as the Jewish people are concerned. What we have are many of the Apocryphal books, such as Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and First Maccabees, all being written in Hebrew, and these works are generally dated to the last three centuries before the arrival of Jesus Christ. Some of the non-Biblical writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls were also written in Hebrew. In addition, Hebrew was used when the Jewish Mishnah was compiled after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The Mishnah was compiled around 200 A.D. by Judah the Prince. Dr. William Chomsky says of the Mishnaic Hebrew: “This language bears all the earmarks of a typical vernacular employed by peasants, merchants and artisans. . . . On the basis of the available evidence it seems fair to conclude that the Jews were generally conversant, during the period of the Second Commonwealth, especially its latter part, with both languages [Hebrew and Aramaic]. Sometimes they used one, sometimes another.”—Hebrew: The Eternal Language, 1969, pp. 207, 210.

The substantial evidence supporting the belief that Hebrew continued on as a living language from the exile of Bababyin in 537 BC into the first century AD is found in the Bible itself where it refers to the Hebrew language in the Greek New Testament. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16; Rev. 9:11; 16:16) It is true that many scholars argue that the term “Hebrew” in these verses should instead read “Aramaic,” yet there are very good reasons to believe that the term actually was a reference to the Hebrew language.

Another support suggesting that there was the use of a form of Hebrew in Palestine during Jesus’ life and ministry here on earth, is early proof that the apostle Matthew first wrote his Gospel account in Hebrew. Papias of the first and second centuries wrote, “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 155) Early in the third century, Origen, in discussing the Gospels, is quoted by Eusebius as saying that the “first was written … according to Matthew, … who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language.” (The Ecclesiastical History, VI, XXV, 3–6)  Quoted in the same work are the words of Eusebius of the third and fourth centuries who states: “The evangelist Matthew delivered his Gospel in the Hebrew tongue.” Jerome of the fourth and fifth centuries who said in his Catalogue of Ecclesiastical Writers that Matthew “composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters, for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed. . . . Furthermore, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea which the Martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected.” (Translation from the Latin text edited by E. C. Richardson and published in the series “Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur,” Leipzig, 1896, Vol. 14: 8–9.) Bible scholar, Hugh G. Schonfield’s comments should also interest us. He writes on page 11 of An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “As far back as the fourth century we hear of a Hebrew Matthew preserved in the Jewish archives at Tiberias.” (Schonfield, Hugh. An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel: Translated and with an Introduction Notes and Appendices (p. 20). The Hugh & Helene Schonfield World Service Trust.)

G. Ernest Wright says, “Roman soldiers and officials might be heard conversing in Latin, while orthodox Jews may well have spoken a late variety of Hebrew with one another, a language that we know to have been neither classical Hebrew nor Aramaic, despite its similarities to both.” Biblical Archaeology (Westminster Press, 1962, p. 243) Also, in Daily Life in Bible Times, Albert Edward Bailey offers the reader a picture of how Jewish youths were trained in the time of James, son of Zebedee:

“Boys were trained in piety from their earliest days. This would mean that the boys had a knowledge of the Law, which they showed by being able to read it, write it and explain its obvious meaning. . . . The boys sat on the ground in a half-circle facing the teacher. There James was taught to read the Law in Hebrew beginning with the Book of Leviticus, the contents of which it was necessary for every Jew to know if he was to regulate his life acceptably to God; and he must pronounce the words correctly and reverently. Hebrew was a strange language to him, for at home and at play they spoke Aramaic, and later when he began to do business he would have to speak Greek. Hebrew was only for the synagogue. . . . After learning to read came writing, probably in Hebrew and certainly in Aramaic.”—Pp. 248, 249.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Initially, the primary focus of the first seven years of Christianity was to bring in fellow Jews; thereafter, the Gentile population became more the target audience. Therefore, we see that Matthew’s publishing of his Gospel in two languages was simply responding to two audience needs. Therefore, Jesus Christ as a man on earth very well could have used a form of Hebrew and a dialect of Aramaic.

Before moving on to the evidence that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew first, we had one other complaint to address first. The Bible critic loves to remind us that the Gospel of Matthew is anonymous: the author is not named within the text and nowhere does he claim to have been an eyewitness to events.


Manuscript Evidence

What do we discover when we look at manuscripts of both secular codices and The Greek New Testament Gospels codices? What we find is that be it secular or Gospels, the author’s names appear at the beginning of the text and at the end of the text. This holds true if a text has more than one work in it.

