Languages of the Bible

This entry is part 325 of 374 in the series Inquiring Minds
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Was the Bible originally written in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek?

Yes, the original manuscripts of the Bible were written in these three languages. The Old Testament is written almost completely in ancient Hebrew. Parts of Daniel were written in Aramaic. And the New Testament was written in Koine Greek.

The Hebrew of the Old Testament varies based on when it was written. Some books are harder to read than others. For instance, most of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) is written in an easy-to-read form. Sentences are not constructed for harder reading.

When you get into some of the later Hebrew, it is more complex. This makes sense because languages get more intricate the longer they exist. The only time they get simpler, as we will see with Greek, is where they become the lingua franca of the day. By this, I mean that the more different ethnic groups use the language, the simpler it becomes in everyday business and conversation.

Some of the hardest parts to read of the Old Testament Hebrew are the Hebrew poetry. Because of the mix of poetic and prose speech, they become more difficult to translate and interpret. By far the hardest is the poetry itself. Hebrew poetry has beautiful imagery, but it is harder to interpret, like any poetry.

Because Daniel was in exile in Babylon and Persia, Aramaic became the language of the Israelites in captivity. Daniel is mostly written in Hebrew. But the languages are very similar. Mostly the digs and the personal pronouns are different from Hebrew. It is only partially difficult to translate these sections of the Old Testament.

In the days of the New Testament, Greek was the lingua franca of the day. It was used for commerce and anytime you would run into a foreigner. Just like English today is used throughout the world for commerce and as a common language that most people though, Greek was the language of the first century.

As you got into local areas, you would see the local language. Anytime you weren’t from around that place, Greek was the best way to communicate. Most people learned Greek because of Alexander the great and his mission to colonize the world. Everywhere he went, he did not only win the war but he made it his mission to take the Greek culture and language to the rest of the world.

He was so effective that even the Romans relied on Greek instead of Latin to communicate with local groups of people. They were the kind of civilization that didn’t reinvent the wheel. The Romans contributed to society and culture in other ways. They are probably best known for their building of roads and their ability to answer the “how” practical questions of their day.

The Greeks were best at philosophy and answering the “why” questions of their day. So the Greeks laid the foundation for a common culture across the world while the Romans used whatever was available and concentrated on the practical problems of their day.

For this reason, when the New Testament writers wrote their books, they wanted to reach as many people as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. So the best way to do this was to write them in Greek instead of Aramaic, the language of most of the New Testament writers.

It was so much easier to write in Koine Greek instead of local languages. They wouldn’t have to translate the Scriptures from place to place. Instead, they could rely on the common language of the day. Koine means “common” in Greek. Koine Greek was the common language in the first century. Everyone was using it for commerce, so it was perfect for spreading the gospel.

No matter where they went, most of the people in those areas would know Greek. In truth, Jesus came at the right time in human history. Paul says that “at the right time” Jesus was born of a woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4).

The Greeks laid the foundation for spreading the gospel through language and culture. And the Romans constructed the roads that Paul, other apostles, and Christians traveled to take the gospel everywhere in the known Roman world.

If Jesus what have come earlier than the time he did, these foundations would not be in place throughout the world. The gospel would have been harder to spread. So this is why the New Testament writers used Greek. Everyone had instant access to the message of the gospel.

Just like the Old Testament, different books of the New Testament are harder or easier to read. John may be one of the most interesting writers of the New Testament. All of his writings are easy to read on the face of it. The hard part is when he uses more complex concepts and allusions. Although it’s easier to read, it is rich in the way that he uses the Greek language.

Some of the harder Greek of the New Testament happens for two reasons. The first is that you have some writers who were not necessarily proficient in “good Greek.” My best example of this is Peter. He was a fisherman, so he owned a business and had to do business in Greek, but he was still “a Galilean” who was considered uneducated in his day. His Greek is harder to read because he didn’t have the greatest grasp of the language.

Other writers, especially Luke, wrote Koine Greek than most. He almost borders on classical Greek as he writes Luke and Acts. When you read these books, they are harder to translate because he is almost using Attic Greek instead of Koine Greek.

Throughout the Bible, you have different levels of each language. Over 40 authors and 1600 years will give you a wide variance even within each language. But the amazing thing about the Bible is how God has used it to reach billions of people with his good news.

The writers of each of the time periods throughout human history have written out of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But the languages they used were perfect for the situations they were in. Old Testament writers used Hebrew because these books were written in Israel for the most part.

When the language of the day switched from Hebrew to Aramaic, Hebrew was mostly used for religious matters, and in the temple. When Daniel went into exile, he turned to Aramaic because the Israelites spoke Aramaic more than Hebrew in exile.

The writers of the New Testament used the language of the day everywhere they went. The gospel could be heard and understood without having to learn a whole bunch of different local languages. This made it possible for the gospel to be spread across the entire Roman empire. Everyone from Europe to Asia Minor could hear the gospel in Greek.

God uses languages in a powerful way. He makes sure that his message can be heard no matter the culture or time. Because he created language, he knows how to use the most efficient means to spread his word to everyone so that we will be held accountable for the choice we make to follow Jesus or not. We can’t blame language and not being able to hear the gospel for the choices we make.

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