The Bible is a very ancient book, originally written in Hebrew (the Old Testament) and Greek (the New Testament), with a very tiny portion written in Aramaic. This page provides a bit of background information on these languages and some of the peculiarities of how they were written down. Hebrew, for example, was written without any vowels! We also briefly look at some of the ancient translations of the Bible and their significance.
The Bible was not originally written in English. Most of the Old Testament (around 98%) was written in ancient Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek. This page presents a short introduction to the Biblical languages and the early translations of the Bible. While most of the information here is more for interest rather than because it’s at all necessary for an understanding of the Bible, it is always worth remembering that the Bible is a translated book, written in ancient languages and reflecting cultural mores very different from the modern world. Here and there we find words where scholars are not precisely sure of the meaning, or grammar which can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. This helps to understand why English Bible translations differ, and why choosing one is an important step.
The Hebrew language
Hebrew belongs to the Semitic family of languages, along with Arabic, Aramaic, and others. One of the interesting features of Hebrew is that most of its words come from root-words which typically have three letters (this is sometimes known as a tri-literal root system). These three letters are consonants, and by altering the vowels between them, and perhaps adding other syllables at the beginning or end of words, one can make other words which are related to the root. For instance, from the root k-t-b which has to do with reading, you can generate different verb forms (‘they are reading’, ‘read it!’), but also other words like ‘book’, ‘write’, ‘inscription’, and so forth. It is a very flexible system.
Hebrew has a relatively simple grammatical structure (nouns don’t inflect as they do in German or Latin), and the main complexity is the verbal system which has different conjugations to express intensity, reflexivity, and so on. One fascinating feature about Hebrew is that it doesn’t have tense in the way that we normally think of for Western European languages. Instead it employs something called ‘aspect’. The perfect aspect is used for actions which are regarded as complete or as event-entities in themselves (it’s thus often translated by the past tense in English, even though it’s not strictly the same as a past tense). The imperfect is used to describe incomplete or ongoing actions (and it can often be translated by the future tense, though again, it’s not really the same thing).
A world without vowels
Finally a word about Hebrew writing. One of the peculiarities about it is that it was not traditionally written with any vowels. Instead the consonants alone were written, and readers would work out and insert the correct vowels as they were reading. To Westerners used to reading texts with vowels, this sounds bizarre. However, it’s often not as difficult as it sounds to work out from the surrounding context or from memory what the vowels must have been. Here is an example in English with vowels removed. It might take you a few moments at first, but ultimately the task is far from impossible.
For instance, the consonants B R could represent the words ‘bear, bare, boor, boar, bar, bee, braer’ – and various others. This sounds confusing, but if you saw the sentence ‘I saw a BR in the forest the other day’ it would be most likely that ‘bear’ or ‘boar’ were meant rather than ‘bar’ or ‘beer’. Further reading would probably quickly confirm whether it were actually a boar or a bear.
Matters were further complicated (just a little this time) by the absence of punctuation and by the fact that often no spaces were inserted between words. This tended to increase the propensity for copyist error (copying the syllable twice at the end of the word, or missing one out if the next word happened to begin with the same syllable). Such errors are occasionally found in Biblical manuscripts that we have, but they’re generally fairly easy to spot and rarely cast the meaning of the passage in question in any serious doubt. Here’s an example of English written in this style without vowels or punctuation:
In the tenth century AD (around 1400 years or so after the last parts of the Old Testament were written) a group of scribes and copyists known as the Massoretes decided they would attempt to remove any confusion by writing in the vowel points around the consonantal text. How did they know what the vowels were? There are two answers to that. One is by virtue of the context and by a process of elimination. A second is that as the texts were handed down, there was an oral tradition handed down with them as to how they were to be pronounced – a received pronunciation or reading, if you like. Generally, the Massoretes did an outstanding job. There are times where one might think that the choice of a different vowel would give a different meaning which can be interesting to consider, and may on occasion be superior. But usually (99% of the time, or more) there is no real doubt from the context.
A Bible text with the vowels is known as a pointed text (because it has vowel points in it – the dots and dashes). A purely consonantal text is either known as such or as an unpointed text.
A very small part of the Old Testament – Daniel chapters 2-6 and parts of Ezra – is written in a language closely related to Hebrew known as Aramaic. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Persian empire, and in the Persian period (which followed the Jewish captivity in Babylon), Aramaic gradually became the main everyday language of the Jewish people. Hebrew increasingly fell into disuse other than as a language for reading the Scriptures and discussing matters of law. It became an elite literary and religious language rather than the language of the common people. Hebrew only came back into use as the main spoken language for the Jews within the last 120 years or so, catalysed by the work of Zionist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in the late 19th Century.
