Yahweh’s Book – The Languages of the Bible

by | Nov 19, 2013

A story is told about the first woman governor of the state of Texas, Miriam Amanda (Ma) Ferguson, who was elected to office in 1924. A debate was raging in Texas as to whether children immigrating from Mexico should receive public education courses in their native language of Spanish. Reports of the event state that Ma Ferguson brought a hasty end to the debate when she held up a Bible and declared, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas!

I have found that many Christians are confused about the languages that the people in the Bible spoke, as well as the languages in which the Scriptures were written. As a youth I was aware that the Bible was written in different languages. I had a Strong’s Concordance that I began using before I was a teenager. At that age I sometimes had trouble remembering which Testament of the Bible  was written in Hebrew and which one was written in Greek. Later I also learned that parts of the Bible were written in Aramaic. I had no idea what Aramaic was, or who spoke it, for churches do not typically teach such things to their members. The subject of Biblical languages is not difficult to understand. I believe following the history of God’s people makes the subject of Bible languages easy to comprehend.

When Yahweh first created mankind, there was only one language. We are not told what language Adam and Eve spoke. I have heard some suggest that it was Hebrew, but I am not persuaded by the arguments. (You may understand my objections after reading more on the history of the Hebrew language.) For the first 1500 years of mankind’s existence all humanity spoke the same language. It was after the flood of Noah that Yahweh confused the speech of man. After the flood men began to multiply. Yahweh had instructed them to scatter across the earth, but man disobeyed. They congregated at Babel where they attempted to build a great city and a tower to reach to the heavens.

Genesis 11:6-9
And Yahweh said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of the whole earth; and from there Yahweh scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

From this time onward mankind was divided into people groups based upon the languages that they spoke. This was the beginning of the various “tongues and tribes and nations.”

To grasp well the history of Bible languages, a very good place to start is with Abram/Abraham. When Yahweh chose a specific people to be His unique possession in the earth, He began by calling forth one man to be the head and progenitor of this people. This was Abraham.

We know that Abraham’s descendants are identified as Hebrews. The Hebrews are a distinct race of people, all descending from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet many Christians are stumped when asked what people group Abraham belonged to before Yahweh called him. Abraham wasn’t always a Hebrew. He belonged to one of the major families of mankind. The Bible tells us plainly which one.

Deuteronomy 26:5
And you shall answer and say before Yahweh your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation.”

Yes, Abraham was formerly an Aramean. He lived among the descendants of Aram. The language these people spoke was Aramaic. Aramaic is not one single language, but it is a family of languages. As often occurs, a people who speak one language become fragmented. In their isolation from other groups who speak the same language, differences begin to enter in. New words are adopted. Various expressions become unique to one people group. At times even the alphabet and spelling of words may change. If the differences in these related languages are relatively minor, they are referred to as dialects. However, if the changes are such that others who speak the original language can no longer understand the evolved speech of a group of people, the dialect may be referred to as a distinct language.

Hebrew, Syriac, and Phoenician are all Aramaic languages. Abraham was born around the year 2,000 B.C.. He lived for 175 years, which places him about a century before Hammurabi. As previously mentioned, Abraham was born into the people of Aram. The Arameans settled along the Euphrates River in an area that became known as Babylonia.

(Click on Image to View Larger)

You will notice a city down toward the bottom of the map that is named Ur. The Bible declares Ur to be the ancestral home of Abraham.

Genesis 11:27-28
Now these are the records of the generations of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran became the father of Lot. And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

Because the Arameans were not the only family of people to dwell in this area, Aramaic was not the exclusive language spoken. Another common language in Babylonia in the time of Abraham and his forefathers was Akkadian. During a period of about a thousand years from the time of Abraham until the  Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods (934 B.C. – 539 B.C.), a great influx of Arameans came into this area. Consequently Aramaic became the common language of the land. It was during the Neo-Babylonian period around 600 B.C., that Judah was led away into Babylonian captivity. Daniel was carried into Babylon during this time, so it is not surprising that much of the book of Daniel was written in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. The book of Ezra was also written during the time of the Babylonian exile, and the Jews return from Babylon. It too contains sections that were written in Aramaic. Of approximately 23,000 verses in the Old Testament, roughly 250 of them are written in Aramaic. The remainder are written in Hebrew.

