Which languages were used in writing the Synoptic Gospels? Matthew's Gospel was originally written in Hebrew, because Matthew was writing for the Christians of Judea, who were mostly converts from Judaism. Mark's Gospel was written in Latin, because Mark was writing for the Christians of Rome, whose first language was Latin. Luke's Gospel was written in Greek, because Luke was writing for Theophilus (a Roman ruler, of Greek descent, living and ruling in Greece), and probably also for those Greek Christians who had nurtured Theophilus' interest in Christ.
John's Gospel was written in Asia (western Turkey), for the people of that area. John wrote his Gospel last, many years after the other Gospels were written, so he certainly knew of the other Gospels. He knew they had become important works within the all the churches. He knew that they were used in defending Christianity against Jews who did not convert to Christ and against heresy. He wrote primarily for the Christians of Asia, but he also knew that his Gospel would likely find a hearing in many churches in other areas of the world.
Knowing these things, which language would John choose? The Christians of Turkey during that period of time (first century A.D.) were a diverse group. Some were converts from Judaism, but many were non-Jews who became Christians. And John knew that he was, in effect, writing to Christians throughout the Church. Which language would be understood throughout the Church during that time period? Hebrew, Latin, and Greek each were well-known languages. Any major city would have some persons who could read those languages. But John knew, at that point in time, that the Gospels were mostly spoken aloud. They were read aloud at liturgical services. They were used in verbal arguments with Jews and with heretics.
Aramaic was one of the most common spoken languages. Jews in Israel used Aramaic as their daily spoken language, even if they were literate and could read and write Hebrew. And many Jews abroad used Aramaic. The language was widely used outside of Israel, even among non-Jews. It was a necessary language for commerce because the trade routes around the Mediterranean passed through Israel and other Aramaic-speaking regions. A Gospel in Aramaic would be understood when read aloud to groups of Christians, even by those who were illiterate.
A writer of any book of the New Testament would have to chose a language which would be understood by his audience and which he himself could speak and write fluently. John grew up in Israel during the first century A.D. and so he spoke Aramaic as his daily language. He was a young man when he first followed Christ. “As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in.” (Jn 18:15-16). He was known to the Jewish high priest, so he was probably from a Jewish family which lived in or near Jerusalem (where the high priest lived). And he must have studied under the direction of Jewish priests. He would therefore have learned to read and write fairly well, and his best written language would be Hebrew. Sine Aramaic and Hebrew share the same alphabet and are similar in other respects, John would also have been able to read and write Aramaic.
The strict Jewish teachers of Jerusalem would not be teaching their students to read and write in Greek. The Hebraic Jews did not get along well with the Greek-speaking Jews. For example, when the Jews defined their canon of Scripture, they chose Hebrew books (of the Old Testament), not the Greek versions found in the Septuagint. (In part, this decision led to a division among Christians as to which books are canonical in the Old Testament.) John was not fluent in Greek. He may have picked up some Latin, since he grew up in an area dominated by the Romans, but Greek was the language he knew least well.
John wrote his Gospel in Aramaic because it was a widely-used spoken language and because John himself was fluent in Aramaic. John knew that the other Gospels were widely-circulated and that they were primarily read aloud in liturgical services and used in verbal debates. John did not know Greek well enough to write his Gospel, as well as the Book of Revelation, in that language. John's audience did not have Greek as their first and best spoken or written language. John wrote in Aramaic, not in Greek.
Hebrew was not chosen because John wrote at a much later date than Matthew. Early in Church history, most Christians were converts from Judaism. But John wrote between 49 and 62 years after Christ's Ascension (see Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary
, p. 280). By that time, many more Christians were non-Jews. The community of believers came to realize that they were a separate religion from Judaism. John uses the expression “the Jews” in his Gospel, emphasizing that difference. John was not writing primarily for Hebraic Christians, as was Matthew, so John did not write in Hebrew.
Latin was not chosen because most Christians were not Romans. Though some had converted from among the Roman people, the Church at that time was not predominantly comprised of Latin-speaking Romans. The churches of Asia had Christians who were from many different cultures, and so did the Church as a whole. Though Asia was within the Roman empire, it was not mainly Roman. The area had a mix of cultures and languages. Aramaic was the one language most likely to be known by the Christians of every group, even if it was not the first language of some.
