One of the strangest things about studying the Jesus of History is the fact that every week, Christians go out of their way to tell me that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic. As if that ‘fact’ alone itself validated Christianity.
At first, I was, not a little, confused but also, at the same time, encouraged that some people seemed to be thinking outside of the Christian box. I hoped that eventually they would notice the incredibly profound meanings behind the unique Hebrew sayings of the Jesus of History, hidden as they are within the Greek Gospels.
Sadly I was soon stripped of what little hope the Christian community had left me. In fact, my original optimism has since turned to resigned, and a somewhat fatalistic, despair. Why you may ask?
Well, as it turned out, this conspiracy has two flavours, Jewish and Arab, but only one substance. The advocates of the Aramaic or Hebrew first theory are not really interested in the Jesus of History at all. Despite the scholarly pretence, they are not interested in what the Jesus of History said, they are still – as ever – only interested in his death.
Does the language matter?
Which begs the question: “What differences does it make to Christians in what language the Gospels were originally written?”
Like most things to do with the Jesus of History, clarity comes from understanding historical context.
George Lamsa was an Assyrian author and a devoted member of the Syriac Church. He is largely responsible for publishing, in the mid 20th century, the idea that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic (as the Peshitta of the Syriac Church) but it was the Jews for Jesus movement, founded by Martin ( Moishe) Rosen, who truly picked up the ‘Hebrew first’ ball and ran with it.
Rossen, whose Secular Jewish father saw all religions as a ‘Racket’, was a ‘graduate’ of the Northeasten Bible College. So what would a Jewish Baptist Minister have to gain by insisting that the Gospels were originally written in Hebrew and not Greek?
The sad truth is that Christians today hope to gain the same thing that the first Christians desperately wanted: credibility and authority by association and it all started with Saint Paul.
The Cult of Saint Paul:
For people to take his cult seriously, Saint Paul had to pass off his obviously Greek apocalyptic polytheistic mystery cult as an offshoot of the Hebrew prophetic tradition – despite the fact that his cult was philosophically and spiritually the antithesis of Hebrew spirituality. Why would he do such a thing? Because, in Rome, Hebrew mysticism was so fashionable.
To pass off a Greek cult as part of a Hebrew tradition, he used the legend of a school of Hebrew spirituality, which opposed the literalistic Judean fanatics behind the Jewish opposition to Rome.
He took their scriptures and twisted them just enough to convince the totally ignorant Romans that his cult had Hebrew spiritual authority.
Christianity didn’t start with the Gospel attributed to Matthew but it was, and is, this Gospel, more than any other, that Christians turn to historically validate their cult; like a market trader selling a fake antique sword by saying it was found on a battle field. The Gospel attributed to Matthew is officially known as the most ‘Jewish’ of the Gospels for that reason.
It follows then that in order to understand the ‘Hebrew First’ claim, we first have to examine the Gospel attributed to Matthew and to do that we will examine, in turn, the external and internal evidence for its validity.
External Evidence: Gospel of Matthew
Eusebius was a Greco-Roman of the fourth century and a fanatical Christian with a famously elastic relationship with the truth. He quoted Papias, another Greek, who wrote in the second quarter of the second century that a person called “Matthew had put the ‘Logia’ of the Jesus of History in an ordered arrangement in Hebrew.”
So what is a ‘Logia’ you may ask! A Logia is a collection of sayings or commentaries exactly like the words of the Rabbis that you find in the Talmud.
A logia is not a biographical narrative.
In the middle of the second century CE along came an unsigned Gospel that seemed to the Greco-Romans to have a more ‘Jewish’ theme. It was an extensive biographical narrative and inherently anti-Semitic but that didn’t stop the Christians trying to pass it off as the text to which Papias was referring. The Church fathers jumped on the document and published it under the name of Matthew. Since then, Christians insist that the Gospel of Matthew is a text written by a genuine Jew, but is it?
All of the earliest fragments that we have of the Gospel of Matthew text are written in Greek. The earliest Aramaic scraps found date no earlier than the third century. The Peshitta was an Aramaic copy of the Greek Gospels made for the Syriac Church written in fourth century Classical Syriac, as we will discuss in detail in a moment.
The Papias quote, provided by Eusebius, was obviously talking about a different document than the one the Christians call the Gospel of Matthew, so the external evidence leaves the Gospel of Matthew with no authority or provenance.
A copy of a copy!
As we will discuss in a moment, it is obvious that over 46% of the Gospel of Matthew has been copied directly from the Gospel of Mark or that both have copied from a third source. It is unlikely that an eyewitness to the life of the Jesus of History would have had a need to copy anything from someone else’s book.
So much for the external evidence, lets now turn to the internal evidence of the validity of the Gospel of Matthew.
