The Semitic Style of the New Testament

by Michael D. Marlowe

Although the language of the New Testament is fundamentally the koine or “common” Greek of the period in which it was written, the New Testament authors wrote in a Hebraic or Semitic style which is not entirely idiomatic Greek. This stylistic character may be seen in several areas, including the grammar, syntax, semantics, and rhetorical features of the text. Particular examples of this style are called linguistic Hebraisms, or, more broadly, Semitisms (a term which covers Aramaic influences as well as Hebrew).

A Semitism is defined as a linguistic usage, expression or construction typical of a Semitic language appearing in another language. It is not necessary for an expression to be ungrammatical or otherwise completely outlandish in the usage of the second language in order for it to be considered a Semitism. Although some Semitisms are of this stark and absolute nature, others are what we may call relative Semitisms, when there is an unusual strain against ordinary usage probably due to Semitic influence. So there is a gray area, in which there is some room for disagreement in marginal cases. One scholar may consider an expression to be a Semitism while another doubts whether it is right to classify it as such. Nevertheless, all scholars agree that various Semitisms are abundantly present in the New Testament.

There is also some disagreement as to why they are there. Some scholars are inclined to think that much of the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and that the Semitisms of the Greek text are a consequence of the translation of these original sources, in which Hebrew or Aramaic idioms were reproduced literally. Thus, the Semitisms of the New Testament are explained in the same way as we explain the Semitisms of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which often literally reproduces the Hebraisms of its Hebrew source. Other scholars prefer to explain the Semitisms of the New Testament as a consequence of peculiarities in the Greek commonly spoken by bilingual Jews in the first century. 1 Other scholars believe that the Semitic style of the New Testament is best explained as a kind of “Biblical” style which Jewish authors or preachers of the era would have used, not so much in their ordinary speech, but in their writing and in preaching, after the model of the Septuagint.

Probably there is some truth in all of these explanations. It can hardly be doubted that at least some of the material included in the Gospels (especially the sayings of Jesus) was originally recorded or perhaps orally transmitted in Aramaic, and that at some point this Aramaic was translated into the Greek which we have in our New Testament. But this would account for only a small portion of the Semitisms in the New Testament. We can also easily imagine that Greek-speaking Jews in the first century used some Semitic idioms, comparable in some degree to the Jewish-German dialect known as Yiddish. It would be surprising if such a self-conscious and tight-knit ethnic group as the Jews would not have had some distinctive expressions. The idea that the Septuagint especially influenced the style of Jewish authors is inherently plausible when we consider how familiar devout Jews (and Gentiles also in the early Church) must have been with the Septuagint. It is practically certain that the language of the Greek Old Testament exercised an influence on the religious discourse of Greek-speaking Jews, including the Jewish apostles and their fellow-workers. As Joseph Thayer puts it, “beyond all question the idioms of this Greek reproduction of the earlier Scriptures, made familiar as they were by the religious use of the version for generations among the Jews of the Dispersion, must have had a great influence in forming the type of Greek current among people of Jewish stock ... notwithstanding all uncertianties and abatements, the general influence of the Septuagint upon New Testament Greek was indubitably great.” 2 This last explanation seems to have the most favor among scholars in the past century, but it remains an open question to what extent the Septuagint influenced not only the written Greek but also the commonly spoken Greek of Jews in the first century.

What is the importance of this subject for our understanding of the New Testament? Chiefly, it means that translators and expositors must take into account not only the common usages of Koine Greek, but also the peculiarities of what we may call “Biblical” or Jewish Greek. When we have good reason to suppose that an expression in the New Testament reflects a Hebrew idiom, then it should be interpreted as if it were “Hebrew in disguise.” In this manner we correctly apprehend the meaning of many words and expressions in the New Testament.

The following paragraphs, taken from David Alan Black’s article “New Testament Semitisms” (The Bible Translator 39/2 [April 1988], pp. 215-223), will give some brief observations on the most common Semitisms in the New Testament.

