Hebrew Language and Culture in the New Testament

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INTRODUCTION

The New Testament was written in Greek. A type of Greek called Koiné. It was everyday language, spoken throughout the Roman Empire during the first century of our era.

In 326 BC, Alexander the Great had conquered almost all the then known world. Though his empire collapsed after his premature death, the cultural influence of Greece – language and thought – would still be predominant for centuries. 

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the great mandate of Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations …” (Matthew 28:19 – NKJV)

Later, the apostle Peter – a Jew – will be responsible for the first proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people, of which we read a detailed account in the book of Acts.

It was just the beginning.

Through the ministry of Paul, the Christian faith spread outside the borders of Israel, among the heathen nations, throughout the Mediterranean, in such a powerful way that, by the end of the first century, the majority of the believers were Gentiles.

Since the Gospel was meant to be a universal message addressed to everyone, universal, the most natural thing we could expect to happen, was that the New Testament should be written in a language spoken practically everywhere. At that time this language was Greek.

The adoption of a foreign language and even the conversion of non-Jewish believers could never eradicate the strong Hebrew roots of the Christian faith.

Hebrew was the background of the ministry of Jesus and of the apostles. Hebrew (and Aramaic) was their native language.

Hebrew was their culture, their faith, their mind.

All these cultural characteristics are alive and well today. They have survived in the Greek used to write the New Testament. They are visible even through today’s translations in our Western languages: language barriers and time have not been able to demise their influence. So strong was the influence of the Jewish language and thought in the Gospels, the epistles and the book of Revelation. Greek was simply used to express Semitic concepts and ideas – which remained dominant.

In the past, the Jewish background of the New Testament was not kept in the proper consideration. Later discoveries – like the Dead Sea Scrolls – revealed that, in order to better understand the New Testament, it is necessary to seriously consider the language and culture of those through whom it was written.

 The New Testament did not betray but embraced and gave the world the riches of the Jewish religion. Its authors interpreted from their original language thoughts, sayings, accounts or even written documents, and wrote in Greek. So deep was their Jewish background that when they could not find an equivalent for some Hebrew words or expressions, they thought well to keep them in their Greek autographs. This use has influenced the language of the church down to our days. In fact, we end all our prayers with a Hebrew word: “Amen.” We shout to God: “Hallelujah.” We call Jesus the “Messiah” – the latter word having entirely taken the meaning of the Hebrew term. More details will be given in the pages to follow.

The study of the Hebrew background of the New Testament, I am sure, will unlock some Scripture truths and will bless the reader with a more reverent attitude concerning the Jewish heritage of our faith.

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