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Biblical Hebrew
The original language of most of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Hebrew
appeared first in a written source in the late tenth century B.C. As is clear from
spelling and style, some of the early poems found in the Old Testament (e.g.,
Exodus 15, Judges 5) may date from as early as the twelfth century B.C., but no
identifiable text dates from this period. In the Old Testament itself, the language
is known as "the language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19.18) or "the language of Judah"
(2 Kings 18.26; Nehemiah 13.24).
Hebrew is a member of the Semitic group of languages, a part of the larger AfroAsiatic family which also includes Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, and Chadic. Many of
these languages relate to dialects still spoken throughout Africa. The Semitic
family of languages, which takes its names from Shem (the father of the Semitic
peoples, Genesis 10.1), has the longest recorded history of any linguistic group,
dating from as early as the third millennium B.C. (in Akkadian) to the present
day (with Hebrew and Arabic).
The Semitic family is divided into eastern and western branches. Hebrew belongs
to a Northwest Semitic (or Syro-Palestinian) branch, which is, in turn, divided
into Aramaic and Canaanite subgroups. As a Canaanite language of the
Northwest Semitic branch, Hebrew is similar to Phoenician, Ugaritic, Ammonite,
Edomite, and Moabite.
Hebrew as a living language probably ceased around A. D. 200 after the Judean
Jews were brutally defeated and the survivors were forced to leave their
homeland. The language survived throughout the centuries, however, and was
revived as the mother tongue of Jews in the late nineteenth century.
Biblical Aramaic
Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. Several passages in the
Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) are written in Aramaic. For example: Daniel 2.4—
7.28; Ezra 4.8—6.18; 7.12-26; Jeremiah 10.10-11; Genesis 31.47. Several
words and phrases in the New Testament are also preserved in Aramaic (for
example, Talitha Cumi, Maranatha, and Golgotha). It has been spoken
throughout parts of Syria-Palestine from as early as the ninth century B.C. to the
present day in modern dialects.
Like Hebrew, Aramaic is a member of the Northwest Semitic branch of the
Semitic family of languages (itself a part of the larger Afro-Asiatic family).
Whereas Hebrew is a part of the Canaanite subgroup, Aramaic stands in its own
subgroup of the Northwest Semitic branch.
For a time Aramaic was considered a universal language. It followed Akkadian
(an East Semitic language) as the diplomatic language for the Persian Empire of
the ancient Near East from the eighth to the fourth centuries B.C. It was also one
of the most common languages spoken during the emergence of Christianity and
rabbinic Judaism. Jesus probably spoke a dialect of Western Aramaic.
Aramaic is an extremely important language for both Christians and Jews. Syriac,
a dialect of Aramaic, was spoken by the early Christians in Syria. As a result, an
early translation of the Old Testament was written in Aramaic: the Syriac
Peshitta. Likewise, two of the earliest collections of biblical studies in rabbinic
Judaism were written in dialects of Aramaic: the Babylonian and the Palestinian
Talmud (literally, "the study"). Finally, the Targums are Jewish translations of the
Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. The significance of Aramaic for biblical studies is
obviously tremendous.
Several dialects of Aramaic are still in use today in parts of Syria (near
Damascus), southeastern Turkey, western Iran, and southern Iraq.
Biblical Greek
The original language of all the New Testament books. The Greek of the New
Testament is Koine ("common") Greek, a simplified dialect of more popular Attic
Greek. Koine was the everyday language in the ancient world for over one
thousand years: from the fourth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D.
The Greek language includes several closely-related dialects including Attic, Ionic,
Doric, and Aeolic. The origin of these can be traced back to 2000 B.C. About that
time, a group of Indo-European peoples called Achaeans arrived on the Greek
peninsula speaking an early form of the language and mixed with the Aegeans
who already lived there. This mixing of proto-Greek languages produced the
Greek dialects of Aeolic and Ionic. The Iliad (around 750 B.C.E.) and the Odyssey
(around 700 B.C.E.) were both written in Ionic Greek.
The Greek dialect used in Athens was known as Attic. The writings of the great
Greek philosophers (like Plato, Euripides, and Demosthenes) were written in
Attic. Because of the significance of these writers and of Athens itself, Attic had
become the most commonly-used dialect of the Greek-speaking world by the fifth
century B.C. It was used as the main form of communications by merchants,
sailors, and soldiers who often spoke different dialects.
Slowly, however, this common form of Attic developed into the entirely new
dialect called Koine ("common"), because it was both simpler than Attic and was
the common language used across various dialects. Koine Greek was also the
dominant dialect spoken in the Hellenistic movement of Alexander the Great and
throughout the Roman period of rule. As a result, Hellenistic Koine was spoken
and used by all social classes, including the ruling elite and the populace.
Although the Greek of the New Testament is classified as Koine Greek, it differs
slightly from it because of the influence of both Hebrew and Aramaic. In fact,
most people living in Palestine during the Roman period were probably bilingual if
not trilingual. For example, New Testament scholars agree that Jesus certainly
spoke Aramaic, probably Hebrew, and quite possibly Greek as well.
The significance of Greek for the study of Bible is invaluable. Not only was the
entire New Testament written in Greek, a major translation of the Old Testament
(Hebrew Bible) was done in Greek (known as the Septuagint). It was translated
in the third to second centuries B.C. for Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt who
spoke only Greek. In addition, several manuscripts found among the Qumran
literature (the Dead Sea Scrolls) are preserved in Greek. These include a very
important scroll of the Twelve Minor Prophets found at Nahal Hever.
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