Jesus Spoke Hebrew! Says Who?
by Dr. Roy B. Blizzard, Jr.
It has been almost four* years since our book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin and me first appeared. Since that time, it has become a "best seller," is in the process of being translated into Dutch and Spanish, and is about ready for the fourth printing. In addition, the book has been reviewed in several major publications, and all of them have given it a good report. However, in spite of the wide circulation and publicity that it has enjoyed, many people continue to be amazed when they hear me state that Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew. Those who have not read this book or who hear me speak for the first time frequently ask, "How do you know Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew?"
This question was the very reason Mr. Bivin and I wrote the book. And I think that it is important to note that the book was intentionally written in a style that the average reader could understand, and not principally for scholars. Almost every real criticism the book has received (in critical reviews) has been that it was written in a "popular style." Actually, Mr. Bivin and I take that as a compliment rather than a criticism, as it was our design and intent from the start that the book should be written in such a way that the average reader could understand it.
In Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, we present considerable evidence to conclusively establish that:
Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew;
Hebrew was the language of the common person in Judea in Jesusâ€™ day;
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were all based on an original Life Story of Jesus that was written originally in Hebrew and not in Aramaic or in Greek.
These facts have long been known by scholars in Israel, but are only now being introduced into countries outside of Israel. The reasons for this are simply that our research in Israel is years ahead of publication, and second, that scholarship in this country by and large has not kept up with the research and discoveries in Israel. This is one reason I believe that the Yavo Digest can be an important source of information and learning for you, and why I sincerely hope you will subscribe to it for yourself and perhaps for some of your friends as well. There is so much that we have to share and so little of it has yet been presented in written form.
What evidence do we have that established unequivocally that Hebrew was the language Jesus spoke and in which He taught?
The Testimony of Early Christian Writers
Early Christian writers who mention the subject are all in unanimous agreement that the original Gospel was written by Matthew in Hebrew. The earliest of these writers was Papias (Fragment 6), dating from about A.D. 167, who records, "Matthew compiled the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue, and everyone translated them as well as he could" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III,39,1). Irenaeus, one of the earliest of the Church Fathers, confirms Papiasâ€™ statement a few years later when he writes, "Matthew published a written Gospel for the Hebrews in their own tongue" (ibid, V,8,2). A Jewish believer named Hegesippus is reported to "draw occasionally on the Gospel of the Hebrews ... and particularly on works in Hebrew" (ibid. IV,22,4). However, the most dramatic testimony to the existence of an original Hebrew Gospel is the well-known Jerome, who translated the Scriptures into Latin in Bethlehem circa A.D. 400. In Jeromeâ€™s extensive writings there are nineteen passages that speak of a "Hebrew Gospel" or a Gospel "according to the Hebrews." On one occasion he speaks of "the Gospel according to the Hebrews" which, he says, "I have recently translated into Greek and Latin" (De vir. ill., II). On another occasion he writes, "In the Gospel which the Nazoraeans and the Ebionites use, which we have translated recently from Hebrew into Greek, and which is called the authentic text of Matthew by a good many ..." (In Matt., 12,13). His most interesting and telling statement can be found in "Lives of Illustrious Men," 3, in Volume 3 of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Father, edited by P. Schaff and H. Wace, page 362.
Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour, quotes the testimony of the Old Testament, he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint, but the Hebrew.
Epiphanius (4th century A.D.) Describes the "Nazoraioi" (Jewish believers) as "painstakingly cultivating the Hebrew language in which they read both the Old Testament and the Gospel according to Matthew" (Panarion 1,29,7 and 9). Pantaenus, the teacher of Clement of Alexandria, relates having found the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew as far away as in India (Eusebius, op. cit., V,10,3).
Coins and Inscriptions
Although there is a difference of opinion among scholars currently working in the field as to the importance of coins in deciding the language of Israel in the first centuries B.C./A.D., I believe coins and inscriptions are an important tool for determining the principal spoken language of this period. In my view, the evidence of coinage is dramatic. From the fourth century B.C. until the end of the Bar-Cochba Revolt in A.D. 135â€“-the entire history of Jewish coinage-â€“only one coin is inscribed in Aramaic (Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76 B.C.). All the rest are in Hebrew.
In addition, there is considerable epigraphical evidence from the period to establish Hebrew as the principal spoken language. In excavations in occupation levels from the first centuries B.C./A.D. at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, not one Aramaic inscription has been found. However, several exciting and important Hebrew inscriptions have been found (see UDWJ, pgs. 58-59). At Masada, Herodâ€™s fortress on the Dead Sea, the epigraphical evidence is staggering: fragments of 14 scrolls, over 4000 coins, and more than 700 inscribed pottery fragments. In these, the ratio of Hebrew to Aramaic exceeds nine to one.
Inscriptions on pottery vessels, burial ossuaries, tombs, walls, mosaic floors, and so on, all attest to Hebrew as the spoken and written language of the common people.
Of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide for us one of the most dramatic and significant of the epigraphical evidences for Hebrew. The Dead Sea Scrolls include nearly 600 partial manuscripts, both biblical and non-biblical, indicated by some 40,000 fragments. The most telling evidence of the scrolls is found in the sectarian scrolls and the commentaries on the biblical scrolls. In the sectarian scrolls, the ratio of Hebrew to Aramaic is, again, nine to one, but all of the commentaries are in Hebrew. It is impossible to conclude that a commentary on the Scripture would be written in a language other than the popular language of the people.
Evidence from the New Testament Text
The most conclusive evidence for Hebrew as the principal language behind not just the Synoptic Gospels, but the New Testament in its entirety, is the text itself. The New Testament is literally filled with semitisms: Hebrew vocabulary, Hebrew syntax, Hebrew idioms, Hebrew thought patterns, and Hebrew theology. Moulton and Howard have compiled an impressive 72-page-long list of Hebrew expressions and idioms found in the New Testament in their Grammar, Vol. 2, pgs. 413-485. Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a member of The Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels, has emphatically stated, "Of the hundreds of Semitic idioms in the Synoptic Gospels, most can be explained on the basis of Hebrew only, while there are no Semitisms which could only be Aramaic without also being good Hebrew." Joining Professor Flusser are such notable scholars as Pinchas Lapide (Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv), Frank Cross (Harvard University), William Sanford LaSor (Fuller Seminary), Harris Birkland, and J.T. Milik. Even Moshe Bar-Asher, the prominent Aramaic scholar at the Hebrew University, has stated that he believes the Synoptic Gospels go back to an original Hebrewâ€”and not Aramaicâ€”document.
To the New Testament scholar fluent in both Hebrew and Greek, it is immediately apparent that the Greek of the Synoptic Gospels, the first fifteen chapters of the Book of Acts, the Book of Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation, as well as vast portions of the remaining portions of the New Testament text, is not Greek at all, but Hebrew in Greek dress. However, there is an important fact that cannot be over-emphasized: To the scholar fluent in Hebrew, it is additionally apparent that the thought patterns behind the entire New Testament are Hebrew, and not Aramaic or Greek.
If you are interested in further study on the subject of Hebrew as the language of Jesus and the common people of his day, I recommend the following tape series: "Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus," "Nuggets from the Sermon on the Mount," "Foundations of Faith," and "Jesus the Rabbi and His Rabbinic Method of Teaching."