What Were the Original Languages of the Bible?

I found this excellent article at Biblegateway.com and I thought I’d share it:

Photo credit http://www.human-resonance.org (ancient Aramaic scroll, though, not from the OT)

What language was the Bible originally written in? Pastors and seminarians can probably answer that easily enough, but the rest of us 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, 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” (2 Kings 18:26; Isaiah 36:11, 13; 2 Chronicles 32:18; Nehemiah 13:24).

Ancient Hebrew is a Semitic language that dates back past 1500 B.C. Its alphabet consists of 22 characters, all consonants (don’t worry; vowels were eventually added), and is written from right to left.

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.). 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.

What’s Aramaic?

Ancient Aramaic originated among the Arameans in northern Syria and became widely used under the Assyrians. A few passages in the Old Testament were written in Aramaic (Genesis 31:47; Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Jeremiah 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.

bible scribe

Photo credit hcsb.org

The New Testament wasn’t written in Hebrew?

Many people assume that the New Testament was written in Hebrew as well, but by the time the gospels were being written, many Jews didn’t even speak Hebrew anymore. Rome had conquered Greece, and the influence of Greek culture had saturated the empire. 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.

It’s amazing to see how the Word of God has traveled through languages and cultures. It began in the language of his chosen people, adopted the language of the Roman world, and now exists in over 2,000 different languages. Far from being a static, one-language text, the Bible actually embraces translation and cross-language accessibility by its very nature. Whether you read the Bible in its original languages or in one of thousands of modern tongues, it’s a blessing to be able to read God’s word today just as it was read thousands of years ago.

Which Old Testament texts did Jesus prefer? How many of the OT books did Jesus quote?

source – http://www.bible.ca


  1. Jesus quoted from 24 different Old Testament books.
  2. The New Testament as a whole quotes from 34 books of the Old Testament Books. These 5 books are never quoted in the New Testament: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon.
  3. It is not significant that these books: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, were never quoted in the New Testament, because they were part of „collections” of Old Testament books. Since other books within the same collection were quoted, this shows them too to be inspired.
  4. The New Testament never quotes from the any of the apocryphal books written between 400 – 200 BC. What is significant here is that NONE of the books within the „apocryphal collection” are every quoted. So the Catholic argument that „the apocryphal books cannot be rejected as uninspired on the basis that they are never quoted from in the New Testament because Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon are also never quoted in the New Testament, and we all accept them as inspired.” The rebuttal to this Catholic argument is that „Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther” were always included in the „history collection” of Jewish books and „Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon” were always included in the „poetry collection”. By quoting one book from the collection, it verifies the entire collection. None of the apocryphal books were ever quoted in the New Testament. Not even once! This proves the Catholic and Orthodox apologists wrong when they try to defend the apocrypha in the Bible.

A. What books were in each of the three collections:

  1. The Law (Torah) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy
  1. The Prophets (Neviim) – Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel (one volume), 1 & 2 Kings (one volume), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the 12 Minor Prophets (one volume)
  1. The Writings (Kethubim) – Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah (one volume), 1 & 2 Chronicles (one volume)

B. Jesus and the Old Testament:

  1. Jesus, like all the Jews of the first century, divided the Old Testament into three „collections”: the law, the prophets, the psalms. Jesus said: „These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are  written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
  2. Sometimes the sum of the Old Testament was referred to as two collections: the law and the prophets. Intestingly, Jesus referred to Psalm 82:6 as „Law”: „Jesus answered them,  „Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” John 10:34. This may explain why most of the time there were two collections referred to as a sum for the whole.
  3. „Do not think that I came to abolish  the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. Matthew 5:17
  4. „For all  the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. Matthew 11:13
  5. ” The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. Luke 16:16
  6. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, „We have found Him of whom Moses in  the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
  7. After the reading of  the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, „Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” Acts 13:15
  8. „But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; Acts 24:14

C. An essay by Craig A. Evans:

Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Craig A. Evans, The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers, p 191-194, 2002

Did Jesus Recognize a Specific Text of Scripture?  It does not appear so, for his usage of scripture is allusive, paraphrastic, and-so far as it can be ascertained-eclectic. We find agreement with the proto-Masoretic text, with the Hebrew under-lying the Septuagint (perhaps even the Septuagint itself), and with the Aramaic para-phrase. Several examples from each category will illustrate the phenomena. The examples that are chosen are the most obvious, in that they stand over against the readings in the other versions.

