The Original Languages
of the Bible
The original language of the people of
The Hebrew name for
Aramaic became the important international language of the Middle East during the years before the fall of
It seems that when the Babylonians conquered
This continued over the years, and by the time of Jesus, Hebrew probably was not spoken any longer, except for religious purposes. Proof of this language change can be found as early as Nehemiah 8.8, where the book of the law (the Pentateuch) is read in Hebrew and translated orally on the spot into Aramaic so that the people can understand it.
A few parts of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic---Ezra 4.7--6.18 and Daniel 2.4--7.28, as well as a few scattered verses elsewhere. Unofficial versions of Old Testament materials were also translated into Aramaic to aid those who had to preach in the synagogues. These translations are called the Targums.
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Greek became a very important language in this part of the world.
These two families of kings ---the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria---became very important for the history of the Jewish people between the Old and New Testaments. These kings were always fighting for control of the land between them, so there were many battles in the
The leader of the Jews during this time was the high priest. He was not only the religious leader of the country, but the political leader as well.
The Jews remained independent for about one hundred years, until they were finally added to the
Long before, at the time of the fall of
The Jewish community who used the Septuagint did not use only the books which had been translated from Hebrew. There were other religious books which had been written in Greek (or in Hebrew but passed on to us only in Greek), and some of these were added to the Septuagint as well. So from early days the Septuagint was quite different from the Hebrew scriptures.
IV. The language of Jesus
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Many scholars believe that Mark's Gospel was written in Aramaic, and only later translated into Greek, and some believe that other portions of the New Testament were also originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew. This may or may not be true, but it is true that the only New Testament materials we have today are all in Greek. By the time the New Testament was being written, the Christian church had spread into many different areas and countries, and Greek was the language needed.
This is extremely interesting because it means that for the most part we do not have any record of Jesus's exact words. We have his words only in the Greek translation that the Gospel writers used. (There are a few cases of Aramaic words in the New Testament, such as Abba, "father.") From the very beginning, Christianity has been a religion which has used translation to give its scriptures to the believers. Those of us who are involved in translation today are simply following in the footsteps of the first Gospel writers.
This is true in another way, as well. When the New Testament writers wanted to quote from the Old Testament, they needed to do this in Greek.
There were basically three ways in which they did this.
They translated from the Hebrew (or Aramaic translations of the Hebrew) themselves.
They quoted from memory (from Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek sources).
They used the old Greek translation, the Septuagint. It appears from the form of the quotes that the Septuagint was used as the basis for Old Testament quotes in the New Testament quotes 60% or more of the time.
When the Christian church wanted to agree on which books should be part of its own complete Bible, there was some disagreement, particularly about the Old Testament. Some people felt that only the Hebrew books should be included (these were the only books which were accepted by the Jews). Others felt that they should not lose the extra books and parts of books which had been included in the Septuagint. This disagreement was never settled among different groups of Christians, and it is still with us today.
The Roman Catholic Church accepts the Hebrew books as the first part of the Old Testament, but they consider the material from Greek also to be an integral part of the Old Testament (the second part, which they call the Deuterocanon). The Anglicans and some Protestant churches also use some or all of these books from the Greek, and they were included in the King James Version when it was first translated into English. However, other Protestant churches consider only the Hebrew books to be part of the Bible.
The Orthodox churches have the largest canon of all, which varies as well from group to group of Orthodox believers.
It is because of this that we now have two (and will soon have more) editions of many translations of the Bible. The shorter edition has only the books from Hebrew, and is preferred by most Protestant Churches. The longer edition is mainly for the Catholics, but it is also used by some Lutherans and Anglicans. Orthodox churches have recently begun working on modern translations and will require yet other versions.