The Jewish New Testament
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 1 May 2012; Revised 21 September 2020
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings (New Testament) and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament) and Besekh (New Testament).
Few Christians when reading any of the apostolic writings stop to consider, as David Stern says, that the "New Testament is a Jewish book, written by Jews, largely about Jews, and meant for both Jews and Gentiles" (ix). Bivin also affirms that the religion, traditions and concepts of the New Testament are Hebraic (4). Avi Brickner of Jews for Jesus says, "We see nothing in the New Testament that is non-Jewish or anti-Jewish. To the contrary, it is interwoven with Jewish hope and prophetic promise." The Jewishness of the New Testament, as set forth in this article, may be seen in its cultural setting, its thematic character and its literary composition. Moreover, the central figure of the New Testament, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah, in the flesh was and is a Jew and would have naturally spoken to His disciples in their native language, traditions and Scriptures. Indeed, as one Messianic Rabbi pointed out, Hebrew is the only language in Scripture that God used to speak audibly.
I use the terms "Hebrew" and "Jewish" somewhat interchangeably, but the term "Hebrew" is much older and preferred when referring to the language of the sacred writings and the character of Scriptural teaching. To emphasize the Jewish character of the apostolic writings (New Testament) I will use the acronym Besekh from this point. Like the acronym Tanakh used for the Old Testament, Besekh summarizes the content of the apostolic writings using three Hebrew words: Besorah (lit. "good news") Matthew—Acts; Sepherim (lit. "letters"), the apostolic epistles; and Khezyōnōt (lit. "visions"), Revelation. (For Christian readers, when you see "Besekh" think "New Testament.")
Jewish culture is woven into the very fabric of the Bible. While there are mentions of various non-Jewish cultures, they only occur as they impact the main Israelite characters of God's Story. Christian scholarly works tend to minimize this Jewish characteristic by substituting references such as "biblical culture" or "Mediterranean culture." The God of the Bible is concerned with life in Israel and among His people. References to the Jewish identity of the principal characters in the Besekh abound. These include the genealogies, then tribal and national claims for certain individuals (Luke 2:36; Acts 4:36; 2Cor 11:22; Php 3:5; Heb 7:14). There are also many references to Jewish groups, institutions and religious practices of the Jews.
A variety of Jewish groups existed in the first century, some of which are mentioned in the Besekh. The diversity of these groups indicate that there was not one Judaism but many Judaisms during that time. There were five main categories of Jews: traditional Judean Jews (John 2:13; Acts 6:1), Hellenized Jews (Acts 6:1; 9:29; 11:20), Hellenistic Jews (John 7:35; 12:20; Acts 14:1-2; 16:1; 18:4; 19:10, 17; 20:21; 21:28; Rom 1:16), Samaritan Jews (John 4:12; Acts 8:5) and Ascetic Jews (Acts 19:1-4; Rom 14:2; Col 2:8-18; 1Tim 4:1-5). I use "Judean" as an adjective of character rather than place of birth, because their tenets of religion were derived from the great Judean Sages and governed by the Sanhedrin in Judea. For a detailed discussion of these groups see my article The Apostolic Community.
The apostolic narratives also mention various Jewish parties committed to a particular religious and/or political ideology: Pharisees (Matt 3:7), Sadducees (Matt 3:7), Herodians (Matt 22:16), Zealots (Matt 10:4) and Hellenists (John 7:15; 12:20). While the Essenes are not mentioned by name, there are allusions to their teachings (Matt 5:43-47; 8:10-12; 13:38). The first century Jewish historian Josephus identifies the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots as the four principal parties of that time (Antiquities, XVIII, 1:1-6).
The Pharisees, a lay movement, developed and adhered to traditions (so-called Oral Torah) intended to fulfill Torah obligations. They believed in the resurrection and in immortality. The Sadducees were aristocratic and generally held power in the Temple and the Sanhedrin. They did not accept the Pharisaic traditions. They did not believe in the resurrection or the immortality of the soul. The Essenes shared many common beliefs and practices with the Pharisees. However, they lived principally in self-contained communities. They did not offer sacrifices at the Temple or go to the festivals at Jerusalem since they regarded the Sadducean priesthood to be corrupt. Many scholars believe that Yochanan the Immerser was influenced by their theology. It is very possible that Simeon in Luke 2:25 was an Essene.
