I've blogged quite a bit about the reliability of the New Testament, answering a variety of claims meant to undermine confidence in our ability to know the truth about Jesus. But I was recently asked to address a claim about which I have not previously blogged, the claim that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and thus that much is lost in the alleged translation to the Greek.
The run-up to this argument involves a good deal of truth. The first premise is that the authors of the New Testament were Jewish, that they thought and conversed in Hebrew, and that the Greek New Testament reflects this.
I (in agreement with all New Testament scholars of whom I am aware) am perfectly willing to grant this. In fact, all of the authors of the New Testament were Jewish. The possible exception is Luke, the author of the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. But if Luke was a Gentile by birth, he nonetheless had affiliatd himself with Judaism, had become a Jew, as it were. Moreover, the vast majority of the sayings, teachings, and conversations recorded in the gospels were originally uttered in Hebrew (or Aramaic).
So the point--and it's an extremely important one--that we cannot understand the New Testament aright without an appreciation of its Jewishness, is perfectly true. This is not, however, a terribly new or original idea. While there have been times in church history when the Jewishness of Christianity's founders has been forgotten, ignored, or downplayed, this is not the case today. Theologians and lay Christians alike are embracing the need to understand the New Testament Scriptures in their 1st-century Jewish context.
The second premise involved in the claim at issue is that Hebrew was not--as used to be believed--a dead (or at least unwritten) language in the 1st century AD. The claimant points to the Dead Sea scrolls and to recently-discovered coins that verify the use of written Hebrew from this time period. I don't really know how to respond to this. Never having believed the contrary, I guess I fail to see what significance establishment of this premise carries.
In the claim to which my attention was called, the leap is made from these premises to the conclusion that the New Testament books were originally written in Hebrew. I say 'leap' because this conclusion simply does not follow from the premises.
First of all, the claim would seem not even to apply to the epistles of Paul. Paul was among the best-educated of Jews of his day, and was fluent in Greek. Since most of his letters were written to churches of mixed ethnicity or primarily Gentile believers, it is beyond dispute that they were originally in Greek. Thus it would appear to be the gospels themselves that are the focus of the written-in-Hebrew claim.
What is overlooked in this claim is the oral nature of the Jewish culture of Jesus' day. For the early church, it was the telling and retelling of them that served to pass on the sayings of Jesus and the stories of the events of His life, of His death and resurrection. At first, this recounting likely took place almost exclusively in Hebrew, the native tongue of the majority of believers. But as Gentiles began to convert to Christianity--and as Jesus Himself called Paul and others to carry the message to non-Jews, these events were increasingly communicated in Greek, the lengua franca of the region. It was only when the eyewitnesses to these events began to grow old, or to face imprisonment or execution, that they recognized the need to record them for posterity. By this time, the epistles of Paul (and others) were already circulating among the churches--and they had been written in Greek. Under these circumstances, it was only natural that the gospels were also written in the language accessible to people throughout the known world.
This is the traditional understanding of the writing of the New Testament, and the historical and manuscript evidence overwhelmingly supports it. Were there any evidence of manuscripts in Hebrew that predate the Greek manuscripts, then this traditional understanding might be called into question. But there is not. The existence in the texts of Hebraisms, of Hebrew idioms and thought patterns, is perfectly consistent with the traditional understanding (since it acknowledges the Jewishness of the NT authors).
In short, there is abundant evidence to support the well-recognized fact that the authors of the New Testament were Jewish in their thought, and that Hebrew was their primary language. It is imperative that we who would correctly interpret and understand their writings attend to the cultural and historical context of 1st-century Judaism. But the evidences that yield that conclusion are wholly insufficient to warrant the additional conclusion that the New Testament was first written in Hebrew.