In What Language Was the Old Testament Written?

Hebrew BibleAs the Bible we know today comes in several different languages, one common question tends to cross people’s minds from time to time. People often wonder in what language was the Old Testament written. To fully understand and appreciate the present diversity we see in terms of languages the Bible is written in, there’s a need to take a glimpse into the very beginning. Knowing how it started will no doubt make the topic of discussion clearer.

The First Author

History has it that the first human inspired by God to write the Old Testament is Moses. Religious evidence that supports this claim can be seen in Exodus 34:27, where God commanded Moses to write: “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”

Moses heeded God’s command to become the first author to contribute to the books that formed the Old Testament. Of course, Moses would only have to write in his native language, which is said to be Hebrew.

After Moses’ era, the centuries that followed the compilation of the Old Testament witnessed more God sent authors whose native language was also Hebrew. The only thing was that with each generation, the Hebrew text showed different varieties of dialects and forms. The implication is that a large chunk of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. This quick history has undoubtedly shed more light in the bid to understand in what language was the Old Testament written.

The Original Languages of the Old Testament

As can be deduced from the section above, most parts of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. This includes the whole of the first five books – which forms the Torah. It is, however, noteworthy to see that a number of books in the Old Testament were not written in Hebrew but in Aramaic. They include a few chapters of the book of Daniel (ch. 2:4 to 7:28) and the book of Ezra (ch. 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), and a single verse in the book of Jeremiah. The different forms of Hebrew can be appreciated across these books.

A few of the poems found in the Torah were written in the Hebrew dialect which corresponds to the Hebrew of the early Old Testament. In contrast, looking at the form of Hebrew used in writing the books from Genesis through Kings, it can easily be seen that they were written in the classical Hebrew.

Coming down to the late biblical form, the Hebrew used in writing here corresponds to that of the period of the Second Temple and this is found in Daniel, Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Ezra. The Hebrew of Jeremiah and Ezekiel has a rather unique form. It is not quite like that of classical Hebrew and neither does it fit well into the late biblical form. It is therefore referred to as a transitional form which lies somewhere between the classic Hebrew and the late biblical Hebrew.

In addition to these, there is a part of the book of Daniel (3:24-90) which is only found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Some scholars have argued about whether this portion existed at all in the Hebrew or Aramaic Old Testament.

Portion of the Temple Scroll, labeled 11Q19, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Portion of the Temple Scroll, labeled 11Q19, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Semitic Languages of the Old Testament

Hebrew and Aramaic both belong to the group of languages broadly identified as Semitic; more specifically, they are sub-grouped under the Northwest Semitic languages. According to history, Hebrew is the native language of the Israelites. As mentioned earlier in the course of this write-up, a large part of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.

It also happens to be the only language to be revived from absolute extinction. Its extinction was said to have been in the 5th century when it only existed as a liturgical language. It became less and less in use and became a sacred language used only for religious practices.

It came back to life around the 19th century when about 9 million people were speakers of Modern Hebrew. This was possible because some Jews memorized the Hebrew Scriptures but, as the language wasn’t understood then, they worshipped with the Septuagint.

Around the time when Hebrew became extinct, Aramaic and Greek were taking its place as the international language spoken among the immigrants and the elites. Aramaic, which also belongs to the sub-group of the Northwest Semitic languages, has about 3,100 years of history. Apart from its use in the Old Testament, Aramaic was the language of administrative activities and the language of religious activities. It was also spoken by the people of the Northwest Semitic family.

Transition of the Old Testament

When looking at the original nature of an entity, your quest is not considered complete without an understanding of how the changes it encountered came about. This simply means that in the quest of understanding in what language the Old Testament was written, it is essential to look at how it evolved to become what it is today. This includes the factors that contributed to the change and also the individuals who helped to effect the change.

In the section above, it was explained that Hebrew went into extinction around the 3rd century. Greek was at that time the language of the Eastern Mediterranean. The conquest of Alexander the Great was implicated in this historic adoption. This means that the Jews around that time had forgotten their Hebrew, and Greek became their first language.

They, therefore, found it rather difficult to read their own scriptures. This necessitated them to translate the Old Testament in Hebrew into Greek, which was the language they all understood at that time. This transition of the Old Testament from its original language, which was Hebrew, to the new language, Greek, gave it the name Septuagint. Ptolemy II Philadelphus played a pivotal role in the translation of the Old Testament into Greek.

Jerusalem
Jerusalem. Photo by Anton Mislawsky on Unsplash

Contribution of Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Ptolemy II Philadelphus was one of the last Egyptian Pharaohs. It was around his era that the Jews could no longer understand Hebrew and thereby couldn’t read their own scripture. The legend says that Philadelphus was interested in rescuing the situation and was also interested in having a copy of the Old Testament in Greek.

He, therefore, put together 70 of the best scholars available and gave them the duty of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek. They were to work independently so that the work of one would not be affected by the others, and it could all be compared once they were done.

After completion, Philadelphus compared the translations and was stunned to realize that all the seventy copies were exactly the same. He then concluded that God must have directed the seventy scholars as they translated the books. This led to the conclusion that the Septuagint – which is the Greek version of the Old Testament – was authoritative and divinely inspired.

For many centuries after this, the Septuagint served as the main form by which Jews read the word of God. It became their predominant scripture from which they read for religious activities. Even the Jews from ancient Palestine whose main language of communication was Aramaic also used the Greek scripture. This wide acceptance was expected as around that time Hebrew was used less frequently while Greek was taking its place.

Deductions Thus Far

There is no doubt that the languages of the Old Testament are now fully understood and appreciated. God has truly used man to send down His Words as a form of guidance, and reassurance for faith. This started from Moses, who started the compilation of the Old Testament in his native language Hebrew.

However, Hebrew was not the only language contained in the Old Testament as some books and chapters in Ezra, Daniel and Jeremiah were written in another ancient language – Aramaic. It was gathered that both Hebrew and Aramaic are languages classified as of Northwest Semitic, but Hebrew still stands unique as the only language which has survived extinction.

The works of Ptolemy II Philadelphus can never be overlooked when talking about the Old Testament. According to the legend, he took it upon himself to act when it was noticed that Hebrew was going into extinction. This can be said to be the saving grace for the Bible we use today because, without the initial Greek translations, we would all have to read a scripture no one understands.

The translation was also said to assist in reviving Hebrew after its extinction as some scholars took it upon themselves to learn the scripture in its original language. They learned about its meaning by correlating it with the Greek translation. Little by little, these scholars started to worship and communicate in Hebrew.

When we look at the transition of the languages of the Old Testament, we will see that it might all be part of God’s plan to effectively disperse His Word across the universe. Today, it is said that we have thousands of copies of the Bible in different languages indigenous to people all over the world. Anyone from any part of the world today can confidently say; “Yes, God speaks my language too!”

 

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