The clear majority of scholars believe the New Testament was written in Greek. There is one thing you can say about Christians when they all agree and there is no Biblical support for it – they are wrong. We are not so different from the Israelites in the desert, the Jews in Jesus’ time, or the Catholics after that. If there is a wrong path, the majority will find it.
The idea that the New Testament was written in Greek is called Greek Primacy, which means Greek First. The entire evidence for this comes from the large number of Greek New Testaments that have been found. On the other side of the argument, however, there is an immense amount of different kinds of evidence. That is what we’ll look at here.
Greek in Israel in Jesus’ time
In Jesus’ time, Jewish society was a mix of observant Jews, the majority, and those who did not observe the Law of Moses. The observant Jews did not like or trust the Greeks and did not speak or learn the Greek language. They still remembered how the Greeks had tried to exterminate them and how they had desecrated the temple in the time of Epiphanes, some 300 years before.
Greek was spoken in Israel by a select few. At that time Greek was the international language as English is now. If you were wealthy enough to travel internationally, Greek was a good language to know. Jews lived outside of Israel and many of them learned Greek in the countries they lived. When they came to visit Israel they were called Hellenized Jews.
In Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, if you have an ear for such things, you will hear three languages spoken. The common people speak Aramaic which Israel had picked up during their time in Babylon. Hebrew was still spoken but mostly in the church
Aramaic was an international language as well but it didn’t have as much coverage as Greek. It was spoken from Egypt to Syria to Persia.
In that movie you will also hear Latin spoken by the Roman military and government. Greek is also spoken a little
Josephus, a priest, Pharisee and historian of that time, describes it this way:
“I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and to understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness. For our nation does not encourage those that learn the language of many nations. On this account, as there have been many who have done their endeavors, with great patience, to obtain the Greek learning, there have hardly been two or three who have succeeded herein, who were immediately rewarded for their pains.” – Antiquities XX, XI 2. (published circa A. D. 93)
The Bible also shows us some of that anti-Greek feeling, even among the new believers shortly after Jesus’ ascension.
And in those days when the disciples had multiplied, the Hellenist disciples complained against the Hebrews, that their widows were disregarded in the daily ministry. (Acts 6:1)
Part of the reason Jews didn’t care for the Hellenized Jews is that they brought a lot of Greek thought into Judaism. This syncretism was also a problem in the early Roman Catholic Church and led to some muddled teachings we retain to this day.
Given all of this, there is no reason to believe that Jesus’ disciples spoke a significant amount of Greek. They might have known the Greek names for the fish they caught so they could sell to visiting Greeks, but they wouldn’t have been able to write a gospel or epistle.
That brings up the obvious question. If the common people couldn’t speak Greek why would the apostles write their gospels and epistles in that language. Remember Jesus said the message was “First to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”
Aramaic in Old Testament times
Some of the people of Israel knew Aramaic before they were captured by Babylon. After all of Israel learned Aramaic there it began to show up in the Bible. Various books contain a scattering of Aramaic words or a few sentences or paragraphs in Aramaic. Daniel is the exception. Beginning at Daniel 2:4 it is entirely Aramaic through Daniel 7:28.
New Testament quotes in Aramaic
At various places, the New Testament quotes the words that were spoken by Jesus and his disciples. In every case the words spoken are Aramaic. When Jesus is on the cross he says “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani.” That’s Aramaic. You’ve likely heard the phrase “Abba, Father.” That’s Aramaic. When Mary Magdalene realizes she is speaking to Jesus after his death, she says “Rabboni” which is Aramaic for the Hebrew word “Rabbi.” When Jesus confronts Saul on the road to Damascus, Jesus is quoted speaking Aramaic.
Some people would like to say that Greek was the main language of the Jews though they used Aramaic as well. If I’m dying on a cross, my last words will not be a struggled attempt to craft a sentence from the few French and Spanish words I know. Similarly, if I’m surprised to find myself talking to a loved one that I thought was dead, I’ll be speaking English. Plainly the day-to-day language they spoke was Aramaic.
When Jesus speaks from the cross, the Jews mock him as though they can’t understand what he said and thought he must be calling for Elijah. They are making fun of his accent. He speaks Galilean Aramaic which is slightly different from Judean Aramaic. The difference is like British and American English.
