Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
Hebrew and Aramaic -- Languages of First-Century Israel
In an effort to deny the importance of YEHOVAH God’s great Name, there are those who erroneously contend that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Is this true? Christianity today is tainted with Greek thinking, Hellenized creeds and unscriptural practices derived from Greco-Roman infusions through a Greek-translated New Testament. When you examine all the evidence, it is clear that the New Testament was originally inspired in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and then later translated into Greek. The testimony to this is voluminous and logical -- as this article plainly reveals.
by John D. Keyser
The Middle East, through all of its political turmoil, has been dominated by a single language group, known as Semitic, from the earliest times until the present day. During this time the Semitic tongue of Aramaic dominated the three great Empires -- Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian. It endured until the seventh century when, under rising Islam, it was displaced by a cognate Semitic language, Arabic. Even today there are some Syrians, Assyrians and Chaldeans who speak Aramaic as their native tongue -- including three villages north of Damascus.
The Jewish people -- through all of their persecutions, sufferings and wanderings -- have never lost sight of their Semitic heritage, nor their Semitic tongue. Hebrew, a Semitic tongue closely related to Aramaic, served as their language until the great dispersion when a cognate language -- Aramaic -- began to replace it. Hebrew, however, continued to be used in their religious literature and is, today, the spoken language in the State of Israel.
The Babylonian Exile
Some scholars have theorized that the Jews completely lost their Hebrew language, replacing it with Aramaic during the Babylonian captivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Children of Israel spent many years in captivity in Egypt, yet they did not stop speaking Hebrew and begin speaking Egyptian. So why should they exchange Hebrew for Aramaic after just 70 years in Babylonian captivity? Upon their return from the Babylonian captivity, it was discovered that a small minority of the Jews could not speak “the language of Judah,” so drastic measures were taken to prevent further erosion of the Hebrew language. One such measure was the abolition of mixed marriages to maintain the purity of the Jewish people and, hence, the purity of the language. That these measures were successful is indicated by the fact that all of the post-captivity books of the Tanakh (Old Testament) -- Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi, Nehemiah, Ezra and Ester -- are written in Hebrew rather than Aramaic.
However, “somewhere between 721-500 B.C. the language of the people of Palestine shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic. Therefore we know that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and wrote in this language while preaching the message of Christianity in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia” (Chaldeans: Present and Past, by Michael J. Bazzi. 1991. P. 39). Writes Bo Reicke in The New Testament Era: The World of the Bible from 500 B.C. To A.D. 100 –
Toward the end of the Judahite monarchy, Aramaic had already become the generally accepted language of commerce and politics in Syria and Palestine (II Kings 18:26), largely because of the importance of the kingdom of Damascus and the other Syrian states. In addition, the Assyrians and Babylonians had settled Aramaic-speaking peoples in Israel and Judah. During the exile, the Israelite and Judahite nobility adopted Aramaic because it was the international language, and brought it with them when they returned to their former homeland. Because the Achaemenids accepted the dominance of Aramaic, they made it the official language of Syria and Palestine (Ezra 4:7), thus permitting a special Imperial Aramaic to develop. Hebrew remained the language of the Jewish cult, but Aramaic gradually became the generally spoken language of Palestine. It remained the language of Jews and Christians in Palestine until late antiquity. This linguistic factor, to which Cyrus and the Achaemenids contributed, was essential to the intellectual and spiritual unity of Judaism (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1981, p. 10).
The period after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia marked the beginning of the so-called Hellenistic Age -- the time when there began a more rapid mixture of Greek culture and thought with other cultures. This period in history witnessed the conflict of empires and the breakdown of the city-states, a growth in individualism and rapid progress in science, along with Greek thinking in the form of philosophy.
The Hebrew people were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 586 B.C., when Jerusalem was destroyed and its remaining citizens deported. However, when the Persians under Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians, the Hebrew people returned to Judah from the lands of their captivity. Jerusalem was restored and YEHOVAH God’s Temple was rebuilt.
Under Persian rule, the people of Judah maintained their religious form of government and also developed a distinguished literature. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the land of Judah in 333 B.C. did NOT affect their status. But, after Alexander’s untimely death and the subsequent division of his empire among his four leading generals, Hellenistic influence began in Judah, and Greek religion was thrust upon its people.
In the first third of the 2nd century B.C. a group of wealthy Jewish aristocrats came into power in Palestine, who were attracted to the trappings of Hellenism. “Yet even when Greek became the language of choice for literature, culture, politics and commerce” among the elite, “Aramaic remained as the language of the common people until the conquest of the Moslems in the 7th century A.D. where they introduced the Aramaic language to the Near East” (ibid., p. 39, 41).The REVOLT of the Maccabees AGAINST the Hellenizers in 167 B.C. (Antiochus IV Epiphanes and those who followed him) was a direct result of the ruthless attempts to Hellenize the Jews.
In other words, Antiochus IV Epiphanes wanted the Jews to worship his gods, celebrate his pagan religious holidays, and adhere to the laws of his Greek culture and language -- which the religiously upright in Judah simply did NOT want to do!
Some scholars have also suggested that under this pressure the Jews lost their Semitic language and, in their rush to Hellenize, began to speak Greek. However, Antiochus Epiphanes attempts were short-lived and, in response, the Jews formed an army led by Judas Maccabee. This army crushed the Greeks and eradicated Hellenism from the land. This military victory is celebrated as Chanukkah to this very day -- the feast of the dedication of the Temple. Even Yeshua the Messiah seems to have observed this holiday at the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century. Those who claim that the Jews were Hellenized and began speaking Greek at this time seem to overlook the historical fact of the Maccabean success.
