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Explore the history and factors that led to the decline in the usage of the Hebrew language. From the rise of Aramaic to the impact on Biblical Hebrew, this article provides a comprehensive analysis of when and why Hebrew began to fade in use.
INTRODUCTION – Brief History of the Hebrew Language
Moses would have been well-versed in the language and writing skills of his time, as he would have received an Egyptian education. This education would have equipped him for the task of writing the Torah, which he would have begun in 1446 B.C.E.
The journey of the Hebrew language from its roots to what it became by the time of Jesus is one of resilience, continuity, and adaptation. It’s crucial to distinguish the various phases of the Hebrew language’s development, which can be broadly categorized into Paleo-Hebrew, Square or Biblical Hebrew, and Mishnaic or Rabbinic Hebrew.
Paleo-Hebrew originates as far back as 1200 B.C.E., if not earlier. It was used to write the earliest versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, predating the “Square” Hebrew script. The Gezer Calendar (c. 10th century B.C.E.) is one of the oldest known Paleo-Hebrew inscriptions. The Phoenician script influenced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and there was a degree of interchangeability between the two.
Square or Biblical Hebrew
By the time of the Babylonian exile around 586 B.C.E., the script had transformed into what we now know as the “Square” or “Biblical Hebrew” script. This script emerged during or after the exile and replaced the Paleo-Hebrew script for general use. The received text of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic Text, is written in this script. It is a more standardized form of the language and is what people typically associate with Hebrew today.
Mishnaic or Rabbinic Hebrew
As we proceed through the Second Temple period and into the first century C.E., we find a transition into Mishnaic or Rabbinic Hebrew. This form of Hebrew was a more advanced development of Biblical Hebrew and was used in writing the Mishnah around 200 C.E., as previously mentioned. It bears distinct features that differentiate it from Biblical Hebrew, such as new vocabulary and some altered grammar rules.
The Continuity of Hebrew
The notion that Hebrew was entirely replaced by Aramaic during the Babylonian exile is not strongly supported. Rather, Hebrew coexisted with Aramaic and even Greek, especially in scholarly and religious contexts. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, feature Hebrew texts alongside Aramaic ones, indicating that Hebrew remained in scholarly and religious use during the Second Temple period.
The Greek New Testament refers to the Hebrew language (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16; Rev. 9:11; 16:16), and early church fathers confirm that Matthew’s Gospel was initially written in Hebrew. This supports the idea that Hebrew was very much alive during the time of Jesus and the apostles. Moreover, passages like Nehemiah 8:8 do not necessarily point to a decline in Hebrew literacy; they may simply indicate an effort to clarify and elaborate on the meaning of the Scripture, especially for those less familiar with its intricacies.
Hebrew has a long and resilient history, morphing through various phases while retaining its core elements. The language was not eclipsed but rather coexisted with other languages like Aramaic and Greek. The Scriptures themselves provide substantial evidence to counter the idea that Hebrew was set aside or replaced by other languages at any point before, during, or after the Babylonian exile. The retention of Hebrew as a sacred and scholarly language underscores its significance in God’s plan and its central role in conveying divine revelation. Therefore, it is safe to conclude based on Scriptural and historical evidence that Hebrew has been a resilient language, integral to the life and faith of the people who relied on it to understand the Word of God.
The Hebrew Language
Hebrew is the language in which the thirty-nine inspired books of the Old Testament were penned, apart from the Aramaic sections in Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26; Dan. 2:4b–7:28; Jer. 10:11, as well as a few other words and phrases from Aramaic and other languages. The language is not called “Hebrew” in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 19:18, it is spoken of as “the language [Literally “lip”] of Canaan.” The language that became known as “Hebrew” is first shown in the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, an Apocrypha book. Moses, being raised in the household of Pharaoh, would have been given the wisdom of Egypt and the Hebrew language of his ancestors. This would have made him the perfect person to look through any ancient Hebrew documents that may have been handed down to him, giving him the foundation for the Book of Genesis.
Later, in the days of the Jewish kings, Hebrew came to be known as “Judean” (UASV), that is to say, the language of Judah (Neh. 13:24; Isa. 36:11; 2 Ki. 18:26, 28). As we enter the period of Jesus, the Jewish people spoke an expanded form of Hebrew, which would become Rabbinic Hebrew. Nevertheless, in the Greek New Testament, the language is referred to as the “Hebrew” language, not the Aramaic. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Acts 22:2; Rev. 9:11) Therefore, for more than 2,000 years, Biblical Hebrew served God’s chosen people as a means of communication.
However, once God chose to use a new spiritual Israel, made up of Jews and Gentiles, there would be difficulty within the line of communication as not all would be able to understand the Hebrew language. It became evident, 300 years before the rise of Christianity that the Hebrew Scriptures needed to be translated into the Greek language of the day because of the Jewish diaspora who lived in Egypt. Down to our day, all or portions of the Bible have been translated into about 2,287 languages.
