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What Was the Original Language of the Bible?

The Bible’s singular authoritativeness seems to be uncompromised by the many translations that have been created in the past few millennia.

Detail of a page from Codex Sinaiticus (circa 350 C.E.)

In third-century B.C.E. Alexandria, Egypt, one of the last of the pharaonic rulers—Ptolemy Philadelphus II—wanted his Jewish subjects to have access to their own holy books. Because of the far-reaching conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek had become the language of the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt was no exception. Those who identified themselves as Jewish could no longer read their own Scriptures, and Philadelphus was keen to help. More importantly, he wished to collect a compilation of these writings, in Greek, for Alexandria’s famous library, which boasted a copy of every book in the known world. Calling together seventy of his best scholars, he charged them with a massive undertaking: each one was to work independently, carefully translating Hebrew texts to Greek.

And then, according to legend, an extraordinary thing happened. When Ptolemy compared the seventy different translations, he found that each copy was precisely like the next. There could be no explanation other than that God himself directed the translators in their work. This new Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Septuagint (from the Greek for seventy), was perfect, authoritative, useful, and—above all—divinely inspired.

Is this legend true? Some maintain that it is. Many scholars, however, prefer to consider this story not for its factual merit but for what it tells us about the historical moment. For one thing, it reveals anxieties over the issue of words and texts and their relationship to ideas of holiness. Does the Bible “mean” something different in its original language than it does in translation? This story about Ptolemy Philadelphus II suggests the opposite: in whatever language, the Bible is still a holy book because God directs the work of the translators.

Most of the Hebrew Bible was written in Hebrew, including all of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. But around 250 Bible verses (of a total of 23,000)—primarily portions of the Book of Daniel (Dan 2:4-7:28) and fifth-century B.C.E. official court documents embedded in Ezra (Ezra 4:8-6:18, Ezra 7:12-26)—are in a related language, Aramaic. At different times in history, Aramaic transformed from an international language that united people living in different parts of the Assyrian Empire, to the dominant language of Jews living in the Babylonian captivity, to the official language of the western half of the Persian Empire (500 B.C.E.).

During this time, Hebrew was used less and less frequently until it came to be almost exclusively a religious or sacred language. Still today, Jews study and memorize the Torah in Hebrew while worshiping in the synagogue; Hebrew is the language of the liturgy, and no synagogue is complete without at least one Torah scroll, painstakingly hand copied in Hebrew and kept carefully protected at the front of the congregation. Although Jews may read the writings of the Torah in English as part of the Hebrew Bible or Tanak—it is only in its original Hebrew that the text is particularly sacred.

Did Alexandrian Jews of the third century B.C.E. consider their Septuagint sacred even though the Hebrew writings were translated into Greek? We don’t know the answer to this question, but we do know that for centuries, the Septuagint was the predominant form in which Jews read their Scriptures. Even those Jews of ancient Palestine who spoke primarily Aramaic among themselves knew their Scriptures in Greek, not Hebrew. When the apostle Paul quotes Scripture, it is the Septuagint that he cites.       

But what about the New Testament? It’s written in a form of Greek that most educated people of the first century C.E. used every day, known as Koine (“common”) Greek. It was simpler in its style, syntax, and grammar than classical Greek, and it was probably easier for non-native speakers of Greek to learn. While Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic (in fact, Jesus speaks Aramaic in certain passages of the New Testament, in words like maranatha and ephaphtha and in his cry “Eloi Eloi…”), the Gospel writers wrote in Koine Greek. This means that our earliest Christian literature has already translated Jesus’ words from Aramaic. Some have wondered if this means that Jesus’ words have been altered in meaning, or even if the meaning of his original words could have been lost.

Many Christians counter, however, that the process of translating Scripture from Aramaic to Greek to English (or whatever language) was divinely inspired and guided by God and thus can have no mistake. In its most strict form, this idea is called biblical inerrancy or biblical infallibility, and it is a hallmark of American fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestantism. This view holds that there are no such things as errors because scribes and scholars translated the Bible from its original languages. In essence, this principle has as its basis an idea very similar to the legend of the Septuagint’s translation: whatever language the Bible is in, God guided people to make sure that its sacredness was not lost in translation.

Although numerous editions, or versions, of the Bible have been made over the past two millennia, many American fundamentalists and Evangelicals hold only one translation to be authoritative: the King James Version (or KJV; also known as the Authorized Version, or AV). King James I of England commissioned 47 of the finest scholars in the land to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament from Greek. The impetus for the new translation, which was completed in 1611, came from the Church of England’s push to produce not just an English translation but one that conformed to the tenets of the new Anglican denomination. There was no mystical agreement by different scholars working independently—the translation was a group effort that took considerable labor and that generated controversy in its time.

While Protestants worldwide—particularly English-speaking ones—continue to favor the KJV, other Christians consider different translations to be authoritative. For at least 1500 years, Catholics used a fourth-century C.E. translation of the Scriptures into Latin known as the Vulgate (meaning “commonly used”) for ecclesiastical purposes. Christian Orthodox churches use versions of the Septuagint translated into the language of their national churches. There are also study Bibles used primarily by scholars that aim for the most accurate modern translations of ancient language; there are common-language translations in local slang and vernaculars for Christians seeking more modern and accessible Bibles, and translations such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) aim to use gender-neutral language so as to be more inclusive of women. The interesting thing about these translations is that most are considered to be inspired, authoritative, or sacred to those who use them, even though they are sometimes far from the original languages of the Bible. This sense that the Bible’s holiness transcends language, in fact, makes Christianity unique among Western religious traditions.

  • Nicola Denzey Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. An award-winning teacher and researcher, she is a frequent contributor to Bible Odyssey. She is also featured in documentaries on the Bible and Early Christianity on the History Channel, the BBC, and CNN’s new six-part series, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery.