Biblical Languages and Translations

With the exception of a few chapters in the books of Daniel and Ezra that were written in Aramaic, most of the Old Testament texts were originally written in Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek. Simply saying that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew fails to acknowledge that most scholars believe that there are at least three versions of Hebrew reflected in our Old Testament. The oldest Hebrew texts may date back to the earliest part of the Iron Age and are exemplified by the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. The idioms and word meanings from these older texts when compared with the more recent Hebrew of the Second Temple Period demonstrate that all language evolves over time. Thus, we should never forget that there can be no perfect translation from the original languages into languages of the modern world.

Translations of biblical texts date back to antiquity. During the reign of Ptolemy II in Alexandria, Egypt, more than seventy Jewish scholars were assembled to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek so that the Hellenized world could read it in their common language. This translation, known as the Septuagint, is the version of the Old Testament that most Greek-speaking New Testament writers would have used. Other translations of note were the “Targum,” a translation into Aramaic, and the “Peshitta,” a translation into Syriac. St. Jerome created a translation into Latin in the 4th century, known as the “Vulgate,” which became the dominant text for medieval Catholicism.

A modern understanding of approaches to translating ancient texts reflects a spectrum, ranging from “Formal Equivalence” (rendering words from the original language into the modern language with an effort to retain word order and sentence structure) and “Functional or Dynamic Equivalence” (rendering thought for thought to convey meaning of an original text into a modern language with less emphasis on word order or matching sentence structure). An example of the first approach is the New Revised Standard Version, while an example of the latter approach is the New International Version.

An alternative to translations from ancient languages is the “Paraphrase” approach, which starts with a translation and attempts to reword in simplified or easier to understand verbiage. An example of this approach is the Living Bible. Many Bible readers think of paraphrased Bibles as being more removed from the original texts and thus, inferior to translations.