The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Old Testament is written primarily in Hebrew, apart from some chapters in Daniel and Ezra and some scattered verses elsewhere, which were written in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek.
The composition of the books of the Old Testament span hundreds of years; thus, the Hebrew within the Old Testament displays an evolution through time. Because the New Testament was written during the first century, it does not display a similar language evolution as found in the Old Testament.
But, while the New Testament is written in Greek, its authors were either Jews or came from circles closely tied to the Jewish community; therefore, the manner of the Greek used in the New Testament often reflects Jewish (even Hebrew) meanings of words and phrases. In other words, the New Testament belongs to Jewish Greek literature.
Language embeds culture. A culture communicates its ideas, values, beliefs, and perceptions of reality through language. Language reflects the history of a people; thus, language changes over time, sensitive to changing historical circumstances. A major benefit to studying biblical languages, then, is the ability to engage and understand the cultural world of the Bible, its thoughts, beliefs, and values.
Learning a language, even a biblical language, is not about merely translating words and sentences into another language, nor is it about syntax and grammar. Learning a biblical language means interacting with the cultures of the biblical world. It means understanding the development of words and ideas. It helps us to better understand what the biblical authors intended.
Whenever we translate something from one language to another, we lose meaning in the translation. That is inevitable. Idioms, figures of speech, humor, these do not translate easily from one language into another. When we learn biblical languages, it enables us to enter the biblical world through the window of their thought, values, and beliefs.
Learning biblical languages is not about acquiring special or secret knowledge. It is not about unlocking hidden meanings or codes. It means entering the cultural world of the Bible so we can understand how the writers of the Bible and their original audiences viewed the world and communicated their views and beliefs.
For some, learning biblical languages may seem like a daunting task. Even if you do not know Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, you can still be aware of the fact that how language reflects culture and words in one language do not always convey the same meaning as they do in others. At least in this way, you can still position yourself to learn how to approach the words of the Bible.
Reading other ancient literature contemporary with the world of the Bible also provides a repository of language and thought of the people contemporary with the Bible, which can help us understand and interpret the language used by the biblical writers.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.