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.

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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. Bob Smith

    Dr. Eli,
    My first course on Judaism (San Francisco, 1965) was team-taught by two rabbis, who made it abundantly clear that Jesus’ halakic teachings were fully Talmudic, that is Pharisaic.

    “A Jewish take on Jesus: Amy-Jill Levine talks the gospels,” U. S. Catholic, 77/10 (Oct 2012):18-22, online at .
    “Jesus was smack in the middle of the Jewish tradition of his time. Remembering that can make you a better Christian,”

    “The only Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. The first person in history ever called rabbi in a literary text is Jesus of Nazareth.”
    I have also met Prof Levine.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Bob,

      There is ABSOLUTLY NO question that overwhelming majority of what Jesus argued and HOW HE DID SO was very much within one or another section of Jewish tradition with his day. I trust this is not what we arguing about here at all. Perhaps, you are misunderstanding my point. You seem to be confusing Talmudic logic with Jewish logic (because the first is a subset of the second; it is a version of the second that won the day another 5-7 centuries later). This is the problem with your anachronistic thinking that we talking about :-).
      Your first course lecturers were certainly wrong (let me clarify… they were not wrong in their direction… there were right there. They were wrong in the nuance or the lack thereof). In 1965 the discussion about Jesus and “the Rabbis” was just beginning. We are now in 2014 and lots has transpired already within the last 49 years of research. What we should keep in mind about Amy-Jill is that while she is a Jewish scholar (that talks to other Jewish scholars) she is a Jewish scholar for Christians mostly (no fault in this of course). After all she is teaching at Christian Divinity School! Both quotes you are giving (if their hers) are addressed to Christians like yourself and usually not to Christ-following Jews like myself. Do keep this in mind.
      St. Paul is the perfect example. All the letters of this particular Pharisee are ALL addressed to non-Jews, but we read it as if he is talking to both! (anyways I am hoping that you will hear me a little on this).
      Jesus at times agreed with Essene Halachah against Pharisees, other times the other way around. His views were ALL under Jewish halachic umbrella of course, but JEWISH must not be equated with PHARISAIC (as if all Jews were Pharisees) and incidentally PHARISAIC IS NOT THE SAME THING as Talmudic (another mistake you are making). There is a connection to be sure. But the relationship between the Pharisees and rabbis of Talmud are now under study.
      I do honor your obviously very long years-wise commitment to study this issue. I admire you and once again welcome to this forum. I hope in some way you will benefit from it and we will I am sure as well.

  2. Kat

    Dr. Eli, is Hebraism pointing forward (to Christ) or backwards? I ask because Western Evangelism sometimes assumes that words like “warning” or “invitation” (Hebrew features) are no longer applicable to the Christian mindset. (I consider myself to have been warned and invited prior to hearing the gospel. )

  3. RamonAntonio

    Mess Smith
    Although your comment is very illuminating I feel compelled to make a note. It’s not a certainty that Jesus and the apostles were familiar with “rabbinic interpretation” as you suggest simply because there was no rabbinic in nte prettiness whatsoever in Jesus time. In fact, Jesus is the first person in history called rabbi in Israel.
    What we term rabbinic interpretation started after Jesus. Please check parallel comments jn other posts by Dr Eli and other contributors stressing this issue. Also check important Jewish investigators such as Frank Moore Cross on diverse and parallel extants.
    Your original Aramaic suggestion is Greta on its own.

    1. Bob Smith

      Most scholars see Jesus as a Pharisaic rabbi in the tradition of his contemporary, Rabbi Hillel. You might want to have a look at the following:

      J. H. Charlesworth and L. L. Johns, eds., Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 1997).

      Hermann L. Strack, and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 6 vols. in 7 (Munich: Beck, 1922-1961).

      David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 2009, in process). TRENT

      Paul the Apostle was also a Pharisaic rabbi, trained by the great Gamaliel (Acts 5:34, 22:3, 23:6)

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Dear Bob, to use “Rabbi” for Jesus in the early centuries is indeed anachronistic (I agree with Ramon and so do most people now days). He was NOT a Rabbi in today’s sense of the word. He was of course called that in the NT but in the New Testaments the role/office of the rabbis was not yet the role that it will one day become. People like David Instone-Brewer (which I like very much) are not using it correctly :-). Though their arguments about other things are solid indeed. About Charlesworth… I was one of his students at Princeton. Try to read more broadly that what you are referencing. The correct way to refer to the people you mean to signifying is proton-rabbinic. This way you are showing their connection with the later Rabbis, but showing also that you are aware that calling them Rabbis is not justified. Welcome to our forum, Bob. Its good to have you with us. We are learning a lot of things together and you will be an important addition to us!

