As we began to fellowship with other like minded believers, we heard many claim that they believed that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew and not in Greek, as is usually taught. It seems that this belief, more than any other, drives the doctrine of the use of the sacred names of God and Jesus and that all other names are pagan or improper to use. (We would like to clarify that we are not weighing in on the names discussion with this article.) As with any foundational doctrine, we felt that it was important to research and come to a conclusion for ourselves regarding whether we believed the New Testament was written in Hebrew or Greek.
We proceeded by asking several people - like minded believers and teachers alike - what led them to believe that Hebrew was the original language for the New Testament. Unfortunately, the responses were either non-existent, meaning that those questioned opted to not answer our inquiry, or the response provided was based on less than scholarly information. We really wanted to get to the bottom of this issue for ourselves, and so we continued to ask, query, and research. Finally, we learned what some of the reasons for this belief were. And thus our research began.
Use of Languages in Scripture
One of the things that never cease to amaze us is how many times we can read a particular Scripture and yet totally miss certain references. References to languages within the Scriptures are just one example of this happening to us. For example, the word “Hebrew” is referenced the most at 26 times; Greek is referenced 12 times; and Latin 2 times. But not all of these references refer to the languages themselves; those are actually rather sparse.
Luke 23:38 references all three languages, stating “And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The same references to the three languages were found in John 19:20, which reads, “This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.” We found this to be interesting - the title “This is the King of the Jews” was written in three languages - meaning that all three of these languages had to have been in active use during Jesus’ lifetime; otherwise, why write it in all three?
Secondly, many of the references to language refers to places, where the name of the place is provided and then, almost as an afterthought or point of clarification, the phrase “which is called in the Hebrew tongue” is followed by the Hebrew name for that location. This type of example can be read in the following verses:
John 5:2, “Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.”
John 19:13, “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha.”
John 19:17, “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew, Golgotha:”
Revelation 9:11, “And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.”
Revelation 16:16, “And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.”
We found this dual reference to locations raising more questions for us. Why, if the New Testament was written in Hebrew, would the alternate name be provided at all? Or, why was it necessary to provide the Hebrew name? Think about it. If one was writing a book or letter in Hebrew, why not use just the Hebrew name for a particular place? Why reference the alternate name at all? None of the language references are found in the Old Testament, which we know was originally written in Hebrew. The only logical conclusion is that because there were at least three languages in use and that most locations had more than one name of reference.
Additionally, notice that the Hebrew reference is generally listed second. This only makes sense if the texts were originally written in a language other than Hebrew. We read that some believed that these dual references supported the texts being written in Hebrew, but we believe that these actually support the opposite position. Again, we must point out that none of the language references were found in the Old Testament, which we know was written in Hebrew. If the New Testament had also been originally written in Hebrew, would it not reference locations in the same fashion and format as the Old Testament? Why the difference?
Third, there is some evidence that Paul may have been bilingual. In Acts 21:37, Paul is asked if he can speak Greek by the Chief Captain. We do not know if this question was queried because Paul asked his question in Greek, whereby the Chief Captain was surprised to hear him speak Greek or whether Paul asked in Hebrew and the Chief Captain asked if he could speak Greek because the captain himself did not speak Hebrew. We suspect that there may be nuances to the actual written word that could answer this question for us, but from a layperson’s perspective, it could be read either way.
While we do not have an affirmative or negative response from Paul regarding his linguistic abilities, he does answer him in Acts 21:39, asking to speak to the people. In Acts 21:40 we read, “And when he had given him license, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,” Upon hearing Paul speak in Hebrew, the crowd silenced and listened as written in Acts 22:2, “(And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,)”. In his own personal testimony of his conversion to Christianity, Paul states that Jesus spoke to him in the Hebrew tongue in Acts 26:14, which says, “And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
Fourth, there are references to languages not so much for the language itself but to classify the nationality of either an individual or a group of people. For example, in Mark 7:26, it says, “The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.” Or in Acts, chapter 16, where it references Timothy’s father in verse 1, “Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek:” and in verse 3, “Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.” And in Galatians 2:3 we read, “But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised:”
Finally, there are two rather interesting and unique passages. While neither of these passages references a language directly, there is an indirect reference leading us to again question which language the New Testament originally written in. The first is found in John 1:41 which reads, “He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ.” And the second passage reads, “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.” in John 4:25. In both of these verses the Hebrew word for Messiah is used but is then cross-referenced with the Greek equivalent of Christ. Again, we must question why these passages are worded in this way?