John chose Aramaic because it was the most common spoken language for his audience. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were the dominant written languages of the peoples living around the Mediterranean. But most people were illiterate. And the Gospels were most often read aloud for groups of persons, rather than read privately for personal study. John needed a spoken language which everyone could understand. Compare this situation for John's Gospel with the situation for Luke's Gospel. Luke was writing to a small group, primarily to Theophilus, then also to those Christians who influenced him. His work was meant to be read, rather than spoken, so Luke used the written language which his audience would best understand, Greek. Theophilus was a Roman official, but of Greek descent; he probably knew both Latin and Greek well. His circle of Christians also knew Greek well. By contrast, John used the spoken language his wider and more varied audience would best understand, Aramaic.
Another reason John wrote in Aramaic is that his Gospel has long discourses of Jesus speaking. For example, John 6 and John 14 to 16 contain little narrative material; these chapters consist mostly of the words of Jesus. Yet these sections also avoid using a series of brief sayings on many diverse topics, as seen, for example, in Matthew 5. Instead, John presents long discourses by Jesus on a few related topics. Since Jesus taught in Aramaic, John was more likely to write long passages of Jesus' own words in Aramaic. The language of Aramaic was the best fit for this type of writing because it was the language of the One speaking.
John was in a unique position compared to the other Gospel writers. He knew that the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke had become widely-used throughout the Church. The synoptic writers probably did not realize that their Gospels would be used beyond the limited areas and groups of their intended audiences. Matthew wrote for the Jewish converts to Christianity living in Judea. Mark wrote for the Christians of Rome. Luke wrote for Theophilus and the group of Christians surrounding him in Greece. But John, writing at a much later date, realized that he was addressing the entire Church on earth. In other words, John understood that he was writing a Gospel for the whole Church. This understanding must have had a profound effect what he wrote and how he presented it.
The Contribution of John's Disciples
The persons who completed John's Gospel are generally referred to as John's disciples. This term is a short-hand description of a fairly complex situation. This group may have included some persons who knew John personally and studied the faith under his direction. It may have included some who heard John preach, but did not know him or receive instruction from him personally; these merely knew John from a distance, yet did hear him speak about the faith. It may have included some who were more like disciples of John's disciples, rather than disciples of John himself; some of these may never have known John, but learned about him from others and sought to imitate him. Let's call this diverse group: “John's disciples.”
After John finished writing His Gospel, some person or persons made additions to his work. John's Gospel was not written by only one person. The text shows that more than one person put their hand to this Gospel. For example, the story of the woman caught in adultery is lacking in some ancient copies of John's Gospel. And some commentators have pointed out differences of language and style in that story. Also, the ending of John's Gospel clearly indicates at least one other person contributed to this inspired book of Sacred Scripture.
The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:23-25).
Notice that verse 23 not only speaks about John in the third person, but also in a way which shows some distance of time and place between the writer and “this disciple.” This disciple is John, but the writer of verse 23 is clearly not John. Furthermore, which verse would John choose as a fitting ending for his Gospel? He begins his Gospel with a clear and piercing note about the Eternal Word of God. Would he then have ended his Gospel with a denial of rumors about his own mortality (verse 23), a statement referring to himself and the truth of his own testimony (verse 24), and a comment about how many books would be needed to put the deeds of Christ into written words (verse 25)? Clearly, these last verses were added by another hand at a later time.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:30-31).
John 20:30-31 is similar to John 21:25; both verses are later additions by John's disciples. Both are a commentary on the Gospel of John as a whole. An author would not generally add to his own work a commentary on itself. This type of writing shows the hand of a second author.
John probably ended his Gospel with the story about Peter and Christ, where Peter matches his previous triple denial of Christ with a triple affirmation of love for Christ (Jn 21:15-17). Then Jesus makes a prediction that Peter will suffer imprisonment because of the Gospel (Jn 21:18). John's disciples added the comment: “This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.” (Jn 21:19). Though, even by the late date that John himself wrote, Peter had already suffered martyrdom for Christ. John then concluded his Gospel with the sentence: “And after this he said to him, 'Follow me.' ” (Jn 21:19). John 21:20-23 is an additional story about John added by his disciples, which they had received from him, either directly or indirectly. John would not have ended with a story about himself. John 21:24-25 is commentary by John's disciples.
The next story is about John and uses the expression, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Again, this is the mark of a second hand being put to this Gospel. It seems unlikely that John would conclude his Gospel by talking about himself. The Holy Spirit chose to conclude the Gospel with these words, by inspiring these later additions to John's work; but John himself did not make that choice. All such additions or changes made to John's Gospel by his disciples are still the inspired work of God, because they God is their One True Author. John, out of humility and a desire to focus on Christ, would not have emphasized the things that he himself did. But John's disciples, knowing of these events either from John directly or as these stories were handed down to them, would add these events about him, about someone whom they admired because he lived like Christ and taught them the Faith.