The Zealots (Matt 10:4) believed in the violent overthrow of the Roman government. They staged rebellions at various times, which all failed. One of Yeshua's disciples was Simon the Zealot (Mark 3:18). The Herodians (Matt 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13) were a political party that supported Herod the king. The Samaritans rejected worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and instead venerated Mount Gerizim as the holiest of mountains. They believed that in the days of Uzzi the high priest (1Chr 6:6); the ark and other sacred vessels were hidden by God's command in Mount Gerizim. As a result the Samaritans hoped for its restoration under the Messiah.
The principal institutions of Jewish culture, all referred to in the Besekh, were the synagogues, the Temple and the justice system.
Synagogue: In the first century, synagogues were a central institution of Jewish life as a place where study, worship, celebration, and various other kinds of meetings take place. There were synagogues throughout the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. The Talmud records that, at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there were 394 synagogues in Jerusalem alone (Ket. 105a; TJ Sot. 7:7, 8; TJ Yom. 7:1). Yeshua's ministry incorporated the synagogue where he taught and healed various people. The synagogue provided a starting point for apostolic evangelism and its organization inspired early congregational organization.
Temple: The Temple located in Jerusalem served as the heart of Israelite religion and is frequently referred to in the apostolic narratives. There were three temples in Jerusalem’s history, the first one being built under King Solomon (1Kgs 5-8). The second temple was built under Zerubbabel (Hag 1-2; Ezra 3:4-13), and the third was a rebuilt temple under King Herod (Matt 21:12; 24:1-2). Herod had architects from Greece, Rome and Egypt plan the construction. The Temple area was enlarged to a size of about thirty-five acres. Around the Temple area were double colonnades. There were eight gates leading into the temple. Anyone was allowed to enter the outer area, which was therefore called the Court of the Gentiles (Matt 21:12). The actual Temple grounds was enclosed by a barrier, and at the entrances to it were warning notices forbidding entry by any uncircumcised person on pain of death. Inside the barrier was the Court of the women.
Next came the Court of the Israelites (men only) and then the Court of the Priests. In its center was the altar for the burnt offerings and to the left of it a large basin called the Brazen Sea resting upon twelve bulls cast in bronze. Further steps led up to the sanctuary (Grk. naos), a comparatively small building. A priceless curtain, embroidered with a map of the known world, concealed from view what lay beyond, and none except the priest on duty was allowed to go farther. It contained the golden altar at which incense was offered and next to it the seven-branched menorah and the table with the twelve loaves of shewbread. Beyond it, behind another large curtain, lay the Holy of Holies, which none except the high priest was allowed to enter, and he only on the Day of Atonement. A stone designated the place where once the Ark of the Covenant had stood. Josephus provides a detailed description of the Temple complex in War of the Jews, V, 5:2.
Justice System: The system of jurisprudence consisted of three basic courts made up of an odd number of members to prevent a tie vote. The Sanhedrin (generally referred to as the "rulers" of the Jewish people) consisted of 70 members and heard appeals from the lower courts or cases where the lower court couldn’t decide. The President served as the 71st member to break a tie vote. The Sanhedrin usually handled matters of national importance. A tribe, false prophet and the high priest could only be tried by this court. The next lower court was called the Court of Twenty-Three, known as the Lesser Sanhedrin. This court tried civil and capital cases. The lowest court was the Court of Three, which decided civil matters. (For more information see my web article Jewish Jurisprudence.)
Yeshua and the apostles and first century disciples were not only Jewish by heritage but observant Jews as well. They were zealous to live by the Torah (Matt 5:17; Luke 20:21; Acts 21:20, 24; 25:8; Rom. 8:4; 1Cor 7:9; Php 3:6; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 2:3-4; 5:2-3; Rev 12:17; 14:12). Contrary to the popular Christian myth that Paul rejected his Jewishness and founded Christianity, he was actually an observant Jew who lived as a Pharisee throughout his life (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 20:16; 21:26; 23:6; 26:5; Php 3:5). The early church fathers recognized that Yeshua and the apostles were observant Jews. Irenaeus (c. 180 AD, a disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of the apostle John) wrote,
"And the Apostles who were with James allowed the Gentiles to act freely, yielding us up to the Spirit of God. But they themselves, while knowing the same God, continued in the ancient observances...Thus did the Apostles, whom the Lord made witnesses of every action and of every doctrine...scrupulously act according to the dispensation of the Mosaic law, showing that it was from one and the same God; which they certainly never would have done, as I have already said, if they had learned from the Lord [that there existed] another Father besides Him who appointed the dispensation of the law." (Against Heresies, Book III, XII, 15).