The Greek New Testament manuscripts during this period conform to this method. In the Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 C.E.), the Codex Vaticanus (300-330 C.E.), two of our earliest and most trusted codices, and the Codex Alexandrinus (400-440 C.E.), the name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are found at the beginning and at the end of their particular gospels precisely as one would expect them to be according to the custom of the time. Moreover, we find exactly the same with two of our earliest Greek New Testament papyri manuscripts, P75 (175-225 C.E.) and P66 (110-150 C.E.).

So, our earliest and most trusted manuscripts of the Gospels have only these names on them. In other words, there is no discrepancy in finding any other names. From the second century, we have manuscripts with names of the evangelists on them, which were copied only decades after the authors had penned their perspective Gospels. There is no secular writing that is dated even remotely this close to their perspective originals, as the secular sources are centuries removed. So, once again for emphasis, the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts with the Gospel author’s name on them are Luke on P75 (175-225 C.E.) and John on P66 (110-150 C.E.). – Metzger, Bruce M., Ehrman, Bart D., The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, NY, 2005, 56, 58

Michael Kruger talks about the widespread nature of this evidence, “What we find is incredible uniformity across the board for the titles of these gospels, Matthew’s Gospel is called ‘Matthew’; Mark’s is called ‘Mark’. It is amazingly consistent, something we would not expect if the titles were added later.” – Michael Kruger, “Who Wrote the Gospels?” video, EhrmanProject.com on YouTube, 10/1/2010

Lastly, there are no manuscripts of the Greek New Testament manuscripts from the early historical period or any historical period that have names on them other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is precisely what should be expected if the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had no dispute about them.

Young Christians

Gospel Names in P66 [c. 150-175]

Gospel Names P75 Luke and John [c. 175-225 C.E.]

Gospel Names in Vaticanus – Mark [c. 300 – 325 C.E.]

Gospel Names in Sinaiticus – Matthew [c. 330–360 C.E.]

Gospel Names in Alexandrinus – Luke [c. 400 440 C.E.]

Gospel Names in Alexandrinus – John [c. 400 440 C.E.]

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW – Writing Completed: c. 45-50 C.E.

While the Gospel ascribed to Matthew does not name him as the author, the strong overwhelming evidence of early church historians stamps him as such. Reasonably no other ancient book has its writer more clearly and unanimously confirmed than the book of Matthew. From as far back as Papias of Hierapolis (early second century A.D.) onward, we have a group of early witnesses to the fact that Matthew wrote this Gospel.

McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia states: “Passages from Matthew are quoted by Justin Martyr, by the author of the letter to Diognetus (see in Otto’s Justin Martyr, vol. ii), by Hegesippus, Irenæus, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement, Tertullian, and Origen. It is not merely from the matter, but the manner of the quotations, from the calm appeal as to a settled authority, from the absence of all hints of doubt, that we regard it as proved that the book we possess had not been the subject of any sudden change.” – 1981 Reprint, Vol. V, page 895.

Geisler wrote,

The traditional author of this book is revealed by its title: Matthew. He was one of the twelve apostles chosen by Christ (Matt. 10:1–3) and was a tax collector by profession (v. 3), which was considered one of the lower levels of the social strata, listed along with “heathen” (18:17).

Internal Evidence

Internal evidence is what is found inside a book and external evidence is what is discovered outside a book. The internal evidence for Matthew’s authorship includes the following: (1) there are numerous references to money in this Gospel, which fits Matthew’s role as a tax collector (see 17:24, 27; 18:24); (2) the many self-references to “Matthew the tax collector” fit his Christian humility; (3) his invitation of friends to a mere “dinner” (9:9–10) as opposed to a “great banquet” (Luke 5:29, where Matthew is called Levi) fits his humility; (4) perhaps in deference to his profession, he omits the parable of the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14) and the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector (19:1–10); (5) in accord with his experience at keeping records, he recorded the long discourses of Jesus (Matthew 5–7, 10, 13, 20, 23–25); and (6) as an apostle, he had direct access to words, events, and supernatural guidance (John 14:26; 16:13).

External Evidence

There are many lines of external evidence: (1) The church has accepted that Matthew is the author of this book from the earliest known times. (2) The early Father Papias, who was a disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of the apostle John, ascribed it to Matthew. Papias wrote: “So then, Matthew, indeed, in the Hebrew language put together the Logia in writing; but as to their interpretation, each man dealt with it as he was able.” (3) Later Fathers of the church are virtually unanimous in ascribing it to Matthew. These include Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen, who left little doubt about what the early church taught: “As I have learned by tradition concerning the Four Gospels, which alone are received without dispute by the Church of God under heaven: the first was written by St. Matthew, once a tax-gatherer, afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for the benefit of the Jewish converts, composed in the Hebrew language.” – Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 44–45.