In fact, all of the references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” may be later additions by John's disciples of material which they heard from John verbally, in sermons or in personal instruction, or which was handed down to them. John was not likely to refer to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” but the Holy Spirit allowed his disciples to refer to him this way as a symbolic way to refer to all disciples who are loved by Christ. John does refer to himself in his Gospel, for example:
“Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in.” (Jn 18:15-16)
Here John calls himself by the humble expressions, “another disciple,” “this disciple,” “the other disciple.” He does not call himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John himself wrote this passage about Peter inside the court of the high priest. John was present for this event and wrote about it. By contrast, the passage from John 13:23-25 is the work of John's disciples, who emphasize John's role: “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, 'Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.' So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, 'Lord, who is it?' ” (Jn 13:23-25).
By comparison, in another passage, John 20:1-10, we have a combination of John's work, with later additions by his disciples. In this passage, John repeatedly calls himself, “the other disciple.” His disciples then add the phrase, “the one whom Jesus loved.” If the disciples had written the whole passage, they would have said, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as one phrase. But since they are adding to the earlier existing work, they leave in the phrase “the other disciple” and then start again by saying “the one whom Jesus loved.” The result is the somewhat awkward phrasing: “...and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved….” (Jn 20:2). These disciples are also probably the ones who pointed out that John outran Peter and reached the tomb first. John is less likely, and his disciples are more likely, to point out anything superlative that John himself did.
The passage in John 21, where the disciples are fishing, presents a similar situation. John wrote the passage and he referred to himself, within the list of those who went fishing, with the mere phrase “the sons of Zebedee.” But his disciples probably added the line: “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord!' ” Then we resume John's original storyline with Peter jumping out of the boat to run to Christ.
Other lines which clearly show the work of a subsequent author are those which comment on the text. For example, some verses count up the previous events: “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (Jn 21:14). This line indicates that a second hand was put to John's Gospel. The later author is counting up events in the text and adding an observation of the text itself; something the original author is much less likely to do. An exception to this rule is the three denials by Peter and the three affirmations also by Peter. This count is integral to the event itself and obvious to the original author. It is not a commentary on the text.
The Translation of John into Greek
One other obvious mark of a second author stands out in John's Gospel. In several places, John's Gospel uses a word, then immediately explains its meaning with one other word. Examples of this include:
And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38).
“We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). (Jn 1:40).
“So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (Jn 1:42).
“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). (Jn 9:7).
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (Jn 20:16).
These are all examples of the clarification of an Aramaic or Hebrew term by giving the Greek equivalent. This is clearly the work of a translator, not the original author. If John were writing in Greek, he would simply use the corresponding Greek word for each word spoken by Christ or a disciple. Only a later translator would leave in the original wording and then add an explanatory comment, providing the translation of a word which the translator's audience might not know. John's audience knew Aramaic and some Hebrew. But the later audience which John's disciples were addressing, when they translated his Gospel into Greek, might not.
Why would John's disciples make any additions to the Gospel written by the Apostle they admired? Would they not have treasured his words without making any changes? Translating John's Gospel into Greek gave them the opportunity to work with this Gospel. This group of disciples admired the Apostle John and sought to imitate him. As they were working on translating his Gospel, it was natural for them to add to John's Gospel those teachings which they had received from John or which had been handed down from John. They did not see this as altering or adding to John's teachings. They were merely writing down more of what John himself taught.
Translators often mix their own interpretations and point of view into their translation. John's disciples, likewise, did not merely translate, they also interpreted, e.g. Jn 21:19a and Jn 20:30-31, and they even added other material, which came directly or indirectly from John, to the Gospel of John.
The Book of Revelation
John's second work, the Book of Revelation, was also written in Aramaic. John was writing to much the same audience as with his Gospel. First, he was writing again for the churches of Asia (i.e. western Turkey): “John to the seven churches that are in Asia….” (Rev 1:4). He also realized that, as with his Gospel, this type of religious writing often found a wider circulation in the Church. The book of Revelation is not only about the seven churches of Asia, it is also about the future of the Church and the world. Numerous passages refer to the earth as a whole or to a large portion of the earth, for example: “its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth,” and “the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,” and “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth,” and many other such passages (Rev 6:4, 12; 7:1). It must have been very clear to John that God intended this message for the whole Church. Therefore, John again chose a language which, at the time, would be understood in each of the seven churches of Asia and also throughout the Church, namely, Aramaic.
