Languages, Words and Transliterations


In this article we:

•   discuss the four different languages used in Palestine in NT times;

•   explain how words in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets are converted into our Latin alphabet by the process of transliteration; and

•   list many of the most important words transliterated for our English Bible versions.


The Four Languages in Palestine in NT Times

Greek Text of 2 Cor 11.33-12.9. Papyrus 46, ca 200 CE.

Greek Text of 2 Cor 11.33-12.9. Papyrus 46, ca 200 CE.

Greek  [Bdict, Greek language, 347], [ZIBD, Greek language, 551], [Bency, 387, 487]
Greek was spread all over the Middle East by Alexander the Great and his Hellenisation process.  The language of the NT is Koine Greek, that is “common” or “marketplace” Greek.  Different levels of sophisication are evident.  The Gospels of Mark and John belong to the lowest level, Luke-Acts to an intermediate level, and Hebrews and 1 Peter to the highest level.”  Greek rhetoric, i.e. styles of speaking, were used in Paul’s writings.

The Greek alphabet starts with the letters  alpha and beta,  from which we have our word, alphabet.  The last letter of this alphabet is omega, so the NT reference to God being the Alpha and the Omega refers to God being the whole alphabet, an allegory meaning everything from the beginning to the end.

Both the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible) and the NT were written in Koine Greek.  The Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash contain hundreds of Greek words which had been absorbed into Hebrew and Aramaic. Many inscriptions found in excavated Palestine synagogues and tombs are in Greek.  Even after the Roman conquest of Palestine, the Romans (themselves Hellenised) used it as their administrative language in the Middle East.


Latin  [Bdict, Latin, 539], [ZIBD, Latin, 832]
Latin was the official medium of communication in the Roman Empire, and was used in provinces such as Judea, in official acts and at the Roman courts.  Latin was used by the military, many of whom had come from the western part of the empire.  In Latin, Paul is Paulus.



Aleppo Codex for Joshua 1.1, 10th century CE.

Aleppo Codex for Joshua 1.1, 10th century CE.

Hebrew   [Bdict, Hebrew, 369],  [ZIBD, Hebrew, 587]
With a few exceptions (see Aramaic) the OT was written in Hebrew script.  It was the spoken language of the ancient Israelites.  The ZIBD says that certain features of the Hebrew language “made Hebrew poetry, found in the Psalms and to a large extent in the Prophets, most expressive, and strikingly effective.”


Aramaic  [Bdict, Aramaic, 44], [ZIBD, Aramaic, 101]
Aramaic is a semitic language closely related to Hebrew.  The Jews adopted Aramaic during the Babylonian Exile and the Persian Period.  The ‘square’ script of Aramaic was used to write both Aramaic and the later forms of Hebrew.  The only OT sections written in Aramaic are: Jer. 10.11 (one verse); Ezra 4.8-6.18 and 7.12-26; and Daniel 2.4-7.28.  Surprisingly, in Daniel 2.4, the location of the switch from Hebrew to Aramaic does not correspond to any change in the subject at the same location.  Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Hebrew and some in Aramaic.

Many scholars – including us – think that large parts of the first three gospels were likely composed initially in Aramaic [Bency, 487], but no Aramaic copies or fragments have been found.  The Catholic Church thinks that Matthew was first written in Aramaic circa 40 to 50 CE [RCD, 54].


Targums  [Bdict, Targums, 1011], [ZIBD, text (OT), 1441].
Originally, Targums were oral translations of books of the Hebrew Bible, produced in the synagogues after Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews.  These translations contained religious instructions along with interpretations, which accompanied the reading of Scripture in the synagogues.  Eventually these oral traditions were written down [ZIBD, text (OT), 1441].  They were produced between ca 250 BCE and 300 CE and were usually read in the synagogue [Bdict, Targums, 1011].


How the four Languages were Used in Palestine in NT Times

These sections, from different sources, agree that Aramaic and Greek were the two primary languages, but they don’t always agree on other details, as seen below.

During the First Temple period the Jews spoke Hebrew; during the Second Temple period Aramaic increased in importance, and during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Greek held an important place in the life of the country, among both Jews and Gentiles.  At the time of Jesus, most Jews were reading the Greek version of the OT, called the Septuagint [Bible, liii].

