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
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
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.
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.
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.