Q & A - Why is the Old Testament written in Hebrew, & New Testament written in Greek?




Dear Bro Craig:


Bro, I have a question. Why is the Old Testament written in Hebrew and the New Testament written in Greek, although during the New testament time it was the Romans who we the masters of the area?  This has been in my mind for quite a while.


That's all and love of Jesus goes with you always.


Your bro in Christ





Craig’s Reply & Answers to Paul




Dear bro Paul,


I know that for a beginner it can be difficult determining the origins of the ancient Bible languages, which punctuates the importance of purchasing some good Bible software.  I use Biblesoft’s 4.2 version, Reference Library Plus, as it is very easy and integrative.  You could learn much by simply purchasing a Bible Dictionary or Bible Encyclopedia, which document the early origins of the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures.


The Bible was written across a period of several centuries in the languages of Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).  With the changing of nations and cultures across the centuries, these original writings have been translated many times to make the Bible available in different languages.


Ancient versions of the Bible are those that were produced in classical languages such as Greek, Syriac, and Latin.  Ancient versions of scripture were made during a 600-year period from about 200 BC to A.D. 400.  The oldest Bible translation in the world was made in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek for the benefit of the Greek-speaking Jews of that city.  A Jewish community had existed in Alexandria almost from its foundation by Alexander the Great in 331 BC.  By this time in history, the Jews had forgotten their native Palestinian language of Hebrew and they needed the Hebrew Scriptures rendered into the only language they knew, which was Koine Greek.[1]


Of all the languages in which the Bible was originally written, the most famous is Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, and Koine Greek, used in the writing of most of the New Testament.  However, most Christians are unaware of the fact that several other ancient languages also had an important bearing on the writing or transmission of the original texts of the Bible. 


For example, the Aramaic language, which exists today as the basis for spoken Arabic and other Semitic dialects, was spoken from at least about 2000 BC, and Aramaic eventually replaced many of the languages of the ancient world (e.g. – Hebrew) in popularity and usage.  Parts of the Book of Daniel were written in Aramaic and Aramaic was the common language spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus.  Most scholars agree that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic as his everyday language, but as a teacher, he was also fluent in Hebrew and Greek.


During the ministry of Christ and his twelve disciples, the written form of Greek also co-existed as the common Hellenistic speech, and was used widespread during this era of the Roman Empire.  This ‘Koine’ form of Greek still remains in tact today in the 21st century (2005).  From as early the 16th and thru the 20th centuries AD, Koine Greek was assumed by most scholars to be a crude form of the Attic (Classical Greek) and tantamount to street slang as a dialect.  However, recent archaeological discoveries and linguistic research has verified that the Koine Greek of the New Testament is neither a slang nor a foreign language, as was assumed for many decades.


In all crucial respects, the colloquial speech of Koine Greek, during the 1st century A.D., was the ‘lingua franca’ of the Greco-Roman empire, handed down to the Romans via the legacy of Alexander the Great's conquest of the East.  Koine Greek as a world-speech was still viewed by intellectuals as being at bottom the late Attic vernacular, mostly due to dialectical bias and provincial influences.  Koine Greek was not a decaying tongue, but a virile speech admirably adapted to the service of the many peoples of the time.[2]


Koine Greek became so widespread once the Romans conquered Greece that it even penetrated Hebrew culture and became the primary influence of the Septuagint.[3]  While the New Testament was written in the Greek language, the language which Jesus spoke was probably Aramaic.  For example, in Mark 5:41 below, Jesus speaks in Aramaic:


Mark 5:41 Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  NKJV


The words Jesus speaks to the little girl, “Talitha, cumi,” in verse 41 have been transliterated from Aramaic, preserved in English versions of the New Testament.  Other names for the Aramaic dialect used in the early churches throughout Asia Minor is Syriac and Chaldee.


