THE NEW TESTAMENT
Epistle to Hebrews - Introduction #4
The following is taken from Albert Barnes' "Notes On The New
THE LANGUAGE IN WHICH IT WAS WRITTEN
This is a vexed and still unsettled question, and it does
not seem to be possible to determine it with any considerable
degree of certainty. Critics, of the ablest name, have been
divided on it; and, what is remarkable, have appealed to the same
arguments to prove exactly opposite opinions - one class arguing
that the style of the epistle is such as to prove that it was
written in Hebrew, and the other appeal to the same proofs to
demonstrate that it was written in Greek.
Among those who have supposed that it was written in Hebrew
are the following, viz. :- Some of the Fathers - as Clement of
Alexandria, Theodoret, John Damascenes, Theophylact; and among
the moderns, Michaelis has been the most strenuous defender of
this opinion. This opinion was also held by the late Dr.James P.
Wilson, who says, "It was probably written in the vulgar language
of the Jews; that is, in that mixture of Hebrew, Syriac, and
Chaldee, which was usually spoken in the time of the Saviour, and
which was known as the Syro-Chaldaic."
On the other hand, the great body of Critics have supposed
it was written in the Greek language. This was the opinion of
Fabricius, Whitby, Beausobre, Capellus, Basnage, Mill, and
others; and is also the pinion of Lardner, Hug, Stuart, and
perhaps of most modem critics. These opinions may be seen
examined at length in Michaelis' Introduction, Hug, Stuart; and
The arguments in support of the opinion, that it was written
in Hebrew, are briefly the following:
(l) The testimony of the Fathers. Thus, Clement of Alexandria
say., "Paul wrote to the Hebrew, in the Hebrew language, and Luke
carefully translated it into Greek." Jerome Says, "Paul, as a
Hebrew, wrote to the Hebrews in Hebrew - Scrlpserat ut Hebraeus
Hebraeis Hebraice;" and then he adds, "This epistle was
translated into Greek, so that the colouring of the style was
made diverse in this way from that of Paul's."
(2.) The fact that it was written for the use of the Hebrews, who
spoke the Hebrew, or the Talmudic language, is alleged as a
reason for supposing that it must have been written in that
(3) It is alleged by Michaelis, that the style of the Greek, as
we now have it, is far more pure and classical than Paul
else-where employs, and that hence it is to be inferred, that it
was translated by some man who was master of the Greek language.
On this, however, the most eminent critics disagree.
(4) It is Alleged by Michaelis, that the quotations in the
epistle, as we have it, are made from the Septuagint, and that
they are foreign to the purpose which the writer had in view as
they are now quoted, whereas they are exactly in point as they
stand in the Hebrew. Hence, he infers, that the original Hebrew
was quoted by the author, and that the translator used the common
version at hand, instead of making an exact translation for
himself. Of the fact alleged here, however, there may be good
ground to raise a question and if it were so, it would not prove
that the writer might not have used the common and accredited
translation, though less to his purpose than the original. Of the
fact, moreover, to which Michaelis here refers, Professor Stuart
says, "He has not adduced a single instance, of what he calls a
WRONG translation, which wears the appearance of any considerable
probability." The only instance, urged by Michaelis, which seems
to me to be plausible, is Hob.i.7.
These are the principal arguments which have been urged in
favour of the opinion, that this epistle was written in the
Hebrew language. They are evidently not conclusive. The only
argument, of any considerable weight, is the testimony of some of
the Fathers, and it may be denoted whether they gave this as a
matter of historical fact, or only as a matter of opinion. See
Hug's Introduction, § 144. It is morally certain, that, in
one respect, their statement CANNOT be true. They state, that it
was translated by Luke; but it is capable of the clearest proof,
that it was not translated by Luke, the author of the Gospel and
the Acts of the Apostles, since there is the most remarkable
dissimilarity in the style.
On the other hand, there are alleged in favour of the
opinion, that it was written in Greek, the following
considerations, viz. :-
(1) The fact that we have NO Hebrew original. If it was written
in Hebrew, the original was early lost. None of the Fathers say
that they had seen it; none quote it. ALL the COPIES that we have
are in GREEK. If it was written n Hebrew, and the original was
destroyed, it must have been at every early period; and it is
remarkable that no one should have mentioned the fact, or alluded
to it. Besides, it is scarcely conceivable that the original
should have so soon perished, and that the translation should
have altogether taken its place. If it was addressed to the
Hebrews in Palestine, the same reason which made it proper that
it should have been written in Hebrew, would have led them to
retain it in that language; and we might have supposed, that
Origen, or Eusebius, or Jerome, who lived there, or Ephrem the
Syrian, would have adverted to the fact, that there was there a
Hebrew original. The Jews were remarkable for retaining their
sacred books in the language in which they were written; and, if
this were written in Hebrew, it is difficult to account for the
fact, that it was so soon suffered to perish.
(2) The presumption - a presumption amounting to almost a moral
certainty - is, that an apostle writing to the Christians in
Palestine would write in Greek. This presumption is based on the
(a) The fact, that all the other books of the New Testament were
written is Greek, unless the gospel by Matthew be an exception.