Even the Bible itself expresses the need for translating it into all languages. Paul, quoting Deuteronomy 32:43, says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles [“people of the nations”], with his people.” And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’” (Rom 15:10) Moreover, all Christians are given what is known as the Great Commission, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt 28:19-20) In addition, Jesus stated, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” (Matt 24:14) All of the above could never occur without translating the original language into the languages of the nations. What is more, ancient translations of the Bible that are extant (still in existence) in manuscript form have likewise aided in confirming the Hebrew manuscripts’ high degree of textual faithfulness.
Many Hebrew Old Testament scholars believe that the Jews switched from Hebrew over to Aramaic while they were exiled in Babylon for 70-years. However, there is no substantial objective evidence to support such a claim. History has shown us that groups of people who have been defeated, crushed, and enslaved for much longer than seventy years have retained their native tongue. We must keep in mind that the Jews were well aware of the prophecies that God would intervene and return them to their homeland one day. It, therefore, stands to reason that they would not be moved to set aside Hebrew in favor of either Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) or Aramaic, the common languages of the day. Some will point to the fact that Aramaic passages and words are found in the exilic and postexilic books of Daniel, Ezra, and Esther. However, we must keep in mind that Daniel, Ezra, and Esther include records of events in Aramaic-speaking lands and formal communication. They dealt with the Israelite people who had been made subjects of foreign powers who used Aramaic as a diplomatic language.
Nehemiah 8:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 They continued reading aloud from the book, from the Law of the God, explaining it and putting meaning into it, so that they could understand the reading.
Many have used Nehemiah 8:8 to say that the returned exiles could not perfectly understand Hebrew, so some Aramaic paraphrasing was done. While that might have been the case, what Nehemiah meant concerning this text is the exposition of the sense and how the Law was to be applied. (Compare Matt. 13:14, 51, 52; Lu 24:27; Ac 8:30-31) Look as you may, there is not one Scripture in all of the Bible that says the Jewish people abandoned their language, Hebrew, at any time as the tongue of their people. Yes, it is true, Nehemiah said, “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples but could not speak Hebrew.” (Neh. 13:23-27) However, looking at the context of the indignation of Nehemiah at the Jews, who were involved in these pagan marriages with non-Israelites, means that such slighting of Hebrew was very much disapproved. We would expect such when we think of the value they placed on the reading of the Word of God, which was primarily in Hebrew at this time.
From the close of the Hebrew Old Testament (Ezra and Malachi) from mid-fifth century BC (450) until the penning of the book of Matthew, about 50 C.E., the Hebrew language is not mentioned in Scripture, for there are no canonical Old Testament books for this period. We have very few secular records as well. Of those scant few that we have, there is no major support for a move from Hebrew to Aramaic as far as the Jewish people are concerned. We have many Apocryphal books, such as Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and First Maccabees, all being written in Hebrew, and these works are generally dated to the last three centuries before the arrival of Jesus Christ. Some of the non-Biblical writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls were also written in Hebrew. In addition, Hebrew was used when the Jewish Mishnah was compiled after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The Mishnah was compiled around 200 C.E. by Judah the Prince. Dr. William Chomsky says of the Mishnaic Hebrew: “This language bears all the earmarks of a typical vernacular employed by peasants, merchants, and artisans. . . . On the basis of the available evidence it seems fair to conclude that the Jews were generally conversant, during the period of the Second Commonwealth, especially its latter part, with both languages [Hebrew and Aramaic]. Sometimes they used one, sometimes another.”—Hebrew: The Eternal Language, 1969, pp. 207, 210.
The substantial evidence supporting the belief that Hebrew continued on as a living language from the exile of Babylon in 537 BCE into the first century CE is found in the Bible itself, where it refers to the Hebrew language in the Greek New Testament. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16; Rev. 9:11; 16:16) Many scholars indeed argue that the term “Hebrew” in these verses should instead read “Aramaic.” Yet, there are excellent reasons to believe that the term actually was a reference to the Hebrew language.
Another support suggesting that there was the use of a form of Hebrew in Palestine during Jesus’ life and ministry here on earth is early proof that the apostle Matthew first wrote his Gospel account in Hebrew. Papias of the first and second centuries wrote, “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 155) Early in the third century, Origen, in discussing the Gospels, is quoted by Eusebius as saying that the “first was written … according to Matthew, … who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language.” (The Ecclesiastical History, VI, XXV, 3–6) Quoted in the same work are the words of Eusebius of the third and fourth centuries who states: “The evangelist Matthew delivered his Gospel in the Hebrew tongue.” Jerome of the fourth and fifth centuries who said in his Catalogue of Ecclesiastical Writers that Matthew “composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters, for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed. . . . Furthermore, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea which the Martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected.” (Translation from the Latin text edited by E. C. Richardson and published in the series “Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur,” Leipzig, 1896, Vol. 14: 8–9.) Bible scholar, Hugh G. Schonfield’s comments should also interest us. He writes on page 11 of An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “As far back as the fourth century we hear of a Hebrew Matthew preserved in the Jewish archives at Tiberias.” (Schonfield, Hugh. An Old Hebrew Text of St. Matthew’s Gospel: Translated and with an Introduction Notes and Appendices (p. 20). The Hugh & Helene Schonfield World Service Trust.)
