5 Jan 2011

Ancestry of the King James #4: ABCs of Bible Languages

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Exegesis, King James Version

Quotable Quote

The Bible is the most remarkable piece of literature this world has ever seen. It has outsold every other publication, it has been translated into more languages than any other, and has become part of the fabric of society in the English-speaking world …

Humanly speaking, it took more than 1500 years to compile the Bible. About forty authors contributed, and they wrote primarily in Greek and Hebrew, with occasional Aramaic …

Some people were so committed to the belief that this is God’s book that they were even willing to die for that proposition. And strangely, others have been willing to put them to death. The bitterness and resentment against this book is difficult to explain … Even in the twentieth century in some countries men and women have been imprisoned and tortured for reading this forbidden book” (Ken Connolly, The Indestructible Book: The Bible, It’s Translators, and Their Sacrifices, p. 7)

Here are Links to previous blogs in this thread: Ancestry of the KJV #1; Ancestry of the KJV #2; Ancestry of the KJV #3.

The Alphabet

When we speak of the Bible, we used a word which originally referred to a particular kind of writing material. When we speak of the Scriptures, we use a word which denotes the writing and not the material.

Writing has been around for a long time. But not all languages are alphabetic. Akkadian, Egyptian, Sumerian, and modern Chinese are examples of non-alphabetic writing. The invention of the alphabet was of monumental importance in human cultural development. It is usually believed that the alphabet has African or Semitic roots. Alphabetic writing is known from Ugarit and even older examples known as the Sinai inscriptions discovered in the earlier part of the 20th century. The earliest samples of Hebrew include the Gezer calendar and the Lachish Ostraca.

How does this affect translation? Well once we have an alphabet learning to read and write is a much simpler matter. In Judges 8.14 we read how Gideon laid his hands on a young man of Succoth, who according to the KJV and the ASV “described” to him the chief men of the city. The marginal reading of both versions point out that the ordinary sense of the Hebrew word is “wrote.” But that person should have been able to write at this time seemed unlikely to the translators. When the ASV (1901) was produced the oldest alphabetic writing was the Moabite Stone three hundred years later than Gideon. Now, however, it seems more reasonable to scholars that a person actually could have “wrote down” (NIV) for Gideon a list of the elders of Succoth.


Most of the “Old Testament” is written in Hebrew. Hebrew is classified as a Semitic language. This family of languages center on Palestine and the upper Tigris-Euphrates River Valley. In the “Old Testament” the language is known as the “lip of Canaan” or “language of Canaan.”

The language of Israel’s surrounding neighbors was very similar to Hebrew. The Moabite Stone for example is fairly easily read by those familiar with Hebrew script. Ugaritic is also closely related to Hebrew.

Hebrew has twenty-two letters – all of which are consonants. Hebrew has no vowels. The language is written from the right to the left instead of left to right as in English.


Aramaic, also a Semitic language, was a major language in the Ancient Near East. We find examples of Aramaic scattered throughout the “Old Testament.” It surfaces in Genesis 31.47; Jeremiah 10.11; along with longer sections in Daniel 2.4v-7.28; Ezra 4.8-6.18 and 7.12-26. Aramaic was the language of Syria, a kingdom we read of often in the Book of Kings.

In the eighth century BC, when the Assyrian Empire ruled the world, they made Aramaic the trade language of the world. Letters to Egypt or Judea were written in this language.

In 2 Kings 18.17-37 (cf. Isaiah 36.2-22) we read of the “non-use” of Aramaic by the Assyrian delegation to Jerusalem in 701 BC. Hezekiah sent officials out to meet this Assyrian Rabshakeh (a title not his name). Rabshakeh broke with the convention and spoke in Hebrew so the people on the wall could understand him. Hezekiah’s men protested saying “please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it” (18.26). The noble refused. He wanted the citizens of Jerusalem to understand his fearful message.

After the Exile Hebrew began to loose its usage among even the Israelites. Aramaic became the language of the average Jew. In Nehemiah’s time we read that a translation had to be made of the Law, which was written in Hebrew, into Aramaic so the people could understand:

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so the people could understand what was being read” (Neh 8.8)

The words “making it clear” come from the Hebrew mephorash a technical term in the diplomatic service of the Persian Empire to denote the procedure when an official would read from his Aramaic document into the native tongue of that province. It was translation.

Aramaic would eventually become the mother tongue of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus probably knew some Greek and likely Hebrew but those would not have been the language spoken around the dinner table in his home. Several words have come to us straight from the Aramaic into our English. The word abba (Mk 14.36, etc) is a word used in paternal address. The Jews never used “abba” in addressing God in prayer … it seemingly disrespected his Majesty. Jesus thought differently.

One word that was meaningful to early Christians was the Aramaic term marana tha … “our Lord, come!” May he do so …

P.S. the photo at the top is of the proto-Sinaitic script which is one of the first alphabetic scrips known in history dating to about 1100 BC. Two significant finds have been made: one by the Petrie’s in 1904-5 and by the Darnell’s in 1999.

2 Responses to “Ancestry of the King James #4: ABCs of Bible Languages”

  1. John Says:

    I have heard of Syriac. Is it and Aramaic the same?

    Would you write a little on the Targumim?

    This is interesting.

  2. Gardner Hall Says:

    Good series. I especially enjoyed the analysis from Jeremiah in the previous post.

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