It’s All Hebrew To Me

It is an interesting thing to consider why certain words of the New Testament were kept in Hebrew or Aramaic by the inspired authors rather than translating them into Greek, if indeed they were translatable.

Our Lord’s cry from the Cross: “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken Me,” was kept in Hebrew by Saint Matthew and for a good reason. Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani was taken from the first verse of Psalm 21, the Messianic Psalm par excellence, wherein the prophet echoed the prayer of the suffering Christ to His Father one thousand years before Jesus uttered it. Saint Matthew, who wrote his Gospel for the Jews, wanted to respect the Hebrew as it was in the inspired Psalm. Saint Mark, however, renders the cry a little differently because he used Our Lord’s vernacular Aramaic, which has it Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachthani.

The priests who were blaspheming Our Savior on Calvary knew exactly what Jesus was saying. Let us make no mistake about that as we read the Passion accounts. But, some others at the terrible site, to whom Aramaic was not vernacular, thought that Jesus was calling Elias. Both Matthew and Mark note that this mistake was made by “some standing by,” i.e. Jews whose native tongue was not Aramaic; perhaps, too, by the Roman soldiers, who would have had to have acquired some conversational knowledge of Aramaic during the occupation.

In connection with Psalm 21, I read recently that it is one of many prayer offerings and Psalms that the Jews call todah offerings. Such prayers begin with a cry for deliverance and end with an exclamation of thanksgiving for God’s rescue. Psalm 21 is a perfect example, ending as it does, with the sigh “and when I cried to him he heard me.” Our Crucified Savior cried out for deliverance and on the third day after His death, He was delivered, arising from the tomb glorified forever. I mention this, while citing these words of Jesus to His Father, because of its connection to the Eucharist. The todah offering was a thanksgiving or peace offering. Along with the sacrificial lamb, the inanimate elements of bread and wine were used, all being consumed in the meal. I had never heard of this use of bread and wine outside of the offering of King Melchisedech until reading about it in Scott Hahn’s book,The Lamb’s Supper. He quotes from what he identifies as the Pesiqta, an ancient rabbinical book. Therein is written this astounding rabbinic tradition: “In the [Messianic] age all sacrifices will cease, except the todah sacrifice. This will never cease in all eternity.” (I; p. 159). We do know, however, that the holy sacrifice of the Mass will cease after the end of the world. There will be no need for propitiation and supplication after that, only thanksgiving and adoration.

What are some other words that were kept in Hebrew by the New Testament writers?

Let’s start with the obvious ones:

Amen is a Hebrew word. And it was never translated until the King James Bible (and now the new English Catholic Bibles) tossed it out with the Thee’s and Thou’s putting “Verily, verily.” in its stead. Its meaning in Hebrew is “So be it,” or, “in truth”. But it remains as it is in Hebrew (not to mention prayers in every vernacular tongue) in the Douay Bible and, of course, in the Greek and probably in most vernacular translations of sacred writ. In the Holy Mass there is what is called “the Great Amen.” It is proclaimed after the Per Ipsum in the Minor Elevation after Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum. Saint Jerome reported that when he was in Rome the pagan temples would shake at the proclamation of the Great Amen at Mass.

Alleluia is another Hebrew word that is never translated or even attempted to be so done. Everyone knows what it means and understands it better in its Hebrew original simplicity and uniqueness. It is formed from two Hebrew words hallel, “to praise,” and yah, which is Yahweh abbreviated. The word Yahweh is formed from the hallowed consonants of the tetragram YHWH, the Name of God, which the Jews were forbidden to utter (and, to be more accurate, only the high priest knew how to pronounce accurately with the secret vowel sounds that are not included with the Hebrew consonants), using in its place the Hebrew word Adonai, which means “the Lord.” The mystery of the Name of God is another subject. Was it revealed first to Moses in the “I am Who am”? Or, to Adam, for we read long before Moses, that Abraham “called upon the Name of the Lord” (Gen. 13:4).

Hosanna, is the Hebrew exclamation for “save, I pray Thee.” It is never translated into any other language, but always kept in the Hebrew form in the Bible.

Sabaoth is a Hebrew word that The Church also always kept in the original in her liturgies (not so today in the Novus Ordo English), east and west. It literally means “Lord of armies,” or “Lord of hosts.”

