The Original Languages of the Bible

Hebrew and Aramaic, and How They Work

Introduction

The main language of the OT is Classical Hebrew, but some parts are in Aramaic (Ezra 4:7–6:18; 7:12–26; Jer. 10:11; Dan. 2:4–7:28). Two words of Aramaic also occur in the place name Jegar-sahadutha inGenesis 31:47.

The form of Hebrew found in the Bible was probably spoken from as early as 1500 b.c. to some time after 400 b.c. Although Aramaic (the official international language of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires) came increasingly into daily use among Jews, many Jews (at least in the Jerusalem area) continued to use a form of Hebrew (which later developed into “Mishnaic” Hebrew, the language of the Mishnah). Hebrew documents with varying degrees of similarity to Biblical Hebrew have been found at Qumran and in the desert of Judah, with dates from the second century b.c. to the second century a.d. The synagogues in Palestine retained the use of Hebrew as a sacred language. Modern Hebrew, which was developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is based on the earlier forms of Hebrew and is one of the official languages of the modern state of Israel (founded in 1948).

Both Hebrew and Aramaic are part of the wider family of languages that since 1781 have been labeled “Semitic,” a name derived from that of Noah’s son Shem. However, languages from this group were also spoken by some peoples (such as the Amorites, Babylonians, and Canaanites) that Genesis does not record as being descended from Shem.

Semitic Languages

While there are many Semitic languages, they can generally be organized according to the three regions where they were spoken: (1) East Semitic (Mesopotamia), including Old Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian; (2) South-West Semitic (parts of northeastern Africa), including North Arabic (the language of the Qur’an) and Ethiopian; and (3) North-West Semitic (Syro-Palestine), including Amoritic and Ugaritic, along with Hebrew, Phoenician, Moabite (the Canaanite branch), and Aramaic and Syriac (the Aramaic branch). When considered together, the Semitic languages have a longer continuous history of being written than almost any other group.

Alphabet

Hebrew, Aramaic, and some neighboring Semitic languages share an alphabet of 22 consonant letters only (23 if the sin and shin are counted separately) and are read from right to left. The shape and order of these Hebrew characters had been distilled by the second millennium b.c., before the time of Moses (and the writing of the OT). This alphabet was then passed by way of the Phoenicians to the Greeks, while the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of the script began to diverge. The form of Hebrew script generally used until at least the Babylonian exile, and still found in some Dead Sea Scrolls, is known as the Paleo-Hebrew script. Some of its letters still resemble their equivalents in the Greek alphabet. During the rule of the Persians (539–332 b.c.) the square Aramaic (or Assyrian) script was adopted for writing Hebrew, with the result that the forms of letters originally used for Aramaic are now almost universally associated in people’s minds with Hebrew (see chart).

Hebrew name Square (Assyrian or Aramaic) script Paleo-Hebrew form Sound Traditional transliteration
Aleph א א glottal stop
Beth ב ב b b
Gimel ג ג g g
Daleth ד ד d d
He ה ה h h
Waw ו ו w w
Zayin ז ז s z
Heth ח ח ch (“loch”)
Teth ט ט t
Yod י י y y
Kaph ךכ כ k k
Lamedh ל ל l l
Mem םמ מ m m
Nun ןנ נ n n
Samekh ס ס s s
Ayin ע ע
Pe ףפ פ p p
Tsadhe ץצ צ ts
Qoph ק ק q q
Resh ר ר r r
Sin שׂ ש s ś
Shin שׁ ש sh š
Taw ת ת t t

(The transliteration style of Hebrew characters followed in this Study Bible has been somewhat simplified from the more precise traditional transliteration depicted in this chart. See Hebrew and Greektransliteration charts.)

