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What are the Languages of Biblical Times?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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There were four primary languages spoken by people in Biblical times: Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. The Old Testament of the Bible was originally written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. This mixture of languages reflects the origins of the varying people who contributed to the Bible, as spoken and written languages varied by ethnicity, class, and education. Three of the four languages are considered dead languages, meaning that they are not spoken anymore although scholars continue to read and study them. The fourth, Hebrew, is still used in parts of the Middle East and in the Books of the Torah, the Jewish Bible.

Aramaic is probably the least well known of the languages of Biblical times. This term actually refers to a family of ancient Semitic languages that were spoken widely across the Middle East. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, which borrowed the script for its alphabet. Biblical Aramaic is no longer used, although modern languages in the family are employed in scattered parts of the world for liturgy, religious practice, and communication in some regions. The language was the common language in Palestine, and was most likely the language that Jesus himself spoke. It was replaced in the Middle East by Arabic in the seventh century.

The Greek spoken in Biblical times was Common Greek, which is related to Modern Greek, although different enough that Modern Greek speakers cannot understand it. Common Greek was a more basic dialect than the refined Ancient Greek used by Aristotle and Plato. While Biblical Greek is no longer spoken, some scholars still read the New Testament in this language. Many Greek speakers and scholars lived in the Eastern parts of the Roman empire, and contributed language and culture to the region.

Latin was spoken by scholars and administrators. It was the official language of the Roman Empire, and paperwork, decrees, and announcements would have been offered in this language. It is unlikely that Latin was widely spoken among the common citizens, although more educated individuals might have used it. Latin was not adopted for religious liturgy until the second century, when it displaced Greek across the Empire. It's the parent of the Romance Languages, including Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Few people spoke Hebrew in Biblical times because it had been largely replaced by Aramaic, but most Jews read the Bible in Hebrew, however. A revival in the 1800s brought Biblical Hebrew back to life, preserving it as a living language, although it is spoken by a limited number of individuals.

These four primary languages represent a variety of cultures and ethnicities, all of which figure prominently in the Bible. Biblical scholars often study two or more of these languages in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible and the people who inhabit its pages.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Mar 12, 2021

I was in a dialogue with some people online over the New Testament and what language it was written in. My own thought was that it would have been in Hebrew, because the early Christians, such as the Apostles, were ethnic Jews, and they would speak and write Hebrew. However, someone corrected me and told me that it was actually Koine Greek, because that was the language used by the prevailing government at that time, and it was also what the ordinary people were educated in. He told me that most Jews, despite being Jewish, were actually not proficient in Hebrew, their ancestral tongue. I thought this was interesting.

By cafe41 — On May 15, 2011

I wanted to add that although Latin is not a spoken language it should still be studied because Latin students are usually able to score really high on standardized tests because about 80% of English vocabulary is derived from Latin roots.

It also offers a great understanding of the mechanics of English grammar because of the discipline required learning the various Latin endings called declensions. It also is recommended if you are going in to medicine or law.

Greek is also another great language to learn because many roots come from the Greek language as well.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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