Various references to God's appointed times instituted at Mount Sinai occur throughout the Besekh: the daily sacrifice, the Sabbath, New Moon, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, First Fruits of Harvest, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, and Hanukkah. For a description of each of these calendar events and their mention in the Besekh see my web article God's Appointed Times.
Israel in the first century was a multi-lingual society with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin all in use. Hebrew was the original language of the people of Israel and the language of 99% of the Tanakh. Aramaic originated in Assyria and Jews learned it while in captivity in Babylon. Many scholars argue for the influence of Aramaic on Scripture, but less than one percent of the Tanakh is in Aramaic (Daniel 2:4b-7:28; Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11) and there are only a few words in the Besekh that can be positively identified as Aramaic.
· Kēpha, spelled "Cephas," the translation of the Greek name Petros (Peter) Yeshua gave to Simon (John 1:42).
· Maranatha, "let him be accursed," 1Cor 16:22 (probably originated from the courtroom, since legal documents were often written in Aramaic.
· The use of bar ("son of") in names, such as Barachiah (Matt 23:35), Barjona (Matt 16:17), Bartholomew (Matt 10:3), Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46), Barabbas (Matt 27:16), Barsabbas (Acts 1:23), Barnabas (Acts 4:36), Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6).
Greek became dominate with the conquest of the world by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. He imposed Greek culture on all the lands he conquered. Greek was also the principal conversational language of the Roman Empire, whereas Latin was primarily reserved for legal works. Greek is important to the Bible expositor because Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (called Septuagint, abbreviated as LXX) two hundred years before Yeshua. The syntax of the LXX is not the classical style of Athens, but an adapted Greek designed to convey the meaning of the Hebrew language within Hebraic grammatical style, i.e., Jewish Greek.
While the extant MSS of the Besekh are in Greek, there is a considerable debate concerning the actual colloquial speech used by Yeshua and his disciples. Many Christian scholars prefer to think that the daily language was Aramaic instead of Hebrew, based on the incidence of a few words in the Greek texts of the Besekh (Varughese 26). Alleged Aramaic words in the Besekh include talitha cumi (Mark 5:41); Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachthani (Mark 15:34); Ephphata (Mark 7:34), Korban (Mark 7:11), Rabboni (John 20:16), Raca (Matt 5:22); and Abba (Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Douglas Hamp (2005) argues persuasively based on etymology, grammar, Tanakh and the Mishnah, that words in the Besekh commonly thought to be Aramaic are in fact Hebrew.
The Tanakh, the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a small percentage of Aramaic words, but this does not prove that Aramaic was the daily language of the street. Scholars speak of Mishnaic Hebrew (referring to the fact that the Mishnah is written in Hebrew) as a specialized language that only rabbis spoke. That would be like saying that the English of the King James Version was only spoken by English preachers of the 1600s. Some Aramaic words were no doubt assimilated into Hebrew, but this influence did not change the Hebrew language.
"Likewise, consider the dramatic influence French had on English – we use words such as pork and beef, not knowing that these words are not originally English. This does not lead us to the conclusion that Americans are speaking French, though it does imply that there was some French influence upon the English language. Nevertheless, though pork and beef are clearly French, the way they are spelled (vs. porc and boeuf) shows that they have been completely assimilated into the English language." (Hamp 55)
David Flusser, Orthodox Jewish scholar at Hebrew University, states,
"The spoken languages of that period [first century] were Hebrew, Aramaic, and to an extent Greek….It is possible that Jesus did, from time to time, make use of the Aramaic language. But during that period Hebrew was both the daily language and the language of study. The Gospel of Mark contains a few Aramaic words, and this is what has misled scholars….There is thus no ground for assuming that Jesus did not speak Hebrew; and when we are told (Acts 21:40) that Paul spoke Hebrew, we should take this piece of information at face value" (11).
