The Original Languages of the Bible | Patterns of Evidence

Dr. R. Brian Rickett | May 29, 2020 | Evidence

SUMMARY: Language differences, community challenges,  literacy issues, and even the form of writing itself have at times posed challenges for biblical literacy.

So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. – Nehemiah 8:2,1 (ESV)

Could the Israelites Read what Moses Wrote at Mt. Sinai?

A key question that surfaced in the film, Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy was related to whether or not Moses could have written the Torah. Arguments were related to whether or not an alphabet even existed at the time of Moses, and whether or not there was a reading public for which he could have or would have produced such a document.

The simple answer was that “Yes,” an alphabet existed that had already been developed from Egyptian hieroglyphics, by a Semitic person. This individual was someone who was able to read ancient Egyptian and was simultaneously motivated to adapt its characters for use in an alphabet for his Semitic readership. This resolved one key objection to the Mosaic authorship of the Torah.

Egyptologist David Rohl and filmmaker Timothy Mahoney in a scene from from Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy.
Egyptologist David Rohl and investigative filmmaker Timothy Mahoney examine a recreation of an ancient inscription using the world’s oldest alphabet in a scene from Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy. (© 2019 Patterns of Evidence LLC)

But what about the question of audience? Why would Moses write a Torah if there was no reading public? We have previously explored how this scenario gave rise to the development of delegated authority and to the role that the Torah played in the establishment of legal precedent. But there is more to the story.

A full reading of Scripture shows that this was not an isolated experience for the Jewish people. And a survey of Judeo-Christian history shows us that similar issues have played out repeatedly over the centuries, for both Jews and Christians. It is a specific situation in the Bible, though, that really helps to shed light on how spiritual leadership addressed the crucial issue of religious instruction in the face of major instructional barriers. This time, though, the problem was more serious than illiteracy. It was the massive obstacle of a foreign language barrier.

The Lingering Effects of a Painful Sojourn

Once the Babylonian captivity was over, after decades spent in a foreign land that used a foreign language, many of the returned exiles were not even able to understand spoken Hebrew. This means that at the time of Exodus 2.0, literacy for reading the Torah was not the primary issue. Rather, many people were not even able to understand the language of the Torah.

Earlier, Moses had warned the Israelites that if they were disobedient, God would raise up a rod of chastening for them. He explained,

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand…. – Deut. 28:49 (ESV)

Now, however, the language that they were unable to understand was not some foreign language. It was their own native tongue – the one that recorded the laws and statutes that they were to obey. At this juncture, the situation might appear hopeless, and it’s easy to understand why Ezra resorted to pulling his hair out, while Nehemiah resorted to pulling out the hair of some of the people (Ezra 9:3; Neh. 13:25)!

How do you understand God’s Word when it’s Written in a Foreign Language?

In reality, though, this question is never far away. In fact it’s very likely that if you are reading this, you are someone who reads the Bible primarily in English, as opposed to its original languages. This illustrates the point – literacy and linguistic shifts are realities that biblical educators have always had to navigate. The situation after the return from Babylon forced the Jewish leadership to develop new models of religious instruction. Perhaps this creates some questions for you?

For example, what languages were originally involved in the production of the Bible? What is the connection between Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek anyway? What about the language(s) spoken by Jesus and the Apostles? Did they preach in the same language in which they read the Torah, or in the language of the hearing audience? And what language was that? Perhaps you have wondered, “Why did the Jewish authors of the New Testament produce it in Greek?” Or, “Since the Roman Empire was in control of Judea during the time of Christ, was Latin a factor?” These are questions that will be addressed below, as well as in Part 2 next week.

Along the way, we’ll see how the problem of the language barrier was addressed during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. In turn, that will inform us as to the connection between Moses, the Torah, and instructional models for an illiterate public. But first, let’s consider the question of what were the original language(s) of the Bible.

What was the Original Language of the Hebrew Bible? Not as Simple as it Sounds

In brief, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was originally written in Hebrew, except for half of Daniel (2:4-7:28), a portion of Ezra (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), and a word or verse here and there in Aramaic. This was because Hebrew was the language of the Israelites until the Babylonian captivity (ca. 586 BC), at which time they were heavily influenced by Aramaic. This related Semitic language had intersected with Hebrew before, but it rose to prominence under the Neo-Assyrian Empire where it achieved the status of a prestige language.

The earliest recorded instance of biblical interplay between Aramaic and Hebrew occurs in Genesis 31:47 where Jacob and Laban erected a pillar of stones to mark the covenant between them. Each named the heap-of-stones monument. Jacob named the pillar in Hebrew, while Laban did so in Aramaic. “Galeed” (גַּלְעֵד) was Jacob’s appointed Hebrew title, whereas Laban’s label in Aramaic was “Jegar-sahadutha” (יְגַר שָֽׂהֲדוּתָא). The relationship must have been very close, because later, Moses taught the Israelites that their ancestor Jacob was a “wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5).

In any case, Aramaic was inherited from the Assyrians by the Babylonians where it continued to be utilized for administrative, legal, and commercial purposes. During the period of the Babylonian captivity, an entire generation or two of Jewish exiles was born in a land that spoke a foreign language, as Moses had warned. The result was that Aramaic became the dominant language of the displaced Judeans, and for many, it had become their new mother tongue.