The New Testament also refers to Latin-the language which sprang from ancient Rome (Luke 23:38; John 19:20). Most of the Roman Empire also spoke Greek in Jesus' day.  But as Roman power spread throughout the ancient world, Latin also expanded in use.  The influence of Latin on the Mediterranean world in the time of Jesus is shown by the occurrence of such Latin words as denarii (Matthew 18:28) and praetorian (Philippians 1:13, RSV, NASB) in the New Testament.


The Persian language was also spoken by the people who settled the area east of the Tigris River in what is now western Iran.  When the Jewish people were taken as captives to Babylon in 587 BC, they may have been exposed to this distinctive language form, which used a combination of pictorial and phonetic signs in its alphabet.  Scholars are uncertain if Persian was used in the writing of any parts of the Old Testament.[4]


The Old Testament, it is well known, is written mostly in Hebrew; the New Testament is written wholly in Greek.  The parts of the Old Testament not in Hebrew, namely, Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4-7:28, are in Aramaic (the so-called Chaldee), a related Semitic dialect, which, after the Exile, gradually displaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews.


Aramaic is the name is given to a form of Semitic speech, most nearly related to Hebrew and Phoenician, but exhibiting marked peculiarities, and subsisting in different dialects.  Its original home may have been in Mesopotamia (Aram), but it spread North and West, and became the principal language throughout extensive regions.  After the return of the Jews (i.e. – the southern tribes Judah, Benjamin & Levi) from the Captivity, Aramaic displaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews in Palestine.


 In its eastern form Aramaic is known as Syriac and its occurrence in the Old Testament, incorrectly bore the name Chaldee until recent archaeological discoveries determined Chaldee was merely a sub-dialect of the common form of Aramaic spoken in Babylon.  Ignoring two Aramaic words which occur in Genesis 31:47, the earliest notice of the use of this language in Scripture is in the request which the representatives of Hezekiah make to Rabshakeh, “Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syriac language,” (Aramaic = `aramith, found in 2 Kings 18:26 & Isaiah 36:11).  These narratives prove that Aramaic, “the Syriac language,” was so different from Hebrew, “the Jews’ language,” that it was not understood by the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  Further, it shows that Aramaic was the ordinary language of Assyrian arbitration. 


Aramaic is also used in a verse in Jeremiah 10:11 and if the traditional date of the Book of Daniel is accurate, there are six chapters in that book (Daniel 2:4-7:28), forming the greater part of the whole, that are the next and most important occurrence of Aramaic in Scripture.  There are other Aramaic passages in Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26, amounting approximately to three chapters. In the New Testament several Aramaic words and phrases occur, modified by having passed through Greek.  Also, today we possess several New Testament manuscripts considered highly credible written in authentic Syriac (Aramaic).


The Semiticisms (Hebraisms and Aramaisms) found throughout the New Testament scriptures are very natural results of the fact that the vernacular Koine was used by Jews who read the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint translation, and who also spoke Aramaic as their native tongue.  The Septuagint, as translation of Greek, directly from the Hebrew (or Aramaic), has a much greater number of these Semiticisms.[5]


Some time before 200 BC the first section of the Hebrew Bible to be translated into Greek was the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament, and other parts were translated during the next century.  As mentioned earlier, this version is commonly called the Septuagint, from septuaginta, the Latin word for 70 (LXX).  This name Septuagint was selected because of a tradition that the Pentateuch was translated into Greek by about 70 elders of Israel who were brought to Alexandria especially for this purpose.  Only a few fragments of this version survived in tact from the period before Christ. 


Most copies of the Greek Old Testament we have in tact today were made by Christians in the first, second, and third centuries.  The original versions of the Septuagint are a fragment of Deuteronomy in Greek (from the  second century B.C.) and another fragment of the same book in Greek dating from about the same time exists in Cairo. Other fragments of the Septuagint have been identified among the texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947.


