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The Original Language of the New Testament
By Gary F. Zeolla
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. This is what I have been taught and believed as long as I have been a Christian. But there are some who claim the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic. This would mean the Greek manuscripts are just translations of this Aramaic original. This two-part article will look at this and related claims.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament: Second Edition (ALT).
Interest in Aramaic
For the most part, the Old Testament (OT) was originally written in Hebrew. On this, there is little debate. But there are a couple of small sections that were written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Daniel chapters 2-7, and one verse in Jeremiah). Aramaic is similar but not identical to Hebrew. By the time of Christ, Jews living in Judea for the most part spoke Aramaic. This is seen in the movie The Passion of the Christ with the entire dialog being in Aramaic (with English subtitles). It is possibly due to this movie that there has been a resurgence of interest in Aramaic.
But long before this, one notable proponent of the idea of an Aramaic original for the New Testament (NT) was George Lamsa. His Lamsa's Bible (published in 1957) was translated from the Syriac Peshitta. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. In the introduction to Lasma's Bible are claimed evidences for an Aramaic Original for the NT.
One commonly cited evidence for an Aramaic original for the NT is a statement made by the Church Father Papias. The translation of this statement is rather difficult as will be discussed in a minute. But below is the translation of this statement as found in the book The Apostolic Fathers by Lightfoot and Harmer.
So then Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as he could (p. 529).
This quote is used as evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic. This claim is discussed in depth in the introduction to the commentary on Matthew in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Vol. 8, pages 3-17). I cannot repeat all of the arguments from these pages here. But I will give a couple of highlights.
As stated, the translation of the sentence is difficult. First, the word "Hebrew" could also be rendered "Aramaic." But most important is the word "oracles." The Greek word is the plural form of "logos." It's most basic meaning is "word" or "saying." So it seems likely Matthew is referring to the words of Jesus. But the Gospel of Matthew includes much more than this. It also includes narrative by Matthew and accounts of the actions of Jesus.
Now Luke does use a form of "logos" to refer to his Gospel (Acts 1:1). But it is in the singular, not plural. And Luke specifically says that what he wrote included the things "which Jesus began both to be doing and to be teaching." So it is generally rendered as "account." But by putting it in the plural, Papias seems to indicate he is not referring to a singular, complete "account" as Luke is but of specific "words." Hence "sayings" seems to be the best translation.
So it's possible that Papias is referring to something other than the canonical Gospel. One theory is it is the so-called "Q" source of the sayings of Jesus that some have theorized the Gospel writers used. Or maybe it was an earlier draft by Matthew that he himself later used to compose his Gospel. Or it is even possible that Matthew wrote two versions of his Gospel, one in Greek and one in Aramaic.
So there are various possibilities as to what is meant by Papias' statement. As such, this one vague statement does not necessary prove that canonical Gospel Of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic. Moreover, the statement only refers to the Gospel of Matthew. It has no bearing on the original language of the rest of the NT.
The Use of the Septuagint
Expositor's goes into detail on the various reasons the Gospel of Matthew was not originally written in Aramaic. One of the strongest is that Matthew quotes from the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew OT from the third century B.C. It is abbreviated as "LXX." The name and abbreviation are based on the tradition that 70 or 72 Jewish scholars worked on the translation, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
For the second edition of the ALT, I carefully reviewed all of the quotes in the NT from the OT. I included the notation "LXX" after the OT verse reference when the wording of the quote in the NT differed from the wording of the source verse in the Hebrew but was similar or even identical to that of the LXX. And there were many such instances in Matthew and the rest of the NT, far more than I had originally thought. For instance, there are six places in the Gospel of Matthew where the OT quote is clearly from the LXX (3:3; 12:21; 13:14,15; 15:8,9; 19:5; 21:16).
It should also be noted that there are also many times when the wording of the NT quotation is basically identical to that of the Hebrew text but differs from the LXX. So in those passages the NT writer was obviously quoting from the Hebrew (e.g. Matthew 2:15). And there are times when the quote in the NT, the Hebrew, and the LXX are all basically the same. So the NT writer could have been quoting from either the Hebrew or the LXX (e.g. Matthew 1:23).
