|Devotion to Our Lady||
Can You Speak the Lingo? Or Is It All Greek To You?
The first human author to write down the biblical record was Moses. He was commanded by God to take on this task, for Exodus 34:27 records God's words to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And what language did he use? He wrote in his native language, called Hebrew.
In What Language was the Bible Originally Written?
Priests and seminarians can probably answer that easily enough, but most other people might have only a vague idea that the Bible was written in one of those “dead” languages. Ancient Greek? Latin, perhaps?
The Bible was actually written in three different ancient languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. While (a modern version of) each of these languages is spoken today, most modern readers of those languages would have some difficulty with the ancient versions used in the Biblical texts. It’s strange to think that we might hardly recognize the most influential book in the world in its original form!
Hebrew—the Language of (Most of) the Old Testament
Ancient Hebrew was the tongue of the ancient Israelites and the language in which most of the Old Testament was penned. Isaiah 19:18 calls it “the language of Canaan,” while other verses label it “Judean” and “language of the Jews” (4 Kings 18:26; Isaias 36:11, 13; 2 Paralipomenon 32:18; Nehemias 13:24).
Ancient Hebrew is a Semitic language that dates back past 1500 BC. Its alphabet consists of 22 characters, all consonants (don’t worry; vowels were eventually added), and is written from right to left.
After the Babylonian captivity, Aramaic replaced Biblical Hebrew as the everyday language in Palestine. The two languages were as similar as two Romance languages (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian) or two Germanic languages today. While Hebrew remained the sacred tongue of the Jews, its use as a common spoken language declined after the Jews’ return from exile (538 B.C.). Thus Biblical Hebrew, which was still used for religious purposes, was not totally unfamiliar, but still a somewhat strange norm that demanded a certain degree of training to be understood properly. Despite a revival of the language during the Maccabean era, it was eventually all but replaced in everyday usage by Aramaic. Modern Hebrew can trace its ancestry to Biblical Hebrew, but has incorporated many other influences as well.
Hebrew is one of a group of several languages known as the Semitic languages which were spoken throughout that part of the world, then called Mesopotamia, located today mainly in Iraq. Their alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. (Imagine having an alphabet with no vowels! Much later they did add vowels.)
During the thousand years of its composition, almost the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew. But a few chapters in the prophecies of Ezra and Daniel and one verse in Jeremias were written in a language called Aramaic. This language became very popular in the ancient world and actually displaced many other languages. Aramaic even became the common language spoken in Israel in Jesus’ time, and it was likely the language He spoke day by day. Some Aramaic words were even used by the Gospel writers in the New Testament.
Ancient Aram, bordering northern Israel and now called Syria, is considered the linguistic epicenter of Aramaic, the language of the Arameans who settled the area during the Bronze Age circa 3500 BC. Ancient Aramaic originated among the Arameans in northern Syria (see map at top of the left column) and became widely used under the Assyrians. A few passages in the Old Testament were written in Aramaic (Genesis 31:47; Esdras 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Jeremias 10:11).
Some have compared the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic to that between modern Spanish and Portuguese: they’re distinct languages, but sufficiently closely related that a reader of one can understand much of the other. Aramaic was very popular in the ancient world and was commonly spoken in Jesus’ time.
During its approximately 3,000 years of written history, Aramaic has served variously as a language of administration of empires and as a language of divine worship. It became the lingua franca (bridge language, common language, trade language) of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC), Neo-Babylonian Empire (605–539 BC), the Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC), the Parthian Empire (247 BC–224 AD), and the Sasanian Empire (224–651 AD), and the day-to-day language of Roman Judaea (539 BC–70 AD). It was the language of Jesus, Who spoke a Western Aramaic language during his public ministry.
Aramaic's long history and diverse and widespread use has led to the development of many divergent varieties, which are sometimes considered dialects, though they are distinct enough that they are sometimes considered languages. Therefore, there is not one singular, static Aramaic language; each time and place rather has had its own variation. Aramaic is retained as a liturgical language by certain Eastern Christian churches, in the form of Syriac.
Aramaic is often spoken of as a single language. However, it is in reality a group of related languages, rather than a single monolithic language—something which it has never been. Some Aramaic languages differ more from each other than the Romance languages do among themselves. Its long history, extensive literature, and use by different religious communities are all factors in the diversification of the language. Some Aramaic dialects are mutually intelligible, whereas others are not mutually intelligible.
