[B-Greek] Looking for a quote

Albert & Julia Haig albert_and_julia at yahoo.com.au
Wed Mar 29 20:35:30 EST 2006

Hello everyone!

> ...and those in 1st century Palestine were commonly bilingual or trilingual, 
> cf. heaps of research from the 1980s.
> Ann Nyland

> The apostles all knew Hebrew quite well if not
> mothertongue.
> Randall Buth

Whether the apostles (assuming they all existed as in the Gospel accounts) spoke Hebrew (and Aramaic) I will leave to others to decide. What seems reasonably clear, however, is that whoever wrote certain sections at least of the Gospels did not know Hebrew or Aramaic. This is shown by their dependence on the Greek LXX for OT prophetic fulfilment examples even when it is at odds with the Hebrew. I will give three examples.

(1) All four Gospels apply Isaiah 40:3 to John the Baptist; but the problem is most acute in John 1:23, because the author here records John the Baptist as applying it to himself. The problem is that all four Gospels cite the LXX, which differs from the Hebrew in a significant manner that affects the meaning. All four gospels follow the LXX, "a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord". But in the Hebrew, it is clear that this should read "a voice crying, in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord" (e.g. modern translations such as the NASB, NIV, NRSV). That it should read this way is unambiguous because of the parallelism with the next phrase, "make smooth in the desert a highway for our God". Note that "in the desert" (ba`aravah) in the second phrase parallels "in the wilderness" (bammidbar) in the first. However, for some reason, the crucial word ba`aravah was omitted from the LXX translation, which destroys the parallelism, and leads to the
 reading apparently exploited as "fulfilment" in the Gospels.

John the Baptist, and those he was speaking to, would have been native Aramaic/Hebrew speakers, and hence had he quoted this verse he would have done so from an Aramaic Targum or the Hebrew original, not from the Greek. However, there are no Hebrew or Targumim manuscripts that omit the word ba`aravah. So the obvious explanation seems to be that the Gospel writers drew on the LXX, without knowing the Hebrew. Or perhaps this verse was already so established as  a "fulfilment" example amongst Greek-speaking Christians that they chose to include it despite misgivings about the Hebrew.

One final note: The original Greek text of the NT, of course, did not have punctuation. Hence, it would be possible to argue that the gospel writers intended their Greek quotations to be read as in the Hebrew, "a voice crying, in the wilderness make straight ...". I doubt this, but others may make their own assessment. Historically, Christian interpreters have read the gospels as saying, "a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight ...". 

(2) Matthew 21:16: The problem with this text is that Jesus' quotation of the Psalm follows the LXX, whereas the Hebrew reads "strength" (`oz), not "praise" (tehillah) - Psalm 8:2, 8:3 MT & LXX. In context, the Psalm is talking about having strength to defeat God's enemies. But the gospel of Matthew follows the LXX, reading AINON. Jesus, and those he was speaking to, however, would have been native speakers of Aramaic and Hebrew, and hence he would have quoted either an Aramaic Targum or the original Hebrew. This "fulfilment" was only possible because the source was relying on the LXX and did not know the Hebrew.

(3) Matthew 1:23: This is the most infamous, and hotly contested, example. The problem is that "Matthew" here relies on the LXX (PARQENOS), whereas the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 reads `almah (young woman), not virgin (betulah). In context, the sign is that not just that a child would be born, but that before this child grew old enough to discern good from evil, Israel and Syria would be destroyed by the Assyrians. That `almah does not mean specifically a virgin, but that betulah does (indeed the cognate masculine plural noun betulim means "virginity" in the abstract), is not merely the opinion of the majority of modern scholars. It has been pointed out by Jews since at least the second century (see Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho"). Indeed, Jerome wrote:

“Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” I know that the Jews are accustomed to meet us with the objection that in Hebrew the word Almah does not mean a virgin, but a young woman. And, to speak truth, a virgin is properly called Bethulah..."

Again, this fulfilment example seems to have come about by reliance on the Greek in ignorance of the Hebrew.

I think these examples make a cumulative case that the authors of the Gospels, or at least parts of the Gospels, or the sources from which they drew their material, knew only Greek and not Hebrew or Aramaic.

All the best,

Albert Haig, PhD, MDiv

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