The Hebrew Synoptic Gospels
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It is generally accepted by scholars that Luke and Matthew used the works of Mark and Q as sources for their gospels. Likewise, it is generally accepted that all three gospels were written originally in Greek, with the possibility of Aramaic as well. The authors of the book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, in their research, show that those positions may not be right.

Bivin and Blizzard relate research by Dr. Robert L. Lindsey as to the history of the synoptic gospels. Within five years after the death of Jesus, a biographer (believed to be Matthew) recorded the story of Jesus in Hebrew. At once, there was a demand in the Greek-speaking churches for a translation of the biography into Greek. A very literal translation was made. A few years later, stories and parts of stories were removed and arranged topically. Shortly after, a Greek author tried to reconstruct the story. Luke used the latter two of these records as his sources. Mark used Luke's work and the topically-arranged Greek as his sources. Matthew used Mark's work and the topically-arranged Greek as his sources. The current gospel may have been written by someone other than the Matthew who is believed to have written the original biography.

Thus, if this is correct, the original writing was composed in Hebrew, not Greek, or even Aramaic. The authors, throughout their book, present evidence to support their position. Statistics are quoted to show that over 90% of the Bible, including Old Testament quotes in the New Testament, was written in Hebrew, with about 1% in Aramaic, and the rest in Greek. If Bivin and Blizzard are right, there needs to be a change in thinking about the origin of the synoptic gospels and the resultant translations. They quote from Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History, giving evidence that it was known in his day that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. Eusebius himself had quoted other writers, Papias (Book III, Chapter 39, page 127), Irenĉus (Book V, Chapter 8, page 187), Origen (Book VI, Chapter 25, page 245), and Eusebius himself (Book III, Chapter 24, page 108).

The editor of Ecclesiastical History adds the following footnote to the comment of Papias: "The author here, doubtless, means Syro-Chaldaic, which is sometimes in Scripture, and writers, called Hebrew." Papias adds that it had to be translated, which suggests that it was not in the language of the church. Smith agrees with Origin that Matthew wrote to the Jews, but unlike Origen, he does not mention that it was written in Hebrew. The compilers of The Bible Almanac mention that Matthew wrote first in Syriac, Syro-Chaldaic, Aramaic, or Hebrew and that he may have rewritten later in Greek for wider use.

In this essay, I make a comparison of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from several versions. I use the twelve passages in the appendix of Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. Whether or not my readers agree with the authors of that book, I feel that their research is worthy of examination.

Each of the twelve comparisons appears on its own page, starting with the rendering of the passage as found in the book. Next, in italics, comes a paraphrase of part of the authors' account of the English meaning of the passage when translated back to the Hebrew. Following this are the eighteen renderings from various versions of the New Testament. There are thirty-eight versions in total, with eighteen being used with each scriptural passage. Any version is used at least three times with the twelve passages. Finally, I make a short comment on how these compare with the interpretation of the authors, and include a few of my own observations.

My purpose is to compare the versions, not to show any bias or prejudice for or against a particular version. The reader can draw his or her own conclusions. For the most part, the various versions say the same thing, using different words and constructions. There are some differences, though, either subtle or clear. If the reader is familiar with what the purpose of a version is, who its intended audience is, and when it was translated, he or she can better understand why it was written in its particular manner.


Versions Compared

 

AAT An American Translation (Beck)
AB Amplified Bible
CEV Contemporary English Version
CJB Complete Jewish Bible
CNT Cassirer New Testament
DRB Douay-Rheims Bible
EBR The Emphasized Bible
GW God's Word
IB Interlinear Bible
IV Inspired Version
KJV King James Version
LB Living Bible
LBP Lamsa Bible
MCT McCord's New Testament Translation
NAB New American Bible
NAS New American Standard Version
NBV New Berkeley Version
NCV New Century Version
NEB New English Bible
NET New Evangelical Translation
NIV New International Version
NJB New Jerusalem Bible
NKJ New King James Version
NLV New Life Version
NRS New Revised Standard Version
NWT New World Translation
PRS Phillips Revised Student Edition
REB Revised English Bible
RSV Revised Standard Version
SGAT An American Translation (Smith-Goodspeed)
SNB Restoration of Original Sacred Name Bible
SV The Scholars Version
TEV Today's English Version
TM The Message
WET Wuest Expanded Translation
WMF The Word Made Fresh
WNT Williams New Testament
YLR Young's Literal Translation, Revised Edition


Compared Verses

(Click on the verse to see the explanation and comparison.)