If we follow the life of Abraham, we can readily identify the languages of the Old Testament. Abraham was an Aramean who spoke Aramaic. Over time, as his descendants dwelt in the distant land of Canaan where they were cut off from other speakers of Aramaic, their speech began to change. The influence of the Canaanite languages had an impact on the language of the Hebrews dwelling in the land. As time passed the language spoken by Abraham’s descendants in Canaan became so distinct that Aramaic and Hebrew were considered separate languages.

We see evidence of the profound changes that occurred in the Hebrew’s speech in an account found in the book of II Kings. About 1300 years after Abraham’s descendants had been dwelling in Canaan, King Sennacherib of Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah. Sennacherib’s commander, Rabshakeh, came out to speak to the Jews, taunting them. Rabshakeh spoke openly in Hebrew in order to discourage the people of Jerusalem. One of Hezekiah’s ministers urged Rabshakeh to speak to Hezekiah’s servants in Aramaic, for the common people of Judea no longer understood the language.

II Kings 18:26
Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; and do not speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people who are on the wall.”

The speech of Abraham’s descendants was still considered an Aramaic language in Hezekiah’s day, but we see that it had become so differentiated from the Aramaic of the land of Assyria and Babylon that the Hebrews could no longer understand Aramaic. A century after this, the Jews were taken captive into the land of Babylon and were once more subjected to the Aramaic language. It became a matter of necessity for the Jews to speak Aramaic so that they could dwell in the land, conduct business, and converse with their neighbors. Consequently, when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile they were now speaking Aramaic. While in Babylon, the Jews had also abandoned the Paleo Hebrew alphabet and adopted the Aramaic square script.

The alphabet above would have been familiar to the inhabitants of Canaan during the time Joshua led the Israelites in to conquer the land, circa 1,500 B.C..

The Alphabet above is what the Jewish people adopted while in Babylonian captivity around 600 B.C.. This shows how much a single language can change over the course of time. While the Jewish people were dwelling in Babylon, Aramaic became the every day language of the people. Aramaic remained the common language of the Jews in what is referred to as “the Second Temple Period.” This time spanned between 539 B.C. when the Jews returned from Babylon, and 70 A.D. when the Temple was destroyed, along with Jerusalem, by the Roman General Titus. These years fully encompassed the life and ministry of Christ in Judea. That Christ and His disciples spoke Aramaic is evident from the New Testament Scriptures. The following verses all include examples of Yahshua speaking in Aramaic.

Mark 5:41
And taking the child by the hand, He said to her, “Talitha kum!” (which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”).

Mark 7:31-34
And again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis. And they brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they entreated Him to lay His hand upon him. And He took him aside from the multitude by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!”

Mark 15:34
And at the ninth hour Yahshua cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Notwithstanding Ma Ferguson’s claim that the Son of God spoke “the King’s English,” we observe
that Christ was speaking a language very different from English. As one might anticipate, when the Jews returned to the land of Israel after their sojourning in Babylon, the Aramaic they spoke once again began to differentiate itself from that which was spoken elsewhere. Over time it once more became distinct so that in the time of Christ the speech of the Jews was once more referred to as Hebrew. Many language scholars, however, believe it is more accurate to describe the language spoken by the Judeans of Christ’s day as “the Aramaic vernacular of the Jews.”

This brings us now to the third and final language of the Bible, Koine Greek. The word “Koine” means “common.” In the time of Christ, Judea lie under the power of the Roman Empire. The Greek Empire proceeded Rome, spreading across many of the same lands that Rome would eventually conquer. As the Greek Empire spread, the Greek language went with it. When Rome supplanted Greece, the Greek language had already become entrenched. It had become the lingua franca of the day. (Lingua franca is defined as “a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue.”) The Greek language tied together people groups from all around the Mediterranean. This included the Jewish people who continued speaking Hebrew/Aramaic, while also learning Greek.

Hebrew/Aramaic was the native language spoken by the Jewish people in the time of Christ. However, many Jews were polyglots, that is to say, they spoke multiple languages. By adopting Greek as a second language, or even a primary language, the various people groups of the Roman Empire were able to speak to one another. Although none of the Bible was originally written in Latin, it too was a common language in Christ’s day, and many Jews would have been familiar with it. Latin was the language of Italy where the city of Rome was located. Although Rome acquiesced to embracing Greek as the common language of the Empire, Latin remain the official language of Rome. This explains why Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, chose Latin as one of the languages to inscribe his message above the head of Christ.

