The Language of the New Testament

Dear Friends,

I have been asked to write this article on the language of the New Testament because of questions asked by Muslim friends about the languages of the New Testament that infer that the New Testament writers did not accurately record the words of Jesus because they wrote in another language than Jesus spoke. Since I am not sure what original source for the Muslim argument is I cannot make that the basis of my response. I have only seen the letter of Dr. Christoph Heger to Mohamed Ghounem at the debate webboard.

Basically Dr. Heger did a good job in his replies, though the form of question - answer makes the flow of thought difficult to follow.

First, let me introduce myself. I have lived in the Holy Land for over thirty years and now live near Jerusalem. My expertise is in the field of Christian-Muslim Dialogue and interfaith witness, using the Bible and the Quran as the source books. I am not an expert in New Testament scholarship and research, but as you will see I have had the privilege of sampling the ideas of some of the scholars in my time here. I disagree with some of their opinions due to personal experience and observation. I must state to both groups that I personally believe in the integrity of the transmission of the Bible and the Quran.

There are sufficient evidences that both books have come to us in a form close enough to their original texts that, for me, there is no argument over the integrity of the texts we have "bayn 'iydaynaa" (between our hands).

The Present Languages Spoken in Jerusalem

How does the present situation in Jerusalem help us to understand how the New Testament (NT) writers wrote in Greek, but spoke Aramaic? Today in the Old City of Jerusalem you will hear Arabic, Armenian, Russian, Amharic and other languages spoken by the local people in their homes, depending on their religious and national background. The signs on the stores are in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Armenian and English. Everybody is multi-lingual.

The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, and English is on the road signs along with them. An Arab student attending the Hebrew University will think and talk in Arabic at home, but study and write in Hebrew at the University! West Bank Palestinian Arabs who work in Israel are fluent in Hebrew as well as Arabic.

Modern Hebrew has so influenced the Arabic language in the Holy Land that two Arabs talking to each other will sprinkle their conversation with Hebrew words. When they visit their relatives in Jordan they find they do not know some words in Arabic. Fifty years has taken its toll on the Arabic language of the Holy Land. At the same time Hebrew has borrowed a number of words from the Arabic language. In fact, most Arabs know two Arabic languages, the spoken Arabic of Palestinian dialect (which differs somewhat from Jerusalem to Nazareth in Galilee) and the classical modern standard Arabic (MSA) used in newspapers, on the radio and TV, and in public speaking. Muslims know a third, the Arabic of the Quran or the Meccan dialect of the time of Muhammad. The Greek Orthodox or Byzantine church to this day holds it prayers in Greek and Arabic. When Islam opened the Mediterranean world to Arabic it absorbed the philosophical and scientifice knowledge of the Greek world and preserved it through the Dark Ages for the enlightenment of the western world.

The Language of New Testament Times

Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) conquered the Middle East in about 332 B.C. or over 300 years before the time of Jesus Christ, so the common language of the conquered peoples inherited by the Latin speaking Romans was the "koine" form of Greek, as we read in ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA (vol. 1, p. 576, 1973):

"Alexander's short reign marks a decisive moment in the history of Europe and Asia ... it spread Hellenism in a vast colonizing wave throughout the Near East and created, if not politically, at least economically and culturally, a single world stretching from Gibraltar to the Punjab, open to trade and social intercourse and with a considerable overlay of common civilization and the Greek "koine" as a lingua franca. It is not untrue to say that the Roman Empire, the spread of Christianity as a world religion, and the long centuries of Byzantium were all in some degree the fruits of Alexander's achievement."

This led to the translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek (as opposed to classical Greek of the philosophers) in the Septuagint (LXX) in Alexandria in the middle of the third century B.C. This is affirmed in the Interpreter's DICTIONARY of the BIBLE (Vol. R-Z, p. 277, Abington:1962):

"NT Koine is not simply the everyday Greek of an Eastern people in the first Christian Century; its religious vocabulary derives ultimately, not from the Greek world, but from the Hebrew world of the OT through the medium of LXX Greek."

The situation in NT times was similar to what we have today, but with different languages. The Jews used the ancient Hebrew when reading their prayers and scrolls in the synagogue, but needed a modern Koine Greek translation to understand what they were reading. Most quotations in the NT from the OT are from the Greek LXX which explains some of the differences in wording between the Hebrew and the Greek in our present day translations.

The Jews of NT times spoke Aramaic at home and in conversations. Aramaic was similar Hebrew and Arabic. (al-Rahmaan, al-Rahiim, in the Fatiha of the Quran were probably derived from the Aramaic language). In business life and official writings they used the common Koine Greek that all peoples in the area used for hundreds of years. They actually thought and talked in at least two or three languages as people do today. The Roman occupiers of the Holy Land at that time spoke Latin and Greek. Evidence of the three languages used in that time is found in the New Testament itself in the Gospel of John 19:19-20:(NIV)

"Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, The King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek."

There are other evidences such as "talitha cumi", little girl arise, and "maranatha" Lord come, in Aramaic. These show that the people were multi-lingual. Greek was the main means of communication but the heart language of the people was Aramaic. The language of formal worship was Hebrew, most likely with Aramaic interpretation and explaination. The New Testament and Gospels, which were written for Jews scattered all over the Mediterranean world were naturally written in the common language of Koine Greek so that all could understand and benefit. Koine Greek was much more expressive and more easily translated into western Latin based languages and therefore the entire world benefited.

