The Aramaic Origin of the New Testament

The Aramaic Origin of the New Testament
Daniel L. McConaughy

God’s Word itself does not explicitly identify the language in which the New Testament was written, but it does provide information that indicates what the original language was. This information can be further augmented by historical facts known about Israel and its culture during the Testament era, as well as by the earliest non-Biblical writings about the early Church. Both the Biblical evidence, which is primary, and the church historical evidence strongly indicate that the original language of the New Testament was Aramaic.

The Greek of the New Testament has a Semitic flavor. It contains words, phrases, and constructions that are typical not of Greek, but of Aramaic. Because of this flavor, the Greek New Testament differs  from all other Greek literature except the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and a few other early Jewish and Christian writings that were translated into Greek. That the New Testament has words, phrases, and constructions typical of Aramaic has been explained in various ways. Most New Testament scholars feel that this particular Greek is the result of an imitation of the Semitic style of the Septuagint or the use of source documents originally written in Aramaic. Some scholars have maintained that there was little or no Aramaic literature at this time of the writing of the New Testament and that Christians were less literary than others. These arguments have been thoroughly disproved by A.T. Olmstead and A. Vööbus. (A.T. Olmstead, “Could an Aramaic Gospel Be Written?” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 1 (1942), pp. 41-75; and Arthur Vööbus, “Some Notes on the Possible Aramaic Gospel,” The Chicago Lutheran Seminary Record, vol. 55 (1950), pp. 27-32) A few have even denied that the Greek of the New Testament is peculiar. (E. C. Colwell, The Greek of the Fourth Gospel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931).) Some have searched high and low in the contemporary Koine Greek literature, especially the papyri from Egypt, to show its parallels with the Greek New Testament. To search in this way is misleading, because one can find any peculiar grammatical construction in any large body of literature if he looks long enough.

A. T. Olmstead wrote:

Any man who knows his classical Greek authors and reads the New Testament and then looks into the papyri is astonished at the similarities which he finds. Any man who knows the papyri first and turns to Paul is astonished at the differences. There has been much exaggeration of the element in the New Testament…in the vulgar Greek of the Levant there was nothing corresponding to the flavor of the early Christian writers.
(Olmstead, p. 44)

Another fact concerning the Egyptian papyri is that there is no evidence of Egyptian grammar exerting itself on the Greek, although many of the scribes writing the Greek were native speakers of Egyptian. Bearing this in mind, how can one insist that the Israelite writers, if they had written in Greek, would produce Aramaized, that is, Semitized, Greek? For help, New Testament scholars have invoked the pseudosciences of source criticism and for criticism to explain away Semitism. Source criticism assumes that the writers of the New Testament took their material from partially written sources. Form criticism analyzes the Scriptures to determine the types of oral genres, or “forms,” that supposedly preceded the Greek New Testament. In using these methods, one can explain away troublesome linguistic phenomena by saying they are due to the influence of written or spoken Aramaic sources upon written Greek. This is totally misleading, because the writers of the New Testament scriptures had no sources but divine revelation from God. They recorded it verbatim in their own language, as we shall see was Aramaic.

Why have many New Testament scholars clung to these explanations? First, being traditionally oriented to Greek, they are generally ignorant of Semitic languages and culture. They favor Greek because Greek was the language of the early Western Hellenistic church. Consequently, the mass of Western manuscripts is Greek, or Latin translated from Greek. Furthermore, the early leadership in the church was centered in the great Hellenistic urban centers of the Roman world. Those urban centers were virtually the sole location for governmental, financial, and academic leadership. Therefore, they became the centers of ecclesiastical leadership as well. These urban centers used the language of the dominating governmental, financial, and academic world – Greek and Latin. From this it follows that almost all the literature produced in this period would be Greek or Latin. Subsequently there was an ecclesiastical and Hellinistic sifting process which natural took place, thereby removing all traces of any literature other than that which the dominating Hellenistic ecclesiastical body wanted preserved. This was due to two factors: (1) purposeful censoring or alteration and (in case of Aramaic) (2) disuse, as a result, most scholars have been bound by unproven and unsubstantiated Western tradition maintaining that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. The New Testament status quo in seminaries, universities, and denominations holds that the original documents were written in Greek. If this status were shaken, it would upset the vested interest in these institutions. On the other hand, many other equally qualified scholars in the Semitic languages and the Old Testament, without vested interests in Greek, find the hypothesis of an Aramaic original very plausible. They understand the Eastern culture and language and see this reflected in the Greek New Testament writings. These scholars have approached the problem from a primary philological point of view. C. C. Torrey, C. F. Burney, Frank Zimmerman and others have tried to demonstrate that the Greek text was translated from Aramaic by focusing on instances of mistranslation. Their hypothesis and methodology are essentially correct, but they do not base their studies upon the revealed origin of the Word of God. Thus they find mistranslations where there are none.