John 19:19-20
And it was written, “YAHSHUA THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Therefore this inscription many of the Jews read, for the place where Yahshua was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and in Greek.

Inscription written first in Hebrew/Aramaic, Latin, then Greek.

Christ and His disciples undoubtedly spoke Aramaic with one another. There are many evidences of this found throughout the New Testament. Continuously, Aramaic words are inserted into the text of the New Testament. Following are a few examples of Aramaic words that are found in our Bibles today.

Abba – meaning “father.”
Raca – meaning “empty head” or “fool.”
Mammon – meaning “material wealth” or “greed.”
Rabboni – meaning “master.”

In the New Testament which was written in Koine Greek, the word for “Aramaic” is never used to describe the speech of the people of Israel. Instead, the Greek word “Hebraisti” is used to denote the language of the Jews in the time of Christ and the apostles. Nevertheless, some Bible translations render “Hebraisti” as Aramaic rather than Hebrew, for the language of the Jews was truly a dialect of Aramaic. Following is an example of the differences one might find in various Bibles.

John 19:16-17
And they took Jesus, and led him away. And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha:

John 19:16-17
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.
English Standard Version

To summarize, the entire Bible was written by descendants of Abraham. Thus, the languages of Abraham’s descendants were employed to write the Scriptures. Abraham was an Aramean. He was born into a nation of people who spoke Aramaic. When Abraham was called to leave his father’s house and travel to Canaan, he took the Aramaic language with him.

Over the course of centuries, isolated from their Aramean forebears, the language of the descendants of Abraham began to change until it was unrecognizable to those who spoke Aramean. The language the Hebrew people spoke was identified as their own language, being called Hebrew.

When the Jewish people were taken back to the land of their forebears, being led into captivity in Babylon, they were once more introduced to Aramaic. In Babylon the Jews adopted the Aramaic language and Alphabet, and upon their return to Judea they took Aramaic with them. Aramaic remained the language of the Jewish people until the time of Christ, though it once more began to differentiate from the Aramaic of other people groups. Thus, the language of the Jews in Christ’s day is interchangeably called both Hebrew and Aramaic.

The vast majority of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, with less than 2% of its text being written originally in Aramaic. When Jerusalem and Judea fell under the rule of Greece, and later of Rome, they were introduced to the Greek language. Many Jews were multi-lingual, speaking both their native Hebrew tongue as well as Greek. This proved very helpful when the disciples of Christ were commissioned to take the gospel to the nations. Since the Jews were familiar with Greek, and it was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, the New Testament was written in Greek and spread rapidly.

We understand, therefore, that the Bible was NOT written in English. It was written in ancient languages known unto the descendants of Abraham, the wandering Aramean.

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  1. Mark T.

    Dear Bro Herrin, In Genesis 10, which occurs after the flood, but before Genesis 11 and the account of the confusing of the languages and the scattering of the peoples, there is mention of the offspring of Shem, Ham and Japheth, that they were separated into their lands according to their 'languages' etc. ( Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31) Is it possible that there was a universal language known to all mankind while they all kept their own dialects at home? And in Genesis 11:1 we are told that the whole world had one language and one speech, what is the difference between the 'language' and the 'speech'? Or, am I misreading Genesis 10 and 11 in that they occur consecutively and not chronologically (Genesis 10 and THEN Genesis 11)? I hope that makes sense! God Bless!

  2. Joseph Herrin

    Hello Mark,

    You have asked an excellent question. You mentioned a possible understanding of this passage is that Genesis 10 and 11 are not chronological, but are speaking of the same thing with chapter 11 providing more detail. We can discern that this is the case by what is stated in Genesis 11.

    Genesis 11:1
    Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.

    We find this same pattern in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 2 repeats and expands upon some of the things stated in chapter 1. For example, chapter 1 tells us that Yahweh created man male and female. Some might assume that they were created in the same way, both formed from the dust of the earth, but chapter 2 provides further information on how woman was created that we don't find in chapter 1.

    So too, chapter 11 of Genesis provides detail that chapter 10 does not elaborate upon.

    May you be blessed with peace and understanding in these days.


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