Sabbath, never translated in the Bible, is the Hebrew word for “rest.” God “rested” on the seventh day.

Pasch, as we have the word in Latin (taken actually from the same word in Greek), is probably derived from the Hebrew pesah, which means “pass over.”

Although the Hebrew word Sanhedrin is not used in the New Testament, its Greek equivalent sunedrion is, and frequently so. In fact, the term sunedrion holon (the whole council) is used twice in the Gospels, both times (Matt. 26:59 and Mark 15:1), in reference to Our Lord’s trial in the court of Caiaphas. Literally the word means “sitting together.” Sanhedrin was originally derived from the Greek word for “assembly,” at least during and after the translating of the Hebrew Old Testament to the Greek Septuagint in about 200 BC. Prior to this, the word is not found in the Old Testament, although the court of the seventy-one judges of Israel (or seventy-two as tradition has it) existed from the time of Moses who established the council from among the leaders of the twelve tribes (Deut: 16:18; Numbers 11:16). It is worth noting that the Jews believe that only the Sanhedrin can proclaim the Messiah to be the Expectation of Nations, the Anointed One (Christ) and King of Israel. Hence we see in greater light the severity of the perfidy of the high priest and the Jerusalem council in rejecting and condemning Our Lord in full knowledge of His holiness and in spite of His stupendous miracles, and the fulfillment in Him of the Messianic prophecies. The Jews hold even today that the Sanhedrin’s restoration (having been outlawed in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine) will come at the time of the Messiah’s advent — which is to say the false messiah or antichrist. (See their abuse of the prophecy of Isaias 1:26 in this regard.) Local communities of Jews in ancient Palestine also had minor sanhedrins consisting of twenty-three elders. In Our Lord’s time the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem consisted of both Pharisees (scribes) and Sadducees.

These latter, obviously, are also Hebrew words. The Sadducees were a sect of aristocrats taking their name from the priestly family of a certain teacher named Sadoc. The word means “just or righteous one.” They only recognized the books of Moses and they denied both the resurrection of the body and life after death. They even denied the existence of angels, which is very strange, because angels are so prominent in the Pentateuch. The priests of the temple in Our Lord’s time were of the Sadducean sect. The Pharisees were so called from the Hebrew word which means “separated ones.” They were strict observers of the Mosaic law, adding many man-made observances so that they might publicly manifest their greater “detachment” from the common faithful. They were especially singled out and denounced by Christ for their hypocrisy and non-observance of the weightier things of the Law, such as charity, care for parents, widows and orphans, mercy, and true justice. Not all pharisees were guilty of these evils: Nicodemus was named in the Gospels as one of them; so, too, was Gamaliel. There is a tradition that Gamaliel, who counseled the Sanhedrin to free Peter and the Apostles from prison (Acts 5:34), was converted (See Pope Clement I, Recognitions, LXV).

Corban, used only once in the New Testament (Mark 7:11) and left untranslated in the Greek, is a Hebrew word meaning “gift.” The pharisees would excuse themselves from the care of their parents by declaring their goods “dedicated to God” and, thusly, a gift to the temple, thereby relieving themselves from the obligation of the fourth commandment. For this and many other offenses Jesus reprimanded them.

Maranatha, also a Hebrew word coupled from the Aramaic maran-atha, means “The Lord is come.” This is how Saints Jerome and John Chrysostom understand the word. It is kept in Aramaic, and hyphenated, in the inspired Greek of Saint Paul. The word is only found once in the Bible, and that is in First Corinthians 16:22, where it is used by the Apostle to affirm the Resurrection as having happened, rather than (as some think) an impetratory prayer for the Lord “to come,” as in the future. Mar (the root of the term) is a Syriac (very similar to Aramaic) word meaning “Lord.” Syrian Christians also use the word for “holy” or “saint,” which, of course means “holy one.” The Catholic Christians (and schismatic Indian Christians as well) in Kerala, India, who claim Saint Thomas the Apostle for their apostle are known as Mar Thoma Christians. Their liturgy, the Malankar Rite, is in the Syrian (Aramaic) tongue. It is similar to the rite used by the Maronites, both emanating from the same parent, the ancient Antiochian Rite of Saint James. Many monasteries in the Mid-East are named after saints whom these easterners honor with the title Mar.