When the Syrian army was driven out of Palestine and an independent kingdom of Judah was re-established under the Hasmonean (Maccabean) priestly dynasty, Hellenistic influence remained amongst the wealthy aristocrats and the Sadducean High Priesthood. However, amongst the masses of Judah, attendance at Greek theaters and gymnasiums was strictly forbidden by the Jewish religious leaders. Even the people themselves -- the am-ha-eretz -- would allow NO COM- PROMISES with their religious traditions; and the rise of the Pharisees at this time may be seen as a reaction against the Greco-Roman culture preferred by the Sadducees who were, as we have seen, allied with the Phil-Hellenic (love-Greek) Hasmoneans. The Jews organized their culture and their political life ON THEIR OWN TERMS; and the isolation in which the Jews lived (especially in Judah) was conducive to the creation of a style of thought and life which was considered competitive with Hellenistic civilization.
The result of the persistent and sometimes brutal attempts of the Hellenizers to “reform” the religion of Judah was that the religious leaders set up a “fence” around their religion and culture. The Encyclopedia Judaica explains this:
The “fence” which the rabbis created around the Torah (see Avot 1:1) succeeded, on the whole, in keeping the masses of the Jews from succumbing to Greek culture, as the complaints about Jewish religious and social separateness (cf., e.g., Tacitus, Histories, 5:4) indicate (Vol. 8, pp. 299).
Because of the “fence” which the religious Jews created around the Torah -- the Law -- they were able to keep the masses from succumbing to Greek culture, which included the Greek language.
The Jews rejected the influence of Hellenism upon their religion and culture, and they continued to worship the ONE true God, continued to observe the ordinances of the Feasts in the proper manner, and continued to observe the Law which YEHOVAH God had given to the children of Israel through Moses.
It is a historical fact that the Jews -- with the exception of the Sadducees and their small number of followers -- remained religiously and culturally SEPARATE from the Hellenistic influences that were rampant in that ancient world for hundreds of years after its inception. The religion and culture of the Jews, unlike the religion and culture of so-called Christianity, was UNABLE and UNWILLING to adapt to the popular customs of the heathen -- for hundreds of years thereafter.
During the first century A.D. Hebrew remained the language of the Jews living in Judah and, to a lesser degree, in Galilee. Aramaic remained a secondary language and the language of commerce. Jews at this time DID NOT SPEAK GREEK. In fact, one tradition has it that it was better to feed one’s children swine flesh than to teach them the Greek language! That says a lot since swine flesh is forbidden by the Torah and, as a result, spurned by the Jews. And it was only with the permission of the Jewish authorities that a young government official could learn Greek, and then, solely for the purpose of political discourse on the National or International level. The Greek language was COMPLETELY INACCESSIBLE AND UNDESIRABLE to the vast majority of Jews in Israel during the first century. The bottom line is that any gauge of Greek language outside of Israel cannot, nor any evidence hundreds of years removed from the first century, alter the fact that most of the Jews of Israel in the first century A.D. DID NOT KNOW GREEK.
Eusebius and the Messiah
What language did the Messiah use in his daily intercourse with his followers and those who came in contact with him? The Greek Bishop Eusebius (263 -- 339 A.D.), often referred to as the “Father of Ecclesiastical History,” offers a fascinating insight –
Thus it happened that when King Abgar, the brilliantly successful monarch of the peoples of Mesopotamia, who was dying from a terrible physical disorder which no human power could heal, heard continual mention of the name of Jesus and unanimous tribute to His miracles, he sent a humble request to Him BY A LETTER CARRIER, begging for relief from his disease. Jesus did not immediately accede to his request, but honoured him WITH A PERSONAL LETTER, promising to send one of His disciples to cure his disease, and at the same time to bring salvation to him and all his kin...
Written evidence of these things is available, taken from the Record Office at Edessa, at that time the royal capital. In the public documents there, embracing early history and also the events of Abgar’s time, this record is found preserved from then till now; and the most satisfactory course is to listen to the actual letters, which I have extracted from the archives and translated word for word FROM THE SYRIAC as follows: (The History of the Church. Dorset Press: 1984, pp. 65-66).
Eusebius goes on to show a copy of a letter written by Abgar the Toparch to the Messiah and delivered to him at Jerusalem by the courier Ananias; and then the Messiah’s reply to Abgar, delivered by the courier Ananias -- both translated from the original Syriac by Eusebius. Now “Syriac” is simply another term for Aramaic; so this passage clearly shows that the Messiah was familiar with -- and carried out his daily tasks -- in the Aramaic language.
Eusebius goes on to say (page 67) that “To these letters is subjoined the following IN SYRIAC [ARAMAIC]:” Then, on page 70 of his work, he concludes by saying, “Here we may leave for the present this valuable document [the letters to and from the Messiah], LITERALLY TRANSLATED FROM SYRIAC [ARAMAIC].”
The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 or 38 -- about 101 A.D.) testifies to the fact that Aramaic and Hebrew were the languages of first-century Jews. Moreover, he testifies that Aramaic -- and NOT Greek -- was the every-day language of his place and time. In his writings Josephus gives us the only first-hand account of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. According to Josephus, the Romans had to have him translate the demand to the Jews to surrender into “their own language” (Wars, 5:9:2). Josephus also gives us a clear and unequivocal statement regarding the language of his people during his time. Notice!
I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greek language although I have long accustomed myself to speak our own language, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness: for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations (Antiquities of the Jews, 20:1:2).
