The Semitic Origins of the NT
By Jeff A. Benner

Archaeological Evidence of a Semitic NT
Jewish perception of the Greek language and culture
Semitic origins of the Book of Matthew
Hebrew words in the Greek New Testament
Hebrew in First Century Israel
Textual evidence in the New Testament

Archaeological Evidence of a Semitic NT

For many years it has been taught that Greek and Aramaic were the languages of Israel during the Second Temple period (530 BC to 70 AD). However, over the past fifty years more and more evidence has surfaced that the language of the Jews in Israel during this time was in fact Hebrew. Below are some of discoveries supporting this theory.

In 135 CE Shimon Ben Kosiba (Simon Bar Kockba) lead the final revolt against the Romans. The image below is a fragment of a parchment which begins, "From Shimon Ben Kosiba to Yeshua Ben Galgoula and to the men of the fort, peace..." This is a letter from Shimon himself to one of his leaders in the revolt and it is written in Hebrew.

All coins minted in Israel during the second Temple period include inscriptions written in Hebrew. The coin on the left is written in the late Semitic script bearing the inscription "yerushalem" (Jerusalem). The coin on the right is written in the middle (paleo) Hebrew script with the word "sh'ma" (hear).

The many scrolls and thousands of fragments uncovered in the Dead Sea Caves were written from between 100 CE and 70AD. Some of these scrolls and fragments are of Biblical book but others are works concerning day to day business. Of all of these scrolls and fragments, approximately 90% are written in Hebrew while only 5% are in Aramaic and 5% in Greek. While most of the Hebrew inscriptions use the late Hebrew script, some of them use the more ancient early (paleo) script such as the image below which is a portion of the book of Leviticus.

Jewish perception of the Greek language and culture

The book of Maccabees, one of the books of the Apocrypha, tells the story of the Jewish Revolt about 150 years before the time of the New Testament. The Greeks, lead by Antiochus Epiphines, conquered the land of Israel and forced the Jews to leave their national heritage and the Torah and begin following the Greek culture. Because of the Jews hatred for all things Hellenistic, including the culture and language, Judah Maccabee lead a revolt against Antiochus Epiphines, both expelling the Greeks and slaughtering those Jews that had adopted the Greek language and culture. This revolt demonstrates the Jewish hatred of the Hellistic culture and the incorrect assumption that the Jews freely adopted the Greek language during the time of the New Testament.


Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian who recorded Jewish life and sentiment during the time of the New Testament. In his work Antiquity of the Jews he writes "I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understanding the elements of the Greek language although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own language that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness: for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations". (Josephus, Ant.20.11.2)

Semitic origins of the Book of Matthew

While there are many textual evidences to show that the book of Matthew was originally written in a Semitic language, probably Hebrew, Matthew 5:3 is a good example of this.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word for "poor" is ptochos and means one who is destitute, afflicted, and lacking. What this verse is literally saying is "Blessed are the ones destitute/afflicted/lacking in the spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This does not make any sense. However, if we translate the Greek word ptochos into Hebrew we have the word aniy which also means destitute, afflicted and lacking. More literally the Hebrew word aniy means "bent down low" such as a poor person who is destitute. But, this Hebrew word can also mean one who is humble, in the same sense of bending down low.

Now, if we translate the Hebrew back into English we have, "Blessed are the humble in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." By understanding this passage from its Hebrew background, we are able to better interpret the New Testament Bible.

Another proof for an original Matthew is the overwhelming number of church fathers who had stated that the book of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.

Papias (150-170 CE) - Matthew composed the words in the Hebrew dialect, and each translated as he was able. [A quote by Eusebius; Eccl. Hist. 3:39]

Ireneus (170 CE) - Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect. [Against Heresies 3:1]

Origen (210 CE) - The first [Gospel] is written according to Matthew, the same that was once a tax collector, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ who having published it for the Jewish believers, wrote it in Hebrew. [A quote by Eusebius; Eccl. Hist. 6:25]

Eusebius (315 CE) - Matthew also, having first proclaimed the Gospel in Hebrew, when on the point of going also to the other nations, committed it to writing in his native tongue, and thus supplied the want of his presence to them by his writings. [Eccl. Hist. 3:24]

Epiphanius (370 CE) - They [The Nazarenes] have the Gospel according to Matthew quite complete in Hebrew, for this Gospel is certainly still preserved among them as it was first written, in Hebrew letters. [Panarion 29:9:4]

Jerome ( 382 CE) - Matthew, who is also Levi, and from a tax collectore came to be an Apostle first of all evangelists composed a Gospel of Christ in Judea in the Hebrew language and letters, for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed, who translated it into Greek is not sufficiently ascertained. Furthermore, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea, which the martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected. I also was allowed by the Nazarenes who use this volume in the Syrian cityof Borea to copy it. In which is to be remarked that, wherever the evangelist.... makes use of the testimonies of the Old Scripture, he does not follow the authority of the seventy translators, but that of the Hebrew. [Lives of Illustrious Men, Book 5]

Isho'dad (850 CE) - His [Matthew's] book was in existence in Caesarea of Palestine, and everyone acknowledges that he wrote it with his hands in Hebrew. [Isho'dad Commentary on the Gospels]

Hebrew words in the Greek New Testament

Contained with in the Greek text of the New Testament are many Hebrew words and phrases that have been transliterated from the Hebrew language into the Greek language. While many of these have been described as being "Aramaic," there is no textual evidence to suggest that these are Aramaic rather than Hebrew, as the Aramaic and Hebrew language are very similar.