It seems very strange that scholars should be so convinced that Yeshua and the apostles communicated in Aramaic instead of Hebrew, the language of the Tanakh. As far as we can tell from the Tanakh, the only language God ever used to speak to His people was Hebrew. Actually, archaeological evidence and the texts of early Jewish writings (especially the LXX) would suggest that Greek was much more prevalent than Aramaic. However, a number of scholars (Bivin, Buth, Flusser, Hamp, Lindsey, Penner, Safrai, Stern, and Tverberg) have presented strong evidence that Yeshua and the apostles spoke conversational Hebrew.
The Greek word-group for Hebrew occurs 14 times in the Greek Besekh in three forms:
· Hebraios, the base noun used to define both the ethnicity and religious orientation of a group or person: Hebraic (i.e., orthodox) Jews contrasted with Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:1) and the ethnic self-identification of Jew (2Cor 11:22; Php 3:5).
· Hebrais, an adjective used to explain that a person was speaking in Hebrew: Paul (Acts 21:40; 22:2) and Yeshua (Acts 26:14).
· Hebraisti, an adverb used to explain the Hebrew meaning of a word used by Jews and translated into Greek for a Gentile audience, such as Bethesda (John 5:2), Gabbatha (John 19:13), Golgotha (John 19:17), Rabboni (John 20:16), Abaddon (Rev 9:11), and Har-Magedon (Rev 16:16).
Yet, the belief in Aramaic as the language of Yeshua and the apostles is so entrenched in Christian scholarship that some Bible versions render the word-group with "Aramaic" in about half the passages (e.g., CEV, ESV, NCV, NIV, NLT). Even Messianic Jewish Versions show influence of the same bias. The Complete Jewish Bible uses "Aramaic" in John 5:2; 19:13 and 19:17 while rendering the other 11 verses with "Hebrew." The Tree of Life Version uses "Aramaic" in seven of the 13 verses (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; 20:16; Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14) with "Hebrew" in the other verses. In contrast the Messianic Jewish versions Hebrew Names Version and Messianic Writings consistently translate the Hebraios word-group as "Hebrew," as does the Christian versions GNB, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, and RSV.
Generally ignored by Christian scholars is that the LXX uses Suristi (Syrian) to mean "Aramaic" (e.g., 2Kgs 18:26; Ezra 4:7; Isa 36:11; Dan 2:4). Suristi does not occur in the Greek Besekh at all, although the related form Suros (Syrian) does occur in Luke 4:27. It is clear that the Greek of the Besekh is the Greek of the LXX and Greek words in the Besekh mean what they mean in the LXX. Put another way, the LXX is foundational to correctly translating and interpreting the Besekh. If the apostolic authors had intended to say "Aramaic" they would have used Suristi (or Suros), not Hebrais. It's as simple as that.
The Besekh concerns itself with broad theological themes not found in pagan cultures. All the doctrines of Pathology (cause of evil), Hamartiology (nature of sin), Soteriology (salvation), Pneumatology (Holy Spirit and inspiration of Scripture), Deontology (moral and ethical expectations), Ecclesiology (congregational life), Eschatology (last things and resurrection) and Israelogy (doctrine of Israel) were revealed to and developed by Jews. Christianity added nothing to this knowledge, but appropriated it and then distorted it by removing the Israelogy and amalgamating it with Gnosticism and Antinomianism. Today Christian theology does not incorporate an adequate Israelogy that reflects the teaching of Scripture, but instead continues to propagate replacement theology.
Dependence on the Tanakh
The Besekh incorporates a strong dependence on the Tanakh. The fourth edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek Testament (1993) lists 343 Tanakh quotations in the Besekh, as well as no fewer than 2,309 allusions and verbal parallels. The books most used are Psalms (79 quotations, 333 allusions), and Isaiah (66 quotations, 348 allusions). In the Book of Revelation, there are no formal quotations at all, but no fewer than 620 allusions. Furthermore, the Tanakh is quoted or alluded to in every apostolic writing except Philemon and 2 and 3 John (Theopedia). The overall effect of so many references is to anchor the Besekh in the God-inspired words of Israel’s prophets.
