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).
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 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.
Join the conversation (187 comments)
Hi Dr. Eli enjoying very much your posts.
Based on my own experience though , I would have to disagree on Christians interest on the Jewish background or historic setting of the New Testament or the jewishness of Jesus.
Now, maybe is because you get in touch with lots of people who specifically call you to learn Hebrew and your perception might be a bit skewed that way, but I was raised catholic and (although I have to admit that I haven’t had any relation with the faith in many years), because of the part of the world I was raised in ( Latin America) and the city I live in ( Miami), I am surrounded by catholics and christians in general all the time and frankly, no one seems interested in learning about the historic setting of the New Testament or the Jewishness of Jesus.
And I think that is a pity by the way , as they will learn much from it and understand much better their religion. I wish it was the way you say , but I don’t think the interest is there.
Now , you might say, well, that is your circle of friends only who think like that , but it is the same when I discuss or chat about these same subjects in blogs or in news comments online with random strangers. Christians, and particularly Catholics, seem to believe that Jesus was a Christian. Even if they consciously admit he was jewish, they would still feel as if he was a Christian.
it is like a “dirty little secret” that no one wants to talk about that Jesus (and all his students by the way) was Jewish. That he was RABBI YESHUA and not Jesus.
I think the church also does not do any effort to analyze the context of the New testament and the Jewishness of jesus and I think that is on purpose. Because who want to draw water to another’s mill right ?
Your comments please
There was a man who said to another: What?! You don’t know who Einstein is? Don’t tell me that you also never heard of his theory of relativity?! “No”, the other man said. “But can you please explain this to me?”, he added. Well… its like this. If you have 3 hairs in your soup is this a lot or little? THREE HAIRS IN ONE PLATE OF SOUP?! THAT IS A LOT!!!!” he exclaimed. That’s right (the other said), but what if you have only 3 hairs on the top of your head is it a lot or a little? THREE HAIRS ON THE ENTIRE HEAD????? Obviously that is too little. His friend looked at him and said “well… this is in a nutshell the theory of relativity”. The other looked at him and said: “Just as I thought it is no big deal”.
I think 🙂 what we are talking about is here is that I am comparing to what it was before, hence our disagreement 🙂
BUT also you have a location limitation. Miami is very particular city and your experience there may be different, although I am sure that there would be many others that would also agree that Christians display not nearly enought interest in Jesus Jewishness. There is a fantastic joke about two Jewish guys overlooking Maimi beach and talking about the percentages of people in the world who are Jewish, but that is perhaps for another time :-). Once one had someone made an interesting observation. “The great thing about Maimi is that it is very close to the United States.” 🙂 🙂 🙂
Dr. Eli, I am glad to be wrong….I advocate for unity and not separation, particularly between the cousins Christianity and Judaism…
Dear Guillermo, Yes, I think “it is your small circle.”
In the condition of active bible teacher in the church, I know that the greatest part of Christianity is thinking otherwise than you in this topic. I would like to advise you: 1) ask Jesus Himself ( the Leader of the church) and not the leaders of the church. 2) Let be the Bible authoritative and not the church. I think Jesus should say: here is more than the church. Perhaps He would give you more than you have now. I wish you that from my heart.
By all means Dr van den Berg , don’t get me wrong . I am not opposing the Jewishness of jesus. I support it 100%. I would be glad to be wrong and judging by your response and others here , looks like I am….which is great. To me, that is going in the right direction
And yes, I do agree that the Church should not be the only authority. But also , if by the Bible, you include also the NT, I am not sure that is authoritative either regarding the teachings of Jesus ( with all due respect) . Whatever your faith or beliefs, it is a historic fact that :
1) there were many other Gospels that told different stories circulating before and during the time the Cannon was put together, that had different versions of Jesus’ teachings. From what I have read in several books by researchers on this subject ( full disclosure here, I am not a researcher or involved in academia ), those Gospels were just as popular as the Four and many Christian groups regarded them as authentic.
2) Even if one says that the Four Gospels are the only “true gospels”, it is also clear that the divinity of jesus and other dogmas of Christianity were more and more emphasized as you progress in time from one gospel to another. Also, during history , things were edited and added to reflect the evolving beliefs of the nascent religion Ex: the appearance of Jesus to his disciples was added AFTER to the Gospel of Mark, the first one and used as a base for the other synoptic Gospels
3) There were many, many NT editions and translation mistakes along the way in history
So to me, after 2000 years of changes, mistakes and editions, and considering these Four might paint a picture that served the interest of only one or a few groups at the time, is hard for me to regard this as an authentic source for the teachings of Jesus.
