The Logic of Faith

(7) Linguistic Fossils


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:

  1. Languages are different
  2. 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.

The sentence:

"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 were interpolated.

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 spoken language.

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 Sepphoris and 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 Syrians, Assyrians and 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

Hebraic Forms

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 Psalm 271:

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

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:

Luke 627-28 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 the result.

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:

Matthew 2324 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.

Hebraic Idiom

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:

Luke 622 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.

Greek Sayings

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:

Matthew 517 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.

Luke 2111 famines [limoi] and pestilences [loimoi]

It is even possible to find passages where the characters change from one language to another. For example:

John 2015-16 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, Rabboni.

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 a conversation.

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 vanished.

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.

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