Aramaic can be written in different alphabets, including the Hebrew script (as it is in Ezra and Daniel. During the time of Jesus it was still the major language used by Jews in Palestine, and the consensus (and probably most likely view) is that this was the language in which Jesus preached. It is sometimes argued that he would have used Hebrew, and also that some of the puns and word-plays in the gospels imply that he used Greek (since the gospels are in Greek and some of these puns might not translate too well), but Aramaic remains the dominant view.
New Testament Greek
The New Testament documents themselves are certainly written in Greek whether or not Jesus used Aramaic for his oral teaching. (Some of the New Testament documents may have had an original Aramaic document underlying them, but we have no real evidence of this – some of them do bear evidence of perhaps having been written in Greek by non-native speakers, as they contain so-called ‘Aramaisms’).
Greek was the most dominant language of the Roman empire, succeeding as it did the Greek empire of Alexander the Great. Greek is a highly inflected language like Latin or Russian, with a fairly involved system of cases and declensions for nouns, and a complex verbal system. Nevertheless, as the dominant language of the day it was the perfect choice to facilitate the rapid spread of the gospel message about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire.
New Testament Greek differs from Classical Greek (the language of the Greek poets and philosophers), and is technically known as koine Greek or ‘common’ Greek. It was the language of the ordinary everyday people rather than the language of the scholar. In days gone by scholars had tried to interpret the New Testament as if it were a strange kind of Classical Greek, but the discovery of tablets and fragments from the period (many of them in scrap-heaps and rubbish-dumps, of all places!) have shown the existence of koine Greek, recognizable from the New Testament.
It’s not at all important to know the original languages of the Bible like Greek and Hebrew in order to understand it (sometimes it can be a case of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’!), but it is worth remembering that the Bible was not originally written in English, and that translators are making interpretive decisions, sometimes with multiple options on the table, as they work.
While the original manuscripts (so-called ‘autographs’) were written predominantly in Hebrew and Greek, it quickly became valuable for them to be translated into other languages. We have copies of some of these early translations, and we can compare them with the early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that we have to understand more about the preservation, accuracy and meaning of the Biblical manuscripts.
One of the most important early translations of the Old Testament was the Septuagint or LXX translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (so called because there were allegedly seventy translators who all worked on the project). Scholars differ in their assessments of the age and value of the Septuagint. Although it was begun a couple of hundred years before Christ, some argue that there have been additions or edits. What is clear is that in New Testament times there was a great deal of interest in reading the Hebrew scriptures, particularly as Christianity started to take off, and the Septuagint was usually the vehicle for doing this (it later became disparaged by non-Christian Jews on this basis). On some occasions the New Testament writers seem to use the Septuagint where it differs from the Hebrew (since they were themselves writing in Greek, it’s no surprise that they should make use of the Greek Old Testament also).
In many respects the Septuagint isn’t a great translation – there are clear examples where it over-interprets the Hebrew text, and others where it seems to be confused or downright wrong about what the original text meant. Nevertheless, it is an important document, and was clearly used widely in ancient times, despite its limitations. Later on in the 2nd century AD, several other scholars made their own Greek translations – the versions of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotian are notable here. In the 3rd century AD Origen produced what is known as the Hexapla. This contained six columns side-by-side including the Hebrew text, Origen’s own Greek translation, the three Greek translations just mentioned, plus the Septuagint. In later years further revisions and translations into Greek were also made. Textual scholars can compare these to obtain useful insights about Bible language and its meaning.
The Aramaic Targums are another useful source of evidence about the transmission and meaning of the ancient Biblical texts. The Targums (or targumim if we use the Jewish terminology) were Aramaic translations and interpretations of the Biblical texts, but they furnish important evidence as to how the Bible was read and what it was taken to mean by at least one portion of the Jewish tradition. Targums were produced both in Babylonia (where Israel had gone into captivity in the 5th century BC) and in Israel, and date from well before the birth of Christ into the Middle Ages. They are not literal translations, but rather incorporate significant elements of interpretation, often involving allegory.
As Christianity spread from Palestine there was a need to produce more translations in more languages. One of the important early translations was the Syriac Peshitta. The British Museum has a number of Syriac manuscripts, and one of them is the oldest dated Biblical manuscript known: the Pentateuch from AD464 (we have older manuscripts, but we have to perform scientific analysis to date them approximately). To the south, Coptic versions were produced for use in Egypt, and to the west, latin versions became increasingly important. One of the most famous is Jerome’s Latin translation, which subsequently became known as the Vulgate and became foundational for the Catholic Church. This was commissioned in AD 382 by Pope Damasus, but didn’t receive its ‘Vulgate’ title until 1546.
There are many other ancient versions also. The point is that by comparing all these versions we get a good sense of the antiquity and accuracy, as well as the transmission history of the Bible. We’re not dealing with one manuscript that one person claims to have dug up in some remote location. There are hundreds and thousands of ancient manuscripts and translations which confirm the Bible’s textual accuracy. More on this in the Is your Bible accurate? and Accuracy and Survival pages.