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Languages of the Bible

LANGUAGES OF THE BIBLE. The OT was given originally in the Heb. language, except for chs. 2-7 of the Book of Daniel, and most of chs. 4-7 of Ezra. The NT was composed in Gr., with the possible exception of Matthew and Revelation, which originally may have been written in Aram., and then subsequently cast into Gr., possibly by the authors themselves. At any rate, as it has been preserved in authoritative form, the entire NT is in Gr. We shall first consider the Sem. tongues in which the older Testament was composed.

Hebrew is a dialect of the Canaanite branch of NW Sem. and is closely related to Ugaritic (recorded in the Ras Shamra Tablets dating back to the 15th cent.) and to Phoen. (the earliest texts of which date back to the 11th cent.). Probably the inscrs. in alphabetic hieroglyphic characters discovered at the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula (Biblical Dophkah) are to be classed as an early form of NW Sem., when it stood closer to Arab. in its phonology; these date back to the 16th cent., if not earlier. When Abraham moved from Aram.-speaking Haran to settle in Canaan around 2000 b.c., he and his descendants adopted the language of the local inhabitants, and they retained it all through the 430 year sojourn in Egypt (from the time of Joseph to Moses), rather than adopting Egyp. as their household speech.

General characteristics of the Hebrew language. In contradistinction to the Indo-European languages Heb. was able to convey much meaning through relatively few syllables, laying such emphasis on the verb as to invest its style with extraordinary dynamism and moving eloquence. Because of its tendency to lengthen pretonic vowels in open syllables (as well as lengthening the accented vowels themselves), Heb. is particularly rich in long vowels, which lend it a more sonorous quality than other Sem. languages that have come down to us in vocalized form (although Aram. also has a sonorous quality resulting from the final long a of the emphatic state). Since its verbs were composed of only three root consonants, it was possible to inflect the entire verbal system (except for the reflexive stem hithpael) in two or three syllables, even in the intensive or causative stems. It lacked the compounding ability of Indo-European languages, and thus employed entirely different roots for such variations as “go” (hālak), “go up” (’ālāh), “go down” (yãrad), “go in” (bô'), “go out” (yāṩā'), and so on. This necessitated the use of a greater number of verbal roots than Greek, Latin, or Germanic languages require, but it did preserve the ability to express verbal ideas quickly and accurately. In the case of the verb “to be,” it was altogether omitted in the present tense, and quite often in other tense relationships as well, esp. where the context showed quite clearly the time value required. This made for compression of utterance, or the capacity to say much in little.

Verbal usages in Hebrew. Because the Heb. verb generally comes first in each clause (after introductory particles or interrogative elements, of course) the emphasis tended to rest on the action, rather than upon the subject or object (as tends to be the case when the verb comes in the middle of the clause, as in Eng.). Thus, “The prophet wrote the book” would be in Heb., “Kātab hannābī’ et-hassēper” (literally: “Wrote the prophet the book”). Any deviation from this regular order (verb, subj., object) meant that special emphasis was laid on the word that came first. Thus, “It was the prophet who wrote the book” would be “Hannābī’ kātab et-hassēper.” The tense precision of Indo-European languages like Gr. and Lat. was foreign to the Sem languages; they were not so much interested in when an action took place, but in whether it was a simple, single occurrence, or whether it was an incomplete or continuous process. There were only two primary tenses (perfect and imperfect) to express this mode of action. Usually the perfect referred to an action in past time (since past actions are normally complete by the time they are reported). The imperfect normally referred to future or present time, since these would be incomplete at the time of narration. But there were many instances where the perfect was used for declarations of God’s intention for the future (as in predictive passages), and therefore it was regarded as certain as if it had already happened (the so-called “prophetic perfect”). Or again, the perfect might be used where we would employ a present tense (“the perfect of the immediate past”) as in the frequent formula, “Thus says the Lord” (Heb. “Kōh ’āmar Yahweh”—in which ’āmar is perfect rather than present, since the prophet could not report what God had told him unless He had already told him). The same is true with the verb “to swear” (nišba’) and expressions like, “I lift up (harīmōtï) my hand to Yahweh” in which the verb is the perfect hiphil of rûm. On the other hand, the impf. often was used to express actions which continued in past time (“a mist used to go up” in Gen. 2:6 uses the impf. ya’aleh), or else which was going on when some other action took place (e.g. “As he was passing by—impf.—he saw (perf.) the hill.” Incipient actions likewise: “Then Moses proceeded to sing” in Exodus 15:1 uses imperf. yāsïr. Thus it all depended upon the context whether the action involved was past, present or future. In addition, linear or continuous action was conveyed by the present periphrastic (which consisted of a noun or pronoun subject followed by a participle—e.g. “foreigners are devouring zārïm ’ōkelim) your land” (Isa 1:7)—a construction which could also express imminential action (“..the land which Yahweh thy God is going to give (nōtēn) thee,” Exod 20:12). But subjunctive ideas like “ order that thy days may be long” in that same v., were expressed by the impf. (ya’arĩkün).