1. Matthew 5: 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
2. Matthew 5: 17, 18 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily, I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.
3. Matthew 5: 20 Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4. Matthew 11: 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
5. Matthew 16: 19 Whatsoever thou shalt bind (or loose) on earth shall be bound (or loosed) in heaven.
6. Luke 6: 22 Cast out as evil.
7. Luke 9: 29 The fashion of his countenance was altered.
8. Luke 9: 44 Lay these sayings in your ears.
9. Luke 9: 51 He set his face to go ... .
10. Luke 10: 5, 6 Whatever house you enter, first say, "Shalom be to this house." And if a son of shalom is there, your shalom shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you.
11. Luke 12: 49, 50 I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!
12. Luke 23: 31 For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?


Commentary

 

It can be seen why the average Christian understands so little about the Bible. Many translators have recognized the problem and have tried to help the reader. A Christian is able to locate a version to suit his desires. The versions run from word-for-word to meaning-for-meaning to paraphrase. They can use formal Shakespearean English, everyday language, or limited vocabulary. They can even stress a specific religious dogma. The English language probably has more from which to choose than any other language.

Whenever someone refers to the Bible as being inerrant or that God wrote the Bible, I am concerned with how much the person really knows about it. To which version is he (or she) referring? Even the translators themselves recognize their limitations. I may not agree completely with the work of the Jesus Seminar. However, they do present a valid question. "An inspired, or inerrant, set of gospels seems to require an equally inspired interpreter or body of interpretation. Interpretation must be equally inspired if we are to be sure we have the right understanding of the inerrant but variously understood originals. ... . It is for this reason that some churches were moved to claim infallibility for their interpretation. ... . Why, if God took such pains to preserve an inerrant text for prosperity, did the Spirit not provide for the preservation of original copies of the gospels? ... . We do not possess autographs of any of the books of the entire Bible. ... . Handmade manuscripts have almost always been corrected here and there. ... . Even careful copyists make some mistakes."

Another viewpoint deserves consideration. "Why God did not preserve any of the original texts, we do not know. However, He preserved a large number of copies which are in agreement in over 99% of the text; this leaves no doubt that today we have exactly what the original writers said. ... . The readings contained in any of that 1% which are harder to decide do not affect any doctrine in any way." (New Evangelical Translation) The doctrine of Jesus can be found in any version as is implied in that quote. The steps to salvation are clearly stated in several places. It is only a matter of interpretation.

There is the story of the little boy who thought God's right hand was completely useless and that God had to do everything with His left hand because he had always heard that Jesus was sitting on the right hand of God. Christians can make the same error of interpretation with the Bible. The authors of Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus and other Biblical scholars, through their research, have tried to help with this problem.

Codex Sinaiticus (circa A.D. 350) and Codex Vaticanus (a little earlier) are considered the best early manuscripts of the New Testament. A number of versions point out that Mark 16: 9-20 (the Longer Ending) and John 7: 53 - 8: 11 (the story of the adulteress) are not included in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. A Guide to Modern Versions of Bible states that "the Greek text used up to the Middle Ages became corrupt as a result of hand copying. A later edition of the text prepared by Erasmus in 1516, the Textus Receptus, which many early translators used, was highly unsatisfactory." Harper's Bible Dictionary adds that "one of the most noteworthy texts, by Westcott and Hort, had the weakness of relying too heavily on Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. A modification had to be made as more manuscript material became available." There are other reputable texts. The potential for error in the New Testament is present. Translations are no better than the manuscripts, the texts, and the translators.

The earliest available Masoretic manuscripts still in existence go back only to the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. The Septuagint was published in Greek, probably in the third century B.C. "It [the Septuagint] had been corrupted by copyists and translators had misread or misunderstood the original, some even deliberately camouflaging their texts." (The Cambridge History of the Bible) The copy of the Hebrew Scriptures used by Josephus was more perfect and authentic than the Septuagint and the Masorete copies. Thus, there is also potential for error in the Old Testament.

In this essay, I have tried to show some of the problems which exist with Bible translations and interpretations, with stress on the efforts of two co-authors to assist in solving them, based on their research. There still is much to be done in this area. We may never see the perfect translation before the Messiah returns. With all the problems that I have encountered in my research, I could very easily reject the Bible completely, as many people have done. However, my research has had the opposite effect. I am constantly learning. I firmly believe the message of the Bible, despite translation errors and lack of understanding of parts of it. We owe a great debt to all who have had a part in preserving the Scriptures over the ages. We must continue to read the Word -- whatever version or versions we choose -- and pray for God's help in our understanding of its message.


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Dwight A. Pryor, president of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, and David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr., authors of the book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, published by the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, Ohio, copyright 1983 and 1984, for permission:

  1. To use the scriptures described in the appendix of their book as a basis for this essay; and
  2. To quote or paraphrase specific passages from this book.
I also extend to them my appreciation for their interest in my research.