Introduction to Biblical Languages

William Arnold III

Hebrew · Aramaic · Greek


Hebrew is part of the Semitic family which includes: Arabic, Ethiopic, Akkadian, Aramiac, Syriac and Canaanite (which itself is made up of: Hebrew, Phoenician, Ugaritic and Moabite). The Hebrew language was much simpler than Greek or English and thus lacked the precision that these languages have. The syntax and grammar of Hebrew is very simple, but translating it can be difficult at times because of this lack of precision. This is why you can have such variety in the various translations of the Old Testament. Sometimes, the translation is more precise than the Hebrew actually is. Hebrew is, however, a vivid and pictorial language. It often uses word pictures to convey abstract ideas for which it does not have words. Hebrew is also written from right to left. When you open a Hebrew Bible, you start from what we would consider the "back" of the book.

The alphabet consists of 22 consonants and no vowels. The vowels were simply understood and supplied where they were needed. This is similar to the way we use personalized license plates or even some of our abbreviations (bldg). Our mind can simply supply the vowels because we are familiar with the words. At some point in the history, the Jews quit pronouncing the name of God and instead substituted the title "Adonai" (Lord), for fear of using God’s name in vain. Therefore, the original pronunciation of the vowels is lost. However, from what we know of names which contain part of the divine name (Isaiah, Elijah), scholars believe that the most probable pronunciation was "Yahweh."

After the demise of the nation of Israel and the dispersion of the Jewish people (around 150 A.D.), Hebrew was fast becoming a dead language. Later on (about the 5th century A.D.), the Masoretes devised a system of dots and dashes to preserve the vowel pronunciation and also to help children learn Hebrew. These marks were placed above and below the letters so as not to alter the length of the scrolls. Today, a text which contains these features is referred to as "pointed" and one without the vowel markings is called "unpointed." Since Hebrew had basically ceased being used except when reading the scriptures, modern Hebrew is then a "resurrection" of this once dead language.

Hebrew connects as one word what we would separate into several words in most Western languages (such as English). Often, prepositions, the definite article (the) and the conjunction "and" are attached as a prefix to the verb. And even a pronoun when used as a direct object or possessive may be attached as a suffix. Therefore, one Hebrew word can be a complete sentence with a subject (implied), verb and direct object. For instance, the sentence "He killed him" would be written as one word in Hebrew.

Nouns are either masculine or feminine and are almost always derived from their cognate verbs. Masculine words form their plural by adding –im (for instance, the words cherubim, seraphim and Elohim are all plural) and feminine words become plural by adding –oth. Since plurality can also designate a multiplicity of attributes, the words God, face, heaven and water are often found in the plural even when they refer to something singular. Hebrew nouns have no case as does Greek. Instead Hebrew uses prepositions, the genitive construct and the sign of the direct object "eth" to represent different cases. (In English we have cases only with pronouns: I {subjective}, my {possessive} and me {objective}).

The verb stem is usually made up of three consonants. In English we use tenses primarily to designate the time of the action. Hebrew tenses on the other hand describe the kind of action. In fact, it has only two tenses, perfect and imperfect (which represent complete and incomplete action respectively). Both of these tenses can be past, present or future, depending on the context. Greek on the other hand has six tenses which can describe both the time and kind of action.

Larry Walker comments on adjectives and abstract terms in Hebrew:

Hebrew is deficient in adjectives. "A double heart" is indicated in the original Hebrew by "a heart and a heart" (Ps. 12:2) and "two differing weights" is actually "a stone and a stone" (Deut. 25:13); "the whole royal family" is "the seed of the kingdom" (2 Kings 11:1).

Adjectives that do exist in Hebrew have no comparative or superlative forms. Relationship is indicated by the preposition "from." "Better than you" is expressed literally in Hebrew "good from you." "The serpent was more subtle than any other beast" is literally "the serpent was subtle from every beast" (Gen. 3:1). The superlative is expressed by several different constructions. The idea "very deep" is literally "deep, deep" (Eccl. 7:24); the "best song" is literally "song of songs" (compare "king of kings"); "holiest" is literally "holy, holy, holy" (Isa. 6:3).1

Abstract terms are alien to the character of Hebrew; for example, biblical Hebrew has no specific words for "theology," "philosophy," or "religion." Intellectual or theological concepts are expressed by concrete terms. The abstract idea of sin is represented by such words as "to miss the mark" or "crooked" or "rebellion" or "trespass" ("to cross over"). Mind or intellect is expressed by "heart" or "kidney," emotion or compassion by "bowels" (see Isa. 63:15 KJV). Other concrete terms in Hebrew are "horn" for strength or vigor, "bones" for self and "seed" for descendants. A mental quality is often depicted by part of the body thought of as its most appropriate embodiment. Strength can be represented by "arm" or "hand," anger by "nostril," displeasure by "falling face," acceptance by "shining face," thinking by "say."2


The vast majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. However, there are some portions which were written in Aramaic. These are: Daniel 2:4b-7:28 and Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26 as well as a few phrases in Genesis 31:47 and Jeremiah 10:11. It was probably the language Jesus and the disciples actually spoke on a day to day basis, but we cannot be sure. Aramaic was a close cousin to Hebrew, even sharing the same alphabet. In fact, the script used in modern Hebrew Bibles today is Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic were a little bit closer than, say, modern Spanish is to English. Aramaic was also becoming somewhat of a universal language towards the end of the Old Testament. In fact, since many of the Jews understood Aramaic better than Hebrew, some of the Hebrew scriptures were paraphrased into Aramaic (Targums). Aramaic probably has the longest linguistic history of any language and is still spoken by a few people today.