The Most Common Semitisms

Order of words. In all Semitic languages the verb tends to come first in its sentence or clause. This tendency is sometimes found in New Testament Greek. Examples include the second half of the Magnificat (Luke 1:51-55), the position of the imperatives in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), and the initial place of the verb in the series of clauses in the creedal hymn of 1 Timothy 3:16. No native Greek, uninfluenced by Semitic sources or a Semitic language, would have followed this pattern. It is possible that a large number of the instances of the verb in the initial place come from translation Greek sources.

Casus pendens. Although casus pendens (a common technical term in grammar taken from the Latin for “a hanging case”) is used with effect in classical Greek, the construction is much more frequent in Hebrew and Aramaic than in the koine. A typical example is Matthew 6:4, kai ho pater sou ho blepon en to krypto autos adoposei soi. This would be expressed idiomatically in Hebrew as “And your Father who sees in secret, he will repay you.” This is an unusually complicated way of saying “And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (see GNB, NIV, NEB). While such constructions cannot be described as uniquely Semitic, their preponderance in the sayings of Jesus supports the view that a translation Greek tradition is to be found there.

Missing conjunctions. The absence of a conjunction where one might be expected is known in technical jargon as asyndeton (Greek for “unconnected, loose”). Most scholars agree that this feature is contrary to the spirit of the Greek language. Most Greek sentences are linked by a connecting particle, and, where asyndeton is found, it is generally used with rhetorical effect (for a notable example, see Acts 20:17-35). But when all allowances have been made for Greek uses of the construction, there remains a high number of non-Greek uses, especially in the Gospels and Acts. The frequent use of asyndeton in the fourth Gospel (see, for instance, John 5:3) is best explained as the result of Semitic influence. Asyndeton in the synoptic Gospels occurs almost exclusively in the sayings and parables of Jesus, suggesting the existence of a sayings-tradition cast in translation Greek (see, for instance, Matthew 15:19).

Coordination of clauses. In classical Greek, sentences usually contained one main verb, and all other verbs were subordinated in adverbial clauses of one kind or another. Hebrew, on the other hand, tended to place main verbs side by side, joining them together with a simple conjunction (the Hebrew waw “and”). This is known as parataxis, from the Greek verb paratasso “I set side by side.” In koine Greek the construction is not uncommon, and this alone has been though to explain its frequency in the New Testament. But the constantly recurring “and” (Greek kai) of the Gospels is certainly an overstraining of Greek literary usage. In the Gospels this type of construction is most characteristic of Mark, who has only a single instance of a longer Greek sentence with subordinating participles (see 5:25-27). A typical example of Mark’s style is found in 10:33-34, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and (kai) the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and (kai) they will condemn him to death, and (kai) they will deliver him up to the Gentiles. And (kai) they will mock him and (kai) spit upon him and (kai) scourge him and (kai) kill him, and (kai) three days later he will rise again.” Here a more typical Greek style would, perhaps, have subordinated one or more of these clauses by means of participles or relative clauses. Translations such as the KJV and RSV reflect the Semitic style and are stylistically awkward in English; but other English translations, recognizing the Semitic idiom involved, restructure the grammar slaightly to produce more acceptable English (see GNB, NIV, JB, NEB). [Note: The subject of parataxis as an indication of Semitic background is treated more fully in the article J.B. Lightfoot on the Style of John’s Gospel on this site. —M.D.M]

Redundant pronouns. The Hebrew relative pronoun is indeclinable and genderless, and therefore requires a personal pronoun in the clause which follows. This has influenced a few New Testament passages in which an unnecessary pronoun appears after a relative, as in Mark 7:25, which literally reads, “A woman whose little daughter of her had an unclean spirit.” This construction may be possible in Greek, but it is not native to it, as it is in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Substitutes for the indefinite pronoun. The use of heis “one” and anthropos “a man, a person” as substitutes for the indefinite pronoun tis “a certain person, someone, a” is paralleled in the koine, but its source in the New Testament is almost certainly Semitic. Instances of heis as an indefinite pronoun fall into two classes: (1) where heis is an adjective, as in Mattew 8:19, “a scribe,” and (2) where it is a full pronoun, generally followed by the genitive construction or partitive ek, as in Mark 5:22, “a ruler of the synagogue.” The use of anthropos “man,” in this way (like Hebrew ish and Aramaic barnash) is found most frequently in the sayings of Jesus, and most examples come from Mark’s Gospel (see, for instance, 1:23, 3:1, 4:26, 5:2, 10:7, 10:9, 12:1).

