Was the New Testament Originally written in Hebrew?
60 Questions Christians Ask About Jewish Beliefs and Practices, #40
Michael L Brown
Copyright © 2011 by Michael L Brown (Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures)
There is absolutely no evidence that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, despite many extravagant claims to the contrary. In fact, while there are more than five thousand ancient manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament in Greek, there are no ancient manuscripts with even a single line from the New Testament written in Hebrew.
Nonetheless, claims such as the following are not uncommon these days: "We have created a Messianic, Sacred Name translation of the Scriptures which, for the first time ever, uses the Hebrew and Aramaic rather than Greek manuscripts for its 'New Testament: '"26 Unfortunately, there are no such manuscripts—not one single, ancient Hebrew manuscript for any part of the New Testament. Yet the "translator" still states, "This Version is the first Messianic Version with a 'New Testament' translated from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts rather than from Greek."27 Not so! There are no extant, ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the New Testament. (For the claim that the New Testament was written in Aramaic, see #41.)
Yet time and again, claims are made—often to the captivated fascination of many Christian readers—that the only way to rightly understand the New Testament is to translate it back into the "original Hebrew." One popular book, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, contains a mixture of good scholarship and dangerous, careless claims. It goes so far as to say that "one can keep reading the Bible until the day he dies, and the Bible will not tell him the meaning of these difficult Hebrew passages [in the New Testament]. They can be understood only when translated back into Hebrew."' Indeed, "had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place."' Yet to reiterate, there are no ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the New Testament—not one!—in contrast with multiplied thousands of Greek manuscripts.
Many readers fail to realize that if such extravagant, baseless claims are true, then we have no inspired New Testament text—not even a reasonably well-preserved copy. All we have is a poorly translated, even hopelessly garbled collection of secondhand books that are nothing better than a rough approximation to God's Word. Amazingly, the authors of Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus make statements that would support this ridiculous notion: "The [Greek] Gospels are rife with mistranslations"; indeed, some passages "have been misinterpreted to such an extent that they are potentially damaging to us spiritually. . . . Many Gospel expressions are not just poor Greek, but actually meaningless Greek.'30 Such statements would be completely rejected by the world's leading New Testament Greek scholars, men and women who are not covering up some kind of anti-Hebrew conspiracy.31
What makes matters worse is that some teachers are so convinced that the New Testament was written in Hebrew that they are determined to "translate" the Greek New Testament passages back into "the original Hebrew" (an "original:' I remind you, that exists without a single manuscript to support it). To call this presumptuous is an understatement. As I noted in a previous article:
Almost 100 years ago, the Jewish Semitic scholar D. S. Margoliouth attempted to translate the Greek text of Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira) back into Hebrew. He knew for a fact from the prologue to Ben Sira that it had been translated into Greek directly from a Hebrew original, and he had at his disposal not only the Greek text, but Syriac and Latin translations as well. Yet when sizable portions of a Hebrew Ben Sira were discovered in the Cairo Geniza [a depository of ancient documents hidden in a synagogue in Egypt], it was found that he did not correctly translate even one single verse!
Back-translation (called "Ruckithersetzung" in German) is extremely touchy business, even when we are dealing with sources that are only one step removed from the original. But to postulate that accurate Ruckabersetzung can be carried out from sources four or five steps removed from the alleged original is almost unthinkable.' And it is entirely out of the question to suggest that wholesale reconstruction—not just retranslation—of an alleged original text . . . can be carried out from such a distance. Such an effort can only be viewed as pure conjecture. To reconstruct the original Hebrew or Aramaic text of even the Lord's Prayer—based on the extant witness of Matthew and Luke—is fraught with difficulty.33 To attempt to reconstruct the entire (alleged) original Hebrew Gospel—without access to even the supposed primary Greek sources—is nothing more than a counsel of despair.'
Despite all this, believers are often fascinated with claims of "the original meaning of the text," as if the plain, clear sense of the Scripture is not enough, as if there always must be some kind of mystical, deeper meaning, or as if we will become spiritually enriched if we can discover that Jesus actually did not mean what our Bibles say He meant. Really, the opposite is more often true: It is the passages in the Word that we do understand that are most troubling. As Dan Harman has said, "So long as Jesus was misunderstood, He was followed by the crowd. When they came to really understand Him, they crucified Him." For the most part, His words are all too clear! To quote Mark Twain, "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
"But," you say, "I've heard that Matthew's gospel was originally written in Hebrew and that there is even a medieval copy of this Hebrew gospel. I've also heard that there are clear examples of Yeshua's teachings that can only be understood when we recover the Hebrew background of His words."
