Damien F. Mackey
“The Benedictus, the song of Zachary, is given in Luke 1:68-79. In Greek, as in English, the Benedictus, as poetry, seems unexceptional. There is no evidence of clever composition. But, when it is translated into Hebrew, a little marvel appears”.
Astute scholars such as Jean Carmignac, John Robinson and Claude Tresmontant have breathed some refreshingly healthy new air into biblical studies by arguing for much earlier dates than conventionally accepted for the various books of the New Testament, and, in Carmignac’s case, for the Greek texts of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), in particular, to have arisen from Semitic originals.
And I personally would favour Robinson’s view, too, that the entire New Testament was written before the Fall of Jerusalem, in c. 70 AD.
The following brief article summarises Carmignac’s ground-breaking efforts – including his wonderful reinterpretation of the “Song of Zachary” – and it also makes references to the research of Robinson and Tresmontant:
Were the Synoptic Gospels Composed in Hebrew?
Forget what Winston Churchill said about Russia being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Yes, it was a memorable line, but it should have been applied to modern biblical scholarship.
Here’s a field for those wanting to make a name for themselves, who want posterity to know about the Smith Hypothesis or the Jones Theory. You can come up with any idea you like, and you can do a sophisticated form of proof-texting establishing your thesis.
All you must do is cite in your notes the Usual Suspects–there are only two or three dozen names to get right–and Authority is on your side. Your work will become part of the “assured results of modern biblical scholarship.”
Unless, of course, you take an entirely new tack. Some things are simply off limits. People look down their noses at you, for instance, if you posit early dates for the authorship of the New Testament books.
Look at the cool reception the late John A. T. Robinson got when Redating the New Testament appeared in 1976. Robinson was already a well-respected scholar. More than that, he was a liberal scholar, founder of the New Morality school of thought, which started with his Honest to God.
But here he was, taking a fresh look at the presuppositions used in dating the New Testament books and realizing that the presuppositions were worthless. They were little more than prejudices.
He started from scratch and came up with the conclusion that every book of the New Testament was written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and even John he put as early as the forties, which, if true, would pretty much prove that the men whose names their bear wrote them.
Redating the New Testament was politely but not, for the most part, enthusiastically reviewed in the scholarly journals. What could one expect? People who had staked their reputations on dating the New Testament as late as possible–even, parts of it, well into the second century–were displeased that someone not able to be classified as a reactionary should come up with answers Augustine would have been comfortable with.
Robinson “worked from an exclusively historical methodology,” wrote Jean Carmignac in The Birth of the Synoptics. “I work with a methodology which is principally philological but historical on occasion.” Carmignac, a Dead Sea Scrolls translator and an expert in the Hebrew in use at the time of Christ, reached conclusions similar to Robinson’s, but he came at the problem from a different angle.
He translated the synoptic Gospels “backwards,” from Greek into Hebrew, and he was astonished at what he found.
“I wanted to begin with the Gospel of Mark. In order to facilitate the comparison between our Greek Gospels and the Hebrew text of Qumran, I tried, for my own personal use, to see what Mark would yield when translated back into the Hebrew of Qumran.
“I had imagined that this translation would be difficult because of considerable differences between Semitic thought and Greek thought, but I was absolutely dumbfounded to discover that this translation was, on the contrary, extremely easy.
“Around the middle of April 1963, after only one day of work, I was convinced that the Greek text of Mark could not have been redacted directly in Greek and that it was in reality only the Greek translation of an original Hebrew.”
Carmignac, who died recently, had planned for enormous difficulties, but they didn’t arise. He discovered the Greek translator of Mark had slavishly kept to the Hebrew word order and grammar.
Could this have been the result of a Semite writing in Greek, a language he didn’t know too well and on which he imposed Hebrew structures? Or could the awkward phrasings found in our Greek text have been nothing more than overly faithful translations (perhaps “transliterations” would be more accurate) of Semitic originals?
If the second possibility were true, then we have synoptic Gospels written by eyewitnesses at a very early date.
Carmignac spent most of the next twenty-five years meticulously translating the Greek into Hebrew and making endless comparisons. The Birth of the Synoptics is a popular summary of what he hoped to publish in a massive multi-volume set. It is a delightful shocker of a book.
Consider just one example. (Carmignac gives many, but his short book isn’t weighed down with them.) The Benedictus, the song of Zachary, is given in Luke 1:68-79. In Greek, as in English, the Benedictus, as poetry, seems unexceptional. There is no evidence of clever composition. But, when it is translated into Hebrew, a little marvel appears.
In the phrase “to show mercy to our fathers,” the expression “to show mercy” is the Hebrew verb hanan, which is the root of the name Yohanan (John).
In “he remembers his holy covenant,” “he remembers” is the verb zakar, which is the root of the name Zakaryah (Zachary).
In “the oath which he swore to our father Abraham” is found, for “to take an oath,” the verb shaba, which is the root of the name Elishaba (Elizabeth).
“Is it by chance,” asks Carmignac, “that the second strophe of this poem begins by a triple allusion to the names of the three protagonists: John, Zachary, Elizabeth? But this allusion only exists in Hebrew; the Greek or English translation does not preserve it.”
Carmignac gives many other examples, and he draws these conclusions about the dating of the synoptics: “The latest dates that can be admitted are around 50 for Mark . . . around 55 for Completed Mark, around 55-60 for Matthew, between 58 and 60 for Luke. But the earliest dates are clearly more probable: Mark around 42, Completed Mark around 45, (Hebrew) Matthew around 50, (Greek) Luke a little after 50.”
These dates are all approximate, of course, particularly those for Mark and Matthew, and they are the result of Carmignac’s mainly philological analysis.
Claude Tresmontant, in The Hebrew Christ, working parallel to Carmignac but with a different methodology, comes up with these datings: Matthew, early 30s (within a few years of the Resurrection); Luke 40-60; Mark 50-60.
Carmignac keeps to Marcan priority, while Tresmontant goes for Matthean priority. Regardless, each denies what is the majority opinion among biblical scholars, that the synoptics were written late in the first century, possibly into the last decade or two.
Carmignac draws a few other conclusions:
“(1) It is certain that Mark, Matthew, and the documents used by Luke were redacted in a Semitic language.
“(2) It is probable that this Semitic language is Hebrew rather than Aramaic.
“(3) It is sufficiently probable that our second Gospel [that is, Mark] was composed in a Semitic language by St. Peter the Apostle” (with Mark being his secretary perhaps).
Expanding on this last point, he says that “it is probable that the Semitic Gospel of Peter was translated into Greek, perhaps with some adaptations by Mark, in Rome, at the latest around the year 63; it is our second Gospel which has preserved the name of the translator, instead of that of the author.”
As he wrote The Birth of the Synoptics, Carmignac suspected his “scientific arguments [would] prove reassuring to Christians and [would] attract the attention and interest of non-believers. But they overturn theories presently in vogue and therefore they will be fiercely criticized.” They will also be, with Carmignac’s death, fiercely ignored.
But not forever. Truly honest scholars will have to grapple with what Carmignac has come up with. Others will continue where he left off. It may be, a few decades from now, that the “assured results of modern biblical scholarship” will look quite different from what we have been told to accept as gospel truth.
— Karl Keating
New International Version (NIV)
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”