Christianity Through Jewish Eyes

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Dr. Thomas McCall by Thomas S. McCall, Th.D.

Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament. He has served as Zola’s co-author, mentor, pastor, and friend for nearly 30 years.

This article appeared originally in the May 1997 Levitt Letter.

Introduction

Christianity was born in Israel. By the end of the first century, it had spread throughout the Roman Empire and was armed with a new holy book: the New Testament. This collection of inspired Scriptures had been added to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tenach, which Christians call the Old Testament. The new writings, composed primarily of the Gospels and the Epistles, were distributed widely in the Greek language. It seems fairly certain that the Gospels of Luke and John, the Book of Acts, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation were originally written in Greek, but what about the Gospels of Matthew and Mark?

The oldest known manuscripts of Matthew and Mark are in Greek. According to recent scholarship, Greek fragments of these two Gospels have been verified as dating from as early as the 60s A.D. Some scholars have argued that these Gospels were originally written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek. If that is the case, no extant copies or fragments of the Aramaic text have been found. The only evidence we have is that the original text of Matthew and Mark was in Greek.

What Language Did Jesus Speak?

Does this mean that Jesus spoke in Greek to His disciples and to the crowds He addressed in His Galilean ministry? Probably not, but what we have to understand is that first-century Israelis were tri-lingual, and even perhaps quadri-lingual. The languages spoken in Israel at the time of Christ were Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Most Jewish people spoke the first three, and some were conversant in Latin as well.

Most of our readers know the difference between Greek and Latin, but there is some confusion about Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew was the language of the Old Testament, and has been adapted into modern Hebrew, the language spoken in Israel today. Modern Hebrew is similar to biblical Hebrew, with the addition of new words (such as telephone and automobile), and some very significant changes in syntax. In biblical Hebrew, the verb usually comes first, then the subject, then the object. In modern Hebrew, the order of words is similar to English, with the subject first, then the verb, then the object. Hebrew was a “dead” language for over two thousand years, used only for religious purposes (like Latin); but now it is a “living” language once again in Israel.

Aramaic is a different language from biblical Hebrew. They use the same alphabet, but much of the vocabulary and syntax are different. In fact, Hebrew and Aramaic were almost as different as English and German are today. Webster’s Dictionary offers the following definition:

Aramaic: a Semitic language of which documents are known from as early as the 9th century B.C., orig. the speech of the Aramaeans but later used extensively in southwest Asia as a commercial lingua franca and governmental language and adopted as their customary speech by various non-Aramaean peoples including the Jews among whom it replaced Hebrew after the Babylonian exile.

Thus, the Jewish people learned to speak Aramaic in Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity. The Book of Daniel illustrates this transition. The first part of the Book of Daniel was written in Hebrew, but as Daniel began to explain the prophetic dream to King Nebuchadnezzar, he switched to Aramaic (which is sometimes also called Syriac or Chaldee). The next several chapters of Daniel deal with the succession of Gentile world powers and were written in Aramaic, and then the final chapters reverted to Hebrew.

When the Jewish people returned to Israel, they carried back with them the language they had learned in Babylon. Hebrew was used in the synagogue when the Scriptures were read, but the language of the streets was Aramaic. This continued through the time of Christ, and it is probable that the language He most frequently used was the common Aramaic.

One source of confusion is that Aramaic had, by Jesus’ day, become so identified with the Jewish people that it was commonly referred to as “Hebrew,” as it is in the New Testament. Note how the Gospel of John uses the term:

…in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha… in a place that is called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha. (John 19:13, 17)

Both Gabbatha and Golgotha are clearly Aramaic words, but John calls them Hebrew. Scholars explain to us that “Hebrew,” as commonly used in the New Testament, refers to the Aramaic or Chaldee language:

Hebrew, the Hebrew language, not that however in which the OT was written but the Chaldee, which at the time of Jesus and the apostles had long superseded it in Palestine. (Thayer’s Dictionary of the New Testament)

Thus, the “Hebrew” language described in the New Testament is not biblical Hebrew, or even the Hebrew that is used today in modern Israel, but is rather Aramaic, the ancient language of Mesopotamia. In a very real sense, the language of Aramaic that Jesus and most of the people of Israel in His time spoke, was as Gentile as the Greek language.

What, then, was the process used for writing the Gospels of Matthew and Mark? The tradition about Mark is that John Mark wrote his Gospel under the guidance and encouragement of the Apostle Peter. After the early years of the Christian movement, Peter apparently worked among the Jewish people of the Diaspora (Jews living outside of Israel), including Babylon, as indicated in his epistles. There is also the tradition that Peter spent his last years in Rome, although there is nothing in the Scriptures to support this. In either case, Peter and Mark would have communicated primarily in Greek, rather than in Hebrew or Aramaic, since that was the common language among Diaspora Jews, as well as of most Gentiles. Thus, there seems to be no reason why Mark would not have written his Gospel in Greek as he recorded Peter’s recollections of the events described.

This leaves the Gospel of Matthew. Of the four Gospel writers, Matthew is the only one who was both an eyewitness to almost all of the events in Galilee and Jerusalem, and also wrote his Gospel near the beginning of the Christian movement. Matthew is an interesting personality who is often overlooked. Dr. Carsten Peter Thiede, in his recent book Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence about the Origin of the Gospels, observes that Matthew, as a tax collector (probably a supervisor of the Capernaum office), undoubtedly had important writing skills. It has been discovered that the ancients who were skilled in writing had developed a form of shorthand so that they could take dictation. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Matthew could have written down entire messages, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, just as Jesus delivered them, verbatim, in shorthand.

Later, the faithful tax collector could have assembled his notes and written his narrative with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As stated above, Jesus probably delivered most of His messages in Aramaic, and therefore Matthew would have necessarily taken his shorthand dictation in Aramaic. Would he, then, have written his Gospel in Aramaic? We truly do not know. All we know for certain is that, perhaps as early as 66 A.D. (as Thiede suggests), the Gospel of Matthew was distributed in the Greek language as far as Egypt. If Matthew was still in Israel when he wrote his Gospel, it would seem appropriate that he would have used Israel’s common language: Aramaic. In that case, his Gospel would have been translated into Greek quite early, before 66 A.D. It should be noted that Matthew’s Gospel has more “Hebraisms” than any of the others. This suggests an earlier Aramaic version, although, as indicated above, no early Aramaic version of Matthew has been found.

Conclusion

Thus, there is no evidence that the Gospels were written originally in any other language but Greek. If there were versions of Matthew or the other Gospels originally penned in Aramaic (in accordance with the language Christ used), they were very quickly translated into Greek so that they could be utilized throughout the Roman world. Both Greek and Aramaic were essentially Gentile languages, and the Lord was able and willing to use them to convey His teachings, so that the Good News could go forth from His homeland of Israel to “the uttermost parts of the earth.”

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