Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, some Roman guards tell the chief priests of their encounter with an angel at Jesus’ empty tomb. The priests and elders respond, “Say that his disciples came by night and stole him as we slept” (Matt 26:13). According to most English translations, Matthew adds that “this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (28:15). This translation makes it sound like the priests’ propaganda was heard and accepted by all Jews, so that there remains widespread ignorance about Jesus’ resurrection among the Jewish nation in Matthew’s day. This rendering also suggests that the “the Jews” do not believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but “the Gentiles” do. Yet this is not what the Gospel says. Instead, Matthew asserts that a false story had spread to some of the people living in Judea, but not to all Jews everywhere.
Unfortunately, most English translations state that the canard about Jesus “has been spread among the Jews” (Matt 28:15; cf. ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV). However, the Greek sentence contains no definite article. Therefore, the most that Matthew could say would be “among Jews”—that is, among some Jews but certainly not all Jews. Moreover, the Greek word translated “Jews” (Ἰουδαίοις; Ioudaíois) can also be rendered “Judeans,” the inhabitants of Judea in the south of Israel. This translational choice would transform the English from saying that the lie had been spread “among the Jews” into a story that has spread “among Judeans.”
Matthew’s narrative context supports the translation of “Judeans,” rather than “Jews.” Immediately after mentioning the story that has spread among Ἰουδαίοις, the Gospel states, “But the eleven disciples went to the Galilee (εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν; eis ten Galilaían), to the mountain to which Jesus had appointed [for] them” (28:16). This reference to the Galilee (in the north of Israel) shows that Matthew wants to make a directional distinction between the disciples in the north—the ones who know that Jesus really was raised from the dead—and those in the Judean south. Therefore, Ἰουδαίοις in Matt 28:15 should be translated “Judeans” rather than “Jews.”
This inter-Israel geographic divide in Matt 28:15 appears earlier in the Gospel as well. Matthew’s note that the priests’ story had “spread” (διαφημίζω; diaphemízo) among Judeans recalls the moment when two Jewish men whom Jesus had healed “spread” (διαφημίζω) his fame throughout the northern region of Israel (9:31). Whereas Jesus’ success spreads in the Galilean north, a denial of his resurrection spreads in the Judean south. This parallel between these verses offers further evidence that Matt 28:15 does not speak of “the Jews,” but of some “Judeans.”
For modern English readers, the imprecise rendering of Matt 28:15 can make it sound like all “the Jews” have been duped by a perpetual falsehood. But this is not Matthew’s message. The evangelist favors the Galilee—the place of Jesus’ upbringing and ministry—and is troubled by the continued influence of the priests in Judea. Matthew’s assertion about some first-century Judeans indicates an ongoing southern issue, but it is not an indictment of the entire Jewish people. It will be the disciples’ job to clarify the truth when they teach “all the nations” (28:19)—including Israel (19:28)—of the post-resurrection Good News.