For those within the Christian faith, the Bible is a text of profound significance. A rich book, full of insights and lessons on what it means to live one’s life the way God intends, the Bible is known as the Word of God. It is composed of many different books and includes a vast array of literary styles such as short stories, letters, poetry, and historical accounts combined to form a unified whole.
When we read the Bible today, almost all of us turn to a translation of the original Biblical texts. To get the more authentic and precise presentation of scripture, we might well consider the language (or languages) in which the Bible was first written. Let’s take a look at some of the history surrounding the composition of the works that make up Biblical literature and explore how the profound spiritual wisdom contained within speaks to us today.
What is the Bible?
Before we begin, let us first consider various sections and books that make up the complete Bible. The Bible is comprised of two main sections, the Old Testament & New Testament. The Old Testament is made up of 39 individual books; the New Testament is made up of 27 books, giving the Bible a total of 66 books.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament documents everything from the creation of the ancient world up until the birth of Jesus. Its 39 books share the history of the people and nation of Israel and serve as the moral teachings and foundation of the Christian and Jewish faiths. The Old Testament can be further divided into subcategories known as the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophetic Books. The Pentateuch contains the first five books of the Bible which are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books tell the history and the beginnings of the ancient world as well as the creation of the family of Abraham, who become known as the people of Israel.
The next two sections of the Old Testament are the Historical and Wisdom Books. The Historical and Wisdom Books convey the prophetic history of the time and also share the wisdom of God's teachings through prophets. The Historical Books recount events spanning from Israel’s conquest of Canaan to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Israel and its people’s exile. It’s in this section that we find the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Ezra, and Esther. The Wisdom Books consist of the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These are a collection of books made up of poetry, moral teachings, and narratives.
Finally, there are the Prophetic Books, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. As in the Tanakh (sometimes referred to as the ancient Hebrew Bible), the Biblical prophets can be split into two major groups: the major and minor prophets. The Prophetic books provide historical narratives told by the various prophets, or messengers sent to the people by God. They not only document the events of ancient Israel but also explain the lasting significance of all that occurs during this time. At their core, the Prophetic books provide the messages God commanded the prophets to share with the people.
The New Testament
The New Testament of the Bible is the second major section and covers a period of time after the Old Testament from the birth of Jesus through the early days of the Church. This section is believed to have been originally written around 50-100 AD. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is also broken down into further sections: The Gospels and the Epistles. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these four Gospel accounts emphasizes or highlights different parts of Jesus’ life and mission to better help people to understand.
The second section is made up of the Epistles, or letters. These letters, originally written by the apostles to various early Christian communities, were intended to provide advice for the emerging churches on how to best commit to Jesus’ teachings. Finally, the New Testament ends with the book of Revelation which contains letters to various churches in the region and also interprets the meaning of life from the beginning to the end of the world.
When we speak of reading the Bible in its original languages, we are referring to the languages of Hebrew and Greek, primarily. Some parts of scripture were also written in Aramaic, the probable spoken language of Jesus, but for the most part, the Old Testament texts were written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was originally written in Greek.
Hebrew is a Semitic language, that is, one in a category of languages which were spoken throughout Mesopotamia. This would have been the native language of Biblical figures like Moses, Isaiah, and David. Important Biblical texts were originally written and passed down from generation to generation. As time went on the prevalent languages of the day evolved; Aramaic became widespread in its usage and by Jesus’ time was considered the official language in Israel. While day-to-day language shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of scholarship increasingly favored Greek.
Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated by Jewish scholars from their original Hebrew into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint and it enabled the texts of the Tanakh (many of which would go onto to form what we know as the Old Testament) to reach a wider audience. The Septuagint included all the books of the Tanakh as well as several other later Jewish texts of cultural significance such as the books of Tobit and Judith.
The Septuagint's Greek translation gained widespread popularity, in some cases, being the text used and referenced in the synagogues. And this increased familiarity with scriptural teachings in Greek is a significant part of the reason the New Testament authors wrote their accounts and letters in Greek as well. While ancient Greek was considered the language of the learned, the New Testament Bible writers did not write in elevated or classical Greek, but in the common parlance of the day. Today’s scholars refer to the language of the Gospels and Epistles as "koine" Greek, set apart from both the ancient Greek used by the likes of Plato and Aristotle and the Modern Greek spoken in Greece today.
Considering the Impact
The story of scripture is one that has been passed down again and again over more than 2 thousand years. From their ancient versions in their original language, scholars and faithful believers have worked to make the wonder and wisdom of the Bible available to as many people as possible. This goal is still alive today! To date, the entire Bible has been translated into over 2300 languages; the Word of God is more accessible than ever. Bible translations even extend further; there are various interpretive English Bible translations, each seeking to represent the Biblical texts as they were originally written so that modern readers can best understand. (To learn more about Biblical translations, check out our article, "Best Bible Translation".)
For more ways to deepen your faith and continue your education, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles and other supplemental material to help you along your journey.