For third person imperatives a special tense, the jussive, was used, which usually resembled the imperf. in appearance, but came originally from a form which lacked the short vowel endings of the original impf. Thus, the primitive impf. (“he will write”) yaktubu modified to yiktōb in Biblical Heb.; the jussive (“Let him write!”) yaktub also modified to yiktōb. But in certain types of a weak verb the difference was clear; e.g., “he will build” was yibneh, but “let him build!” was yiben; “he will rise” was yāqûm, but “let him rise” was yāqōm. It should be added that another form related to this short form (without original short vowel endings) was the impf. conversive (or “consecutive”), which apparently preserved the same type of tense as the Akkad. preterite, but always after the particle for “and” in a strengthened form; thus, wayyiktōb meant, “And he wrote.” This tense is called “consecutive” because it always followed a previous verb in the perfect (or its equivalent); it is called “conversive” because it appears to convert an impf. into its opposite (i.e. a perfect). Interestingly enough, this particular form is found only in Heb; not in any other Sem. language. The same is true of the perfect conversive (or consecutive), which was formed by analogy; it consisted of an ordinary form of “and” plus the perfect, which was then converted into an impf. function (wekātab usually means, “And he will write” rather than, “And he wrote”).

Noun usages in Hebrew. Originally Heb. had short vowel endings for its nouns (nominative -u, genitive -i, accusative -a), but some time in the second millennium apparently, it lost those endings for nouns in the construct state, i.e., nouns qualified by a following genitive. Thus, “word” was dabaru, but “word of a king” was dabar malki. The final stage saw the loss of short vowel endings from all nouns, whether in construct or not; thus in Biblical Heb. “a word of a king” is debar melek. It is worth noting that if the second noun was definite (i.e. had the definite article “the”), the first noun would become definite by imputation, and would never take a “the” (ha-) before it. “The word of the king” would be debar hammelek rather than haddebar hammelek. This same rule about the imputation of definiteness held good for all the other Sem. languages as well (including Aram.). Note that a feminine noun ending in -āh (originally -atu) in the absolute state took on an ending -at when it became construct; thus malkāh (“queen”) would become malkat Yisrā'ēl (“the queen of Israel”). To indicate the accusative case (after the -a ending had been dropped from the language) Heb. inserted the particle ’ēt before the object noun, provided it was definite; thus, “God created the heavens” was bārā’ ’elōhim ’ēt haššāmayim (with ’ēt inserted before hassāmayim, “the heavens”). This rule applied chiefly to prose; in poetry the ’ēt seldom was found (just as the definite article rarely is expressed in poetic style). (For further details concerning the inflection of verbs and nouns, consu lt the article on Hebrew language.)

