God has revealed himself to us through his works and his words. God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” have been revealed in his work of creation (Rom. 1:19-20). Sadly, sinful humanity easily misinterprets what God has revealed in creation. We’ve “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). We need something more than God’s general revelation through creation; we need special revelation through his Word.
In his wisdom God chose to make himself known through language. God chose the family of Abraham and God spoke to them in a language that they understood. Hebrew became the language through which God revealed most of the Old Testament (with a few passages written in Aramaic). And when the gospel spread throughout the world of the first century, it was communicated in the most common language of the day: Greek.
This does raise a few questions about how God communicates today. Most believers do not have access to the original languages and so have no other choice but to use translations. These translations have become a bone of contention for some believers, especially for those who hold that the original languages are somehow unique or special.
Hebrew Roots is such a movement. They take exception to our modern translations, often accusing them of deliberately confusing the original text in order to deceive. This can be seen most clearly in their approach to the Names of God and their insistence that the New Testament was also written in Hebrew.
Names of God
The Hebrew Roots Movement believes that to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we must use the names by which he identified himself to Israel. They are adamant that we cannot use the Names of God as they were translated into other languages. Some even consider it blasphemous if we fail to use the Hebrew Names of God. For example, we must call him "Elohim" (God) or “Ha’Shem” (the Name). We are also told that we cannot pray in the Name of “Jesus Christ,” but should pray in the name of “Yehoshua Ha'Mashiach.”
The original Hebrew-Aramaic name of Jesus is Yeshu‘a, which is short for yehōshu‘a (Joshua). The name occurs 27 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is mostly used to refer to the high priest after the Babylonian exile. It was not an uncommon name, with as many as five men being called Yeshu’a in the Old Testament. Dr. Michael L. Brown, who has a PhD in Semitic languages, explains how we got from Yeshu’a to Jesus: “Simply stated, this is the etymological history of the name Jesus: Hebrew/Aramaic yeshu‘a became Greek Iēsous, then Latin Iesus, passing into German and then, ultimately, into English, as Jesus.”
Some Hebrew Roots proponents insist that the true name of the Messiah is Yahshua, but there is no evidence for this. It is likely that their zeal for Yahweh’s name caused them to combine the two names. A.B. Traina, a Hebrew Roots teacher who wrote the Holy Name Bible, was a vocal proponent of this position. According to Traina, “The name of the Son, Yahshua, has been substituted by Jesus, Iesus, and Ea-Zeus (Healing Zeus).” This is a lie, first spread by the sacred name cults of the 1930s. Here is Brown’s evaluation of his position: “In this one short sentence, two complete myths are stated as fact: First, there is no such name as Yahshua (as we have just explained), and second, there is no connection of any kind between the Greek name Iēsous (or the English name Jesus) and the name Zeus. Absolutely none! You might as well argue that Tiger Woods is the name of a tiger-infested jungle in India as try to connect the name Jesus to the pagan god Zeus. It is that absurd, and it is based on serious linguistic ignorance.”
The Hebrew Bible
Because of their insistence that the Hebrew Names of God are the only legitimate names by which God may be called, the Hebrew Roots Movement believes that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew. They believe that the Greek New Testament is a corruption of the original Hebrew text. This approach betrays a sad ignorance of biblical history.
Before the Babylonian exile, Judah mainly spoke Hebrew, and most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. After returning from exile the province of Judea was under Persian rule, which meant that Aramaic became the official language of government. It gradually became the most common spoken language in the region. Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related Semitic languages that mixed and influenced each other during this period. Some portions of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic (parts of Daniel and Ezra), as were some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early Jewish literature.
When Alexander the Great conquered the region Greek became the language of government, trade, and culture. By the third century BC many Jews had completely lost their ability to speak or read Hebrew and Aramaic. That is why the Old Testament was translated into the most common language of the day, Greek. This translation became known as the Septuagint, or LXX (referring to the 70 scribes who were said to have translated the whole Old Testament text).
Fast forward to first century Palestine and you find a multi-linguistic society that mirrors much of our own. Most people groups retained their unique languages, but Greek became the most widely spoken language in the region (much like English in our own world). Greek would have been the most likely language through which the gospel was communicated and the manuscript evidence confirms it. We have more than 5000 manuscripts containing parts or the whole of the New Testament. All of these manuscripts are in Greek. There are various translations in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian, but they were all translated from the original Greek.
In contrast, there are no ancient manuscripts for a Hebrew New Testament. We do have ancient copies of the New Testament in Aramaic, however these reflect dialects from the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. These dialects were very different from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
There are early church historians, like Eusebius, who mention that Matthew used a collection of Hebrew sayings of Jesus to compile his gospel. Some early writers even suggested that Matthew originally wrote in Hebrew. Yet there is no evidence for such a manuscript and even Eusebius’ claim is ambiguous. He does not say that the gospel was written in Hebrew, nor does he explain what these Hebrew sayings were.
The most telling sign that the New Testament was not written in Hebrew, is the inclusion of Hebrew words and phrases in the text itself. For example, in Mark 5:41 we read: “Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Talitha cumi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."” This means that Jesus did in fact speak Aramaic, but also that Mark’s readers didn’t. If the entire gospel was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, why only preserve this saying? And if the Name of God should not be profaned by translating it, why preserve this saying and not the Name of God?
Drew Longacre summarizes it like this: “there is much evidence for an underlying Semitic language (especially Aramaic) for parts of the Gospels, particularly in the sayings of Jesus. There is also considerable Semitic influence in the Greek language of many New Testament authors. But there is no linguistic reason to suppose that any of the complete Gospels or other New Testament books were originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic in their entirety.”
God made himself known to his people in a language that they understood. In the Old Testament it was Hebrew and Aramaic, and in the New Testament it was Greek. In his wisdom the Lord allowed Old Testament references to be translated into Greek in the New Testament, as well as his Name. When the Gentiles heard the gospel, they heard of Iēsous Christos (Jesus Christ) who died for their sins upon the cross, triumphed over death through his resurrection, ascended into heaven, and who now offers the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life to all who would repent of their sin and believe in him. Knowing the original languages can be a wonderful help, but you don’t need to know Hebrew to know the Saviour.
1. Brown, Michael. 2013. What is the original Hebrew name for Jesus? https://askdrbrown.org/article/what-is-the-original-hebrew-name-for-jesus Accessed: 12 July 2023
3. Longacre, Drew. 2023. Was the New Testament written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek? https://www.logos.com/grow/min-was-the-new-testament-written-in-hebrew-aramaic-or-greek/. Accessed: 25 June 2023