Transliteration of Hebrew Words in the ESV Study Bible

Consonants

Letter Name of Letter Transliteration
א aleph ’ (a closing single quotation mark)
ב beth b
ג gimel g
ד daleth d
ה he h
ו waw w
ז zayin z
ח heth kh (but h in hesed)
ט teth t
י yod y
ך, כ kaph, final kaph k
ל lamedh l
ם, מ mem, final mem m
ן, נ nun, final nun n
ס samekh s
ע ayin ‘ (an opening single quotation mark)
ף, פ pe, final pe p
ץ, צ tsadhe, final tsadhe ts
ק qoph q
ר resh r
שׂ sin s
שׁ shin sh
ת taw t

Vowels

Symbol Name of Vowel Transliteration
ַ patakh, furtive patakh a
ָ qamets a
ה ָ final qamets he ah
ֶ segol e
ֵ tsere e
י ֵ tsere yod e
ִ hireq i
י ִ hireq yod i
ָ qamets hatuph o
ֹ holem o
וֹ full holem o
ֻ qibbuts u
וּ shureq u
ֳ hateph qamets o
ֲ hateph patakh a
ֱ hateph segol e
ְ vocal shewa e
ּ daghesh or mapiq if a vowel precedes a daghesh, double the consonant

The alphabet itself has had an effect on the form of certain texts in the OT. A number of the Psalms (Psalms 9; 10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145) are arranged as types of acrostic poems composed around the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, as are the first four chapters of Lamentations (see Introduction to Lamentations: Literary Features).

Matres Lectionis

In order to give further precision to pronunciation of words, and to clarify ambiguities between words that shared the same consonants, three of the consonant letters came to be used to represent vowels. The letter h (ה) represented a or ew (ו) represented o or u, and y (י) represented e or i. In inscriptions from biblical times, these matres lectionis (Latin for “mothers of reading,” i.e., “vowel letters”) were rare before the exile, and it is therefore often held that preexilic biblical writings that display extensive use ofmatres lectionis had these letters added after the time of composition to help readers understand the words properly. It is still the case, however, that earlier texts, such as the Pentateuch, are more sparing in the use of these than, e.g., postexilic writings such as the books of Chronicles.

Roots

Semitic words are generally based on so-called roots consisting of three consonants. Vowels and a limited range of other consonants are arranged around these roots to produce words. Consider the following Hebrew words:

melek (“king”)

malkah (“queen”)

mamlakah (“kingdom”)

malak (“he reigned”)

malkut (“reign”)

The constant element in all of these words is the consonant sequence m-l-k, which is associated with royal rule. Sometimes a particular word may occur only once in the whole OT, and the question naturally arises as to how its meaning is known. If, however, there are other words from the same root, its meaning can be identified in relation to them (with due consideration given also to its context).

Masoretic Pointing

The OT writings were produced using consonants only. Pronunciation was possible by adding vowel sounds to the consonantal words, and thus the particular vocalization and accentuation of Biblical Hebrew was understood aurally, and was therefore taught and memorized and passed down to each successive generation orally through the Jewish schools and synagogues (cf. the anecdote in Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 21a–b). However, as Biblical Hebrew was no longer in use as a spoken language among the Jews, and in order to avoid ambiguities in the text by ensuring that the correct pronunciation was not lost, Jewish textual scholars between the fifth and eighth centuries a.d.devised and inserted into the OT text a system of vowel points to guide readers in how the words should be correctly vocalized and accented. These Jewish scribes, known as the Masoretes (from the Hb.masorah, “what was handed down,” i.e., “tradition”), applied this system of “pointing” by adding marks (dots and strokes) around the consonants without disturbing or changing any of them. The Masoretes thus “pointed” the Hebrew text of the OT with symbols indicating vowel sounds so that the traditional way Scripture had been read and heard in the synagogues would be preserved even though Biblical Hebrew was ceasing to be spoken among the Jewish people. Here is an example of the word “king” in unpointed and pointed form:

Unpointed מלך mlk
Pointed ְמֶלֶך melek

In addition to providing guidance as to which vowels occur within a word, the Masoretic pointing also distinguishes between different pronunciations of the same letter. The so-called begadkephath letters—bgdkp, and t—also had the spirant (or fricative) pronunciations bhghdhkhph, and th. A single dot (called a daghesh) inside the letter (e.g., בּ) would specify the “hard” pronunciation b rather than the “soft” pronunciation bh (ב), etc. By the position of a point, Masoretic notation also distinguished two different sounds that lay behind the Hebrew letter ש. Hebrew שׂ represented s (sin) and שׁ represented sh(shin). Medieval Hebrew manuscripts also contain a further set of marks known as accents or cantillation signs, which indicate division and cohesion in the text and specify the way the text should be sung in the synagogue.

