The Original Language of the Gospels


MORE than forty years ago an aspiring young English scholar undertook to account for the resemblances and differences in the first three Gospels by the theory that they had all been translated from a primitive Aramaic Gospel, the expressions of which were understood differently. The idea was very seriously considered and debated by the leaders of critical study, but was definitely rejected for a number of reasons. One was that it created more difficulties than it solved, for it made the very numerous exact identities of Greek wording among the Gospels harder than ever to explain. Another was that there were no contemporary Aramaic documents extant with which to compare the supposed Aramaic idioms demanded by the theory.

This scholar’s method was to pick out here and there expressions in our Greek Gospels that sounded to him like constructions used in Aramaic, the everyday speech of the first-century Jews of Palestine, and translate them as best he could into that idiom. If the Aramaic he thus produced could then, by supposing some misunderstanding or miswriting of it, be translated back into a Greek form that gave an easier meaning, or into the parallel, slightly different form given in another Gospel, the theory was considered supported.

The subjective character of this method is obvious and it did not long continue to hold the interest of New Testament scholars. Recently, however, it has been revived in various novel forms, with much talk of new sources and new evidence. In reality no new sources or evidence favorable to these solutions have come to light. On the contrary, all the discoveries of the past forty years have made such solutions more and more improbable. For one thing, they should of course, if sound, increase the rhetorical power of the Gospels, the Oriental vigor of their imagery; but they invariably dilute and diminish these. This in itself is enough to show that the procedure is a mistaken one. Mr. Chesterton once observed that the style of Jesus was gigantesque — full of camels leaping through needles and mountains being hurled into the sea. The effort to tame such a style and reduce it to the commonplace is plainly futile. The tamer it becomes, the more improbable it is.

But the greatest difficulty with the method was that there seemed to be no historical occasion likely to have called forth the Aramaic Gospel it assumed, especially at so early a date as it claimed — 50 or 52 A.D.

This is the core of the problem. How did such a Gospel come to be written? The Gospel is Christianity’s contribution to literature. It is the most potent type of religious literature ever devised. To credit such a creation to the most barren age of a never very productive tongue like Aramaic would seem the height of improbability.

For in the days of Jesus the Jews of Palestine were not engaged in writing books. It is not too much to say that a Jerusalem or Galilean Jew of the time of Christ would regard writing a book in his native tongue with positive horror. Even a century before, a Jew who wrote a book felt obliged to put it under the name of some ancient worthy like Enoch, the seventh from Adam, or to claim as its author some ancient Jew of what was called the Prophetic Period, which was understood to extend from Moses to Ezra, and from which it was believed all sound books on religion must come.

This aversion to writing books was not merely negative. It was positive. They had plenty of things to say and they said them, but they would not write them. Those were the days when the famous oral amplification of the Jewish Law was being developed by such masters as Hillel and Shammai. But the Jews would not write it* they memorized it. It seemed an act of impiety to write it, for then it might seem to rival the Scripture itself.

Those days also witnessed the translation of the Hebrew Law into the Aramaic vernacular. But this too remained unwritten for generations. Indeed, it is impossible to realize the fantastic unreality of the first-century Jewish attitude toward writing books.

There is a rabbinical story that about 50 A.D. Gamaliel the First, the grandson of Hillel, saw a written copy of an Aramaic translation of Job, and immediately had it destroyed. The story may not be true, but its intention is obvious: if anyone was wicked enough to write down the Targum on Job, it must be destroyed. This was the orthodox Jewish attitude toward writing books in Aramaic, in Jerusalem about the middle of the first century. If anything could heighten the picture, it is the behavior of Jews of that very period who escaped from these narrowing walls into the great Greek world of the day. Such men wrote books freely, but they wrote them principally in Greek. There is a peculiar irony in this, that gifted Jews should have to turn to Greek as a medium of literary expression. But Philo, Paul, and Josephus tell the story. They wrote, but they wrote in Greek.

Of the Jewish Apocrypha written within a century of the life of Jesus, the great majority were composed in Greek, not Aramaic, and it seems abundantly clear that in the times of Jesus the Jews were not writing books in Aramaic; indeed, they were actually resorting to the strangest devices to avoid doing so.

Even if the Jews had been given to Aramaic composition, and contemporary Aramaic literature had been a garden instead of a desert, the early Christians could hardly have contributed to it. They were constantly overshadowed by the sense of imminent catastrophe. The Messianic Advent overhung them like a huge wave of fate, threatening — or promising — to break at any moment. It was their urgent task to hasten about the ancient world warning men of what was at hand. Clearly it was no time for writing books.