General characteristics of the Aramaic language. As indicated above, certain portions of the OT dating from the exilic and postexilic period were given in Aram. rather than Heb., namely Daniel 2:4-7:28 and Ezra 4:8-24; 5:1-17; 6:1-18; 7:12-26. In addition there are two words in Genesis 31:47 (Yegar śāhadûtā, “The rock-pile of witness”) and an entire verse in Jeremiah 10:11 (a challenge thrown out to the imaginary gods of the heathen). Aramaic was, like Heb., a member of the NW Sem. family of languages, and possessed a large percentage of its vocabulary in common with Heb. (e.g., melek “a king,” güm “arise”), although with slightly different vocalization (e.g. ketab, “he wrote,” as contrasted with Heb. kātab). On the other hand, many of the commonest words differed from the corresponding terms in Heb.; thus, “come” is ak rather than ; “go up” is seliq rather than ’ālāh; “go forth” is nepaq rather than yāṩā; “lift up” is neṭēl rather than nāsā; “man” is enāš rather than ’îš, “son” is bar rather than bēn.

Significant is the difference between Aram. and Heb. in the treatment of four Sem. phonemes: (1) Proto-Sem. dh (like th in “this”) was shifted to z in Heb., but to d in 6th cent. Aram. and thereafter (although older Aram. also used z); thus, “gold” was zāhãb (Arab. dhahabun) in Heb., but dehab in Biblical Aram. (2) Original th (as in “thin”) was altered to ś (like sh in “sheep”) in Heb., but t in Aram.; thus, “to return” is šûb in Heb. but tûb in Aram. (3) Proto-Sem. z (a sort of hollow z close to a sonant th) shifted to ş (şadde) in Heb., but ṭ (ṭēt) in Aram.; thus Arab. nazara becomes nāṩar (“to guard, keep”) in Heb., but neṭar in Aram. (4) Original d (dãd)—a hollow, alveolar d-dh, preserved only in classical Arab.—altered to ṩ in Heb. but to ’ayin or sometimes qōph in Aram.; thus Arab. ’ardun (“earth, land”) became ’ereṩ in Heb. but ara’ or araq in Aram. Words containing any of these four phonemes may thus be used to identify ancient inscrs. immediately as to whether they were Heb. or Aram. (both of which used substantially the same form of alphabet throughout the b.c. period). It should be added that just as in Heb. the consonants b, g, d, k, p and t were spirantized to v, gh, dh, kh, ph and th after vowels. Concerning differences in vocalization, many of the previous examples show that Aram. reduced vowels to a very short e in pretonic open syllables, instead of lengthening them as in Heb. T hus Heb zāhãb is Aram. dehab; Heb kātab is Aram ketab. Furthermore, Aram. never rounded original long â to long ô, as Heb. and the other Canaanite languages did (the so-called “Canaanite shift”); thus “age, eternity” is ’ālam in Aram. instead of ’ôlām as in Heb., and the participle from ketab is kātib or kātēb rather than the Heb. kōtēb. (Cf. the Eng. word “home,” which was hām in Anglo-Saxon.) Note also that accented short a did not lengthen to tone-long a as in Heb. nouns (cf. ’ālam and ’ôlām above). Accented short i often remained i or else shifted to ē as in Heb.; but accented u generally was retained as u, rather than shifting to ō as in Heb.; thus, “he will write” is yiktub in Aram., but yiktōb in Heb.

As for the morphology of verbs, the fem. third sing. perf. is -at, rather than Heb. -āh; first sing. is -ēt instead of Heb. -tï. Aram., unlike Heb., has a distinctive third pl. fem. perfect in -āh or -ā'; the second pl. masc. is -tûn rather than -tem; and first pl. is -h rather than Heb. -nû. In the imperf. tense, second fem. sing. ends in -ïn rather than Heb. -î, and third pl. masc. in -ûn rather than the usual Heb. -û (although Heb. shows -ûn also in some styles of lit.). Also, the third fem. pl. was -ān rather than Heb. -h, and its pre-formative was yi- rather than ti-; in other words, “they (fem.) will write” was yiktebãn instead of Heb. tiktōbnāh. As for differences in accent, the stress fell upon the penult rather than the ultima of perfect third pl. forms (ketábû and ketábāh were the masc. and fem. for “they wrote,” rather than Heb. kāte); and in the imperative the penult again was stressed in the fem. sing. (ketubu and ketubāh) and the masc. and fem. pl.—the corresponding Heb. forms were kitebî, kitebû, and ketobnāh.