Greek represented the language of the “common people”, or less educated classes [Bdict, Greek language, 347].

In NT times, Aramaic was predominant, particularly in Galilee.  Almost certainly it was Jesus’ mother tongue, and the NT preserves  a number of Aramaic words and phrases spoken by Jesus (Abba, etc).  From the cross, Jesus, said “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani” which is an Aramaic phrase. (Matt 27.46)   The Eastern dialects of Aramaic include the Syriac spoken and written in Syria; there is much Christian literature in Syriac. [ZIBD, Aramaic, 101].

For Jews throughout the Hellenistic East, Greek became a second language, and for many of those living outside of Judea, Greek became their primary language for daily discourse and literary activity.  [IG1, 19]

In Palestine in NT times, Aramaic was spoken in the  countryside, but both Aramaic and Greek were spoken in the cities [ZIBD, Latin, 832].

Even in NT times, Greek remained the primary language for the eastern part of the empire, even among educated Romans.  Latin was used primarily by the military, many of whom had come from the western part of the empire. [Bdict, Latin, 539]


What Languages Did Jesus Speak and Read?

Here are some different scholarly opinions on this question.

According to the Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, Jesus spoke in the Middle Aramaic dialect of Galilee, and he most likely also spoke Hebrew and Greek.  [Bency, 486-7]  “Christ spoke Aramaic, but undoubtedly understood Greek, and read the Scriptures in classical Hebrew.”  [ZIBD, languages, 830].

The Jesus of the NT is portrayed as often quoting from, or referring to, the Jewish scriptures.  Luke 4.16-27 has Jesus reading scripture in a synagogue.  He could have been reading a text in Hebrew, or the Aramaic Targum format, or in the Greek Septuagint format. [ZIBD, Text (OT), 1438ff], [Bdict, Targums, 1011].

“Paul probably knew all three languages [Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek] and used them with equal facility, with the likely addition of Latin.” [ZIBD, languages, 830].


The Transliteration Process

The transliteration process consists of converting a word written in an alphabet different from ours to the nearest corresponding text in our latin alphabet.  This process is applied to the words of the original Greek text of the NT to make them more readable for us, and also to the words of the original Hebrew text of the OT to make them more readable for us.


Greek

The Greek alphabet has 24 letters compared with the 26 in our latin alphabet.  It is  missing equivalents for the latin letters c, f, j, q, v and w.   Extra letters, with no equivalent in latin, are theta, eta, xsi, phi, chi, psi and omega.  Note that our word, alphabet, is formed from alpha and beta, the first two characters of the Greek alphabet.

 Transliteration of the Greek language is described in [Bdict, Greek language, 347].  Examples are: alpha (α) transliterates to a; beta (β) to b; epsilon (ε) to e, eta (η) to ē and zeta (ζ) to z.  In particular  Χριστὸς  or  Χ ρ ι σ τ ὸ ς  is Chi rho iota sigma tau omicron sigma, which transliterates to Ch r i s t o s  Christos, i.e. Christ.  Note that the first two characters, Chi rho, were turned into a symbol which was put on the shields of Constantine’s soldiers at his battle against Emperor Maxentius at Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.   Constantine attributed his success in this battle to the use of that Christian symbol.

Another example is the Greek phrase  ζωὴ  αἰώνιος  which is transliterated into Zōē  (life) aiōnios (eternal)  or just  Zoe aionios.  This is normally translated as “eternal life” but better translated as “the life of the age to come” [TH1, 210] .

A third example is from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις  transliterated as apokálypsis, our apocalypse, and literally meaning “an uncovering.”  It is taken to mean a disclosure or revelation of great knowledge.


Hebrew and Aramaic

The Hebrew alphabet has 23 characters compared to the 26 in our latin alphabet.  It is missing ten of our latin characters and has two equivalents to our s (samekh and sin, both pronounced nearly the same) and to our t (teth and taw, both pronounced exactly the same).  Two characters,      Aleph (’) and ayin (‘) are present in written Hebrew but silent in spoken Hebrew.