Here was a highly educated man, an historian born of both royal and priestly lineage, a member of the Pharisees and a public figure who, before the Jewish revolt against Rome, had made friends at the court of Emperor Nero, and he couldn’t “pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness: for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations”! Thus, Josephus makes it very clear that first-century Jews could not even speak or understand Greek, but spoke their “own language.”
The Evidence of Archaeology
Confirmation of Josephus’ claims has been found by archaeologists. Coins from the Bar Kokhba revolt are one such example. These coins were struck by Jews in 132 A.D. and bear only Hebrew inscriptions. Countless other inscriptions found at excavations of the Temple Mount, Masada and various Jewish tombs, have revealed first-century Hebrew inscriptions.
Even more profound evidence that Hebrew was a living language during the first century may be found in ancient documents from about that time -- which have been discovered in Israel. These include the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bar Kokhba letters.
The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves consist of over 40,000 fragments from more than 500 scrolls dating from 250 B.C. to 70 A.D. These scrolls are primarily written in Hebrew and Aramaic. A large number of the “secular scrolls” -- those which are not Bible manuscripts -- are in Hebrew. Notes George Howard –
Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which are Hebrew compositions, and the discovery of other Hebrew documents from the Judean Desert, it is now confirmed that Hebrew was used as a written medium in first century Palestine (Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. Mercer University Press: 1995, p.156).
The Bar Kokhba letters, discovered in 1961 by Yigael Yadin and written during the Jewish revolt of 132 A.D. between Simon Bar Kokhba and his army, are almost entirely in Hebrew and Aramaic. Two of the letters are written in Greek, but both were written by men with Greek names to Bar Kokhba in Greek, saying “the letter is written in Greek, as we have no one who knows Hebrew here.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bar Kokhba letters not only include first and second century Hebrew documents, but reveal even more significant evidence regarding the dialect of that Hebrew. It is interesting to note that the dialect of these documents was not the Biblical Hebrew of the Tanakh nor the Mishnaic Hebrew of the Mishna (c. 220 A.D.), but a colloquial Hebrew -- a fluid, living language in a state of flux somewhere in the process of change from Biblical to Mishnaic Hebrew! Not only that, but the Hebrew of the Bar Kokhba letters was determined to be Galilean Hebrew (Bar Kokhba was a Galilean); while the Dead Sea Scrolls give us an example of Judean Hebrew. Comparing the documents reveals a living distinction of geographic dialect as well -- a sure sign that Hebrew WAS NOT a dead language!
Further evidence that first-century Jews conversed in Hebrew and Aramaic can be found in many other documents of the period and later. These include: the Roll Concerning Fasts in Aramaic (66-70 A.D.), The Letter of Gamaliel in Aramaic (c. 30-110 A.D.), Wars of the Jews by Josephus in Hebrew (c. 75 A.D.), the Mishna in Hebrew (c. 220 A.D.) and the Gemara in Aramaic (c. 500 A.D.).
Language of the New Testament
Having demonstrated that Hebrew and Aramaic were living languages of the Jews living in Israel in the first century, we will now go on to demonstrate that the New Testament was FIRST written in these languages. Even though David Stern uses the UBS Greek New Testament text and NOT the Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts as the source for his New Testament version, he clearly admits –
Nevertheless, a number of scholars...believe that portions of the New Testament were written in Hebrew or Aramaic, or drew upon source materials in those languages; this case has been made for all four Gospels, Acts, Revelation and several of the General Letters. Moreover, Sha’ul [Paul], whose letters were composed in Greek, clearly drew on his native Jewish and Hebraic thought-forms when he wrote. In fact, as shown earlier, some phrases in the New Testament manuscripts make no sense unless one reaches through the Greek to the underlying Hebrew expressions (JNT, p. Xvii).
(It should be noted that Stern also indicates his belief -- which we most certainly DO NOT agree with -- that Paul’s epistles were composed in Greek).
However, Stern is absolutely correct in the rest of his statement. A number of noted scholars have persuasively argued that a good part of the New Testament was originally penned in a Semitic tongue. Note the following examples –
The writers were Hebrews; and thus, while the language is Greek, the thoughts and idioms are Hebrew...If the Greek of the New Testament be regarded as an inspired translation from Hebrew or Aramaic originals, most of the various readings would be accounted for and understood (Dr. E. W. Bullinger, Companion Bible, app. 94).
...We must not forget that Christianity grew out of Judaism...The Pauline epistles were letters written by Paul to small [Messianic] congregations in Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. These early [believers] were mostly Jews of the dispersion, men and women of Hebrew origin...The Epistles were translated into Greek for the use of converts who spoke Greek (George Lamsa, Holy Bible from the Peshitta, p. Xi).
It is almost certain that Jesus spoke and taught in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Galilean peasant. But our Gospels are in Greek. Whether it was the Evangelists themselves or some intermediaries who first told the Gospel stories in Greek, there was at some stage the danger of inaccurately translating the Aramaic words of Jesus...there is an ancient tradition, transmitted from the second century A.D., that the Gospel according to Matthew was written first in Aramaic. Several modern scholars have concluded that all four Gospels and the book of Acts were written in Aramaic; grammatical constructions and idioms in these books indicate an underlying Aramaic version. No such versions, however, have been discovered, and it is therefore customary for Biblical scholars to treat the Greek text of the Gospels and Acts as if it were the “original” (Buckner B. Trawick, The Bible as Literature: The New Testament, 1968, p. 8).
Christ Himself spoke Aramaic and could have known only such parts of Hellenistic culture as trickled into Galilee....Behind the Gospels...lie a lost Aramaic version of the teachings of Christ...(Chester G. Starr, A History of the Ancient World, 1991, p. 618).
