Biblical Languages and Dating [Revised: February 2008]
This question is in two parts: (1) What languages are the oldest copies of the books of the Bible found in, and (2) what language is it believed to be originally written in? I would also like to know why many different books of the bible were written in different languages originally.
I’ll do my best to answer your question as precisely (and concisely) as I can. It is said that historical and literary critical scholarship “is wissenshaft, not metaphysics.” That stands true for this article. I say that because these questions are not easy to answer and involve a little bit of scholarly elbow grease to really understand. First and foremost, there is no definitive answer to either of these questions (which we’ll get into), and all the information that we have points to how much we don’t know, not how much we know. So, when compiling the answers to these questions, scholars will generally be a little liberal with their speculations and more often then not they are answering with ‘Bible-colored glasses’—especially if you look at any monograph or historical critical book before the 1970’s. But, luckily for us and all literary critical and historical critical scholars everywhere, scholars finally started to remove those ‘Bible-colored glasses’ (See my new introduction to my book posted here).
Archaeological evidence and new methods of textual criticism has lead many scholars to reevaluate what they had originally thought about the dating and authorship of Biblical texts. For several hundred years, scholars had assumed the authenticity of the Bible narratives themselves, leading many to falsely assume that the original composition of the majority of the Bible (it should be clear I am not just referring to the Hebrew Bible, but the deuterocanonical books as well) was in Hebrew and Aramaic, leaving only the New Testament (for the most part) room to have been written in Koine, or common, Greek. But recently the authorship and composition dates have been challenged, and a new, more probable conclusion on these issues has led some scholars to question the composition language of the texts, most specifically in the Old Testament. Additionally, new finds at Qumran have allowed for a great deal of revisionist thinking on scribal methods and composition language. And finally, with fresh new perspectives on Diaspora life for both Jew and Gentile, these new revisionist ideas started to fit in more broadly to the conclusions of composition language, no longer allowing scholars (specifically on the conservative side) to take this vital subject for granted.
What is now being argued, specifically by the Copenhagen school, and the incredibly brilliant scholarship of Philip R. Davies, is that the context, while dating to the Persian period, initially started to become canonized during the Hellenistic period. This revolutionary thinking is based on a lot of very fine research, and fits in quite well with the socio-cultural settings of Hellenistic Jews. Since we do not have any copies of the Old Testament, at least in the vein of a collected group of works such as the Torah, prior to the Hellenistic Age, and so many Jews during the Hellenistic period used the Septuagint, it leaves Davies conclusions in a very compelling position. It was assumed for a long time that the composition of the Greek Old Testament was ordered by a Greek King during the period to add to his extensive library, which is part of the reason many scholars in earlier decades believed that the Greek translation came later. But this story was eventually discovered to be a product of Jewish fiction. What we know from that period is that so many Jews wrote fictions (like the story above about the Greek King), and they did so writing them in true Hellenic fashion; that is, they wrote them in Greek.
To be clear, that is not to say that these traditions did not exist prior to the Hellenistic Age, Thomas Thompson has provided a good case for (and now the majority of Old Testament critical scholars agree) the dating of these traditions to the Persian period (900-700 BCE roughly), but up until the Hellenistic age, these stories were not compiled or written down. Because of the new government sponsored school systems called Gymnasium, many elite Jews and wealthy Jewish families who were politically sealed with the Greek rulers, were permitted (as citizens) to attend school and receive formal training in the art of literature composition, rhetoric, and philosophy. Part of this schooling was very dependent on using older narrative models to teach basic grammar. Using these literary models is a process called imitatio or imitation—a form of mimetic learning and eventually authorship. The foundational models used by practically all schools were the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. With these Greek epics, one can clearly see the parallels found in Old Testament literature, and why so many Hellenistic Jews played with this model when writing many of the dozens of pseudepigraphical and deuterocanonical books. Even Josephus and Philo play with the themes of this Greek model when writing their own ‘histories’ of the Patriarchs and other Old Testament figures.
So, with all of this in mind, some of the Prophetic books, and some of the wisdom and many of the deuterocanonical books were probably originally composed in Greek, and later adapted for Jewish settlements and villages in both the Greek polis’ and the chora (rural areas in Egypt), as well as other Diaspora settings where these settlements are not fully or mostly Hellenized and still communicated in Aramaic and Hebrew. There are perhaps some narratives that were originally composed in Hebrew, such as 1 Maccabees, Ester (although it seems more likely composed originally in Greek, the debate continues), Ecclesiastes (although some debate on this continues, the dating ranges from the fifth – third centuries BCE). Virtually all of the deuterocanonical books of the Hebrew Bible were not written in a Semitic language but rather in Greek.
We can be fairly certain that much of the Old Testament (what is considered by scholarship has the Hebrew Bible) was originally composed in Hebrew, save for some parts of Daniel and Ezra. There are additions and commentaries on these books written in other languages, but that is really irrelevant.
Additionally, New Testament scholarship had for a very long time thought that the original composition of some of the Gospels (if not all of them) was in Aramaic, reflecting eyewitness authorship which no longer is assumed. Today, it is understood that the Gospels are not the works of eyewitnesses writing on historical events, but also literary creations composed by anonymous authors with very different motivations. The Gospel narratives, like many of the Hellenistic period Old Testament literature, were written in Greek. All of Paul’s letters and the various pseudonymous epistles and Revelations were also written in Greek. And probably most of the Gnostic literature found at Nag Hammadi were also originally composed in Greek, and then later copied into Coptic – the language we currently have most of them in today (although some Greek fragments remain for some of them). The language adaptation of the texts reflects the adaptation of the interpretation by the authors of other narratives. It is all relative, and represents the times and culture of the day.
These phenomena may seem strange to those who believe the scriptures to have been authored by the names represented as their titles. But it is also important to keep in mind that there was no “canon” of scripture. The concept of “canon” was not yet developed, so the nature of reinterpretation, creation and development was not limited to what was considered “inspired” – it was all considered to be inspired. It was just not considered inspired by what churches today believe it to be. People wrote and rewrote the text in the language that reflected their communities. There was no “orthodoxy” of Jewish doctrine, that concept did not exist for another few hundred years. Even today I would hesitate to say there is one unified doctrine, especially in light of the hundreds of Abrahamic religious sects; from Judaism with its hundreds of sects, to Christianity with its tens of thousands of sects, with Islam and the interpretation of the Quran. There was never a ‘unified orthodoxy,’ nor will there be. Everyone interprets and copies the texts into their own languages, and still to this day interpret them based on their own understandings and their own communities needs, politics and demographics. This has always allowed for the continuation of redactions, reinterpretations and expressions of both ones faith and their religious texts.
In the end, it will depend greatly on the faithful to one day understand this fact, that there is no absolute answer, and there never was, and certainly the authors of the Bible didn’t believe there to be. The sooner those who believe understand this, the sooner we can all progress as a society.