The Original Languages of the Bible

I. Hebrew
The original language of the people of Israel was Hebrew. Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew.

II. Aramaic
The Hebrew name for Syria is Aram. The language of Syria was known as Aramaic. It is a language very much like Hebrew, but it is still a different language.

Aramaic became the important international language of the Middle East during the years before the fall of Jerusalem. In Isaiah 36 (especially verses 11-13), we see an interesting example of the relationship of Hebrew and Aramaic in the days of King Hezekiah. Aramaic was the language for discussion with the foreigners, but Hebrew was the language that the ordinary people used.

It seems that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried many of the people of Judah away to Babylon, this was the beginning of the end of the Hebrew language. After this, the Aramaic language began to become more important in the land of Israel as well as in other areas.

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.

III. Greek
Alexander the Great was a mighty conqueror, and he conquered all the countries from Greece to Egypt and India, including Syria and Israel and Persia. After he died, his territory was divided up between his generals. One of them was the first of the Ptolemy family who ruled Egypt. Another was the first of the Seleucid family who ruled Syria. From at least this time

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 land of Israel.

Sometimes Israel was ruled by Egypt, sometimes by Syria. Finally, one of the kings of Syria, named Antiochus Epiphanes, decided to try to destroy the Jewish religion. His soldiers went into the temple, where they were not allowed, and even sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple. They tried to force Jews to eat pig meat, and to do other things which were against the Jewish religion. The situation became so serious that finally a rebellion broke out, led by the family called the Maccabees. This rebellion was successful. They drove out the foreign army, and were able to win independence for themselves.

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 Roman Empire about 60 years before Jesus was born.

Long before, at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, many Jews had gone to Egypt, and after this time the Jewish community in Egypt became very important. Like the Jews in other areas, they stopped using the Hebrew language. But for them the new language was Greek. These Jews wanted to be able to read the scriptures in a language they could understand, so they arranged to have the books of the Old Testament translated into Greek. This was a famous translation known today as the Septuagint.

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
By the time of Jesus, the language of Palestine (Galilee, Samaria, and Judea) was Aramaic. Jesus must have talked to his disciples and to the crowds in Aramaic. However, it seems likely that Jesus also used Greek, for example when he was speaking to Pilate. Although Latin was the real language of the Romans, Greek was the main language of the Roman Empire.

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.