Languages

LANGUAGES. The first language spoken by the invading Israelite tribes in Palestine was Hebrew, a Semitic tongue related to Phoenician, to the Canaanite dialects of the tribes they dispossessed, and to the speech of Moab. The Tell-el-Amarna Letters and the inscription of Mesha are evidence of this. Hebrew, over the first centuries of the occupation of Palestine, was both the literary and colloquial language. It remained the literary language permanently. In colloquial use it was replaced by Aramaic. The date of this change is difficult to determine with precision. Eliakim’s request to Sennacherib’s field commander (2Kgs.18.26) to “speak to your servants in Aramaic,” which, as a common eastern language of diplomacy the leaders understood, and not in Hebrew shows that the latter was still the Jewish vernacular in 713 b.c. Such was still the case as late as Nehemiah, two centuries later.

The next evidence is from the NT where phrases quoted in the Palestinian vernacular (e.g., talitha koum, in Mark.5.41 and the cry from the cross in Matt.27.46) are undoubtedly Aramaic. Before Aramaic replaced Hebrew, it had, of course, infiltrated its vocabulary. The other colloquial dialect of NT times was Greek, which also provided the literary language for the NT writings. It is the common dialect of Greek that is thus represented, that simplified and basic form that descended from Attic and became an alternative language in most of the Mediterranean basin, and especially in the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors. Christ spoke Aramaic, but undoubtedly understood Greek, and read the Scriptures in classical Hebrew. Paul knew all three languages and used them with equal facility, with the addition of Latin.——EMB