OVERVIEW – Was the New Testament composed in Greek or Hebrew? All evidence points to the former as the original language.
What was the original language of what we now call the “New Testament”? For centuries, the consensus was that it was written in Greek. In recent years, however, a growing minority has claimed it was first composed in Hebrew (or Aramaic), then translated relatively early into Greek. After all, the apostles and first Christians were all Jews, and, of course, first-century Jews spoke Hebrew. But what does the evidence show, and does it matter?
The New Testament provides examples of early Christians speaking Greek. For example, the Apostle Paul preaching to Greek philosophers in Athens, when he even quoted a pagan Greek poet in his sermon. Of course, that was to a non-Jewish audience. But the book of Acts also describes Hellenized Jews in the early church who spoke Greek in certain synagogues, including Stephen, the first martyr – (Acts 6:1-6, 17:22-31, Acts 21:37).
The New Testament provides evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but there are indicators that he also 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) – a Hellenized and Greek-speaking Gentile – (Matthew 15:22, Mark 7:26, 15:34, John 12:20-24, Acts 6:1-6).
The New Testament nowhere insists on the strict use of the Hebrew forms of names and other terms derived from the Old Testament. It evidences no hesitation on the part of the early church to use Greek and other non-Hebraic terms and languages when preaching the gospel. If anything, the early church used all the linguistic tools at its disposal, and to great effect. As Paul wrote:
“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).
What is the evidence for the original language of the New Testament? First, all surviving ancient manuscripts, or parts thereof, were written in Greek – (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 Christianity was a missionary-oriented religion, the New Testament was translated into other languages relatively early in church history, including Syriac, Latin, and Coptic, and all translated from Greek originals, not Hebrew or Aramaic – (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 and early second centuries wrote letters in Greek in which they alluded to or quoted passages from the Greek New Testament – (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 New Testament gives no indication that it is a translation from another language. A document of any length translated from one language into another will include signs of being a translation. This is especially so with languages as fundamentally 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 by the New Testament. Most verbal allusions and quotations from the Hebrew Bible were taken from the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint, though some New Testament authors used both (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 authors of the New Testament translated Aramaic and Hebrew terms into Greek for their first Greek-speaking audience – (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 utilized aspects of the Greek language to their advantage. The examples are too numerous to list, but include alliteration, word plays and synonyms, double and even triple negatives, compound words and so on, uses that are difficult to explain if the books of the Greek New Testament had been translated from a Hebrew original.
A good example is the opening clause of the book of Hebrews where the author used two like-sounding Greek compound words to great rhetorical effect, a feature that could not be duplicated in Hebrew or Aramaic, and is difficult enough to represent in many modern languages:
“[In] many parts and many ways (polumerôs kai polutropôs), of old, God, having spoken to the fathers in the prophets,in thelast 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 its several authors. This is often lost in translation into modern languages. The individual books show the varying abilities of their respective authors with Greek, rhetoric, etc. If a later hand translated a book from Hebrew into Greek, it would be difficult to duplicate the writing characteristics its author. If anything, the tendency of the translator is to correct clumsy syntax, grammatical errors, and the like, not to duplicate them in English, German, Russian, etc.
Ninth, the New Testament authors often made theological points in Greek that could not be made using Hebrew, at least not easily. For example, the Apostle Paul used the term “body” metaphorically to portray certain aspects of the church. But Hebrew has no word that corresponds to the Greek term for “body” or sôma. The closest it can come is the Hebrew noun rendered “corpse.”
The tenth is a practical point. The early church was focused on missionary activities. By the first century, Hebrew had fallen into disuse, even among Palestinian Jews. Because of the spread of the Greek language, it was spoken throughout the Roman world, especially in the eastern half of the Mediterranean region.
Greek became the de facto standard language of commerce. It was so widespread that Roman magistrates commonly published edicts in both Latin and Greek, though Latin was the official language of Roman government. While not everyone in the empire spoke Greek, it was used more widely than other languages.
For a new religion committed to spreading its message to peoples of every nation and culture, Greek would have been the most practical choice as a medium of communication. HEBREW WOULD HAVE BEEN A MOST IMPRACTICAL OPTION.
As for the evidence for a Hebrew original, there are no existing ancient Hebrew manuscripts of any New Testament book or even individual passage. And there are no ancient translations from Hebrew originals into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Greek, etc.
While several church fathers claimed the gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew, all such claims were dependent on an unsubstantiated and ambiguous quotation from Papias of Hieraopolis, which itself was reported by the church historian, Eusebius, approximately two hundred years after the man’s death. Since the writings of Papias were all lost in the distant past, the accuracy of Eusebius’ brief and enigmatic quotation cannot be objectively verified – (Floyd Filson, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1971), p. 16).
And there is another practical point. Considering the mission to preach the Gospel “to all nations,” writing or translating the core documents of the new faith into Hebrew would have made little sense.
What is noteworthy about claims of a supposed Hebrew original New Testament is the lack of substantive evidence for it. In contrast to the wealth of evidence for a Greek original, there are no surviving ancient Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts of the New Testament. There are no ancient translations of the supposed Hebrew New Testament into Syriac, Latin, Gothic, Coptic, or any other language of the period.
The proposed Hebrew original cannot explain why several New Testament authors transliterated Aramaic (or Hebrew) terms into Greek letters, then translated them for a Greek-speaking audience. And the extensive use of the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament makes no sense if it was originally written in Hebrew.
In summary, the evidence for Greek as the original language of the New Testament is substantial, extensive, 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, which at most hints at the possibility of an Aramaic or Hebrew original of only the Gospel of Matthew.
Does it matter? First, there is the issue of historical accuracy. Second, the Greek New Testament is our only reliable source for what the Apostles taught. Having an accurate representation of what they wrote is vital to ascertaining correct Christian doctrine. 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 faith and confidence in the New Testament documents. How do we know whether later translators corrupted the original message? As to restoring the supposed Hebrew “original,” since we have NO copies whatsoever of any portion of the alleged document, restoration becomes highly problematic.