Dependence on the Septuagint
Of special interest is that all the quotations from the Tanakh in the Besekh are taken from the LXX, or a variant Greek text available to the writer. The translation of the LXX was initiated by King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC) who requested the Jewish High Priest Eliezer to provide six representatives from each of the tribes. The Talmud records that 72 elders did come together during the King’s reign to translate the Torah (Megillah 9a), but Josephus says the number was 70 (Antiquities of the Jews, XII, 2) and this became the shorthand name for the Greek version.
The Torah was completed about 283 or 282 BC and the Greek canon was finalized and in general use by the middle of the 2nd century BC at the latest (Setterfield). By the first century the Greek Bible was widely used in the synagogues of the Diaspora and was well known in Israel. As David Hill of The University of Sheffield affirms, "Not only word-meanings in the New Testament, but also the structure and syntax of New Testament language bear the impress of a special Hebraic influence channeled, for the most part, through the Septuagint" (14).
Parallels in Jewish Literature
There are numerous parallels in the Besekh to ancient Jewish sources, including the following:
· The Apocrypha. A collection of 15 Jewish books written in the 3rd to 1st centuries BC They are excluded from the Hebrew Tanakh, although they were included in the LXX. Among them are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, Prayer of Manasseh and 1 & 2 Maccabees. All Catholic English editions and a few Protestant ones include the Apocrypha.
· The Pseudepigrapha. More than 60 books written between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD and usually attributed to Tanakh figures by their actual authors. Most either elaborate on Tanakh themes or are apocalyptic in character.
· The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of 972 texts from the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical documents, believed to have been prepared by the Essenes. The manuscripts are typically dated from 200 BC to AD 68. Many teachings of the Essenes have strong parallels in the New Testament. They are mostly written in Hebrew, but some are written in Aramaic and Greek.
·The Mishnah. Part I of the Talmud, a topical presentation of the Jewish Oral Torah with rabbinic discussion of it. The Mishnah was compiled around AD 220 by Y’hudah HaNasi (Judah the Prince) and consists of six sections divided into 63 tractates. The Mishnah is generally assumed to represent the beliefs and customs of Jews in the first century. Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel are among the well-known rabbis of the first century whose contributions are included.
While these sources are not quoted by name in the Besekh, the affinity of these works to the Besekh indicates a common pool of ideas from which Yeshua and the apostles spoke. Taken together these Jewish works show that the Besekh (and Christianity) is rooted in Judaism.
The Besekh was not written by Christian church fathers of the second century, but Jewish apostles who followed Yeshua or, in the case of Paul, called by Yeshua. All of the authors of the Besekh, except Luke, were Hebraic Jews, rather than Hellenistic Jews (cf. Acts 6:1). What made the Hebraic Jews different from their Jewish brethren was rigorous opposition to religious syncretism and assimilation with Hellenistic (or pagan) culture. Hebrew was their first and primary language. They kept the traditions of the Pharisees. Two authors, Matthew and Paul, were particularly conservative, the former a Levite and the latter a Pharisee.
Luke is commonly supposed to be a Gentile because in Colossians 4:14 he seems to be distinguished by Paul from those "of the circumcision" (verses 10-11) and included in a supposedly Gentile group (verse 12-14). However, both internal evidence of Scripture and external evidence from the church fathers would point to Luke being a Hellenistic Jew. For a full discussion on Luke's Jewishness see my discussion on the Gospel of Luke in my web article Witnesses of the Good News.
There are over 5,000 extant MSS in Greek and the earliest manuscript is dated at c. 200. Since the Besekh was written by Jews and heavily dependent on the LXX, then not surprisingly the Besekh bears the same vocabulary and approach to grammatical construction as the LXX, making the Besekh also Jewish Greek.
Many scholars agree that Hebrew oral tradition of Yeshua and the apostles stands behind the written narratives. In the first century a disciple of a Sage was not permitted to transmit his words in writing (Bivin 33; Gittin 60b; Tosephta Shabbat 13:4) and, therefore, it's possible that Jewish apostles delayed writing down the Gospel narratives out of respect for this Pharisaical tradition or because of their eschatological viewpoint. In contrast other Jewish groups made use of scrolls (Bivin 37), and the written Scriptures were read in the synagogues. The Essenes in particular preserved their teaching in writing and left a considerable library. There is evidence in the apostolic narratives of interaction with the Essenes, if not influence. Evidence suggests that Yeshua held his Last Seder in the Essene Quarter of Jerusalem.
