The Languages of the Bible

Lords-Prayer-aramaicWe know that at least three quarters of the Bible was originally written mostly in the Semitic languages of Hebrew (with a couple of books written in Aramaic). These were the languages of Jesus and His followers. Hebrew was used exclusively when reciting Torah, praying, or teaching in the synagogue or temple. But, by the time of Jesus, Hebrew was largely extinct except in Synagogue and Temple – much like Latin in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. In less formal environments, Aramaic — the lingua franca of those times — was used. For example, the sermon on the mount was probably delivered in Galilean Aramaic, while Jesus’ famous Bread of Life discourse in the synagogue at Caperneum was probably spoken in Hebrew. Where Greek was spoken it would have been a secondary language. The greater the distance from Jerusalem, the more prevalent Greek became.

On the other hand, Greek was the de facto standard written and spoken language of the gentiles and many diaspora Jews (e.g., St. Paul). So, when an Aramaic or Hebrew speaker needed something written for a wider audience, a Greek scribe was contracted to translate the speaker’s wishes into common (or Koine) Greek. This explains why much of the New Testament’s Greek contains Hebraisms, Greek expressions that reflect the underlying Hebraic or Aramaic language.

The observation that the Greek of the New Testament reflects Semitic expressions is crucial to word studies. Greek (and English) are very different from Semitic languages like Aramaic and Hebrew — and these differences are not just grammatical. One really important difference is the way in which abstract ideas are represented. For example, if a native Hebrew speaker wanted to express God’s omnipresence, he might express this thought as something concrete, like the wind1)Often translated from the Hebrew word ruach.  Modern translators often translate ruach as ‘spirit‘. I’m not convinced this is the best translation — I think wind or breath might be a better choice since they can be seen and felt. When the ancient Hebrews meant to refer to the divine presence of God, they often used the word Shechinah, a word whose meaning conveys the sense of someone or something dwelling nearby. — something that could be physically perceived. One of the best known (and delightful) idioms in the Old Testament is the way God describes Himself as “slow to anger”. In Hebrew, the anger is idiomatically represented by the length of one’s nose. A long nose  (eirekh apaim) means patience. Thus, when God describes himself as “slow to anger”  (Exodus 34:6) the literal translation of the biblical Hebrew is “I am long of nose“.

Semitic languages generally and Hebrew and Aramaic specifically, are very concrete. As a consequence, these languages are profoundly metaphorical and figurative, which is to say that these languages use concrete, physical objects to represent abstract ideas. With this in mind, we should not be surprised to learn that Jesus used figurative language in His teachings (i.e., His parables). When speaking in His native tongue (most likely Aramaic) to His followers His teachings were easily understood to be metaphorically rich. Unfortunately, the Semitic metaphors were also somewhat confusing to the Greeks and other non-semitic people of His day2)It is likely, claim some scholars, that when Jesus implies that His disciples were slow on the uptake (yet another metaphor), these sayings were added by the Gospel authors so as not to insult the Greek readers. Afterall, if Jesus’s own disciples didn’t get it, the Greeks could be forgiven for not understanding as well..

That the Biblical languages frequently employed figures of speech really should not bother us that much. We use them in English all the time. Examples are such idioms as “You’re pulling my leg” (you’re joking), “Don’t pull the wool over my eyes” (you’re being deceptive),  or “Cat O’ nine tails” (a whip). These are only a few of the many thousands of other examples of figurative usage of figurative constructs in the English language. If these expressions were brought into another language as literal expressions, they would make no sense to native speaker.

I recommend Michael Marlowe’s The Semitic Style of the New Testament for a much fuller introduction into this fascinating topic

References   [ + ]

1. Often translated from the Hebrew word ruach.  Modern translators often translate ruach as ‘spirit‘. I’m not convinced this is the best translation — I think wind or breath might be a better choice since they can be seen and felt. When the ancient Hebrews meant to refer to the divine presence of God, they often used the word Shechinah, a word whose meaning conveys the sense of someone or something dwelling nearby.
2. It is likely, claim some scholars, that when Jesus implies that His disciples were slow on the uptake (yet another metaphor), these sayings were added by the Gospel authors so as not to insult the Greek readers. Afterall, if Jesus’s own disciples didn’t get it, the Greeks could be forgiven for not understanding as well.
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