But within a generation of the death of Jesus Christianity had entered the Greek world and begun to establish itself there. In that world it found a wholly different attitude to writing and publication. ‘If you find a saying of a Certain philosopher and have no paper,’ ran the Greek proverb, ‘write it upon your garments!’ The Greeks took notes, and they wrote books. They were insatiable readers. Novelty did not repel them; it attracted them. The Athenians seemed to Luke to spend all their time telling or listening to something new. Certain it is that from the time Christianity really entered the Greek world it instinctively went about recording itself in writing — first letters, and then books.

These books were copied and recopied with such zest and zeal that there are even now more manuscripts of the Greek Gospels than of any other work of literature in the world. The oldest of these, the recently discovered Chester Beatty papyrus, is from the first half of the third century, and was actually copied only half a century after the first assembling of a New Testament. So near do our Greek documents bring us to the making of the New Testament, and so ample is the existing manuscript evidence for them.

No contrast could be more marked than that between the literary aridity of Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ day and the abundant fruitfulness of the same times in the Greek world outside. Once out in that Greek atmosphere, even the Christians felt the spirit of it and began to write. Paul’s letters were written to the Greek churches in Asia Minor, Italy, and Greece. But they were hardly books; they dealt quite definitely with immediate personal situations and were read and laid aside and soon temporarily forgotten.

Not so the Gospels. In them Christianity first clothes itself in literary form. They are its first books, worked out in spite of its background, in spite of its Messianic expectations, under the pressure of the demands of that Greek world in which it now found itself. How, When, Why, and For Whom? To these questions the history of Christianity in Palestine has no answers.

The answer, according to both tradition and criticism, is found in the West, at Rome. Peter was dead. The veteran apostle in his last days had visited Rome and there preached in his native Aramaic to the Greek Christians of that congregation. With what rapt attention must the Roman Christians have listened as the old man told of his walks and talks with Jesus in Galilee a generation before. As he spoke, his words were translated after him into Greek by young men familiar with both languages. Then suddenly he was taken from them and hurried to martyrdom — the most famous of all martyrdoms — about which have gathered such legends as the Domine, quo vadis? interview. Peter, it was said, fleeing for his life from Rome, met Jesus coming into the city. ‘Master, where are you going? ’ ‘ I am going to be crucified a second time!’ Peter turned back and met his death like a hero.

There must have been something tremendous about that martyrdom to create such legends as clustered about it. But the fundamental fact was that the Roman Christians would never again hear the old man’s memories of his companionship with Jesus. With him a priceless treasure of memorabilia of Jesus perished forever from the world.

But not altogether. For among those who had been his interpreters before the Roman congregation was one in whose memory some of his oft-repeated stories had become fixed. Out of such memories arose the Gospel according to Mark. Persecution (probably Nero’s) has already left its traces upon the church, and t he shadow of the siege and capture of Jerusalem falls more than once across its pages, which cannot have been written before A.D. 70.

Mark’s hasty and primitive Gospel was soon expanded, probably at Antioch, into the far more impressive and effective Gospel of Matthew. The terrible fate of the Jewish nation had now had time to sink into the Christian consciousness. Matthew saw in it the nation’s punishment for its rejection of its Messiah, and the unmistakable shadow of the great catastrophe is on many a page of his Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew cannot be understood without it.

Renan called Matthew the most important book in the world. Certainly it is the climax of gospel writing, for the books that followed it were more than gospels. Moreover, they now began to be written by Greeks. Luke’s history of the beginnings of Christianity was organized in two volumes, the first of which covered the life and work of Jesus, not as a separate subject, but as an indispensable part of the whole movement. Its progress was traced from its beginnings in Palestine until Paul found it firmly established in Rome, and the book was evidently written when the movement was such a success that its future seemed assured.

Twenty years later, the necessity of restating Christianity in terms immediately intelligible to the Greek mind led to the Gospel according to John, which is more a dialogue than a gospel, and is full of Greek feeling from beginning to end. To further the influence of this great book, so rich alike in theology and in devotion, there were soon gathered about it the older local Gospels to form the great quartette we know. So understood, the Gospels articulate with what we know of the progress of Christianity in the Greek world.


Some years ago, a young German scholar happened to pick up a pamphlet containing some newly published Greek papyrus documents. Each transcript was signed by the man who had deciphered it, and one of these signatures caught the young scholar’s eye, for it was the name of a friend of his. He became sufficiently interested to read the text of the document above the name, and immediately felt the likeness of the language to the Greek of the New Testament. He pursued the idea, read numerous other such pieces and became convinced; the Greek of these letters, deeds, and contracts written in New Testament times by people in Egypt was just like the Greek of the New Testament.