Internal Evidence: Gospel of Matthew
Starting with Saint Paul, it became the Christian modus operandi to data mine the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) for verses they could butcher into supporting their Christ narrative.
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew approached this fraud with a unique mixture of childlike enthusiasm and an almost charming total ignorance of Hebrew history, culture, language or the geography of the southern Levant, as you will see in a moment.
Exhibit 1: The Virgin Birth
Having totally stuffed up the genealogy of Jesus right at the beginning of his Gospel, the writer of the Gospel attributed to Matthew lunged, like a Glasgow drunk in a chip shop, at the nearest prophecy he could find. Infamously, he settled on Isaiah 7:14 and quoted it in Matthew 1:23 “Lo! The Virgin shall conceive and shall bring forth a son, and they shall be calling his name Emmanuel…”
With this one verse in Isaiah, Matthew turned the Jesus of History into a Greek demigod.
Unfortunately for Christians, that is not what the verse in Isaiah says and that is not what it’s about.
In fact, the Prophet Isaiah was talking to Ahaz, the King of Judah, about a young girl they both knew who was already pregnant and the fact that the child would grow up to see the death of the Kings of Israel. The line reads “Therefore Yahweh will give you a sign: behold the young pregnant girl will give birth to a son and call his name ‘God is with us’. Before the lad is old enough to reject evil (13 years) the land will be free of those two kings.” (Paraphrased for brevity)
The entire point of the verse is the fact that it is a limited time-dependent prediction not a future prophecy of something that would happen over half a millennium later.
But that is not the main problem. To create the ‘Virgin’ birth Matthew had to translate the Hebrew word ‘Almah’, which can only mean ‘young girl’ as Virgin. But in Exhibit 2, as you will see, he must have seen that ‘Bethula’ and not ‘Almah’ means virgin. We can only conclude that Matthew was written by a fraud not just a fool.
Exhibit 2: The Slaughter of the Innocents
Matthew’s hunt for likely prophecies fell upon the writings of the Prophet Hosea 11:1 where he said using Hebrew poetry, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
In Matthew 2:15, the author left out the first part of this quote, as it clearly identifies the people of Israel as the son of God, and just quoted ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’.
In order to make this fraud work Matthew would need the Jesus family to willingly relocate to Egypt but in order to do that he had to give them a reason. He hit upon the genius idea of having King Herod the Great decide to kill all of the baby boys under two years old in the village of Bethlehem.
He even went for a 2 for 1 and came up with another dodgy prophecy.
In Matthew 2:18, the Author suggests that the Prophet Jeremiah predicted King Herod’s atrocity (31:15). “A sound in Ramah is heard, lamentation and much anguish…”
Probably attracted by the word ‘Virgin’ (Bethula – Strongs H1330 = Virgin) in a line just before. This quote was actually talking about the people of Israel returning from Babylon but ignoring that historical fact, we are left wondering where is Ramah?
Ramah is in fact a village 8km North of Jerusalem, while Bethlehem is actually located 10km South of Jerusalem. The alarm bells should be going off right now, as it’s obvious that Matthew had never been to Judah.
Are we to believe that the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who hated King Herod, with a passion, would fail to mention such an atrocity if it happened. Not even the Jewish people, in their own records, accused Herod of such an atrocity – we must therefore suspect that Matthew was telling fibs.
The ploy that Matthew used to get the Jesus family to Bethlehem in the first place was another ridiculous lie. We are told that Emperor Augustus ordered Quirinius to conduct a worldwide census. The problem is that Herod died in 4 BCE, a full ten years before the Quirinius census, which only taxed people where they presently lived, not where their ancestors of a thousand years ago lived. So much for the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’.
Exhibit 3: Nazareth
Putting all the obvious stuff aside and ignoring all of the other geographical errors of which there are many, Nazareth is still a howler. In Matthew 2:23 our hapless author says: “He dwells in a city (Polin) named Nazareth, so that it may be fulfilled which is declared by the Prophets that ‘A Nazarene shall He be called’.”
In the first century there was no city called Nazareth. It was abandoned in the 8th century BCE when the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, and wasn’t rebuilt until the second century CE but that is not the problem. There is nowhere in the writings of the Prophets that says the future Messiah or ‘Son of God’ would come from Nazareth.
Exhibit 4: The Passion of Christ
In Matthew 26:17, the author has the disciples of Jesus come to him on the first day of the festival of unleavened bread to ask where they were going to spend Passover. Here’s the problem. Pesach (Passover) is the 15th day of Nisan, which is the first full moon after the spring equinox. The day of preparation and sacrifice is the 14th day. The festival of unleavened bread, on the other hand, starts on the day after the day of Passover.