In summary, while there are several references to languages, none of these references specifically refer to what language was used to communicate the books of the New Testament. As far as we are concerned, these references show that both Hebrew and Greek were prominent, and only the sign posted during the crucifixion makes any reference to Latin. Our initial leaning is that the New Testament was written in a language other than Hebrew based on the secondary references to locations since these are missing from the Old Testament. However, to make a judgment based on so few references would be premature. And so, our research continues.
The Use of Idioms
The second reason for why some people believe that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew is because of the number of “Hebrew idioms” in the text. We admit that this reason was a bit more challenging for us to research. After all, what is an idiom in the first place and secondly, how does one determine which phrases were idioms?
There are several nuances to the definition of the word “idiom”. The first is that an idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements. We have all heard this before, and may actually think of them as clichés; for example: kick the bucket or hang one's head. Idioms though can also develop from the general grammatical rules of a language, such as the table round for the round table. An idiom is also defined as a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people. In modern terminology, this might apply to the concept of Ebonics, which is African American Vernacular English. A third nuance to an idiom is a construction or expression of one language whose parts correspond to elements in another language but whose total structure or meaning is not matched in the same way in the second language. The best and well, humorous, example that we could find that our generation might understand is this: in Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out in Chinese as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the grave.” Not quite the same thing.
Once we understood what an idiom is, the next challenge was identifying idioms in the New Testament. This is actually much more difficult than we anticipated. We simply could not find a complete listing of Hebraic idioms - but we found plenty of Greek listings. And we finally found one article that specifically named a couple that we could research. The first one named was the phrase “son of man”. So, we took a closer look at this.
First, the phrase “son of man” is used 197 times in the Scriptures as a whole; 108 uses in the Old Testament and 89 uses in the New Testament. The claim was made that the phrase “son of man” is unique to the Hebrew language and that it does not translate well or mean anything in any other language. There is just one problem with this logic, as far as we could see. The Greek Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures written by more than seventy Jewish scribes and teachers, shows the phrase “son of man” translated in Greek. The exact same phrasing used to translate the Hebrew “son of man” is the exact same phrasing used for “son of man” in the Greek of the New Testament. If the literal translation of “son of man” could not be done, why did the Jewish scribes translate it as thus into Greek? And why do the Greek versions of the New Testament show it to be identical?
The second identified idiom was the phrase “peace be to you”. Again, the claim was made that the phrase “peace be to you” would not translate well into any other language. The problem we ran into with this particularly alleged idiom is that we only saw it used once - in the Old Testament, specifically in Genesis 43:23, which reads, “And he said, Peace be to you, fear not: your God, and the God of your father, hath given you treasure in your sacks: I had your money. And he brought Simeon out unto them.” What is interesting about this particular reference is that it was the Egyptian steward of Joseph’s household that said “Peace be to you” - not a person of Hebrew origin.
We decided to research it further and looked into the Hebrew word behind “peace”, which is “shalom”. The word shalom is translated 236 times in the Old Testament - but is translated only as peace for 175 of those occurrences. Once again, we looked at the translation of shalom in the Greek Septuagint for the Greek equivalent and then cross checked this word with the New Testament. In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent is used 93 times, 89 of which were translated as peace.
Unfortunately, without a good list of alleged Hebrew idioms there is no way for us to be more thorough in our research of this particular aspect of the discussion. Based on the few examples that we did find, though, the Scriptures themselves did not support either side - Hebrew or Greek.
A Look at Ancient History
Nothing, it seems, is more subject to personal opinion than the interpretation of history. We were actually advised that the historical record proves that the New Testament was written in Hebrew. Some people referenced the Maccabees revolt, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the poor relationship between Jerusalem and Rome. So, we decided to take a closer look at this ancient history in a summarized timeline fashion, starting with Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great invaded the Middle Eastern part of the world in the 4th century B.C., or around 334 B.C. To put this into context, about 300 years before the arrival of Jesus, the Greek culture invaded the Middle Eastern culture - including Jerusalem. Another way of looking at this is to look at our own country. We have been a nation for just over 200 years - and look how much of our society is now bilingual to represent English and Spanish as a result of the influx of Spanish speaking immigrants. The amount of time we are discussing in the Middle East is one and a half times as long as we have been an independent country - and most would agree, we believe, that we are not being forcibly invaded by Spanish speaking conquerors.