The literary character of first century Judaism is illustrated repeatedly in the Besekh. Yeshua read from a book of the Tanakh in a synagogue service; he didn't quote it from memory (Luke 4:17). He also wrote on the ground, an action mimicking God writing on tablets of stone (John 8:6, 8). Legal actions had to be reduced to writing to be valid (Mark 10:4; Luke 16:6). Luke wrote his Gospel after careful investigation of the facts (Luke 1:3). The decision of the Jerusalem Council was transmitted in writing, not orally (Acts 15:20). Paul, a Pharisee accustomed to oral transmission of tradition, wrote his letters (1Cor 4:14; Php 3:1; Col 4:18; 2Th 3:17). He did not send a courier to convey an oral message. Paul requested that his "books" be brought to him (2Tim 4:13), which indicates his literary bent.
The epistles to the congregations in the Diaspora were generally penned by secretaries who probably wrote them in Greek (Rom 16:22; 1Cor 16:21; Col 4:18; 2Th 3:17; 1Pet 5:12). However, there is both internal and external evidence that the Synoptic Narratives, Acts, Hebrews, Jacob (aka "James"), 2 Peter, and Revelation were written first in Hebrew and then later translated into Greek. For example, on the Gospel of Matthew we have this record of the church fathers.
Papias (d. 155): "So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able." Church History, Book III, §39.16. Irenaeus (AD 120-202) concurred: "Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the church in Rome." Eusebius, Church History, Book V, §8.2.
Regarding the epistle to the Hebrews we have the words of Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200):
"He says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts." Eusebius, Church History, VI, 14:2.
The Besekh contains many Hebrew words that were converted into Greek by transliteration, that is substituting Greek letters for the Hebrew letters without translation. The sheer number of Hebrew words compared against the number of Aramaic words affirms Hebrew as both the common vernacular and the source of basic vocabulary for the Besekh. Follow is a list of common Hebrew words in the Besekh.
To the vocabulary list may be added the hundreds of names of people and places transliterated from Hebrew into Greek. Just consider the genealogy lists, family members, names of disciples, names of key Jewish people, names of Israel's tribes, names of the cities of Judea, Samaria and Galilee, and names of mountains, rivers and lakes mentioned in the Besekh. These names are not Aramaic.
An important evidence of the Hebrew language in the Besekh is the presence of idiomatic words and phrases. An idiom is simply an expression peculiar to a particular language, which if taken literalistically would be nonsensical in the context where used. Idiomatic language pervades the Besekh. Here are a few:
· "Good eye," in the Sermon on the Mount, is an idiom meaning generosity.
· "The small and the great" in Revelation 11:18; 13:16; 19:5, 18, actually refers to the young and the old rather than social or economic status.
· "Hate one's parents" in Luke 14:26 does not carry the meaning it normally has in English usage. In Hebrew "hate" not only means to have hostility toward, but was an idiomatic expression meaning to love less or "put in second place" (cf. Gen 29:31; Deut 21:15).
· "Gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 13:28) denotes extreme torment.
· "Before your face," Mark 1:2, is idiomatic of "before you," reflecting personal presence.
· "He who has ears to hear" (e.g., Mark 7:14) points to the willingness to learn or to be open to the truth and be obedient to what is heard. The idiom reflects the typical manner of first century Jewish learning by hearing the Scripture read in Synagogue.
· "Walk according to the flesh," Romans 8:5, means simply behaving as if God does not exist and giving personal desires first place. It is allowing personal desires to drive decision-making without regard to God's instructions.
Many of the idioms that Yeshua used and are recorded in the narratives can only be properly understood when interpreted in their Hebrew context (Bivin 2).
