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.

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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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38 COMMENTS

  1. why do you persist in using “Common Era” (CE) rather than AD. This terminology was clearly created to take Jesus out of history? Mike

  2. But was there a spoken Hebrew (as opposed to Aramaic) at Jesus’ time, and, as I understood when I studied biblical Hebrew, biblical Hebrew was not itself a spoken language (which, I admit, seems odd, but it does seem that Aramaic was the commonly spoken language. Please poke holes in this!

  3. All very well, the Greek Scriptures use of the LLX – BUT, it is inaccurate when it comes to the Genesis etc genealogies, adding thousands of yrs to take away from, ‘Work for 6 days, for in 6 Days God created the H&E, the sea & all that is in them’, c 6000 yrs ago, etc…. No literal Genesis Creation & Fall means no need for the ‘last Adam’ & the Cross, as even misotheists like Dawkins know….

  4. There is a debate about the Gospel of Matthew being first written in Hebrew and later Greek. Some say Aramaic. I always enjoy reading Shem Tov’s Hebrew Mattew be it a later work 14th century or a copy from much earlier Hebrew manuscript and then also I’m personally fascinated with the existence of early surviving citations from Jewish-Christian Gospels such as Gospel of the Nazarenes, Gospel of the Ebionites and Gospel of the Hebrews preserved in the writings of Jerome, Epiphanius and others.

  5. Just like today people used words and phrase structure borrowed from communities they were interacting with . Israel coming out of egypt after 400 yrs were not speaking yedish but a mix of aramaic ,egyptian and probably other languages just like we do . Ex: restaurant is used in french ,english,russian and probably others language too, epistles were most probably written in the apostle native’s and translated to fit the language to hoom it was destine to if the apostle didn t master the local tongue. As an lds we receive from the prophets text in english than translated.

  6. Dead Sea scholar Nehemia Gordon has a little book out called “The Naming of Jesus in Hebrew Matthew,” which presents a bit of evidence that Matthew was first written in Hebrew and later translated into other languages, the Hebrew version eventually becoming unknown but not quite lost. https://www.amazon.com/Naming-Jesus-Hebrew-Matthew-ebook/dp/B0041KL5FO/ref=sr_1_3_twi_kin_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533384084&sr=8-3&keywords=Nehemiah+Gordon Gordon’s book “The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus” is also most insightful. He summarizes the book in his seven year old lecture on YouTube.

    • Nehemia Gordon is working on a new book. He now has texts in Hebrew of portions of the Gospels, James, and Jude in their entirety, and the entire book of Revelation. The gospels and Revelation all date from the 16th century and James and Jude are in Rashi script, making them much older. All of them have internal evidence of being based on much older manuscript tradition, such as the use of the word “nails” instead of “keys” in Rev. 1:18 pointing to a practice in Jesus’ time of making keys out of crucifixion nails for the stout and stiff

  7. See Matthew 24 2-3 Not one stone will stand upon another at the Temple. The present Temple Ground is built as a Roman Fortress including the Great Whalling wall. Zion. Zion, in the Old Testament, the easternmost of the two hills of ancient Jerusalem. It was the site of the Jebusite city captured by David, king of Israel and Judah, in the 10th century bc (2 Samuel 5:6–9) and established by him as his royal capital. Zion | hill, Jerusalem | Britannica.com Big Christian vs. Jewish Debate on If the Temple was built to where? I welcome suggestions.

  8. Thank you, Dr Eli for an intriguing article. The difference between Is 53 v10 in the DSS/Masoretic and in the LXX has always puzzled me since they suggest opposite meanings. Perhaps they reflect 2 of those 3 traditions? You would expect Jesus to quote from the Hebrew DSS/Masoretic not the LXX. Or maybe the NT scribe translating into Greek (Judaeo-Greek) switched to the LXX since it was already there for him in Greek? Then there is the Aramaic angle. ‘Daka’ in v10 seems to mean ‘cleanse’ in Aramaic (LXX) but ‘crush’ in Hebrew. What is going on?!

    • I don’t know :-), but this highlights importance of language study and realization that things are some times a bit more complex that we would wish them to be. Thanks, Richard!

  9. This is from a comment I heard by Dr. Buth and haven’t done my own research but… apparently Josephus records the inhabitants of Jerusalem(?) during the Roman attack as yelling whenever a stone was launched [he’s writing in Greek] “a son is coming” which in Hebrew sounds very similar to when you say “a stone is coming” very hurriedly, (“ben ba” vs. “eben ba”) [excuse the poor transliteration]. This similarity does not exist in Aramaic and therefore the case for Hebrew as a primary language is strengthened since such extreme urgency would rule out anything but total fluency.

  10. I agree with Mike. Why use CE and not AD? Many, as yourself say it is out of respect, not to offend those that do not believe. So why mention Jesus our Lord at all, since it might offend. Let us remove all that offends; such as crosses, bibles, churches etc. While the non-believers have no problem with their signs. We should remember what HE said; “deny me & I will deny you!” I believe that means; “do not be silent in your belief of ME!” I always question any source that has given in to “bce” & “ce” BC/AD!

  11. I well understand your statement that Judeo-Greek was the language used to compose the New Testament. In a similar way the language used to translate the King James version is not strictly English. For example, any reference to baptism uses the transliterated Greek word and not an English word translated from the Greek.

    • Thanks, Lee. There is a terrific lecture on itunes university called God’s Secretaries: The Makings of King James Bible. I recommend it.

  12. Dear Dr. Eli, I have always accepted that the New Testament was written in Koine Greek with quite a few Semiticisms – almost certainly a Koine Judeo-Greek as you say. What I would like to know is how much do we know about the subsequent development of Judeo-Greek. I understand that a form of Judeo-Greek was still spoken in Thessalonica down to the time of the Holocaust when that Jewish community in Greece was destroyed – perhaps totally. Is this later Judeo-Greek of any help to us in filling in any gaps in our knowledge of language of the NT?

    • Dear Seathrun, shalom! (First of all do tell if it was you who translated my book into French in the past, if so please contact me via email). About Judeo-Greek you mention I was told that this is a seperate language that scholars called Judeo-Greek, while they were not thinking of the same in terms of LXX and NT.

  13. Very interesting articles Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg! I never believe the N.T. was written by the Hebrew language but other eyes witnesses in other language form. One thing that really get me is the DEAD SEA SCROLLS. After reviewing this we had made a serious mistake in the translations of the Bible. Everything is out of context and or missing. That’s why I love your theme “The Bible needs to be reread it does not needs to be retranslation. Shalom! Dr. Timothy Brown

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