When Christianity penetrated the world of the Greek-speaking Jews, and then the Gentiles, the Septuagint was the Bible used for preaching the gospel.  Most of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are taken from this Greek Bible.  In fact, the Christians adopted the Septuagint so wholeheartedly that the Jewish people lost interest in it.  They produced other Greek versions that did not lend themselves so easily to Christian interpretation.


The Septuagint thus became the ‘authorized version’ of the early Gentile churches.  To this day, it is the official version of the Old Testament used in the Greek Orthodox Church.  After the books of the New Testament were written and accepted by the early church, they were added to the Old Testament Septuagint to form the complete Greek version of the Bible.


The Septuagint was based on a Hebrew text much older than most surviving Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament.  Occasionally, this Greek Old Testament helps scholars to reconstruct the wording of a passage where it has been lost or miscopied by scribes as the text was passed down across the centuries. An early instance of this occurs in Genesis 4:8, where Cain's words to Abel, “Let us go out to the field,” are reproduced from the Septuagint in the RSV and other modern versions.  These words had been lost from the standard Hebrew text, but they were necessary to complete the sense of the English translation.


After their return from Captivity in Babylon, many Jews spoke Aramaic, instead of the pure Hebrew of their ancestors.  They found it difficult to follow the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures at worship.  So, they adopted the practice of providing an oral paraphrase into Aramaic when the Scriptures were read in Hebrew.  The person who provided this paraphrase, known officially as, “the Turgeman,” was also an officer in the synagogue.


One of the earliest examples of such a paraphrase occurs in Nehemiah 8:8.  Because of the work of Ezra, the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament, was officially recognized as the constitution of the Jewish state during the days of the Persian Empire.  This constitution was read publicly to the whole community after their return to Jerusalem.  The appointed readers, “read distinctly or, with interpretation from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them understand the reading.”


The phrase, “with interpretation,” appears as a marginal reading in several modern Bible versions, but it probably indicates exactly what happened.  The Hebrew text was read, followed by an oral paraphrase in Aramaic so everyone would be sure to understand.  This practice continued as standard in the Jewish synagogue for a long time.  The “targum,” or paraphrase of the Hebrew, was not read from a written document, lest some in the congregation might think the authoritative law was being read.  Some religious leaders apparently held that the Targum should not be written down, even for use outside the synagogue.


In time, all objections to a written Targum disappeared.  A number of such paraphrases began to be used.  Official Jewish recognition was given to two in particular-the Targum of Onkelos on the Pentateuch and the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets.  Some were far from being word-for-word translations.  As expanded paraphrases, they included interpretations and comments on the biblical text.  Today, these written paraphrased interpretations are known as Aramaic Targums.  The word “targum” means “translation.”


One area of great confusion, little understood by novice students of the scriptures, and even scholars find quizzical, are the Aramaic targumic expressions used by various New Testament writers.  Some New Testament writers indicate knowledge of targumic interpretations in their quotations from the Old Testament.  For example, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30) is a quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35; but it conforms neither to the Hebrew text nor to the Greek text of the Septuagint.  This particular phrase comes from the Targum.  Again, the words of Ephesians 4:8, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men,” are taken from Psalms 68:18.  But the Hebrew and Septuagint texts speak of the receiving of gifts.  Only the Targum on this text mentions the giving of gifts.  The confusion arises for beginners, who are unable to locate the Old Testament quotes in either Hebrew Old Testament translations or the Septuagint version.


The term Syriac describes the Eastern Aramaic language spoken in Northern Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers northeast of the land of Palestine.  Large Jewish settlements were located there.  At some point, the Old Testament must have been translated into Syriac for their benefit.


As Christianity expanded, this area became an important center of Christian life and action.  The Christians in northern Mesopotamia inherited the Syriac Old Testament and added a Syriac translation of the New Testament to it.  This, ‘authorized version,’ of the Syriac Bible is called the Peshitta, (i.e. - the “common” or “simple” version).  In its present form, it goes back to the beginning of the fifth century A.D.  But there were earlier Syriac translations of parts of the New Testament.  Two important manuscripts of the Gospels exist in an Old Syriac version, which probably goes back to about the second century A.D.


