When the words of Jesus Christ are evaluated from early Greek manuscripts shouldn’t translation difficulties between Hebrew and Greek be considered? For example, the word spirit in Hebrew is “ruwach” a feminine noun while the Greek word for spirit “pneuma” is a neuter noun. A quote from Jesus Christ would have been spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic not Greek, so evaluating quotes of Jesus Christ from a Greek textual perspective could potentially be missleading.

I have no formal training in theology but have wondered how this is handled in textual studies. Is this generally understood within Christian studies or have I overlooked something important?

  • Great question, if I have time, I'll get around to answering it (if no one beats me to it). This is a very exciting area of biblical studies (to me). In the mean time, check out this.
    – Dan
    Aug 7, 2013 at 14:28
  • You might be interested in the Aramic NT.
    – user2027
    Sep 24, 2013 at 20:28

1 Answer 1


There are four documents that quote Jesus, all originally written in Greek - the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. First of all they should be understood as having been written anonymously, and that they were only attributed to the persons whose names they now bear later in the second century. In spite of the attribution of two of them to the disciples Matthew and John, New Testament scholars say they could not have been written by eyewitnesses to the events portrayed - I will give some of the reasoning here:

When Matthew, Mark and Luke are laid side by side and read synoptically ('with the same eye') in the Greek language, it is clear that there is a literary dependency among them. Further study shows that Mark was the first to be written, with Matthew and Luke substantially copied from Mark, but with further sayings material attributed to Jesus taken from another source common to both and now known as the hypothetical 'Q' document. Other research has shown that John is loosely based on Luke but with some material taken direct from Mark. So Matthew and John were not written by eyewitnesses, and it is universally agreed that Mark and Luke were not either, although usually for different reasons. This means that we are unlikely ever to know just what Jesus really said.

When trying to understand quotes from Jesus, it should therefore be understood that none of the gospels is likely to contain verbatim quotes. We do not even know where the 'Q' material came from, but John Dominic Crossan, author of The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus, sees an even earlier Common Sayings Tradition, from which 'Q' and the Gospel of Thomas drew, and which may have been a source of some material in Mark.

Differences between Greek and Hebrew must be taken into account, particularly when English can not properly represent the original Greek. One example is in the different Greek words for love, particularly agape (sacred, or unconditional love) and philia (brotherly love). When the early Greek-speaking Christians read John chapter 21, they would have understood it quite differently to the usual understanding in non-Greek languages (including Hebrew and Aramaic, but also Latin and English). In this chapter, on the Sea of Galilee, the risen Jesus questioned Peter three times, just as Peter had previously denied Jesus three times. Jesus addressed him each time theatrically as "Simon, son of Jonah", not as Peter, the name Jesus had given him.

The first time, Jesus asked , "Do you love (agape) me more than these [the other disciples]?" Peter answered that he loves him, but only using the Greek word for friendly or brotherly love (philia). In exasperation, Jesus said, "Feed my sheep." With the meanings of sacred and brotherly love lost in the English translations, this last statement is usually interpreted as a sign of approval, quite the opposite of the original meaning.

Jesus again asked Peter, "Do you love me?" Again, sacred love (agape), but this time did not ask whether Peter loved Jesus more than the others. And again, Peter replied with the Greek word for brotherly love (philia). Jesus again replied, "Feed my sheep."

In the third questioning, Jesus asked only whether Peter had brotherly love for him (philia). He accepted that this was the most that Peter would give. For the third time, Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

A reader of the original Greek gospel would have realised that Jesus was frustrated at Peter's inability to say he love him unconditionally, and recognised "feed my sheep" as an indication of his exasperation. For us, the nuances of unconditional love are lost, and the same passage is more usually read as a command, thrice repeated, for Peter to "feed my sheep" - "minister to the Christians" - but this is not what was written.

  • This is a really interesting answer. Could you describe more how "feed my sheep" in Greek would be looked at as an example of exasperation on Jesus' part? Oct 14, 2013 at 15:06
  • A phrase I often heard my father use when surprised or exasperated, was 'strike me pink!'. No one ever says that now, but that is an example that bears some similarities. Obviously my father did not really want to be struck pink, and in the same way, Jesus did not want his sheep fed. I sure others could think of similar examples. Oct 26, 2013 at 18:58
  • Hi Dick, any chance you could lead me to a commentary that takes your view of the "original meaning" of "feed my sheep"? I had never heard this and was thinking of asking a question about it, but I haven't found anything similar and would like to know more about the development of the idea.
    – Susan
    Aug 29, 2014 at 22:41
  • @Susan I believe I first saw the usage of "feed my sheep" explained by Elaine Pagels some years ago, I think in 'Beyond Belief'. John Carroll also discusses the three 'awkward' questions asked of Peter, in 'The Existential Jesus' at pages 144-5. Carroll goes as far as to say that the exchange appears designed to humiliate Peter. I point out that this should not be read as a historical event, but as an authorial comment. Pagels believes 'John' thought Peter was venerated excessively, and this passage and comparisons with the "disciple whom Jesus loved" were meant to bring him back to the pack. Aug 31, 2014 at 2:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.