Again, I say this with the utmost respect, I hope I am not offending you or anyone, by saying this and If I do, I will refrain from commenting on this subject on this blog again.
Thanks for your comment.
Dear Guillermo, no you are not offending m. , I was responding on the fact that you did disagree with Christian’s interest on the Jewish background or historic setting of the New Testament or the Jewishness of Jesus. That’s all. And I didn’t say that the voice of the Church is unimportant. But I was in disagreement with the claim of authority of the Catholic Church and his leaders that dedicated the believers how they had to understand the Scriptures for centuries. I seemed you had the same thoughts when you said “I think the church also does not do any effort to analyze the context of the New Testament and the Jewishness of Jesus and I think that is on purpose.” But it could me I misunderstood you there. Now it seems you changed your opinion in some things. To be clear : I was not in war with you.
of course not, I did not think so. It is just that this subject is very sensitive and to me is more important to not offend someone than to be right.
Wish you the best
Interesting you say this, …. I have in my possession a NT Spanish translation with my understanding that Mathew translation was highly influenced by Shem Tov. This was done by a Cuban from Miami.
Do you mean that the translation was influenced by Baal Shem Tov (for those who don’t know he is the founder of modern hassidism) or was Baal Shem Tov influenced by Matthew? (Both are possible to my mind).
I was not validating the translation but trying to make the point to Guillermo that there those in Miami that are interested in the Jewish Jesus/Yeshua. Interestingly enough a major growth in Messianic/Hebrew roots movements is in Latin America as Hispanics are realizing and identifying with their Sephardic roots.
I c. Sorry 🙂
Luis, I am so glad to be proven wrong then. I sincerely hope this interest takes root in Christianity.
Funny you mention sephardic roots, as I was just researching this recently…., do you know how can I research my possible Sephardic roots? my mother’s last name showed up in a couple of searches in Jewish Ancestry.com., but that is as far as I could go….Do you know of another website / organization I can tap into?
The holy Baal Shem Tov was also one of the greatest kabbalists in history
Luis this definitely piqued my interest ..can you expand ? is it something you can share?
I am not sure I follow ..are you saying that at some point in time ( obviously during last part or after the XVIII century) someone translated the Gospel of Matthew Gospel to Spanish , based on teachings of the Baal Shem Tov? That must have been something special dedicated to a particular audience right ?
I have to dig out the book out of storage. it may take a while,. to anser your other post here is a site for you to investigate: http://sephardim.com/
There is a also a congregation in Israel of Jewish Believers in Jesus/Yeshua who are doing out reaches to Crypto Spanish Jews you might want to contact. http://www.netivyah.org/resources/
Also modern scholarship out of Hebrew University in Israel debunks your assumptions about the reliability of the new testament. Just saying…..Shalom my friend.
Here is another link and a book you should buy.
Luis thank you so much for all this information. I have contacted those groups.
Shalom and G_d bless
[…] To read about Koine Judeo-Greek click HERE. […]
As this discussion grows I become more convinced that we are entering more and more the field of cognitions per se even though from a linguistic perception. The excellent book Surfaces and Essences by Hofstader and Sander delves deep in this and proposes that analogies are the root of cathegorization and thus key to the formulation of concepts and ideas. I find their argument very compelling.
I am not able to expand in the nuances of greek, aramaic or hebrew but I would suggest to those capable to take a look at grammar and analogic analysis of each language and check if the structure of any idea proposition differs. For example, in the book, the word “play” in English is used to mean play as such in playing children, play an instrument, play a sport, play a music composition, play as in starting an electronic device to commence “playing” its use, etc. However, an Italian, a Chinesse or a Russian will never use a single word for all those activities for they probably have different words be it nouns or verbs to express the activity in relation to a human “player” using a musical instrument or so.
This, then, is not a language issue per se but a knowledge construct or a mindframe created by the rules of reasoning of the language and culture. Thus, the variations in meaning correspond also to the language structure of perception, categorization and ideology. We should look then to the family tree of each language or its recension. In here, the great F Moore Cross work still is forelooking and crucial.
As a high learned Hebrew trained at the feet of the great Gamaliel and also a Greek citizen commanding its citizenship when needed, Paul was fluent in Hebrew and probably in Aramaic but also in Greek. He chose to write in Greek or the alternative Koine Judeo Greek (or whatever Mambo Jambo was actually talked) that he deemed useful to convey the correct meaning to his audience for he was a trained speaker in Greek usage as evidenced in his letters and the exhortations contained in the letters.