Redundant use of the preposition. A characteristic feature of Semitic usage is the repetition of a preposition before every noun of a series which it governs. Such a construction is intolerable in literary Greek. Semitic repetition occurs no less than eleven times in Mark alone (see, for example, 3:7-8, 6:56, 11:1). It is interesting to see the way in which different English translations treat redundant prepositions. Some repeat the preposition each time it occurs in a series, as in Mark 3:7-8 (see KJV, RSV); others translate only the initial preposition, a practice which is more in keeping with the English idiom (see NIV, JB, NEB).

The use of the positive adjective for the comparative or superlative. The Semitic languages, with the exception of Arabic, have no special forms for the comparative and superlative adjectives (such as “bigger,” “biggest”). Instead, the positive adjective is used, “big.” Although the comparative is often used for the superlative in the koine, there does not appear to be any parallel in Greek to the Semitic use of the positive for the comparative or superlative. A good example of the idiom occurs in Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better (Greek kalon, literally “good”) for you to enter life crippled than having your two hands to go to hell.” Note also the following examples: Mark 12:28, “the most important” (literally, “the first”); Luke 5:39, “better” (literally, “good”); and John 2:10, “You have kept the best (literally ‘good’) wine until now.”

Redundant use of “saying.” Indirect speech is unknown in biblical Hebrew; all speech is recorded directly, whether the words recorded were the actual words spoken or represented the general meaning of what was said. The Hebrew word most closely corresponding to the Greek participle legon “saying” is used to introduce the quotation. This idiom is well illustrated in Mark 8:28, “And they said to him, saying (legontes), ‘John the Baptist’.” For other examples of this idiom, see Matthew 23:1-2, 28:18, Luke 14:3, 24:6-7.

Contrast in extreme terms. Contrast in Hebrew is often stated in extreme terms for the sake of emphasis. The words of Malachi 1:2-3, “I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated,” illustrate this feature of Hebrew speech. A New Testament example is the Lord’s solemn affirmation, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). What Jesus means of course, is that his disciples must give all other objects of love second place in relation to him—a meaning brought out in the parallel passage in Matthew 10:37, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Luke’s version preserves the Hebraic style, Matthew’s the Greek.

Introductory “It came to pass.” The peculiar use of the Greek verb egeneto with another verb often reproduces a closely corresponding Semitic idiom meaning “it was so” or “it came to pass.” This Semitism appears far more frequently in Luke’s writings than elsewhere (Mark has only four examples of it). An example is Luke 2:6, “And it came to pass (egeneto de) that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.” Recognizing the unnaturalness of the expression, most modern translations begin simply, “While they were there” (see GNB, NIV, JB, NEB, RSV). For other examples of this idiom, see Luke 2:1, 2:6, 2:15, 3:21, 5:1, 5:12, 5:17, 6:1, 6:6, 6:12, 7:11, 8:1, 8:22, 9:18, 9:28,9:37, 9:51, 11:1, 11:27, 14:1, 17:11, 18:35, 20:1, 22:24, 24:4.

Adjectival substitutes. In Hebrew the so-called construct state largely took the place of the adjective. In this construction two nouns stand together, and the second noun (as genitive) limits or qualifies the first one. Greek has a corresponding use of the genitive case of a noun in an adjectival sense. The two most characteristically Semitic idioms are (1) the genitive of an abstract noun in place of an adjective of quality, and (2) the use of “son” (huios) with a following genitive of origin or definition. The former idiom, sometimes called the “Hebrew genitive,” is found for example in Philippians 3:21, where Paul describes “our lowly body” (literally “the body of our lowliness”), and “his glorious body” (literally “the body of his glory”). New Testament instances of huios and the genitive include Luke 10:6 “a peace-loving man” (literally “a son of peace”), 1 Thessalonians 5:5 “people who belong to the light” (literally “sons of light”), and Colossians 1:13 “his dear son” (literally “the son of his love”).