These verses actually say that the people were speaking in Aramaic, John 5:2, John 19:13, John 19:17, John 19:20, John 20:16, Acts 21:40, Acts 22:2, Acts 26:14. The Bible confirms what history shows.
New Testament is poor Greek
It is fairly well known that the Greek versions of the New Testament are written in poor Greek. They are full of bad grammar, and odd sentence constructions. The Greek Primacists try to explain this away by saying that they are written in Koine Greek, a less formal form of Greek.
That isn’t true for two reasons. There is no consistency between the books. Some are written in acceptable Greek; others are written in horrible Greek. There is no consistency even within an author’s books. First, second and third Peter are very different in the quality of the Greek. If a narrative was to be pulled from his writings it would be that he lost a lot of his ability to write in Greek for second Peter, but got it back for third Peter.
The Greek in the New Testament resembles a couple other Greek works, those written by Josephus in Aramaic and translated to Greek, and the LXX translation to Greek of the Hebrew / Aramaic Old Testament.
All of this is easily explained if the Greek New Testament is a translation from Aramaic or Hebrew. The sentence structure of Hebrew and Aramaic is like Yoda from Star Wars when he says “go you must.” You can see that in the interliner below which mixes Aramaic with the directly translated English.
in the press
of the crowd
and at once
and she sensed
in her body
that she was healed
Note particularly verse 28 “said she had” and the even more Yoda-esque “even if His garment touch I, shall live I”
A translator always faces a choice when he prepares to translate – how much should I smooth out the differences between the languages or does it need to be more direct, more word-for-word.
One of the books where you would expect the translator to choose to do a direct translation is the one that says:
I testify to everyone who hears the word of the prophecy of this book: Whoever will place upon these things, God shall place upon him the plagues that are written in this book. 19 And whoever subtracts from the words of the Scripture of this prophecy, God shall subtract his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, those things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
With a threat to their eternal salvation if they add or remove anything, most translators would be expected to choose a direct translation. That is what we see. The Greek in Revelation is as bad as any other book.
Greek texts have many differences
The Hebrew Old Testaments have very few differences between them. This is true even over 2000 years of copying. The differences that exist are mainly style changes and spelling changes. When you consider how English has changed since the King James Version of the Bible, some change is to be expected.
For Greek it is a very different story. Even for Greek New Testaments that were written at about the same time. there are many differences. Generally there a major difference between them in every 100 words. Some are missing words and even verses.
The Greek primacists have a narrative to explain this. They say that the Greek scribes weren’t very careful in their copying. There is no support for this in history. It is just a little story that was made up to patch over a problem. The story doesn’t even make sense. Until the 1500s only a church or a rich believer could afford a copy. Would they pay for a copy where a bunch of the words of God are adulterated? Of course not. What could be more important than knowing exactly what the Son of God said?
There is a better explanation – the Greek New Testament is a translation from Aramaic and the early church knew it. The variations in the various versions indicate that there were at least 2 original translations. After that there were many revised translations where a translator seems to have reviewed one translation against the Aramaic and produced an edited version of the translation.
Because they knew it was a translation, everyone tried their best to determine the most accurate way to translate it. The natural result of that would be exactly what we see, a large number of different translations. It seems like it wasn’t long until no one knew they were translations, which is the current situation. From then on, the scribes were expected to make exact copies, which account for the large number of copies of the large number of versions.
The Greek versions frequently use different words1. This is also accounted for by
a translation. In all cases the different words are alternate meanings of an Aramaic word. So it looks like one translator chose one Greek word to express one meaning of the Aramaic word and another translator chose a different Greek word to express a different meaning. This is the “art” of translation. Most words have multiple meanings and the translator must determine which is the correct meaning and which word in the target language expresses that meaning. Translators don’t always agree.
The untranslatable testify
Some features of a language cannot be translated successfully to any other language. This includes:
- poetry – the rhyme and the rhythm cannot be translated
- puns – these plays on words cannot be translated
- idioms – sayings like “keep it under your hat” can be translated but generally there is no equivalent saying in the destination language, so the translated words are not understood correctly and sometimes are taken literally
All of these exist in the Aramaic New Testament in large numbers. The Greek New Testament, however, contains about what you would expect. The translated words are there but the rhyme, rhythm, joke, and idiomatic meanings are lost. The Greek New Testament has no Greek poetry, pins, or Greek idioms.
Did you know that the Lord’s Prayer is a poem, in Aramaic?
