Tzitzit, Tekhelet, and the Original Hebrew Matthew

As many of you know, I have started work on a codification of Nazarene Halacha comparable to the Shulchan Aruch or the Mishneh Torah in Rabbinic Judaism. I am also working on the Scripture Restoration Project to restore the original Hebrew behind the books of the so-called “New Testament”.

Today, while working on the halacha concerning Tzitzit, it became clear that these two projects interconnect more than I ever realized.

In the standard “King James Version” of Matthew 23:5 Yeshua criticizes those who “enlarge the borders of their garments” in order to “to be seen of men”. This is an important element of Tzitzit halacha for Nazarene Judaism, and I wanted to know what this phrase actually said the original Hebrew.

In the DuTillet Hebrew version of Matthew this reads:

וגדילו כנפות כסויותיהם

Literally “and enlarge the corners of their mantles” (In Num. 15:38 we are told to place the tzitzit on the “corners” of our garments.)

The Shem Tob Hebrew version of Matthew has:

ולובשים מלבושים יקרים וציציות

Literally “And they wear expensive clothes and Tzittzit”

As you can tell, there is zero relationship between these two readings.

But what is really interesting is how this passage reads in the Aramaic (both the Old Syriac and Peshitta:

ומורכין תכלתא דמרטוטיהון

Literally “And they lengthen the tekhelet of their mantles”

This is a very interesting reading, and especially interesting that it is attested to by both the Old Syriac and the Peshitta Aramaic versions of Matthew.

In Number 15:38 we are commanded to “put with the tzitzit of each corner a thread of tekhelet”. Although the word tekhlet is often translated “blue” it is actually the name of a specific dye.

If this Aramaic reading is correct, it would mean that the practice Yeshua was condemning was not the wearing of longer than normal Tzitzit, but the practice of making the tekhelet threads of the tzitzit substantially longer than the others. Of course either practice would be wrong if done to “be seen of men”, but Yeshua seems to be referring to an actual practice that was taking place in the first century, and that practice may not have been wearing excessively long Tzitzit, but of wearing tekhelet threads longer than the others. This would make sense, because in ancient times this dye was very expensive, and clothes dyed with it were expensive, and indicated nobility. This could also explain the origin of Shem Tob’s reading “And they wear expensive clothes and Tzittzit”. And an unexpected reading like tekhelet, might have caused a scribe to “repair” the passage with a word like “corners”, as we read in DuTillet.

– James Scott Trimm

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