Shifting Scripts: From Pictos (Pictures) to Squares 

One of the impacts of this period is that the form of Hebrew was permanently altered. After the return from exile, Ezra the Scribe shifted the written style of Hebrew from the earlier Paleo-Hebrew script to the refined Aramaic “square script,” though the earlier form remained in use through the 1st century on a limited basis. One wonders if he made this switch simply because he had been accustomed to it, or perhaps he recognized it as an improvement. Maybe it was an accommodation to literate Jewish readers who needed one less obstacle with which to have to deal. In any case, the shift happened, and the square script instituted by Ezra is still in use today, referred to as the “Jewish” script.

Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus Scroll: 11QpaleoLev.
Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus Scroll: 11QpaleoLev. (credit: Shai Halevi on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

A more serious consequence of the Judean immersion in Babylonian culture was that by the close of the 1st century BC, Hebrew was essentially relegated to an academic and liturgical language. This means that well before the time of Christ, the language barrier had proven so strong, that the shift was non-reversible and the gap between the Aramaic speaking Jews and their Hebrew Bible had only continued to widen.

Elevating the Text: Rising Above Language Barriers

This barrier presented a problem for biblical education and worship that needed a solution. The method that Ezra used to address this challenge can be clearly seen in Nehemiah 8. Once the people who “could understand” gathered, Ezra the scribe took the Torah and ascended to an elevated platform made for the very purpose. Next to him on each side were a number of assistants, six on the right and seven on the left. An additional group of men along with the Levites specifically engaged in the activity of helping,

the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8:7b-8 (ESV).

The picture that we get from this scenario is clearly one where Ezra is reading the Hebrew text of Scripture, assisted by interpreters, who were producing spoken word translations as Ezra read. Many communicators and preachers throughout history have had the experience of publicly speaking while being assisted by an interpreter. In this case, the text seems to imply that the men on either side of Ezra may have been assisting with the reading through some choreographed process, since they were accompanying him simultaneously on a raised platform (consider a scenario where the 13 men repeated in unison what Ezra read in order to provide amplification for the assembly; if they were there to simply provide reading relief for a prolonged event, their simultaneous presence for the duration would not make sense).

The second group of men was among the people providing oral translations and clarification giving the sense “so that the people understood the reading” (8:8; ESV). The scene certainly captures the imagination. Historically, however, the model continued on long after Ezra. Over the next couple of centuries, the language barrier increased and so the model became institutionalized. The solution was to use a professional biblical interpreter with skill in both languages who would produce a spoken translation of the Hebrew text into Aramaic as he read aloud. (See ancient coins discovered from the Ezra Nehemiah era.)

The Interpreter’s New Role

This individual was called a “meturgeman,” and at times he added his own flavor including paraphrases and a bit of commentary. In order to safeguard the priority of the Hebrew text, his translations were initially prohibited from being recorded. These spoken translations were referred to as targumim or targums, a term that means “interpretation,” “translation,” or “version.” The body of these impromptu Aramaic translations has simply come to be referred to as the Aramaic Targums. These were still only oral at the time of Christ. 

However, the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 created a new reality for Rabbinic Judaism. Toward the end of the 1st century AD, these sayings from the Targum were recorded, collected, and became authoritative for a few communities. In some cases they have even been preserved side by side with the Hebrew text itself.

Ancient Yemenite Torah manuscript with Hebrew and Aramaic text and Judeo-Arabic commentary.
Yemenite Torah manuscript showing Hebrew text, Aramaic text and Judeo-Arabic commentary. (credit: Brian Rickett)

So, the Aramaic Targums were originally orally produced translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. These were provided for the benefit of Jewish listeners, who no longer understood, or only understood with difficulty, the Hebrew text. After the decentralization of Judaism caused by the destruction of the Temple, the oral form was recorded in writing to assist an increasingly dispersed community.

This is also the explanation for another major Jewish text – the Talmud. In fact, the Talmud is the central Jewish text and served as the basis of Jewish legal and communal life until the modern era. Similarly, Aramaic was the primary language of the Talmud. Like the Targums, they were initially transmitted orally, but the destruction of the temple in AD 70 created the impetus for a written record of previous and ongoing rabbinic discourse.

Cover of Babylonian Talmud
Inside cover of Babylonian Talmud
Babylonian Talmud. (credit: Brian Rickett)

Rabbinic Judaism, represented in the Talmud, represents a sharp turn in development of the Jewish religion. Sharp disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish elite over the oral tradition can be observed in the New Testament. In fact, some Jewish communities such as the Karaites rejected the Talmud as authoritative.

Aryeh's Note: It would seem apparent that the Karaites were the keepers of the original text of the Hebrew Bible, while the Messianic movement became the keepers of the New Covenant Hebrew text. Both groups have been instrumental in ensuring that today we can read the scriptures in as close a form as possible to the original.


So far we have seen that those providing biblical instruction have often faced challenges that go beyond content and related spiritual issues. Community challenges, language differences, literacy obstacles, and even the form of writing itself have at times posed great tests for God’s people. We have also seen, however, that biblical leaders quite literally rose above those challenges in order to navigate seemingly insurmountable difficulties. But we have just gotten started in our study; next time we will address the remaining questions and other languages. Until then, KEEP THINKING!

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