The Third [Original] Language of Our Bible

—John Leonard

Most of us know that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written in Greek. Most of us know that the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew. Without thinking much about it, we read the Bible in translation.

I, for one, did not know that significant portions of two Old Testament books were written in a third language. Scholars now call it Biblical Aramaic, but at the time of King James, scholars of oriental (i.e., semitic) languages called it “Chaldaic.”

Interestingly, each book that contains Chaldaic text was authored by a Hebrew captive in exile in Babylon/lower Mesopotamia: the historical book of Ezra, and the prophecy book of Daniel.

Ezra 6:16 offers a convenient study in translation. A phrase in the New International Version (1984) reads, “and the rest of the exiles —”. The same phrase in the King James Version (1611) is rendered “…the children of the captiuitie,” accompanied in a side-note by the literal meaning of the source language: Chald. the sonnes of the transportation. In comparison, the NIV is sterile; the KJV gives us both the implied fact of exile and the nature of the exile. (Note that in the early 17th C, the letter ‘u’ could still represent either u or v within a word, and ‘v’ either u or v at the beginning of a word.)

A phrase in Daniel 2:14 offers another example of translation in action. In the NIV it reads, “Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard,” and in the KJV (1613) “captaine of the kings guard.” However, both those “translations” pale next to the literal Chaldean: chiefe of the executioners or slaughter men. That translation tends to bring out the gravity of the situation facing Daniel.

At this point, Daniel says to Arioch (in my own 21st C paraphrase), “Whoa! Let me talk to the king and buy some time.” Then Daniel appealed to God. Continuing at verse 19: “Then was the secret reuealed vnto Daniel in a night vision: then Daniel blessed the God of heauen.” And to verse 23: “I thank thee, and prayse thee, O thou God of my fathers, who…hast now made knowen vnto vs the kings matter.”

Daniel then went to King Nebuchadnezzar and told him what he, the king, had dreamed and the interpretation of it. The pending slaughter of the soothsayers and “astrologians” was stayed.

God “is a rewarder of them [like Daniel] who diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). The Word of God is rich in spiritual rewards. Sometimes the diligence on our part to mine God’s riches requires more than one translation.

{Note from John: I have retained spellings from my source documents, along with the absence of apostrophes (e.g., kings rather than king’s).}

Comments are closed