The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: B

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Bible text, languages

A. Old Testament

The OT is written mostly in Hebrew, except for the following sections which are written in Aramaic (constituting about one percent of the OT): Gen 31:47 (two words), Jer 10:11, Ezr 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26, and Dan 2:4b-7:28.

1. The languages of the Old Testament

a. Introduction

The Semitic family of languages do not include the oldest known languages -- that honor goes to Sumerian, a unique language which is part of no known language family and bears no resemblance to any other known language; it was written with cuneiform characters. The earliest evidence for Semitic tongues are Akkadian texts dating back into the third millennium BC. Semitic is distantly related to the Hamitic family of languages, which includes Egyptian, and so in its earliest roots, the two are combined into what is called Hamito-semitic. At a point in prehistory, they split into what is called proto-Semitic and proto-Hamitic. From these, arise Egyptian in the Hamitic branch, and on the Semitic side, the northwest Semitic languages of Ugaritic, Moabite, Aramaic and Hebrew and the Southeast Semitic languages such as Akkadian (divisible into two dialects, Babylonian and Assyrian). The earlier Semitic languages, such as Akkadian and Ugaritic have a case system which identifies what role a noun is playing in a sentence. That is, a "U" tacked on to the end of the word, as in Shar, the Babylonian word for prince, gives the form Sharu, telling the reader that the word is the subject of the sentence, as in "The Prince hears the Princess". An "A" tacked on to the end -- Shara -- makes the word the object, as in "the Princess hears the Prince." And an "I" tacked on at the end as in Shari makes the word possessive, as in "the Prince of the Princess".

In later Semitic languages such as Hebrew, the case system has disappeared, so that word order now indicates the job assignments that were previously provided by the case endings. Hebrew is one of the latest of the known Semitic languages. Even Arabic, another Semitic language, appears more ancient in its forms, since it preserves the old Semitic case structure.

The different Semitic languages bear a general similarity with each other, as for instance with the word for "sun". In Akkadian it is shamash, in Arabic it is shamps and in Hebrew it is shemesh.

b. Hebrew

Hebrew was the language of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah respectively. It was used by the Jews until the time of the Babylonian captivity, when the language of the court, Aramaic, came more and more to replace it. When the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian captivity around 536 BC the Hebrew language had undergone some significant changes. Aramaic words had been added to the vocabulary, and the alphabet was changed from the Old Hebrew characters to the newer square Aramaic script -- which is the form still in use today. After the fall of Jerusalem AD 70 and the subsequent dispersion, Hebrew, already barely more than a liturgical language (used in the Synagogue for reading scripture), ceased to be spoken altogether. Hebrew remained a dead language, known only to scholars until the end of the nineteenth century. With the rise of the Zionist movement in Europe, some Jews started to revive Hebrew as a spoken tongue, so those Jews who moved back into Palestine began speaking to one another in the old Biblical language. Today, the official language of the modern nation of Israel is Hebrew and except for the addition of a few new words to account for technological change -- like airplane and automobile and the like -- the Modern Hebrew language is virtually identical to that of the Bible.

c. Aramaic

Aramaic, not to be confused with the language spoken by the Arabs today -- which is called Arabic -- is a Semitic language used by the neo- Babylonians of the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (cp Dan). It became the major language of the ancient Near East and was spoken and written by most nations of the area until the rise of Islam subjugated it and replaced it with Arabic.

The language most commonly spoken in Israel in Jesus' day was Aramaic and in fact it is the language that Jesus himself spoke. A few snatches are recorded in the NT, but most of what remains are translations of his words into Greek, the language used by the NT writers. They used Greek because it was the language of the Roman Empire and the writers of the NT were concerned that the message of the gospel should get as wide a readership as possible. The translational nature of Christ's words can be seen, for example, in the wording of the Beatitudes; Luke writes simply "blessed are the poor", while Matthew writes "blessed are the poor in spirit". The reason for the slight difference in the wording results from the underlying Aramaic word for "poor", which has both ideas contained within it; Matthew, therefore, was a bit more precise in his translation, since the Greek word for poor generally -- like the English term -- refers only to those who lack material benefits.

B. New Testament

The NT is written entirely in Greek, except, as has already been indicated, for a few Aramaic words or phrases: Mat 27:33,46, Mar 5:41; 15:22,34; and Joh 19:17.

Though the native language of the Romans was Latin, the language of the Empire, and especially the eastern half of the empire where the Jews lived, was Greek; the Greeks, though militarily weak, had been culturally powerful, leaving their mark on Roman thinking in everything from their language and theology, to their laws and philosophy. If a person knew Greek, he could get along well in the Roman Empire, just as today, if a person knows English, he'll do better than a person who doesn't.

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