The Hebrew New Testament?

The Hebrew New Testament? (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).

LXXNow… 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 1) most-likely based on Papias’ statement and 2) 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.

About the author

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-EyzenbergTo secure your spot in our new course “The Jewish Background of New Testament” - CLICK HERE NOW

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  1. Birdie Cutair

    Dear Dr. Eli,
    Excellent article. That has been one of my questions since I couldn’t really understand how the Hebraisms got into a Greek text. However, you have explained it very well. Thank you.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Glad you liked it, make sure to pass it on!

  2. Malcolm F. Lowe

    Dr. Eli has deliberately posed the question in a provocative way. It is, of course, absurd to suppose that Paul’s epistles were originally written in Hebrew (although he may be assumed to have been fluent in Hebrew). The correct question is: Were PARTS OF the New Testament originally written in Greek? The answer of the late Prof. David Flusser and his friends and pupils, including myself, is that much of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is derived from a Hebrew source or sources. We have variously published numerous studies to show this. On the more general linguistic question, see my article on the New Testament in the revised Encyclopedia Judaica. (The article was put online here: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0015_0_14801.html)
    The main point is that the Greek of the NT is not one but many: I wrote: ‘There is indeed great variation in the language of the NT, reflecting the origins and genres of the various books. Thus in Matthew and Luke (to a lesser extent in Mark) and in the early chapters of Acts, much of the language has affinities to the “translation Greek” characteristic of the Septuagint as well as containing Hebraisms recognizable from rabbinic literature. By contrast, the introductions to Luke and Acts, the later chapters of Acts, and the Epistle to the Hebrews consist of elegant Hellenistic prose. Paul’s writings addressed to communities are composed in a brilliant epistolary style that evoked the admiration of Wilamowitz, the leading 20th-century authority on Greek literature. Only one book, Revelation, contains plain grammatical errors. The anonymous writer of the Gospel of John, however, writes in a Hellenistic Greek that is both very simple and very correct.’

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Malcolm is right. The more accurate way to ask the question is whether or not parts of NT were authored in Hebrew and I did verse the question more broadly on purpose.

      Now as everyone in their right mind I think that late Prof. Flusser was a wonderful scholar and cutting-edge Jesus researcher (who for those of you who don’t know was a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and devout Orthodox Jew).

      However, I think his explanation of the presence of Hebraisms in NT is unnecessary. I think that the idea of Koine Judeo-Greek that I summarized in this post explains simpler and better the same issues that Flusser sought to explain as well.

      About the variations in Greek – that is given, but the variation concerns only the good and better style/command of Koine Judeo-Greek even when it more elegant (Paul) and less grammatically correct (Revelation). After all unless I am mistaken Koine Greek and Hellenistic Greek is one and the same thing, being simply an Alexandrian dialect of Greek. People in our group who really do know what you are talking about – do help us out! 🙂

      1. Alex Fisher

        Simply put, Koine Greek is a simplified form of classical Attic Greek (the dialect spoken in Athens), The equivalent in English would be the difference between the form used in courts and legislation (Classical) and the language used in a casual conversation or a popular novel. Koine has a slightly less complex grammar, and a more restricted vocabulary.

        The Koine form also has various “loan words” and neologisms, and some words have changed their meaning, sometimes quite dramatically (the preposition/prefix “anti” is a good example; in Classical form is meant they teh thing it modified was put in place of something, whereas in Koine it carried the connotation of active opposition. The closest Latin word to the original meaning is “vicarius”.

  3. Stephen Lockwood

    Dr. Eli: Thank you for this article, it really clears up some of the questions I have had about the basic source of the phraseology used in the New Testament. Though I would like to think that the writers wrote originally in Hebrew, that would be just wishful thinking in a poly-linguistic society. Even Jesus Himself, coming from Nazareth (a community between the coast and Sea of Galilee) with Roman fortifications in the area. Not only did the Roman officers speak Latin, they would also speak Greek, and what other languages they had picked up along the way. Though Hebrewisms could be pointed out as a source of Hebrew thought, Judeo-Greek covers that point nicely.

    Again, Thank you!
    SRL

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Great to hear!

  4. Clancie Speck

    Dr. Eli,
    Thank you very much for this informative and interesting article and also for the others you make available each week. As a Christian in her sixties, who only within the past year has encountered Bible studies emphasizing the Hebrew context and especially the Jewishness of Jesus, I am enthralled with the information I am learning. And, yes, these are great enticements to studying Biblical Hebrew. I plan to do so soon.