Next, we took a look at the Greek Septuagint, which we previously briefly mentioned. The Greek Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament written during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus around 250 B.C. Again, to put this into context, within 100 years of Alexander the Great conquering the Middle East, the common language of the period was transitioning to Greek - whether we want to admit it or not. And this is still around 250 years before the arrival of Jesus. Additionally, we believe that it is important to note the Greek Septuagint was written by Jewish scholars. While we may not know all the specific circumstances pertaining to the decision to make a Greek translation, the fact that it was done shows that there was a greater use of Greek than may have been originally appreciated.
Third, the Maccabean revolt occurred between 167 and 160 B.C. Not to be too repetitive, but again, let’s look at the timing. Approximately 100 years after the Greek Septuagint came into existence and 160 years prior to the arrival of Jesus, some rose up against the Seleucid Empire. The fighting was due to a suppression of religious freedom and the desecration of the Jewish temple. The revolt ended with a political compromise that restored the Jews’ right to express their religion freely. While fascinating in and of itself, nothing about this revolt changed the common language directly. In other words, whichever language was being spoken on a regular basis was still being spoken. And we know from reading the Scriptures that Jerusalem was still under foreign control when Jesus finally appeared.
We next reviewed the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls discovered were believed to have been written between 150 B.C. and 68 A.D. Over 900 manuscripts were found in more than 25,000 pieces, some of which were the size of postage stamps. The languages represented in the discovery include Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic. A majority of the manuscripts were written in Hebrew, which makes sense since the Dead Sea Scrolls are thought to have been the work of the Essenes, which formed one of the main “denominations” for lack of a better term, of Judaism.
In our research, we stumbled across something rather unexpected - something that we had not previously considered - ossuaries. Ossuaries are small chests in which the bones of the dead were placed after the flesh had decayed. Many ossuaries contained funerary inscriptions and many ossuaries have been found that dates between 300 B.C. and 500 A.D. This provides us with a good window of time from before Christ to well after His death and the start of the church. Seventy percent (70%) of these funerary inscriptions are written in Greek; eighteen percent (18%) in Aramaic or Hebrew; and twelve percent (12%) in Latin. This unexpected research find supports the position of Greek being the predominant language of the time that the New Testament Scriptures were actually penned.
In summary, a review of the ancient history of the Middle Eastern area, including Jerusalem, shows that, whether we like it or not, agree with it or not, or want to believe it, the Hebrew culture of the Jews and the Middle Eastern culture of the surrounding territories was being conquered, literally, by the Greek culture. Even the dead have spoken, so to speak. Our own American history shows how easily this is done, with minimum conflict and on a voluntary basis. How much more dramatic would it be for a conquered nation required to pay financial tribute to the conquerors? And we must not forget that Jewish scholars created the Greek Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Old Testament centuries before Jesus. There is really only one more thing that we have left to research - the oldest available manuscripts of the Word of God itself.
Reviewing the Ancient Manuscripts
Our final step in the research process was to review the oldest available manuscripts for each one of the books of the New Testament to see the language the manuscripts were written in as well as where the manuscripts fall date-wise relative to the birth of Jesus. To make it easy to follow along, we researched each of the books in the order in which they appear in the standard King James Version of the Bible.
Mathew: the oldest manuscript featuring a fragment of the book of Matthew is named the Magdalen Papyrus and is referenced as P64. The fragment shows a portion of Chapter 26:23 and 31, in Greek, and is dated around 200 A.D. Since this is so far removed from both the time and life of Jesus and of His apostles, it really is not of any use for this discussion.
Mark: Papyrus 45 (P45) consists of several fragments of passages in addition to Mark, including portions of Mathew, Luke, John, and Acts. This manuscript is dated around 250 A.D. and thus, is also too far removed for us to consider, even though it too is written in Greek. Not only is it the oldest manuscript for Mark; it happens to also be the oldest for the book of Acts.
Luke: the oldest available manuscript of Luke is known as P75 and is also written in Greek. While older than the manuscripts we currently have available for Matthew and Mark, dated between 175-225 A.D., it is still too far removed for us to consider.