Others like George Lamsa, a Syrian, have argued from the point of view of Eastern tradition and history that has maintained for centuries that Aramaic was the original language of the New Testament. In the East, the vast majority of manuscripts is in Syriac, an Eastern dialect of the Western Aramaic spoken in Israel; in fact the widespread belief in the East of an Aramaic original in the West. In line with this are the investigations into the origin of the early versions. Some scholars have noted the stronger Semitic flavor that is impressed upon the oldest Greek and Latin sources. (Frederick Henry Chase, The Old Syriac Element in Codex Bezae (London: Macmillian and Co., 1893); and H. C. Hoskier, Concerning the Genesis of the Version of the New Testament (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1910). pp. 3, 5, 6.) They have misinterpreted this as being due to Syriac influence upon an assumed Greek original rather than the influence of an Aramaic original upon Greek and Latin versions.

In the light of the above it can be seen that many scholars have observed these Semitisms in the Greek and have interpreted them in different ways. Their methodology, however, is not based upon the premise of an accurate, perfect, and God-breathed original. Therefore they do not reach accurate conclusions. These scholalrs have not approached the subject from the point of view that the Bible is the revealed Word and will of God and that it was given to holy men of God operating revelation, who in turn, had written down verbatim.

The evidence from Josephus, the great first – century Jewish scholar and historian, who also was a Pharisee, supplements what we know about Paul. Josephus stated that Greek was not spoken in Israel and that only a few Jews had even made an attempt to learn the language of the Greeks. He wrote: … Those of my own nation freely acknowledge that I far exceed them in the learning belonging to the Jews; I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness: for our own nation does not encourage those that learn the language of many nations…because they look upon this sort of accomplishment as common…On which account as these been many who have done their endeavors with great patience to obtain this learning, there have yet hardly bee so many as two or three that have succeeded therein, who were immediately well rewarded for their pains.  [Antiquities XX.XI. 2.]

Furthermore , although Josephus claims to have written The Jewish Wars in Aramaic, many consider it to be excellent Greek:  I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our own country [Palestinian Aramaic], and send to the Upper Barbarians, I, Joseph,… a Hebrew…[Preface I]

Differing styles in the Greek are not difficult to explain. Josephus wrote in Aramaic, and detailed examinations have proven that the Greek text of The Jewish Wars changes style. This is not attributed to his various sources, but rather to various translators. Where Josephus used the term “translate,” it is literally, “to turn or change.” The result was a second edition produced not by himself but by skilled translators who wrote it into a fine Greek form which preserved the original meaning. Josephus was an upper class citizen and scholar and had great resources available to him. Therefore what was produced “appears” to be an original Greek work, yet it is a translation.

The Jewish Wars, in its translation from Aramaic to Greek, parallels the situation with the New Testament. The New Testament original in Aramaic no longer exists. However, the majority of scholars is so attracted to the Greek that the idea of an Aramaic original is not seriously considered. No doubt Paul knew some Greek. Nevertheless, conversing in a foreign tongue is one thing, while writing important documents is quite another.

Karen Masterson presented evidence that the Apostle Paul wrote in Aramaic. (Karen Masterson, ” An Aramaic Approach to the Church Epistles, ” The Way Magazine (March/April 1984), pp. 17-20) This naturally follows when one understands Paul’s background. (“Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3:5 indicates that Paul was culturally Aramaic speaking, not Greek. See H. J. Cadbury, “The Hellenists, ” The Acts of the Apostles: Additional Notes to the Commentary, vol. 5 of The Beginners of Christianity. Part 1, ed. by Kirsopp Lake and Henry J. Cadbury (reprint; Grand Rapids: 1979), p. 62.) That this is so is exhibited many times in Acts. For example, Paul’s manner was to witness first in the synagogues, where he would find men of his kindred and beloved background in which he was most comfortable. It is known that the dispersed Jews used Aramaic all over the world. Aramaic inscriptions have even been found in England, Rome, and Pompeii.( A. Löwy, “Note on a Billingual Inscription in Latin and Aramaic Recently Found at South Shields, ” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (Decmeber 3, 1878), pp. 11 and 12; and W.R. Newbold, “Five Transliterated Aramaic Inscriptions,” The American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 30 (1926), pp. 288ff.)  This obviates another natural objection. Why would Paul write Aramaic epistles to the believers in Greek-speaking communities? We know from Acts that the first people Paul witnessed to upon entering a city were Jews who knew Aramaic. Many of the first-century believers spoke Aramaic. From these same Aramaic-speaking people the first translations into Greek, Latin, and Syriac would come. It is absurd to believe that a space of fifty to seventy five years would elapse before the early versions in other languages would be produced. Undoubtedly they were produced in the first century, as the evidence of the most ancient form of the early versions show.