Paul knew that he was talking about Jesus who was probably the first rabbi an recently category of teacher probably invented by Jesus himself in Jewish customs but a teacher who also performed signs and wonders as no one even compared to the legendary Elijah or Elisha of the Prophets. Someone who expelled demons and spirits by his own command publicly and was able to raise the dead. Someone who ended crucified only to resurrect himself again as witnessed by many and commanded his followers to preach the Kingdom of God simply because HE was the Son of God. Many of His followers, including Paul himself were also able to perform the same wonders, healings and even raising the dead. How then to give meaning to these accounts as an objective reality to the audience who were diverse and had different mindframes and not being taken for a story teller or a performing artist-entertainer-magician as in Athens he actually was received?
Well, I think his tactic was to use the closest rendition of language available for the audience in order to convey to them the clear message that Jesus was a real person and the real God Incarnate, that the Holy Spirit that Jesus dispensed to His followers was God’s Living Force capable of causing supernatural gifts in people and that everything he spoke about was literally true. And that language, whatever form it was, was the original language of each document. As time went by, the collection of the documents into a single library rendered the present form.
Thus, Dr. Eli’s proposition of the Koine Judeo Greek makes a lot of sense for it encompasses the intention of the New Testament authors which was to present a story as close to the objective reality of the audience as possible (ie. in their own mindframes) in order to speak to them about the transcendent realities that Jesus proclaimed as Paul himself always declared. Realities not of this world but from God Himself.
Shalom, Dr Eli and Judith.
I have always considered the issue of the ‘original’ language of the Brit Haddasah (NT) to be either Hebrew or Greek. However, you have now introduced a third option of Judeao-Greek. This is a very plausible alternative to the fundamental issue of the many hebraic phrases with the BH.
However, having been told of the existence of only ‘classical’ and ‘koine’ greek you seem to imply a third variant. If the Greek of the BH is the ‘koine Greek’ I have been told about, then there should be many examples of another ‘koine Greek’ which is not Judeo-Hebraic. in origin and is regularly used in the non-religious context.
Is this the situation with the many written artifacts that archeologist have discovered?
Is there a ‘koine’ Greek which differs sufficiently from the biblical Greek to be a true dialect of the language?
Donald, hi. You can start here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koine_Greek for very general info about this.
Yes indeed, Donald – what is called “koine” was the Greek spoken and written all over the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world from the time of the conquests of Alexander the Greet (last quarter of 4th c.) until the Battle of Actium (31 BC), when the Romans vanquished the last of the Hellenistic monarchs. It is a continuation of the Attic dialect of the 5th c. As it was so widespread, it naturally showed the influence of many local languages and there was considerable regional diversity, including that which Eli calls the Judaeo-Greek of the Septuagint and the NT.
One of the central ideas in The Origin of Stories by Boyd, is that art is a precursor to religion function of social cohesion. Once some kind of art is available, religion beliefs take use of art for the expression of art inherent capacity to gain “collective awe” we may say, or plural awareness. And the tool used by religion to use art is none other than liturgy…!
So I think, Dr. van der Berg, that your suggestion of “keep aloof from our personal ideas and interpretations…” may really be more than 50% to stop the powerful control that Liturgy exerts on us for Liturgy encompasses kerygma, dogma and beliefs interweaved in the art expression of any religion. And that is the ultimate mindframe.
It is not to reject liturgy or dogma what you suggest, I think. I totally agree that in order to better appreciate the true meaning of Scripture, its uniqueness and Oneness, we must be aware of the mindframes we all have which focus our understanding of events present or past for this mindframe is deeply rooted in us. In fact, this mindframe constitutes a lot of what we think we are. The extreme example I can give, and one very personal to many of us in its inscrutable cruelty, is that of Alzheimer disease on a loved one. As we suffer the deterioration of the person in front of us and the progressive erasing of their capacity to interact, what remains in the person in front of us…?
As the great Canadian entertainer Robert Goulet sang: “… An empty shell, a lonely cell
In which an empty heart must dwell?
So our mindframe is not the answer but a tool we must use and evolve and enrich to become more able to seek the Face of God…
It is not to reject that is the ultimate mind frame.