When we turn to the New Testament we find that there are reasons for suspecting a Hebrew or Aramaic original for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, John and for the apocalypse (Hugh J. Schonfield, An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 1927, p. vii).
The material for our Four Gospels is all Palestinian, and the language in which it was originally written is Aramaic, then the principle language of the land...(C. C. Torrey, Our Translated Gospels, 1936, p. ix).
My own researches have led me to consider Torrey’s position valid and convincing that the Gospels as a whole were translated from Aramaic into Greek (Frank Zimmerman, The Aramaic Origin of the Four Gospels, KTAV, 1979).
Thus it was that the writer turned seriously to tackle the question of the original language of the Fourth Gospel; and quickly convincing himself that the theory of an original Aramaic document was no chimera, but a fact which was capable of the fullest verification (Charles Fox Burney, The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel, 1922, p. 3).
...this [Old Syriac] Gospel of St. Matthew appears at least to be built upon the original Aramaic text which was the work of the Apostle himself (William Cureton, Remains of a Very Ancient Recension of the Four Gospels in Syriac, 1858, p. vi).
...the Book of Revelation was written in a Semitic language, and that the Greek translation...is a remarkably close rendering of the original (C. C. Torrey, Documents of the Primitive Church, 1941, p. 160).
We come to the conclusion, therefore, that the Apocalypse as a whole is a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic...(R. B. Y. Scott, The Original Language of the Apocalypse, 1928, p. 6).
The question of the Luke/Acts tradition holds particular interest for those seeking the true origin of the New Testament. This is because the common understanding has been to portray Luke as a Greek speaking, Greek writing Gentile who wrote his account to the Gentiles. The reality of the matter is (whether Luke himself knew Greek or not) that Luke was most certainly written in a Semitic language. Notes Charles Cutler Torrey –
In regard to Lk. it remains to be said, that of all the Four Gospels it is the one which gives by far the plainest and most constant evidence of being a translation (Our Translated Gospels, p. lix).
New Testament Based on Old
The inquisitive and detail-minded Bible student soon realizes that the New Testament is undeniably Hebrew in grammar, idiom and thinking. This opens up a whole new understanding of YEHOVAH God’s truth for the New Testament believer. If the Bible student is at all logical he will realize that if the New Testament is rooted in the Hebrew language, then its teachings also derive from the Hebrew culture and are embedded in the Hebrew -- and NOT pagan Greek -- view of truth.
Now those who would object to this reality must be asked the pointed question: Does arguing for a Greek New Testament bring one closer to YEHOVAH’s truth? Or take one FURTHER from YEHOVAH’s truth, knowing that the Old Testament is a thoroughly Hebrew work? Is, then, the New Testament a complete replacement of Old Testament teachings, with entirely new truth flavored with Hellenistic thought, practice and understanding?
The apostle Paul would argue against that!! He clearly wrote that the New Testament is built on the foundation of the Old Testament prophets as well as the New Testament apostles -- see Ephesians 2:20. In John 5:39 Yeshua the Messiah gave the directive to “diligently study the Scriptures because...by them you possess eternal life.” The ONLY “scriptures” extant at that time were those of the Old Testament because the New Testament writings were not yet finished and complied.
Furthermore, in the parable of Lazarus, Yeshua advised the unknowing to listen to “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 16:29) -- meaning the Old Testament. It was the same Old Testament scriptures that the noble Bereans used to establish truth -- notice!
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures everyday to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).
And it was the same Old Testament scriptures that Paul told Timothy would make one perfect in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Testimony of the “Church Fathers”
All of the “church fathers” (both East and West) testified to the Semitic origin of at least the Book of Matthew. Papias (ca. 60-130 A.D.), bishop of Hierapolis, wrote that “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.” The early church writings, after the time of Papias, are replete with references to a Semitic (either Hebrew or Aramaic) Matthew. Note the following examples –
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the Church (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1 -- circa 170 A.D.).
As having learnt by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable in the Church of God under heaven, that first was written that according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language (Origen quoted by Eusebius, H. E. 6.25.4 -- circa 210 A.D.).
Matthew had first preached to Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent (Eusebius, H. E. 3.24.6 -- circa 315 A.D.).
Pantaenus...penetrated as far as India, where it is reported that he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had been delivered before his arrival to some who had the knowledge of Messiah, to whom Bartholomew, one of the emissaries, as it is said, had proclaimed, and left them the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5:10).
They [the Nazarenes] have the Gospel according to Matthew quite complete in Hebrew, for this Gospel is certainly still preserved among them as it was first written, in Hebrew letters (Epiphanius, Panarion, 29:9:4 -- 370 A.D.).
Jerome makes reference to a Hebrew Matthew and to a Gospel according to the Hebrews; but it is unclear whether these are to be considered one and the same document. In Epist. 20.5 he writes: “Finally, Matthew, who wrote the Gospel in the Hebrew language, put it in the following way: Osianna barrama, which means ossana in excelsis.” The reference is to Matthew 21:9 and the language is Hebrew. In Epist. 120.8, he writes: “But in the gospel which is written in Hebrew letters we read that not the curtain of the temple but the upper threshold of the temple, being of marvellous size, fell down.” The reference here is to Matthew 27:51. Then, regarding Matthew 12:13, he writes: “In the Gospel which the Nazoraeans and the Ebionites use which we translated recently from Hebrew to Greek and which is called the authentic text of Matthew by a good many, it is written that the man with the withered hand is a mason, praying for help with words of this kind: ‘I was a mason earning my living with my hands, I pray you, Jesus, to restore my health lest I must beg shamefully for my food.’” The canonical (Greek) Matthew has no parallel to this. In adv. Pelag. 3.2, Jerome writes: “In the Gospel according to the Hebrews which was written in the Chaldaic and Syriac language but with Hebrew letters, and is used up to the present day by the Nazoraeans, I mean that according to the Apostles, or, as many maintain, according to Matthew.” His reference here is to an Aramaic document.
