A Hebrew New Testament?
Article by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg
It is my opinion that the entire original text of the document we have come to know as the New Testament was written by Christ-following Jews (in the ancient sense of the word) in a language that can be best described not simply as Koine or Common Greek, but as “Koine Judeo-Greek”. Some authors who could afford a very good, professional scribe (like was the case with Paul and, possibly with Luke as well) had an excellent command of the language, while others like the authors of Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation naturally wrote on a much simpler level. Just like in English someone can write in an elegant style or express their thoughts in the same language, but in a much simpler fashion (much like myself).
But first of all what is Koine Greek?
Koine Greek (which is different from Classical Greek) was the common multi-regional form of Greek spoken and written during Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. New Testament collection was authored during this historic period.
Now… I do not think that the kind of Greek we see in the New Testament can be best described ONLY as Koine Greek. There is another component to this Koine Greek – a significant Jewish and Hebrew connection. For this reason I prefer to call it – Koine Judeo-Greek.
What in the world is Judeo-Greek?
Well… Judeo Greek, like the well-known Judeo-German (Yiddish), Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and the less familiar Judeo-Farsi, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, and Judean-Georgian languages, is simply a form of Greek used by Jews to communicate. This language retained many words, phrases, grammatical structures, and patterns of thought characteristic of the Hebrew language.
So is Judeo-Greek really Greek? Yes, it is, but it is Greek that inherited the patterns of Semitic thought and expression. In this way, it is different from the types of Greek used by other people groups.
So, I disagree that the New Testament was first written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. Instead, I think it was written in Greek by people that thought Jewishly and what is, perhaps, more important multi-lingually. You see… the speakers of variety of languages manage to also think in variety of languages. When they do speak, however, they always import into one language something that comes from another. It is never a question of “if”, but only of “how much”.
The main point made by Christians who believe that parts of the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew is that the New Testament is full of Hebraisms. (Hebraism is a characteristic feature of Hebrew occurring in another language.)
Actually, this is a very important point. It shows that serious students of the New Testament must not limit themselves to the study of Greek. They must also study Hebrew. With knowledge of Biblical Hebrew they would be able to read the Koine Judeo-Greek text of the New Testament much more accurately.
So, I suggest, that one does not need to imagine a Hebrew textual base of the New Testament to explain the presence of the Hebraisms in the text. Though possible, this theory simply lacks additional and desperately-needed support.
Think with me on this a little further. Other than a multilingual competency of the New Testament authors their most trusted (and rightly so) source for the Hebrew Bible quotations was the Septuagint (LXX).
Now… we must remember that the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by leading Jewish scholars of the day. Legend has it that the 70 individual Jewish sages made separate translations of the Hebrew Bible and when they were done, all of it matched perfectly. As I said “it is a legend”. The number 70 is likely symbolic of the 70 nations of the world in ancient Judaism. This translation was not only meant for Greek-speaking Jews, but also for non-Jews so that they too could have access to the Hebrew Bible. You can imagine how many Hebraic words, phrases, and patterns of thoughts are present on every page of the Septuagint. (Click here to see the oldest version of the LXX).
So, other than the authors of the New Testament thinking Jewishly and Hebraicly, we also have the main source of their Old Testament quotations coming from another Jewish-authored document – the Septuagint. So is it surprising that New Testament is full of Hebraic forms expressed in Greek?!
As a side note, the use of the Septuagint by New Testament writers is actually a very exciting concept.
The Jewish text of the Hebrew Bible used today is the Masoretic Text (MT for short). When the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally examined, it turned out that there was not one, but three different families of Biblical traditions in the time of Jesus. One of them closely matched the Masoretic Text, one closely matched the Septuagint and one seems to have connections with the Samaritan Torah.
Among other things, this of course shows that the Septuagint quoted by the New Testament has great value since it was based upon a Hebrew text that was at least as old as the base Hebrew text of what will one day become – the Masoretic Text.
As I already stated, I believe that the entire New Testament was written in Koine Judeo-Greek. Please allow me to address one very important point. In several places in the writings of the early church fathers, there is mention of a gospel in Hebrew.
The most important and earliest reference is that of the early Christian writer, Papias of Hierapolis (125 CE-150 CE). He wrote: “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew dialect and interpreted each one of them as best he could.” So… we do have a very early Christian testimony about Matthew’s document in Hebrew.
Was this a reference to the Gospel of Matthew in its Hebrew original? Perhaps. Was it a reference to a document that Matthew composed, but that is different from the Gospel of Mathew? Possibly.
This whole discussion is complicated by the fact that all the Gospels are anonymous and do not contain unequivocal references to a particular author (though some are attested very early). The Gospel of Mathew is no exception. We do not know if Mathew (the disciple of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels) was in fact the author of the gospel that we call the “The Gospel according to Matthew.”
Moreover, the phraseology, “he interpreted each one of them as best he could,” used by Papias of Hierapolis is far less than inspiring. One does not leave with a feeling that the majestic Gospel of Matthew that features such key texts as the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission is in fact in view. It is possible that Papias was referring to something less grandiose. Namely, that he had heard that Mathew had collected Jesus’ sayings in Hebrew, piecing them together as best he could. There is no reason to deny that such a document once existed, but neither is there particularly strong reason to identify it with the Gospel of Matthew.
Later Church Fathers also mention that Matthew wrote the Gospel in Hebrew dialect, but their information is
most-likely based on Papias’ statement and
guided by Christian theology to show that Jews were witnessed to sufficiently.
Archeological discoveries have shown that Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and even Latin were all used by the people of the Holy Land during the first century of the Common Era. But the New Testament itself, as best we can tell, was in fact written by Christ-following Jews in Koine Judeo-Greek. This is the simplest and most factually accurate possibility. This view readily explains the amount of underlying Hebraic patterns of thought, reasoning, grammar, and vocabulary that make the New Testament a thoroughly Jewish collection.
Reconstructing history is a little bit like putting a puzzle with many missing pieces together. The more pieces of the puzzle you have, the better you can see the contours of the image! The more you know about the historical background of the New Testament and the more familiar you are with the languages intricately connected with it (especially Hebrew and Greek); the better you are able to interpret it accurately for yourself and others.
Having lived in the Holy Lands for a while, I witnessed a bit of this which is still evident, to a small degree. It is the manner I go about studying the New Testament and certainly the Old Testament.