One of the oldest and most studied texts, the Old Testament remains a source of profound wisdom, inspiration, and guidance. The overarching narrative of God’s love and care for His chosen people reveals the character of our Creator and invites us to define ourselves out of our relationship with Him.
But while the Old Testament continues to engage and challenge us, we rarely read this portion of scripture in its original form. Most of us necessarily rely on Bible translations, thoughtfully interpreted and presented to help modern readers draw close to ancient sources (“Best Bible Translation”). Today, we turn our attention to the language in which the first major section of the Bible was originally written and reflect on the text’s context and history.
Before we explore the text’s context, let’s briefly survey the books that comprise the Old Testament. This first division of the Bible documents everything from the creation of the world up until the birth of Jesus. Made up of 39 books, it tells the history of the people and nation of Israel and outlines the foundational teachings of the faith.
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—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—and spans from the beginnings of the world to the creation of the people of Israel. The Historical and Wisdom Books convey the prophetic history of the nation and kingdom of Israel and also share the wisdom of a life in pursuit of God through poetry, moral teachings, and narratives. Finally, the Prophetic books provide narratives, visions, and calls to action from the various prophets or messengers sent to the people by God. At their core, the Prophetic books provide the messages God commanded His faithful servants to share with the people.
When scholars refer to the Biblical languages, they are primarily referencing Hebrew and Greek. Some sections of the Old Testament were also written in Aramaic, the language scholars presume to have been spoken by Jesus. But speaking broadly, the Old Testament texts were written in Biblical Hebrew (sometimes also called classical Hebrew), and the New Testament texts were written in koine Greek.
Hebrew and Aramaic
Hebrew is classed among the Semitic languages—a category of languages that were spoken throughout Mesopotamia. It would have been the native language of Biblical figures like Moses, Isaiah, and David. The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 characters, all consonants, and is written and read from right to left. (In contrast, Modern Hebrew has 25 to 27 consonants and 5 to 10 vowels.) As the predominant language of the Jewish people going back as far as the 10th century BCE, important texts were written in Hebrew and passed down from generation to generation.
However, as time went on the prevalent languages of the day evolved. Aramaic, the common language among the Assyrians and other Ancient Near East peoples, became more and more widespread. Following the Jewish people’s return to the promised land from exile (around 538 BCE), the use of Hebrew as the spoken language began to decline. By the time of Jesus, Aramaic was considered the common language in Israel. As a result, a few passages in the Old Testament were not written in Hebrew but in Aramaic. The most notable Aramaic passages include sections of the books of Daniel and Ezra, as well as some brief portions of Genesis and Jeremiah.
While the commonly spoken language shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of scholarship increasingly favored Greek. Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, Jewish scholars set out to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint and it enabled the texts of the Hebrew Bible (many of which would go on to form what we know as the Old Testament) to reach a wider audience. In fact, the Septuagint translation gained such widespread popularity that it became the text used and referred to in many synagogues.
The increased familiarity with the Greek version of scriptural teachings is a significant part of the reason the New Testament authors wrote their accounts and letters in Greek. And, indeed, when the apostles and Gospel writers quoted or referenced the Old Testament in their writings, it was the Septuagint translation they were referring to.
The Old Testament demonstrates the tenacity of God’s love for His people. Comprised of many texts over an expansive period of time in an array of literary genres and styles, these texts are intended to point us to God and to encourage us to live rightly. The story of scripture has been passed down again and again for well over 2 thousand years.
From the ancient versions in the original Hebrew language, scholars and faithful believers have worked to make the wonder and wisdom of the Bible available to as many people as possible. To date, the entire Bible has been translated into over 2300 languages; the Word of God is more accessible than ever.