Languages of the Bible

By Wayne Jackson

The original languages of the Bible are three: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. If one wishes to be a careful student of the Scriptures, he will want to do some research concerning the biblical languages, always keeping in mind that Jehovah chose words as the medium of his special revelation to mankind.

Hebrew

The Hebrew of the Old Testament is a Semitic language (so called by modern scholars after the name of Shem, Noah’s oldest son). Both Hebrew and Aramaic are a part of the northwestern group of these tongues and were employed mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. It is believed that Hebrew came from the Canaanite language.

The Old Testament refers to its language in two ways. It is called the “language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18) and the “Jews’ language” (cf. 2 Kings 18:26, 28; Nehehmiah 13:24; Isaiah 36:11). It is not referred to as “Hebrew” until around 130 B.C. (prologue to the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus). In the New Testament, it is called “Hebrew” in John 5:2; 19:13; Acts 21:40.

The Hebrew language was written in a script composed of twenty-two consonants (from right to left), and it extends back to at least 1500 B.C. Most Hebrew nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs consisted of only three consonants.

Before the middle of the first millennium A.D., the Old Testament text was written without vowels or diacritical marks. Eventually, though, vowels were added because the ancients were fearful of losing the ability to pronounce the words as the language became more classical and the texts were no longer those of a living spoken tongue. Some good examples of early Hebrew writing are to be found on the Moabite Stone and the Gezer Calendar.

Due to the fact that the original Hebrew was strictly consonantal, some words are difficult to define with certainty. For example, the Genesis record says: “Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors” (Genesis 37:3).

The sentence contains the expression Ketoneth passiym. The first word is clearly “coat,” but the second term is very rare. Scholars have suggested that it may mean “with long sleeves,” “with much embroidery,” “of choice wool,” or the traditional, “of many colors.” But no one knows for certain.

The imagery of the Hebrew language is largely drawn from the activities and things of everyday life. It abounds with a variety of common figures of speech—parables, similes, metaphors, etc. As with other Semitic languages, Hebrew contains frequent anthropomorphic expressions (e.g., the “eyes of the Lord”). Any attempt to literalize these figures (as Mormon writers do when they suggest that God is a “man”) is the reflection of woeful misunderstanding.

Aramaic

Aramaic is a close cognate language (actually a group of Semitic dialects) of Hebrew. The oldest extra-biblical example may be the Melqart Stele (ninth century B.C.) which mentions the warfare between Ben-hadad of Syria and Israel.

Though Hebrew remained the “sacred” tongue of the Jews, they, like others in the Middle East, began using vernacular Aramaic for everyday conversation and writing sometime after the sixth century B.C. In the first century A.D., Aramaic, in one dialect or another, was the common daily tongue of the Palestinian Jews, though it is probable that many Jews also spoke Hebrew and Greek.

In the New Testament a number of Aramaic expressions are transliterated into Greek (e.g., Talitha qumi [“Maiden, arise!”; Mark 5:41] and Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, [“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; Mark 15:34]). In the New Testament epistles, there are several Aramaic words such as Abba (Galatians 4:6) and Maranatha (1 Corinthians 16:22).

Some minor portions of the Old Testament were penned in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:46-7:28; and two words in Genesis 31:47). Liberal scholars have contended that the Aramaic of the Bible is of late date, hence, those works of the Old Testament containing this dialect (mainly Daniel and Ezra) were thus composed much later than the periods traditionally assigned to them.

However, Aramaic papyri, very similar to these works, have been discovered at Elephantine, Egypt, which date to the fifth century B.C. The critical charges are thus shown to be valueless.

In passing we might note that there are also some “loan words,” within certain appropriate historical contexts, which appear to have been borrowed from other languages.

The term “magicians” (hartummim) in Genesis 41:8 seems to be an Egyptian term. It probably refers to certain priests who had learned sacred writings and rituals at the temple schools. The word tirshatha (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 8:9) is of Persian origin, somewhat equivalent to “His Excellency.” It denoted one whose principal function was to assess and collect taxes (cf. Nehemiah 7:70; Ezra 1:8).

Greek

The Greek language has passed through several major periods of change. The New Testament was composed during that era known as the Koine age. This was a period of universal or common Greek.

The Greek language was freely spoken throughout the antique world in that span from about 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. Koine was the normal street language in Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and Jerusalem. When the Romans finally conquered the Greeks, it was Greek influence that flowed throughout the empire. Augustus, the emperor of Rome, inscribed his seal in Greek. Paul, writing to the saints in Rome, the capital city of the empire, sent his message in Greek, not Latin!

G. L. Archer has noted:

Greek was the most ideally adapted linguistic medium for the World-Wide communication of the Gospel in the entire region of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and the Near East. Accurate in expression, beautiful in sound, and capable of great rhetorical force, it furnished an ideal vehicle for the proclamation of God’s message to man, transcending Semitic barriers and reaching out to all the Gentile races. It is highly significant that the “fulness of times,” the first advent of Christ, was deferred until such time as Greek opened up channels of communication to all the Gentile nations east of Italy and Libya on a level not previously possible under the multilingual situation that previously prevailed (1975, 870).

In the seventeenth century, some authorities contended that the language of the New Testament was on par with the Greek of the classical period. Later, some scholars argued that New Testament Greek was of a special variety, a “language of the Holy Ghost,” so to speak. Others contended that this was not the case.

Adolf Deissmann argued that the New Testament was framed in “colloquial Greek,” i.e., the language of the common people. Scholars like A. T.Robertson supported this view. In recent years, however, a more balanced concept has arisen. It is now recognized that a variety of sources paved the way for the coming of the language of the New Testament.

The literature of the classical period made a contribution. The Hebrew Old Testament played a part. The Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) left a strong influence upon the New Testament (cf. Arndt and Gingrich 1967, xviii). Moreover, there is much to be learned from the ordinary records of the first century—the papyri (writings upon papyrus), the ostraca (notations on pottery fragments), and other inscriptions (coins, etc.) These shed much light on the New Testament.

Finally, though, it must be recognized that the inspired writers of the New Testament took words which were common to their age, and employed them in a far loftier sense than any to which the world had ever put them before. To use the description of Nigel Turner, many New Testament words “acquire a deeper sense and a new consecration with the Christian vocabulary” (1981, x).

Take, for instance, the word charis, “grace.” It is an old Greek term derived from the verb chairo, “to rejoice.” The Greeks used it for beauty, the “grace” of the physical form, favor, gratitude, etc. Anyone familiar with the New Testament, however, is certainly aware that the divine writers have taken this term and endowed it with a special flavor. It, among other things, denotes God’s great love as revealed in his redemptive plan—and that in spite of man’s unworthiness. Any who so wills to, can reach out (through obedience to the divine plan) and accept Heaven’s grace (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Titus 2:11-12).

In conclusion, we may note that there were providentially directed historical influences, and also divinely inspired guidance, in the formation of the books of the sacred Scriptures. Those who expend the time and energy (and expense in study tools) inquiring into these matters will be greatly rewarded for their diligence.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Archer, Gleason L. 1975. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 3. Merrill C. Tenney, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. Greek-Enlish Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Turner, Nigel. 1981. Christian Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.