4. Hebrew Idioms in the Gospels

David Bivin


There are many expressions in the Greek texts of the synoptic Gospels 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.

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’, or ‘kick the bucket’. A non-English-speaker who heard these idioms translated literally into his own language would probably find them amusing. However, if he did not suspect that they were literal translations of English idioms and took them at face value, the information he received would be very misleading.

The Hebrew language has hundreds of idioms. For example: be’arba 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’. Lo dubim v’lo ya’ar is literally ‘[There are] neither bears nor forest’, but means that something is completely false. And ta’man et yado batsa lahat, ‘buried his hand in the dish’, means that someone idles 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 he merely translates them word for word, he will not end up with English but Hebrew in English dress.

Literal Translation

Because Biblical texts generally have been translated very literally, many idioms have found their way into the English versions of the Bible that most of us know. The words are there, but their meaning has often been left behind.

These literal translations of the Scriptures might prove useful for scholars of ancient languages; however, they tend to confuse or mislead the general reader. I am reminded about a little boy who thought that God had to do everything with his left hand, because he had always been taught that Jesus was sitting on the right hand of God.

Most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures are full of Hebrew idioms. In Genesis 6:8, for instance, we read that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”. This does not mean that Noah looked into God’s eyes and found in them the quality of grace. Rather it means simply that God was fond of Noah.

Elevated Vision

English translations of the Gospels also preserve Hebrew idioms, such as “lift up the eyes and see”, which appears in Luke 16:23 in a parable about a miserly rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. This same expression, nasa et haenayim vera ah, had been current in Hebrew since biblical times, and appears thirty five times in the Hebrew Scriptures. For instance, in the dramatic account of the first meeting of Isaac and his bride-to-be Rebekah, Isaac “lifted up his eyes and saw” the approaching Rebekah, and she “lifted up her eyes and saw” Isaac (Genesis 24:63-64).

Note that the Hebrew expression uses two verbs, whereas in English one simply would say ‘He looked’ or ‘He saw’. This doubling of the verb seems superfluous to English-speakers, but it is part of the beauty of the Hebrew language.

There is no evidence of this expression being used in the normative Greek of Jesus’ day, yet it is found in the Greek texts of the synoptic Gospels. When Luke 16:23 is translated word-for-word into English, the result is a Hebrew idiom other examples of which are found in Hebrew literature of the period (e.g. Ta’anit 4:8).

Detecting Hebraisms

Overly literal translating seems to have produced Hebraisms such as ‘lift up the eyes and see’ in the Greek texts of the Gospels. If one is fluent in both Greek and Hebrew, many Hebraisms become readily apparent. They are detected in the same way that we would immediately notice alien elements in the speech of a non-native English speaker.

If you have ever heard someone speaking English who was thinking in another language, you probably have heard several non-English expressions. And if you also happened to be familiar with the speaker’s native language, you probably could identify the language in which the speaker was thinking. For instance, if a native German speaker told you to ‘mind your own beer’, there would be no need to check that your mug is nearby. Your knowledge of German language and culture would tell you that he meant ‘mind your own business’.

In the same way, scholars who are familiar with Greek and Hebrew are able to recognise Hebrew idioms in the Greek texts of the synoptic Gospels.

The many Hebraisms such as ‘lift up the eyes and see’ are part of the evidence which leads scholars of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research to conclude that the story of Jesus as found in the synoptic Gospels is based upon a Hebrew document

If the Greek of the synoptic Gospels was originally translated from Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic, an English translator’s task is first to put the Greek back into Hebrew, understand the Hebrew idiom, and then translate the Hebrew – not the Greek – to English. If the translator does not recognise Hebraisms for what they are, his translation is likely to create confusion.

It is important to realize that there may be Hebrew idioms preserved in translations of the Gospels. Just being aware of this can help us read English versions of the Gospels with more understanding.

(Reprinted from Jerusalem Perspective, September/October, 1989, with permission, and published in Tishrei Vol 1 No 1, Ways of Thinking, Autumn 1992. The Journal Tishrei was launched in 1992 to highlight the need for the Church to return to its Jewish roots)



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