Future indicative used as an imperative. The Hebrew verb form most closely corresponding to the Greek future indicative is often used to express commands. This construction has probably influenced a passage like Mark 9:35, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all.” In this passage greater emphasis is given by taking the future he shall be as an imperative, as in NIV, “Whoever wants to be first, he must be the very last,” (see also GNB, JB, NEB, RSV). The same can be said for the use of the future indicative in Luke 1:13, “And you shall call his name John,” which GNB renders, “You are to name him John,” Compare also Matthew 19:18-19 in the various translations.

The particle ei expressing emphatic negation. The Hebrew word which corresponds to the Greek particle ei (normally translated “if”) can introduce a clause expressing emphatic negation. This idiom appears to have influenced such passages as Hebrews 4:3, “By no means (ei) shall they enter into my rest,” and Mark 8:12, “By no means (ei) shall a sign be given to this generation.”

Verb and cognate noun expressing emphasis. The Hebrew verb form known as the infinitive absolute is sometimes closely associated with another form of the same verb to express emphasis. And Old Testament example is Genesis 2:17, “you will surely die” (literally “dying you will die”). A good New Testament example of this idiom is found in Luke 22:15, where the expression epithymia epethymesa (literally “with desire I have desired”) means “I have earnestly desired.” Mark 4:41 is a similar example: ephobethesan phobon megan “they feared greatly” (literally “they feared a great fear”). Though this idiom is paralleled in classical Greek, in the New Testament it seems to be derived from the Septuagint, especially in Luke and Acts.

Parallelism. Parallelism of lines and clauses is a characteristic of Semitic poetry and can be easily detected in the New Testament even in translation. That the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) were originally cast in poetic form, whether in Hebrew or Aramaic, is obvious from the parallelism we can still see in English. Further traces of parallelism are discoverable in the Lucan hymns (Luke 1-2) and the prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35). Most other New Testament parallelisms are found in dialogue, as in Mark 11:9-10, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David!” The presence of such parallelism may be helpful in determining whether portions of a text should be printed in poetic format rather than in prose style.

Redundant use of the verb apokrinomai. The expression “he answered and said” (apokritheis eipen) closely resembles a common Hebrew idiom. The use of the verb apokrinomai “I answer” in this sense is often purely redundant (see Matthew 11:25, 12:38, 17:4, 28:5, Mark 9:5, 11:14, 12:35). In cases in which no question has been asked, it may be misleading to translate the expression “he answered” (Compare Matthew 11:25 in KJV “Jesus answered and said” with NIV “Jesus said”). This idiom is extremely common in the synoptic Gospels, where the writers appear to have modelled themselves after the familiar language of the Septuagint.

The use of idou. The particle idou “behold,” found in the New Testament especially in Matthew and Luke, is often used in imitation of the corresponding Hebrew expression (hinne). It is quite genuine Greek (compare English “look here!”), 3 but used frequently it is a natural product of Semitic speech. New Testament examples include Matthew 1:20, 2:9, 3:16, Luke 1:20, 1:31, 1:36, 2:25, Acts 12:7, James 5:9. In GNB, NIV, and NEB the term is usually left untranslated.

Various pleonasms, or “fillers.” Hebrew often describes activity with a wealth of detail which the Greeks would find unnecessary, though perhaps colorful, as for example, “he arose and went,” “he lifted up his eyes and saw,” “he took and planted.” New Testament examples include Matthew 13:33, 13:46, 25:16, Luke 15:18, Acts 5:17. Frequently the verb archomai “I begin” is used pleonastically (see Mark 1:45, 5:17, 6:7), but it is not redundant in a passage like Acts 1:1 (Acts continues what Jesus literally began to do and teach.

Transliterations. The most obvious influence of the Semitic languages on the New Testament must also be mentioned: Hebrew and Aramaic words which are simply transliterated into Greek. From Hebrew we have allelouia, amen, geenna, korban, manna, pascha, sabaoth, sabbaton, and Satanas. From Aramaic we find abba, ephphatha, korbanas, mammonas, maranatha, rabbi, raka, talitha koumi, and eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.

