Peculiarities of Translating the New Testament into Hebrew

by Ray Pritz

Vernacular Hebrew was resurrected in Israel about a hundred years ago, primarily through the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. While modern Hebrew uses the same alphabet (or Alefbet) and basic vocabulary as biblical Hebrew, it is a hybrid of old and new.

On the one hand, for example, an Israeli would very naturally say of someone who hesitates to make a decision that he poseah ’al shte hase’ipim, (hops on two branches), without being fully aware that he is quoting the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:21). On the other hand, modern Hebrew contains many words borrowed or adapted from European languages, for example telefon.

An Israeli with a high school education is able to read most of the Bible (the “Old Testament”) in the original Hebrew with complete understanding. Israeli children learn their Alefbet in the first grade, and in the second grade they read the entire book of Genesis in the original Hebrew with a high degree of comprehension. In Jewish religious schools today, as in Jesus’ time, boys learn to read the Bible at age five, beginning with the book of Leviticus.

Jesus’ Words in Hebrew

When Israelis read the words of Jesus in Hebrew, they often have an advantage over someone reading in another language. While the Hebrew version is still a translation, the Greek text from which the Hebrew is translated is full of Hebraisms, which are inherently more comprehensible to the Hebrew-speaker.

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean with an example. On a visit to Japan, the widow of John Steinbeck was greeted by an admirer who told her he loved her husband’s books, especially The Angry Raisins. A person who heard this comment and was familiar with American literature would have no trouble restoring the proper title, The Grapes of Wrath. Their success would have been due to their knowledge of the literary background as well as the language of the original.

Hebraisms in the Greek Gospels exist in part because at least some of Jesus’ recorded sayings were originally spoken in Hebrew. No matter what language the original biographies of Jesus were written in, the words of Jesus as we read them in Greek are a translation. The Greek has preserved a good deal of the original Semitic flavor of Jesus’ words, and in many cases has even conveyed word-for-word renderings of Hebrew idioms which make little sense in Greek or any other non-Semitic language. When translated to Hebrew, these idioms make sense and sound natural to one whose mother tongue is Hebrew.

Hebrew New Testaments

In 1969, the Bible Society in Israel began preparing the first translation of the full New Testament into modern Hebrew. A basic text was prepared by an Israeli translator, and this was closely checked by a committee of local scholars who were qualified in both Greek and Hebrew.

The New Testament had already been translated into Hebrew over ninety times. The most famous pre-modern-Hebrew translation was completed in 1877 (four years before Ben Yehuda immigrated to Palestine) by Franz Delitzsch, a German scholar of Jewish descent. He used his extensive knowledge of biblical and post-biblical Hebrew to produce a translation in the kind of Hebrew that developed after the period of the Hebrew Scriptures. This translation went through a number of revisions, both by Delitzsch himself and by others after his death.

Many phrases that Delitzsch reconstructed in his translation were current in Jesus’ time, but today’s Hebrew-speaker benefits from them only if he is a student of his own language, or if those phrases still have the same meaning in modern Hebrew. The Bible Society published its modern-Hebrew version of the New Testament in 1976, and it has gradually become the most widely-used version in Israel. The translators of the United Bible Societies (UBS) version opted for understandable current Hebrew at the expense of preserving archaic original phrases. The modern translators had an advantage over Delitzsch in that they knew not only the Greek and old Hebrew as he did, but also the evolved Hebrew used by today’s readers.

Because Delitzsch translated before Hebrew was reborn, some of his renderings are obscure or even misleading. Delitzsch could not have known, for example, that the word he used to describe the Messiah in Hebrews 8:6, sarsur (mediator), would become the modern Hebrew word for gigolo or pimp. The translators of the modern Hebrew version frequently were able to preserve phrases close to Jesus’ original words while staying within the boundaries of language that carries the same meaning today.

The Holy Spirit in the Hebrew New Testament

Several challenges face anyone seeking to translate the New Testament into Hebrew. One of these has to do with the gender of the Holy Spirit. Gender is a highly important part of the grammar of many languages, and one must know a noun’s gender in order to use the correct form of its modifiers.

