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The Original Language of the New Testament

Part Two

By Gary F. Zeolla

In Part One on this article, it was stated that some claim the New Testament (NT) was not originally written in Greek as is commonly believed. They claim the NT was actually originally written in Aramaic. One major proponent of this view was George Lamsa, as seen in the introduction to his Lamsa's Bible.

However, it was shown in Part One that the NT writers knew Greek and most likely were writing in Greek from their use of the Septuagint and from information contained within the NT. This second part of this two-part article will continue this discussion.

Note: All Scripture references are taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament: Second Edition (ALT).

The Language of the Early Church

Lamsa was quoted in Part One as claiming, "For several centuries, the Christian movement was directed and guided by the Jews." (p.xi). But there is much evidence within the pages of the NT, particularly in the Book of Acts, that his was not the case. Very early in time, the Church became more and more Greek, not Jewish.

This can be seen starting with Acts 6:
1And in these days, the disciples increasing [in number], there came to be a complaint from the Hellenists [fig., Greek-speaking Jews] towards the Hebrews [fig., Aramaic-speaking Jews], because their widows were being overlooked in the daily service [fig., distribution of food]. 2So the twelve having summoned the congregation of the disciples, said, "It is not desirable [for] us, having left the word of God, to be serving tables. 3Therefore, brothers [and sisters], look for seven men from [among] you*, being well spoken of, full of [the] Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint over this need [or, necessity]. 4But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."

5And the word was pleasing before the whole congregation. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of [the] Holy Spirit, and Philip and Prochorus and Nicanor and Timon and Parmenas and Nicolaus, a proselyte [i.e. convert to Judaism] from Antioch, 6whom they set before the apostles. And having prayed, they laid [their] hands on them.

7And the word of God kept spreading, and the number of the disciples kept being increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a large crowd of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

I quoted this passage through verse 7 to show that this dispute occurred in Jerusalem. So it was while the Church was still mainly found in Jerusalem that there was a sufficient number of Greek-speaking Jews as to cause problems within the congregation. And once the Gospel began to spread beyond Jerusalem, the number of Greek-speaking Jews entering the Church continued to grow.

19Then indeed the ones having been scattered because of the affliction [or, persecution], the one having occurred over Stephen, passed through as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews only. 20But some of them were male Cyprians and Cyrenians, who having entered into Antioch, began speaking to the Hellenists [fig., Greek-speaking Jews], proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. 21And [the] hand of [the] Lord was with them, and a large number having believed turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).

About this time, a major change occurred in the Church. Rather than the Gospel only being proclaimed to Jews, it began to be proclaimed to Gentiles. This began with Peter proclaiming the Gospel to Cornelius.

1Now [there] was a certain man in Caesarea, by name Cornelius, a centurion of a garrison [of soldiers], the one being called Italian [fig., a captain of the Italian Regiment], 2devout and fearing God [i.e. a worshipper of the one true God, but not a full convert to Judaism, also called "God-worshiping"] together with all his house, and doing [or, giving] many charitable gifts to the people and imploring God through all [fig. continually]….

34Then Peter having opened his mouth, said, "Truly, I comprehend that God is not One to accept faces [fig., to be prejudice], 35but in every nation the one fearing Him and working righteousness is acceptable to Him….

44While Peter [was] still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all the ones hearing the word. 45And the believing ones from the circumcision were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the free gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues [fig., other languages] and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, 47"Surely no one is able to forbid the water, can he, [for] these not to be baptized who received the Holy Spirit just as we also [did]?" 48And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they urgently asked him to stay several days (Acts 10:1,2,34,35, 44-47).

It is very doubtful that Cornelius, a Gentile, knew Aramaic. So this is further proof to add to what was seen in Part One that Peter knew Greek. But more importantly, we now have Gentiles becoming part of the Church. And these Gentiles knew Greek, not Aramaic. And as the Book of Acts continues, it becomes clear that the Church is becoming more and more composed of Greek-speaking people.