(b) This occurred is cases where it would seem to have been as
improbable, as it was that one writing to the Hebrews should use
that language. For instance, Paul wrote to the church in Rome in
the Greek language, though the Latin language was that which was
in universal use there.
(c) The Greek was a common language in the East. It seems to have
been familiarly spoken, and to have been and commonly understood.
(d Like the other books of the New Testament, this epistle do not
appear to have been intended to be confined to the Hebrews only.
The writings of the apostles were regarded as the property of
the church at large. Those writings would be copied,
spread abroad. The Greek was a far better language for such a
purpose than the Hebrew. It was polished, and elegant; was
adapted to the purpose of discoursing on moral subjects; was
fitted to express delicate shades of thought; and was the
language which was best understood by the world at large.
(e) It was the language which Paul would naturally use, unless
there was a strong reason for his employing the Hebrew.
Though he was able to speak in Hebrew, (Acts xxi.40,) yet he had
spent his early days in Tarsus, where the Greek was the
vernacular tongue, and it was probably that which he had first
learned. Besides this, when this epistle was written he had been
absent from Palestine about twenty-five years, and in all that
time he bad been there but a few days, He had been where the
Greek language was universally spoken. He bad been among Jews who
spoke that language. It was the language used in their
synagogues, and Paul had addressed them in it. After thus
preaching, conversing, and writing in that language for
twenty-five years, is it any wonder that he should prefer writing
in i t - that he should naturally do it? and is it not to be
presumed that he would do it in this case? These presumptions are
so strong, that they ought to be allowed to settle a question of
this kind, unless there is positive proof to the contrary.
(3) There is internal proof that it was written in the Greek
language. The evidence of this kind consists in the fact, that
the writer bases an argument on the meaning and force of Greek
words, which could not have occurred had he written in Hebrew.
Instances of this kind are such as these.
(a) In ch.ii. he applies a passage from Psa. viii. to prove that
the Son of God must have had a human nature, which was to be
exalted above the angels, and placed at the head of the creation.
The passage is, "Thou bast made him a little while inferior to
the ANGELS," ch.ii.7. margin. In the Hebrew, in Psa. viii.5, the
word rendered angels, is - Elohim - God; and the sense of
angel, attached to that word, though it may sometimes occur, is
so unusual, that an argument would not have been built on the
(b) In ch.vii.1, the writer has explained the name Melchizedek,
and translated it king of Salem - telling what it is in Greek - a
thing which would not have been done if it had be written in
Hebrew, where the word was well understood. It is possible,
indeed, that a translator might have done this; but the
explanation seems to be interwoven with the discourse itself, and
to constitute a part of the argument.
(c) In ch.ix.16,17, there is an argument on the meaning of the
word COVENANT - which could not have occurred had the epistle
been in Hebrew. It is founded in the DOUBLE meaning of that word
- denoting both a covenant and a testament, or will. The Hebrew
word, - Berith - has NO such DOUBLE signification. It means
COVENANT only, and is never used in the sense of the word WILL,
or TESTAMENT. The proper translation of that word would be -
"syntheke" - but the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek
translation of the Old Testament - Keith Hunt) uniformly used the
former, - "diatheke" - and on this word the argument of the
apostle is based. This could not have been done by a translator;
it must have been by the original author, for it is incorporated
into the argument.
(d) In ch.x.3-9, the author shows that Christ came to make an
atonement for sin, and that in order to this it was necessary
that he should have a human body. This, he shows, was not only
necessary, but was predicted. In doing this, be appeals to
Psa.xl.6 - "A body halt thou prepared form me." But the Hebrew
here is, "Mine EARS hast thou opened." This passage would have
been much less pertinent than the other form - "a body hast thou
prepared me;" and, indeed, it is not easy to see how it would
bear at all on the object in view. Sea ver.10. But in the
Septuagint the phrase stands as he quotes it - "a body hast thou
prepared for me" a fact which demonstrates, whatever difficulties
there may be about the principle on which be makes the quotation,
that the epistle wee written in Greek. It may be added, that it
has nothing of the appearance of a translation. It is not stiff,
forced, or constrained in style, as translations usually are.
It is impassioned, free, flowing, full of animation, life, and
colouring, and has all the appearance of being an original
So clear have these considerations appeared, that the great body
of critics now concur in the opinion that the epistle was
originally written in Greek.
THE DESIGN AND GENERAL ARGUMENT OF THE EPISTLE
The use of the Greek Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old
Testament) in the first century Church of God, and in the
writings of the apostle Paul, with other Greek translations and
paraphrases of parts of the Old Testament, may come as a surprise
to many. The use of the Greek was extensive and the reader is
pointed to an indepth study on this Website "Paul's Use of the
Old Testament" to show the truth of the matter - a truth that
will shock and certainly be a surprised education for many.
We shall continue with comments from Albert Barnes in number 5 of
this Introduction to Hebrews.