“A voice of one calling out in the desert, ‘Make ready the road of Yahweh! Make his paths straight!’” This quotation, which comes from Isaiah 40:3 (and the quotation in Luke 3:4 and Mark 1:3) is from the Shem Tob (or “Shem Tov) Hebrew manuscript of Matthew, see commentary below. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Isaiah is quoted from the Septuagint text. [For more on the custom of making a road ready by clearing and leveling it, see commentary on Mark 1:3. For more on the Septuagint and the original NT texts being in Greek, see commentary on Luke 3:4].
“Yahweh.” “Yahweh” is the personal name of God, and a rabbinic abbreviation for it appears in the Hebrew manuscript of Matthew as well as in the verses of the Old Testament that Matthew quoted. As we will discuss below, there is evidence that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew and used the name Yahweh, so we have put it in the REV.
In the fourteenth century a complete Hebrew text of Matthew appeared in the body of a Jewish polemical treatise entitled Even Bohan, “The Touchstone.” The manuscript was not all in one place, but when gathered together was the complete book of Matthew. The author of the treatise, and thus the one who copied Matthew into it, was Shem-Tob ben Isaac ben-Shaprut (sometimes called Ibn Shaprut; also, because his name was actually Shem-Tob, sometimes the manuscript is referred to as the Shem-Tov manuscript). The Shem-Tob manuscript is not well known, so it is important to say a few things about it.
The Even Bohan treatise contains the entire book of Matthew in Hebrew, but unfortunately Shem-Tob wrote his notes in Hebrew right into the Hebrew text, which means they have to be lifted out of the text of Matthew for it to be read without them.
For many years the Shem-Tob manuscript was ignored, even though there was historical evidence that Matthew wrote in Hebrew. It was ignored because it had been the opinion of most scholars that the Shem-Tob manuscript was a translation back into Hebrew from the Latin, or perhaps from Greek. However, recent interest in the Hebrew language has caused a reexamination of the text. There are now a number of scholars who, for a number of reasons, think that the Shem-Tob manuscript represents a Hebrew manuscript tradition that goes back to the Hebrew text Matthew wrote. One reason is that there seem to be too many verses that differ from any known Greek or Latin manuscript for the Shem-Tob manuscript to be a translation from either of those manuscript traditions. Another very important reason is that the Shem-Tov manuscript uses a rabbinic abbreviation for Yahweh, the only personal name of God (all His other “names” are actually titles). No Jew in the Middle Ages would have used “Yahweh,” and no scholarly Jew would ever have placed the holy name of God, which they would not even say out loud, into a Christian Bible. A third reason involves some of the commentary Shem-Tob wrote. For example, after Matthew 2:12 and the verse about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, he comments that the Hebrew text is wrong and the error is not in “Jerome’s version” (the Latin). From comments like these we can see that Shem-Tov was copying an earlier Hebrew text. He would not have created a unique, and incorrect, Latin text, and then criticized it.
It is too much to go into all the various reasons for believing that the Shem-Tov manuscript represents a Hebrew manuscript tradition that goes back to an original that Matthew wrote, and there are still many scholars who believe Matthew first wrote in Greek, but more information can be found in the work by George Howard, The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 1995).
It is also important to remember that although there are quite a few places that the Shem-Tov manuscript differs from the Greek text, it will take thorough study before adopting any of its readings into the English Bible because the Shem-Tov manuscript was in the hands of Jews, not Christians and also, as with any other manuscript from centuries after Christ, would have been copied several times before it existed as the Shem-Tob manuscript we have available today. However, when it comes to the name “Yahweh,” the evidence seems certain that it would have had to have been passed down from an original Hebrew text of Matthew, and hence we use it in the REV.
Until recently scholars believed that Hebrew was not spoken in Palestine in the first century, and that when the word “Hebrew” appeared in documents from the first or second century that “Aramaic” was actually meant. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other documents from around the time of Christ have revealed that Hebrew was both written and spoken in the first century. Given that, there is reason to believe that when the ancients said “Hebrew” they meant “Hebrew.”
A number of Church fathers said that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew. Unfortunately, some of them are quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History and we do not have their original surviving statements. Nevertheless it seems highly unlikely that Eusebius would have said they said Matthew wrote in Hebrew if that was not what they said. Eusebius was not trying to build a case that Matthew wrote in Hebrew; he was simply writing a history of the Church. Furthermore, the accuracy of Eusebius’ statements would have been much easier to check in his day than now.