In the book of Matthew is the phrase Eli eli lama sabachthani (27:46). This is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew phrase אלי אלי למה שבקתני (eli eli lama shavaqtani), which means "my God my God why have you left me." The first word is the word eli, which is the word el (Strong's #410), meaning God, with the suffix "i" meaning "my." The second word is the same as the first. The third word is the word lamah, which is the Hebrew word mah (Strong's #3964) meaning "what" with the prefix "l" meaning "to." Combined, this means "to-what" or "why." The fourth word is the verb shavaq (While this Hebrew word does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, it’s Aramaic counterpart does and is identified as Strong's #7662) meaning "to leave." The suffix "t" identifies the subject of the verb as "you" and the suffix "niy" identifies the object of the verb as "me" - you leave me.

Another example from the book of Matthew (12:5) is the word σαββατον (sabbaton, Strong's #G4521), which is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word שבתון (sabbaton, Strong's #H7676). This Hebrew word means "Sabbath" or "Rest."

In Mark 7:11 we find the Greek word κορβαν (korban, Strong's #G2878), which is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word קרבן (qorban, Strong's #H7133). This Hebrew word means an "offering."

Below is a chart with all of the Hebrew words that are transliterated into Greek in the New Testament.

Hebrew in First Century Israel

The following is an excerpt from the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia.

Aramaic displacing Hebrew as a spoken language

By the early half of the 20th century, modern scholars reached a nearly unanimous opinion that Aramaic became a spoken language in the land of Israel by the start of Israel's Hellenistic Period in the 4th century BCE, and thus Hebrew ceased to function as a spoken language around the same time. However, during the latter half of the 20th century, accumulating archeological evidence and especially linguistic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls has qualified the previous consensus. Alongside Aramaic, Hebrew also flourished as a living spoken language. Hebrew flourished until near the end of the Roman Period, when it continued on as a literary language by the Byzantine Period in the 4th century CE.

The exact roles of Aramaic and Hebrew remain hotly debated. A trilingual scenario has been proposed for the land of Israel. Hebrew functioned as the local mother tongue, Aramaic functioned as the international language with the rest of the Mideast, and eventually Greek functioned as another international language with the eastern areas of the Roman Empire. Communities of Jews (and non-Jews) are known, who immigrated to Judea from these other lands and continued to speak Aramaic or Greek.

Although the survival of Hebrew as a spoken language until the Byzantine Period is well-known among Hebrew linguists, there remains a lag in awareness among some historians who do not necessarily keep up-to-speed with linguistic research and rely on outdated scholarship. Nevertheless, the vigor of Hebrew is slowly but surely making its way through the academic literature. The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls distinguishes the Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew from the various dialects of Biblical Hebrew it evolved out of, "This book presents the specific features of DSS Hebrew, emphasizing deviations from classical BH."[1] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church that once said in 1958 in its first edition, Hebrew "ceased to be a spoken language around the fourth century BC", now says in 1997 in its third edition, Hebrew "continued to be used as a spoken and written language in the New Testament period".[2] An Introductory Grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew says, "It is generally believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically the Copper Scroll and also the Bar Kokhba letters, have furnished clear evidence of the popular character of MH [Mishnaic Hebrew]."[3] And so on. Israeli scholars now tend to take it for granted that Hebrew as a spoken language is a feature of Israel's Roman Period.

  1. Elisha Qimron, The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1986), p. 15.
  2. "Hebrew" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edit. F.L. Cross, first edition (Oxford, 1958), 3rd edition (Oxford 1997).
  3. Miguel Perez Fernandez, An Introductory Grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill 1997).

Textual evidence in the New Testament

Throughout the Old Testament, the writers would frequently make "word puns." Here is a simple example of a word pun in the Book of Genesis.

And Yahweh Elohiym formed the human (adam) of dust from the ground (adamah)... (Genesis 2:7)

The Hebrew behind the word “ground” is אדמה (adamah, Strong's #127) and is related to the Hebrew word אדם (adam, Strong's #120). Here is another example.

And he said, what did you do? The voice of the blood (dam) of your brother is crying out to me from the ground (adamah).(Genesis 4:10)

In this verse the word דם (dam, Strong's #1818) is related to the word אדמה (adamah, Strong's #127).

These word puns can be found throughout the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. They can also be found in the New Testament, but only if the Greek is translated back into Hebrew. One of these many word puns can be found in Matthew 3:9.

God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

The Greek word for stones in this passage is λίθων (lithon, Strong's #3037) and the word for children is τέκνα (tekna, Strong's #5043). However, when these two words are translated into Hebrew, we have אבנים (ebemiym, Strong's #68) for stones and בנים (beniym, Strong's #1121) for sons.

God is able of these stones (ebeniym) to raise up children (beniym) unto Abraham.

These word puns pop up everywhere when the Greek New Testament is translated into Hebrew. In addition, Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer from the 16th Century had this to say about Hebrew and the New Testament.

"The Hebrew language is the best language of all... If I were younger I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool."

(Martin Luther, Table Talk, quoted in Pinchas E. Lapide, Hebrew in the Church, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes - Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).

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