So having studied the issue, it is apparent the NT writers were familiar with both the Hebrew text of the OT and with the LXX, and they freely quoted from either of these. But if Matthew were writing in Aramaic for a strictly Aramaic speaking audience, it would have been more logical for him to have used the Hebrew Scriptures throughout. Moreover, as Expositor's states, "It cannot be argued that the alleged translator decided to use the LXX for all OT quotations in order to save himself some work, for only some of them are from the LXX" (p.13).
Moreover, there are also cases where only the form of the OT verse as it appears in the LXX would "fit" in the context in which the NT writer is quoting the verse.
For instance, Matthew 21:14-16 reads:
14And lame and blind [people] came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the marvelous [things] which He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, "We give praise to You, the Son of David," they expressed indignation. 16And they said to Him, "Do You hear what these [ones] are saying?" But Jesus says to them, "Yes, did you* never read, ‘Out of [the] mouth of young children and nursing infants You prepared praise for Yourself?'" [Psalm 8:2, LXX].
Verse 16 includes a quotation from Psalm 8:2. This verse reads in the NKJV (which is translated from the Hebrew), "Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength." Not only is this significantly different from how the quote appears in the NT, but this wording would not "fit" in the context. The passage is talking about "praise" not "strength."
However, this verse reads in Lancelot Brenton's translation of the LXX, "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise." The differences in wording between this translation and how I translated the quote is simply due to translation differences; the Greek text is identical in the LXX and in NT.
So in this passage, the quote is clearly from the LXX and only the way the verse is worded in the LXX would fit in the context. So the LXX is clearly the original source for the quote, not the Hebrew text. And what makes this particularly interesting is this a statement of Jesus. So it was Jesus who originally used the LXX in his discussion with the "the chief priests and the scribes." More on the import of this in a minute. But here, it should be noted that this use of the LXX only makes sense if the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Greek. And similar instances could be given for other books of the NT.
The Language of Jesus, the Apostles, and the Writers of the NT
Lamsa claims, "The Gospels, as well as the Epistles, were written in Aramaic, the language of the Jewish people in Palestine and in the Greco-Roman world" (p.ix). And further, "For several centuries, the Christian movement was directed and guided by the Jews. All of the apostles and the evangelists were Jewish" (p.xi).
So Lamsa is claiming Jesus, the apostles, the Gospel writers, and their audience spoke Aramaic. And further he is claiming that the Church was primary Jewish and remained so for centuries. And it is true that Jesus and the original apostles were Jews. And it is true that for the most part Jews in Palestine at that time spoke Aramaic.
However, Luke, the writer of two NT books (the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts) was most likely a Gentile. Luke's writings were directed towards "most excellent Theophilus." This is a Greek name and title for a person of rank in the Roman government (see Acts 23:26; 24:30). So Theophilus was most likely a Gentile who spoke Greek.
Furthermore, Luke writes in Acts 1:18,19:
18(This one indeed then acquired a field by [the] payment of [his] unrighteousness, and having fallen headfirst, he burst open in the middle and all his inward parts were poured out. 19And it became known to all the ones living in Jerusalem, with the result that that place is called, in their own language [i.e. Aramaic], Akel Dama, that is, Field of Blood.)
This paragraph appears within a discourse by Peter. However, I put these verses in parentheses in the ALT as they do not seem to be a part of Peter's discourse. They are most likely comments added my Luke for the benefit of the readers of the Book of Acts.
In this comments Luke refers to "their own language." I added the explanatory note that this is Aramaic. Again, for the most part this is true. But note that Luke then translated the Aramaic term for his readers. So it appears he was writing in Greek for people who knew only Greek. If he had been writing in Aramaic to Aramaic readers, it would have been unnecessary to provide a translation.
It should also be noted that Luke's translation of "field of blood" appears in Lamsa's Bible as well. So it cannot be claimed that the supposed translator of the Aramaic original into Greek added this translation. It appears in the Aramaic text. This only makes sense if in fact the Book of Acts was written in Greek and was then translated into Aramaic. And with Acts being a follow-up to the Gospel of Luke, it is only logical that Luke was written in Greek as well.