See Also Did Eyewitnesses Write the Gospels? and Who Wrote the Gospels Found in the New Testament of Our Bibles and How Do We Know?

Evidence That Matthew Wrote His Gospel In Hebrew First

It bears repeating that the Bible critics or the liberal-moderate  Bible scholar who feeds on skepticism and uncertainty, there will is never enough evidence to establish anything as a fact. Their thirst for uncertainty and skepticism can never be quenched. Thus, this article was not written for them but rather for the reasonable and rational mind. There are numerous reasons for concluding that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew. As was already debunked above, Hebrew was not a dead language, as G. Ernest Wright points out in his work Biblical Archaeology (p. 240): “Roman soldiers and officials might be heard conversing in Latin, while orthodox Jews may well have spoken a late variety of Hebrew with one another, a language that we know to have been neither classical Hebrew nor Aramaic, despite its similarities to both.” Furthermore, in the book Daily Life in Bible Times, Albert Edward Bailey furnishes us with a picture of the training of Jewish youths in the first century A.D. (See the Excursion below Books, Reading, and Writing; Literacy and Early Jewish Education):

“Boys were trained in piety from their earliest days. This would mean that the boys had a knowledge of the Law, which they showed by being able to read it, write it and explain its obvious meaning. . . . The boys sat on the ground in a half-circle facing the teacher. There James was taught to read the Law in Hebrew beginning with the Book of Leviticus, the contents of which it was necessary for every Jew to know if he was to regulate his life acceptably to God; and he must pronounce the words correctly and reverently. Hebrew was a strange language to him, for at home and at play they spoke Aramaic, and later when he began to do business he would have to speak Greek. Hebrew was only for the synagogue. . . . After learning to read came writing, probably in Hebrew and certainly in Aramaic.”—Pp. 248, 249.

As we just saw, the evidence that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew, there is a substantial collection of accounts from writers of the second to the fourth centuries A.D. Papias (60–c. 130 A.D.), a disciple of the apostle John, whose life straddled the first and second centuries wrote: “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 155) Origen (184-253 A.D.) tells us that Matthew’s Gospel was “published for Jewish believers, and composed in Hebrew letters.” (M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 5, p. 890) Eusebius (260-340 A.D.) states: “The evangelist Matthew delivered his Gospel in the Hebrew tongue.”

Then there is Jerome (c. 342–347 – 420 A.D.) who said in his Catalogue of Ecclesiastical Writers that Matthew “composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters, for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed. . . . Furthermore, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea which the Martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected.”


Quotes by Church Fathers

Matthew, who is also Levi, and who from a publican came to be an apostle, first of all composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed. . . . wherever the Evangelist makes use of the testimonies of the old Scriptures he does not follow the authority of the seventy translators [the Greek Septuagint], but of the Hebrew … Moreover, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea, which the martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected. I also was allowed by the Nazarenes who use this volume in the Syrian city of Beroea to copy it.
— Jerome: De viris inlustribus (On Illustrious Men), chapter III.[7]

He (Shaul) being a Hebrew wrote in Hebrew, that is, his own tongue and most fluently; while things which were eloquently written in Hebrew were more eloquently turned into Greek.
— Jerome, 382 CE, On Illustrious Men, Book V

Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect.
— Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:1 [c.175-185 A.D.]

The epistle to the Hebrews he asserts was written by Paul, to the Hebrews, in the Hebrew tongue; but that it was carefully translated by Luke, and published among the Greeks.
— Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes, referred to by Eusebius in Eccl. Hist.6:14:2)

First to be written was by Matthew, who was once a tax collector but later an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it in Hebrew for Jewish believers.
— Origen circa 210 CE, quoted by Eusebius, Church History, Book 6, Chapter 25, Section 4

A statement by a modern Bible scholar, Hugh G. Schonfield, is also of interest. He writes on page 11 of An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “As far back as the fourth century we hear of a Hebrew Matthew preserved in the Jewish archives at Tiberias.”

Another reasonable and ration argument for believing that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew is when we consider his canonical Gospel that we have and do a thorough examination of his quotations from the Hebrew Old Testament, we find that Matthew quoted directly from the Hebrew text far more than from the Greek Septuagint version (LXX). It would seem that if Matthew only wrote his Gospel in Greek, it is more likely that he would have quoted from the Septuagint far more.

In view of the proof from the early church fathers, the use of Hebrew in synagogues, and Matthew’s quotations largely from the Hebrew, we come to this determination: It is reasonable to accept that Matthew first wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, and later he himself rewrote it yet again in the koine Greek. Some have argued that the idea that Matthew translated his Hebrew Gospel into the canonical Greek Gospel of Matthew is untenable.  – Köster, Helmut (2000) [1982], Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature of Early Christianity (2 ed.), Walter de Gruyter, p. 207.

