Nearly every Bible-believing Christian in the world first hears and reads the Bible in a translation. In fact, the vast majority of Christians only read and study translations of the Bible. Only a small number of Christians—usually young aspiring pastors and Bible scholars—acquire professional training in one or more of the languages in which the Bible was originally written. Yet even out of this group of people, only a small number can actually read the Bible fluently in one or more of its original languages. Only a small number of these people, in turn, can read the Bible fluently in all three of the languages in which it was written. Very few people have read the Bible cover-to-cover entirely in its original languages (I have).
The three languages in which the Bible was originally written are the Classical dialect of Hebrew, the Koine dialect of Greek, and the Imperial dialect of Aramaic. Each of these languages also has modern forms (Aramaic has several modern dialects), but modern spoken Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic differ considerably from the ancient forms of these languages (especially so with Greek and Aramaic). For this reason, there is probably no one in the world who is fluent in both the ancient and modern forms of all three of these languages. The entire New Testament was written in Greek. The entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew, except for Ezra 4:6–6:18, Ezra 7:12-26, Daniel 2:4–7:28, and Jeremiah 10:11, which were written in Aramaic.
The Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek in the second century BC. This translation is called the Septuagint (Seventy), abbreviated LXX (70). However, Greek is not the original language of the Old Testament—most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with the exception of the 268 Aramaic verses listed above. Most seminaries emphasize the study of Greek over the study of Hebrew, and pastors are much more likely to have a working knowledge of Greek than of Hebrew (very few have studied Aramaic), but Greek is only the language of the New Testament, not the language of the entire Bible.
Before I learned Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic I did not think that they were important for studying and interpreting the Bible. I felt quite capable of studying and understanding the Bible without these languages, and I was annoyed when commentaries printed Greek and Hebrew words without translating them. But my perspective changed after spending many years learning Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and reading and studying the Bible in the original languages. Now, these languages seem completely indispensable for my study of the Bible. Of course, on one level, it is certainly possible to understand and study the Bible without knowing the original languages. But one can never delve very deeply into details of the text without this knowledge, and the one who tries will probably end up with many misinterpretations. Also, while there have been many significant battles in churches all over the world concerning which translation of the Bible to use, the translation problem becomes irrelevant when one can read and understand the Bible in its original languages.
Discussions of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic grammar can be very technical, and many pastors and laymen alike are quick to label them as irrelevant for practical Christianity. But our understanding of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic grammar is the basis for our understanding of the Bible, and there are no more relevant words to man than the words of God as recorded in the Bible. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, so every translation of the Old Testament is ultimately based on someone’s understanding of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. No one today speaks the ancient form of Hebrew and Aramaic, so scholars have to study the grammar of these languages in order to understand the meaning of the Old Testament. This also involves the study of extrabiblical texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, the study of cognate languages (e.g., Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Arabic), and the study of ancient translations of the Old Testament (such as the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac Peshitta). In like manner, our understanding of the Koine dialect of the Greek language is the basis for our understanding of the New Testament, and for any translation of the New Testament. Those dry scholarly discussions of technical grammatical and lexical issues may seem totally irrelevant to your daily life, but they influence the Bible translation you read, the notes in your study Bible, and the interpretations your pastor reads in Bible commentaries. And there are many competing theories about the grammar of these ancient languages and the meaning of words in them; one cannot assume that scholarship is settled and that the final product of scholarly research has already arrived. Anyone who wants to be a Bible scholar must learn the languages in order to evaluate the issues for himself.
Admittedly, the situation of many Christians is such that they are not able to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (due in part to the church’s failure to promote the learning of these languages from an early age). But even if one does not know the original languages of the Bible, knowing some things about them can aid in one’s understanding of the Bible. For example, it is useful to know that at the time the Bible was written, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek made no distinction between capital and lowercase letters and used no punctuation. Thus, all capitalization and punctuation in English Bibles represent editorial decisions made by the translators, often based on decisions made by scribes who copied manuscripts during the Middle Ages. It is also useful to know that chapter and verse divisions were not part of the original text, although some early manuscripts do have line breaks between major sections. While the chapter and verse divisions in our modern Bibles generally make good sense, occasionally they do not. The reader should realize that these divisions are interpretive decisions, and that they can be wrong—unlike the biblical text itself, which is inerrant.
While comparing Bible translations can be useful for Bible study, people who cannot read the Bible in the original language should only do this with much caution. All too often, pastors and laypeople alike will read a verse or passage in several different translations and select the one with the wording they like the best, or the one that fits best with the point of the sermon. Unfortunately, the translation they like the best may not be faithful to the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic; but they have no way of knowing this or of effectively evaluating the accuracy of translations. For this reason, I recommend reading a literal translation that faithfully reproduces the wording of the original as much as possible and leaves interpretive decisions to the reader.
In my next three posts, I will look at each of the Bible’s three original languages in turn and will describe their significance and major characteristics.
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