1Now it happened in Iconium [that] they entered by the same [way] into the synagogue of the Jews, and they spoke in such a manner [that] a large number of both Jews and Greeks believed (Acts 14:1).

1Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And look! A certain disciple was there, by name Timothy, a son of a certain believing Jewish woman but of a Greek father, 2who was well spoken of by the brothers [and sisters] in Lystra and Iconium (Acts 16:1,2).

4And some of them believed and were joined with Paul and Silas, both a large number of the God-worshiping Greeks and not a few [fig., a large number] of the first [fig., prominent] women (Acts 17:4)

4Now he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath, and he was persuading Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4).

10Now this took place for two years, with the result that all the ones living in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:10).

17Now from Miletus, having sent to Ephesus, he summoned the elders of the assembly. 18Then when they came to him, he said to them, "You* know from [the] first day from which I set foot in Asia how I was with you* all the time, 19serving as a slave to the Lord with all humility and many tears and trials, the [trials] having happened to me by the plots of the Jews; 20how I did not keep back any of the [things] benefiting [you*, but I] declared to you* and taught you* publicly and in every house, 21solemnly testifying both to Jews and to Greeks [about] repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:17-21).

So it clear that by the time the Book of Acts closes (circa 63 AD), the Church is now composed of just as many if not more Greeks than Jews. And again, many of even the Jews would have been Greek-speaking Jews. So it is safe to say that within a few decades, the Church had more Greek speaking members than Hebrew speaking members. The importance of this will be seen as we look at when the NT books were written.

Dating and "Target Audiences" of NT Books

Lamsa claims, "[The Gospels] were written a few years after the resurrection and some portions were written by Matthew while Jesus was preaching. They were not handed down orally and then written after the Pauline Epistles, as some western scholars say; they were written many years before those Epistles" (p.ix).

As the Church became more and more composed of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles rather than Aramaic-speaking Jews, it becomes more likely that the Gospels would have been written in Greek. It simply would make no sense for them to be written in Aramaic if the "target audience" mostly spoke Greek. So Lamsa needs to claim the Gospels were written very early. But his claim goes counter to most any Biblical scholar of today.

This can be seen in the introductions to the Gospels contained in study Bibles and commentaries. They will almost unanimously date the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to between 50-70 AD. And John's Gospel is usually dated much later, around 90 AD. And it should be noted that these are the dates given by conservative Bible scholars. Liberal scholars would probably date the Gospels even later.

There is not sufficient space in this article to go into all of the proofs given for these dates. So I will refer the reader to any of the wealth of study Bibles and commentaries currently available.

Further is the target audience of the Gospels. Again, information in this regard can be found in study Bibles and commentaries. But it is generally agreed that Matthew was probably directed towards Jews. So a case could be made on this basis that it was written in Aramaic. However, Mark was most likely addressed to Gentiles living in Rome. And Part One of this article discussed that Luke (along with Acts) was addressed to Theophilus, a Gentile (see Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). So Mark, Luke, and Acts would most logically have been written in Greek.

John's Gospel seems to be the most universal of the Gospels, with his many references to the Gospel being for "the world" (e.g. 1:9-13, 29; 3:16,17; 4:42; 6:14,33,51; 8:12; 9:5; 11:49-52; 12:46; 17:21). With this universal emphasis, it would seem most likely that John would be written in the universal language of the time, which was Greek, not Aramaic.

John's epistles and the Revelation are also generally dated to the 90's AD. And 1John and the Revelation also have a universal aspect to them (e.g. 1John 2:2; Rev 5:9,10; 7:9,10; 14:6,7).

 As for Paul, Lamsa claims that his epistles were directed towards Jews. Lamsa writes, "Paul, in nearly all of his epistles, speaks of the Hebrew fathers, subjugation in Egypt, crossing the Red sea, eating manna, and wandering in the desert. This proves beyond a doubt that these letters were written to members of the Hebrew race and not to the Gentile world who knew nothing of Hebrew history and divine promises to them (p.xi).