As conservative Christians, we wholeheartedly accept that Matthew was inspired, led along by the Holy Spirit, which means that he did not have to translate the Gospel from Hebrew into Greek. He simply had to write it yet again in Greek, which would be different than a translation. We should note that for seven years there were no Gentiles, only Jews. This would run from 29-36 C.E., and 3.5 years would be after Pentecost. So, for 3.5 years after Pentecost, no Gentiles, just Jews were evangelistically brought into the church. And after Cornelius was baptized in 36 C.E., it was not as though Gentiles were pouring into the Church and overtaking the Jews because Jews were the vast majority and they too were being evangelized as well. It is likely that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew very early, say within a year or two after Pentecost, and it was not until 50 A.D. that the Holy Spirit moved Matthew to make a Greek Gospel, which would have been the first Gospel in Greek, the first New Testament book of the canonical twenty-seven because it was a duplicate of the Hebrew version. So, Maybe the Hebrew Gospel served its purpose only being available in Judea in the early years. And after the publication of the Greek, it was no longer needed. There is no fact relating to the history of the Gospel that is more completely and adequately established than Matthew’s Gospel being in Hebrew first. We start from the days of the Apostles themselves and go up unto the end of the fourth century. If we look at every early church writer who has addressed this subject, he has borne witness to the same thing: Papias, Irenaeus, Pantaenus, Origen, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Jerome, all with one voice declare this to be so. This was common knowledge within the early church, this succession of historical evidence, which is adequate enough to establish the fact that Matthew initially wrote his Gospel in Hebrew for the benefit of the Jews, who understood and spoke that language. There is no other understanding. Being that it was common knowledge at the time if it were not true, why do we not find one early church father saying otherwise? So, there are two things that were common knowledge and one reality that are not accepted by modern scholarship. (1) That Matthew was moved by the Holy Spirit to write a Gospel early in Hebrew. (2) That Matthew’s Gospel was first before Mark, Luke, and John. And (a) that Matthew’s Gospel was hands down the most popular Gospel in the first three centuries of the early church, with no one questioning those saying it was written in Hebrew first. Regardless, we do not have the original Gospel that was in Hebrew and we do not have the original Gospel that was in Greek. What we do have are early copies of the Greek and 500 years of hundreds of textual scholars, who have given us the words of the original Gospel of Matthew that he penned in Greek.


EXCURSION Books, Reading, and Writing; Literacy and Early Jewish Education

The priests of Israel (Num. 5:23) and leading persons, such as Moses (Ex. 24:4), Joshua (Josh. 24:26), Samuel (1 Sam 10:25), David (2 Sam. 11:14-15), and Jehu (2 Ki 10:1, 6), were capable of reading and writing. The Israelite people themselves generally could read and write, with few exceptions. (Judges 8:14; Isa. 10:19; 29:12) Even though Deuteronomy 6:8-9 is used figuratively, the command to write the words of the Law on the doorposts of their house and their gates implied that they were literate. Yes, it is true that even though Hebrew written material was fairly common, few Israelite inscriptions have been discovered. One reason for this is that the Israelites did not set up many monuments to admire their accomplishments. Thus, most of the writing, which would include the thirty-nine books of the Bible were primarily done with ink on papyrus or parchment. Most did not survive the damp soil of Palestine. Nevertheless, the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures were preserved throughout the centuries by careful, meticulous copying and recopying.

During the first seven years of Christianity (29-36 C.E.), three and a half with Jesus’ ministry and three and a half after his ascension, only Jewish people became disciples of Christ and formed the newly founded Christian congregation. In 36 C.E. the first gentile was baptized: Cornelius. From that time forward Gentiles came into the Christian congregations. However, the church still consisted mostly of Jewish converts. What do we know of the Jewish family, as far as education? Within the nation of Israel, everyone was strongly encouraged to be literate. The texts of Deuteronomy 6:8-9 and 11:20 were figurative (not to be taken literally). However, we are to ascertain what was meant by the figurative language, and that meaning is what we take literally.

Deuteronomy 6:8-9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
You shall bind them [God’s Word] as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontlets bands between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 11:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,

The command to bind God’s Word “as a sign on your hand,” denoted constant remembrance and attention. The command that the Word of God was “to be as frontlet bands between your eyes,” denoted that the Law should be kept before their eyes always, so that wherever they looked, whatever was before them, they would see the law before them. Therefore, while figurative, these texts implied that Jewish children grew up being taught how to read and to write. The Gezer Calendar (ancient Hebrew writing), dated to the 10th-century B.C.E., is believed by some scholars to be a schoolboy’s memory exercise.