Masculine, feminine, and neuter genders exist in English, but the designations are usually intrinsically obvious. For example, mother, sister, aunt, and cow are feminine, while father, brother, uncle, and bull are masculine. There are a few exceptions, and one may refer in English to a ship, a country, or the moon as “she,” but it is more a matter of personification than rules of grammar. Hebrew differs from English in that there is only masculine and feminine. Grammatically, nothing can be an “it” in Hebrew but always must be a ”he” or a “she.”

Plural Endings

The plural form of a Hebrew noun will usually tell you its gender. Masculine nouns generally receive the masculine plural ending IM, as in banIM (sons) or ‘etsIM (trees), while feminine nouns generally receive the feminine plural ending OT, as in banOT (daughters) or britOT (covenants). However, there are plenty of exceptions: for example, the plural of father is ’avOT, while the plural for woman is nashIM.

To make things a bit more complicated, some words can be either gender in the Bible, such as shemesh (sun), derech (way), kerem (vineyard), khatser (courtyard), and ruakh (wind or spirit).

It is this last word, ruakh, which caused some lengthy discussions among the editors of the Bible Societies’ annotated Hebrew New Testament (1991). The 1976 translation of UBS had followed general usage in treating ruakh as a feminine noun. This, of course, meant calling the Holy Spirit “she” in many places where the Greek New Testament says “it,” since the Greek word for spirit or wind, pneuma, is neuter.

Holy Spirit as “She”?

For theological rather than linguistic reasons, some members of the committee were disturbed at referring to the Spirit of God as “she” in Hebrew. They argued that since the Bible consistently speaks of God as “he,” the Spirit of God should be referred to in the same gender. The ambivalent gender of the word ruakh in Biblical Hebrew would allow this.

In response to the suggestion to render the gender of ruakh as masculine, research was done in several areas, one of which was modern Hebrew usage. All dictionaries of modern Hebrew agree that ruakh is a feminine noun, although they do not relate to the specific problem of ruakhelohim (the Spirit of God) or ruakh hakodesh (the Holy Spirit).

The committee then went to the Hebrew Scriptures, where it was found that ruakh in general usage is treated as both masculine and feminine. In fact, in one particularly interesting verse, 1 Kings 19:11, the wind which Elijah saw at Horeb is described as ruakh gedolah vekhazak, “a great and powerful wind,” using one feminine and one masculine adjective to modify it.

The more important question, however, was how the Hebrew Scriptures refer to the Spirit of God. Most references to the Holy Spirit give no indication of gender, since the word ruakh appears as an object with no modifiers, as in Psalm 51:13, “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.” However, in more than thirty places in the Hebrew Bible the gender of God’s Spirit is indicated. It is feminine in about eighty percent of the cases.

It was decided that the modern Hebrew translation of the New Testament should not try to improve on the grammar — or the theology — of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Spirit of God therefore remains in the feminine gender.

The Divine Name in the Hebrew New Testament

God has a personal name: YHVH. Like Semitic names in general, it was intended to reflect something of the bearer’s character. YHVH is related to the root h-v-h, “to be,” and reflects God’s eternity and timelessness.

The name of the God of Israel contained power and was used with reverence. The third commandment said it was not to be “taken in vain,” which meant that people were not to swear falsely by God’s name. However, this commandment came to be interpreted in its narrowest sense, and somewhere between the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. and the third century A.D., people stopped using the name at all when speaking.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the so-called Septuagint, or LXX) in the third century B.C., God’s name, sometimes called the tetragrammaton, was often substituted by the Greek word kurios, which means “Lord.” This causes a slight complication when we read, because there is already a word for Lord in Hebrew, which is sometimes applied to God either in its singular form, ’adon, or as a plural with first person singular pronominal suffix, ’adonai, Lord, (literally, “my lords”). Thus it is not always possible in the LXX to tell whether the original underlying Hebrew referring to God was the tetragrammaton, ’adonai, or some other word.