Over the centuries of Rabbinical Judaism, these two festivals have been amalgamated but in the first century they were still essentially separated, so Matthew’s statement would read to a Jew like saying to a Christian, “The disciples came to Jesus on Boxing day and asked where would he like to eat Christmas dinner.”
But the problems don’t stop here. The Jesus of History was arrested on the 15th day of Nisan (Hebrew days start with sundown not midnight) and was tried on the morning of Passover before the religious court. This model is historically and culturally ridiculous. No Jewish court would convene on the day of Passover.
Exhibit 5: Anti-Semitic – the murder of Zechariah son of Berechiah
Apart from the obvious anti-Semitism of the whole ‘His Blood will be on us’ nonsense of 27:25, the killing of the prophets has been a torch that has lit a thousand crosses and ginned up innumerable Christian mobs over the years and thankfully it is a perfect example of how stupid Christianity really is.
Mathew has Jesus say in 23:35, “So on you (the Hebrew people) all the blood of the just, shed upon the Earth, from the blood of Abel until the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”
Obviously, the Hebrew people had nothing to do with Cain killing Abel but putting that stupidity aside, the elephant in the temple is the fact that Zechariah son of Berechiah in 520 BCE wasn’t killed in the temple or otherwise – as far as we know he died of natural causes.
In fact, it was Zechariah son of Jehoiada who was stoned to death under the orders of King Joash in the early 8th century (Matthew was only over 200 years out). Even that death obviously had nothing to do with the Hebrew people. Ask yourself this, is it really likely that a Hebrew Rabbi would make such a silly mistake or say something so obviously anti-Semitic?
Being generous to Matthew, we can only say that given the political realities after the Bar Kokhba revolt of 136 CE, it had become expedient for the Greco-Roman Christians to put some clear water between themselves and the Jewish people from whom they had claimed religious authority.
It must be obvious to you by now that, whoever the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was, he could not have been Jewish. The Gospel of Matthew is inherently anti-Semitic and written by an idiot who knew nothing about the Hebrew people, their culture, religion or their country. It is also textually evident that the writer used passages from the Hebrew Bible fraudulently. That fraud could not have been accidental. It was was part of a deliberate campaign by the Church.
Even to suggest that the Gospel attributed to Matthew was written by a Hebrew is obscene. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether he wrote in Hebrew, American English or Swahili. All that matters is what he wrote.
Even if Matthew had written his Gospel in Hebrew, the Gospel itself would still be obviously fraudulent.
However, in order to properly answer the question, we must now examine the idea that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic.
The Theory of Peshitta Primacy:
Full disclosure, I am no expert on Aramaic but I know a man who is. Steve Caruso runs a site called Aramaicnt.org and he is a professional translator of Aramaic languages and has been for many years. I would recommend you check out his site. I will be paraphrasing his work here.
For those of you who are not familiar with Peshitta Primacy, it is the belief that the Syriac Peshitta (the Syriac Bible) is the original text of the New Testament. It is a movement that first gained traction with the works of the late George Lamsa, and is primarily a position popularized by individuals within the growing Messianic Judaism (Baptist Christians) movement in North America as well as some popular figures within the Assyrian Church of the East (Mar Eshai Shimun, etc.).
On its face, the Peshitta Primacy movement makes some seemingly compelling arguments that have to do with places where the Peshitta text displays interesting quirks of idiom (such as wordplay, puns, or ambiguous meanings) that the Greek text of the New Testament, as we have it today, misses or potentially mistranslates. However, when taking a closer look things are not quite what they seem.
Classical Syriac, which is the dialect that the Peshitta is written in is the most prolific classical Aramaic dialect. It had a ‘Golden Age’ between the 5th and the 8th century CE.
Since Syriac was such a prolific dialect, would Jesus have encountered Syriac where he taught and preached? As we’ve already established previously, if he were to come across it, it would have been Old Syriac. Where was Old Syriac spoken?
The kingdom-province of Osroene, with Edessa as its capital was some 350 miles to the north of Galilee and 400 miles from Jerusalem. It is this kingdom that was the cradle of the Syriac dialect and here it was primarily spoken.
Was it ever in Jerusalem or Galilee in the 1st century? Yes it was. But as a novelty.
Jesus of History adds:
It is important to note at this point that 75% of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date between 200 BCE to 200 CE, were written in Hebrew. A proportion of them were written in Greek and the rest in Aramaic. Stone inscriptions were often made in Aramaic as Aramaic script is easier to scrape on stone than the precise letters of Hebrew.
Steve Caruso continues:
In fact, the Peshitta makes mistakes and mistranslates from the Greek so it’s obvious that it was indeed originally translated from the Greek.
Jesus of History adds:
In fact, the Syriac Church fully acknowledges the fact that the Peshitta was translated from a much latter Greek original and for this reason do not use it themselves.
