Languages of the Bible
The Bible is an eastern book and was written by eastern people. “The prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). These “holy men” spoke three main languages, which are Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. If we want to understand the Bible, we need to know how to study these languages. This article is a brief introduction to the history of the three languages and how they interact in Biblical study.
The oldest language is probably Aramaic. It was not called that then, but many Aramaic speaking people today say that Aramaic as a language goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. They call it “the Mesopotamian language.” The first mention of Aram, the youngest son of Shem, is in Genesis 10:22. The language that Aram spoke was transmitted down to Abraham.
Abraham left his home in Mesopotamia and traveled with his brother Nahor to Haran in Syria. The son of Nahor was also called Aram (Genesis 22:21). This land area in Syria became known as the land of the Aramaens, or Aram. Later, Abraham left Haran and crossed the Euphrates River and traveled to Canaan. His descendants were called Hebrews, a term derived from the Aramaic word abar, meaning “to cross over.” Gradually, a unique dialect and script was developed called Hebrew. The Old Testament scriptures were written and compiled in this language. Throughout the centuries from Moses’ time on, Hebrew was used as the Biblical language and was preserved very carefully by the scribes.
By the time of the New Testament in the first century, Aramaic was the commercial and business language throughout the Near East and Greek and Latin were also spoken by the people in the Roman Empire. Hebrew continued to be the language preserved in the Old Testament scriptures. The Gospels were most certainly written in Aramaic and most likely Paul’s epistles were also. But as the gospel reached out in the first century from Jerusalem into Antioch of Syria and then on into Achaia and Macedonia, which were Greek-speaking areas, the scriptures were almost immediately translated into Greek. This is also why there are additions of Greek loan words in the Aramaic (words of Greek origin spelled in Aramaic letters) and also Aramaic loan words in the early Koine (Biblical) Greek.
In the fourth century, there was a split between the eastern and western churches. Basically, the eastern churches continued to use the Aramaic version of the New Testament called the Peshitta (which means “simple” or “straight”) and the western churches used the Greek versions. We are still told today that the Greek versions are the “best and most accurate” because we have grown up as part of the western tradition. But the truth is that the two languages of scriptures grew up together and each has valuable things to contribute to Biblical study.
This is a very brief overview of the development of the three languages, but as you can see, because of this history, it is important that we study all three if we want to understand the Bible. Aramaic and Hebrew are very closely related and because of that, there is a strong tie between the Old and New Testaments. Greek is the language through which we eventually got the King James Version and it is the language which has been and still is the most studied by scholars and Biblical students.
What is the main value of each language for Biblical study? Since Aramaic and Hebrew are so similar, I think that their value is also similar. They both are very picturesque and descriptive languages, rich with idioms, figures of speech and illustrations. These are all a “gold mine” and rich enough to study for a lifetime! Greek is the classical language of the Roman Empire and since the history and transmission of the gospel occurred in that time, there are many customs and manners that help us to understand the New Testament. For example, all of the references that Paul makes in the epistles to the Roman games are from the Greek and Roman culture (I Corinthians (:25-27).
To conclude with a practical example of the interaction of all the languages, let us look at a sample verse from Hebrews.
Hebrews 13:5: Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
Hebrews 13:5 (Aramaic): Your mind should not love money, but what you have should be sufficient for you. For the LORD has said: I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU AND I WILL NOT LET GO OF YOU.
The last part of this verse is a quotation from Deuteronomy of some of the last words of Moses to the children of Israel:
Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.
The Aramaic of Hebrews 13:5b literally says, “I will not leave you and I will not let my hands let loose of you.” The word “let loose” is the same as “fail you” in the Hebrew of Deuteronomy. It is a picture of God not letting his hands go slack or hang down and do nothing. God will always be working on our behalf!
The Greek further emphasizes the phrase by putting no less than 5 negatives together and states literally: I will never, no, never leave thee, nor ever forsake thee. This literally confirms God’s promise to us, as well as to Israel!
We can see from this brief study that there is an interaction between all the Biblical languages and it is important to understand how they work together to get the complete understanding of a passage of scripture.