The Syriac-speaking church was very missionary-minded.  It carried the gospel into Central Asia, evangelizing India and parts of China.  It translated portions of the Bible from Syriac into the local languages of these areas which it evangelized.  The earliest forms of the Bible in the languages of Armenia and Georgia (north of Armenia) were based on the Syriac version.


Coptic was a highly developed form of the native language of the ancient Egyptians, and during the time when Christianity was planted in Egypt, while some of the twelve apostles were still alive.  With the development of a Christian community in Egypt, the need arose for a Bible in the Coptic tongue.  To this day the Coptic Church of Egypt uses the Bohairic version of the Coptic Bible, translated in the early centuries from the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament into the dialect of Lower Egypt.  Earlier still is the Sahidic version, in the dialect of Upper Egypt.


Across the Rhine and Danube frontiers of the Roman Empire lived a race of people known as the Goths.  The evangelization of the Ostrogoths, those who lived north of the Danube River, began in the third century around A.D. 360.  The first converts lived south of the Danube River, and settled in what is now Bulgaria.  There the Bible was translated into their ‘Gothic’ language and the Gothic version was the first translation of the Bible into a language of the Germanic family.  English, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian belong to this language group and many of the words used in modern English versions of the Bible originate from this Gothic tongue, accounting for the numerous mistranslations.


The need for a Latin Bible first arose during the second century A.D., when Latin began to replace Greek as the dominant language of the Roman Empire. The first Old Testament sections of the Latin Bible were considered unreliable, since they were actually a translation of a translation.  They were based on the Septuagint, which, in turn, was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.  Since the New Testament was written originally in Greek, it was translated directly into the Latin language.  Several competing New Testament translations were in use throughout the Latin-speaking world as early as about A.D. 250.


The task of producing one standard Latin Bible to replace these competing translations was entrusted by Damasus, bishop of Rome (366-384), to his secretary Jerome.  Jerome undertook the task unwillingly, knowing that replacing an old version with a new is bound to cause offense, even if the new is better.  He began with a revision of the gospels, followed by the Psalms.  After completing the New Testament, Jerome mastered the Hebrew language in order to translate the Old Testament into Latin.  He completed this work in A.D. 405.  Jerome's translation of the Bible is known as the Latin Vulgate and the best surviving manuscript of the Latin Vulgate is the Codex Amiatinus.


The Latin Vulgate is especially important because it was the medium through which the gospel arrived in Western Europe.  It remained the standard version in this part of the world for centuries In 1546 the Council of Trent directed that only, “this same ancient and vulgate edition...be held as authentic in public lecture, disputations, sermons and expository discourses, and that no one make bold or presume to reject it on any pretext.”  Until the 20th century, no translations of the Bible except those based on the Vulgate were recognized as authoritative by the Roman Catholic Church.


Until the beginning of the 16th century, all Bible versions in the language of the masses of Western Europe were based on the Latin Vulgate.  Among these, the Old English versions consisted of only parts of the Bible, and even these had limited circulation.  In this period few of the people of ancient England could read and therefore many of the familiar stories of the Bible were turned into verse and set to music so they could be sung and memorized.[6]


I hope this has proven informative bro Paul; you should keep this email on file, as it took a good deal of research to find and format for you.


Your friend always,




Craig Bluemel - The Bible Answer Stand Ministry

1 Peter 3:15 Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully.    





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[1] BIBLE VERSIONS AND TRANSLATIONS (from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)


[2] LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT; 2. The Revolution: (from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)


[3] THE BIBLE, 2.LANGUAGES; from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.


[4] LANGUAGES OF THE BIBLE (from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)


[5] LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT - III. The Semitic Influence; (from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)


[6] BIBLE VERSIONS AND TRANSLATIONS (from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)