However, it is true that there are parts of the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew and Luke that must have been direct translations from Hebrew or Aramaic vernacular.
For instance, Matthew 26:52 quotes Jesus as saying, “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take up the sword by the sword shall die.”
Steve Caruso continues:
In western Aramaic dialects the word saiyp can mean either “sword” or “end.” Given the context, this wordplay is undoubtedly intentional, and the use of b-saiyp as “in the end” is well attested in Rabbinic literature.
The Greek, of course, misses this right off the bat. Furthermore, this double meaning does not occur in (Classical) Syriac, or other eastern dialects from the era, so the Peshitta misses it completely, instead choosing to render both instances of saipa in the plural (which makes the pun impossible). This wordplay also does not occur in Hebrew.
Jesus of History adds:
It is also important to add here that the existence of a ‘Possible’ pun in a language not written doesn’t prove that the text in question was written originally in that language. Puns are often unintended or irrelevant to the intention of the speaker. For this to be more conclusive we would have show at least one use of that literary device in the language in question to make a point that is coherent with the text in question.
So much for the Peshitta or Hebrew first theory but what of the fact that some of the sayings are obviously translated from Hebrew into Greek due to their philosophical paradigm?
Hebrew Source of the Sayings:
I grew up in England but I speak Spanish. Years ago, when I owned a dive school on the coast, I thought in Spanish and dreamed in Spanish. Today unfortunately my mind has gone back to thinking and dreaming in English.
When I think of something I need to express, my world view, my vocabulary and syntax is entirely English but I mentally translate my ideas into Spanish. The words I say are Spanish but you can tell from the shape of my ideas, my strange vocabulary and word order that I am English.
The same is true of Spanish people living in England. In fact, this is so true that a good writer or actor can recreate these linguistic signifiers to create a fictitious Spanish character that looks and sounds believable.
It is for this reason that most Biblical Scholars who refer to the Greek texts agree that the Gospels were originally written in Greek. The shape of the ideas, the vocabulary and syntax overall suggest the work of highly educated Greek minds writing highly literate Greek texts.
However it is true that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels did try to adopt an Olde Worlde Hebraic or Semitic style something like diction of Manuel, the Spanish waiter in comedy called ‘Fawlty Towers’. Manuel was in fact a posh Englishman trying to sound like a Catalonian peasant. The character had a faux Spanish flavour. And so it is with the Synoptic Gospels.
But, and this is a big but, the ideas those pretend Hebrew narrative texts contained were inherently anti-Semitic and the exact opposite of anything a Jew would say or write. It is for this reason that we can say that, based on philosophical coherence, the Gospels were created and written in Greek by Greeks who were trying to sound Jewish.
However, that being said, what is obvious is that some of the sayings attributed to Jesus, which are common to several texts, contain meanings that run contrary to the Christian narrative and can only be properly understood in the context of the modern mystical teachings of the Hebrew community, which indicates a common Hebrew paradigm.
The True Sayings of the Jesus of History, as I explain in detail in my book of the same name, are based on a uniquely Galilean vision of God and our relationship with him. They also contain a unique style and sense of humour.
It is no accident then that the Gospel of Luke, which has by far the most sayings common to the Q-Source, has the most ‘Semitisms’ despite the fact that Luke was a Greek writing in perfect Greek. This fact was cited by H.F.D. Sparks the noted Oxford Biblical Scholar nearly a hundred years ago.
To be fair to Luke, the amount of Hebraisms in his text is not a product of his fraud but through his attention to detail. This proves that many of the Semitisms are a product of the Synoptic Gospel writers copying from a common Hebrew source some of the words attributed to Jesus (about 18% of the total red letter sayings).
So to answer the question were the Gospels originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic the answer has got to be an emphatic no! But, at the same time, it is evident that the Logia copied by the Gospel writers in the Synoptic Gospels were originally spoken in Aramaic and Hebrew.
But, ultimately, from the Christian point of view, what does it even matter what language the Gospels were written in? They are not interested in what he had to say?
For the Church it has always been about ‘Proving’ the validity of their chain of transmission. One of the ways that they have done this is to try to get themselves and their texts as close to the source of their authority. Always they date earlier and try to prove that the first Christians were Jews.
As we have seen, the Church has never given a damn about what the actual Jesus of History said or what the Hebrew scriptures actually say. For them it was all just so much white noise. All that matters for them – then, and now – is what Christianity looks like – the optics. And it is for this reason that the pseudo scholars of Christian academia are happy to fraudulently translate the texts that they tell the rest of the world are the ‘Word of God’.
If you enjoyed this Blog, then you might like to read: Dr Steven DiMattei asks “What is the Bible?”