The Jewish author Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–50 C. E.) a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, whose first language was Greek, had this to say about Jewish parents and how they taught their Children the Law and how to read it. Philo stated, “All men guard their own customs, but this is especially true of the Jewish nation. Holding that the laws are oracles vouchsafed by God and having been trained [paideuthentes] in this doctrine from their earliest years, they carry the likenesses of the commandments enshrined in their souls.” (Borgen 1997, 187) This certainly involved the ability to read and write at a competent level. Philo also wrote, “for parents, thinking but little of their own advantage, think the virtue and excellence of their children the perfection of their own happiness, for which reason it is that they are anxious that they should obey the injunctions which are laid upon them, and that they should be obedient to all just and beneficial commands; for a father will never teach his child anything which is inconsistent with virtue or with truth.” In the nation of Israel some 1,550 years before Philo, everyone was strongly encouraged to be literate. (Deut. 4:9; 6:7, 20, 21; 11:19-21; Ps 78:1-4) Not only the father to the children but also prophets, Levites, especially the priests, and other wise men served as teachers. Fathers taught their sons a trade, while mothers taught their daughters the domestic skills. Fathers also taught their children the geography of their land, as well as the rich history. As Philo informs us of the Jewish people of his day, saying that it is the father, who is responsible for educating the children academically, philosophically, physically, as well as moral instruction and discipline.


Josephus (37-100 C.E.), the first-century Jewish historian, writes, “Our principle care of all is this, to educate our children [paidotrophian] well; and we think it to be the most necessary business of our whole life to observe the laws that have been given us, and to keep those rules of piety that have been delivered down to us.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 1.60) Even allowing for an overemphasis for apologetic purposes; clearly, Jesus was carefully grounded in the Word of God (Hebrew Old Testament), as was true of other Jews of the time. Josephus also says, “but for our people, if anybody do but ask any one of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of anything, and of our having them, as it were engraven on our souls. Our transgressors of them are but few; and it is impossible when any do offend, to escape punishment.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.178) He also says: “[the Law] also commands us to bring those children up in learning [grammata paideuein] and to exercise them in the laws, and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors, in order to their imitation of them, and that they may be nourished up in the laws from their infancy, and might neither transgress them nor yet have any pretense for their ignorance of them.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.204) Again, this clearly involves at a minimum the ability to read and write at a competent level.

From the above, we find that the Jewish family education revolved around the study of the Mosaic Law. If their children were going to live by the Law, they needed to know what it says, as well as understand it. If they were going to know and understand the Law, this would require the ability to read it, and hopefully apply it. Emil Schurer writes: “All zeal for education in the family, the school and the synagogue aimed at making the whole people a people of the law. The common man too was to know what the law commanded, and not only to know but to do it. His whole life was to be ruled according to the norm of the law; obedience thereto was to become a fixed custom, and departure therefrom an inward impossibility. On the whole, this object was to a great degree attained.” (Schurer 1890, Vol. 4, p. 89) Scott writes that “from at least the time of Ezra’s reading of the law (Neh. 8), education was a public process; study of the law was the focus of Jewish society as a whole. It was a lifelong commitment to all men. It began with the very young. The Mishnah requires that children be taught ‘therein one year or two years before [they are of age], that they may become versed in the commandments.’ Other sources set different ages for beginning formal studies, some as early as five years.” (Scott 1995, 257)

It may be that both Philo and Josephus are presenting their readers with an idyllic picture, and what they have to say could possibly refer primarily to wealthy Jewish families who could afford formal education. However, this would be shortsighted, for the Israelites had long been a people who valued the ability to read and write competently. In the apocryphal account of 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, a mother addresses her seven sons, who would be martyred, reminding them of their father’s teaching. There is nothing in the account to suggest that they were from a wealthy family. Herein the mother referred to numerous historical characters throughout the Old Testament and quoted from numerous books – Isaiah 43.2; Psalm 34:19; Proverbs 3:18; Ezekiel 37:3; Deuteronomy 32:39.


Jesus would have received his education from three sources. As was made clear from the above, Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather would have played a major role in his education. Paul said that young Timothy was trained in “the sacred writings” by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother Lois. (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15) Certainly, if Timothy received education in the law from his mother because his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1), no doubt Jesus did as well after Joseph died.

