A common fact that is taught to all Christians is that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew while the New Testament was written in Greek. There is consensus among all Biblical Scholars that the Old Testament was indeed written in Hebrew. But not all scholars agree on the point that the New Testament was written in Greek. Even though most of the remaining Manuscripts of the New Testament are all in Greek, there is evidence that parts of the New Testament would have indeed been written in Hebrew and subsequently translated to Aramaic, Greek and any other languages of the day.
Matthew wrote his account of the Gospel, in Hebrew
One of the best pieces of evidence that exists to prove that the New Testament may have originally been written in Hebrew, is “The Gospel of Matthew”. This Gospel account which is regarded as the earliest out of the 4 Gospels contained in our Bibles, come from Matthew who was surnamed Levi and who was a Tax Collector previously. He was a Hebrew speaking man just like all of the other Disciples of Christ. There are quite a few historical witnesses who have spoken how Matthew wrote his account of the Gospel in Hebrew.
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
(Irenaeus of Lyons – Against Heresies 3:1:1 – 180AD)
“Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism and published in the Hebrew language”
(Origen – Commentaries on Matthew [cited by Eusebius in History of the Church 6:25] – 244AD).
“Matthew had begun by preaching to the Hebrews, and when he made up his mind to go to others too, he committed his own Gospel to writing in his native tongue, so that for those with whom he was no longer present the gap left by his departure was filled by what he wrote” (Eusebius – History of the Church 3:24 – 300-325AD).
“Matthew compiled the sayings [of the Lord] in the Hebrew Dialect, and everyone translated them as well as he could”
(Papias – quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3:39 – 150-170AD)
Hebrew Word Puns
The second reason to take this claim seriously is the amount of “Word Puns” that the Hebrew Manuscripts of Matthew contain. While the Greek Manuscripts make little or no sense in these particular places, the Hebrew gives a rich poetic feel to the Words of Yeshua (Jesus’ true name). While the Old Testament is dotted with these Word Puns, the Greek to English Translation of the New Testament does not contain such attributes. The Hebrew version of Matthew was administered to a serious study by Professor George Howard in the 1980’s, and can be further studied through his book “Gospel of Matthew According to a Primitive Hebrew Text by George Howard”. (You can read the 1st edition of his book here) Professor Howard reviews these Word Puns contained in the Hebrew Manuscripts, in his book from page 194 – 201 which can be viewed through the above link.
Furthermore, Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer from the 16th Century had this to say about Hebrew and the New Testament
“The Hebrew language is the best language of all … If I were younger I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool.”
(Martin Luther, Table Talk, quoted in Pinchas E. Lapide, Hebrew in the Church, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes – Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).
What difference does it make?
One of the questions that could be running through your mind right about now, could be “What difference does any of this make to my walk with God?”. What we believe today hinges completely on the Translations we read in our own native languages. Most of these translations are, translations of translations. Meaning the Greek Manuscripts get translated to Latin, then English, then into other languages from thereon. Much of the original essence could be lost in translation. A great example for this is the misunderstood sect called the Pharisees. Many Christians believe that the Pharisees were the ones keeping the Old Testament Laws. This is not Biblically accurate. (Please read this study to know more about the Pharisees). If we were familiar with the Hebrew version of Matthew, this would have been obvious. Let me explain:
Our Bibles (which are translated from the Greek Manuscripts) read in Mat 23:3 regarding the Pharisees as follows:
All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
The Hebrew Manuscripts of Matthew read the same verse as follows:
Therefore all that he says to you, diligently do, but according to their reforms(Takanot) and their precedents(Ma’asim) do not do, because they talk, but do not do.
If you are familiar with what the Pharisees taught and believed you would know what “Takanot” and “Ma’asim” refer to. These are traditions and customs that they added into God’s Word (The Holy Scriptures). “Takanot” and “Ma’asim” were sometimes even regarded more important or higher than God’s Word. Examples for Takanot and Ma’asim are, the “Washing of Hands” mentioned in Mat 15:2 and “The Breaking of the Sabbath by plucking corn” mentioned in Mat 12:2. The Hebrew Matthew gives us a better understanding of what went on in such instances, while our own Bible translations are silent on these issues.
There are many more instances where the Hebrew Manuscripts shed light on the Gospel stories as well as towards the collective understanding of the New Testament. While I believe that much of the New Testament would have been indeed written in Hebrew, (the native language of most of the New Testament writers) we must acknowledge that much of the Manuscripts that have survived are Greek in nature. My effort is not to say that we should get rid of the Greek Translations that we have, but to say that we must make an effort to look at all sources when studying Scripture. If these Hebrew Manuscripts were studied a little closer, maybe we wouldn’t have grave misunderstandings regarding the characters such as the Pharisees, which has in turn led people to believe that the Old Testament has been done away with, or whoever believes or does what is said in the Old Testament are Pharisaic in nature.
Though much of the New Testament Manuscripts that we have are in Greek, most of these would have been translations of the Originals which were Hebrew. And along the way, through translation and time, we have lost most of the essence, context and connections that the originals had to the people, places and atmosphere that these books and letters were written in. It is my firm belief that we need to go back to the Roots of our Faith, in search of “True Christianity”, not one which is divided, but one which is in agreement with the entirety of Scripture being one body with Christ.
Following is an important piece of information which was missing from this post, but was added because of Brother Hubert Krause who posted an important question.
His question being
What about Matthew 16:18, where there is a word-play between petros and petra. This is possible only in the Greek, isn’t it?
What an amazing question. Yes, this word Pun between Petros and Petrai is definitely there in our Greek Manuscripts of Matthew.
Greek Matthew 16:18
“You are Peter (Petros Πέτρος), and upon this rock (petrai πέτρα) I will build my church”
As far as I know, this is the only word-pun which exists in this Gospel in the Greek. But compare that with the word puns found in the Hebrew Manuscripts of Matthew. There are 4 puns mentioned below. But there maybe more which I am not certain of.
Hebrew Matthew 9:8
“And the crowds saw (vayir’u ויראו) and they feared (vayir’u ויראו) very much.”
Hebrew Matthew 12:13,15
“(13) And he said to the man, stretch out your hand, and he stretched out (vayet ויט) his hand… (15) And it was after this that Yeshua knew and he turned (vayet ויט) from there and many sick people went after him…”
Hebrew Matthew 18:23-35
shalem שׁלם “to pay” five times, followed by
“So shall my father in heaven do if you do not forgive each man his brother with a complete (shalem שׁלם) heart.”
shalem שׁלם – “pay” vs. “complete”
Hebrew Matthew 16:18
“You are a stone (even אבן) and I will build (evneh אבנה) my house of prayer upon you”
The Interesting point is that there is a word pun in the Hebrew Matthew in the same verse as the Greek version. So what does this all mean? Looking at the fact that we know for certain according to the early Church Fathers that Matthew did in fact write His version in Hebrew and that it was copied by others accordingly, Mat 16:18 maybe an instance where the translator applied a word play in Greek using the interesting opportunity. Remember that word-play is used by writers to flourish the text. Also something to remember is that Matthew mentions that he was “called” Peter in 4:18, just as Saul was “called” Paul. Shimon and Shaul both have the “sh” sound not used in the Greek, and this may have been the reason for them to have a Greek name which was used instead in their journeys. Peter or Petros would have been an apt Greek name for Simon because he was called “Rock” by the Messiah.