Hebrew Idioms in the Gospel of Matthew








Mag. Claudia R. Wintoch














Hebrew Culture & Perspective

Ken Lundeen





World Revival School of Ministry

Fall Trimester 2001

1. Introduction


The gospel of Matthew is one of the three synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are Hebrew in origin. This is reflected in the sentence structure, literalisms and idioms used which are “peculiar to the Hebrew language” (Bivin & Blizzard 1994:53). Unfortunately the church has been ignorant of that fact and has therefore misinterpreted or misunderstood much of what Jesus said. This paper looks more closely at the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel which have traditionally been misunderstood and shows how the Hebrew origin enlightens their true, forgotten, meaning.


2. Mistranslations in the Sermon on the Mount


2.1. The Poor in Spirit – Mt 5:3


The word blessed does not convey the full meaning of the word makarios (μακάριος)[1], which also means happy. The corresponding Hebrew word Jesus must have used is esher (רשא)[2] and means “”blessed”, “happy” and “fornunate” all at once, so that no one English word is adequate.” (Stern 1999:23). With “the poor in spirit” Jesus refers back to Isaiah 66:2 “the poor and contrite in spirit” (KJV). The Hebrew word for “poor” is ’aniy (ינע)[3], meaning not only poor, but also humble and lowly. Newer translations already use the word humble in their translations (e.g. NIV). Before going into the problems with the second half of the verse, we will look at another beatitude.




2.2. Persecution or Pursuit – Mt 5:10


The eighth beatitude reads “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” in the NIV. There are four mistranslations in this one sentence:

1. In the previous verses Jesus has described what a person of God’s kingdom looks like and He has not changed the subject. The Greek word diuku (διώκω)[4], as well as the Hebrew word radaf (ךדר)[5], can both be translated either with persecute or pursue, the latter being far more common for the Hebrew word, and the first for the Greek word. The Bible translator chose to translate diuku with persecute because of the following two verses that deal with persecution. Bivin & Blizzard comment that the sudden shift of the pronoun from the third person to the second is

“a clear indication that these verses were not originally a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but a part of another context or story. They were probably placed after Matthew 5:10 by the editor of Matthew’s source because of the word “persecution”, which appears in both passages.” (1994:77)


2. The word righteousness in Hebrew, tsedeq (קרצ)[6], is a synonym for salvation (which appears only 7 times in the gospels), which would be a more accurate translation in this verse.

3. The word αύτός[7] translated theirs gives the reader the wrong impression, since we do not possess the kingdom. The best translation would be “of (such as) these”, the same term Jesus used when saying that the Kingdom of God is for such as those children coming to Him.

4. The kingdom of heaven has been misunderstood as referring to Jesus’s second coming since He said that “the kingdom of God is near you” (NIV), which implies for us that it is close but not here yet. However, while the Greek word eggizo (έγγίζω)[8] means “about to appear, almost here”, the Hebrew equivalent qarab (ברק)[9] means the opposite, that it has arrived, it is here. That is clearly seen in OT passages like Genesis 20:4 where Abimelech “had not come near” Sarah, i.e. had not had sexual relations with her. Secondly, the word heaven refers to God Himself, being one of the synonyms for God.

Taking these mistranslations into account, Matthew 5:10 should therefore read similar to this: “Blessed are those who pursue salvation, for such as these are in the kingdom of God.” Yet, in no Bible commentary have I found this understanding of that verse, instead, the following statement is typical for all commentaries: “Those who suffer because of their loyalty to the kingdom of heaven are blessed by being bound more closely to that kingdom for which they suffer.” (The Fourfold Gospel, http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/TheFourfoldGospel/tfg.cgi?book= mt&chapter=5#Mt5_10)


2.3. Killing – Mt 5:21


Many English Bibles read Mt 5:21 “you shall not kill”, which is a quote from Exodus 20:13, where the word ratzach (חצר)[10] is used, meaning murder, and not harag (גרה)[11], meaning kill. That command clearly prohibits murder, but not killing in defense. However, while the Greek also makes this distinction and uses the word murder (φουευο)[12], English translators chose to use the word kill[13] instead. However, this mistake has obviously been recognized by some since some new translations now correctly use the word murder.[14]


2.4. How to Treat Your Neighbor – Mt 5:39


The first half of that verse reads “do not resist an evil person” in the NIV. When we consider the Hebrew perspective, we find out that Jesus was quoting a well-known proverb from the Old Testament, found in Proverbs 24:19 and Psalm 37:1, “do not fret because of evil men”. Jesus is teaching us how to treat people we are in relationship with; not to take revenge and get back at them. Now we can also understand the second half of the verse: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus uses a parallelism to emphasize again that we should not slap back at someone who insults or embarrasses us. This verse has nothing to do with Mt 5:21, meaning, that we should not defend ourselves when threatened, as it has traditionally been interpreted.


2.5. Giving – Mt 5:42


We often feel like we have no choice but to give when asked because of this verse that says: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” The Hebrew literary device of parallelism is applied in this verse, therefore the verb “borrow” of the second half is parallel to the verb “asks” of the first half of the verse. There actually is a Hebrew word darash (שרד)[15] which can be translated as ask a question, make a request or borrow. Jesus therefore used two different words for “borrow”.  Also,

“In Hebrew, a distinction is made between borrowing an object, such as a book, which must itself be returned […] and between borrowing something such as money or flour, which must be returned in kind.” (Bivin & Blizzard 1994:74)


Jesus used both these words in this verse. Bivin & Blizzard argue that “this saying is not about giving at all; but again, about how one should react to a hostile neighbor.” (1994:75).

