Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: the highlights, X

Warning: this blog may pose some difficult questions as continue our journey through the classic historical text from 324 AD.

Irenaeus Comments on Scripture and the clarification of Translation

Again, around 166 AD, Irenaeus tells us Mattityahu (Matthew) was written in Hebrew (or Aramaic, since it was common among the Hebrews). In fact, he says, “Matthew, indeed, produced his gospel…while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel and founded the church at Rome.” Now, the Greek Matthew is dated to around 80 AD, but Peter and Paul died in the 50-60s. That would seem to indicate that the Hebrew Matthew was twenty or thirty years before the Greek, in the lifetime of the apostles.

Which reminds of something interesting: Mattityahu is consistently mentioned first among the “gospels”, even though Mark is in modern times alleged to be older. According to Irenaeus, the Hebrew Matthew seems older—explaining, why Mattityahu is always mentioned first in history—but the Hebrew was ‘lost’, so the Greek version then defaults in age to Mark. In fact, Irenaeus goes on to say, after mentioning Mattityahu, that “after the departure of these [Peter and Paul apparently to martyrdom?], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing what had been preached by Peter…” This could confirm that Mattityahu was before Mark. Which seems suggested by the fact that Mark interpreted for Peter, whereas Mattityahu originally wrote in his own language. The Ebionites also being Hebrews, and quite possibly Ya’akov’s (James) own congregation received a Hebrew version of Mattityahu (whereas today we have only an undisputed Greek version). So which is more plausible:

That a disciple of a disciple (Mark), wrote the first gospel in Greek, even though his source Peter (an uneducated Jew) spoke Hebrew or Aramaic…

and then an actual eye-witness to Yeshua’s ministry (Matthew) translated it back into Hebrew to fill-out his own gospel…

which then was translated again, back into Greek, resulting in identical passages to Mark and Luke?

Or is it more probable, that Mattityahu (an eye-witness) wrote the first gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic, his native tongue, for the people that spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, and that Mark’s Greek was later used to ‘beef up’ or fill in the ‘holes’ in the Hebrew Matthew when it was translated into Greek? Kind of like using frog DNA in Jurassic Park?

Occam’s Razor and Irenaeus seem to put the odds on the latter.

He also goes on to say, “And Luke, the companion of Paul, committed to writing the gospel preached by him, i.e., Paul . . . ” This is interesting because it is said, Paul never met Yeshua while he lived, yet here he is transmitting many things that agree with Mattityahu and Mark. Did Paul get this information by divine revelation, or did Luke have “perfect” understanding of Yeshua’s life and ministry and recorded it, and Paul later endorsed it?

This may seem a confusing and troubling set of questions, but the more I study, the less I see scripture as arriving by fax from Heaven. That’s not to suggest a question of inspiration, but rather that the inspiration came by God’s design and foreknowledge and without regret through human hands. By that I mean, God said some things—knowing the failings of humans—and knew that he could get his message through despite those failings, but that doesn’t necessarily negate that there are human failings and that we might have to account for them. An easy example is the name “James” rendered in pretty much every English bible. The underlying Greek word is everywhere else rendered “Jacob”, just like Isaac’s son. Why Jacob got renamed to James has to be either a mistake or a willing alteration to make the Bible more palatable to Europeans, and frankly it’s hard to argue that’s not anti-semitism. Now did God know that would happen? Sure. Have I, as a 21st century American through diligent seeking been allowed to discover that alteration and gotten closer to the underlying original? Yes.

In short, God through his providence and grace wanted humans to preserve his word (instead of just downloading perfect knowledge via “the Matrix”), but knowing they would make mistakes and through his grace and providence makes it possible for the diligent seeker to be rewarded with better understanding.

This shouldn’t be too troubling a premise. After all, if divine inspiration meant God overrode human tendency to error, resulting in direct transmission, then why did Yeshua have to come to give clarity? Why didn’t it just come perfectly through the prophets? For that matter, after Yeshua came, why would there have to be Shellachim (apostles) and teachers needing to explain? Why didn’t they just go around telling verbatim what Yeshua said? For that matter, if God needed to transmit verbatim, why send anyone at all? Why not just direct transmit it to each human being?

The inescapable answer seems to be that Elohim wants to involve humans in the process (to share the blessing of bringing forth good fruit). Nobody presumes Kefa (Peter) was sinless in his actions, why then must we believe that he was perfect in his writings? And yet, by the Father’s power, through his Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit), he is also able to make each of us able to detect and overcome errors.

That’s a difficult train to ride (feel free to correct my reasoning), but to me it seems inescapable that we must both balance the sacredness of scriptural tradition, with the understanding that people make mistakes. I mean, the versions we have do have apparent contradictions. We can and must make interpretive decisions about which account is correct in a plain sense, and which has to be taken in a special way. How else do we explain ‘variant’ texts? How do we know which text is the variant and which is the normal? We can say “Rely on tradition” (which is inevitable), but then which tradition?