Greek to Hebrew

This does not present a problem when translating the New Testament into most languages: translators just use the word for “lord.” However, in the Hebrew translation of the New Testament it was necessary to decide at each appearance of kurios whether to render ’adonai or YHVH or something else. Where the name occurs in a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures, the decision is simple enough. In a passage such as Matthew 22:44, the modern Hebrew New Testament returns to the original of Psalm 110:1 and reads, “ne’um YHVH (by tradition read as ’adonai) leadoni,” where English translations have rendered, “The lord said to my Lord.”

Notice in the above example that Matthew is quoting words which Jesus spoke to an audience. Would Jesus or anyone else in the New Testament have actually pronounced the Divine Name? The answer must be no. However, the translators felt justified in leaving the original wording of the Psalm, even though Jesus would have spoken the words “ne’umadonai ladoni,” substituting ’adonai for the tetragrammaton. In this case they were copying from the original Psalm rather than quoting the actual words which came out of Jesus’ mouth.

Other instances where God is spoken of in direct speech are in the words of Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah in Luke 1:28, 46, 68. In all of these cases the first edition of the modern Hebrew New Testament used YHVH to translate kurios, although the three speakers would have saidadonai, as will the modern reader.

Hebrew to Greek

The LXX translators, who tended to be fairly literal in their translating, had been faced with the converse problem: how could they distinguish between ’adonai and YHVH in their Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible? The solution they generally seem to have settled on was to render ’adonai as ho kurios (the Lord), and YHVH as simply kurios without the definite article. This was done without distinction as to whether the passage was direct speech or narrative. The LXX was translated over a period of several generations, and this rule was not followed consistently by its various translators.

It is interesting to note that the Greek of the New Testament also has both forms, kurios and ho kurios, sometimes even coming side by side (e.g., Lk. 1:9, 11; 1:25, 28, 32; 1:45, 46). To make things more complicated, the form of kurios without the definite article is occasionally used of Jesus, as in Luke 2:11 (“…is born [a] savior, who is Messiah, [the] Lord”).

Modern Hebrew Translations

The first edition of the UBS Hebrew New Testament, with a few exceptions, had used the LXX practice as a guideline by rendering ho kurios as ’adonai, and kurios without the definite article as YHVH. However, some members of the editorial committee called this into question. First of all, the distinction would not be clear to modern readers, to whom it might seem strange to find the tetragrammaton being used in direct speech. Secondly, modern Israeli readers will say ’adonai when they encounter YHVH in the text.

To aid in making the decision, we asked a number of Israelis with good academic command of Hebrew whether the translation should maintain YHVH or substitute instead an abbreviation such as H’ or ’’, both of which are common in Hebrew literature and are read as ’adonai or ha-shem, “the name.” Opinions were divided, although most were in favor of maintaining YHVH, except in direct speech. Some of these argued that to use H’ or ’’ would give the impression that the New Testament is just another secular book with less sanctity than the Hebrew Bible.

Those who argued against using YHVH said that it has simply never been done in texts other than the Hebrew Bible, from ancient times until today. Additionally, they said, more Israelis would be likely to read the New Testament if it did not contain the divine name. The first of these objections is contrary to the evidence: the divine name is found in non-biblical material in the Dead Sea Scrolls and especially in the Temple Scroll. The second objection is not at all certain. Those Israelis who are interested in reading the New Testament probably will not be put off by the appearance of the tetragrammaton. Those who refuse to read the New Testament do so because of objections to Jesus and Paul and the history of “Christian” treatment of Jews; changing YHVH to H’ or ’’ will make no difference to them.

It was decided to abandon the LXX solution and treat each case on its own merits. Each one of the more than three hundred occurrences of kurios in the New Testament had to be checked in its context. Where direct speech was involved, it could be translated by ha’adon (the Lord), ’adonai, or even ’elohim (God), as the LXX translators themselves had sometimes done (in the reverse direction, of course). The one exception to this is where the speaker is quoting a verse from the Hebrew Bible that includes the tetragrammaton. In these cases, as in the example from Matthew 22:44 cited above, the YHVH has been retained. In narrative sections, YHVH has been left in the translation in almost every case. Some of the cases in the Gospels are in fact stock phrases in which the divine name of God is normal. Among these are malach YHVH (the angel of the Lord), yom YHVH (the day of the Lord), yad YHVH (the hand of the Lord), and kevod YHVH (the glory of the Lord). Here the Hebrew New Testament has preserved the familiar phrase.