Jesus would have also received education in the Scriptures from the attendant at the synagogue. In the first-century C.E., the synagogue was a place of instruction, not a place of sacrifices. The people carried out their sacrifices to God at the temple. The exercises within the synagogue covered such areas as praise, prayer, and recitation and reading of the Scriptures, in addition to expository preaching. – Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47

Before any instruction in the holy laws and unwritten customs are taught… from their swaddling clothes by parents and teachers and educators to believe in God, the one Father, and Creator of the world. (Philo Legatio ad Gaium 115.)

The Mishnah tells us the age that this formal instruction would have begun, “At five years old one is fit for the scripture… at thirteen for the commandments.” (Mishnah Abot 5.21.) Luke 4:20 tells of the time Jesus stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, and once finished, “he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant.” An attendant such as this one would have educated Jesus, starting at the age of five. As Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Lu 2:52) Jesus and his half-brothers and sisters would have been known to the people of the city of Nazareth, which was nothing more than a village in Jesus’ day. “As was his custom, [Jesus] went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day,” each week. (Matt. 13:55, 56; Lu. 4:16) While Jesus would have been an exceptional student, unlike anything that the Nazareth synagogue would have ever seen, we must keep in mind that the disciples would have been going through similar experiences as they grew up in Galilee. Great emphasis was laid on the need for every Jew to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Josephus wrote,

for he [God] did not suffer the guilt of ignorance to go on without punishment, but demonstrated the law to be the best and the most necessary instruction of all others, permitting the people to leave off their other employments and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week; which thing all the other legislators seem to have neglected. (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.175)


The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” (John 18:19-20) We know that another source of knowledge and wisdom of Jesus came from the Father. Jesus said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” i.e., the Father. – John 7:16.

Mark 1:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)


22 And they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

Mark 1:27 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)


27 And they were all astonished, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! …”

At first, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the priests served as scribes. (Ezra 7:1-6) The scribes referred to here in the Gospel of Mark are more than copyists of Scripture. They were professionally trained scholars, who were experts in the Mosaic Law. As was said above, a great emphasis was laid on the need for every Jew to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Therefore, those who gave a great deal of their life and time to acquire an immense amount of knowledge were admired, becoming scholars, forming a group separate from the priests, creating a systematic study of the law, as well as its exposition, which became a professional occupation. By the time of Jesus, these scribes were experts in more than the Mosaic Law (entire Old Testament actually) as they became experts on the previous experts from centuries past, quoting them in addition to quoting Scripture. In other words, if there was any Scriptural decision to be made, these scribes quoted previous experts in the law, i.e., their comments on the law, as opposed to quoting applicable Scripture itself. The scribes were among the “teachers of the law,” also referred to as “lawyers.” (Lu 5:17; 11:45) The people were astonished and amazed at Jesus’ teaching and authority because he did not quote previous teachers of the law but rather referred to Scripture alone as his authority, along with his exposition.

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Jesus’ Childhood Visits to Jerusalem

Only one event from Jesus’ childhood is given to us, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke. It certainly adds weighty circumstantial evidence to the fact that Jesus could read and, therefore, was literate.

Luke 2:41-47 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
41 Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the feast. 43 And after the days were completed, while they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And his parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey; and they began looking for him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. 46 Then, it occurred, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and questioning them47 And all those listening to him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

As we pointed out earlier in chapter 2, this was no 12-year-old boy’s questions of curiosity. The Greek indicates that Jesus, at the age of twelve did not ask childlike questions, looking for answers, but was likely challenging the thinking of these Jewish religious leaders.

This incident is far more magnificent than one might first realize. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament helps the reader to appreciate that the Greek word eperotao (to ask, to question, to demand of), for “questioning” was far more than the Greek word erotao (to ask, to request, to entreat), for a boy’s inquisitiveness. Eperotao can refer to questioning, which one might hear in a judicial hearing, such as a scrutiny, inquiry, counter questioning, even the “probing and cunning questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” for instance those we find at Mark 10:2 and 12:18-23.

The same dictionary continues: “In [the] face of this usage it may be asked whether . . . [Luke] 2:46 denotes, not so much the questioning curiosity of the boy, but rather His successful disputing. [Verse] 47 would fit in well with the latter view.” Rotherham’s translation of verse 47 presents it as a dramatic confrontation: “Now all who heard him were beside themselves, because of his understanding and his answers.” Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament says that their constant amazement means, “they stood out of themselves as if their eyes were bulging out.”

After returning to Jerusalem, and three days of searching, Joseph and Mary found young Jesus in the temple, questioning the Jewish religious leaders, at which “they were astounded.” (Luke 2:48) Robertson said of this, “second aorist passive indicative of an old Greek word [ekplesso]), to strike out, drive out by a blow. Joseph and Mary ‘were struck out’ by what they saw and heard. Even they had not fully realized the power in this wonderful boy.”[19] Thus, at twelve years old, Jesus, only a boy, is already evidencing that he is a great teacher and defender of truth. BDAG says, “to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed, amaze, astound, overwhelm (literally, Strike out of one’s senses).