The Greek of the New Testament had always been a good deal of a problem. It was not like classical Greek; it was not like the Greek version of the Old Testament; it was not like the literary Greek of its own day. The older learning was forced to describe it as a Holy Ghost language, devised by Providence for the purposes of revelation. It remained for the Greek papyri, hidden in the sands of Egypt, to reveal to us its real character. It is simply the informal, colloquial Greek of its day.

Not long after the youthful Deissmann had observed the resemblance of the Greek of the papyri to that of the New Testament, two young Oxford Fellows settled down for a winter of excavation in Upper Egypt, in the camp of Professor Flinders Petrie, the distinguished Egyptologist. They were there to learn the art of excavation and to pick up any Greek papyri that might present themselves. Professor Petrie’s interest was in prehistoric Egypt, and, when the site very soon proved to be as late as the Roman period of Egyptian history, he at once turned over the digging to his young friends.

There were fame and fortune for Grenfell and Hunt in those low, drab mounds of Oxyrhynchus. One day, fifteen hundred years before, the Romans had cleared out their record office and sent the old papers out to be burned. But the fire had smouldered and gone out, and the sand had covered the worthless old papers and protected them from damp, so that Grenfell s men carried them to his camp sometimes in the very baskets in which the Romans had sent them out to be burned. It was the greatest discovcry of Greek papyri ever made. But what made Oxyrhynchus forever memorable was the finding there of a leaf of Sayings of Jesus,

Three years later at Tebtunis, Grenfell and Hunt again struck it rich. They chanced upon a crocodile cemetery, and had exhumed dozens of crocodile mummies, but no papyri, when one January day a workman in vexation struck one of the mummies with his mattock and broke it open — and behold, it was wrapped in papyrus from head to tail! So were all the Tebtunis crocodiles!

With every such increase in our papyrus resources, Deissmann’s brilliant discovery receives abundant confirmation. It used to be the fashion to class some five hundred New Testament words as found only in Biblical or ecclesiastical Greek. Within twentyfive years after the advent of the papyri, this list had shrunk to fifty — about one per cent of the New Testament vocabulary — and it has now practically disappeared.

Many unusual constructions in New Testament Greek used to be explained as Semitisms—that is, as due to imitation of Hebrew or Aramaic idioms. But in the presence of the Greek papyri these too have rapidly dwindled until they have lost any possible literary significance. It has become clear that New Testament Greek is not a kind of ancient Yiddish, as some have supposed. The thousands of Greek papyrus documents from the very years of its origin have definitely established its right to be, and, against the protests of classicists and Semitists, have recovered for it its rightful position, of which it had long been disinherited. The Gospels were written not in muddy Greek or an awkward patois. They were, rather, masterpieces of popular literature, the first books written in popular Greek. Their rapid advance to influence is an unanswerable testimony to their clearness and force.

Their kinship with the vernacular Greek of the papyrus letters and documents becomes steadily clearer as more and more of these appear in print. It is an amazing fact that we now have definitely dated papyrus documents from every single year of the first century; not late copies, but the actual originals. If we possessed one single Aramaic text from anywhere in that century, or even a copy of one, in the language of Palestine, we should be fortunate. But none has ever been found.

Yet the Jews were in Egypt long before the Greeks, and were numerous and active there in the first century. But, like Philo, they expressed themselves in Greek, not in the Aramaic vernacular of Palestine.

We cannot connect the Gospels with Palestinian Judaism. It definitely refused the Gospel. There is no escaping that. We may wish it otherwise, but the hard fact remains. We cannot at this late date alter it. Jerusalem had neither the will nor the skill to produce the Gospels. No one has ever succeeded in fitting them into its literature or its life. Appeals to Aramaic writings five hundred years earlier, as though their diction could prove something, reveal the desperateness of the endeavor. It is like seeking support for nineteenthcentury English in the idiom of Wyclif.

The Greek Gospels are a convincing monument of the conquest of the Græco-Roman world by Christianity, and also of the conquest of Christianity by the Greek genius. It is no accident that these important and most telling of books arose in Greek circles and on Greek soil. Where else in antiquity could such books have arisen? Taken as a whole, the Gospels are integrated with no one place or period, but reflect clear and definite stages in the spread of the new faith among the Greeks. And the New Testament will be best understood as the literary precipitate deposited by the Christian movement when it impinged upon the Greek world.