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
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:-
"Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into
the hands of men." (Luke 9:44). This idea of laying words in one’s ears is a feature
of Hebrew and Aramaic speech rather than of Greek. It suggests that Jesus originally
spoke this saying in Aramaic or Hebrew.
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24) The
Aramaic word for a camel is “gamla” and that for a midge is “Qamla”.This saying was
originally a play on words in Aramaic or Hebrew (which is similar).
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema
sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)
Here the words of Jesus are recorded in Aramaic and translated into Greek. Besides
evidence that that the Gospel was written in Greek (otherwise why would there be
a translation of the Aramaic) this verse shows an Aramaic background to Jesus.
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.