Some 18 years later Jesus again confronted the Pharisees with these types of interrogative questions, so much so that not “anyone [of them] dare from that day on to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:41-46) The Sadducees fared no better when Jesus responded to them on the subject of the resurrection: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (Luke 20:27-40) The scribes were silenced just the same after they got into an exchange with Jesus: “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” (Mark 12:28-34) Clearly, this insight into Jesus’ life and ministry provides us with evidence that he had the ability to read very well and likely write. There is the fact that Jesus was also divine. However, he was also fully human, and he grew, progressing in wisdom, because of his studies in the Scriptures.

Luke 2:40, 51-52 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

40 And the child continued growing and became strong, being filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he continued in subjection to them; and his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

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Jesus was often called “Rabbi,” which was used in a real or genuine sense as “teacher.” (Mark 9:5; 11:21; 14:45; John 1:38, 49 etc.) We find “Rabbo(u)ni” (Mark 10:51; John 20:16) as well as its Greek equivalents, “schoolmaster” or “instructor” (epistata; Luke 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13) or “teacher” (didaskalos; Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mark 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Luke 19:39; John 1:38; 3:2). Jesus used these same terms for himself, as did his disciples, even his adversaries, and those with no affiliation.

Another inference that Jesus was literate comes from his constant reference to reading Scripture, when confronted by the Jewish religious leaders: law students, Pharisees, Scribes and the Sadducees. Jesus said, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him … Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Matt. 12:3, 5; reference to 1 Sam 21:6 and Num 28:9) Again, Jesus responded, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” (Matt. 19:3; a paraphrase of Gen 1:27) Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matt. 21:16; quoting Psa. 8:2) Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matt. 21:42; Reference to Isaiah 28:16) Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lu. 10:26) Many of these references or Scripture quotations were asked in such a way to his opponents; there is little doubt Jesus himself had read them. When Jesus asked in an interrogative way, “have you not read,” it was taken for granted that he had read them. Jesus referred to or quoted over 120 Scriptures in the dialogue that we have in the Gospels.

The data that have been surveyed are more easily explained in reference to a literate Jesus, a Jesus who could read the Hebrew Scriptures, could paraphrase and interpret them in Aramaic and could do so in a manner that indicated his familiarity with current interpretive tendencies in both popular circles (as in the synagogues) and in professional, even elite circles (as seen in debates with scribes, ruling priests and elders). Of course, to conclude that Jesus was literate is not necessarily to conclude that Jesus had received formal scribal training. The data do not suggest this. Jesus’ innovative, experiential approach to Scripture and to Jewish faith seems to suggest the contrary.

How did Jesus gain such wisdom? Jesus, although divine, was not born with this exceptional wisdom that he demonstrated at the age of twelve and kept increasing. It was acquired. (Deut. 17:18-19) This extraordinary wisdom was no exception to the norm, not even for the Son of God himself. (Luke 2:52) Jesus’ knowledge was acquired by his studying the Hebrew Old Testament, enabling him to challenge the thinking of the Jewish religious leaders with his questions at the age of twelve. Therefore, Jesus had to be very familiar with the Hebrew Old Testament, as well as the skill of reasoning from the Scriptures.

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Books, Reading, and Writing; the Literacy Level of the Apostle Peter and John

Acts 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)


13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were astonished, and they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

Acts 4:13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)


13 Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.

How are we to understand the statement that Peter and John were uneducated? (ESV, NASB, HCSB, LEB, UASV, and others) [unlettered (YLT) or unlearned (ASV)] This did not necessarily mean that they could not read and write, as the letters that were penned by these apostles (or their secretaries) testify that they could. What this means is that they were not educated in higher learning of the Hebrew schools, such as studying under someone like Gamaliel, as was the case with Paul (Ac 5:34-39; 22:3). The Greek words literally read καταλαβομενοι [having perceived] οτι [that] ανθρωποι [men] αγραμματοι [unlettered] εισιν [they are] και [and] ιδιωται [untrained]. This means that the disciples were not educated in rabbinic schools. It did not mean that they were illiterate. In other words, they lacked scribal training. In addition, ιδιωται [untrained], simply means that in comparison to professionally trained scribes of their day, they were not specialists, i.e., were not trained or expert in the scribal duties. This hardly constitutes the idea that they were illiterate.

