What does “There’s no Hebrew undertext” mean?

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A Jerusalem Perspective subscriber asks:

[What does it mean when I read in the Life of Yeshua Commentary,] “This passage does not have a Hebrew undertext”? How do you know that, and how do you come to that conclusion? Is it simply translating the Greek back into Hebrew then seeing if it makes sense in the Hebrew tongue?

Joshua Tilton responds:

In the Life of Yeshua Commentary, we are working from the premise that the earliest biography of Jesus was composed in Hebrew. Even though this Hebrew source no longer exists, it was probably the early ancestor of the Synoptic Gospels we have today–Matthew, Mark and Luke. We accept as a working hypothesis Lindsey’s theory that the original Hebrew story was translated into Greek, and versions of that Greek translation were used by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels as they composed their Gospels.[1] Therefore, when we mention the concept of a “Hebrew undertext” (or “Hebrew Ur-text”) in our discussions of particular verses in the Synoptic Gospels, we are referring to how the original Hebrew biography of Jesus can still be detected in these verses, despite the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke are written in Greek.

To discover if there may be a Hebrew undertext associated with a particular verse in the Synoptic Gospels, we first try to see how easily that verse can be reconstructed back into Hebrew. There are some verses that are so difficult to reconstruct in Hebrew that it appears to us that the verse was originally composed in Greek and is not a “descendant” of the Hebrew biography of Jesus. This typically happens in Luke in the transitions between stories. In Mark, it is found more frequently, which we believe is due to Mark’s rewriting or paraphrasing of Luke. In Matthew, the situation is more complicated because sometimes he copied from Mark and at other times he copied from the same Hebraic source Luke used.

There is a very noticeable difference between verses that appear to have a Hebrew undertext and those that don’t. The verses that do appear to have a Hebrew undertext usually go back into Hebrew quite easily, often with the same word order. Verses that are more difficult to put into Hebrew may have undergone some editing in Greek to make the grammar more acceptable for Greek speakers, or in some cases the verse may have been composed entirely in Greek.

From our point of view, determining whether a verse has a Hebrew undertext simply tells us something about its history, not about its veracity. A statement originally composed in Greek could be perfectly accurate and true to the facts. A Hebrew undertext simply tells us that this verse or this part of a verse was copied from an older source that was culturally and linguistically much closer to the earliest Jesus tradition than the verses or parts of verses that were composed in Greek.

Comments 1

  1. Clifton Payne

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