In which language was the Bible first written?

Nowadays, the complete Bible is available in almost 700 languages, and the New Testament in more than 5000 languages around the world (see the website of Wycliffe Bibletranslators for more figures). All these versions are translations from the original Bible texts as they were written down centuries ago. So, in which language was the Bible first written?

Difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament

The Bible exists of 66 books that are collected in two Testaments. The Old Testament covers the ± 4000 years before Jesus Christ was born as a human baby, the New Testament was written after His coming (see timeline).

The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, and a few passages [1] in Aramaic. There are minor language differences between the first books of the Old Testament and the last ones, because every language develops over time, and there is some variation in language use by different authors and literal genres.

The New Testament, however, is written in a completely different language: Greek. In Jesus’ days, this had become the language of the common people in the region around Israel, primarily due to the conquests of Alexander the Great. Therefore. Greek would be a language that many people could understand at that time.

Old Testament Hebrew

The Hebrew language that is used in the Old Testament scriptures was probably in use from about 1500 BC until 400 BC. After that, many people switched to Aramaic. But Jews also kept using Hebrew, especially as their religious language. This Biblical Hebrew is different from the modern Hebrew that is spoken in Israel nowadays.

Hebrew is written from right to left. Originally, only the consonants of Hebrew words were written down. Later on, in many manuscripts, vowels were added in the form of little vowel points in, under or above the letters. This is especially helpful for readers who don’t have Hebrew as their mother tongue.

See below for the first verses of Genesis as they look like in most modern versions [2] (with added verse numbers et cetera), and a piece of text with only consonants.


As already mentioned above, the Old Testament contains a few text passages in Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic belong to the same language family, and are very similar. They use the same alphabet, for example. Aramaic was the official language in the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. Since these empires reigned over a large region including Israel (and took the majority of its inhabitants into exile), Aramaic became the common language of many Jews. Jesus also spoke Aramaic, see for example Mark 5:41, 7:34, 14:36 and 15:34. When Jesus is quoted in the New Testament, these quotes are thus often translations from Aramaic into Greek (although Jesus in all likelihood did speak Greek with people from outside the land of Israel).

Koinè Greek

When Alexander the Great conquered his enormous empire, he introduced Greek as the common language. So, when the Bible writers wrote down their accounts about Jesus Christ three centuries later, they used this language instead of Hebrew or Aramaic. The addition “koinè” makes clear that this was the ordinary, somewhat simpler Greek used by the common people, not ‘literary’ or ‘classical’ Greek.

These are the first verses of the Gospel according to Luke, as they look like in modern versions [3].

And this is a piece of a Greek manuscript as it looked like originally.

Early translations

By about 280 BC the first five books of the Bible were translated into Greek, because some Jews, especially those living outside the land of Israel, no longer mastered the Hebrew language. Some years later, the other Old Testament books followed. This early Greek translation is called Septuagint (meaning 70), or LXX (the Roman denotation of 70). This name is based on the (probably not 100% historically correct) story that 70 people were involved in the translation.

When the authors of the New Testament quote the Old Testament, they often cite this Greek version.

When the Roman Empire became more and more influential and Latin became the common language, parts of the Bible were translated in Latin as well. These are called the Vetus Latina. In the 5th century AD, the whole Bible was translated into Latin by Hieronymus. This translation is called the Versio Vulgata, which means ‘translation for the common people’. For centuries, this has been the Bible translation used in the western churches. During the Middle Ages, the church even prohibited other translations. But since Latin was no longer understood by the common people, more and more initiatives developed to translate the Bible into people’s mother tongues.

Do I need to learn Hebrew and Greek?

Nowadays, many people around the world profit from Bible translations in languages they can understand clearly. That’s a wonderful way to get access to God’s Word! It is still valuable to learn Hebrew and Greek if you want to delve deeper and study the Bible in its original languages, but a good translation is just as much “God’s Word” as the original Hebrew scrolls or Greek manuscripts are.

[1] These are Ezra 4:7-6:18, 7:12-26, Jeremiah 10:11, Daniel 2:4-7:28

[2] Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), © 1997 Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, page 1

[3] Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, © 1984 Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, page 150

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