Joining individual words in a list within a sentence or one clause to another with the conjunction "and" is a frequent characteristic feature of the Hebrew Scriptures, whereas in Greek literature an independent clause will be subordinated to the main clause of the sentence and the use of conjunctions minimized. The conjunction in Hebrew functions generally as a prefix to Hebrew words without using a separate word. To make a Hebrew word part of a connecting sequence, the letter vav (ו) is added to the noun as its first letter (see Hebrew For Christians). The vav as a conjunction has these three basic uses: (1) coordinate and connect, "and," the most common use; (2) have a contrasting or adversative use, e.g. "but," as the context requires; or (3) a disjunctive or parenthetic use, e.g. "now," may suit a departure from the normal word order, a break in narrative flow, or a change of theme (Ross 73-74).
The Greek New Testament is simply littered with conjunctions, over 50 individual words with a total of 21,174 occurrences. (See the list of conjunctions and their number in the Greek New Testament here.) Conjunctions connect data or statements within verses, but in Hebraic fashion begin many verses also. The most frequent conjunction is kai, meaning 'and,' 'also' or 'even,' by far the most common in the Besekh, over 9,000 times. In the LXX kai is normally used translate the vav character. The excessive use of conjunctions in the Besekh, especially kai, is an excellent proof of either an original Hebrew text or Hebraic writing style. English normally uses a coordinating conjunction only between the last two elements in a series of three or more, so while the KJV faithfully renders kai, as other conjunctions, most modern Bible versions leave 80% of the instances of kai untranslated to avoid awkwardness.
The word order of the Greek text is often just like Hebrew word order. In Greek it is not nearly so important where you put the verb or the subject or the object in a sentence. The endings of the nouns in Greek are really case endings and they tell you whether the noun is an object, a subject or in a prepositional relationship.
But, as in English, Hebrew has a generally fixed word order. In narrative, Hebrew often gives the conjunction 'and' first. Then it puts the verb next, as in Mark 1:19, 'And went he from there a little ways.' Then adds the next verb, 'and saw Jacob and John his brother.' Even more clearly is Hebrew word order in Mark 2:19, 'And said to them Yeshua.' Whereas in English the noun or subject usually comes before a verb in a clause, in Hebrew the verb comes first, giving more emphasis to the subject-noun. A statement in English might be "the king judged," but in Hebrew it’s "He judged, (namely) the king." Unlike English, Hebrew confronts the reader with action and calls for attention. Thus, we find that the placement of verbs in the Greek text of the Besekh to be influenced by Hebrew grammar. Robert Lindsey points out:
"In English we would put the subject first and usually follow it by a verb. Hebrew in narrative turns this around. Scholars call this Hebrew habit 'the priority of the verb.' As far as we know no native Greek ever wrote Greek with Hebrew word order, but the Jews about two hundred years before Jesus translated the entire Old Testament into Greek and they made the translation bear the same word order found in Hebrew. Today we would call such a literal translation a bad translation. … we find that the ancient translators preserved the Hebrew word order. There are many other indications that most of the stories and parables in the Gospels were simply translated from Hebrew to Greek. … we have a Greek text that often only makes sense if we retranslate it to Hebrew." (18-19)
All the characteristics described above mark the Besekh as a thoroughly Jewish work. The Besekh is a Jewish book written by Jews for Jews and Gentiles. For many Christians it may take a major paradigm shift to fully appreciate this fact. The rewards for making that shift are immeasurable.
Bivin: David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007
Brickner: Avi Brickner, The Jewishness of the New Testament. Jews for Jesus, January 1987 Newsletter. <accessed 6 October 2014>
DM: H.E. Dana & Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. The Macmillan Co., 1955.
Flusser: David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, Adama Books, 1987.
Hamp: Douglas Hamp, Discovering the Language of Jesus. Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2005.
Hill: David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000.
Lindsey: Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus Rabbi & Lord: The Hebrew Story of Jesus Behind Our Gospels, Cornerstone Publishing, 1990.
Ross: Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew. Baker Academic, 2001.
Setterfield: Barry Setterfield, Alexandrian Septuagint History, 2010.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Tarn & Griffith: Sir William Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization. 3rd Edition. Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1952.
Tverberg: Lois Tverberg, Listening to the Language of the Bible. En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004.
Varughese: Alex Varughese, ed., Discovering the New Testament: Community and Faith. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2005.
For Further Reading
Dan Juster. Jewish Roots: A Foundation of Biblical Theology. Destiny Image Pub., 1995.
Marvin R. Wilson. Our Father Abraham. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.
Brad H. Young. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
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