As for the derived stems, the Aram. lacked niphal, but used a hitpe’el instead (or else the non-aspirate ’itpe’el). Its intensive/causative was pā’el (corresponding to Heb. pi’ēl) with an infrequently used pu’al (as in Heb.) for its passive. Its regular causative was haphēl or ’aphēl, rather than Heb. hiphĩl, and it had an infrequent passive huphal corresponding to Heb. hophal. Its intensive-reflexive was hitpa’al or ’itpa’al, corresponding to Heb. hitpa’ēl. The Akkad. type of causative stem, the shaphel (which played a larger role in the later dialect, Syr.) is found in only a few verbs, such as šaklēl (“to complete”) from the root k-l-l, and šêzĩb (“save, deliver”) from the root ’-z-b (the Akkad. form of the root ’-z-b in W Sem.). Attention should be called to the fact that Qumran Cave One contributed one significant MS in pre-Christian Aram.: the Genesis Apocryphon, dating from first cent. b.c., and showing much later characteristics linguistically than the Aram. of the OT (cf. G. L. Archer, ch. 11 in New Perspectives on the Old Testament [1970]).

General characteristics of the Greek language of the NT. The language in which the NT was written was the koiné dialect of Gr., a type of Attic dialect bearing a close relationship to the classical Attic of Xenophon and Plato, but considerably simplified by the virtual abandonment of the optative mood, the function of which (in purpose and final causes) was taken over by the subjunctive. Although there are a few passages in the NT which approximate the style of earlier literary Attic, such as the introduction to Luke, and certain sections in Hebrews, the usual koiné traits of simplification in word order (“envelope order” is quite rare, for example), and a more sparing use of particles, characterize the text of the NT. It would seem that this simplified koiné developed from the time of the Alexandrian conquest (c. 330 b.c.) as a convenient medium of communication between the Greek government and the various newly subjugated races and language groups of the empire. The earlier phase of this development is termed Hel. Gr., which already shows a tendency to include some Ionic forms not current in Attic, and even a few Doric forms. More significant than these were the new tendencies toward simplicity of style; thus, the careful shades of meaning conveyed by the rich variety of connectives and particles (the proper use of which took thorough training) tended to give way to the use of the simpler connectives, kai and de. Sem. modes of expressing thought were increasingly converted into the koine spoken in the Sem. Near E, and as far as the vocabulary of the NT is concerned, many of the key terms were mere indicators of Heb. words used in the OT and therefore contained a special set of connotations unknown to earlier secular Gr. (an aspect of lexicography which dominates the approach of Kittel’s Theologisches Wörterbuch des Neuen Testaments, which is now available to Eng. readers in G. W. Bromiley’s excellent tr. published by Eerdmans). As for matters of syntax, the proliferation of historical presents in NT koiné was possibly encouraged by the Aram. use of the participial periphrastic as a standard tense for narrative. (The introductory uses of legei, “he says” and apokrinetai, “he answers,” before direct discourse corresponds to Aram. ’āmar and ānēh.) The connection between the terminology of the OT Heb. and the NT Gr. is, of course, supplied by the LXX tr. of the OT into Gr., which was produced between 250 and 150 b.c. Such terms as diathēkē for “covenant” (where the Heb. term berît referred to God’s sovereign disposition of His grace, promises and resources toward believing mankind) were first arrived at by the LXX trs., who avoided the more obvious and usual term, synthēkē, “contract,” because it implied equality between the contractual parties. (Previously diathēkē meant only “last will and testament” in secular Gr.—a meaning which it retains in Hebrews 9:16, 17, and Galatians 3:15.)

