Linguistic Fossils

Bible Think

Language and the Bible

The Bibles that most people read are translations from the original languages into their own language. There are many different translations into English, and most other languages have several alternative possible translations. However, the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (with some sections in Aramaic) and the New Testament was originally written in Greek (with a few words of Aramaic). These languages changed with time and with the linguistic background of the writer and by looking at the language one can make an estimate of when and where the document was written.


Linguistic Fossils

In any text that has been thought up in one language and translated into another there is a tendency for some of the style and idiom of the original language to carry over into the translation. Thus by looking at the language of a document one can gain some idea of when and where it was written. For example, the English of Shakespeare is different from modern English and one can recognise English text which has been translated literally from German. By applying this kind of thought to the Bible one can gain some idea of the background against which it was written.


The elements of the original language which are carried over into the translation are called  “Linguistic Fossils”.


The New Testament

The Greek in which the New Testament was written does not change form very much from one century to another. However, it is possible to determine something of the background from the presence of Aramaic or Hebrew fossils in the text.


While the Gospels were clearly written in Greek, the words of Jesus and of some of the other speakers in them were clearly in Aramaic or Hebrew. One can tell this because the Gospels sometimes use Aramaic constructions and forms in their Greek. Occasionally there are even plays on words. Here are some examples:-



The existence of linguistic fossils of this kind is a useful indicator of where the Gospels, in particular, came from. The first language of Jesus and the Apostles was almost certainly Aramaic, although they may have been bilingual in Greek (which was the main language of commerce in the area) and possibly even trilingual with the addition of Hebrew (which would be used in Synagogue services). However, the main language of the majority of the Church was Greek, which is why the New Testament is written in that language. Thus the fact that there is considerable evidence for Aramaic structures within the Gospels shows that they come from the Palestine at the time of Jesus rather than from the early Church.


In the case of the Apostles, linguistic fossils are much less important. However, Semitic fossils are clear in the epistles of Peter but the letters of Paul are written by someone who was absolutely fluent in Greek. This fits what we know of Peter and Paul but it is not very strong evidence.

The Old Testament

The Hebrew language changed slightly over the period of writing of the Old Testament, and the form of language used in books can be used to assist in placing them in history. However, there is considerable controversy in this area and it seems that linguistic fossils alone are not completely reliable as a guide to dating.


Linguistic Fossils

Click here for a pdf file containing an introduction to the language of the Bible and what this means in terms of dating the documents in it.


Reliability of the Bible

Link to the main page for evidence on the reliability of the Bible.

Dating the Bible

Much of the evidence about the Bible depends on the date at which the documents were written. This page discusses the dates of the books of the Bible.

Undesigned Coincidences

These are evidence which connects the narratives of the Bible to the events that they describe. Undesigned coincidences are further evidence that the narratives of the Bible are close to these events.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The linguistic background to the New Testament is clarified by the documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were written in Judea shortly before the time of Jesus and show language development in the area at that time.

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Linguistic Fossils