The Original Language of the New Testament

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563) (Wikimedia Commons)

The entire original text of the document we have come to know as the New Testament was written by Christ-following Jews (in the ancient sense of the word) in a language that can be best described, not simply as Koine (or Common) Greek, but as “Koine Judeo-Greek.”

First of all what is Koine Greek? Koine Greek (which is different from Classical Greek) was the common multi-regional form of Greek spoken and written during Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. However, I do not think that the kind of Greek we see in the New Testament can be best described ONLY as Koine Greek. There is another component to this Koine Greek and that is its significant Jewish and Hebrew connection. I prefer to call it “Judeo-Greek” (or Judeo Koine Greek).

What is Judeo-Greek? Well… Judeo Greek, like the well-known Judeo-German (Yiddish), Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), and the less familiar Judeo-Farsi, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, and Judean-Georgian languages, is simply a form of Greek used by Jews to communicate. This language retained many words, phrases, grammatical structures, and patterns of thought characteristic of the Hebrew language.

So is Judeo-Greek really Greek? Yes, it is, but it is Greek that inherited the patterns of Semitic thought and expression. In this way, it is different from the types of Greek used by other people groups.

So I disagree that the New Testament was first written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek.

Instead, I think it was written in Greek by people who thought Jewishly, and what is perhaps more important, multi-lingually. You see… the speakers of a variety of languages manage to also think in a variety of languages. When they do speak, however, they always import into one language something that comes from another. It is never a question of “if,” but only of “how much.”

We must remember that the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by leading Jewish scholars of the day. Legend has it that the 70 individual Jewish sages made separate translations of the Hebrew Bible and when they were completed, all of it matched perfectly. As I said, “it is a legend.” The number 70 is likely symbolic of the 70 nations of the world in ancient Judaism. This translation was not only meant for Greek-speaking Jews, but also for non-Jews so that they too could have access to the Hebrew Bible. You can imagine how many Hebraic words, phrases, and patterns of thought are present on every page of the Septuagint. So, other than the authors of the New Testament thinking Jewishly and Hebraically, we also have the main source of their Old Testament quotations coming from another Jewish-authored document – the Septuagint. So is it surprising that the New Testament is full of Hebraic forms expressed in Greek?!

As a side note, the use of the Septuagint by New Testament writers is actually a very exciting concept. The Jewish text of the Hebrew Bible used today is the Masoretic Text (MT for short). When the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally examined, it turned out that there was not one, but three different families of Biblical traditions in the time of Jesus. One of them closely matched the Masoretic text, one closely matched the Septuagint, and one seems to have connections with the Samaritan Torah. Among other things, this of course shows that the Septuagint quoted by the New Testament has great value, since it was based upon a Hebrew text that was at least as old as the original base text of the later Masoretic Text (MT).

This article originally appeared on Israel Study Center and reposted with permission.