What Was the Original Language of the Bible?

Trace the languages the Bible was written in and how they preserved God's Word

Greek Gospel Language of the Bible
Koine Greek Gospel. benedek / Getty Images 

Scripture started with a very primitive tongue and ended with a language even more sophisticated than English.

The linguistic history of the Bible involves three languages: Hebrew, koine or common Greek, and Aramaic. Over the centuries that the Old Testament was composed, however, Hebrew evolved to include features that made it easier to read and write.

Moses sat down to pen the first words of the Pentateuch, in 1400 B.C., It wasn't until 3,000 years later, in the 1500s A.D.

that the entire Bible was translated into English, making the document one of the oldest books in existence. Despite its age, Christians view the Bible as timely and relevant because it is the inspired Word of God.

Hebrew: Language of the Old Testament

Hebrew belongs to the Semitic language group, a family of ancient tongues in the Fertile Crescent that included Akkadian, the dialect of Nimrod in Genesis 10; Ugaritic, the language of the Canaanites; and Aramaic, commonly used in the Persian empire.

Hebrew was written from right to left and consisted of 22 consonants. In its earliest form, all the letters ran together. Later, dots and pronunciation marks were added to make it easier to read. As the language progressed, vowels were included to clarify words that had become obscure.

Sentence construction in Hebrew might place the verb first, followed by the noun or pronoun and objects. Because this word order is so different, a Hebrew sentence cannot be translated word-for-word into English.

Another complication is that a Hebrew word might substitute for a commonly used phrase, which had to be known to the reader.

Different Hebrew dialects introduced foreign words into the text. For example, Genesis contains some Egyptian expressions while Joshua, Judges, and Ruth include Canaanite terms.

Some of the prophetic books use Babylonian words, influenced by the Exile.

A leap forward in clarity came with the completion of the Septuagint, a 200 B.C. translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This work took in the 39 canonical books of the Old Testament as well as some books written after Malachi and before the New Testament. As Jews dispersed from Israel over the years, they forgot how to read Hebrew but could read Greek, the common language of the day.

Greek Opened the New Testament to Gentiles

When the Bible writers began to pen the gospels and epistles, they abandoned Hebrew and turned to the popular language of their time, koine or common Greek. Greek was a unifying tongue, spread during the conquests of Alexander the Great, whose desire was to Hellenize or spread Greek culture throughout the world. Alexander’s empire covered the Mediterranean, northern Africa, and parts of India, so the use of Greek became predominant.

Greek was easier to speak and write than Hebrew because it used a complete alphabet, including vowels. It also had a rich vocabulary, allowing for precise shades of meaning. An example is Greek’s four different words for love used in the Bible.

An added benefit was that Greek opened the New Testament to Gentiles, or non-Jews.

This was extremely important in evangelism because Greek allowed Gentiles to read and understand the gospels and epistles for themselves. 

Aramaic Added Flavor to the Bible

Although not a major part of Bible writing, Aramaic was used in several sections of Scripture. Aramaic was commonly used in the Persian Empire; after the Exile, the Jews brought Aramaic back to Israel where it became the most popular language.

The Hebrew Bible was translated into Aramaic, called the Targum, in the second temple period, which ran from 500 B.C. to 70 A.D. This translation was read in the synagogues and used for instruction.

Bible passages which originally appeared in Aramaic are Daniel 2-7; Ezra 4-7; and Jeremiah 10:11. Aramaic words are recorded in the New Testament as well:

  • Talitha qumi (“Maiden, or little girl, arise!”) Mark 5:41
  • Ephphatha (“Be opened”) Mark 7:34
  • Eli, Eli, lema sebaqtani (Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46
  • Abba (“Father”) Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6
  • Maranatha (“Lord, come!”) 1 Corinthians 16:22

Translations Into English

With the influence of the Roman Empire, the early church adopted Latin as its official language. In 382 A.D., Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to produce a Latin Bible. Working from a monastery in Bethlehem, he first translated the Old Testament directly from Hebrew, reducing the possibility of errors if he had used the Septuagint. Jerome’s entire Bible, called the Vulgate because he used the common speech of the time, came out about 402 A.D.

The Vulgate was the official text for nearly 1,000 years, but those Bibles were hand-copied and very expensive. Besides, most of the common people could not read Latin. The first complete English Bible was published by John Wycliffe in 1382, relying chiefly on the Vulgate as its source. That was followed by the Tyndale translation in about 1535 and the Coverdale in 1535. The Reformation led to a flurry of translations, both in English and other local languages.

English translations in common use today include the King James Version, 1611; American Standard Version, 1901; Revised Standard Version, 1952; Living Bible, 1972; New International Version, 1973; Today’s English Version (Good News Bible), 1976; New King James Version, 1982; and English Standard Version, 2001.   

Sources

  • The Bible Almanac; J.I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney; William White Jr., editors