The Jewish element in the early Church all over the world was massive. Our knowledge of the early Church after Acts indicated that it, too, was very Jewish in outlook, even in Rome. Hellenization was a very thin, urban veneer, serving only the upper classes in the governmental, military, financial and academic circles. Hellenism was not all-pervasive. When necessary, Paul may have spoken Greek from a knowledge of the language he had picked up after his conversion. But he certainly would not have written the New Testament documents which he and the other apostles considered so vital and important in a language with which he was not totally fluent and comfortable.

We can clearly see concerning the Apostle Paul’s life (about which we know the most) that he would have written in Aramaic. (The only record in the whole Word of God that mentions the language in which a revelation was given is Acts, which clearly states that Paul received revelation in Aramaic. See Acts 26:14.) Yet, the majority of scholars does not even consider the thought of an Aramaic original for the Pauline epistles because of their relative lack of Semitism, compared to the Gospels. Somehow they do not see that Paul’s arguments more often followed Jewish rather than Greek style. (Olmstead, p. 46) Though the Book of Hebrews is an example of the finest style of Greek in the New Testament, most scholars so not recognize its Hebraic thought, and none take Clement of Alexandria’s testimony seriously. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III. XXXVIII. 2,3) The same is true for II.Peter, which was very refined Atticistic Greek in places (II.Peter 1:3-5) although it was written by an “unlearned and ignorant” Galilean fisherman. The same is true of the rest of the Aramaic and were not multilingual scholars. Why do there appear to be differing styles of Greek in the New Testament,  and even in the same books? This feature has led many to feel that the New Testament books were written from different written or oral sources and by different authors.

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, was obviously in the best position of the apostles to acquire experts help in translating his epistles into Greek and other languages to make the truth available to the believers who did not know his native Aramaic. Hence, we can expect his epistles to be more polished Greek translations than those of the Galilean writers who never left the East.

Furthermore, there may have been more than one translator for a given book or epistle. Certainly Acts indicates this. The second half of Acts is less Semitized than the first half. This also explains why the Gospel of John, though thoroughly Semitized, is much better Greek than the Book of Revelation.  When Revelation was written in the first century, John was standing almost alone. All of Asia had left the accuracy of God’s Word (II. Tim. 1:15) and the Judean and Eastern churches had fallen into legalism (Acts 21:20). John had fewer resources for help in translating Revelation than in translating his gospel – hence, the difference in quality.

Besides the Biblical testimony, there is another area from which to draw evidence – the early Christian writers of the second century. One such writer, Papias, who wrote in Greek about 120 A.D., collected as much information as he could about early Jewish Christianity. He is known only through the fourth-century Church historian Eusebius’ quotations of him in his Ecclesiastical History. In one place Eusebius recorded that Papias wrote, “Mathew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language” (III,39:16).

“The Hebrew language” here means “Aramaic.” Eusebius goes on to write about Hegesippus (ca. 150), who was also very interested in the Jewish church, and who was very concerned about orthodoxy in the church: “…he makes extracts from the Gospel according to the Hebrews and from the Syriac and particularly from the Hebrew language…(IV, 22:8).” Here we can read that Hegesippus quoted from Syriac and Hebrew (Aramaic) texts. Why did he quote “particularly from the Hebrew language”? Because Aramaic was the original language. The Syriac, a derivative from the Aramaic, was a revision for the use of converts further East. Interestingly, Eusebius, a Greek writer, who is considered to be the father of the church history, quoted the two earliest church historians who wrote also in Greek and who both were concerned  about the early Jewish church and maintaining orthodoxy. This speaks strongly, because if there had been any prejudices by these writers, it should have been in favor of the Greek. These are not only witnesses. Justin Martyr, a Roman (though from Samaria, ca. 140 A.D.), refers to an Aramaic gospel, and Irenaeus (ca, 180 A.D.) of Gaul, far from Israel also speaks of “The Gospel” as being Aramaic. According to Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 180 A.D.), a Greek-speaking Hellenist, even stated that Paul wrote his epistle to the Hebrews in Aramaic. (Ibid., VI.XIV.2) In spite of this wealth of testimony, not once has this writer found reference to this fact by modern scholars in dealing with the history of the New Testament text.