In Lives of Illustrious Men, Book 3, Jerome goes on to say –
Matthew, who is also Levi, and from a tax collector came to be an emissary first of all evangelists composed a Gospel of Messiah in Judea in the Hebrew language and letters, for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed, who translated it into Greek is not sufficiently ascertained. Furthermore, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea, which the martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected. I also was allowed by the Nazarenes who use this volume in the Syrian city of Borea to copy it. In which is to be remarked that, wherever the evangelist...makes use of the testimonies of the Old Scripture [Old Testament], he does not follow the authority of the seventy translators [the Greek Septuagint], but that of the Hebrew.
In Isho’dad’s Commentary on the Gospels we find written: “His [Matthew’s] book was in existence in Caesarea of Palestine, and everyone acknowledges that he wrote it with his hands in Hebrew...”
Other “church fathers” have testified to the Semitic origin of at least one of the apostle Paul’s epistles. These same “church fathers” claim that Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews was translated into Greek from a Hebrew original -- as the following quotes underscore –
In the work called Hypotyposes, to sum up the matter briefly he [Clement of Alexandria] has given us abridged accounts of all the canonical Scriptures,...the Epistle to the Hebrews he asserts was written by Paul, to the Hebrews, in the Hebrew tongue; but that it was carefully translated [into Greek] by Luke, and published among the Greeks (Clement of Alexandria (150-212 A.D.), Hypotyposes, referred to by Eusebius in Eccl. Hist. 6:14:2).
For as Paul had addressed the Hebrews in the language of his country; some say that the evangelist Luke, others that Clement, translated the epistle [into Greek] (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3:38:2-3 -- 315 A.D.).
He (Paul) being a Hebrew wrote in Hebrew, that is, his own tongue and most fluently while things which were eloquently written in Hebrew were more eloquently turned into Greek (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Book 5 -- 382 A.D.).
In the Commentary on the Whole Bible by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, the following observations are made in the Introduction to I John:
Augustine...says this epistle [I John] was written to the Parthians. Bede...says that Athanasius attests the same. By the Parthians may be meant the Christians living beyond the Euphrates in the Parthian territory.
Now WHAT language would John have written his epistle in to communicate with the Christians (and prospective Christians) within the boundaries of the Parthian Empire? The Jewish historian Josephus observed that he originally wrote his Wars of the Jews in his native Semitic tongue so that the people of Parthia could understand what happened in the Roman-Jewish war of the first century A.D. Josephus stated:
I have proposed...for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our own country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians...[identified in a footnote as the Parthians, Babylonians, Arabians, and the Jews beyond Euphrates...and the Adiabene] (Wars of the Jews, Preface, 1-2).
Josephus, before writing in Greek to the Romans, had written Wars of the Jews in his own Semitic tongue so that the Parthians and other nations in the Parthian Empire could read his works! John did likewise with his epistle! Rawlinson states the following about Josephus’ comments –
Josephus...regarded the Parthians as familiar with Hebrew, or Syro-Chaldaic, and wrote his history of the Jewish War in his own native tongue, before he put out his Greek version, for the benefit especially of the Parthians...(The Sixth Oriental Monarchy, p. 424).
Steven M. Collins writes that “the prominence of Aramaic in Parthian life during the Christian apostolic and post-apostolic period was linked to the spread of Christianity in Parthia from the Mideast (where Aramaic was dominant)” (The “Lost” Ten Tribes of Israel...Found! CPA Books: 1995, p. 250).
Rawlinson further comments that “the Parthian kingdom was thoroughly anti-Hellenic” (Parthia, p. 47), and Collins states that “the Parthians utilized an Aramaic alphabet (and imposed it within their empire).”
It should be noted that the church fathers did not always agree that the other books of the New Testament were written in Hebrew. Epiphanius, for example, believed “that only Matthew put the setting forth of the preaching of the Gospel into the New Testament in the Hebrew language and letters” (Epiphanius, Pan. 30:3). However, Epiphanius does tell us that the Jewish believers disagreed with him and pointed out the existence of Hebrew copies of John and Acts in a “Gaza” or “treasury” in Tiberius, Israel (Epiphanius, Pan. 30:3, 6). Epiphanius believed these versions to be mere “translations” (Epiphanius, Pan. 30:3, 6, 12), but clearly admitted that the Jewish believers disagreed with him. Let’s think about it for a moment -- if Greek had replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews as early as the first century A.D., then WHY in the world would fourth-century Jews have any need for Hebrew translations? The fact is that the very existence of Hebrew manuscripts of these books in fourth-century Israel testifies to their originality -- not to mention the fact that the Jewish believers regarded them as authentic!
Testimony of the Rabbis
Along with the statements made by the early Christian church fathers, the ancient Jewish Rabbis also hint of a Hebrew original for the Gospels. Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds -- and the Tosefta -- mention a debate among Rabbinic Jews over the method of disposing of manuscripts of New Testament books -- see t. Shab. 13:5; b. Shab. 116a and j. Shab. 15c. Specifically mentioned is a book called by them Alef-Vav-Nun-Gimel-Lamed-Yud-Vav-Nun (or “gospels”). According to b. Shab. 116a the word Alef-Vav-Nun-Gimel-Lamed-Yud-Vav-Nun is part of the title of the Old Syriac manuscripts, and is also used in some passages of the Peshitta (such as Mark 1:1). It is likely a loan word from the Greek word for “Gospel” -- and in Hebrew and in Aramaic may mean “a powerful scroll.” The exact same spelling is used in the Talmud, the Old Syriac and the Peshitta.