Masoretes actively worked in three areas—Babylon, Palestine, and Tiberias—and eventually it was the tradition from Tiberias (called Tiberian vocalization), particularly the work of the Ben Asher family in Tiberias (c. a.d. 900), which is preserved in the Hebrew Bible today (i.e., the Masoretic text [MT]; thus also the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia [BHS]). However, a further guide to the historical pronunciation of words is available in the tradition of pronunciation of the Pentateuch among the Samaritans. On the surface, the Samaritan pronunciation usually seems rather different from the Tiberian vocalization. Yet when historical sound changes are taken into account, it often shows regular correspondence to that of the Masoretes.

Verbal System

Almost all Hebrew verbs are built upon three root or stem consonants (alluded to above), though these will rarely appear in the text without an accompanying affix of some kind. There are seven main stem formations (or binyanim) of Hebrew verbs: QalNiphalPielPualHithpaelHiphil, and Hophal. Each of these seven divisions convey something different about the relationship between the subject and the verbal action (active, passive, reflexive, causative, etc.), and these are apparent by the characteristic changes that the same three-consonant verbal stem undergoes within each division (though most verbs do not occur in all seven stem formations).

The many structural differences between Hebrew and English influence translation. Whereas English has a system of verbal tenses (i.e., time of action—past, present, future, etc.), many grammarians prefer to say that Hebrew has two verbal aspects (i.e., kind of action—complete, incomplete, etc.) known as the perfect and imperfect. In the simplest terms, these aspects consider actions as either complete or incomplete, respectively. Thus, the Hebrew imperfect is frequently used for referring both to events in the future and to repeated events in the past. A further complication is the relationship that the perfect and the imperfect verb have with the conjunction “and” (Hebrew letter waw). When waw (ו) attaches as a prefix to a perfect or imperfect verb, it may at times appear to reverse the function of the perfect or imperfect aspect so that the perfect then communicates incomplete action and the imperfect communicates complete action, even if, from a historical perspective, this is not actually what is happening (it actually preserves an old tense form). Such differences between the Hebrew and English verbal systems can make translation difficult at times. However, in most prose texts, the temporal location of the narrative is immediately clear and, consequently, so is the way in which one should render a passage. Poetic texts are more complex, but there is still a surprising agreement between English translations as to which tense to use.

The Waw Particle

Closely connected with the verbal system is the ubiquity of waw (ו; “and”) in the Hebrew Bible. It is used to begin books with no previous connection with another narrative (e.g., Esther, Ezekiel, Jonah) and is the main particle connecting clauses in prose texts. Although Hebrew has some particles that carry senses such as “but,” “therefore,” and “because,” these words are less commonly used than waw, which in connection with various clauses can be rendered by a range of terms. The esv renders waw by the neutral “and” where appropriate, but also uses words such as “now” (Judg. 2:1), “so” (Judg. 2:14), “then” (Judg. 2:16), and “but” (Judg. 2:19) when the context calls for it.

Prepositions

Hebrew also has fewer prepositions than English, with the result that the same Hebrew preposition can be rendered in a variety of ways. For instance, renderings of the preposition b (בּ) may include “in,” “on,” “by,” and “with.” Hebrew has no word for “of,” but the possessive and other relationships expressed by English “of” can be represented in Hebrew by using the “construct state.” In the construct state, a noun is placed immediately before another noun in an inseparable (attached) position. Sometimes this involves a change in the form of the first noun as it loses stress. Thus, the underlined word is in the construct state in the following examples: melek (“king”) + yisra’el (“Israel”) → melek yisra’el (“king ofIsrael”); malkah (“queen”) + yisra’el (“Israel”) → malkat yisra’el (“queen of Israel”).