A. Agreements with the Proto-Masoretic Text

Some of Jesus’ quotations and allusions to scripture agree with the proto-Masoretic text against the Septuagint. In the parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29) Jesus alludes to Joel 4:13 (ET 3:13): „he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark’s therismos („harvest”) renders literally the Hebrew gsyr, unlike the Septuagint’s trygetos („vintage”). In Matt 11:29 Jesus bids his hearers to take his yoke upon them: „and you will find rest [anapausin] for your souls.” The saying alludes to Jer 6:16 in the Hebrew, where the Lord speaks through his prophet: „walk in (the good way), and find rest (nirgw`] for your souls”; and not to the Septuagint, which renders the passage: „and you will find purification [hagnismon] for your souls.” In Mark 13:8 Jesus warns his disciples that in the tribulation that lies ahead „nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” He alludes to Isa 19:2 in the Hebrew, which in part reads: „city against city, kingdom against kingdom”; the Septuagint, in contrast, reads: „city against city, province against province.” In Luke 16:15 Jesus asserts that „what is exalted among humans is an abomination [bdelygrna] in the sight of God.” This alludes to Prov 16:5 in the Hebrew, where the wise man claims: „Every one who is arrogant is an abomination [tw’bh] to the LORD”; not to the Septuagint: „Every arrogant person is unclean [akathartos] before God.” Finally, In the words of institution, Jesus speaks of his blood, „which is poured out [ekchynnomenon] for many” (Mark 14:24), which alludes to Isa 53:12 in the Hebrew: „he poured out [h’rh] his soul to death”; not in the Septuagint: „his soul was given over (paredothe] to death.”

B. Agreements with the Septuagint.

Jesus’ scripture quotations and allusions sometime agree with the Septuagint against the proto-Masoretic Hebrew. Jesus’ quotation of Isa 29:13 is quite septuagintal, both in form and meaning (cf. Mark 7:6-7). The identification of John the Baptist as Elijah who „restores” (apokathistanei) all things (Mark 9:12) seems dependent on the Septuagint form (apokatastesei), or at least a Septuagintal form of Hebrew, not the proto-Masoretic Hebrew, which reads hshyb („return” or „turn back”). Curiously, both of these elements are found in Sir 48:10, in which the returning Elijah is expected „to turn [Septuagint: epistrepsai; Hebrew: lush},b] the heart of the father to the son, and to restore [Septuagint: katastesai; Hebrew: lhkyn] the tribes of Jacob.” Both elements may well have been present in the original Hebrew version of Sirach.22 The quotation of Ps 8:3 (ET 8:2) in Matt 21:16 follows the Septuagint. But this may be the work of the evangelist. Finally, the highly important allusions to phrases from Isa 35:5-6; 26:19; and 61:1 in Matt 11:5 = Luke 7:22 agree in places with the Septuagint. Of course, agreements with the Septuagint no longer require us to think that Jesus read or quoted the Septuagint .23 Thanks to the Bible scrolls of the Dead Sea region, we now know that there were Hebrew Vorlagen underlying much of the Greek Old Testament. Indeed, there are examples where Jesus’ quotations of and allu-sions to scripture agree with some Greek versions against others. Jesus’ use of the Bible attests the diversity of the textual tradition that now, thanks to the Scrolls, is more fully documented.

C. Agreements with the Aramaic.

There are also several important examples of agreement with the Aramaic tradition, which arose in the synagogue and eventually assumed written form as the Targum. These examples will be treated in more detail.