Transliteration of the Hebrew language is discussed in the Bible Dictionary [Bdict, Hebrew language, 369].  For example, it shows that the second letter, ב (bet or beth) is transliterated as b, and the ninth letter, ט (tet or teth), is transliterated as t.  The 23rd letter, ת (taw) is also transliterated as t.  Four of the 23 letters are transliterated as two of our consonants: ח (het or heth) is kh (as in Bach); פ (pe) is ph (as in find); פ (tsadhe) is ts (as in Mats); and ש (shin) is sh (as in ship).

The same Hebrew alphabet is also used for written Aramaic.  The Greek word hebrais was used to mean both “Hebrew” and “Aramaic,” which may explain why many bible references say “Hebrew, that is Aramaic”.  For example, in John 19.20, the sign over the crucified Christ “was written in Hebrew [that is, Aramaic], in Latin, and in Greek.”


The Origins of Important Words and Phrases

The Fish Symbol

One tombstone shows this text above the outline of a fish: IXΘYC  which transliterates to ichtheous, meaning fish.  The letters have a second interpretation:  by taking I (=J) = Jesus,  X (chi) = Christ;  theta = theos (god); Y = son of; C = our saviour, the five letters represents the well known Christian saying:  Jesus Christ son of god, our saviour.    Another version of this is  “ησοῦς  Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr), meaning, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

INRI

John 19.19-22 describes the sign put on the cross of Jesus by the Romans:
“Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross.  It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth [or the Nazorean], the King of the Jews’.  Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew [i.e. Aramaic], in Latin, and in Greek.  Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, ‘The king of the Jews’, but ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ “  Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ ”

The supposed latin part of the inscription reads INRI which is the Latin abbreviation for Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, which translates to ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’ or Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.   In those days, there was no Latin letter J, so the I represents J. The abbreviation I.N.R.I. is ascribed by tradition to Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, who claimed to have discovered it on a board. [ZIBD, I.N.R.I., 650]

Luke 23.38 also says “There was also an inscription over him, [written in Greek and Latin and Hebrew (that is, Aramaic)] “This is the King of the Jews.”  The text in [square brackets]  is said to be what “other ancient authorities add.”   The other two gospels mention the sign with the charge against him, but say nothing about multiple languages (Matt 27.37; Mark 15.26).

Other Examples

From ancient times, some of the best agricultural lands of Palestine were in the Jezreel Valley.  Circa 970 BCE King Solomon built a fortress at Megiddo to guard this precious resource, and over time, many ancient battles were fought there [Fifty, 43, 62].  According to the Bible Dictionary [Bdict, Armageddon, 50], the Greek word armageddon MAY come from the Hebrew words  Har Megiddo meaning Mount Megiddo, In Greek, Har Megiddo became Har-Magedon.  In English, it became Armageddon, the name for “the location of the final cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, according to Rev. 16.16.” The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary says that this IS the origin of the word Armageddon [ZIBD, Armageddon, 118]..

The word exegesis comes from the Greek ἐξήγησις  which comes from from ἐξηγεῖσθαι ‘to lead out.’  It is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text.

The word  Joshua or Jeshua is Hebrew meaning “Yahweh is salvation” or “God saves.”

Start with the transliterated Hebrew for Joshua:  yehosua  ; shorten to yesua ; change to the Greek Iesous; (remember the I is a J); and change to Latin, getting  Iesus.


Word Translations from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic

Although we don’t identify the source of every translation, most of the definitions are from these references, all listed at the end of this article: [Bible], [Bdict], [BW1], [DA1], [IG1], [JJI], [PF2], [RDstory], [SC1], [Story], [TH1] and [ZIBD].


