Language of the New Testament

What was the original language of the documents that became the New Testament? For centuries, the scholarly consensus has been that it was written in the Koiné Greek dialect of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first century. However, there is a growing minority within the church that claims the New Testament was composed in the Hebrew or Aramaic language.

Moreover, to explain the many surviving Greek manuscripts from the earliest centuries of church history, and the complete lack of any Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts, supporters of this view allege that the New Testament was translated into Greek from the supposed Hebrew (or Aramaic) original at a very early stage.

Theoretically, this claim, if true, could alter our understanding of the original biblical faith. But does the evidence substantiate the theory?

The New Testament certainly provides examples of the earliest disciples speaking Greek, including both Jewish and Gentile believers. For example, when Paul preached to the representatives of the Greek philosophical schools in Athens, he used Greek and even quoted a pagan Greek poet.

And that makes perfect sense. After all, why would the Apostle to the Gentiles speak to the Athenians in a language they did not know?

THE GOSPELS AND ACTS


The book of Acts also describes Hellenized Jews in the early church speaking Greek in certain synagogues, including Stephen in the city of Jerusalem, the man who became the church’s first martyr - (Acts 6:1-6, 17:22-31, Acts 21:37).

The New Testament also provides evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, but there are also indicators he understood and spoke at least some Greek. How, for example, did he communicate with the Syrophoenician woman if he only spoke Hebrew or Aramaic?

In the gospel accounts, this woman is identified as both Canaanite and Greek (Hellénis). In other words, she was 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 Jesus and the disciples to use Greek and other non-Hebraic terms and languages when preaching the gospel, including Latin and the Greek forms of Old Testament names.

The Apostle Paul, for example, is called Saul or Saulos in the book of Acts. But he never uses that name in his own writings. He always refers to himself by his Greek name, Paul or Paulos. If anything, the early church used all the linguistic tools at its disposal to spread the gospel, and to great effect.  As Paul wrote - (Acts 9:1, Romans 1:1):

  • 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).

EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL EVIDENCE


What is the evidence for the original language of the New Testament?  First, all surviving ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, whether fragmentary or complete, are in Greek, and no such manuscript in Hebrew or Aramaic has ever been found (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]).

Second, because the original faith was missionary-oriented, the New Testament documents were translated later from Greek into other languages, and relatively early in church history.

This includes the Syriac, Latin, and Coptic versions, all of which were made FROM GREEK ORIGINALS (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 three centuries wrote letters in Greek in which verbal allusions and quotations from the writings of the apostles are based on original Greek texts. Not once do these early church leaders cite an Aramaic or Hebrew original source - (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 ancient New Testament documents that exist today give no indication of being translations from another language.  A document of any length translated from one language to another always includes signs of being a translation. It is unavoidable.

And this is especially so when translating 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, the use of the Greek Septuagint and the Old Greek translations in the New Testament. Most citations of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament are from the ancient Greek translation commonly called the Septuagint, although some New Testament authors used both the Hebrew and Greek versions (e.g., 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 documents translate Aramaic and Hebrew terms and phrases into Greek, presumably, for 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 27:46, Matthew 1:23, Mark 5:41, Mark 15:22, John 1:38, Acts 4:36).

Seventh, the authors of the New Testament utilize aspects of the Greek language to great advantage, and often forms and characteristics difficult if not impossible to represent accurately in Hebrew or Aramaic. Again, Greek is a significantly different language in form ad syntax than either Hebrew or Aramaic.

The examples are too numerous to list, but they include alliteration, wordplays, synonyms, double and even triple negatives, compound words, and so on, and often usages that are difficult to explain if the Greek New Testament was translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original.

A good example is the opening clause of the letter to the Hebrews where the author employs two like-sounding Greek words to great rhetorical effect, a feature that cannot be duplicated in Hebrew or Aramaic, and one that is difficult enough to represent in many if not most modern languages without resorting to paraphrase:

  • “[In] many parts and many ways (polumerôs kai polutropôs) of old, God, having 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, something that is often lost in translation. And the individual books show the varying abilities of their respective authors with the Greek language, rhetoric, and so on.