There are significant examples in which Jesus’ language agrees with the Aramaic tradition. The paraphrase of Isa 6:9-10 in Mark 4:12 concludes with ” . . . and it be forgiven them.” Only the Isaiah Targum reads this way.zb The Hebrew and the Septuagint read „heal.” The criterion of dissimilarity argues for the authenticity of this strange saying, for the tendencies in both Jewish-” and Christian 21 circles were to understand this Isaianic pas-sage in a way significantly different from the way it appears to be understood in the Markan tradition. The saying, „All those grasping a sword by a sword will perish” (Matt 26:52), has dictional agreement with Targum Isaiah 50:11: „Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who grasp a sword! Go, fall in the fire which you kindled and on the sword which you grasped!” The items that the targum has added to the Hebrew text are the very items that lie behind Jesus’ statement. Jesus’ saying on Gehenna (Mark 9:47-48), where he quotes part of Isa 66:24, again reflects targumic diction. The Hebrew and the Septuagint say nothing about Gehenna, but the targum has: ” . . . will not die and their fire shall not be quenched, and the wicked shall be judged in Gehenna. . . .” The verse is alluded to twice in the Apocrypha (Jdt 16:17; Sir 7:17), where, in contrast to Hebrew Isaiah, it seems to be looking beyond temporal punishment toward eschatological judgment. But the implicit association of Gehenna with Isa 66:24 is distinctly targumic. And, of course, the targumic paraphrase is explicitly eschatological, as is Jesus’ saying. The distinctive reading found in Targwn Pseudo-Jonathan Lev 22:28, „My people, children of Israel, as our Father is merciful in heaven, so shall you be merciful on earth,” lies behind Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:36: „Become merciful just as your Father is merciful.” While it is unlikely that Jesus has quoted the Targum,21 and even less plausible that the Targum has quoted him ’30 the parallel demands explanation. Most probably the Targum and Jesus both repeat a saying that circulated in first-century Palestine (cf. y Ber. 5:3; y. Meg. 4:9).

There are other instances of thematic and exegetical coherence between Jesus’ use of scripture and the Aramaic tradition. The parable of the Wicked Vineyard Tenants (Mark 12:1-12 par.) is based on Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:l-7), as the dozen or so words in the opening lines of the Markan parable demonstrate. But Isaiah’s parable was directed against the „house of Israel” and the „men of Judah” (cf. Isa 5:7). In contrast, Jesus’ parable is directed against the „ruling priests, scribes, and elders” (cf. Mark 11:27), who evidently readily perceived that the parable had been told „against them” and not against the general populace (cf. Mark 12:12). Why was this parable so understood, when it is obviously based on a prophetic parable that spoke to the nation as a whole? The answer is found once again in the Isaiah Targum, which in place of „tower” and „wine vat” reads „sanctuary” and „altar” (cf. Isa 5:2 and Tg. Isa 5:2),3′ institutions which will be destroyed (cf. Isa 5:5 and Tg. Isa 5:5). The Isaiah Targum has significantly shifted the thrust of the prophetic indictment against the priestly establishment. Jesus’ parable seems to reflect this orientation: the prob-lem does not lie with the vineyard; it lies with the caretakers of the vineyard. A few of these components appear outside of the New Testament and the Isaiah Targum. In 1 Eiioch 89:66-67 the temple is referred to as a „tower.” Its first destruction is referred to, but with-out any apparent allusion to Isa 5. This Enochic tradition appears in Barnabas 16:l-5, where it is applied to the second destruction, but without reference to either Isa 5 or Mark 12. Thus the coherence between Targum Isaiah 5 and Mark 12 is distinctive, and probably cannot be explained away as coincidence. 4Q500, which dates to the first century B.C.E., alludes to Isaiah’s parable of the Vineyard and applies it to the Temple, demonstrating the antiquity of the exegetical orientation presupposed later in Jesus and later still in the Targum.

Even the problematic quotation of Ps 118:22-23 may receive some clarification from the targum. Klyne Snodgrass has argued plausibly that its presence is due to a play on words between „the stone” (h’bn) and „the son” (hbn), which probably explains the read-ing in Targiini Ps 118:22: „The son which the builders rejected. . . .”3′ This kind of word play is old and is witnessed in the New Testament (cf. Matt 3:9 par.: „from these stones God is able to raise up children [which in Aramaic originally could have been „sons”] to Abraham”; cf. Luke 19:40) and in Josephus (B.J. 5.6.3 §272). The quotation was assimi-lated to the better known Greek version, since it was used by Christians for apologetic and christological purposes (cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:4, 7), and possibly because second generation Christians were unaware of the original Aramaic word play.

Perhaps most important of all is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God: „The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ „good news” (etiangelion) harks back to the „good news” (bgr) of Isaiah, but not in the Hebrew: „O Zion, you that bring good news … say, `Behold, your God”‘ (40:9); or „who proclaims good news of good … who says to Zion, `Your God reigns”‘ (52:7); rather, in the Aramaic: „prophets who proclaim good news to Zion … say, `The kingdom of your God is revealed”‘ (Tg. Isa. 40:9); or „who proclaims good news … who says to … Zion, `The kingdom of your God is revealed”‘ (Tg. Isa. 52:7). (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Craig A. Evans, The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers, p 191-194, 2002)

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