The Languages of the Bible

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We propose to devote a portion of our pages to the consideration of such subjects as may help our readers in the study of the sacred volume. Very often it is found that there are expressions in the Scriptures hard to be understood, simply because we may be in ignorance of some customs and peculiarities alluded to. And the books, in which these difficulties are explained, are too long and too expensive for the great mass of readers of the Bible. Or, it may be, that a man's other vocations leave him but little time to learn the languages in which the scriptures were written. And, while we may be satisfied that no part of God's will is really hard for those who are only seeking the burden of the messages which declares the will, yet we have no right willfully to neglect any part of that message. We may save well-meaning Christians from those sad displays of zealous ignorance, which occasionally bring scandal upon Christianity itself, if we give them an intelligible account of many things connected with the Bible—such as the different languages in which the Bible has been written; the distinction between the canonical and apocryphal books; the most famous translations that have been made: the manners and customs, the history and the geography referred to; and the way in which our English Bible has reached us.
These and similar topics we shall treat in a succession of papers. We begin with “The Languages of the Bible.”
It may be necessary to premise that learned men divide the whole number of languages that are, or ever have been, spoken, into several chief families, Of these by far the most important are—first, the Indo-Germanic family, including Sanscrit, Greek, Latin, and German, with nearly all European tongues; and secondly, the Shemitic, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic or Syriac.
Of this latter family, the Arabic has been the most cultivated; and, being the language in which the Koran is written, is known to Mussulmen all over the world.
The Hebrew, called the sacred tongue, because in it nearly all the Old Testament is written, seems to have been spoken in a comparatively small district; perhaps only in Palestine, Phenicia, and the immediate neighborhood. It is called Hebrew, because it was the language of the people of that name; and they appear to have been so designated, from Heber; who being the last patriarch, before the dispersion from Babel, must have possessed an authority (as speaking to an undivided people) which no succeeding patriarch could have had.
Most probably this was the language of Canaan, before Abraham came into it. For we observe that his relatives on the other side of the Euphrates spoke another tongue (Gen. 31:4747And Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed. (Genesis 31:47)), and in the narrative of the intercourse between the Hebrews and the people of the land, there is no allusion to any difference of speech. Then, again, the names of places in Canaan, from the very earliest times, have all a meaning in Hebrew but not in any other language; and in the few existing records of the dialect of the idolatrous part of the land, as in the Phoenician, on coins discovered at Tire, and Malta; and in the daughter of the Phoenician, namely the Punic or Carthaginian, preserved in a Latin comedy of Plautus (Poenulus 5:1, 2), we find a form of speech identical with the Hebrew. The lastly, indigenous to a country place like Palestine, the same word is used to denote both Sea and West.
In this language, the whole of the Old Testament is written, with the exception of part of the Books of Ezra and Daniel. And it is remarked how little change the language underwent during the thousand years over which the composition of the book extended. This is due to the natural inflexibility of the language itself; the isolation of the people from the rest of the world; the influence of the Pentateuch in fixing it; and the general belief in its sacredness. For these reasons, the language of Moses is substantially the same as that of Malachi, in spite of some antique phrases in the former, and the gradually increasing admixture of Syrian with all the writers that succeeded Isaiah.
The Hebrew died out, as a spoken language at, or soon after, the Babylonish captivity, and was replaced by the Syrian or Aramaic, which was the language of their conquerors, the Assyrians and Babylonians. This was the language in which Eliakim begged Rab-shakeh to speak to the people in Jerusalem, because they did not understand it, as the chiefs themselves did. It seems clear therefore that the language of Syria began to penetrate Israel after this time; and, when the Jews remained for two generations in Babylon, they must have lost, nearly, if not entirely, all recollection of their former speech. Ezra seems to have interpreted the words of the Law to them on their return. (Neh. 8:88So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (Nehemiah 8:8).) While yet from the fact of Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi, continuing to write in Hebrew, we may conclude it had not quite disappeared; as we know it had a little later at the time of Alexander's conquests.
The language that took its place was much more widely spread: it is called Syrian in the English translation of the Bible, as at 2 Kings 18:2626Then said Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall. (2 Kings 18:26). Dan. 2:44Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation. (Daniel 2:4). But it is usual now to call it Aramaic, since Aram is the real biblical word for Syria, and seems to have designated the country North and East of the Euphrates, from which Abraham had originally emigrated, and where afterward arose that fierce and conquering race which founded Nineveh and Babylon. It used to be called Chaldee, but erroneously; as the only place, where the tongue of the Chaldeans is mentioned, is at Dan. 1:44Children in whom was no blemish, but well favored, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king's palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:4).: and there it manifestly means a language peculiar to a priestly caste at Babylon, not to the whole people.