Articles

Hebrew has a definite article: h (ה) precedes the noun, usually with a short a-vowel (ַ) and doubling of the initial consonant of the noun. There is no indefinite article in Biblical Hebrew. Thus melek means “king” or “a king,” but hammelek means “the king.” In poetic texts, however, the definite article is used more sparingly, and it is therefore sometimes legitimate to use a definite article in translating a Hebrew phrase that lacks one (as in the esv rendering “in the scroll of the book,” in Ps. 40:7).

Gender and Number

Hebrew has two genders (masculine and feminine) and three numbers (singular, dual, and plural). The dual is used only to refer to two items that occur in a pair (e.g., “eyes,” “knees,” “teeth,” “millstones”). Verbs and pronouns also distinguish between a masculine and a feminine form of the second person (“you”) in singular and plural forms, and between a masculine and a feminine form of the third-person plural (“they”). The distinction between the genders of the pronouns plays a significant part in the esvidentification of speakers in the Song of Solomon (see, e.g., esv footnote on Song 1:11).

Diversity

The Hebrew of the OT is not uniform. Certain songs, such as the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) and the Song of Moses (Ex. 15:1–18), display archaic linguistic features. Though there is still a strong underlying linguistic unity to the OT, the language found throughout the 39 books shows that the OT was composed over a considerable period of time. Moreover, the language of the OT also reflects dialectal differences (cf. Judg. 12:6). Occasionally features of certain OT texts are identified by scholars as coming from the northern kingdom (Israel), as opposed to Judah, for example.

Aramaic

The term “Aramaic” comes from the people of Aram (an ancient region of upper Mesopotamia), the Arameans, whom Old Akkadian writings mention as early as the third millennium b.c. During the eighth and seventh centuries b.c., the Assyrian Empire controlled much of the ancient Near East, and Aramaic spread in usage as an international language (cf. 2 Kings 18:26; Isa. 36:11) until the Persian Empire of the sixth century b.c. established it as the official language. The few Aramaic sections of the OT (Gen. 31:47; Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26; Jer. 10:11; Dan. 2:4–7:28) fit clearly within the category of Imperial Aramaic, the language of Persian administration. Much of the grammatical description of Biblical Hebrew given above could, with minor changes, also apply to Aramaic. Eventually, Aramaic came into daily use with many Jews, especially those in Galilee. Aramaic words appear in the NT on the lips of Jesus (e.g., Mark 5:41; 7:34), and the name Golgotha (Mark 15:22) is Aramaic in form. The term of respectful address, ’abba’, seems also to be Aramaic, but it became standard in later Hebrew as well. The expression ephphatha (“be opened!” Mark 7:34) may be Aramaic, though some think it is the equivalent form in Hebrew. Paul uses the Aramaic expression marana tha (“our Lord, come!”) in 1 Corinthians 16:22.

Conclusion

While Biblical Hebrew enjoyed over 1,000 years of existence as a spoken language—from the middle of the second millennium b.c. until the close of the b.c. era—it has never truly “died” but continues to thrive today through the perpetual study and translation of the writings of the OT Scriptures. Furthermore, it is still actively spoken and used in Jewish religious life and synagogues around the world. It is taught and passed down in both Christian seminaries and Jewish yeshivas. And because of its use by God as the language of the OT, it will continue to enjoy a detailed preservation and rich textual tradition virtually unparalleled by any other ancient language.

Greek, and How It Works

Background

Starting in May of 334 b.c., Alexander, the 21-year-old king of Macedon, led his victorious army through four pitched battles, two sieges, and innumerable smaller engagements that enabled him to conquer territory that now goes under the names of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Reaching the banks of the Beas River in Pakistan, he reluctantly turned back as his exhausted troops threatened mutiny. Three years later, in 323 b.c., he died (at age 32) in Babylon, just as he was planning an expedition all the way from Egypt along the North African coast to the Atlantic.

When Alexander died, his empire broke up into separate kingdoms headed by his disgruntled generals. But he had changed the world. In the old, now liberated cities of Asia Minor—Ephesus and Pergamum—as well as in the newly founded cities of the Middle East—Antioch and Alexandria—the culture and language of the colonial aristocracy was Greek. Three centuries after Alexander’s death, when the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth was written down, the language used was not Jesus’ native Aramaic but Greek, which, thanks to Alexander’s conquests, had become the common language of the Mediterranean world. The conclusion now universally accepted by philologists is that the Greek of the NT, in all essential respects, is the vernacular Koine of the first century a.d., the language of the Roman imperial period.