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 later translators would be to correct any perceived clumsy syntax, grammatical errors, and the like, on the part of the author.

Ninth, the New Testament authors made theological points in Greek that could NOT be made easily if at all in Hebrew or Aramaic. For example, Paul uses the term “body” metaphorically for the church. But biblical Hebrew has no word that corresponds to the Greek term rendered “body” or sôma. The closest it can come is the noun for “corpse.” And the “corpse of Christ” would certainly not communicate Paul’s intended point.

The tenth reason is practical. Again, the early church was missionary oriented.  By the first century, Hebrew had fallen into disuse even among many Palestinian Jews. Because of the spread of the Greek language, it was spoken in much of the Roman world, especially in the eastern half of the Mediterranean region.

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

For a new religion committed to spreading its message to peoples of every nation, Greek was the most practical choice as the medium of communication.  Hebrew would HAVE beEN impractical.

As for the evidence for an original Hebrew New Testament, there are no existing ancient Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts of any New Testament letter, gospel, or book surviving today, even if they ever existed. And there are no ancient translations of the New Testament from Hebrew originals into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Greek, etc. All the ancient versions were made from Greek originals.

GOSPEL OF MATTHEW


While several church fathers claim that Matthew was composed in Hebrew, all such claims are dependent on an unsubstantiated and ambiguous quotation from Papias of Hierapolis that was reported by the church historian, Eusebius, approximately two hundred years after the death of Papias. This means this piece of evidence is second or third hand at best, little more than hearsay.

His alleged statement was that the “sayings” or “oracles” of Matthew were transmitted in Aramaic or Hebrew (the Greek noun he used can refer to either), and it is not clear whether Papias was referring to the written gospel we now possess or to oral traditions preserved and passed on by the church.

Since the writings of Papias were all lost in the distant past, the accuracy of Eusebius’ brief and enigmatic quotation cannot be verified objectively – (Floyd Filson, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London:  Adam & Charles Black, 1971), p. 16).

Even if this claim is true, at most, it constitutes possible evidence that the gospel of Matthew as we now have it was composed in Hebrew or Aramaic. But it is illogical to assume from this that the rest of the New Testament documents were also written in Hebrew and/or Aramaic.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS


There is another practical point. Considering the church’s mission to preach the gospel “to all nations,” writing the core documents of the new apostolic faith in Hebrew or Aramaic would make little sense. And what is noteworthy about the claim of a Hebrew original is the lack of any substantive and objective evidence to support the proposition.

Moreover, the proposal of a Hebrew original cannot explain why several New Testament authors transliterated Aramaic and Hebrew terms into Greek letters and forms to accommodate Greek-speaking audiences.

Nor does the extensive use of the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, in the New Testament make sense if it was originally composed in Hebrew for Hebrew-speaking congregations.

In summary, the evidence for Greek as the original language of the New Testament is substantial, extensive, and 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, one that at most hints at the possibility of an Aramaic or Hebrew original of the gospel of Matthew alone.

DOES IT MATTER?


Yes. First, there is the issue of historic accuracy. Second, the Greek New Testament is our only reliable and objective source for what Jesus and the apostles taught. Having an accurate representation of what they wrote is vital to ascertaining correct Christian doctrine and practice.

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 that we do have. How do we know whether later translators corrupted the original Hebrew or Aramaic text?

As for restoring the alleged Hebrew or Aramaic “original,” since we have NO copies whatsoever of any portion of it, any attempt to restore the original Hebrew or Aramaic is speculative at best, and therefore highly problematic.

Further Reading:

  • The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. By Bruce Metzger, Oxford University Press; 4th edition (April 28, 2005).
  • The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations. By Bruce Metzger, Oxford University Press; 1st edition (September 15, 1977).
  • The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism. By Kurt Aland & Karen Aland. Eerdmans; 2nd Revised ed. edition (March 25, 1995).
  • Invitation to the Septuagint. By Karen H. Jobes. Baker Academic; 2nd edition (December 1, 2015).


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