Language of the New Testament

Was the New Testament originally composed in Greek or Hebrew? Overwhelmingly, the evidence points to the former.

Hebrew Scroll - Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash
What was the original language of the documents that became the “New Testament”? For centuries, the consensus has been that it was written in Greek, yet in recent years, a growing minority has claimed it was composed in Hebrew, and then later translated into Greek. After all, the apostles were all Jews and first-century Jews spoke Hebrew. But what does the evidence show, and why does it matter? - [
Hebrew Scroll - Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash].

The New Testament provides examples of early Christians speaking Greek, both Jews and Gentiles. For example, when Paul preached to the representatives of the Greek philosophical schools in Athens when he used Greek and even quoted a pagan Greek poet. After all, why would the Apostle to Athenian Gentiles speak to them in a language they did not know? And the book of Acts also describes Hellenized Jews in the early church spoking Greek in certain synagogues, including Stephen, the first martyr - (Acts 6:1-6, 17:22-31Acts 21:37).

The New Testament does provide evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, but there are also indicators that he understood and spoke at least some Greek. How, for example, did he communicate with the Syrophoenician woman he only spoke Hebrew or Aramaic? In the gospel accounts, she is identified as both Canaanite and Greek (Hellénis); that is, a Hellenized Greek-speaking Gentile of Phoenician descent - (Matthew 15:22, Mark 7:26, 15:34, John 12:20-24, Acts 6:1-6).

Nowhere does the New Testament insist on the strict use of the Hebrew forms of names and other terms derived from the Old Testament. It shows no hesitation on the part of the early church to use Greek and other non-Hebraic terms and languages when preaching the gospel, including the Greek forms of Old Testament names.  If anything, the early church used all the linguistic tools at its disposal to spread the gospel, and to great effect.  As Paul wrote:
  • To the Jews, I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews…to them that are without law, as without law…that I might gain them that are without law…I am become all things to all men, that I may, by all means, save some” - (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
And what is the evidence for the original language of the New Testament?  First, all surviving ancient manuscripts were written in Greek - (Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (N.Y.:  Oxford University Press, 1968, pp. 36-66; Philip Wesley Comfort, Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the N.T. [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990]), and no ancient New Testament manuscripts written in Hebrew or Aramaic have ever been found.

Second, because Christianity was a missionary-oriented faith, the New Testament was translated into other languages relatively early in church history, including Syriac, Latin, and Coptic, and all were translated from Greek originals, not Hebrew or Aramaic – (Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 67-81; Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, N.Y.:  Oxford University Press, 1977; Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989, pp. 185-221).

Third, the church fathers of the late first and early second centuries wrote letters in Greek in which they alluded to or quoted passages from the Greek New Testament - (1 Clement, the Didache, Barnabas, Polycarp of Smyrna, and the Shepherd of Hermas) – (Bruce Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 39-67).

Fourth, the New Testament gives no indication that it is a translation from another language.  A document of any length translated from one language into another will include signs of it being a translation. This is especially so with languages as radically different as Greek and Hebrew – (Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, p. 52; A.T. Robertson, Grammar of the Greek New Testament; Nashville:  Broadview Press, 1934; pp. 76-139).

Fifth is the use of the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament. Most verbal allusions and quotations from the Hebrew Bible that are found in the New Testament are from the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint, though some New Testament authors used both (Matthew and Paul).  As Kurt and Barbara Aland wrote:
  • “The fact that from the first all the New Testament writings were written in Greek is conclusively demonstrated by their citations from the Old Testament, which are from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and not from the original Hebrew text.  This is true even of the rabbinic scholar Paul” – (Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, p. 52).
Sixth, the New Testament authors translated Aramaic and Hebrew terms into Greek for their original Greek-speaking audiences - (e.g., Mark 15:34 - [“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”]. Also, Matthew 27:46Matthew 1:23Mark 5:41Mark 15:22John 1:38Acts 4:36).

