Monthly Archives: August 2010

Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Which language was the New Testament written in, and should it matter?

There is a movement among some believers of the Messianic and Nazarene groups who, by their claims and their actions, are discrediting the Scriptures of the New Testament. While I believe they are sincere in their convictions, I also know that they are dangerously misguided, and misguidedly dangerous. Their position states that the New Testament writers did not pen their works in Greek, but rather in Aramaic; Matthew having employed Hebrew for his gospel in order to reach directly his Hebrew-speaking, Jewish audience.

The idea is an interesting one, at least when only touching its surface. And of course a case could be made for it. But it becomes nearly cultic upon closer examination, and as we will see in this post, completely irrelevant. One might liken the adherents of this movement to the Judiazers who, although they believed Jesus was the Messiah, were guilty of placing the unnecessary burden of first becoming a Jewish proselyte and receiving the Mosaic law so that one could be saved by Messiah. There is a very unhealthy allegiance to the Hebrew language and Jewish tradition among these followers.

This movement of believers whom I address in this post are similar to the Judiazers in that they are giving Torah preeminence over the whole of Scripture, an unhealthy view of keeping the Ten Commandments (not that I do not give them importance) and a foundation-less premise for the superiority of Hebrew and Aramaic as the languages for God’s revelation; Greek being an “unclean” language which God would never have chosen for his New Testament revelation due to the fact that the Greeks were so ungodly. They are pushing for a return to the superior and pure “Hebrew New Testament”.

While these positions do not necessarily affect one’s salvation (unless of course they believe they are saved by their obedience to Torah and hence, their good works), they certainly create unwarranted confusion and come quite close to dismantling all Christian confidence in the New Testament Scriptures.

It is rather clear that Jesus’ mother tongue was Aramaic, for nothing is more natural than to pray in one’s own language as Jesus did in fact do on the cross (Mark 15:34). Notice also that Mark keeps the Aramaic word for word, and then gives his Greek-speaking readers the translation of it. But it is also very, very probable that Jesus knew Greek and spoke it frequently while functioning within a Greek-speaking superstructure, such as the 1st century Roman Empire.

In addition, a quick glance at Jewish history and a comparative reading of the Old Testament citations found in the New Testament, make a solid case for the LXX (also known as the Septuagint), which is the Greek version of the Old Testament translated for the Greek-speaking Jews. There is no doubt the LXX was used, and followed, by most if not all early church Jewish believers. In particular, it was the Old Testament referred to by the New Testament writers,  and not the Hebrew texts.

Below is my latest reply, word for word, in a thread that is becoming a heated debate on this Messianic Nazarene group’s forum. I hope it gives you some helpful insights as to the folly of the arguments, and reinforces your position against this curious subject promulgated by what I believe is fast becoming a quasi-cultic movement. The recipient’s name is left out for anonymity. First is her refutation to an earlier post of mine in which I make the case for the need of writing in Greek when Luke compiled and sent his gospel and the book of Acts to Theophilus, a Greek-speaking believer. I will post that as well, later on uThinkology. No doubt, more exchanges will come and I’ll post them here on uThinkology too. Below hers is my latest answer. Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section.

K. B******* says:

Where is the evidence that Theophilus was Greek? Josephus tells us that he was probably Theophilus ben Ananas who was High Priest in Jerusalem from 37 to 41 C.E., so Acts and Luke were probably written originally in Aramaic. Even Josephus admitted that he wrote his volumes originally in the language of his countrymen because his knowledge of Greek was not good enough! An excellent comparison of the Greek and Aramaic is given by Andrew Gabriel Roth in his book, “Ruach Qadim”. I don’t see how any open minded person can read this evidence without being convinced of the Aramaic primacy of the New Testament.

Mark Nigro says:

Dear K. B******,

One simple reason why I do not believe Theophilus was the high priest is because he would have had firsthand knowledge of Jesus and no need for an explanation to be written by Luke in his gospel. Secondly, why would the high priest inquire at all, regarding Jesus, from a layman of religion such as Luke (layman in the eyes of the religious leaders) when he had the entire Sanhedrin at his disposal? But I can see already that the other points I have tried to make in my previous post are left completely unaddressed on this forum, and therefore a sincere search for truth seems to be lacking.

So let me ask, why does the language matter when the content (message) is YHWH’s Word? Do you think YHWH speaks Aramaic, or Hebrew? They are the languages of men, not of heaven. As for Aramaic, did you know that it was the language of the Babylonians, acquired by the Jews during their captivity, and this is why we have the Targums (portions of the OT in Aramaic, not Hebrew)? You adulate Aramaic, but were the Babylonians a holy people chosen by YHWH as his covenant people? Consequently, it had become the common language of Jews by Jesus’ day due to the many years of their captivity. The langauge stayed with the people, and therefore the language our Messiah spoke was once a Babylonian tongue, a people most despised for their iniquity. But that was not important to Yeshuah, because he came to communicate with men the truth of God for their salvation, and not to honor one language over another.

Now as for Hebrew, prior to Abram being called out of Ur by YHWH, it was the language of an “unholy” and pagan people. I say Pagan, because anyone outside of a covenantal relationship with YHWH is called such. Abram became holy (sanctified) when YHWH set him apart to make from him a people all his own. So, do you think the Old Testament was written in Hebrew because the language was holy and YHWH’s choice from heaven, or because that was the language spoken by the people YHWH called (Israel), and subsequently, the language of their offspring? YHWH has no need of a written language except that man cannot receive special revelation from him without it. Therefore, he communicates to us through written language (in addition to creation), and when he does, he uses the language of the recipient. Otherwise, had Israel not already known Hebrew, they and all their offspring would have had to learn a uniquely new, previously non-existant language created just for the OT, before they could understand what YHWH was saying. But of course, simple reason, logic and a little history (not to mention common sense) tell us this is not the case.

Can a language be holy or unholy, or is it the content and message that can be holy and unholy? I tell you it is the content and not the medium at all. Just as the ground Moses stood on was not holy except for the presence of YHWH revealed there at that moment. Otherwise, it was just the same dirt that lies beneath the feet of every sheep herder. One last thing, unbelievers speak Hebrew too, and they are not made sanctified before YHWH because of the language. Neither will Greek make one unholy or disqualified. But why are we debating about Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, when we should be taking the message of the Messiah to those around us in whatever language it is that they and we speak? My suggestion to you and those on this forum would be to spend less time wrangling about Hebrew vs. Greek and start living and sharing the content of YHWH’s NT revelation instead.

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of YHWH shall be saved.” 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Ro 10:12–14)

Sincerely,

Mark Nigro