Going back to the Gospel of Matthew, it contains this interesting bit of information about Matthew, "And passing by from there, Jesus saw a man sitting at the tax-office, being called Matthew, and He says to him, "Be following Me!" And having stood up, he followed Him" (Matthew 9:9).
Matthew was collecting taxes from Jews for the Roman government. To engage in such a business would have required him to have known Aramaic to be able to speak to the Jews, but he also would had to have known Greek (and maybe Latin) to have spoken to the Roman officials.
Then there's this interesting exchange in John 12:20-22:
20Now [there] were some Greeks from the ones going up so that they should prostrate themselves in worship at the feast. 21Then these [Greeks] came to Philip, the [one] from Bethsaida of Galilee, and were asking him, saying, "Lord [or, Sir], we desire to see Jesus." 22Philip comes and tells Andrew, and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus.
So Philip, one of the apostles, was able to converse with Greeks. And it appears he brought these Greeks to Andrew and then to Jesus. Jesus' subsequent discourse is then addressed to "them" (v.23). The "them" probably included these visiting Greeks. So it's very possible Jesus' subsequent discourse was in Greek.
As for Peter, the difference between the Greek of his two epistles is instructive. The first is written in very stylistic Greek while the second is written in very simple Greek. So the first appears to be written by someone very familiar with the Greek language while someone for whom Greek was a second language probably wrote the second. Some have used this difference to claim that 2Peter was not actually written by Peter. But a better explanation is seen in the text itself.
1Peter ends with the following:
12By Silvanus, the faithful brother as I consider [him], through [whom] I wrote a few [words], encouraging and testifying this to be [the] true grace of God in which you* have stood firm (5:12).
"By Silvanus … through [whom] I wrote a few [words]" indicates that Peter probably dedicated his first epistle to Silvanus. In writing down the dictation, Silvanus probably "cleaned up" Peter's crude Greek. But the second epistle contains no such "by" line. So it was written directly by Peter and contains the kind of Greek you would expect from a fisherman for whom Greek was a second language.
So Jesus, at least some of the apostles, and the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke most likely knew Greek. Similarly, Paul, the writer of half of the books of the NT, clearly knew both Aramaic and Greek.
This is seen in the following passage from Acts:
37And Paul being about to be brought into the barracks says to the commanding officer, "Is it permitted for me to speak to you?" Then he said, "Do you know Greek? 38So you are not the Egyptian, the one having incited a riot before these days and having led the four thousand men of the assassins into the desert, are you?" 39But Paul said, "I indeed am a man, a Jew of Tarsus of Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant [fig., an important] city. Now I implore you, permit me to speak to the people."
1"Men, brothers and fathers, now pay attention to my defense to you*." 2Now they having heard that in the Hebrew dialect he was speaking to them, they gave [him] even more silence. (Acts 21:37-22:2).
And finally, to re-iterate from before, OT quotes that are clearly taken from the LXX appear throughout the NT. Quotes from the LXX appear in all four Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1Corinthians, Ephesians, 2Timothy, Hebrews, James, and 1Peter. So writers of all of these books had to have known Greek and have been writing in Greek.
The most interesting book in this list is the Epistle to the Hebrews. There are seven quotes from or clear references to the LXX in Hebrews (1:6; 2:13; 8:12; 10:6,7; 11:20; 12:5,6; 12:12). So although written to Hebrews, the writer was clearly writing in Greek and most likely to Greek-speaking Jews.
The Original Language of the New Testament: Part Two
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible: Second Edition. Copyright © 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org). Previously copyrighted © 1999, 2001 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and
English. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.
Carson, D. A. Matthew in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Vol. 8). Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1985 And other volumes in Expositor's.
Lamsa, George M. The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (a.k.a. Lamsa's Bible). Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1957.
Lightfoot, J. B. and J. R. Harmar. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek and English. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982.
The above article originally appeared in the free Darkness
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It was posted on this Web site in March 1, 2005.
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