In the end, we must balance the values of what is written (scriptural text), with what is tradition (what a group/body/community says is the authoritative text), with what we each interpret individually that makes up the community that makes up the tradition which makes up the scripture.

ARRGH! It’s dizzying. But can we be sober minded and say otherwise? If the early church debated which books belong in the canon, are we heretical to consider the accurate transmission of a single word or phrase? Why were they permitted to question whole books, but we can’t do less? The only alternative is to irrational and blindly take what some group tells us, but even that is impossible, because we must somehow decide which group to blindly follow…


However you balance that, for me it’s not a problem to consider the human mechanics that may have gone into the formation of our modern versions of the scriptures. It does not seem any problem for me, to say Paul didn’t have first hand knowledge of Yeshua’s life, but Luke collected it and Paul approved it, perhaps while adding his own perspective on those events. It doesn’t even seem to be a problem to uphold divine inspiration and say that a book could be written by more than one divinely inspired author. For example, in the Torah—the part of scripture, which I believe is the most authoritative and trustworthy portion of scripture—we have the recording of things that Moshe could not have had. For example, it records events after his death. And describes portions of the land of Isra’el by names that it didn’t have (like a portion called ‘Dan’ before the land had been given to ‘Dan’). Tradition and Bible code students have explained this by saying that the righteous scribe Ezra, ‘updated’ the Torah with explanations that were needful to the people of his time, who had forgotten oral traditions that explained Torah. Ezra essentially just took what many of us do (writing in the margins) and added it into the text itself.

This wasn’t really strange, targumists frequently did embed details they believed were necessary for explaining something to an audience that was unfamiliar. In modern times we have ‘dynamic’ equivalents, such as the NIV. Many a good student of scripture will take issue with the NIV for ‘reinterpreting’ the sacred word, essentially adding man’s thoughts to explain HaShem’s words. This sounds well and good, I’ve made this case myself. I don’t like the idea of running God’s word through my filter. This makes someone want to get more and more pure, seeking a ‘mechanical’ ‘literal’ ‘word-to-word’ translation.

But there’s a problem… Words don’t have mechanical or literal equivalents. It’s a myth! Let’s say, I see something red. Is that the red that you imagine? Maybe I’m looking at a fire engine and say it’s red, but you’re looking at a drop of blood. Your red will be different than my red. So even in the same language, using the same word, the meaning is not equivalent. Consider the word in Hebrew for “east”…well firstly, what does “east” mean? It’s a direction, but how do you as an English speaker know what direction east is–I mean from the word? The word, “east”, actually has to do with ‘rising’. East is the direction of the ‘rising’ sun. Which is why “Easter” doesn’t actually come from “Ishtar” (a similar sounding pagan goddess), but actually from the day of Yeshua’s ‘rising’. So it’s not really pagan to call resurrection day, Easter, it’s just confusing since God already gave it a name “HaBikkurim” first fruits.

I’m losing my train of thought here, oy vey! So if you take the Hebrew word translated east, you find the word kidmah, but Kidmah doesn’t mean “rising”, it means, “front.” The ‘front’ of the world, is the side the sun rises on. So you see, they are related. Interesting, the word ‘oriental’ which we think means ‘asian’ which by that we mean ‘chinese’, comes from the word ‘orient’ as in to “orient towards something.” In other words orient means to face, face what? Where the sun rises. So we see, orient, kidmah, and east all indicate where the sun rises, as the front or kidmah. So they are equivalent, but not mechanically or literally. A literal translation would be, “in the front”, but that would be meaningless without additional contextual information, like the front of what? The earth, and what is the front? Where the sun rises. So you see, you can’t have a meaningful and literal translation. It’s not even possible. You have to add explanation.

So that’s all a meandering, and disorienting (orienting away from the front…sorry, I couldn’t resist), way to say dynamic equivalent is the only kind of translation there is. There is only a question whether you have a good translator or a bad one. Whether they are being faithful to what they believe the original author is saying, or whether they are injecting their own agenda.

More Trouble Thanks to Irenaeus

 Irenaeus goes on to deftly handle the problem of the “666” of the beast in Revelation (which he accepted, though earlier historians noted it as disputed) by saying, if Yochanon had known that we needed to know who that person was in the present, he would have said so. In his context, he was saying the anti-mashiach had not appeared even to Irenaeus’ own age, in other words he was not a pretorist.

He also endorsed some of the earlier “disputed” works, namely, Pastor, and the apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon.

***Difficult topic*** He does also endorse a Septuagint rendering of Yeshiyahu, where it says “the virgin shall conceive” rather than the Masoretic’s “haAlmah” which may be rendered young woman. It is interesting that he notes that even before his time, there was this question of whether young woman or virgin was correct in the Septuagint. The contention that virgin is incorrect is not a product of modern skepticism. Some are under the impression that the Septuagint had become the only scripture, and that even the Masoretic came from the Septuagint translated back into Hebrew, in which case there should have been no issue. However, this note appears to confirm the manuscripts that would become the Masoretic, were alive in parallel, and the Hebrew and the Greek disagreed.

