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A Brief History of Hebrew

Historical Evidence

 

The amount of historical evidence that Jesus and the Jewish people living in Israel of his day spoke Hebrew as their mother tongue is extensive.  Over the last hundred years, a better understanding of literary sources such as the Mishna has greatly elucidated the linguistic situation of ancient Israel.  Additionally, discoveries such as the Bar-Kochba letters, coins, inscriptions and the Dead Sea Scrolls have brought to light what some scholars a hundred years ago could not know regarding just how widespread Hebrew was at the time of Jesus.  There is, in fact, so much evidence that there is simply not enough space to cover it all since that would require several volumes. Rather, we will look at the most relevant and pertinent information regarding which language Jesus taught in.

 

The discussion of this chapter will proceed as follows.  First we will trace the development of Hebrew from the time of the Patriarchs to the time of Jesus and later.  We will see that Hebrew never died out as is so often claimed and that when the New Testament writers said Hebrew, they really meant Hebrew and not Aramaic.  Our exploration will reveal that while there were some Aramaic speakers in Israel at the time of Jesus, Hebrew was the language of the Jews and Aramaic was the language in which they conducted their dealings with non-Jews.  Then we will also consider the testimony of some ancient sources that consistently claim that Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew, that the disciples spoke Hebrew, and that the Jewish people as a whole spoke Hebrew.

 

 Brief History of Hebrew

Table 1 Progression of Hebrew from Ancient to Modern

Dates (approximate) Progression of Hebrew

(stages overlap)

Events or Key Figures
Second Millennium BC Proto Hebrew Abraham to Moses
Moses to Babylonian Captivity (6th century) Standard Biblical Hebrew Moses, David, Isaiah
6th century BC Transition between Standard and Late Biblical Hebrew Babylonian Captivity, Daniel; Aramaic and Persian loan words increase
End of 6th century to 5th century BC Late Biblical Hebrew Zechariah, Malachi, Haggai, and Nehemiah
5th century BC – 135AD Intertestamental and Mishnaic Hebrew Intertestamental period to Jesus
135 – 200 AD Waning and demise of Mishnaic Hebrew Post Second Jewish Revolt when spoken Hebrew truly died out
Early 20th Century  Modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben Yehuda and others revived Hebrew

 

Biblical Hebrew

 

When talking about Hebrew, a brief history of the language is of great aid in understanding what is meant.  Just like today, when we talk about English, we are not speaking of the English that was spoken in Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s day or even that of one hundred years ago.  While the latter two we can understand, most of us cannot understand the first due to radical changes in the language even though it is referred to as English.  Most educated English speakers, however, can figure out what Shakespeare is telling us – though there are certain words that may trick us and unless we dig deeper into what they mean, we may be left with a misunderstanding of what is being said.  Consider Romeo and Juliet.  In my younger years I thought that Juliet by saying, “wherefore art thou Romeo” was in reality asking where he was!  Only later did I discover that “wherefore” is an archaic way of asking the question “why” (which certainly helps to understand what she was asking!).

 

The development of Hebrew is in many ways similar to that of English.  At some point in the second millennium BC, the Hebrew of the Patriarchs emerged from the Semitic language family and became a distinct language.  This earliest form of Hebrew is referred to as Proto-Hebrew, and the period in which it was spoken lasted approximately up through the time of the Judges.  We can see traces of this older form of the language in the Song of Moses, Exodus 15, and possibly in the book of Job.[1]  From there, we can trace Hebrew to its next stage known as Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH), which includes the majority of the books of the Bible such as Kings, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and many others.  It is called Standard by Biblical Hebrew scholars since this is what we find most of the Old Testament scriptures written in.  Finally, the books after the return from the Babylonian captivity – Zechariah, Malachi, Haggai, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezra and Daniel (excluding half of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic) were all written in what scholars have called Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH).

 

While in all of these different eras the language was Hebrew, (similar spelling, vocabulary and grammatical features) there are differences that exist among them.  For example, the word “kingdom”, which in SBH is ממלכה mmlcha,[2] becomes מלכוּת mlchut in LBH.  Both are derived from the same root for king (and hence kingdom) but are clear and consistent variants.  Another feature is the addition of pronunciation aids.  For example, the spelling of David דוד dvd in SBH changes to דויד dvid in LBH.  There are many other examples demonstrating that the Hebrew in the Old Testament was a living language constantly going through changes.  Moreover, it never died out as attested by the fact that the latter, postexilic prophets were still writing in Hebrew.

