The Logic of Faith
Linguistic fossils provide another means of deciding
whether a particular document fits its time and whether it
has been copied from generation to generation with accuracy,
and in this it is similar to the argument from undesigned
coincidences. An argument based on linguistic fossils is
founded on either (or both) of the following observations:
- Languages are different
- Languages change with time
1. Languages are different
The significance of this is seen when one language is
translated into another. If the translation is very literal
then we will probably find phrases that seem "clumsy" in the
translation. This may be because the two languages do not
share the same sentence structure,
or because an idiom in the
original language is not matched in the new one. For
example, if we read the sentence
"I have, for fifteen years, in Manchester lived."
we might conclude that it was originally written or
spoken in German (or in a language with similar grammar) and
then translated literally into English, without any
adjustment in the word order.
"I am going to House"
contains the phrase "to House" in place of the
word "home". This is because a German would use the
phrase "zu Haus" to
describe the action of going home.
Finally the sentence:
"I gave him a wave with a fence-post"
shows signs of being translated from German as it
contains a German idiom.
A comparative linguistic analysis of this kind is not
appropriate for most of the Old Testament (which is an
account of the history of the Jewish race, recorded by the
Jews themselves), but it is of more relevance to the
Gospels. This is because some of the speech recorded in the
gospels may have been written down in translation. If the
translation was very literal one would thus find foreign
linguistic forms in the Greek text of the gospels.
2. Languages change with time
An account written in England at the time of
Chaucer (14th century) would be
written in a very different language to that of
Shakespeare (16th century) or
Kipling (19th century). Thus,
if an account purporting to be from Chaucer's time was
excavated in an archaeological dig, one could gain a good
idea of when it was written by its grammatical and
linguistic form. Not only that, but if the manuscript had
been copied many times one would expect any corrections or
interpolations to be in the language of the time when they
Similar analysis can be applied to the manuscripts of the
Old and New Testaments.
The Linguistic Background to the Gospels
The Gospels were, it seems, written in Greek.
Not only are the oldest manuscripts of the gospels in Greek,
including some written before 70 AD, but there are no very
early manuscripts of the gospels in any other feasible
language. However, Greek was not the only language spoken in
New Testament Palestine; it was not even the most commonly
In fact four different languages were used in the area
before 70 AD. These were:
- Greek This was the common language of
the Eastern Roman Empire, used in trade and government.
Its use in Palestine in the time of the gospels is
attested by inscriptions and documents dug up by
archaeologists. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a
considerable number of Greek documents. That the use of
Greek was common can also be seen from the existence of
Greek theatres in several towns such as
Beth Shan. These theatres
were large enough to hold audiences of several thousand;
over a matter of several nights most of the inhabitants of
these towns and the surrounding countryside must have
visited them. As the only plays in existence in any
quantity were in Greek, nearly everyone in the area must
have been a competent Greek speaker.
- Aramaic Aramaic was the language of the
Babylonians. It was closely
related to Hebrew and used the same system of letters. As
many of the words in Aramaic are the same as those in
Hebrew it is easy to confuse the two. The use of Aramaic
in New Testament times is also attested by inscriptions
and documents from the time. The language also appears in
the Gospels with phrases such as "Talitha Cumi" [Mark 541],
"Ephphatha" [Mark 734]
and "Rabboni" [John 2016].
- Hebrew This was the language of the
Bible and of scholarly Judaism. As such it would be spoken
by the Scribes and
Pharisees, at any rate. More
and more evidence is coming to light to show that it was
understood by a large proportion of the population,
especially in Judea; many of the
Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew and Hebrew
inscriptions outnumber other language inscriptions in
Jerusalem, where they appear on private objects such as in
funerary inscriptions as well as in public inscriptions.
- Latin This was the language of
Rome, although most educated
Romans would use Greek in preference. When the inscription
was placed on Jesus' cross it was written in Greek, Latin
and Hebrew [Luke 2338].
This leads on to the question of what language Jesus
spoke in his ministry. It would most likely have been a
mixture of languages, as Jesus was probably multilingual (as
would be most of the other speakers in the gospels). The
Gospels are written in Greek. We would, however, expect
evidence to show that some of the words were translated from
other languages, especially Hebrew and/or Aramaic.
Hebrew and Aramaic in the Gospels
The text of the gospels does, in fact, provide evidence
of the use of at least two languages by those whose speech
is recorded in them.
For example, consider the form of much of Hebrew/Aramaic
poetry. Unlike European poetry, including Greek poetry, this
does not rely on a parallelism of
sounds (which we call rhyme). Instead it
relies on a parallelism of ideas,
phrases which put very similar thoughts in juxtaposition.