It was the same reason that the Jewish religious leaders were surprised by the extensive knowledge that Jesus had. They said of him, “How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?” (John 7:15) This is our best Scriptural evidence that Jesus could read. Let us break it down to what the religious leaders were really saying of Jesus. They asked πως [how] ουτος [this one] γραμματα [letters/writings] οιδεν [has known] μη [not] μεμαθηκως [have learned]. First, this is a reference to the fact that Jesus did not study at the Hebrew schools, i.e., scribal training. In other words, ‘how does this one [Jesus] have knowledge of letters/writings, when he has not studied at the Hebrew schools. This question means more than Jesus’ ability to read because as we saw in the above, Jewish children were taught to read.

Another example: Luke 4:16-30 says that Jesus “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found” (Lu 4:16-17) Jesus was able to take the scroll of Isaiah and read what is now known as Isaiah 61:1-2. While the parallel account in Mark 6:1-6 does not refer to Jesus reading this text, scholars have long known that the gospel writers shared the events through their separate viewpoints, i.e., they drew attention to what stood out to them, and what served their purpose for writing their Gospel accounts.

Within the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth century, we find public writings in and throughout all of the cities. It encompasses inscriptions, which are “dedications, lists of names, imperial decrees, statements or reminders of law, quotations of famous men and even rather pedestrian things, such as directions. Many gravestones and tombs are inscribed with more than the name of the deceased; some have lengthy, even poetic obituaries; others have threats and curses against grave robbers (literate ones, evidently!). The impression one gains is that everybody was expected to be able to read; otherwise, what was the point of all of these expensive inscriptions, incised on stone?” This impression does not end with inscriptions, because archaeology can extrapolate that between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., millions upon millions of documents came out of Oxyrhynchus, just one city, based on the more than 1.5 million documents found in their garbage dumps. Of these, five hundred thousand have been recovered.

The Library of Celsus (45-ca. 120 C.E.) is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus (completed in 135 C.E.) which contained some 12,000 scrolls. The library was also built as a monumental tomb for Celsus. He is buried in a stone coffin beneath the library. The Ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt (third-century to 30 B.C.E.), was one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world. Most of the books were kept as papyrus scrolls. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 B.C.E.) is believed to have set 500,000 scrolls as a goal for the library. Apparently, by the first century C.E., the library contained one million scrolls. The Library of Pergamum (Asia Minor) was one of the most significant libraries in the ancient world. It is said to have housed roughly 200,000 volumes. Historical records say that the library had a large central reading room. We have not even mentioned Rome, Athens, Corinth, Antioch (Syria), and the rest. The Mediterranean world from Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) to Constantine the Great (272-337 C.E.), some 700 years, saw hundreds of major libraries, as well as thousands of moderate to minor ones, with hundreds of millions of documents being written and read. Certainly, this does not suggest illiteracy, but literacy.

Some point out that “Celsus, the first writer against Christianity, makes it a matter of mockery, that labourers, shoemakers, farmers, the most uninformed and clownish of men, should be zealous preachers of the Gospel.”  Paul explained it this way: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:26-27) It seems that these so-called illiterate Christians were able to grow from 120 in Jerusalem about 33 C.E., to some one million by 125 C.E., a mere 92 years later. This growth in the Christian population all came about because they effectively evangelized, using the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament). They were so effective with the Septuagint that the Jews abandoned it and went back to the Hebrew Old Testament.

In any case, Celsus was an enemy of Christianity. Also, as was stated above, what Celsus observed was only within the sphere of his personal experiences. How many Christians could he have known out of almost a million at the time of his writing? Moreover, although not highly educated in schools, it need not be assumed that most or all of the early Christians were entirely illiterate, but rather a good number of them could read and write (with difficulty). Many had a very basic ability to understand spoken words, a very basic grasp of written words, very basic math skills (buying in the market place), and the ability to sign one’s name for daily living and employment.

Let us return to Peter and John. We will assume for the sake of argument that literacy was between five and ten percent, with most readers being men. We will accept that Peter and John were entirely illiterate in the sense the modern historian believes it to be true (even though they likely were not). The time of the statement in Acts about the two apostles’ being “uneducated” (i.e., unlettered) was about 33 C.E. Peter would not pen his first letter for about 30 more years. Throughout those 30 years, Peter progressed spiritually, maturing into the position of being one of the leaders of the entire first-century Christian congregation. A few years later, Peter and John were viewed as developing and growing into their new position, as leaders in the Jerusalem congregation; as Paul said of them, “James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars” of the Christian community. John, on the other hand, did not pen his books until about 60 years after Acts 4:13. Are we to assume that he too had not grown in 60 years? Could education in the first century have become more accessible?

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