At the time of our Lord, this was the native language of Palestine; and occurs in our Testaments, in the words, Ephphatha, Talitha Cumi, Eli Eli lama Sabacthani, &c. This was also the language of the inscription on the cross, and of St. Paul's speech as recorded at Acts 22. Although in both these instances the Hebrew is mentioned, there is no doubt that it is the modern, not the ancient, language that is meant.
In it are also written those parts of the Old Testament, which are not in Hebrew: viz., Dan. 2:44Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation. (Daniel 2:4), to 7:28; and Ezra 4:88Rehum the chancellor and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king in this sort: (Ezra 4:8), to 6:18; and 7:12-26. Also the ancient Chaldee paraphrases on the Bible, and the Talmud. And to the present day it is the sacred language of the Nestorians and Syrian Christians; even of those on the Malabar coast of India.
The only other language that remains to be noticed, is the Greek, in which, the whole of the New Testament is written: a peculiar dialect of which prevailed in Western Asia and Egypt, in consequence of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Its chief locality was Alexandria, where the first Ptolemies had transplanted most of the arts and sciences which used to flourish before in Athens. This dialect is therefore called Alexandrian Greek, and is distinguished from the language of the classics, by having engrafted on it many Hebrew and other Oriental modes of expression; no doubt partly in consequence of the great numbers of Jews, who, from an early period, dwelt in Alexandria.
Even in Palestine, although Hebrew retained its place as the sacred language, and Syrian or Aramaic was spoken in the country parts, there is every probability that Greek was the ordinary speech of intercourse; and that it stood in the same relation to the native Aramaic, that English does to Welsh in Wales at the present day.
In this Alexandrian Greek is written the whole of the New Testament; the ancient Septuagint translation of the Old; and the works of Josephus and Philo. As it was the common language of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, it became necessarily the common language of all early Christians, who for some years were confined to that part of the world. And even when Christianity had reached Rome and the West, there is evidence that Greek (and not Latin, as might have been supposed) was, for a long time, the ecclesiastical tongue.
It is a matter of discussion whether our Lord and his Apostles spoke Greek or Aramaic; and it does not seem possible to pronounce a decided verdict on the question. It is likely enough that all the people of Palestine, except the most retired or the most ignorant, understood and used, both forms of speech. Hence the threefold inscription on the cross. In Aramaic and Greek for the people: just as public documents in Wales might be in Welsh and English and in Latin, because that was the official language of Pontius Pilate, and the government's servants.
From the fact of some few Aramaic words of our Lord being preserved, we might conclude that he did not always speak in that tongue; and it must have been observed that when Paul addresses the people from the castle stairs in Hebrew (i.e. in Aramaic), they were pleased by this mark of respect to their native tongue; and had expected that he would rather speak Greek, which they understood equally well. On the other hand, the question of the chief captain, “Canst thou speak Greek?” would seem to have originated the second question, “Art thou not that Egyptian?” as Greek was certainly the language of Egypt at that time; and therefore the chief captain supposed he was not an inhabitant of Palestine.
At any rate, there was certainly a distinction between Greek-speaking Jews and others. For we notice in the Acts of the Apostles (chap. 6 &c.,) that some are called Hebrews and some Grecians. There is a difference of opinion as to whether the distinction consisted in the speech they used; or in the version of the Bible that they read. For while the Jews of Palestine, and eastward of that country, constantly used the original Hebrew Scriptures, only rendered into Aramaic at the very moment they were read; the Jews of Alexandria, and generally in the countries west of the Holy Land, seem not to have known the Hebrew, even in the synagogues, and to have used only the Greek Septuagint translation.
As Greek was the tongue of their Syrian oppressors in the time of the Maccabees, the Rabbis looked upon it with aversion, as being especially a profane tongue, fit only for entirely worldly business, but never to be intruded into the synagogue. This feeling was aggravated by the fact that the Jews of Alexandria—where chiefly Greek-speaking Jews abounded—had not only a translation of the Scriptures, which they advanced almost to the same rank as the original: but even a temple of their own, which in some respects was permitted to rival the holy building in Jerusalem.
But, anyhow, Greek was the current language of the world at the time of the appearance of Christianity the language with which a man might travel from end to end of the Roman Empire. And there appears a special providence in the circumstance that the Gospel was sent forth at the very time when there was thus a universal language, in which to convey it. It was necessary to the free circulation of the message, that it should be written in the speech of the Empire, not in some local dialect. And the Grecians or Hellenists, though despised by the Palestine Jews, appear certainly, by means both of their more common tongue, and also of their greater enlightenment, to have been the part of Israel that most generally embraced the Gospel, and carried it into distant lands, away from its original cradle in Judea and Galilee. W. H. J.