In which language was the Bible first written?

Last updated on March 29, 2022

In which language was the Bible first written

Nowadays, the complete Bible is available in over 700 languages, and the New Testament in another 1500 languages around the world (see the website of Wycliffe Bible Translators 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? Was it written in English, Latin, Hebrew or Greek? The answer is more complicated and more interesting than one would expect. Let me first give a bit of background information.

Table of Contents

  1. How and when was the Bible first written?
  2. What language was the Bible first written in?
  3. When and why has the Bible been translated into other languages?
  4. When was the Bible first printed?
  5. Should I read the Bible in its original languages?

How and when was the Bible first written?

Who wrote the Bible?

The Bible exists of 66 books that were written over the course of centuries, by many different authors, as is explained in more detail in our articles “Who wrote the Bible?” and “Who decided which books to include in the Bible?”. Jesus Himself did not write anything. His words and life story were recorded by His followers. However, these human authors were inspired by God’s Spirit to write their books. Therefore, the Lord God is the ultimate, real author of all the Bible books. For more information on this topic, read our article “Is the Bible the word of God?”

When was the Bible written?

The Bible books are collected in two Testaments. The Old Testament covers human history from creation until about 400 BC, which is a period of thousands of years (see this timeline). For some books, we know when they were written because the books themselves tell us. The book of Amos, for example, is introduced as follows:
“The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1).
The book of Jeremiah describes how the words of this prophet were written down, destroyed by the king, and written down again during his lifetime. When this was, becomes clear in the introduction of the final book: “The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” (Jeremiah 1:1-3).

In which language was the Bible first written - books in the Old Testament

For other books in the Old Testament, we don’t know exactly when they were written down, or they were written over a longer period of time (such as the book of Psalms). The first five books were largely written by Moses, who lived about 1400 BC. The last books were written shortly after the Jewish people returned from exile, around 400 BC.

The New Testament records the life of Jesus Christ and the period of the early church, thus covering about 100 years only. The Gospels (the books about Jesus’ earthly life) were written down by eye witnesses, within decades after the actual events. The New Testament letters were written by the apostles, who were all contemporaries of Jesus. The last books of the Bible were written by the apostle John by the end of the first century AD.

Where is the original Bible?

First editions of famous books are carefully kept by collectors or displayed in museums. So, where is the first edition of the Bible? Where is the original handwritten version of the various Bible books kept? Unfortunately, we don’t have any originals. The Bible books were written on materials like papyrus, leather and parchment. These materials do not last very long. Therefore, the Bible books were copied by hand to preserve and multiply them. This was a lot of work, and every now and then copyists made a mistake — which would then be corrected or taken over by the next copyist. That way, some small differences developed. Sometimes we can’t be sure which version is original and which one has been changed over the centuries. The vast majority of these variations are just linguistic, they don’t influence the meaning of the text.

Although the original Bible books have been lost, we do have almost 6000 very old manuscripts of the New Testament alone, dating from the 2nd to the 16th century.

Some cover entire Bible books, others just snippets. Carefully studying these manuscripts has helped scholars to establish the original wording of all Bible texts with great certainty.
For more detailed information on the question whether our modern Bibles resemble the original Bible text, read our article about this topic. With this background information in mind, let’s move on to the main question of this article.

What language was the Bible first written in?

The Bible was not written in one language, but three!

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.

Aramaic

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; 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 originally.

When was the Bible translated into other languages? And why did people translate it?

Aramaic

I mentioned above that some later parts of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic, since this had become a common language for Israelites living in exile. During this period, they also translated older Bible books in Aramaic since people no longer understood the Old Testament Hebrew. These translations, called targumim, were mostly spoken by a professional translator. Initially, it was not even acceptable to put them in writing. But later on, the written versions were accepted by many Jews as authoritative translations.

Greek

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.

Latin

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.

Early translations into other languages

Despite the church’s rejection of Bible translations, there are some very old translations of particular books of smaller parts of the Bible in old English, German and Slavonic, for example. These were translated as early as +/- 800 AD. In 1199 AD, Pope Innocent III banned unauthorized Bible translations to suppress heresies. While some vernacular translations seem to have been accepted later on, the general tendency was to forbid them.

The Reformation movement

In the 16th century, the Reformation movement boosted the translation of the complete Bible in many European vernacular languages, since this movement considered it very important that “ordinary people” could read the Bible for themselves without being dependent on any church authorities. This endeavor greatly benefited from the fact that in this period, the printing press was invented and made it possible to produce many affordable copies of the Bible. Until then, only the clergy and the very rich could afford books.
A German Bible translation by Martin Luther was first printed in 1522. Within decades, Luther’s example was followed in other European languages such as Polish, Spanish, Czech, Dutch and English. The Roman Catholic Church strongly opposed these translation efforts since they considered the reading and explanation of the Bible the task of theologians, not lay people, and since they were suspicious that translators also changed the Bible to match their theological point of view. Therefore, many translators used pseudonyms and worked in secret. But they were not always able to escape the church’s sanctions. William Tyndale, for example, was executed before he could even finish his translation work.

Modern translations

When European missionaries traveled the globe to spread the Gospel, many made translating the Bible into vernacular languages a priority, since they believed that God’s Word is so valuable and powerful that every individual should have access to it in a language they can understand. This goal has not yet been accomplished, but in recent years, technological developments have allowed missionaries and churches worldwide to increase this work dramatically.

Nowadays, organizations like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the International Bible Society unite many smaller initiatives “to provide the Bible in accurate, contemporary translations and formats so that more people around the world will have the opportunity to be transformed by Jesus Christ” (International Bible Society).

When was the Bible first printed?

The printing press was invented around 1440 AD by Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith. His invention, together with developments in paper making, greatly improved the speed, quality and affordability of book production. The earliest major book printed by Gutenberg was the Bible, in Latin. In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus produced the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament. The printing press also allowed the first vernacular Bible translations to spread rapidly. So, Bibles have been printed ever since the existence of the printing press.

Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible. By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) – originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9914015

Other formats

Even though the Bible is a book, it is not only available as a printed or hand-written text. Nowadays, you can find countless Bible versions online, which allows for easy searching. In many languages, the Bible is also available in audio format. These new formats allow more people than ever before to have access to God’s Word.

Should I read the Bible in its original languages?

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. You do not need to learn Hebrew and Greek in order to know God or in order to be saved.

The fact that Jesus quoted the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and that the New Testament Bible books were written in Greek instead of Hebrew, makes clear that God does not favor one human language over another. He does not require people to learn a new or “holy” language in order to read the Bible, but had His Word written down in languages that were best known to the original audiences. Actually, this is not very surprising when we realize that God took the enormous step to express His eternal, universal truths in human language in the first place. Compared to this, translating the Bible from one human language into another is only a minor step!

God has revealed Himself to us humans through the Bible. He inspired people to write the Bible books in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but now the Bible has been translated into many languages. It is not important which language you are reading the Bible in, but it is vitally important to listen to God’s Word, since it reveals to us how we can have a personal relationship with the Lord God. Do you have such a relationship with Him?

Notes

[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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