Koine Greek

“Koine” means “common” in the sense of pertaining to the public at large. Hence, “Koine Greek” means the language commonly spoken everywhere—the basic means of communication of people throughout the Roman Empire. This dialect was basically the late Attic vernacular, spoken in Athens, with dialectal and provincial influences. In addition to the Greek NT, the Koine has left other literary monuments that are invaluable sources of light on the sacred text, including papyri, inscriptions, the writings of numerous Jewish and early Christian authors, and above all the Septuagint, the ancient version of the OT that became the Bible of the early church and was used extensively by the NT writers.

Koine Greek itself exhibits three important characteristics. The first, semantic change, is a natural feature of any language. The meanings of certain words were weakened in the Koine period. For example, the noun dōma meant “house” or “room” in Classical Greek, but in the NT it came to mean “roof” of a house (Luke 5:19). In the NT the preposition eis can mean “in” as well as “into,” though it meant only “into” in Classical Greek. The conjunction hina has a much wider meaning in Koine than “in order that,” which was the meaning in Classical Greek. For instance, hina is often used in content clauses simply to mean “that.” The tendency in Koine to use the comparative degree of the adjective for the superlative may also be noted. Second, Koine Greek exhibits greater simplicity than Classical Greek. This is seen primarily in the composition of its sentences, which tend toward coordination rather than subordination of clauses. Finally, Koine Greek shows unmistakable traces of a tendency toward more explicit (some would say more redundant) expression, as seen, for example, in the use of pronouns as subjects of verbs and the use of prepositional phrases to replace simple cases. Adverbs abound, as do parenthetical statements and emphatic expressions such as “each and every” and “the very same.”

At the same time, Koine Greek was not entirely uniform. Various literary levels existed, depending on the writer’s background, education, or even sources. In the first century a.d., some writers even attempted to turn back the clock by advocating a return to the old classical form of Greek, decrying the Koine as a debased form of the language. The artificial style they produced (called “Atticistic” Greek) contrasted with the dialect of everyday life.

Styles of Greek in the NT

The NT itself reveals several styles of Greek among its authors. The highly literary epistle to the Hebrews, with its careful progression of argument and elevated diction, lies at one extreme. Luke and Acts also reveal good literary style, though the author (Luke) is able to vary his style considerably (cf. the colloquial Greek of Peter’s speech in Acts 15:7–11 with the rhetorical nature of Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17:22–31, or the Classical introduction in Luke 1:1–4 to the more Septuagintal style ofLuke 1:5–2:52). Paul’s Greek is more or less colloquial, but that may be partly due to his amanuenses, the secretaries who wrote from his dictation. At the other end of the spectrum lies the grammar of Revelation, which may reflect the work of a Semitic-speaking person who lacks a polished knowledge of Greek (though many of the idioms John uses have direct parallels in colloquial papyri texts).

Transliteration of Greek Words in the ESV Study Bible

Letter Name of Letter Transliteration
α alpha a
β bēta b
γ gamma g
γ gamma nasal n (before g, k, x, c)
δ delta d
ε epsilon e
ζ zēta z
η ēta ē
θ thēta th
ι iōta i
κ kappa k
λ lambda l
μ mu m
ν nu n
ξ xi x
ο omicron o
π pi p
ρ rho r
ρ̒ initial rho rh (or in medial double rho)
σ, ς sigma, final sigma s
τ tau t
υ upsilon y (not in diphthong)
υ upsilon u (in diphthongs: au, eu, ēu, ou, ui)
φ phi ph
χ chi ch
ψ psi ps
ω ōmega ō
rough breathing mark h (preceding initial vowel)

Greek Linguistics

Greek linguistics has emerged as one of the most fundamental disciplines in biblical studies—as important, e.g., as the study of molecular physics in the natural sciences. Biblical scholars have recently become concerned with the problems of language to a degree equaled only in the early history of modern comparative linguistics, when NT scholars such as Deissmann and Moulton began demolishing the myth of “Holy Ghost” Greek (the belief that God created a special language in which to inscripturate the NT). Today several scholars are specifically interested in what they call the “semantics of biblical language.”