        1. Bob Smith

          Dr. Eli,
          I realize that modern rabbis are trained in formal seminaries and then “ordained,” and that Rabbi Jesus (the title of Bruce Chilton’s book) was more of a Galilean Wunderrebbe — like Honi the Circle Maker. As Jacob Neusner has observed many times, Judaism of that time is in so many respects different from modern rabbinic Judaism.
          Still, comparison of the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus with those of the Talmud reveal him as a typical Pharisaic rabbi of Beth Hillel. Indeed, the consensus in modern studies of Christianity is that one must understand the Judaism or Judaisms of the NT period in order to understand Jesus and Christianity; Ask Amy-Jill Levine, or Marc Zvi Brettler

          1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Dear Bob,

            we can agree to disagree. Once again welcome to the forum. I would only encourage you to understand that only because something makes into the book form it does not constitute verifiable truth.

            Amy-Jill if you do ask her will agree with me (we spend some time together talking about these things a while back actually) that it is anachronistic to call Jesus a pharisaic rabbi. I think you should stop dropping the big names on us and argue you case instead :-). Hope you take this well.


  4. Bob Smith

    John 12:41 Jesus quoting from a tradition found in targum Isaiah 6:1 “I saw the glory of the Lord”

    Not only does this tell us that Jesus likely delivered all his comments and homilies in Aramaic, but that he and his disciples were intimately familiar with rabbinic interpretation, and frequently read the Hebrew Bible accordingly. If we take the view of Matthew Black’s Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, we might thus see many Aramaisms in the New Testament text.

  5. Bob Smith

    Mark 12:1-9 Jesus alludes to a tradition of “sanctuary” and “altar” found in targum Isaiah 5:1-7
    Luke 6:36 (Q), Matt 5:48 Jesus used a midrashic expansion of a tradition found in targum Pseudo-Jonathan Lev 22:28
    Luke 10:9 Jesus follows a tradition found in targum Pseudo-Jonathan Deut 34:6 – man & woman joined together by God
    Luke 10:24, Matt 13:17 Jesus follows a tradition found in targum Isa 48:6
    Luke 10:25-28 Jesus follows traditions found in midrash Sipra Lev §193; Damascus Document A, 3:15-20; and targums Onqelos and Pseudo-Jonathan Lev 18:5
    John 1:1,3 John here following a tradition found in targum Neofiti Gen 1:1
    [to be continued]

  6. Bob Smith

    Matt 5:12, 23:37, Luke 6:23,13:34 Jesus follows a tradition found in the targumic version of Isaiah 28:11
    Matt 13:17, Luke 10:24 Jesus follows a tradition found in the targumic version of Isaiah 48:6
    Matt 26:52 Jesus follows a tradition found in the targumic version of Isaiah 50:11
    Mark 1:15, Matt 4:17 Jesus follows a tradition found in the targumic version of Isa 52:7
    Mark 4:11-12 Jesus here follows a tradition found in the targumic version of Isa 6:9-10
    Mark 8:31 Jesus follows a tradition found in the targumic version of Hosea 6:2
    Mark 9:47-48 Jesus alludes to a tradition of “Gehenna” found in targum Isaiah 66:24
    [to be continued]

  7. Bob Smith

    Dear Dr. Eli,
    I greatly enjoyed this essay by you. However, what about the “the tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2) which form what the Rabbis saw as the Oral Law handed down from the time of Moses. Some of that vaunted “tradition of the elders” inhabits passages of the Aramaic targumim, the translations of the Hebrew Old Testament into Aramaic, departing from both the Massoretic (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) traditions. Indeed, Craig Evans has supplied us with a nice sampling of just such likely textual sources used by Jesus, which I will display in my next comment:

  8. Dei Sylvester

    The antiquities of the Jews was written in what language by Josephus

  9. Marcia New

    As usual, Dr. Eli, your explanation of the language the NT is written in is very clear and compelling. Thank you for such expertise as you gladly share with all of us. God bless!

    We’re all still waiting to hear when your new book will be released!!

  10. Todd Maloney

    Great article. Excellent scholarship (as usual). I agree wholeheartedly with Doctor Eli.