For example, consider the form of
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I
The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be
In Hebrew this parallelism is even more marked (note that
Hebrew writing is read from right to left):
The same kind of structure can be found in the words of
Jesus in the Gospels:
Love your enemies, do good to them who hate you,
Bless them that curse you, and pray for them who
despitefully use you.
Again, translated into Aramaic or Hebrew this parallel
structure is much more marked, and there is some metre to
Plays on Words
The Gospels contain plays on words which work in Hebrew
and Aramaic, but which do not work in Greek. For example,
consider the saying:
Ye blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and
swallow a camel.
In Greek this is unremarkable:
The Greek word for "gnat" is
konopa, while that for "camel" is
kamelon. But when
translated into Aramaic it contains a play on words (Aramaic
writing, like Hebrew, is also read from right to left):
since the Aramaic for "camel" is
gamla and that for
"gnat" is camla.
Jesus said: "you blind guides who strain out a
camla and swallow a gamla." This
play on words must have originated in Aramaic. It does not
work in Greek, or even in Hebrew.
The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, also
contain turns of phrase which are characteristically Hebraic
(or Aramaic). These provide further evidence that these
words of Jesus were originally delivered in Hebrew (or
Aramaic). Examples of these are:
cast out your name as evil.
Luke 929 The
appearance of his countenance was altered.
Luke 944 Lay
these sayings in your ears.
Again these are characteristically Hebrew. The other
gospels contain similar phrases, but the translators of the
Authorised Version have rendered them in English in a way
which conceals their Hebrew origin.
Not every word spoken by Jesus or the disciples was in
Hebrew or Aramaic. The same evidence that points to a
Hebrew/Aramaic original for some sayings points to a Greek
original in others. For example:
Think not [me nomisete] that
I am come to destroy the law [nomon]
Luke 815 But
that on the good [kale]
ground are they, who in an honest [kale]
and good heart.
famines [limoi] and
It is even possible to find passages where the characters
change from one language to another. For example:
Jesus saith to her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest
thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith to him,
Sir, if thou hast borne him away, tell me where
thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus
saith to her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith to him,
Mary's first statement "Sir, if thou hast borne him
away, tell me where thou hast laid") is in stylish Greek
and was probably spoken as such. Here Mary is being formally
polite to a stranger. But Mary then recognises Jesus and
addresses him as "Rabboni" in Aramaic, the language
in which she was accustomed to talk with him.
Conclusion for the Gospels
The gospels were written in Greek because they were for a
Greek speaking readership to whom Hebrew or Aramaic would
mean little. The fact that many of the sayings of Jesus have
an underlying Hebraic form shows that they were not made up
by the person who wrote the gospel. Why make up an Aramaic
form when writing a gospel in Greek? The people who read the
gospel initially would be completely unaware of the
Hebraisms within it. It would take a very astute linguist
indeed to concoct a passage like
John 20 where Mary changes language part way through
The reporting of these Hebraisms shows that the speech of
the people in the Gospels has been recorded accurately. If
there had been flaws in the memory of those who wrote them
down, or if the speech had been made up the Hebraisms would
have disappeared. The Hellenisms show that the entirety of
the Gospels was not written in Hebrew or they too would have
disappeared. Finally the Gospels were copied for generations
by people who hardly understood Greek, and certainly would
not recognise the Hebraisms. If there had been even tiny and
subtle errors in the copying the Hebraisms would have
Thus we can be confident that the Gospels contain an
accurate record of the various events and sayings that they
contain, and that they have been transmitted with accuracy
down the ages to the modern day.
Linguistic Fossils in the Old Testament
The Hebrew language in which most of the Old Testament
was written changed from the time of Abraham to the time of
Jesus. This change can be used to show the ages of the
various books in the Old Testament.
For example, the book of Daniel contains accurate
prophecies of the future, so accurate that some critics have
claimed that the book must have been written after the
prophecies were fulfilled. However, an analysis of the
Aramaic of the book of Daniel shows that it comes from a
period very close to the one in which the book purports to
have been written.
Another example appears in the Book of Genesis. Here many
of the names of the people reported from about Abraham's
days contain archaic forms. For example,
Melchisedek is the king of
righteousness. In classical Hebrew this would be
Malak-zedek, but in
ancient Hebrew it would have been
Malki-Zedeku. The name thus preserves an old
fashioned form, which suggests that it contains accurately
reported subject matter from before its completion date.
While the characters and events of the Biblical narrative
are able to be tested for consistency with known facts and
archaeological and historical reconstructions, the actual
words used in the Biblical text can themselves also be
tested for consistency with what we know of the range of
contemporary languages, and the way these languages have
changed with time. The Bible passes this test too,
confirming both that it contains eye-witness accounts
(written "when it happened") and that its text has
subsequently been copied accurately.