Actually, some of what you've heard is true. One early church leader stated that "Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could" (Papias, quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, 3:39). This view was followed by Irenaeus, who wrote: "Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church" (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). Similarly, Origen is quoted by Eusebius to have written that Matthew "was published for believers of Jewish origin, and was composed in Hebrew letters/language" (Ecclesiastical History, 6:25). Some of the church leaders even claimed to have seen this Hebrew Matthew.'
But the matter is not so clear, since: (1) the top Matthew scholars in the world are largely in agreement that the Greek Matthew we have was not a translation from Hebrew or any other language; (2) other church leaders claimed that Matthew wrote his gospel in Aramaic; and (3) it is possible that the expression "the Hebrew language" in the Papias quote could mean Aramaic (see above, #39; less likely is the suggestion that it simply means, "composed in Greek but in a Semitic style").
I personally think there was a Hebrew Matthew, used for some time by some of the early Jewish believers, but it might well have been a collection of the Lord's sayings in Hebrew, rather than the Matthew we know today, which remains the only Matthew that was cited and referenced by any church leaders from the second century on. That is to say, when these leaders, who were Greek- or Latin-speaking Gentiles, quote Matthew's gospel, they virtually always quoted the Matthew that we have in Greek. So, even if there was a Hebrew Matthew, the Matthew that was universally used by most all of the ancient believers was written in Greek, and those who knew of the Hebrew Matthew never stated that it was different than the Greek Matthew. That was not an issue, and it did not dawn on them that they needed to "recover" this original text.
As for the medieval Hebrew Matthew manuscript—actually, manuscripts—this Hebrew Matthew appears not to be a distant copy of the alleged original document but rather a translation from Greek into Hebrew, although some scholars have argued that it contains some verses or expressions that point back to an original Hebrew Matthew.36
What about expressions in the gospels that can only be properly understood when their original Semitic background is uncovered? There is certainly something to this, and we know that Jesus did His teaching in Aramaic and/or Hebrew. But again, this does not mean that the gospels (or other parts of the New Testament) were originally written in Hebrew. Perhaps Yeshua's sayings in Hebrew were preserved in a collection compiled by Matthew. Perhaps there was even an original Hebrew Matthew, very close to our Greek Matthew. But this much is sure: God's desire was for His Word to be disseminated to the widest possible audience, and in order to do this, the New Testament was written in Greek.
This stands in distinct contrast to the Koran, which is only recognized as the Word of God by Muslims in Arabic. That's why some translations of the Koran are entitled The Meaning of the Koran, since it is only a translation of the holy book of Islam, not the book itself. Not so with the Bible, God's Word for all humanity. When you pick up your English Bible, you are reading the Word of God—translated, yes, and not a perfect representation of every nuance of the original Hebrew and Greek, but the Word of God nonetheless. This is in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament: Even though Yeshua Himself taught in Aramaic and Hebrew, His words were passed on to us in Greek translation so that the multitudes could hear the message of salvation.
Now, it is certainly quite profitable for scholars to look at the Greek gospels and ask, "How would this have been spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic? Is there further insight that can be gained into the Lord's words if we seek to reconstruct the original sayings?" But we must always bear in mind that: (1) the Greek New Testament is what God has preserved for us, and all the evidence that we have indicates that it was His choice to transmit the New Covenant Scriptures to us in Greek. Therefore, any "reconstruction" of the alleged original Hebrew or Aramaic that significantly alters the meaning of the Greek text—without any actual manuscript evidence to back up the claim—is to be seriously questioned if not rejected outright. Otherwise, the sky is the limit in "reconstructing" what Jesus originally said; and (2) in many cases, the Greek New Testament follows the established usage of the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the centuries before Jesus. Related to this is the fact that the style of Greek used in much of the New Testament is quite "Jewish." That is to say, almost all of the authors of the New Testament were Jews, and when they wrote in Greek, they wrote in a decidedly Semitic style. This means that we are not dealing with a massive cultural and linguistic jump, similar, say, to translating a technical book on computer programming into a primitive tribal dialect.
It is also important to remember that today's top New Testament scholars are thoroughly versed in the subject of the Jewish background to the New Testament, including the question of Hebrew or Aramaic expressions that may underlie our current Greek text. In other words, there is not some secret knowledge floating around, known only to a few "Hebrew background" teachers, or, worse still, known to Christian scholars but suppressed in some sort of terrible conspiracy, as with the Da Vinci Code nonsense.
That being said, to recover the Jewish background to the New Testament is of great importance (see #42 and #43); to rightly place Yeshua in His first-century Jewish context is highly valuable; and to ask what His words might have been in the original Aramaic or Hebrew that He spoke is a noble enterprise. But we must accept the fact that God preserved the Tanakh for us in Hebrew (with a little Aramaic as well) but He preserved the New Testament in Greek, reflecting the fact that the New Testament was first and foremost a Book for the entire world, not for the Jewish people only, and writing it and disseminating it in Greek was the best way to get the Good News out to the largest number of people.