However, most of Paul's epistles were written to churches that he had founded and had extensive ministry among. And this ministry would have included the teaching of the OT. So even his Gentile readers would have familiar with the OT.

Furthermore, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9). He always presented the Gospel "to the Jew first" (Romans 1:16); but invariably, the Jews for the most part would reject the Gospel, so Paul then turned to the Gentiles (e.g. Acts 13:46). So the churches he directed his epistles towards would have been primarily made up of Gentiles.

Moreover, there were many Greek-speaking Jews outside of Jerusalem. So many of even Paul's Jewish converts mostly likely spoke Greek. So the majority of the readers of Paul's epistle would have spoken Greek. All of this argues for Paul writing his epistles in Greek.

That leaves the general epistles. I've already mentioned about John's epistles. The rest were written between 50-70 AD. So my comments about the synoptic Gospels would apply here.

Now Peter was the apostle to the circumcision, but he would have been writing to Jews outside of Judea. This can be seen from his reference to "the Dispersion" (1:1). As I indicate in the ALT, this is the scattering of Jews outside of Judea. And as was discussed previously, Jews outside of Judea were more likely to be speaking Greek than Aramaic. Peter also mentions about his being "in Babylon" (5:13). Opinions vary as to what city Peter meant by this, but it most definitely was not in Judea.

James is possibly the earliest book of the NT to be written, and it most likely was written to Jews. But these were "scattered abroad" (1:1). So they also would have been living outside of Judea.

Jude is closely related to 2Peter. Which came first is a matter of debate. But both books appear to have been somewhat later, in the 60's AD.

So overall, the dating of the NT books and their target audiences strongly argue for them being written in Greek not Aramaic. Again, much more on these points can be found in study Bibles and commentaries.

Manuscript Evidence

There are over 5000 extant Greek manuscripts of the NT. And some of these date to the early second century. Meanwhile, only a handful of Aramaic texts exist, and these date from the fourth to the seventh centuries (Aland, pp. xxxiv-xxxv). With this limited amount of manuscript evidence, it is hard to determine the original Aramaic text.

Believing in the providence of God as I do, this would be a rather intolerable situation. What God has preserved for us is a wealth of Greek manuscripts. And through textual criticism we can determine very accurately what the original Greek NT contained. See my book Differences Between Bible Version for much in this regard.

Matthew 19:24

One last claim Lamsa makes is that there are verses that don't make much sense in the Greek text but that make more sense in the Aramaic. He claims this is due to the Greek text having been "mistranslated" from the Aramaic.

One such example he gives is Matthew 19:24, "Now again I say to you*, it is easier [for] a camel to pass through an eye of a needle, than [for] a rich [person] to enter into the kingdom of God."

Lamsa states that the Aramaic word for "camel" resembles the word for "rope." So he claims the original Aramaic had "rope" but the alleged translator mistook the word and rendered it as "camel." So his implication is that "rope" makes more sense here than "camel."

But the use of "camel" in this verse makes perfect sense. Jesus was using hyperbole by referring to the largest animal in Judea and how ridiculous it would be to try to thread it through a needle. He uses a similar hyperbole when He declares to the Pharisees, "Blind guides! The ones straining out the gnat, but swallowing the camel! (Matt 23:24).

Conclusion

Overall, the only book of the NT for which there is any significant possible evidence of an Aramaic original is Matthew. But even then, there are good contrary arguments. But for the rest of the NT, the evidence strongly supports what is generally taught and believed in the Church, that the NT was originally written in Greek. It is for this reason that so many in Church history have taken the time to learn Greek.

And feeling it is important for even non-Greek readers to get as close as possible to this original Greek text, I translated my Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament. If I hadn't believed in the originality and importance of the Greek text, I would not put in the time and effort involved in producing this translation.

References:
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.

Aland, Kurt, et. al. The Greek New Testament: Third Corrected Edition. Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1983.
Barker, Kenneth, general editor. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1985.
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.
Sproul, R. C. general editor. New Geneva Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

The above article originally appeared in the free Darkness to Light newsletter.
It was posted on this Web site in May 2, 2005.

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