The meaning of certain words. Probably the most important kind of influence exerted by the Semitic languages on New Testament Greek is in the meaning of certain theological and ethical terms. The Greek outlook on religion and morals differed greatly from that of the Jews, and Greek terms were of course used to reflect the Greek outlook. But the Septuagint translators used these terms to represent Hebrew words which reflected Jewish meanings, and thus gave these Greek terms a new meaning. It is often this new meaning which attaches to these words when they are used in the New Testament.

One example is the Greek word nomos, which is usually translated “law.” In Greek the basic meaning of nomos is “custom” or “convention,” for the Greeks held that law was simply codified custom. But in the Septuagint the word is used as the equivalent of the Hebrew term torah, which means strictly “instruction” and which was applied to the Books of Moses, “the Law.” To the Hebrews, law meant not codified custom, but divine instruction imparted through Moses and his successors. Thus when the New Testament writers wished to speak of law, not in the sense of man’s convention, but in the sense of God’s revealed will, the noun nomos lay ready at hand. Much the same took place with regard to a number of words, including names and titles of divine beings, psychological terms, and words denoting such theological concepts as righteousness, mercy, sin, atonement, sacrifice, propitiation, and reconciliation.


1. Nigel Turner writes: “It is not inconceivable that, whatever the language of Jesus, it was influenced by all those spoken in Galilee at that time, viz. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and perhaps Latin. It was Biblical Greek, of a kind not very different from the Septuagint—a branch of the Koine, but very different from what we read in the Egyptian rubbish heaps or on the papyrus of more literate people. Since 1949, intense study of vocabulary and styntax seem to me to establish that there was a distinguishable dialect of spoken and written Jewish Greek. That is to say, the biblical language was more than a written product of those whose mother tongue was Semitic and who floundered in Greek because they knew so little of it that they must copy Semitic idioms as they penned it. I am not the first to suggest that the Greek of the OT was a language distinct from the main stream of the Koine, yet fully understood by Jews. Perhaps, as Gehman suggests, those who used this dialect of Greek were bilingual; it may have been a temporary phase in the history of the language, representing a period of transition for those Jews who were passing from a Semitic speaking to a Greek speaking stage, and coinciding with the New Testament period. However, as works of a much later date, like the Testament of Abraham, exhibit exactly this kind of diction, I do not think it was merely transitional. Certainly it was not artificial. Biblical Greek is so powerful and fluent, it is difficult to believe that those who used it did not have at hand a language all ready for use. This, I submit, was the normal language of Jesus, at least in Galilee—rather a separate dialect of Greek than a form of the Koine, and distinguishable as something parallel to classical, Hellenistic, Koine and Imperial Greek.” (Grammatical Insights into the New Testament [Edinburgh, 1965], p. 183).

2. Joseph Henry Thayer, “Language of the New Testament,” in A Dictionary of the Bible edited by James Hastings, vol. 3 (Edinburgh, 1898), p. 40.

3. Black’s statement that the usage of ιδου in the NT is “quite genuine Greek” needs qualification. It is of course a Greek word, meaning “look,” but its usage in the New Testament is distinctly Hebraistic, and not colloquial Greek at all. In many places it does not correspond in meaning with “look here,” or any normal usage of ιδου found in secular Greek literature or non-literary papyri; but its range of use does correspond exactly with that of the Hebrew interjections הֵן (hen) and הִנֵּה (hinneh), which were translated as ιδου in the Septuagint. This is admitted even by James Hope Moulton, who tended to deny the existence of Hebraisms: “We very rarely use the interjection ‘Behold’ in ordinary speech, and normal late Greek speech did not use it much more than we do. In those parts of the New Testament which come from Aramaic sources, or are written by men (like St. James) who continued to use Aramaic as their ordinary language, we find this ‘behold’ extremely often.” (The Science of Language and the Study of the New Testament [Manchester, University Press, 1906], p. 16.)