It’s hard to discuss this, without a little Septuagint understanding. According to legend, the Septuagint, got its name from “The Seventy” who translated it, at the commission of a king and each individually, miraculously, came up with an identical work. Some dispute this legend, but supposing it’s true, what is not well understood—among laymen at least—is that only the Torah is included in this miracle. The same seventy—if seventy, at all—did not translate the entire Tanahk. It was translated by others, with varying skill and style, and over the process of time, not concluding until about the start of the “Christian Era”. That’s all fine, but understand “The” Septguagint is not a single work of a single team of scholars. It is many independent works, that actually has several important versions, including by Aquila of Pontus and Theodotian of Ephesus (both of whom Irenaeus mentions in his rebuttal), also Origen (who lived and worked contemporaneous to Irenaeus, compiled his own translation alongside five others in a single work called Hexapla.

Without making this blog longer, a little research indicates that scholars have reason to believe that “the” Septuagint came from different manuscripts than the Masoretic texts. So it’s not that one is probably an errant copy of the other: the Septuagint didn’t come from the Masoretic with mistakes, nor vice-a-versa. But each originated with different texts, with different strengths and weaknesses.

So Irenaeus says that Ebionites held with the Hebrew haAlmah, which agreed with the Septaugint copies by Aquila and Theodotian, one of whom was a convert from Christianity. So what we see is that not only was there a dispute among the septuagint(s), with some siding with the Masoretic text [the Dead Sea Scrolls also agrees with the Masoretic], but there was a Hebrew Matthew that agreed with this reading because it did not have the virgin conception narrative. [This also agrees with the Syriac Sinaticus, an Aramaic Gospel of Matthew from about 340 AD].

If it sounds like I may be questioning the virgin conception, I confess that I think there is good reason to do so (from a disciple of Yeshua’s perspective). After looking at it more and more, i find the strongest evidence for ita validity is a handful of verses in the non-original, Greek, Mattityahu, and a handful of verses in Luke. You could also add in two or three, possible hints (that could be explained other ways). Against that, you have two other gospels that have no mention of the virgin conception, plus the entirety of the rest of the Brit Chadashah that never mentions the virgin conception, plus that fact that no one even in Mattityahu or Luke ever mentions the conception afterwards. Yeshua never says, “Why are you doubting me? I was born of a virgin!”

If the virgin story was in fact original, then it would seem you win every argument simply by establishing that Miryam was in fact a virgin (and if you’re catholic establishing that she remained a virgin). This would have been a really good place to have an official Cohen (priest) notarize that this was the case. In fact, the lack of Cohen confirmation is incredible. What kind of a sign is a virgin conception? You’d have to have visible knowledge that Miryam was in fact a virgin while pregnant, yet there is no witness attested to in the gospels themselves that anyone verified her virginity. If they had, then how would anyone have argued doctrine with the guy who was divinely conceived? It would be the most powerful weapon (more powerful even than the resurrection since only the Sadducees had a problem with that), and yet it is never used as a weapon. Why?

Well, if it was added in by someone else, filling in contextual details as they had received from their tradition…as targumists were known to do…then it all makes sense…

Forgive me for voicing my actual thoughts. The alternative view of the Ebionites that Yeshua was in fact the actual son of Yosef, seems more reliable. Against those few prophetic “hints”, you have many many prophecies that say he’ll be a son of David and Ya’akov and Avraham. A virgin conception throws that concept into question. How is he David’s son, if he’s not actually born from David? What, none of the scribes questioned his davidic lineage?

Could adoption, solve the dilemma? You could, but why would Elohim set up and protect a physical lineage, and then kind of “cheat”? Why say, “Here’s the criteria!” and then send someone who “kind of” counts? You could say through Miryam who may have been physical seed (but you have to figure out how the Levites Zacharias and Elizabeth are then cousins) Yeshua is also the physical seed, and that’s a possibility. But is it a better explanation that someone mis-transmitted a copy of Matthew and Luke, and the Ebionites had the original?

I debated whether to mention this–took me weeks. But let me give a couple of mitigating factors as to why it might be worth the discussion:

  1. Yeshua never based any doctrine on his ‘virgin’ birth, so it obviously wasn’t critical to his nomination to Mashiach.
  2. Neither do any of his apostles, or anyone else in the Brit Chadashah.
  3. The virgin conception story is a stumbling block to Jews and students of scripture who recognize the meager evidence for it, plus a strong resemblance to many pagan religious narratives, plus it could weaken the claim to Davidic descent, which is way more crucial to being Mashiach than virgin conception.
  4. There will be a trend in obsession with virginity as we move through this history, and that seems related to this insistance on Miryam’s virginity and even perpetual virginity.

All of those make me think, that it was worth discussing.

To be continued . . .

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