In regard to the use of the tenses, NT koiné (which greatly resembles the informal, everyday Gr. of the business documents and correspondence found in the papyri at Oxyrynchus in Egypt) shows a distinct tendency to make less use of the perfect tense than in Classical Attic, far less use of the pluperfect, and no use at all of the future perfect. Often the perfect or pluperfect idea is conveyed by the aorist (which originally was designed to express the simple past, rather than the present perfect or past perfect). The impf. tense, with its connotation of continual or incipient action in past time, retained this function fully in koiné, and the classical antinomy between single action and repeated action was preserved in the subjunctive, imperative and infinitive. The subtle and precise distinctions in verbal action which characterized Classical Gr. were quite largely maintained in the NT. There was, however, a tendency to replace purpose infinitives, or even complementary or objective infinities, by hina plus the subjunctive (which completely replaces the infinitive in modern Gr.). As for the participles, in their causal, temporal and circumstantial use, they are still frequent and characteristic in NT style. The classical -mi verbs (like tithēmi and deiknymi) are replaced by omega equivalents (titheō and deiknyō). As for noun inflections, the five cases of Attic (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and vocative) are still in full use (later Gr. virtually abandoned the dative) for both sing. and pl. The dual number, already passing out of use in Classical Attic prose, has completely disappeared from NT koiné.

It was only natural that in its expanded role as lingua franca of the entire Middle E and Levant, Hel. and koiné Gr. picked up foreign loan words even more plentifully than it had back in pre-Alexandrian times. From Pers. came terms like gaza (“treasure”), angareuō (“impress into labor”), nardos (“perfume”). From Sem. languages came byssos (“fine linen”)—cf. Heb. bûṩ—sakkos (“sackcloth”, Heb. saq), sappheiros (“sapphire,” Aram. sappir means “beautiful”), sykaminos (“sycamore,” Heb. šiqmāh), and kyminon (“cummin”—a Phoen. term). The principal influx was from Lat., the language of the new government after 63 b.c., when Pompey annexed the Near E for Rome. Military terms like koustōdia (“a guard, a watch”), kentyriōn (“centurion”), legiōn, and sikarios (“dagger-man, assassin”) were already in common use; likewise terms pertaining to governmental administration such as kēnsos (“poll tax”), kolōnia (“colony”), and praitōrion (“praetor’s palace”). Monetary terms included assarion (“an as”), dēnarion (“denarius”), kodrantēs (“quadrans”); terms of measurement like modios (“modius”—a peck measure), milion (“a mile”); miscellaneous common objects like lention (“napkin”), titlos (“inscription, notice”), phragellion (Lat. flagellum, “scourge”), libertinos (“a freedman”), makellon (macellum, “meat market”). Needless to say, this adoption of loan words was mutual; Lat. took in even more Gr. words into common use than it contributed to contemporary Gr. This was due partly to the fact that while Gr. was commonly heard in Rome (being maintained for Christian worship in Rome until the third cent. a.d.), Rom. residents in the Near E always communicated in Gr., unless they were talking among themselves. All communications between Jesus and Pilate, between the apostles and the Rom. officials, were carried on in Gr.

In conclusion Gr. was the most ideally adapted linguistic medium for the world-wide communication of the Gospel in the entire region of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and the Near E. Accurate in expression, beautiful in sound, and capable of great rhetorical force, it furnished an ideal vehicle for the proclamation of God’s message to man, transcending Sem. barriers and reaching out to all the Gentile races. It is highly significant that the “fulness of times,” the first advent of Christ, was deferred until such time as Gr. opened up channels of communication to all the Gentile nations E of Italy and Libya on a level not previously possible under the multilingual situation that previously prevailed.

See Greek Language and Aramaic Language.


Biblical Hebrew: H. Bauer and P. Leander, Historische Gramatik der hebräischen Sprache (1922); W. Gesenius and G. Bergsträsse, Hebräische Grammatik, 29th ed. (1918-1929); E. Kautzsch (tr. A. E. Cowley): Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar 2nd ed. (1910).

Biblical Aramaic: H. Bauer and P. Leander, Grammatik des Biblisch-Aramäischen (1927); F. Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic (3rd pr.) (1968).

N. T. Greek: A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (1914); J. G. Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners (1951).\nClassical Greek: W. W. Goodwin, and C. B. Gulick, Greek Grammar (1930).\nLexicons: F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1906); F. Buhl, W. Gesenius’ Hebräisches und Aramäisches Handwörterbuch über das Alte Testament (1949); L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (1951); H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (2nd ed.) (1961); W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1957, repr. 1960).