GIVING & SHARING NEWSLETTER August, 1989 No. 5
Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. New insights from a Hebraic perspective, by David Biven and Roy Blizzard, Jr. Austin, Texas: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984.
Rigidly literal translations of Hebrew idioms often give the Bible reader the wrong impression. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD,” Genesis 6:8, simply means that God was fond of and loved Noah. A little boy thought God's right hand was completely useless because he had always heard that Jesus was sitting on the right hand of God! We are familiar with English idioms such as “hit the ceiling,” and “kill time,” but few of us understand Hebrew figures of speech.
In their book, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, Biven and Blizzard show that understanding Biblical Hebrew is a major key to interpretation of both Old and New Testaments. Literal translations of Hebrew idioms sometimes don’t make sense, but once you understand the Hebrew, the passage makes perfect sense. Especially in the New Testament, attempting to understand the Greek often leads to a blind alley, or even worse, a misinterpretation. A Hebrew word often has a much wider meaning than its Greek or English literal equivalent.
Over half the book is devoted to proving what may be a shocking conclusion to some: the gospels were originally composed in Hebrew, then translated literally into Greek. Our English translations have been translated from the Greek. Because the Hebrew idioms are sometimes not clear when literally translated into Greek, and then into English, difficulty and confusion have resulted. Hebrew, rather than Aramaic or Greek, is shown by Biven and Blizzard to have been the main language of Palestinian Jews during the time of Christ.
Among the “difficult” sayings of Jesus are Luke 23:31, Matthew 11:12, and Luke 12:49-50. These are all Hebrew expressions or idioms that can be understood if you know Hebrew. Also, understanding the Hebrew thought from which the gospel was based, we would avoid theological errors due to mistranslation. For example, Matthew 5:21 and 39 have wrongly been used to support pacifism. The Greek text of Matthew 5:42 appears to say that we are bound to give without discernment, that we are duty-bound to give material possessions to anyone that asks us for them. However, the Hebrew from which this is based does not support this erroneous view.
Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus is a fascinating and enlightening book. By understanding Hebrew expressions of speech, we gain a richer understanding of Bible truths. However, there are several dangers that could arise from the misuse of this book:
(1) The authors are too extreme in their statement that “the key to an understanding of the New Testament is a fluent knowledge of Hebrew and an intimate acquaintance with Jewish history, culture, and Rabbinic Literature.” Bible truth is spiritually revealed by the Almighty, and not through human intellect and scholarship. Nevertheless, we should diligently study the Bible, and understanding Hebrew and Jewish culture can well be valuable tools in broadening our understanding of the Almighty’s way. However, the Holy Spirit is the only real teacher.
(2) Some would tear down the veracity of the New Testament if they carry too far the theory that the Life of Jesus was originally composed in Hebrew. Sacred Name proponents tend to do this. Even if the original record of the Life of Christ was composed in Hebrew, that would not prove that we must always use the Hebrew names for the Supreme Being. Nor does it indicate that the Greek New Testament is not to be trusted.
The fact is that the New Testament has not been preserved in Hebrew, but in Greek. A better understanding of Hebrew may indeed help us to understand the New Testament. After all, Jesus was a great Jewish rabbi, or teacher, and the disciples were all Jews. Rather than tearing down the inspiration of the New Testament, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus actually confirms the authenticity of the received Greek text. Writers such as Luke (See Luke 1:1-4) had other written material from which to draw, which may have been written in Hebrew. They carefully and literally reworked this material, which has been delivered unto us. By understanding Hebrew idioms, we can gain much knowledge of the correct meaning of the words of our Savior.
Biblical Hebrew is closer to modern Hebrew than King James English is to modern English. Studying Hebrew can help one better understand both Old and New Testaments. Ω