It is a central concern of semantics that a clear distinction be maintained between words as linguistic units and the concepts associated with them. All languages have several ways of expressing a concept, and rarely does a concept consist of only one word. This confusion of word and concept is one of the chief faults of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. In treating words as if they were concepts, it incorrectly implies that the words themselves contain the various theological meanings assigned to them. But the meanings of words are determined from the way they are used in context. There is now consensus that interpreters must work at the level of the paragraph to discern meaning.

The capacity of a word to have two or more meanings is technically known as polysemy—a particular form of a word can belong to different fields of meaning, only one of which need be its semantic contribution to a single sentence or context. The principle of polysemy is frequently ignored in exegesis, leading to what is called the fallacy of “illegitimate totality transfer,” which occurs when the various meanings of a word in different contexts are gathered together and then all those meanings are presumed to be present in any single context. For example, it would be illegitimate to presume without further indication that in any single passage the word ekklēsia must refer to the church, the body of Christ. In Acts 7:38, e.g., “church” (in the NT sense) would clearly not be the author’s meaning and would actually be contradictory to the sense of the passage.

Another important linguistic concept is synonymy. Synonymy can be considered the opposite of polysemy: in synonymy, two or more words may be associated with the same meaning, whereas in polysemy two or more meanings are associated with the same word. A biblical example of synonymy involves the Greek vocabulary for “love.” The relationship between the meanings of agapaō and phileōis such that the words may be used interchangeably in some contexts. One thereafter need not be surprised that agapaō (popularly considered to refer to divine love) can describe Amnon’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:15 lxx) or that phileō (popularly taken to refer to a lower form of love) can refer to the Father’s love for the Son (John 5:20). Other NT examples of synonymy are logos/rhēma (“word”), horaō/blepō (“I see”), and oida/ginōskō (“I know”). In each case, according to the principle of “semantic neutralization,” any of the terms in these pairs may in some contexts be used interchangeably without any significant difference in meaning, depending on the purpose of the biblical author. (Smaller differences in nuance or connotation, however, are often still present among synonyms.)

Greek as an Inflected Language

Greek is a highly inflected language (like its contemporary, Latin). This means that most Greek words undergo changes in keeping with their function in the sentence in which they occur. For example, Greek nouns have five basic cases (or sets of forms): nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, and accusative. (English still bears a faint resemblance to this trait in such words as “dog,” “dogs,” “dog’s,” and “dogs’,” or in “I” and “he” used as subjects, “me” and “him” used as objects, and “my” and “his” used to show possession.) Because Greek word inflections designate the function of each word in its sentence, Greek allows much more variation in word order than English does, e.g., where a different word order often changes the meaning. In addition, Greek verbs function within an extensive and highly developed system of tenses, voices, moods, gender, and number, giving modern Greek students considerable consternation, but providing flexibility for a very broad range of nuances of meaning. Koine Greek’s linguistic stock (the set of words available for use) was incredibly rich, and new words could easily be coined by combining older words or adding a variety of common prefixes. These features all made Koine Greek a wonderfully resourceful language with a remarkable ability to express an author’s meaning precisely and understandably.

The Importance of Studying Greek Today

Is this ancient language worth studying today? Yes, indeed! The many tools available can give modern readers the knowledge and understanding to incorporate Greek into their own life and ministry, and into their personal Bible study. A knowledge of Greek will probably not make a reader think that the meaning of a verse is completely different from that indicated in a reliable, essentially literal modern translation, but it will certainly give the reader the ability to understand the meaning more precisely, to decide more accurately among various nuances that might be allowed by the English text, to understand why many popular interpretations are incorrect, and to have deeper confidence in knowing the precise sense of the verse. Meanwhile, those who will never learn Greek can still be thankful for scholars who have studied it extensively and who have prepared modern English translations that make available to the reading public an accurate rendering of what the original says.

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