Greek (Gk) words

Apocalypse          revelation, or disclosure, of great news or knowledge
Apostolos             apostle
Carismata            gifts of the Spirit
Diakonos              servant,  the origin of our Deacons
Dokesis                 appearance, to seem (as in Doceticism)
Ekklesia                assembly: used both for the synagogue in the Diaspora and for the earliest Christian gatherings; usually translated as “church.”
Episkopos             bishop, or overseer
Epistole                  epistle, letters that are commands or messages
Escatology            from the Greek eschatos, ‘end of days’, beliefs and ideas concerning the end-times, when the entire world will be reorganized according to one or another sacred principle
Eukharistos          thanksgiving, source of the word eucharist
Evangelion           “good news” i.e. gospel
Gnosis                    special intuitive knowledge
Homoousios          of one substance
Ioudaioi                  Judeans or Jews
Koine                       ‘common’ in Greek, and referring to the standard Greek dialect of the Hellenistic period
Kyrios                      Lord (God)
Logos                       ‘reason’ or ‘word’.  God merely ‘speaking’ a word makes it happen. “the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and links the human mind to the mind of God” [Bible, 1816]
Magoi                        magi, court priests who practiced magic and astrology [Bible,1669]
Martyr                       literally “witness”
Parousia                    ‘arrival,’ the second coming of Christ at the end of time
Pentateuch               “five books”
Presbyteros               elder
Propheteia                  prophecy, the gift of interpreting the will of the gods, not predictions about what will happen
ta biblia                       “the little scrolls”  the origin of the word Bible
Tekton                          a worker or journeyman in stone, wood, or metal.  Usually translated in Mark 6.3 and elsewhere as carpenter
Theos                            God.   Combined with Logos, translates to “Theology”, the study of the nature and will of God


Latin words

Codex                  a primitive manuscript book invented to replace unwieldy scrolls on which scripture was written
Denomination   to take a new name
Dominus             Lord
Pagani                 pejorative ‘country folk’
Paulus                 Paul
Revelare             to unveil
Scripture            writings
Vulgatis              vulgate   commonly known & in wide circulation


Hebrew (Hb) words

Adam                 means both person/man/humankind and the individual  man of Genesis
Adonai               Lord
Almah               “young woman,”  mistranslated in Gk Septaguint as “virgin”
ben adam          son of man
Eduth                 covenant, or treaty, or testimony.  Find under the Footnotes index of Bconc
Elijah                 Yahweh is my God
Elohim               a largely Semitic word for God
Messiach           Messiah
Perisha               separated,  the source of the word Pharisee
Sha’ul                 Saul
Soperim             scribe
Torah                 Jewish law


Aramaic words

Abbafather        (used 21 times in Matt)
Bartimaeus        bar Timaeus,  son of Timaeus
Boanerges          sons of thunder
Corban               an offering to God
Golgotha            the place of a skull
Kêfa                     rock or stone,  transliterated as Cephas which became the latin Petros or Peter
Meshiha             Messiah “anointed one”, the awaited king of the Jews


References

  • [Bible]   Harper Collins Study Bible.  NY, NY: HarperOne an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.  Based on the New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989 .

  • [Bdict]   Powell, Mark Allen, general editor.  HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.  Text references are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible

  • [Bency]   Cornfeld, Gaalyhu, editor, with Bible scholars, historians and archaeologists. Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia: a visual guide to the old and new testament.  NY: The Macmillan  Company, 1964.

  • [BW1]   Wilson, Barrie.  How Jesus Became Christian.   Random House Canada, 2008.

  • [DA1]   Akenson, Donald H.  Surpassing Wonder:the invention of the bible and the talmuds. University of  Chicago Press, 1998.

  • [Fifty]   Isabouts, Jean-Pierre,  50 Most Influential Figures of the Bible.  National Geographic Partners LLC, 2017.    Excerpts from the National Geographic Society book, Who’s Who in the Bible, 2013, by Jean-Pierre Isbouts.

  • [IG1]   Gafni, Isaiah M.  Beginnings of Judaism, course guidebook.  Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses www.thegreatcourses.com, 2006.

  • [JJI]   Magness, Jodi.  Jesus and his Jewish Influences.  course guidebook. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, www.thegreatcourses.com,  2015.

  • [PF2]   Fredriksen, Paula.  Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. NY: Vintage Books edition, 2000.

  • [RCD]  Trigilio, John, Jr. and Kenneth Brighenti.  Catholicism for Dummies. Wiley, 2003.

  • [RDstory]   The Bible Through the Ages. Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association. 1996.

  • [SC1]   Cherry, Shai.  Introduction to Judaism. course guidebook. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses: www.thegreatcourses.com,   2004.

  • [Story]   Johnson, Luke Timothy.  The Story of the Bible. course guidebook.  Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses www.thegreatcourses.com, 2006.

  • [TH1]   Harper, Tom.  Born Again: my journey from fundamentalism to freedom. Thomas Allen,  2013.

  • [ZIBD]   Douglas, J.D. and M.C.Tenney, editors.  Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary.  Revised by Moises Silva in 2011. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2011 edition.