Cataloging the Gospels’ Hebraisms: Part Three (Impersonal “They”)

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Awareness of even the simplest Hebrew grammatical structure can bring to life a vague, or difficult-to-understand, saying of Jesus. Since potential Hebrew idioms are so dense in the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, one has to ask, Could these apparent Hebrew idioms be evidence that the synoptic Gospels are descendants of an ancient translation of a Hebrew "Life of Jesus," the gospel that the church father Papias spoke of when he wrote: “Matthew...arranged the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language”?

Revised: 19-Dec-2012

Awareness of even the simplest Hebrew grammatical structure can bring to life a vague, or difficult-to-understand, saying of Jesus. Since potential Hebrew idioms are so dense in the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, one has to ask: Could these apparent Hebrew idioms be evidence that the synoptic Gospels are descendants of an ancient translation of a Hebrew Life of Jesus, the gospel that the church father Papias (ca. 70-160 A.D.) spoke of when he wrote: Ματθαῖος…Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο (Matthaios…Hebra’idi dialekto ta logia synetaksato, Matthew…arranged the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language)?[1]

The Hebrew work Papias mentions is not extant. It is not the Greek Matthew of the New Testament—scholars agree that canonical Matthew is not a direct translation of a Hebrew source. However, the text Papias mentions might be an ancestor of canonical Matthew, a Hebrew source that was translated to Greek. The authors of canonical Matthew, Mark and Luke may have used this Greek translation in writing their accounts.

In Israel, when a Hebrew speaker doesn’t know the name for something, the person asks, איך קוראים לדבר הזה (ech kor’im la-davar ha-zeh; literally, “How are they calling to this thing?”). When an English-speaking immigrant to Israel wants to know the Hebrew word for something, for instance, “table,” the immigrant turns to a native speaker and asks, …איך אומרים בעברית (ech omrim “table” be-ivrit, literally, “How are they saying ‘table’ in Hebrew?”), that is, “How do you say ‘table’ in Hebrew?” or “What’s the word for ‘table’ in Hebrew?” A learner asks the question using the 3rd-person plural active form of the verb.[2] In such a context, the “they,” which in Hebrew is included in the verb, is indefinite, that is, “they” does not refer to anyone specifically.

I once saw an advertisement promoting purchase of listings in the Israeli Yellow Pages. The ad had the banner headline: בדפי זהב רואים אותך (Be-dape zahav ro’im otcha, literally, “In the Yellow Pages, they are seeing you”). Here, too, the “they” does not refer to any specific individuals: it is indefinite and impersonal. From an English speaker’s standpoint, such a sentence is unclear. English speakers would not make the appeal in this way; they probably would employ a passive construction, for instance, “[If you buy a listing in the Yellow Pages,] you will be seen,” or, more likely, “You will get exposure.”

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To read the next article in this series, click here.

  • [1] Papias’ saying is preserved in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 3.39).
  • [2] Throughout this article, the 3rd-person plural active form of the verb is emphasized by italics.

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