The Languages of the Bible

Readers of Fish Hooks will be aware of past mentions of Hebrew and Greek as the ‘languages of the Bible,’ but also a lot of references to Aramaic, and sometimes Latin.   Now, in the simplest sense, we could simply state that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, and be done with this topic.   But, as usual, the most interesting stuff is in the details!

The use of Hebrew for the Old Testament isn’t surprising since that’s the historic language of the Jewish people.   What may come as a surprise, however, is that already centuries before Jesus, Hebrew was on its way to becoming a ‘dead’ language used only in religious practice.  Hebrew is one of the ancient Semitic languages of the Near East – that is, it is a member of a family of languages that share the same roots (just as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French have their roots in Latin).  Hebrew is the historic language of Moses and the children of Israel and was the official language of the ancient Israelite nation presided over by King David.  But as the Jewish kingdom first split and then unraveled under the pressures of foreign powers, Aramaic (the Semitic language of the Assyrians and Babylonians) gradually infiltrated Jewish life and eventually became the spoken language of Palestinian Jews.  But though Hebrew had become obsolete for everyday communication, it remained the Jews’ religious language — the language of their Scriptures.  Thus, almost all of the Old Testament was written in Biblical Hebrew, but there were a few late books (notably Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel) that contain a kind of Hebrew-Aramaic mash-up.

An interesting bit of trivia: when the modern nation of Israel adopted an updated form of Hebrew as an official language, it became history’s only example of a dead ‘religious’ language coming back to life as a native language – and after a lapse of well over 2000 years!

Eventually, ordinary Jewish people had so much difficulty understanding Hebrew that the synagogue readings alternated between reading the Hebrew text and then hearing an Aramaic translation called a Targum.  That’s the way things were being done at the time of Jesus.

However, centuries earlier, the conquests of Alexander the Great had made Greek the common second-language of the eastern Mediterranean (much as English is today a second-language around the globe).   By the time of Jesus the Roman Empire was the dominant power, but few of their subjects spoke Latin (even in their armies), so Greek remained a common language of the early Roman Empire too.

Back in the Holy Land, Aramaic was now the native language of the Jewish people, and that is what Jesus and His disciples spoke.  But when the books of the New Testament were composed, they were all written in an ordinary (Koine) Greek because that could be understood by the most people. However, a few notable Aramaic words and phrases that Jesus said are preserved in the Gospels (e.g. Mark 5:41, Matthew 27:46, John 20:16).  For their Old Testament the Christians adopted the Septuagint, a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek from around 250 BC (quite an interesting story in itself).   So, early Christians read all scripture in Greek.

When Christianity later became the official religion of the Roman empire with Rome its headquarters, Latin replaced Greek as the ‘religious language’ of Western Christians.  Around 400 AD St. Jerome translated the entire Bible into common (‘vulgar’) Latin and this Vulgate translation became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.  But after the fall of Rome and during the ensuing Middle Ages Latin itself became a ‘dead’ language that few Christians could understand (including much of the clergy).  That was why Martin Luther made it a priority to translate the Bible into German (1521-1534), and Protestant translations into other languages soon followed.

As of September 2016 we are told that the full Bible has been translated into 554 languages and 2932 languages have a translation of at least some portion.  So, one could say that today there are about 3000 ‘languages of the Bible!’

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