The question that arose was how to handle the destruction of these manuscripts since they contained the actual name of YEHOVAH God -- which was offensive to the Jews. It is, of course, well known that the Greek New Testament manuscripts DO NOT contain YEHOVAH’s Name but use the Greek titles “God” and “Lord” as substitutes. This is because YEHOVAH’s Name is not traditionally translated into other languages, but is instead unfortunately translated “Lord” -- just as we have it in most English Bibles today, and just as we find in our late manuscripts of the Septuagint. The manuscripts these Rabbis were discussing must have been, or represented, the original Hebrew or Aramaic text from which the Greek was translated.
The Eastward Spread of Christianity
The fact that the New Testament -- like the Old Testament -- was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic is further verified by the history of the early believers in Yeshua the Messiah. These first believers were a Jewish sect known as “Nazarenes.” A while later the first Gentile believers in Yeshua, called “Christians,” appeared. This first congregation of Gentile Christians was organized at Antioch in Syria, where some of the people spoke Greek and almost all spoke Aramaic -- which is also called “Syriac.” At the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. there was a mass exodus of the Nazarenes to the town of Pella. Eventually they established communities in Beroea, Decapolis, Bashanitis and Perea. These Nazarenes used Hebrew scriptures and, as we have seen, Jerome traveled to Borea in the fourth-century A.D. to copy their Hebrew Matthew. As a result, while at least the Book of Matthew was at first written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek New Testament books were in demand very early on.
In addition to these factors we must also consider the Eastern spread of Christianity. Much has been written about the so-called “Western spread of Christianity,” but we have heard little about the equally profound Eastward movement. While the apostle Paul made missionary journeys from his headquarters in Antioch, Syria into the far reaches of the Western world (including Britain), most of the apostles traveled eastward. Bartholomew traveled eastward through Assyria into Armenia -- then back down through Assyria, Babylon, Parthia and down into India where he was flayed alive with knives. Thaddeus taught in Edessa (a city of northern Syria), Assyria and Persia, dying a martyrs death by arrows in either Persia or Ararat. Thomas taught in Parthia, Persia and India. He was martyred with a spear at mount St. Thomas near Madras in India. To this very day a group of Christians in India are known as “St. Thomas Christians.” Finally Peter traveled to Babylon, and even wrote one of his letters there before traveling to Rome where he was crucified upside down in Nero’s Circus in February, 68 A.D.
In I Peter we read that Peter composed his first epistle in the city of Babylon on the Euphrates -- notice! “Your sister congregation in Babylon, chosen along with you, sends greetings to you, as does my son Mark” (I Peter 5:13).
For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has claimed that by “Babylon” in this verse Peter means Rome! In a footnote to I Peter 5:13, in the Roman Douay Version of the Bible, we read: “Figuratively, Rome.” The footnote in the translation of the New Testament by Monsignor R.A. Knox (1944) reads: “There can be little doubt that Babylon means Rome, compare Apocalypse xvii, 5.)
It is accepted by almost all Biblical historians that Peter wrote his epistle BEFORE Rome entered upon her career of persecuting the Christian congregations. So WHY, then, would Peter, if writing his first epistle before the Roman persecutions, want to disguise the name of Rome or have to use Babylon as the metaphorical name for Rome? He didn’t; but Rome, in it’s push to identify the first pope as Peter, had to PERVERT scripture in order to show that Peter had resided in Rome for 25 years before his death in 68 A.D.! After discounting the Roman Catholic view that “Babylon” signifies Rome, M’Clintoch and Strong, in their Cyclopoedia, state:
...The natural interpretation is to take Babylon as the name of the well-known city [on the Euphrates]...we know that many Jews inhabited Babylon -- according to Josephus -- and was not such a spot, to a great extent, a Jewish colony or settlement, likely to attract the apostle of the circumcision? (Vol. 8, p. 18).
This is confirmed by Drs. R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and D. Brown in A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments –
How unlikely that in a friendly salutation the enigmatic title given in prophecy (John, Revelation 17.5), should be used! Babylon was the centre from which the Asiatic dispersion whom Peter addresses was derived. PHILO, Legatio ad Caium, section 36, and JOSEPHUS, Antiquities, 15, 2.2; 23:12 inform us that Babylon contained a great many Jews in the apostolic age (whereas those at Rome were comparatively few, about 8000, JOSEPHUS 17.11); so it would naturally be visited by the apostle of circumcision. It was the headquarters of those whom he [Peter] had so successfully addressed on Pentecost, Acts 2:9, Jewish “Parthians...dwellers in Mesopotamia” (the Parthians were then masters of Mesopotamian Babylon); these he ministered to in person (1873 edition, Part Two, p. 514b).
In the memorial book called Souvenir -- India, in an article entitled, The Holy See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon by V. K. George, is recorded the traditions of the church of the East -- notice!
At that time Mesopotamia was one of the strongest centres of Jews. It was there that the “Lost Tribes” were living. They were very rich and influential and they had commercial settlements in many places on the coast of India, Ceylon, Malaya and on the farthest coast of China. We see that Jesus Himself had sent the seventy apostles to Mesopotamia during his ministry on earth.
And therefore it was natural that the Apostles chose that area for their first missionary activity...St. Peter also preached the Gospel in Babylon and the Holy Bible proves it: “The chosen Church which is in Babylon and Mark, my son salute you” (I Peter 5:13). St. Thomas had worked among the Jews of Mesopotamia and later on went in search of their small colonies on the coast of India and reached Cranganore in 52 A.D. St. Bartholomew and Mar Mari of the Seventy were also the founders of this Church.