Jerome also wrote, On Famous Men 3 (de Santos 18): “Matthew, who is also Levi, the ex-publican apostle, first composed in Hebraic letters the gospel of Christ in Judea on account of those who had believed from among the circumcision; [but those] who afterward translated it into Greek is not sufficiently certain. Furthermore, this Hebraic [text] is held even until today in the Caesarean library which Pamphilus the martyr studiously put together. There was an opportunity for me from the Nazaraeans to copy this volume, which is used in Beroea, a city of Syria. In which [gospel] it must be noted that, wherever the evangelist, whether from his own person or from the Lord and savior, makes use of testimonies of the old scriptures, he does not follow the authority of the seventy translators [the Septuagint version], but the Hebrew. From which things two are: From Egypt did I call my son, and: For he shall be called a Nazarene.” (These references are 2.15 and 2.23, respectively).
Jerome said in the Prologue of the Four Gospels: “First of all is Matthew, a publican with the cognomen of Levi, who published a gospel in Judea in the Hebrew speech, especially on account of those who had believed in Jesus from among the Jews, and with the shadow of the law in no way succeeding he served the truth of the gospel.”
“prepare the road of Yahweh, in the wilderness make straight a path for our God.” When the people said, “prepare the road of Yahweh…a path for our God,” no one thought that God would actually come and use the road. It would be well understood in the culture that the road would be prepared for God’s representative, in this case, the Messiah. Some Trinitarians say this verse shows that Jesus was God, but that is not the case. Jesus was God’s Messiah, and as such, when the road was prepared for him, it was prepared for God.
We see the cultural thought and expression that God’s representative was referred to as “God,” or that God somehow came via a representative, in other places in the Bible. For example, after Jesus raised a man from the dead, Luke records that the people said, “‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ And, ‘God has visited his people!’” (Luke 7:16). The people did not think God Himself had somehow showed up among them; for one thing, they would never call God a prophet. The people realized God had “visited” them by sending a great prophet.
God comes to us through many different intermediaries and circumstances, but the fact that God is the one behind the actions of His intermediaries explains why, in the culture, the intermediary is not mentioned at all. For example, sometimes angels speak or act as if they were God Himself, but they are actually His intermediaries. A good example is when Jacob wrestled with “God” (Gen. 32:28, 30). Genesis never tells us that “God” is not God Himself but a representative—we have to learn that from other places in the Scripture. It was an angel that wrestled with Jacob (Hos. 12:4). Another example is when Naomi, living in Moab, heard that “Yahweh had visited Israel by giving them bread” (Ruth 1:6). Saying that God “visited” Israel was just an idiomatic way of saying He had blessed Israel, in this case with food. God did not show up in Israel carrying a basket of food, as we might do if we visited a neighbor with food, instead, God blessed the efforts of the laborers who planted and tended the food, so there was plenty of food.
The custom of using mediators and intermediaries was so deeply ingrained in the culture that sometimes they are completely left out of the biblical record. For example, Matthew 8:5 says that when Jesus entered Capernaum, “a centurion came to him.” The entire record of the centurion and Jesus is recorded in Matthew without any hint that the centurion was not present at all—he worked through intermediaries. Only in Luke do we find the full record with the intermediaries included. Luke says that when the centurion heard of Jesus, “he sent elders of the Jews to him” (Luke 7:3). The whole conversation between the centurion and Jesus occurred through intermediaries.
We see the idea of intermediaries when Jesus is called “Immanuel” which is Hebrew for “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Calling Jesus Immanuel does not make him God any more than David’s brother Eliab was the son of God because his name means “God is my father.” Names often have a significance or are a kind of prayer or wish of the one doing the naming, but they are rarely purely literal. Jesus was “God with us” as God’s Messiah and intermediary.
It might well be asked that if the Bible is really saying to prepare the road for the Messiah, God’s representative, why not just say that; why say prepare the road for God? The “Messiah” was “the anointed one,” but as we can see from the biblical text itself, there were many “anointed ones” (cp. king Saul, 1 Sam. 24:6; king David, 2 Sam. 19:21; king Zedekiah, Lam. 4:20). We learn that there were many gods and many lords (1 Cor. 8:5), as well as many “anointed ones” and “saviors.” Many of them did not represent the true God, or represent Him fully or faithfully. A wonderful way to make sure that everyone knew the way was to be prepared for God’s true representative was to say to prepare it for God.
[For more on names being significant but not literal, see commentary on Matt. 1:23; “Immanuel”].