The French Biblical scholar Jean Carmignac once wrote, “Whoever has not read the Gospels in Hebrew has not truly read them!” What could he possibly mean? The statement would be easily understandable if it referred to the original texts, but no Hebrew originals of the Gospels are known today. So was the learned man actually saying that it would be better to read a Hebrew translation than to read any other version of the Gospels – even the presumably Greek originals?
Carmignac (1914-1986) expressed this thought after decades of studying the Dead Sea Scrolls – the famous ancient library discovered at Qumran near the Dead Sea. The texts in this collection (written mostly in Hebrew) shed incalculable light on the Jewish world of about 2,000 years ago. They help enormously to explain the historical setting of the Gospels and, very often, the ideas and perspectives of those who wrote about Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. Those first-century messianic writings, which we have in a Jewish form of Greek, are saturated with Hebrew thought, culture, and even grammar.
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From this perspective, Carmignac’s comment makes perfect sense! The only way to truly understand the Gospels, he suggested, was to “savor the Semitic fragrance they breath out” – or in his original French, le parfum sémitique qui s’en exhale. Any other way of reading falls short, because the (Greek) texts are so deeply rooted in the Hebrew world. Another twentieth-century French scholar and translator, André Chouraqui (1917-2007), expressed it like this: the Gospels are written in “a new language, a kind of Hebrew-Greek in which the Hebrew sky is reflected in the Hellenic mirror.” Once one gets a good whiff of the scent of Hebrew in Jewish-Greek texts like the Gospels, a whole new world of meaning opens up – or in Carmignac’s words, une vie nouvelle, “a new life”. Correctly identifying the perfume one breathes in can be the key to gaining true insight!
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