3. Misinterpretations


3.1. The Fulfillment of the Law – Mt 5:17-18


Many (unconscious) replacement theologians misinterpret these verses because they believe the law is no longer relevant. However, Jesus said He came to fulfill it, which does not mean it was lacking something but that the coming of the Messiah completed the picture. The law now “existed as God originally intended” (Bivin & Blizzard 1994:113). But to know what Jesus really means with “fulfill” and “destroy”, we must go back to the Hebrew culture. “To destroy the law” meant misinterpreting Scripture, while “fulfilling the law” meant correct interpretation – they were technical terms of rabbinic argumentation. What we therefore see in our passage is that Jesus, having been accused of “destroying”, i.e. misinterpreting, the Tanakh (the Torah and Naviim), gives his counterargument that He is actually “fulfilling”, i.e. correctly interpreting it, and actually establishing the correct interpretation of the Tanakh. Stern goes back to our first interpretation by concluding that these verses

“enunciate three ways in which the Torah and the Prophets remain necessary, applicable and in force. The remainder of Chapter 5 gives six specific cases in which Yeshua explains the fuller spiritual meaning of points in the Jewish Law. In fact, this verse states the theme and agenda of the entire Sermon on the Mount, in which Yeshua completes, makes fuller, the understanding of his talmidim concerning the Torah and the Prophets, so that they can more fully express what being God’s people is all about.” (Stern 1999:26)



3.2. Man’s Righteousness – Mt 5:20


This verse has always been difficult to understand – how can anyone be more righteous than the Pharisees! We will have to correctly understand the words “righteousness” and “kingdom of heaven” which have been treated in 2.2. above. At the time of Jesus the word for “righteousness” dikaiosune (δικαιοσύνη)[16] had another meaning besides deliverance and salvation, which was almsgiving. Since almsgiving was the most important of the three components of righteous living, which were prayer, fasting and almsgiving, it was often synonymous with the word righteousness. Jesus therefore says that the people’s giving must surpass that of the Pharisees’, if they do not want to miss God’s righteousness (now salvation).


3.3. The Kingdom of Heaven – Mt 11:12


This verse has been hard to understand and wrongly interpreted to this day; even the Jewish commentary of the Bible has not been able to solve the mystery[17]. Professor David Flusser discovered the key to understanding it through an old rabbinic midrash. This verse alludes to Micah 2:13 One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the Lord at their head (NIV). This verse pictures the shepherd taking the stones of the pen away in the morning, therefore “breaking open the way” for the sheep to get back out, which is the Hebrew word parats (ץרפ)[18]. While the breach-maker and the king are the same in Micah 2:13, rabbinic interpretation says that the breach-maker is Elijah and the king the Messiah. Jesus, hinting at that, is therefore saying, “The Kingdom of heaven […] is breaking forth […] and every person in it is breaking forth […] individuals within the Kingdom are finding liberty and freedom.” (Bivin & Blizzard 1994:86). Jesus is here declaring himself to be the Messiah, John the Baptist being Elijah. Jesus is the shepherd who leads the sheep out and onto the green fields.



3.4. Binding & Loosing – Mt 16:19


This verse has traditionally been quoted as binding up the enemy or loosing God’s blessings. The Hebrew words for “bind” ‘acar (רא)[19] and “loose” pathach (חתפ)[20] both have several meanings. Over time they also acquired an additional meaning that is often found in rabbinic literature: bound in the sense of prohibited and loosed in the sense of allowed, relating to the interpretation of the Torah, as to what was prohibited or allowed, e.g. to do on the Sabbath. While it is obvious that these are meanings intended in this verse, the Greek translator used different words literally meaning bind and loose. Jesus was giving Peter the authority to make decisions and rules, which the young church would need (see Acts 6:1-6, Acts 15). As Stern puts it, Jesus makes Peter “both (1) shammash (“steward”) […] with the keys, and (2) dayan (“judge”), who, as the one who can prohibit and permit, establishes new covenant halakhah” (1999:54).


4. References


Bivin, David and Roy Blizzard Jr., Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, Destiny Image: Pennsylvania 1994


Blizzard, Roy, Listen! Jesus Speaks, 6-Tape Series, Yavo Inc: Austin, Texas


Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications: Maryland 1999


The Fourfold Gospel, http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/TheFourfoldGospel


The New Testament Greek Lexicon, http://bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/NewTestamentGreek


The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, http://bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/Hebrew


Swartley, Willard M., Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels, Hendrickson Publishers: Massachusetts 1994

[1] Strong’s Number 3107

[2] Strong’s Number 833

[3] Strong’s Number 6041

[4] Strong’s Number 1377

[5] Strong’s Number 7291

[6] Strong’s Number 6664

[7] Strong’s Number 846

[8] Strong’s Number 1448

[9] Strong’s Number 7126

[10] Strong’s Number 7523

[11] Strong’s Number 2026

[12] Strong’s Number 5407

[13] There are three different words for kill in Greek: anaireo (337), apokteino (615), thuo (2380).

[14] Kill used by KJV, RSV, YLT, Darby; Murder used by NKJV, NIV, NASB, NLT.

[15] Strong’s Number 1875

[16] Strong’s Number 1343

[17] Stern 1999:43

[18] Strong’s Number 6555

[19] Strong’s Number 631

[20] Strong’s Number 6605