Difficult Decisions

In some places it needs a decision bordering on the theological to determine how to translate kurios. What should be done, for example, in a situation like Luke 19:31, 34: “You shall say ‘The Lord needs it.’”? Was the owner to understand that “the Lord” needed the colt or that “the lord” needed it? In the modern Hebrew translation it would be possible to render kurios as either ha’adon (the Lord) or as ’adonai (the lord). English translations generally do not have to make such a decision because they use the distinctive lord only in the Hebrew Scriptures. The modern Hebrew translators decided to use ha’adon, leaving open the interpretation that Jesus, the disciples’ master, needed the colt. Translation sometimes unavoidably involves interpretation, and in this case the interpretation could have gone either way.

Or, to take a similar example, how are we to understand the words of Jesus in Mark 5:19: “Go home to your family and tell them what ho kurios has done for you”? The first Hebrew New Testament edition used YHVH, but it need not have been so unequivocal, since Jesus would not have pronounced the divine name. It is clear that Jesus said either ’adonai or ha’adon. To render kurios here as ’adonai would lose the ambiguity. It is better to stay with ha’adon, which could have been understood by the newly-healed demoniac (as well as by today’s readers) to refer either to the lord or to Jesus. Judging from verse 20, the ex-demoniac may have understood the latter, because he went out to proclaim in the Decapolis “how much Jesus had done for him.”

As a general rule it was decided that the modern Hebrew New Testament would stay with ’adon (Lord) or ’adonai (lord) for kurios rather than use the tetragrammaton, YHVH. The exceptions to this are those quotations from the Hebrew Bible in which YHVH appears in the original. Other minor exceptions also can be found in places where the context seemed to demand using YHVH (for example, Rev. 19:6).

Quotations from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament

Another area that sometimes presents a difficulty unique to a Hebrew translation of the New Testament is when there is a quotation from the Old Testament. Most such quotations are given to us in the Greek of the LXX, and most of the time the LXX rendering is close to the Hebrew Masoretic Text.

In many cases, however, there are obvious differences between the LXX version and the Hebrew version. A translation in another language, such as English, can place the quotation in a special font to indicate that this is a quotation, and the reader has no way to know whether it is a quote from the LXX or from the Masoretic Hebrew Text or perhaps neither one.

The UBS translation indicates quotations with a bold font. Unlike other languages, it was felt to be inappropriate to use this font for quotations that differed from the familiar Masoretic Text. This limitation created situations where phrases or sentences are in quotation marks but not in the typeface indicating a quotation (and consequently no cross reference given in the margin), other situations where a sentence is a mix of bold and regular typeface, and still others where only one word (e.g., Rom 11.4) or even one letter (Rom 3.17) is left unbolded.

A few examples (out of many dozens possible) will have to suffice.

The second quote in the New Testament (Matt 2:6, following the LXX) begins with the words “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,” where the Masoretic Text of Micah 5.1 reads, “And you, Bethlehem, Ephratah.”

Zech 13.7 in the Masoretic version has “Strike (second person masculine singular) the shepherd…,” while the quotation in Matt 26.31 has “I will strike…”. This is different from the LXX version, which has second person plural.

Luke 7.27: “Behold I send my messenger before you, and he will prepare your way before you.” Mal 3.1: “Behold I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.”

But, someone might ask, why not simply take the quotations from the version of the Hebrew text familiar to the readers? The rule that generally guides Bible translators is “translate the text in front of you.” This means, for example, that the translator should not change what he finds in one gospel to make it the same as the parallel passage in another gospel. In the same way, where the manuscript tradition of the New Testament gives us a quotation from the Old Testament that is clearly different, it should not be “harmonized.” To use the OT text when the NT quotation has something else would essentially be to change the NT text, something which a translator is not premitted to do.