The importance of Babylon as a center of the Eastern churches is underscored by William Steuart McBirnie –
The actual city of Babylon, however, still was of importance. It was a great center of Jewish colonists and was a powerful center when Peter ministered there for a time. The Eastern churches trace their lineage to Babylon, and hence to St. Peter, to this day. In Acts 12:17 we are told that Peter “went to another place.” We do not know this was Babylon, nor, if he went, how long he stayed. But the tradition of the Eastern churches is united that he did indeed go to Babylon, from which he wrote his first epistle. There was no need to use “Babylon” as a symbol of Rome as there was later when St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. John was writing literature deliberately designed to pass the Roman censors but obviously Peter was not (The Search for the Twelve Apostles. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.: 1973, p. 57).
Since Peter was working in Babylon -- within the confines of the Parthian Empire -- and wrote his first epistle while there, WHAT language would he have written it in? We have already seen that Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Parthian Empire and was “imposed...within their empire.” It would, therefore, be completely logical to conclude that Peter wrote his first epistle (and maybe his second) in Aramaic! Now some might say -- “Wait a minute, Peter was addressing his first epistle to “God’s chosen people, living as aliens in the Diaspora -- in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bythinia” (JNT, I Peter 1:1) -- not those living in the confines of the Parthian Empire. While it is true that Peter was addressing this epistle to areas in the eastern extremes of the Roman Empire, it is an historical fact that the Aramaic language encompassed not only the Parthian Empire at the time, but also the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire! In The Ancient World: A Social and cultural History, we read:
In Syria, Damascus became a major center of trade between Babylon and the west; along the Phoenician coast a string of cities including Sidon, Byblos, and Tyre introduced the urban style of life to the Mediterranean world. In the west, on the fringe of the Aegean, Sardis, the capital of Lydia, became a prominent center; to the south Palestine was studded with small, thriving cities...Great roads were built, facilitating the movement of both armies and trade. Willingly, or otherwise whole groups of people were transferred from one end of the empire to the other. THE EASILY LEARNED LANGUAGE OF THE ARAMAEANS (ARAMAIC) BECAME THE LINGUA FRANCA OF THE WHOLE REGION (D. Bendan Nagle. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: 1979, p. 47).
Since Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia and Bithynia (Bythinia) all fell within the region mentioned above by Nagle, then the lingua franca of these areas was also Aramaic! So we have Peter, residing in a city influenced by the Aramaic language, writing a letter or epistle to areas also under the influence of the same language. What language, then, do you think he utilized to communicate with the people in these areas? Certainly NOT Greek! Obviously, he used the lingua franca -- the common language -- of these areas to write his first epistle.
Another point to consider is that those “living as aliens in the Diaspora” in these areas had originally moved there after the Babylonian captivity -- taking the Aramaic language with them. At the time of the Messiah and the apostles these Jews, in their hatred of anything smacking of Hellenism, would have carried out their daily affairs in Aramaic and their religious rites in Hebrew.
Peter wrote his first epistle in Aramaic; and it was later translated into Greek by someone whose name has been lost to history.
That the apostles brought Semitic New Testament Scriptures eastward with them is affirmed by the church fathers. Notice what Eusebius has to say –
Pantaenus...penetrated as far as India, where it is reported that he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had been delivered before his arrival to some who had the knowledge of Messiah, to whom Bartholomew one of the emissaries, as it is said, had preached, and left them the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters.
And, as Jerome writes:
...Pantaenus found that Bartholomew, one of the twelve emissaries, had there [in India] preached the advent of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah according to the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in Hebrew letters...
The entire region of the Near East -- stretching from Israel through Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Parthia and down into India -- became known as the “Church of the East.” At its height the Church of the East stretched as far east as China! By the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. theological debates had split the Church of the East into two major groups: Nestorians and Jacobites. Today, the Church of the East has split into even more groups: Nestorians, Jacobites, Chaldean Roman Catholics and Maronites. All of these groups continue to use an Aramaic New Testament text.
When the Roman Catholic Portuguese invaded India in 1498 they discovered over a hundred churches belonging to the St. Thomas Christians along the Malabar coast. According to tradition, these St. Thomas Christians had been there since the 1st. Century A.D. They had married ministers, did not worship images or pray to or through saints, nor did they believe in purgatory. Most important to our study, they maintained use of the Aramaic New Testament -- which they insisted had been in use at Antioch during the time of the apostles.
The Westward Spread
While many of the apostles of Yeshua were spreading the Messianic movement eastward, Paul was taking the movement into the Western world. From his headquarters at Antioch, the capital of Syria, Paul conducted numerous missionary journeys into Europe -- reaching as far as Britain. At this time there came a need for Greek versions of the then written New Testament books.
As time passed by, several events took place that resulted in a great surge of anti-Semitism in the West. This began when the Jews revolted against the Roman Empire in the years leading up to 70 A.D. A second revolt occurred in 116 A.D. by the Jews in Egypt. The situation was further complicated when Bar Kokhba took up arms against Rome in 132 A.D. As a result, anti-Semitism became very popular in the Roman Empire -- in fact, even patriotic! In the West, Gentile Christianity sought to distance itself from Judaism and Jewish customs. The Greek text of the New Testament began to be favored over the Semitic text, and many Semitic writings were subsequently destroyed.