Other words that one might think are Hebrew, such as anathema, scandal, blasphemy, synagogue, temple, tabernacle, parasceve (used by Hellenist Jews for “Friday” the day before the Sabbath) and azymes are not so. They are either Latin or Greek in origin. Anathema is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word herem. It appears in the Greek Septuagint thirteen times and five times in the New Testament, always by Saint Paul. In the Old Testament it meant anything set aside “to be offered” (even the destruction of a people or city by the Israelites), not only things but persons. By the time of the major prophets it came exclusively to mean “something accursed” or “condemned.” So, we see the term used by Saint Paul. The Church, as we know, uses the word to condemn heresies and the propagators thereof. Synagogue means “place of assembly.” It was used by the Greek-speaking Jews to designate, not a place of actual ritual worship — that being only the temple in Jerusalem — but a place, a building, for the Jewish people to assemble to read and expound the scriptures, and to pray together. The Greek word ecclesia is used to designate the assembled faithful both in the New and even in the Old Testament Greek Septuagint. It means the same thing as synagogue, but more. The term ecclesia (Church) was adopted by the early Christians; it was the specific Greek word for a political assembly in Athens. The Christians borrowed it in order to distinguish the Church of Christ from the Jewish synagogue, just as the Church did with the Greek word presbyteros, “i.e., elder,” to distinguish the priesthood of Christ from the Aaronic priesthood. The early Church also employed the word presbyter for the new priesthood rather than the Greek word ierous, which was also used by the pagan Greeks to identify the officer who was ordained to offer sacrifice to the gods. Nevertheless, the word ierous was in fact used by the Greek-speaking Jews for the Aaronic priesthood, as we see throughout the Greek Septuagint and in references to the Jewish priesthood in the New Testament. Hierous was the equivalent of the Hebrew word for priest, which was cohen.

Can you think of any others?

Before I add more, note that I am prescinding from the Hebrew proper names for persons or geographical places, towns, cities, etc, that are on every page in the New Testament. That is obvious. Calvary, for example, a place, is called Golgotha in Hebrew (place of skulls); Pilate’s judgment seat was called Gabbatha (“height or ridge” on account of its being elevated); and the potters’ field is called Haceldama (field of blood); all three Hebrew words are kept in the Gospel accounts apposite their Latin equivalents.

Well, I have two more, that I think are easy to miss.

The first is the Hebrew word Raca: “But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22). This word, too, is kept the same, untranslated, in Saint Matthew’s Greek. Saint Jerome, who had studied Hebrew under a rabbi, says that it means “empty of brains.” Not quite as severe an insult as “Thou fool,” but still deserving of a rebuke by the “council” or synagogue elders. Our Lord warned that this stage of contempt, being an outward manifestation of interior anger, was a prelude to a more grievous affront, calling one a fool. All three of which, left simmering, could be fuel for malice and, in the worst case, the ultimate crime of murder. Those who hurl the insult of “Raca” upon their neighbor will be held accountable before the council of God Before that should happen, it would be better, under a righteous council, for the offender to have been issued a chastising punishment, lest his heart become any harder. As with the unchaste eye preceding adultery, Our Lord was warning against allowing the seeds of worse sins to plant roots and germinate.

Finally, bypassing others that I no doubt have missed, let me end with a most derisive Hebrew word of insult, hurled at Our Lord by the priests and passers-by who mocked Him as He was dying on the Cross. It is the interjection Vah. “Vah, thou that destroyest the temple of God and in three days dost rebuild it: save thy own self. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). It is an exclamation with no exact meaning, as in English we might say “My Word,” or “Oh My”. As these malicious priests uttered it, it was a mocking jibe, like “Hey You!” “Hey You, up there on the Cross, You, the one who boasted that you would destroy the temple and rebuild it, come down now and we will believe You are the Son of God.” And this they said while “wagging their heads” even as the Psalmist described it in his vision. (Psalm 21:8)

This Easter season, let our Alleluia’s, Hosanna’s, and even our Amen’s, ring out with joy. These same holy exclamations have been heard not only for the past two thousand years in every Christian liturgy, but from the days of Adam who, by the way, spoke Hebrew. I have that on good authority.

  • Eleonore

    Brian, This is really interesting. Thank you for posting it. Never too OLD to learn something new!

  • Thank you very much, Eleonore! It was a joy to write.