John: the best and oldest manuscript that we have to-date is from the book of John, and is known as P52. This fragment, smaller than the average credit card, is also written in Greek, but it dates to 125 A.D. Now, John the Apostle is thought to have died around 100 A.D. in Ephesus, Turkey, and this means that this particular fragment is dated within 25 years of his life. Since this fragment dates so close to an actual apostle, and is written in Greek, we must admit that we find this particular manuscript rather compelling for the Greek New Testament discussion.
Romans: Papyrus 46 (P46) consists of several fragments of passages in addition to Romans, including portions of Hebrews and the Epistles. This manuscript is dated around 175-225 A.D. and thus, is also too far removed for us to consider, even though it too is written in Greek. Not only is this the oldest manuscript for Romans; it happens to also be the oldest for both 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and Hebrews.
2 Thessalonians: Papyrus 30 (P30) consists of both 1 and 2 Thessalonians and is dated around 250 A.D. and is written in Greek. Again, as you can see, this one dates rather late for our considerations.
1 & 2 Timothy: believe it or not archeologists and textual scholars have not discovered any fragments or ancient documents with 1 and 2 Timothy represented - in any language.
Titus: is represented in Papyrus 32, (P32), and is also written in Greek and dates to around 200 A.D.
Philemon: is partially represented by Papyrus 87, (P87), dated to 250 A.D. and like the preceding references, was written in Greek and is too new for our consideration.
James: Papyrus 20, (P20) is written in Greek and is also dated to 250 A.D.
1 John: is found in Papyrus 9, (P9) and consists of a very small fragment, similar to P52. Like the other examples, this fragment is also written in Greek, but it too dates to the third century A.D. Unfortunately there are no early manuscripts (by early, we mean prior to the fourth century A.D.) of 2 John or 3 John.
Jude: Papyrus 78 (P78) features verses four, five, seven, and eight of the book of Jude. It is dated at around 300 A.D. Once again, this book is too new for consideration.
Revelation: the final book is the book of Revelation, of which part of chapter one is represented, is named Papyrus 98 (P98) and is dated between 100 and 200 A.D., but this date range is debated by scholars. If the 100 A.D. date is correct, then this piece of Revelation would be very close in age to the book of John, as discussed above and could potentially be a copy available within a few years of John’s life. Yet again, though, this fragment is also written in Greek.
Once we researched the oldest available copy of each of the books comprising the New Testament, we took the time to research it from a Hebrew point of view. In other words, we began to search whether or not there were any Hebrew versions of Scripture available. It was no surprise, really, that our search resulted with nothing. To the best of our efforts in researching, no ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the New Testament have ever been found dating to the first century of Christianity.
Finally, we looked at the “numbers”, so to speak. There are over 13,000 fragments of the New Testament that have been discovered and cataloged, of which only 127 are considered the “earliest” copies. It is important to note that to be considered “early”, the fragment must date prior to the 4th Century. Personally, we think that this is silly since it is more than 300 years removed from the time of Christ, but we are not the experts.
There are more than 8,000 additional manuscripts written in Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Coptic, Gothic, Slavic, Sahidic, and Georgian. Combined this gives us more than 21,000 manuscripts available - yet none of them are written in Hebrew. And out of all of these various manuscripts, no scholar has as of yet discovered any manuscripts in Aramaic that date prior to the Greek.
To summarize our research, we first looked at the Scriptures themselves to see what we could find and study, specifically to references to language. We discovered several references, all of which led us to conclude that the New Testament Scriptures appeared to have been originally written in Greek. We then researched the use of idioms, since this was a fairly common explanation in support of the belief of Hebrew writing. As laymen, we could not research this as well as we would have liked, and thus concluded that the use of idioms could support either position - Greek and Hebrew. We moved on to researching ancient history. Using our own American experience historically, combined with the history of the region, and the surprising discovery of funerary inscriptions on ossuaries, we have determined that Greek was most predominant language of the time. Finally, we looked at the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament themselves. These physical fragments, without question, have all been written in Greek. Unfortunately, many are dated well beyond the acceptable range for us to use, with the exception of the book of John (P52) and the book of Revelation (P98). These two fragments are the only ones that reasonably date within a short time of John’s life and death. Finally, we looked at the sheer volume of fragments available and the languages with which they were written.
Based upon this research, it is our conclusion that the New Testament Scriptures were originally penned in Greek. We recognize that this conclusion may conflict with others’ opinions, yet, this is what our thorough research has led us to believe.