A Series on How We Got Our Bible
Hebrew was the language of the ancient people of Israel. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.
Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, was the second biblical language. It was not used
extensively in the Bible. Only about ten chapters in the Old Testament were written in Aramaic. Yet the language
influenced the writing of the New Testament and sheds light on our understanding of the Old Testament Hebrew. When
the people of Israel returned to Palestine after their exile in Babylon around 500 years before Christ, they brought
the Aramaic language with them. Hebrew remained the official language of temple and synagogue worship, and the choice
of the educated upper class. However, within three centuries Aramaic was the language of the common people of Palestine.
Jesus and his disciples, no doubt, spoke Aramaic in their normal, daily conversations. Several times in his Gospel,
Mark quotes the words of Jesus in Aramaic and then translates the meaning for his original readers, most of whom were
not from Palestine and did not understand Aramaic.
This mixture of languages presented a particular challenge, first to the Jews and later to the expanding Christian
church. As we have seen, by the time of Jesus, many Jews spoke little Hebrew, especially those Jews who had migrated
to other parts of the empire. Aramaic was the common language of Jews who lived in Palestine. Jews who lived in other
regions of the Mediterranean basically spoke the native languages of those regions.
But virtually everyone in the empire spoke the third biblical language, a form of Greek known as Koine Greek.
It was the language of commerce and politics. Throughout the Roman Empire merchants, seamen and travelers communicated
in this Greek dialect. Anyone who did business on any level throughout the Mediterranean world spoke Koine Greek.
An educated Roman might speak Latin at home or with friends, but he spoke Koine Greek in the marketplace. A Palestinian
Jew might use Aramaic in private conversation, but in public he spoke Koine Greek. This is similar to the practice in
some parts of the United States in our own time. Many families speak English in public but return to a more familiar,
native language like Spanish when at home. So Greek provided a linguistic common denominator.
For this reason around 280 BC work began in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria on a new translation of the
Scriptures. The result was the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek. Though Jews
continued to revere the Scriptures in their original Hebrew, by the time of Jesus and his disciples the Greek Septuagint
was the Bible of popular choice. It became the Bible of Jews all around the empire.
Since most of the first Christians were Jews, the Septuagint became their Bible of choice too. Many of the Old
Testament quotations that appear in the New Testament are actually quotations from the Septuagint. And because the
Gospels and letters, which make up the New Testament, were circulated among the churches around the Roman Empire, they
were also written in Koine Greek.
Due to the spread of Christianity during the four centuries after Christ, the Scriptures of both the Old and New
Testaments were translated into such ethnic languages as Syriac, Old Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic,
Gothic, Georgian and Armenian. Some of these translations were made by people who had more missionary
zeal than linguistic skill. As a result, some were of poor quality.
Another language, Latin, was yet to play an important role in the spread of the Christian message. No part of
the Bible was written in Latin. However, Latin was the language of educated Romans. As Christianity spread from the
working and merchant classes to the upper levels of Roman society, the church saw the need for a translation of the Bible
in Latin. Between the years 390 and 450 AD, a priest named Jerome, also known as Eusebius Hieronymus, produced a
translation of the entire Scriptures in Latin. A dedicated and careful scholar, Jerome set out to revise and correct
previous inferior translations. And, to a very large degree, he succeeded. He seems to have had a good Hebrew manuscript
from which he translated all of the Old Testament except the Psalms. His translation of the Psalms is actually a revision
of an earlier, Old Latin translation of the Septuagint. In other words, it was a revision of one translation made from
another translation. For the Gospels, Jerome again revised the Old Latin, but this time he based his revision on the
original Greek. The remainder of his New Testament was a somewhat hasty revision of the Old Latin.
Jerome’s translation was not perfect. No translation is. Still, his work set a high standard of quality and preserved
the integrity of the Scriptures from well meaning but careless or poorly qualified translators. Later known as the
Latin Vulgate, it was the standard for all Christians in Western Europe until the Protestant Reformation.
Dr. Kenneth Barker is an author and speaker living in Lewisville, Texas. Until
his retirement from International Bible Society in 1996, he was Executive Director of their NIV Translation Center.
He is one of the original translators of the New International Version of the Bible and a regular spokesperson for
its Committee on Bible Translation - the governing body that produced the NIV.
Ken Barker has given talks about the translation process of the NIV all over the U.S. and abroad, and much of
his time is spent writing, editing, preaching, and teaching. He also worked on the New International Reader’s
Version (a simplification of the NIV for those who read at a lower reading level), three books about the NIV,
and the tenth - anniversary edition of the NIV Study Bible as its General Editor.
Dr. Barker and his wife, Isabelle, have four children - Ken, Patricia, Ruth, and David - and 14 grandchildren.
When at home, the Barkers worship and serve at First Baptist Church of Carrolton, Texas. In his spare time Ken
enjoys music, reading, table tennis (ping-pong), swimming, and walking.
He holds the B.A. degree from Northwestern College, the Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and the Ph.D.
from the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning. In the past, he has served as Academic Dean of Capital
Bible Seminary, Professor of Old Testament at three theological seminaries, and Visiting Professor at two others.
He is also author of commentaries on the books of Micah and Zechariah.