In comparison with Hebrew, Greek is much more complex and precise. It is capable of expressing fine nuances and various shades of meaning as well as philosophy and abstract ideas. The conquests of Alexander the Great spread the Greek language and culture to all the lands that he conquered (which was most of the then known world) and by New Testament times, it had become the lingua franca (universal language) of the Mediterranean region and beyond. You might say that English is soon becoming the lingua franca today. It is often the language of international trade. Greek is part of the Indo-European family which also contains such languages as: Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, English and German.

The Greek of the New Testament (Koine) was somewhat different from classical and literary Greek. It was the language of the common people, spoken in everyday language. We have learned much more about this form since the discovery of the papyri in Egypt about 150 years ago. Tens of thousands of manuscripts consisting of common writings which contained everything from grocery lists to personal letters to receipts were discovered at this time. Because of the extremely dry climate in Egypt, they were preserved and they have proven to be invaluable. It is hard to underestimate what these discoveries have contributed to our knowledge of New Testament Greek today, which was not known merely 150 years ago. For this reason, commentaries and lexicons written before this time were written with a lesser understanding of the language and we should keep this in mind when using them.

Wallace gives these stages in the development of the Greek language:

I. Pre-Homeric (up to 1000 B.C.)

II. Classical Era (1000 B.C.-330 B.C.)

III. Koine Greek (330 B.C.-330 A.D.)

IV. Byzantine (or Medieval) Greek (330 A.D.-1453 A.D.)

V. Modern Greek (1453 A.D. to present)3

And these interesting facts about Hellenistic Greek ("Hellenistic" Greek usually refers to Koine as a second language, which would apply to most of the New Testament):

1. The Golden age of Greek literature effectively died with Aristotle (322 B.C.)

2. The Koine was born with Alexander the Great’s conquests.

3. Hellenistic Greek began with Alexander’s troops who came from all the regions of Greece. The troops, then, produced a leveling influence.

4. It was developed further as a second language of conquered peoples, when new Greek colonies sprang up due to Alexander’s victories. The conquests, then, gave Greek its universal nature.

5. Koine Greek grew largely from Attic Greek (which, if you recall, was the dialect of the "golden age" of Greece), as this was Alexander’s dialect, but was also influenced by the other dialects of Alexander’s soldiers. "Hellenestic Greek is a compromise between the rights of the stronger minority (i.e., Attic) and the weaker majority (other dialects)."

6. This new dialect, however, should not be perceived to be inferior to Attic. It was not a continuation of the pure gold of classical Greek, but a more serviceable alloy for the masses.

7. It became the lingua franca of the whole Roman Empire by the first century A.D.

8. When is Koine Koine? Though Koine Greek had its birth in c. 330 A.D., this was its physical birth, not its linguistic. One should not suppose that all of a sudden, with the conclusion of Alexander’s final battle, everyone began speaking Koine Greek! (Remember that Greece still retained its dialects while Alexander was conquering the world.) Just as a newborn baby does not immediately speak, it took some time before Koine really took shape.4

Unlike English, Greek is a highly inflected language. Inflection is when the ending of a word is changed to indicate such things as case (subjective, possessive, indirect object and direct object), number, gender, tense, voice and mood. As mentioned before, English has kept the most inflection in its pronouns (I, my, me, you, your, he, his, him, she, her, it and they are all examples of inflection), with a little in its plurals (adding "s" or "es") and past tense (adding "ed"). Elsewhere, we add helping words (words such as "had been" and "will be") where Greek would simply change the inflection. The old English of the King James Bible still retains some of the inflection once present in our language which has fallen out of use today. This is seen with its use of the -eth, -ist and –est endings (all of which are meant to indicate a continuous action) as well as distinguishing between second person singular (thee, thou) and second person plural (you). Nouns in Greek are masculine, feminine or neuter as well as nominative (subject), genitive (possession), dative (indirect object) and accusative (direct object) and they also are singular or plural.

The verb system is very complex, with six different tenses which demonstrate not only the time of action (past, present or future) but with the past tense, it shows the kind of action as well (durative {I was eating}, completed {I have eaten} and undefined {I ate}). The verb is also capable of voice (active {I eat} or passive {I am eaten}) and mood (indicative {making a statement or asking a question}, subjunctive {giving a possibility – I may eat}, infinitive {bare verbal idea – to eat}, imperative {giving an order – You, eat!}, optative {wish – Oh, that I could eat}) as well as person (first, second or third) and number (singular or plural). The verb can also function as a noun when in the infinitive or when used as a participle (eating).

The style of the Greek found in the New Testament also varies from author to author and sometimes even from book to book. For instance, some of the New Testament reflects somewhat of a Semitic style (Gospels, Revelation and James) and some a very polished Greek (Hebrews, Luke-Acts and, to a lesser extant, Paul).5

See also my article: How To Self-Study Greek or Hebrew


1. Larry Walker, "Biblical Languages" in The Origin of the Bible, Philip Comfort, Ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 217. <back>
2. Origin of the Bible, 218. <back>
3. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 14-16. <back>
4. GGBB, 17-18. <back>
5. This article draws much from "Biblical Languages" by Larry Walker in The Origin of the Bible, Philip Comfort, Ed., which I strongly recommend for anyone interested in this topic. (see my review) <back>

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