What happened to the Jewish Aramaic manuscripts? The adversary, in attempting to obscure the Word of God, did his best to destroy all manuscripts, especially those that most closely represented and resembled the Jewish Aramaic originals. C.C. Torrey wrote that Palestinian Aramaic came into disuse as the Christians were assimilated into the Greek, Latin and Syriac cultures after the decimation of Jerusalem and the ensuing very severe persecution by the Pharisees.

By the end of the first century the original Aramaic documents of the nascent Church had practically disappeared.  A large proportion doubtless, had perished in the catastrophe of the year 70.  Those which remained were condemned to be destroyed on sight in every orthodox Jewish community, by virtue of the year 80 under Gamaliel II. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians would have no conflict with their Gentiles brethren on the important matter of the scriptural authority, but of course adopted the Greek translations and did go away with the Semitic texts. It is easy to see why the latter, banned by both church and synagogue, vanished soon and completly. From this time on, the language of the New Revelation to Israel, which had been Aramaic, was Greek. (Charles Cutler Torrey, Documents of the Primitive Church (New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.), p. 129)

In another place he wrote: another very query concerns the total disappearance of the Aramaic literature, and again the reason for the fact is hardly obscure. Literature disappears very rapidly when it is no longer wanted…  as for the Christian documents, we may imagine with what eagerness and thoroughness these arch-heretical and dangerous writings would have been destroyed, all through the land, by the Jews, who had the aushtority and might to do this…and when the Christians cut loose from the Jews they had no further use for the language of their enemies. (Charles Cutler Torrey, Our Translated Gospels (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936), pp. XIII, XIV)

With the breakup of the early Church in the years following the death of the Apostle Paul and the destruction of Jeruslaem, which was the original headquarters of the Church and the center of Judaic Christianity, the strong Jewish flavor of the Church was lost. Thus, the need for, desire for, and use of texts in Jewish Aramaic died with the early believers. The tendency toward Greek would have prompted the adoption of the Greek text in favor of all the others, especially at the great Hellenistic church centers at Alexandria, Rome, Caeserea, Antioch and Ephesus. As a result, the smaller churches would adopt the same texts  as their metropolis, i.e., their mother-city. In fact Greek so dominated the intellectual and theological world that Aletheria at the end of the fourth century recorded that the bishops spoke Greek and needed presbyters who translated the scripture lessons and sermons into Aramaic or Syriac. (Arthur Vööbus, Early Versions of the New Testament, Papers of the Nestorian Theological Society in Exile, vol. 6 (Stockholm: 1954), p. 126.  ) The Greek-speaking churches had control, and only small groups of Aramaic Christians, who quickly left the mainstream, continued to use the Jewish Aramaic texts.

Knowing that the New Testament writers wrote in Aramaic, not Greek, opens up new vistas of understanding and research. Primarily, this knowledge further enables the Biblical researcher to see that the Bible is not a compendium of random written and oral sources. Rather, it is the Word of God, revealed to men who recorded that revelation in the native Aramaic and later oversaw its translation into Greek, Latin, and Syriac; and it is with the descendants of these first translation endeavors that today’s Biblical researcher must work.

*  *  *

(Originally published in The Way Magazine; May-June 1985  pages 17-20; this article has been reproduced with two changes throughout- “Judean(s)” has been changed to “Jew(s)”/Jewish and “Palestine” has been changed to “Israel”/”Judean”.)  Special thanks to NazareneSpace volunteer Mikha’Ela for typing in the original article).

The reproduction of this single article that once appeared in The Way Magazine should in no way be taken as a endorsement of any of the doctrines of The Way International. 

Daniel McConaughy was the Coordinator of the Biblical Research Department at the Way College of Emporia.  He is no longer a member of The Way International.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Syriac, Greek, and early Church history. 

In 1985 (just a year after this article was first published), McConaughy discovered a previously lost page of the Old Syriac Curetonian ms. of the Gospels (“A Recently Discovered Folio of the Old Syriac (Sy(c)) Text of Luke 16,13-17,1”;  Biblica Vol. 68- Fasc. 1- 1987; pp. 85-90).  He has been published in at least two academic journals (The cite above and “An Old Syriac Reading of Acts 1:4 and More Light on Jesus’ Last Meal before His Ascension”; Oriens Christianus; Band 72 1988; pp. 63-67).

This article appeared originally in a copyrighted magazine.  It is presented here in accordance with the Fair Use policy in that it is presented here for a non-profit, educational purpose, the original work was non-fiction, educational article, the material here comprises only four pages of the original copyrighted work, and this use has essentially no effect on the potential market for, or value of the original work.

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