It is not to reject liturgy or dogma, but it is to reject our own made liturgies and dogma’s that’s a product of our own mind frames. That instead of trying to understand the liturgy and dogmas that are a product of God’s mind frames, as we found in the Scriptures. Expressions of art are indeed the tools for liturgy. I think the greatest expressions of God’s art are the universe and the tabernacle. God speakers His message’s trough this art ( Rom. 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-5). The tabernacle is a compact model of whole. His revelation. And the tabernacle and his by works must be the work of an artist , be led by the artists Bezalel and Aholiab (Ex. 31:1-6; 35:30-35) I think the Scriptures themselves can be seen as a form of art, but that’smy opinion. personal opinion.
It is not to reject liturgy or dogma, but it is to reject our own made liturgies and dogma’s that’s a product of our own mind frames. That instead of trying to understand the liturgy and dogmas that are a product of God’s mind frames, as we found in the Scriptures. Expressions of art are indeed the tools for liturgy. I think the greatest expressions of God’s art are the universe and the tabernacle. God speaks His message’s trough this art ( Rom. 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-5). The tabernacle is a compact model of whole. His revelation. And the tabernacle and his by works must be the work of an artist , be led by the artists Bezalel and Aholiab (Ex. 31:1-6; 35:30-35) I think the Scriptures themselves can be seen as a form of art, but that’s my opinion. personal opinion.
Laila tov, Dr Eli
Your article is a highway to a best understanding the Holy Scripture. Because our faith is Scripture-based, and Gospel-based, we need to understand the very real message. If we don’t, if we misunderstand this, our faith will take a wrong way. I clearly understand whereof wrote Drs Charles van den Berg at February 10, the replacement theology is one of the mistaken what the church made, when did not try to recognize the real meaning of Gospels.
If we want one healthy spiritual live, and one faith what will be appreciated by God, we must to verily hear what He “verily, verily say”
Thank you Dr Eli for your valued help.
Dr. Eli and Judith,
Thanks for the links you provided.
Excellent article Dr. Eli. I enjoyed it very much.
I have just finished some books that only have in common the fact that I bought them but surprisingly, even to me as a buyer, they reach parallel conclusions:The origin of stories by Brian Boyd, The First Word by Christine Kenneally, Information by James Gleick, and Strategy by Lawrence Freedman. The common and parallel thread is that of stories as a central concept of language use and storytelling. Another parallel theme is that of liturgy as pertaining that art has been used by religion as a way of attaining social cohesion and liturgy seems to have been a form of using and fixing art as social adhesive.
All this takes us to the central theme of the original language of the New Testament and the framing that such a language, whatever it was, effects on the product and ultimately on the reader. My take is that the original language “frames” the imagery of the religion and culture and then becomes the adhesive that sets the structure of the religion. I think that Dr. van der Berg considerations revolve around this ideas, although I am not in a position to clearly say they do. However, being similar or not his ideas to what I understand, the obvious result is one direction and that is achieved by your attractive article… that by studying the original language of the texts and asumming one proposition of which language it was, we should be able to organize a midframe for the resulting textual rendition and that by studying this mindframe we may have a particularly useful way of interpreting the meaning of the text.
And meaning is the central thesis of information, as masterfully explained by Gleick in his book. MEaning is the ultimate goal of Information be it conch marking or quantum states. Meaning resides in the mind of the reader and it is not an accumulation of signs, a sequence of bits or the conclusion of an algorithm. Meaning is is the connection of the original encriptor and its ultimate destinatary. Meaning is the message, the rest is noise.
Your article helps us reduce the noise inherent in the mother of all messages,the Holy Scriptures and by that, we end being closer to the truth, the ultimate message and the ultimate meaning we all seek.
Thanks for getting us closer.
Thanks RamanAntonio for your additional thoughts . The common and parrallel concepts in the original languages, and in the central themes of Scriptures, and the involved way of thinking, are like a structural living frame that shows us the consistence and oneness of Scripture. It is like the bones of Yeshua HaMachiach: they could not be broken (Ps.34:20; Joh. 19:36).
The Hebraism in the Koine-Judeo-Greek, Dr. Eli is speaking about, is an important part of this structural living frame of consistence and oneness between TeNach and Briet Chadasja . However, in order to see and understand that frame, we have to keep aloof from, our personal ideas and interpretations of these things, born from our own (also: church) traditions.
Folks, it is wonderful that all of you kept this important conversation going. Let us keep on thinking together about this and many other worthy subjects. Dr. Eli
thank you for sharing i love to know the truth!
we agree in all languages ‘the people’ are us.