  5. Rode Scheel

    Ich bin Ihnen erneut SO DANKBAR dass Sie mich kontaktiert haben, Adoni Dr.Eli und f. all das was ich dank Ihrem Wissen, Ihrer Leidenschaft für das Wort Gottes erfahren, lernen darf !

  6. Tami

    I would appreciate your opinion. What language would you recommend learning first, Biblical Hebrew, or Greek?

    Thank you for the teaching you provide, may God continue to bless and keep you.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I would start with Hebrew. It is simpler than Greek and most of the Bible is in Hebrew. So to me it makes sense.

      1. Alex Fisher

        As one who has done some studies in both Hebrew and Greek (not just Koine Greek, but also Classical Greek), I can say from my experiences that you should start with Hebrew. There are several reasons for this recommendation.

        the main reason is that the grammar of Hebrew is quite different. The basic concepts that have led to the grammatical structure of Hebrew are very different from the Indo-European group of languages, which includes Greek, Latin and English. The mode of expressing ownership, as an example, is almost totally opposite to Greek, and the structure of the verb is radically different.

        If one starts with Greek, one becomes used to one set of concepts and constructions, which, because they are so close to English structures, makes it more difficult to adjust one’s thinking, I might actually say “mindset”, the the Semitic forms.

        Grappling with theses different concepts and structures will actually make learning the Greek easier in the future, or at least that seems to be the way it works for most students (which makes me wonder why theological seminaries still teach Greek first).

        It is not easy, but learning both these languages will dramatically improve one’s understanding to the Scriptures.

        I’d also recommend studying some Classical Greek, after having developed some competence in the Koine form. Learning only Koine is rather like studying English without ever reading Shakespeare or Chaucer. While it is not the dialect spoken, knowing at least some Attic and Ionian increases ones appreciation of the Koine forms, and in my experience enhances the understanding of the text.

        1. Tami

          Thanks for your helpful reply, Alex.
          Best, Tami

          1. David

            Thanks to Dr. Eli and Alex for their recommendations. My little experience also confirm what they have stated.

    2. judith green

      Dear Tami – I think it is wonderful that you are contemplating studying both languages! They both require serious work, but it is very rewarding work. Of course, Greek is more closely related to English and other European languages, both in vocabulary and conceptual thought. However, you should just follow your heart as to which texts are more important to you to read in their original tongue – and then continue to the next!

      1. Tami

        Thanks for your kind and helpful reply, Judith.

        Hebrew is my “heart’s call.”

        1. Lea

          I am in my second level of Biblical Hebrew at E-Teacher. I highly recommend them. I learned Modern Hebrew first in Israel, so it has been a bit of a challenge to learn biblical Hebrew, but I do love it. Perhaps after I have completed all 5 courses, I will begin with Greek!

  7. David Neuhaus

    Dear Dr. Eli,
    I loved your article and think that you have phrased things very well. The Scriptures of Israel in Greek indeed form not only the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of the writers of the New Testament but also their understanding of God, of the world and of themselves. The play of intertextuality sheds light on the meaning of both the New Testament and the Old. It is for this reason that both Hebrew and Greek are so important if we are to really penetrate the words used in order to express the message of both Testaments. WE need much more study of the Septuagint and its relationship with the Masoretic and other Hebrew texts.
    Best wishes,
    Rev. David Neuhaus SJ

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Father David,

      Thank you very much for your encouraging comment.

      Dr. Eli

    2. judith green

      Dear David and Eli – I want to mention, given your encouragement for the study of both Greek and Hebrew, that the Biblical Greek course I wrote for eTeacher is the first online course, as far as I know, that integrates texts from both the Septuagint and the NT, emphasizing the theological content and the language used in both traditions. Learning both idioms allows you to look backward, toward Hellenistic (Koine) and even Classical Greek, and forwards to the language of the Church Fathers.

  8. Abera Milkano

    Thank you so much for such an eye opening document . With agape

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Abera, thank you for your kind words and welcome to the forum. Dr. Eli

  9. Alex Fisher

    Dr. Eli, I note that one of the things mentioned in relation to Matthew is that he “… collected the oracles in the Hebrew dialect … “. I’d point out that these snippets (which were in all probability a collection of sayings along the lines of the gospel of Thomas) were almost certainly in Aramaic, not Hebrew as such, Aramaic being the common spoken language of the Palestinian Jews.

    I also like your characterisation of NT Greek as a “Koine Judaeo-Greek”, although I personally would probably have phrased it “Judaic Koine Greek).

