Languages of the Bible
by Emily Monroy
December 2004/January 2005
A few years ago a broadcaster from Alberta, Canada was asking members of the public their opinion on the nation’s bilingual policy. According to one woman, Canada did not need any such policy. If English was good enough for Jesus, she said, surely it was good enough for Canadians.
Of course I had a huge laugh over this. In Jesus’ time the languages spoken in what we now call England were Celtic; the ancestor of modern-day English was introduced several centuries later when the Germanic Angle and Saxon tribes invaded the island, giving rise to the term “Anglo-Saxon.” But the Alberta woman’s statement raises the question: what language did Christ actually speak?
One can be forgiven for thinking that Jesus’ mother tongue was Hebrew. After all, Hebrew, in which the Old Testament was written, is considered the language of the Jews, and Christ himself was a Jew. In his daily life, though, he conversed in Aramaic, a closely related language that the Jews adopted during their exile in Babylonia and that more recently was used in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Some words of Aramaic origin in English include the name Thomas (meaning “twin”) and “abbot” from “abba,” a term for father. Jesus might have known Greek as well. At the time of the New Testament, Greek had become a “lingua franca” in the Mediterranean area, and as Jesus had dealings with non-Jews, he may very well have used Greek on these occasions. It is unlikely, however, that he spoke Latin, which was known by few in Palestine other than the Roman administrators.
As stated earlier, Aramaic and Hebrew are very similar. They both belong to a group of tongues known as the Semitic languages, some familiar examples of which are Arabic, Phoenician, and Ethiopia’s Amharic. The Semitic languages are in turn part of a larger group known as the Afroasiatic family, which includes a number of tongues spoken in the Middle East and North and East Africa.
Many Semitic languages in the Bible, however, are today either extinct or used only by small groups of individuals. To a large extent, these languages were pushed to, or over, the brink by their sister tongue Arabic, which expanded following the rise of Islam. Among the now-dead languages are Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite, whose speakers are mentioned in various parts of the Old Testament. Ruth, to whom a book of the Bible is dedicated, was a Moabite woman. Aramaic is now spoken by about half a million people in Lebanon and Syria. Although it is under constant threat from the more dominant Arabic around it, efforts are being undertaken to preserve the language.
Not all the tongues in the Bible fall into the Semitic and Afroasiatic categories. Others belong to the Indo-European family, a group that encompasses most modern-day languages of Europe and several in Western Asia and Northern India. Greek and Latin are well-known examples of Indo-European languages that make their appearance in the New Testament, which in fact was originally written in Greek. The Persians, of whose empire the Biblical heroine Esther became queen, also spoke an Indo-European language.
A lesser-known Indo-European people described in the Bible were the Hittites. At one time rulers of a large empire in the Middle East, their most famous member was Uriah, an officer in the Israelite army whom David had killed after his (David’s) affair with the former’s wife Bathsheba. Unlike Persian, Greek, and Latin, though, which live on today in various forms – as Iranian, modern Greek, and the present-day Romance tongues respectively – the language of the Hittites died without leaving any descendants, so to speak.
The most extraordinary Biblical language concerns the Elamites, a people mentioned in Genesis and Acts of the Apostles. They originated from what is now Iran and later conquered Babylonia. Interestingly, their language belonged to a family known as Dravidian, the most familiar member of which (to Westerners at least) is Tamil. Though Dravidian languages are at present largely confined to Southern India and Sri Lanka, they were believed to have once been spoken over a much broader area, hence the presence of the Elamites in Biblical lands.
So if my friend from Alberta were to meet Jesus, she would be well advised to bring along a Greek or Aramaic interpreter!
Thank you to Pastor Gerhard Wilch of Trinity Lutheran Church for assistance with this article.
Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here