The major Aramaic dialect Syriac is the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity, in particular the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Saint Thomas Christian Churches in India, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church, Assyrian Evangelical Church, Ancient Church of the East, Syriac Catholic Church and the Maronite Church.
The New Testament Was All Greek To Most People
The New Testament, however, was written in Greek. This seems strange, since you might think it would be either Hebrew or Aramaic. However, Greek was the language of scholarship during the years of the composition of the New Testament from 50 to 100 AD.
Whereas the Classical Greek city states used different dialects of Greek, a common standard, called Koine (meaning “common”), developed gradually in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, as a consequence of the formation of larger political structures (like the Greek colonies, Athenian Empire, and the Macedonian Empire) and a more intense cultural exchange in the Aegean area, or in other words the Hellenization of the empire of Alexander the Great. What’s interesting about Biblical Greek is that it didn’t use a high-class or complicated style; it was written in Koine (common Greek), a language that could be understood by almost anyone, educated or not.
The fact is that many Jews could not even read Hebrew anymore, and this disturbed the Jewish leaders a lot! Ever since the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Jews had been “Hellenized” (“Greek-ified”, so to speak). After Alexander, Palestine was ruled by the Ptolemies and the Seleucids for almost two hundred years. Jewish culture was heavily influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) culture, and Koine Greek was used not only for international communication, but also as the first language of many Jews. This development was furthered by the fact that the largest Jewish community of the world lived in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Egypt), also called the Diaspora. Many of these diaspora Jews would have Greek as their first language.
The New Testament Gospels and Epistles were only part of a Hellenistic Jewish culture in the Roman Empire, where Alexandria had a larger Jewish population than Jerusalem, and Greek was spoken by more Jews than Hebrew. You could, in a broad sense, compare the heavy influence of the Greek language to the English language that predominates in the United States of America. Even though children are born to ethnic parents in the USA, for the most part, they no longer speak the native language of their parents, but only English.
So, around 300 BC, a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek was undertaken, and it was completed around 200 BC. Gradually this Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was widely accepted and was even used in many synagogues. It also became a wonderful missionary tool for the early Christians, for now the Greeks and Gentiles could read God’s Word in their own tongue or in the prevailing language of the time.
Lost in Translation?
Some people have the idea that the Bible has been translated so many times, that it has become corrupted through stages of translating. If the translations were being made from other translations, they would have a case. But translations are actually made directly from original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic source texts based on thousands of ancient manuscripts.
The Old Testament's accuracy was confirmed by an archaeological discovery in 1947, along today's West Bank in Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls contained Old Testament Scripture dating 1,000 years older than any manuscripts we had. When comparing the manuscripts at hand with these, from 1,000 years earlier, we find agreement 99.5% of the time. And the 0.5% differences are minor spelling variances and sentence structure, that doesn't change the meaning of the sentence.
Regarding the New Testament, it is humanity's most reliable ancient document. We have thousands of copies of the New Testament, all dated closely to the original writing. In fact, we are more sure the New Testament remains as it was originally written by its writers, than we are sure of writings we attribute to Plato, or Aristotle, or Homer's Iliad.
The Alexandrian Miracle?In third-century BC, in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the last of the pharaonic rulers—Ptolemy Philadelphus II—wanted his Jewish subjects to have access to their own holy books. Because of the far-reaching conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek had become the language of the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt was no exception. Those who identified themselves as Jewish could no longer read their own Scriptures, and Philadelphus was keen to help. More importantly, he wished to collect a compilation of these writings, in Greek, for Alexandria’s famous library, which boasted a copy of every book in the known world. Calling together seventy of his best scholars, he charged them with a massive undertaking: each one was to work independently, carefully translating Hebrew texts to Greek.
And then, according to legend, an extraordinary thing happened. When Ptolemy compared the seventy different translations, he found that each copy was precisely like the next. There could be no explanation other than that God himself directed the translators in their work. This new Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Septuagint (from the Greek for seventy), was perfect, authoritative, useful, and—above all—divinely inspired.
Is this legend true? Some maintain that it is. Many scholars, however, prefer to consider this story not for its factual merit but for what it tells us about the historical moment. For one thing, it reveals anxieties over the issue of words and texts and their relationship to ideas of holiness. Does the Bible “mean” something different in its original language than it does in translation? This story about Ptolemy Philadelphus II suggests the opposite: in whatever language, the Bible is still a holy book because God directs the work of the translators.