    I personally have often considered whether at least some of he Gospels may have been written in Aramaic, and later translated (or paraphrased) in Greek. If that were to have been the case, then the Syriac versions might actually be closer to the original that the equivalent Greel passages, since Syriac is closely related to Aramaic.

    The truth is, we will never know with any certainty, and can only surmise based on the factors covered in your article.

    I intend to continue studying Hebrew, most likely through Avondale College in Australia. It will probably be next semester before I do, in the meantime I’ll continue following your posts with interest.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Alex, hi. Thanks for your note. I do think that Pipias ought to be trusted on the Hebrew vs. Aramaic. I think many times when NT says that someone spoke Hebrew our translators (who think that Hebrew was not spoken at that time) say that it was Aramaic, but we know have actual evidence that Hebrew was not dead, but rather alive at the time of Jesus.

    2. Lynda Janzen

      From what I understand, Aramaic was the spoken dialect, but the written language was Koine Greek or as Dr. Eli specifies, Judeo-Koine Greek. … Much as Yiddish is a spoken language and not many people will write books in Yiddish.

  10. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Friends, I invite you to make comments and ask questions about this post.

    1. Zelda

      Hi Dr. Eli,
      I enjoyed my first reading and it has piqued my interest. I noted with interest from the passage that the individuals attributed as the authors of the Gospels may not have been that at all. It makes me now wonder about what else is a misconception, and therefore, I am looking forward to the studies.

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Perhaps, a clarification is in order. Several of the Gospels authorship (traditional) is well attested. The Gospel themselves are unanimous I think in keeping in with general biblical scriptural tradition.

    2. Dana Klein

      Dr. Eli what of the claims that the New Testament was written originally in Syriac? The manuscripts I am wondering about are the Crawford and Khabouris manuscripts?
      Shalom,
      Dana

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Syriac is an Christian Aramaic translation of the Koine Judeo-Greek translation. There is no serious reason to think that it was first written in Aramaic and only then translated to my knowledge. Dr. Eli

    3. Tom

      I think there is a lot of evidence to the contrary that is many times overlooked. Eusebius quoted Papias stated “Matthew composed the words in the Hebrew dialect, and each translated as he was able (Eccl. Hist 3:39). Other similar quotes by church fathers; Iraneus, Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome all state testimonial evidence of the Hebrew Matthew. I have read the Shem Tob’s Hebrew Mathew. The last count was 28 manuscripts of the original Hebrew Matthew and other linguistic evidence. The most telling evidence is the Hebrew culture. Its closed society and protected culture, and language. According to Jewish tradition (1st C) they are not even suppose to eat a meal with non-hebrews. etc..

    4. Donald Ashton

      Dr Eli,
      I would like to ask what seems like a silly question on scrolls., particularly since you have shown an image of the LXX translation of the Tanakh.
      We are all aware that Greek is written left to right and Hebrew is written right to left.
      We also know that a scroll is written in pages, as is clearly illustrated in your image of the LXX.
      However, how are the pages arranged?
      In a Greek scroll are sequential pages positioned left to right and a Hebrew scroll right to left?

    5. Michael J Contos

      http://contoveros.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/the-gospel-according-to-michael-the-lesser/

      I am a student as well as a Catholic who wants to spread the word of Jesus and his Jewishness from the perspective that your forum is providing me.

      I believe i can do it best in a novel with a little light humor by being the “side-kick” of the Christ while on a visit to the Far East upon the death of Joseph, Jesus’ earth-bound father, and his obedience to the will directing Jesus to study under the sages of the old Greek world and the Far East.

      Did wills exist at the time of Jesus? could Joseph had left money to his son? This Greek slave would like to know. Thank you.

      Michael J Contos,
      aka Contoveros

    6. Peter Kamaleshwar

      Dear Dr. Eli,
      The article is completely new for people like me, living in Nepal, who have no idea of difference between Hebrew and Greek thought patterns. It is full of information and very interesting. Thanks for bringing enrichment, God bless.

      Peter K.

    7. Jennifer Badani

      The Xtian part of the Bible was written in Aramaic.
      The early Xtians spokes Aramaic.
      The kurdish Xtians speak Aramaic.

    8. Lynda Janzen

      Dr. Eli … First, forgive me for shortening the address to your first name … Then … This is wonderfully interesting. I am studying Biblical Hebrew and am finding a richness in the text I never knew was there. It is truly as though this language is G-d Himself speaking directly to each one of us. Glory to Him forever!