If you were go into a Christian church in America, the congregation would probably be speaking English, maybe Spanish, maybe another modern language. But they almost definitely would not be speaking Aramaic or Greek, the languages that the Christian Bible was written in. So why do we not read the Bible in Greek? And how many languages has the Bible been translated into?
The story of translating the Bible actually starts before Christianity. 200 years before the Common Era (C.E.), the Old Testament (the part of the text that is sacred to Jews) was translated into Ancient Greek by a group of rabbinic scholars. This Greek version is called the Septuagint.
The Christian Bible was written in Koine Greek. Even though Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic, Greek was the common language of the era and the most widely spoken language of the region. Aramaic is related to Biblical Hebrew. (Languages from the World of the Bible, a new academic book, explores the linguistic diversity of the first century, from Old and Imperial Aramaic to Phoenician and others.) A few portions of the Old Testament that are also in the Christian Bible, such as the Book of Daniel, were originally written in Aramaic.
Since we don’t still read the Bible in Koine Greek, how has the language of Bible changed since the founding of the Christian Church? Well the language that the Bible was written in cannot change, but the languages spoken in churches and by everyday people change all the time. (English alone has changed significantly in the past six hundred years.)
As with any translation, there are things you cannot say in one language that you can in others. For example, in Aramaic, there is a suffix that denotes “servant of.” In the Book of Daniel, one person’s name is Abednego. Technically, in the Aramaic that name means “servant of Nego,” but this meaning does not carry over into the Greek translation, so readers of the Greek (and subsequently the Latin and English) do not understand that this man is also a servant. A much more dramatic and theologically relevant example of translation problems lies in the Hebrew word, “almah.” In the Old Testament, a young woman, or maiden, was called “almah.” However, in the Septuagint, this word is translated into the Greek as “parthenos” which means, more precisely, “a virgin.” This is complicated because the Book of Matthew, in the New Testament, quotes this Greek translation and describes Jesus as being “born of a virgin.” However, in the Hebrew, the direct translation would have been “born of a young woman.” This linguistic nuance between Hebrew and Greek can be very contentious, as you might imagine.
In the late 300s, Saint Jerome (along with other scholars) translated the Bible into Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. Rather than translating from the Septuagint, St. Jerome used the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Koine Greek of the New Testament as the basis for his translation into Latin, called the Vulgate. When there were contradictions between the Septuagint and the original Hebrew (as in the case of “almah”) St. Jerome followed the Septuagint’s interpretation.
When did the standard English translation come about? Though there had been earlier English translations of the Bible, the King James Bible (commissioned by the King of England in 1604) became the standard bearer for the new branches of Christianity that were splitting from the Catholic Church. The King James Bible was primarily translated from the original languages, so the Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew and the New Testament from the Greek (rather than the later Latin versions). However, where there was dispute about specific translation decisions, the Septuagint and the Vulgate were used as references.
Of course, in addition to Latin and English, the Bible has been translated into at least hundreds of other languages, possibly as many as 3,000. The United Bible Societies widely translates and distributes Bibles.
Recently, an American president’s own multilingual dictionary came to light. Jefferson’s Bible, which the 3rd President spent decades working on, features different versions of the Bible side-by-side, including Latin, Greek, French, and English selections. Officially titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson’s Bible is now on view at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C, and the museum has made the entire book available online here.
What do you think about the translation details of the Bible? Are you interested in Jefferson’s multilingual Bible?