Inerrancy of Scripture
The conservative Christion community believes in the Inerrancy of Scripture. They often say the Bible is without error or fault, in the original languages, in all its teaching.
If that’s true, where does the Greek New Testament say that Jesus’ spirit went when he died. The answer is Hades. But that can’t be true because Hades doesn’t exist. Hades is the imaginary place of the dead for the religion of the Greeks (Zeus, etc.). If you die and find yourself in a strange place and there is a coin in your mouth – you’re in Hades. But no such place exists. Therefore the Greek New Testament is in error. Therefore the Greek New Testament can’t be trusted as the word of God.
The Apostles would never have used a word like Hades if they had been writing in Greek. The would have used the word Sheol. The same thing was done with names like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, and many others. All of those are Hebrew names for places that were used in the Greek New Testament. The same thing would have been done with Sheol.
Some translator must have thought to himself that Hades was like Sheol – which it isn’t – and used the name Hades. Greek readers would have understood Hades and would not have understood Sheol without someone explaining it. The translator probably thought he was doing a favor for the readers.
Testimony of the Early Fathers
If there was a time when the church knew that Greek was a translation, it’s reasonable to think that there might be a reference in some ancient test that would mention it. This does indeed happen.
Papias says that Matthew wrote the Logia (book of divine origin) in the Hebrew (Hebraidi) language; St. Irenæus and Eusebius maintain that he wrote his gospel for the Hebrews in their national language, and the same assertion is found in several ancient witnesses. But, in the time of Christ, the national language of the Jews was Aramaic, and when, in the New Testament, there is mention of the Hebrew language (Hebrais dialektos), it is Aramaic that is implied.2
Greek Primacists invariably mention a Syriac (Aramaic) translation and claim that it is a translation from Greek. They are correct but what they leave out is that the Aramaic translation is not at all the same. The Syriac version bears all the hallmarks of a translation that have been mentioned here.
Why hide the Aramaic origin?
Shortly after the apostles were gone, the Church of Rome established itself as the church of Christianity. But the Romans didn’t like Jews. The Bible attests to this.
And there he found one man, who was a Jew, whose name was Aqilaus, who was from Pontus, who at that time had come from the country of Italia, he and Priscilla his wife, because Claudius Caesar had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome, and he came to them. (Acts 18:2)
This hatred for Jews is seen in the writings of the early church fathers. It resulted in a Christian church that was very anti-Semitic for almost 2000 years, until after World War II. Obviously then, they were uncomfortable with the Jewish roots of Christianity.
This was almost certainly a factor in the movement of the Sabbath, Passover, and Pentecost to Sunday. It also explains how Greek, and later Latin, versions of the New Testament were preferred to the exclusion of the Aramaic originals. Whether there was an intentional effort to hide the Aramaic origin, no one knows.
It’s possible that the church leaders of that time, given their biases, felt that the spread of Christianity would be easier if the origins were not known. They may have been right.
The view that the New Testament was originally written in Greek is, by far, the majority opinion in the western church. In the eastern church, where Aramaic is still spoken, they contend that the New Testament was written in Aramaic and passed down to them, by exact copying, from the apostles.
This eastern church is not the Eastern Catholic (Orthodox Catholic) church that was formed when the Roman Catholic church split in 1000 AD. This eastern church, sometimes called the Church of the East, split from the Roman Catholic Church long before that. It was driven east out of Roman Empire territory by the Roman Catholic Church.
With all the knowledge we have access to now it is possible to know the truth about the origin of the New Testament. One must ask why the majority continue to use Greek.
Part of the problem is that there are many people who have no idea there is any controversy there or that there is a different language that claims primacy. Part of the reason for that is that knowledge takes time to travel.
Another part of the problem is entrenchment – the idea is locked in place by Greek Scholars who teach the next generation to be Greek Scholars. In most cases the upcoming generation will not even hear about Aramaic3. Most of them are even unaware that there is Aramaic in the Old Testament.
This article only scratches the surface of the evidence that supports the idea that the New Testament was authored in Aramaic. On top of this I have found that it4 is theologically correct. Where there are places where the Greek is unclear or even apparently contradicting other parts of the Bible, the Aramaic is clearer.
1 “Was the New Testament Really Written in Greek?” Raphael Lataster
4 “Aramaic New Testament in Plain English” Dave Bauscher