Are Gospels Originally in Hebrew or Greek?
The Books collected into the New Testament do not constitute the utterances of Jesus nor of his disciples. Jesus was of Jewish ancestry and so were his disciples. If any of Jesus’ utterances were to be found preserved in their original form, they could only be in the Hebrew language.
Same is the case with the utterances of his disciples. But no copy of the New Testament in ancient Hebrew exists in the world. The old copies are all in Greek. Christian writers try to cover this Grave Defect by saying that in the times of Jesus the language in general use was Greek as you do. This is impossible for more reasons than one. Nations do not easily give up their language. It is for them as valuable an inheritance as any property or other possession. In Eastern Europe, there are people who for three or four hundred years have lived under Russian rule, but their languages remain intact to this day. France and Spain have ruled over Morocco and Algeria for a long time. Yet the language of these former subjected people is still Arabic. Two thousand years have passed since the time of Jesus. Yet the Jews have not forgotten their language. Even today, in parts of Europe and America, Jews speak “Yiddish”, a corrupt form of ancient Hebrew. If this long lapse of time spent amongst other peoples has not destroyed the Jewish language, then Roman rule in Palestine which had begun only about 50 years before the advent of Jesus was not long enough for a people to forget their language. But there are other important considerations also to be kept in view:
- Nations which attain to any importance in history do not give up their language, and the Jews were a very important people indeed.
- The religion of the Jews was recorded in Hebrew and for this reason particularly it was impossible for them to give up their language.
- In the scale of civilization and refinement, the Jews did not regard themselves as inferior to the Romans; rather they felt Superior and this must have made them proud of their language and reluctant to give it up.
- The Jews entertained hopes for the return of their political power; nations which fear the future become pessimistic and therefore tend to lose pride in their language. But the Jews in the time of Jesus were awaiting the advent of their King who was to re-establish Jewish rule. Looking forward to such a future, they could not have been so negligent in protecting their language.
- Jewish authors of that time wrote in their own language or in some corrupt form of it. If their language had changed, we should have had books of the time written in a language other than Hebrew.
- The oldest manuscripts of the New Testament are in Greek. But in the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire had not become divided into two halves. The center of the Empire was still Rome. The Roman and Greek languages are very difficult. If Roman influence had at all penetrated Jewish life, it should have resulted in the assimilation of Latin (and not Greek) words into the Hebrew language. Yet the oldest manuscripts of the Gospels are all in Greek. This proves that the Gospels were written down at a time when the Roman Empire had become divided and its eastern possession had become part of the Greek Empire, so that the Greek language had begun to exert its influence on Christianity and its literature.
- Phrases such as the following which are preserved in the Gospels in their original form are all Hebrew phrases: (a) “Hosanna” – Matthew 21:9 (b) “Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani” – Matthew 27:46 (c) “Rabbi” – John 3:2 (d) “Talitha cumi” – Mark 5:41
From the Acts, it appears that even after the crucifixion Jews spoke Hebrew:
“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear us, every man in our own tongue, where in we were born? Parthians and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and in strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Others mocking said, these men are full of new wine.” (Acts 2:3-13)
It is evident that at this time the language spoken in Palestine was Hebrew. Speaking any other language was extraordinary. Among the names mentioned is Rome, which means that the Roman language was not spoken in Palestine and whoever spoke it seemed a stranger. We are not concerned here with the merits of the narrative but we only wish to point out that this passage from the Acts proves conclusively that even after the crucifixion the language of the Jews was Hebrew. Those who knew other languages were exceptions. When some of the disciples spoke these other languages – among them Latin. Some people thought they were drunk and talking nonsense. If the country as a whole used Roman or Greek. No such reaction would be possible. It is clear, therefore, that the language which Jesus and his disciples spoke was Hebrew, not Latin or Greek. So copies of the New Testament written down in Latin or Greek must have been written down long after the time of Jesus, at a time when Christianity had begun to penetrate into Roman territory and Roman imperialist power had become divided into the Italian and Greek Parts. Books of this kind, composed 100 or 200 years after Jesus by unknown authors and attributed by them to Jesus and his disciples, can be of little use to any believer today.