Hebrew Idioms in the Gospels

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There are many expressions in the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke that seem to derive from Hebrew idioms. These are phrases that mean something different from the literal meaning of the words they use. Every language has its own idioms, many of which seem strange when translated literally out of their native setting.

Revised: 4 June 2015

There are many expressions in the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke that seem to derive from Hebrew idioms. These are phrases that mean something different from the literal meaning of their words. Every language has its own idioms, many of which seem strange when translated literally out of their native setting.

Think of such common English idioms as “hit the ceiling,” “kill time,” “eat one’s heart out,” “lose one’s head,” “be in hot water,” “throw in the towel,” and “kick the bucket.” A non-English speaker who heard these idioms translated literally into his or her language would probably find them amusing. However, if he or she did not suspect that they were literal translations of English idioms and took them at face value, the information the person received would be very misleading.

The Hebrew language has thousands of idioms. Modern Hebrew has fascinating idioms that developed from expressions found in Biblical Hebrew and Rabbinic Hebrew, for example: בְּאַרְבַּע עֵינַיִם (bearba enayim), literally, “with four eyes,” means face to face without the presence of a third person, as in, “The two men met with four eyes.” The idiom לֹא דֻּבִּים וְלֹא יַעַר (lo dubim velo ya’ar) is, literally, “[There are] neither bears nor forest,” but means that something is completely false. And the idiom טָמַן אֶת יָדוֹ בַּצַּלַּחַת (taman et yado batsalahat), literally, “buried his hand in the dish,” means that someone idled away his time. A translator faced with putting these idioms into another language such as English must be careful to find an equivalent idiom for each Hebrew expression. If the translator merely translates the idioms word for word, he or she will not end up with English, but Hebrew in English dress.

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This article originally appeared in issue 22 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin
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    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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