Seventh, the authors of the New Testament utilized aspects of the Greek language to great advantage. The examples are too numerous to list but include alliteration, wordplays, synonyms, double and even triple negatives, compound words, and so on, uses that are difficult to explain if the Greek New Testament had been translated from a Hebrew original. A good example is the opening clause of Hebrews when the author uses two like-sounding Greek compound words to great rhetorical effect, a feature that could not be duplicated in Hebrew or Aramaic, and one that is difficult enough to represent in many modern languages:
  • “[In] many parts and many ways (polumerôs kai polutropôs), of old, Godhaving spoken to the fathers in the prophets, in the last days of these days, spoke to us in a Son.” – (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Eighth, the Greek New Testament reflects the skill levels and personalities of each individual author.  This is often lost in translation into a modern language. The individual books show the varying abilities of their respective authors with Greek, rhetoric, etc.  If a later hand translated a book from Hebrew into Greek, it would be difficult enough to duplicate the writing characteristics of its author. If anything, the tendency of the later translators is to correct any perceived clumsy syntax, grammatical errors, and the like on the part of the original author.

Ninth, the New Testament authors made theological points in Greek that could NOT be made in Hebrew, or at least, not easily. For example, Paul used the term “body” metaphorically to portray aspects of the church. But Hebrew has no word that corresponds to the Greek term rendered “body” or sôma. The closest it can come is the Hebrew noun that means a “corpse.”

The tenth is the practical point, that the early church was focused on missionary activities.  By the first century, Hebrew had fallen into disuse, even among Palestinian Jews. Because of the spread of the Greek language, it was spoken throughout the Roman world, especially in the eastern half of the Mediterranean region.

Greek had become the de facto standard language of commerce, so much so that Roman magistrates commonly published edicts in both Latin and Greek, though Latin was the official language of the Roman government.  While not everyone in the empire spoke Greek, it was used more widely than other languages.

For a new religion committed to spreading its message to peoples of every nation and culture, Greek would have been the practical choice as a medium of communication.  HEBREW WOULD HAVE BEEN A MOST IMPRACTICAL OPTION.

As for the evidence for an original Hebrew New Testament, there are no existing ancient Hebrew manuscripts of any New Testament book or even individual passage that was composed in Hebrew or Aramaic. And there are no ancient translations from Hebrew originals into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Greek, etc.

While several church fathers claimed that Matthew was written in Hebrew, all such claims were dependent on an unsubstantiated and ambiguous quotation from Papias of Hierapolis, which itself was reported by the church historian, Eusebius, approximately two hundred years after that man’s death. Since the writings of Papias were all lost in the distant past, the accuracy of Eusebius’ brief and enigmatic quotation cannot be objectively verified – (Floyd Filson, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London:  Adam & Charles Black, 1971), p. 16).

And there is another practical point. Considering the church’s mission to preach the Gospel “to all nations,” writing or translating the core documents of the new faith into Hebrew would have made little sense. What is noteworthy about the claims for a supposed Hebrew original is the lack of substantive evidence.

And the proposed (and theoretical) Hebrew original cannot explain why several New Testament authors transliterated Aramaic and Hebrew terms into Greek letters and forms to accommodate Greek-speaking audiences.  And the extensive use of the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament makes no sense if it was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic.

In summary, the evidence for Greek as the original language of the New Testament is substantial, extensive, even overwhelming.  In contrast, the evidence for a Hebrew or Aramaic original is virtually non-existent and amounts to an ambiguous and uncorroborated quotation from Papias of Hierapolis, which at most hints at the possibility of an Aramaic or Hebrew original of only the gospel of Matthew.

DOES IT MATTER?  Yes. First, there is the issue of historical accuracy. Second, the Greek New Testament is our only reliable source for what the Apostles taught. Having an accurate representation of what they wrote is vital to ascertaining correct Christian doctrine. Third, if we do not possess copies of what the Apostles wrote, if their original words have been filtered to us through one or more intervening forms, it becomes difficult to have confidence in the New Testament documents. How do we know whether later translators corrupted the original message?

As for restoring the supposed Hebrew “original,” since we have NO copies whatsoever of any portion of the alleged document, restoration becomes speculative, and therefore, highly problematic.



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