When Titus and his Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Hadrian put down the revolt of Bar Kokhba in 135 A.D., the Jews became fair game because of their insurrection. Along with the Jews, however, were the converts to Yeshua the Messiah who continued to worship in the synagogue and Temple rather than take up the pagan celebrations of Gentile “Christianity.” Angry because of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Hadrian was determined to completely raze Jerusalem -- vowing there would never be a city there again. Later, however, he refounded what remained of the city as a Roman colony, renaming it Aelia Capitolina after himself (Aelius Hadrianus) and his patron god (Jupiter Capitolinus), and forbidding entry into the city to Jews. He Romanized the city, eradicated all signs of Judaism and erected a pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus right on top of the ruined Temple once dedicated to YEHOVAH God.
The Hebrew Scriptures had been badly misinterpreted by the Jews who thought the prophet Ezekiel was referring to Rome as the enemy that would be overcome. As a result, the Hebrew Scriptures were blamed for the Jewish insurrection. The Romans took vengeance upon the Jews, not discerning those who were converts to the Messiah. Unaware of a Hebrew New Testament, the Romans DESTROYED ALL HEBREW TEXTS, including Hebrew scrolls of the Jewish-Christian New Testament as well. Rome did not differentiate between Old and New Testament writings -- nor between Jews and Jewish Christians!
Later a division developed between the religion of the Jews and the New Testament believers in the Messiah. Not only were the Romans responsible for eradicating many Hebrew New Testament writings, but the Jews themselves took part, as we have seen, in such activity. Eventually, there came a parting of the ways between the Jews and those who believed in the Messiah and kept the Commandments. These True Believers were persecuted by both the Jews and the pagan “Christians” down through history. Little is heard of them as the Romanized “Christianity” -- using the Greek translations of the New Testament -- gained the ascendancy and ruled in consort with the emperors of Europe.
By 325 A.D. anti-Semitism, and the priority given in the West to the Greek Scriptures, had solidified. Constantine “the Great” invaded Rome, making himself emperor. He then proclaimed “Christianity” to be the Catholic (universal) religion -- thus making “Christianity” the enforced state religion of the Roman Empire. Before this occurred one could be killed for being a Christian. After it occurred one could be killed for not being a “Christian.” Constantine, who was a rabid anti-Semite, convened the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to standardize “Christianity.” Jews were excluded from the meetings and Jewish practices were officially banned -- AND THE GREEK TRANSLATIONS OFFICIALLY REPLACED THE ORIGINAL SEMITIC SCRIPTURES.
In the book The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries of Christianity According to a New Source by the well-known Israeli scholar Shlomo Pines, we read how the Gentile “Christians” took counsel to REPLACE the New Testament gospel -- seeing that the true and original was lost to them. THEY CONSTRUCTED THEIR OWN IN THE GREEK LANGUAGE. A great part of what was contained in the original Hebrew or Aramaic was missing in their version. Among the Gentile “Christians” were those who remembered much of the true gospels, but because they were attempting to establish a following, the Gentile “Christians” refrained from communicating with them. Notice what Aslomo Pines says about the Gentile “Christians” –
Then there is not among these [the Gentile “Christians”] a Gospel written in the language of [Messiah], which was spoken by Him and His companions, namely the Hebrew language, which is that of Abraham, the Friend of [Elohim] and of the other prophets, the language which was spoken by them and in which the Books of [Elohim] were revealed to them and to the other Children of Israel, and which [Elohim] addressed them. They have abandoned this language.
Thus there is no Christian among them who in observing a religious obligation recites these Gospels in the Hebrew language: he does not do so out of ruse using a stratagem, in order to avoid public shame (pp. 16-17).
Pine goes on to show the reason Hellenized “Christians” declined to use the Hebrew language was because “the people of the Book,” who spoke Hebrew, quickly recognized THE ERROR AND DECEPTION OF THE GENTILE “CHRISTIANS’” GREEK GOSPELS -- such as quotations from counterfeit authorities. Thus, they employed a language other than Hebrew so the men of knowledge would not grasp the error in their teaching.
Continues Pine about the Gentile “Christians”: “Accordingly, they gave up Hebrew and took up numerous other languages which had not been spoken by [Messiah] and His companions” (ibid., p. 17).
Having alienated the Jewish Nazarenes in 325 at the Council of Nicea, subsequent councils alienated the Assyrians and Syrians over Christological debates. The Nestorian Assyrians were alienated in 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus, while the Jacobite Syrians were alienated in 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon. The division between the Semitic peoples of the Near East, and the Roman Catholic Church, grew ever more marked.
With the rise of Islam in the Near East, the Near Eastern Christians were even further separated from their European counterparts in the West. Relations between the Christian West and the Islamic Near East were non-existent.
As time went by, the Roman Catholic Church in the West began to suppress the Scriptures and deny them to the laity in Europe. Those who would try to make the Scriptures available to the common man were frequently burned at the stake. Such suppression was impossible in the Near East -- where the Scriptures were already in Aramaic, the common language of the people. When the Protestant Reformation took place -- claiming the Greek New Testament as the original -- it was a time when most Europeans were not even aware that an Aramaic version existed.
It was in this atmosphere, in 1516, that the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament was published in Europe. This edition, known as the Textus Receptus and published by Erasmus, served as the standard Greek text until the 19th century. The first edition of this work was based solely on six manuscripts -- while later editions used only ten. None of these manuscripts were complete, and only one was even particularly old -- dating to the 10th century. Since none of his manuscripts were complete, Erasmus was forced to INVENT many of his Greek portions of Revelation by translating from the Latin Vulgate into Greek. It was this inferior edition which served as the evidence by which the West would embrace the Greek as the original. This edition would later serve as the basis for the King James Version of 1611.
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