Some commentators claim that Revelation must have been written in Greek, because John quotes God saying: “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev 1:8). But this does not necessarily imply that the words were spoken to John by God in Greek. For example, Acts of the Apostles was written in Greek, yet Paul (Saul) tells us that Christ spoke to him on the road to Damascus in Hebrew (Acts 26:14). God could have spoken to John in Hebrew, in which case the “I am” would use similar wording to the “I am who am” of the Old Testament. Or God could have spoken to John in Aramaic. Both Hebrew and Aramaic have similar alphabets. The first letter of the Aramaic alphabet is Alap, and in Hebrew it is Aleph; the last letter in Aramaic is Tau, and in Hebrew it is Tof. Thus, this sentence becomes either, in Aramaic, “I am the Alap and the Tau,” or, in Hebrew, “I am the Aleph and the Tof.” An astute translator would realize that his Greek-speaking audience might not know what Aleph and Tof meant. Rather than give an awkward explanation within the text: “I am the Aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) and the Tof (last letter of the Hebrew alphabet),” the translation to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet is smoother and clearer: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Perhaps the English translation could read: “I am the A and the Z.”
John's Disciples and Revelation
Again we see that John's disciples could not resist adding to John's work as they translated it into Greek. In the first three verses of Revelation, we have a commentary on the work similar to the commentary in the last two verses of John's Gospel. Again, in the third verse of Revelation, we have a comment by John's disciples about the last days, similar to a comment at the end of John's Gospel. Both the end of John's Gospel and the beginning of Revelation refer to John bearing witness and to his testimony. And both refer to the end times. John 21:23 refers to Christ's return, and Revelation 1:3 tells us, “the time is near.”
These similarities suggests that John's disciples worked on translating and adding to Revelation just after their work on John's Gospel. They still had the same mind set. For example, a writer working on one book might have different ideas, attitudes, and approaches to the same material. On one day, or on consecutive days, he might approach the material from one angle. But, writing for the same work weeks or months later, he might take a different approach and express somewhat different ideas or attitudes. The similarities between the end of John's Gospel and the start of Revelation suggest that there was not much time between the work John's disciples did with the Gospel and their work with Revelation.
If John had originally written Revelation in Greek, then his disciples would have had no reason to work with the book and to make any additions to the material. The continuity between the work his disciples did on the Gospel and their work on Revelation suggests that they were translating Revelation just as they had translated the Gospel.
When the Apostle John wrote Revelation, he began with: “John, to the seven churches that are in Asia….” (Rev 1:4). The ending of Revelation, as originally written by John, is difficult to discern. In Rev. 22:10-11, John brings to a close his description of his interaction with the angel who helped convey this revelation from God. The next verse, Rev 22:12, repeats one of the themes of Rev 1:3, the nearness of the Return of Christ. And the subsequent verse, Rev 22:13, repeats and expounds upon the earlier “Alpha and Omega” statement. These would seem to be additions by John's disciples. The remainder of the book could well be additions by John's disciples, but such additions are not mere inventions of his disciples. Instead, these words and ideas are drawn by John's disciples from John's teachings as they had been handed down to his disciples.
The Antichrist's Number
In Revelation, a number is given which is associated with the Antichrist: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” (Rev 13:18) The footnote to the RSV of this passage states: “Other ancient authorities read six hundred sixteen
.” This number, 666, is often thought to represent the name of the Antichrist.
The ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin used letters to represent numbers. In Greek, the number 666 is represented by three letters, the first letter represents 600, the second letter represents 60, and the third symbol represents 6; it is likewise for the number 616. But, in Aramaic, the representation of the numbers 666 and 616 is different in one important respect. Aramaic represents 600 with two letters, the symbol for 400 and the symbol for 200; used together, these two symbols mean 600.
The number given in Rev. 13:18 stands for the number of letters in the Antichrist's name: 666 stands for the 6 letters of his first name, the 6 letters of his middle name, and the 6 letters of his last name, and 616 stands for the 6 letters of his first name, the 1 letter of his middle initial, and the 6 letters of his last name. But, if the number 600 was written as, essentially, 400-200, then his first (or last?) name would be 6 letters divided into four letters and two letters, perhaps separated with a hyphen.