The Sources of the Gospels

NT scholars have argued for centuries over the existence of a "Q" document which they claim was the Hebrew or Aramaic source upon which the synoptic Gospel authors depended. My personal view, after living these years in the Holy Land is that Q, if it existed, was the common oral traditions of the sayings of Jesus. These were equivalent in some fashion to the Islamic "hadith al-sahih" or the true traditions concerning the transmission of the Quran and the life of Muhammad. The synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the "hadith al-sahih" or the true sayings about what Jesus said and did. They were verified for accuracy by the writers themselves, two of whom were eye witnesses and heard the words of Jesus, and by Luke, the physician and companion of Paul, who may have received much of his information from Mary the mother of Jesus.

My personal friend and spiritual mentor, the late Robert L. Lindsey, NT Hebrew scholar, and resident of Jerusalem since before the State of Israel, used to argue that Q was a Hebrew document, and that someday they will find it! I would say, "Bob, the Q is the memories of the disciples who heard Jesus say these things. They were thinking in Aramaic, but they wrote them down in Greek, similar to Arab students who study in the Hebrew University think in Arabic, but write their thoughts down in Hebrew!"

Dr. Lindsey's brilliant scholarly work in translating the Gospel of Mark from Greek into modern Hebrew is the basis of a new book by his partner in translation, Dr. David Flusser, Professor Emiritus of Judaism in the Second Temple Period and Early Christianity at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Flusser's book, entitled JESUS, was published in 1997 by Magnes Press of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

I have a personally autographed copy of it which I will treasure. Dr. Steven Notley who assisted Flusser in the writing of the book and Dr. Brad Young of Oral Roberts University, along with other disciples of Flusser and Lindsey form what has come to be know as "The Jerusalem School" of New Testament research. Lindsey and Flusser in the work of translating the Greek of Mark back into Hebrew came to the discovery (not necessarily new) that Luke wrote before Mark and Mark reworked the gospel material and influenced Matthew who followed Mark's version closely. (JESUS, p. 22) This view is not popular among NT scholars since most NT textbooks are written from the Markan primacy theory.

I disagreed with Lindsey also concerning the late authorship of the Gospel of John. He held the common "scholarly" view that John was written later and basically put words back into the mouth of Jesus from the later interpretations of the early church. John was a young man, known to the high priest and may have been related to the high priest's family. He even knew the name of the high priest's servant, whose ear Peter cut off in the Garden of Gethsemene (John 18:10, 15). He would have been highly educated in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic and the philosophical and classical Greek thought of his time which was popular among the high priestly clique that catered to Rome. He was the disciple who Jesus loved (John 21:20) and the one who sat at his right hand at the Last Supper, or Passover feast (John 13:24). He knew the inner thoughts of Jesus and was the closest to him of all the disciples. He recorded the intimate sayings of Jesus about God who he called his "Father" and recorded Jesus teachings which centered around the Jewish holy days. The synoptic Gospels record the sayings of Jesus for the common people in teaching by parables, but John gives us the deeper teachings of Jesus about eternal life and the Holy Spirit. The writing style of John is simple but profoundly philosophical, because he knew the style and writing of the educated Jew of his day. Little wonder that Al-Ghazali, the Muslim Sufi master prefered the Gospel of John to the others. Little wonder that the John Ryland fragment of the Gospel of John is the earliest known of the NT.

The Effect of the New Testament Languages on Muslims

I am not surprised that many Muslims who try to understand the languages of the NT get confused when they study the textbooks, since there are so many differing theories in New Testament studies. I challenge my Muslim and Christian friends to concentrate more on the original writings in the Bible and the Quran, and less on the speculations of the scholars. I have been reading both Books in Arabic for these 30 years and find that the Bible is the best interpreter of the Quran. No one can really understand the Quran unless he studies the Bible also. This is verified in the Quran. The Church in the day of Muhammad was a far cry from the Church of the NT, which explains much of Muhammad's reactions to the Christianity he experienced in his day. This is another subject which we will not cover now.

What needs to be said is that the Church is responsible for the Quran! Why, you ask? Because the Gospels and the Bible were not translated into the Arabic language in the time of Muhammad, five-six centuries after Christ. The Church did not care about those remote Arabs in the mountains and deserts of Arabia until they found them at their doorsteps demanding that they believe in Islam! The Church had the Bible in Greek, Aramaic, Latin and many other languages but it did not have it in Arabic! They only translated parts of the New Testament into Arabic after Christians began converting to Islam. So, the Arabs did not have a heavenly book in their own language. The uniquness of the Quran is that it is a message in "lisaanun arabiyyun mubiinun" or, 'pure Arabic language.' (Surat al-Nahl 16:103) Christians should not fault the Muslim for having another Book in his own language when our spiritual forefathers did not give them the one that they had.

Of course, the lack of an Arabic translation of the Bible is no longer an excuse since we now have the Bible in good Arabic, as well as the languages of millions of Muslims today; Urdu, Bengali, Farsi, and others. In the same way the Quran has been interpreted into English, French and German and a majority of the languages used in the Western world. So neither Christian nor Muslim has an excuse for not knowing the Holy Book of the other.

The energy spent on argument over the language of the New Testment and the transmission of the Quran should be transfered to a sincere reading of both Books. The understanding we receive from both Books will enable us to better relate to each other and to solve the problems of the pluralistic and troubled world in which we live.

Dr. Ray Register

From: James A. Sanders, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and Biblical Studies," in Sha`arei Talmon: Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East Presented to Shemaryahu Talmon, ed. M. Fishbane and E. Tov (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992), 323-36, 326.

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