 

Intertestamental Hebrew

The time between the Old Testament and the New Testament (shortly after the time of Jesus) is commonly known as the Intertestamental period.  Though none of the works written in Israel at that time were included in the Bible, many books in Hebrew were composed. Perhaps the most significant finding of this period is the Dead Sea Scrolls found in a region called Qumran near the Dead Sea, southeast of Jerusalem.  A group known as the Essenes inhabited the site from approximately the third century BC until just prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD

Discovered in the 1940’s and 50’s, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain more than 800 documents and fragments, most of which were in Hebrew, some in Aramaic and almost none in Greek. (Stone 2000:11)  Among the most notable finds in the Qumran region was the copper scroll written in Mishnaic Hebrew which gave an inventory of Temple treasure and where it had been hidden before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Also found in the caves of Qumran were the books of Ben Sira (in Hebrew), Jubilees (in Hebrew), and Testament of Naphtali (in Hebrew) as well as commentaries on books of the Bible.  Additionally, a document called the Community Rule was found, which was the rulebook for those living in the community. (see Safrai 1991b)

 

Mishnaic Hebrew

 

An important element in discovering the language of Jesus and first century Israel is the Mishna, a body of writings in Hebrew, which set forth rabbinical guidelines of how to apply the law to everyday life.  The Mishna includes the (oral) teachings of the Rabbis up through the second century AD, so it provides crucial confirmation that Hebrew was a spoken language.  It is divided into six parts dealing with every topic to which the law could be applied, e.g. contracts, marriage, work related issues, etc.  In other words, it employed vocabulary that was current and up-to-date at the time of Jesus (see Segal 1908).  The Hebrew vocabulary used in the Mishna is not solely that of the Bible, but neither is it Aramaic – it was the “modern” Hebrew of the day.  Many Hebrew words had changed, some had fallen out of use and others had even taken on a totally different meaning.

 

Nonetheless, many scholars have insisted that Mishnaic Hebrew was either an invention of the Rabbis or even a translation from Aramaic.  Dr. Shmuel Safrai, a founding member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research and past professor at the Hebrew University, notes that

 

most scholars since the beginning of the nineteenth century have concluded that Aramaic was the spoken language of the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Even when scribes of that period or later attest that they wrote or transmitted traditions in Hebrew, scholars have persisted in claiming that this “Hebrew” was actually some type of Aramaic dialect then prevalent among the Jews of the land. It has even been claimed that the Hebrew in which the Mishna was written was an artificial language of the bet midrash, house of study, which was a translation from Aramaic, or at the very least heavily influenced by Aramaic. (Safrai 1991a)

 

However, the application of Hebrew to everyday situations strongly suggests that Hebrew was still a living language.  Consider by way of example the English word gay.  Just 30 to 40 years ago, this word meant merry, jovial.  However, if I were to say “I am feeling rather gay today”, I would at the very least get a lot of strange looks from those around me!  How quickly and radically a word can take on a new meaning.  But we would not say that gay is no longer English; it has a different meaning but it’s not a different language.  So, too, the Mishna used much of the vocabulary from the Bible – both Standard and Late Biblical Hebrew – but also coined new phrases to deal with then-current situations and occasionally even completely integrated vocabulary from Aramaic, Greek, Persian and other languages.

 

Furthermore, the possibility of it being a living language is corroborated by other Hebrew documents from roughly the same period, which we will discuss later. To say that Mishnaic Hebrew, the Hebrew of Jesus’ day was not a living language is truly an argument from silence.  All of the sources that we will look at plainly designate Hebrew as a living language and thus, in light of this evidence, the burden of proof should lie with those who maintain that Mishnaic Hebrew is an artificial contrivance. (Dr. Gallagher personal communication)

 

Bar Kochba

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD under the Roman General Titus, the Jewish people continued living in Israel though their numbers were greatly diminished.  From 132-135 AD, the Jewish people, under Simon Bar Kochba, rebelled against the dictates of Rome which had outlawed circumcision. Though they fought passionately, the Romans overwhelmed them and at the end of the revolt all Jews were expelled from the city of Jerusalem on penalty of death.

Letters of correspondence between Bar Kochba and his soldiers were discovered in 1951 near the Dead Sea.  They are a significant finding since they were written in Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Greek.  There are certain colloquialisms found in them leading to the conclusion that Hebrew was not a dead language nor was it a language reserved only for the synagogues.

 

The Hebrew documents clearly were written by an expert scribe, with the script being similar to printed Hebrew used today…they contain a number of colloquialisms causing some scholars to suggest that contrary to popular assumption, Hebrew at the time was a living and developing language. This is also reflected in the economic and military documents found in the Judean Desert… The widespread use of Hebrew in the period is confirmed by coins minted during the revolt. All fifty-one different types of coin found from that period have Hebrew inscriptions.  (Pileggi 1991)

 

The Bar Kochba letters are a weighty piece of evidence demonstrating that well after the time of Jesus the Jewish people in Israel were still speaking Hebrew.  After all, if you were leading a revolt against the strongest army of the world, wouldn’t you want to give your orders in a language that your subordinates might misunderstand?  And of course, a misunderstanding in war could cost you your life.  Thus, finding correspondence in Hebrew clearly confirms that it was a spoken language, not just a language of religious gatherings.



[1] The dating of the book of Job is complicated and contested and is not the focus of this book.

[2] Vowels are not necessarily written in Hebrew.

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