The Close of the Canon
When was the canon of Sacred Scripture closed? Some commentators say that this occurred when the last of the Apostles, John, died. But it is clear that John's Gospel and the Book of Revelation were completed, by one or more of John's disciples, sometime after John's death. They write as if John were no longer present among them. And John wrote the book of Revelation towards the end of his life. Also, his disciples were adding to these books at a later time, when there was a need for a Greek translation of the books. The translation occurred some significant length of time after John's death. The portions of the these books written by John's disciples are a part of Sacred Scripture and were most likely written after John died, therefore the canon of Sacred Scripture was not closed upon John's death, but upon the completion of each of the books within the canon.
The Letters of John
The Epistles of John were not written by John the Apostle, but by John the elder. The latter John is clearly imitating the former, yet he does not mention John the Apostle by name nor does he recount any of the Apostle's recent deeds. John the elder seems to be writing a significant length of time after John the Apostle's death. Either the Epistles of John the elder, or the Gospel and Revelation of John, could have been the last of the books of Sacred Scripture to be written. Paul, Peter, and James were each martyred prior to the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. John wrote Revelation while in exile on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9); he was exiled their by Domitian, “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” in other words, because he wrote the word of God in the Gospel, as a testimony of Jesus. Since Paul, Peter, and James all died prior to the reign of Domitian, they wrote their Epistles before John wrote his Gospel and Revelation. This leaves the last words of the Bible to have been written by either the author of the Epistles of John the elder or the disciples of John the Apostle, who completed his Gospel and the book of Revelation. And with those last words, the canon of Sacred Scripture was closed (though not permanently).
The Influence of the Virgin Mary
After the Ascension of Christ to Heaven, Saint John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles, took care of the Virgin Mary. “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (Jn 19:27). During the 15 years from Christ's Ascension to Mary's Assumption, John spent more time with the Virgin Mary than did any of the other Apostles or Gospel writers. A devout disciple of Christ who spends much time with the Virgin Mary could not help but learn much about Christ from his holy Mother and closest Imitator. For this reason, the Gospel of John was undoubtedly influenced by the Virgin Mary. She did not write the Gospel of John, nor was she even living on earth when it was written. The Gospel of John was written long after Mary's Assumption to Heaven. Yet her influence is unmistakable within the depth and breadth of the understanding of Christ found in the fourth Gospel. John's depth of knowledge about Christ came in part from his long friendship with the Virgin Mary.
The Request to Write
Saint Jerome describes the circumstances surrounding the writing of the Gospel of John:
“When he was in Asia, at the time when the seeds of heresy were springing up (I refer to Cerinthus, Ebion, and the rest who say that Christ has not come in the flesh, whom he in his own epistle calls Antichrists, and whom the Apostle Paul frequently assails), he was urged by almost all the bishops of Asia then living, and by deputations from many Churches, to write more profoundly concerning the divinity of the Saviour, and to break through all obstacles so as to attain to the very Word of God (if I may so speak) with a boldness as successful as it appears audacious. Ecclesiastical history relates that, when he was urged by the brethren to write, he replied that he would do so if a general fast were proclaimed and all would offer up prayer to God; and when the fast was over, the narrative goes on to say, being filled with revelation, he burst into the heaven-sent Preface: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: this was in the beginning with God.' ”
Like the other Gospel writers, it was not John's idea to write a Gospel. He wrote it upon the fervent request of the Bishops and the faithful of the churches in Asia (modern-day Turkey). Perhaps a few of the “deputations from many Churches,” which Jerome mentions, were even from outside of Asia. John wrote the Gospel after the faithful prayed and fasted on behalf of his task. The Gospel of John was the answer to those prayers.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark each have titles, expressed in modern versions as the first verse of each. The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles lack a title, because these works were more like long letters to some friends (Theophilus and the Christians associated with him), and less like a book or published work. The Gospel of John is a different case. Matthew and Mark each wrote for the Christians of a particular area; Matthew wrote for the Christians of Judea and Mark for the Christians of Rome. They did probably did not know that they each were writing a Gospel which would be circulated throughout in all the Churches. Saint John was asked to write a Gospel. By that time, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had long been published and circulated among the churches. John knew that he was writing a Gospel. He understood, better than the Synoptic authors, how such writings were being used by the various churches. He probably realized that it would be read even outside of the churches of Asia.
John began his Gospel with a Prologue, but not with a title. He did not title the Gospel because he realized, more so that the other Evangelists, that he was writing a Gospel. This work did not need a title because it is the written Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Jn 1:1).
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005