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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13 COMMENTS

  1. What an awesome article. I can almost replace some of the poetry with “Epah” and the Inspiration and or/ “Breath of Life”.

    Be Blessed

  2. More familiar with the two languages than most people, I spend my time trying to “understand” the Hebrew/Greek of the Gospels for a daily blog. You affirm my effort. Even simple things, like the virtually transliterated “amen, amen I say to you” becomes “To tell you the truth.” Words like dikaiosyne/tsedaqah make me avoid any kind of historical reference to “justice” as the positive Hebrew meaning clearly overrides the eventually Latin-into-English understanding of a court system. Thank you for the article.

  3. Would this help with the problem of 40,000 sects and denominations, if Gentile churches built upon a foundation of Jewish thought? It seems so many Gentile denominations over the centuries have purposely thought that whatever Jewish people and believers do, think, or act in a Jewish way a living out the truth of scripture, they have done the opposite, regardless of scripture. I attend an Anabaptist(Mennonite)Church and they have historically taught non-resistance, no military involvement, etc, no matter that the early church was all Jewish and people worst scripturally free to be in the military/defend their families

    • Thanks, Joseph. In my humble opinion, it’s always beneficial for people of whatever background to seek better understanding and think circumspectly about history!

  4. At the most recent count, there are now 18 different sources of original Hebrew manuscripts of the gospel of Matthew discovered according to Nehemiah Gordon, establishment recognised Hebrew and Torah scholar of Israel
    yours in Yeshua – Cornelius Bruin

    • Thanks for the comment, Cornelius. I’ve not looked in detail at Nehemia Gordon’s claims, but I believe he is referring to the Shem Tov and related late medieval/early modern manuscripts. These date from well over a millennium (!) after the time of the Gospels (and their earliest Greek manuscripts). It’s of course an intriguing suggestion that these texts might go back to some lost Hebrew original, but the theory is (to say the least) very speculative and highly controversial. Gordon himself admits that even if his theory is correct, the Hebrew Matthew texts have been substantially modified through editing (and are thus not the same as the presumed ancient original). It would be more helpful if a Hebrew Matthew were to be discovered in some newly explored Qumran cave! We can hope. 🙂

    • In the interests of fairness, I’ll add that George Howard is another Hebrew scholar who believes that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and that it is possible to reconstruct portions of the original. (As mentioned, I’ve not yet looked in detail at these claims.)

  5. Thanks for your explanation on the use of the Phylacteries in Hebrew worship. I understand it also signifies one being imbued with scriptures. Yet one often sees some preachers slapping the Bible for emphasis. This is an abuse of this sacred book.

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