G. Ernest Wright says, “Roman soldiers and officials might be heard conversing in Latin, while orthodox Jews may well have spoken a late variety of Hebrew with one another, a language that we know to have been neither classical Hebrew nor Aramaic, despite its similarities to both.” Biblical Archaeology (Westminster Press, 1962, p. 243) Also, in Daily Life in Bible Times, Albert Edward Bailey offers the reader a picture of how Jewish youths were trained in the time of James, son of Zebedee:
“Boys were trained in piety from their earliest days. This would mean that the boys had a knowledge of the Law, which they showed by being able to read it, write it and explain its obvious meaning. . . . The boys sat on the ground in a half-circle facing the teacher. There James was taught to read the Law in Hebrew beginning with the Book of Leviticus, the contents of which it was necessary for every Jew to know if he was to regulate his life acceptably to God; and he must pronounce the words correctly and reverently. Hebrew was a strange language to him, for at home and at play they spoke Aramaic, and later when he began to do business he would have to speak Greek. Hebrew was only for the synagogue. . . . After learning to read came writing, probably in Hebrew and certainly in Aramaic.”—Pp. 248, 249.
Initially, the primary focus of the first seven years of Christianity was to bring in fellow Jews; thereafter, the Gentile population became more the target audience. Therefore, we see that Matthew’s publishing of his Gospel in two languages was simply responding to two audience needs. Therefore, Jesus Christ as a man on earth very well could have used a form of Hebrew and a dialect of Aramaic.
 The Old Testament Apocrypha are unauthentic writings: writings or reports that are not regarded as authentic.
The contention that Hebrew remained in use far longer than many scholars have traditionally believed has credible evidence. This article makes this point well, and there are additional historical and textual factors to consider that further solidify this argument.
Aramaic and Hebrew Similarity: Some scholars have rushed to claim that the Jews adopted Aramaic, overlooking the close linguistic similarities between Hebrew and Aramaic. This closeness would have made it easier for Hebrew speakers to understand Aramaic without necessarily switching their native tongue.
Role of Scribes: Jewish scribes were trained rigorously in the Hebrew language, even during the Babylonian Exile and afterward. Their role was not just to replicate the Scriptures but also to teach. Hence, the profession of scribes itself can serve as evidence that Hebrew was not forgotten.
The Talmudic Evidence: While the Mishnah was compiled in Hebrew, the Gemara also provides useful evidence. The Jerusalem Talmud was largely written in a Western Aramaic dialect, but Hebrew passages are still frequently encountered, especially when discussing matters of Jewish law. This suggests a continuous understanding of Hebrew in scholarly circles at least.
Influence of the Septuagint: The Septuagint translation itself testifies to the vitality of Hebrew. The very need to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for the Diaspora indicates that the original Hebrew texts held primacy. The Septuagint often closely follows Hebrew idioms, implying a strong influence of Hebrew during its compilation.
Bilingualism: It is likely that many Jews were bilingual, speaking both Aramaic and Hebrew. The books of Daniel and Ezra, for instance, include both languages, implying that both could be understood by their initial readers.
Testimony from Qumran: The Dead Sea Scrolls provide compelling evidence of the use of Hebrew. Many of the sectarian works, not just copies of the Hebrew Bible, are in Hebrew, implying that the community at Qumran used Hebrew for daily matters of religious instruction.
Rabbinic Commentaries: Rabbinic commentaries and midrashic literature are replete with Hebrew. Even when the Rabbis spoke Aramaic, they often cited Hebrew phrases and elaborated on them, suggesting that a working knowledge of Hebrew was common among scholars.
New Testament Citations: In the New Testament, quotations from the Old Testament are often directly from the Hebrew texts, not the Septuagint, especially when the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text diverge. For instance, the citation in Romans 3:10-18 is an amalgamation of verses that align more closely with the Hebrew text than with the Septuagint, indicating Paul’s familiarity with Hebrew.
Jewish Liturgy: Even after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., Hebrew remained the liturgical language for Jews worldwide. Prayers, hymns, and readings from the Scriptures in synagogues were in Hebrew, demonstrating its continual usage in religious settings.
Jesus’ Cry on the Cross: In Mark 15:34, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is Aramaic, but then the Gospel clarifies that this means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This need for clarification implies that the audience was more accustomed to Hebrew (or even Greek), as an Aramaic expression needed to be translated.
Josephus’ Testimony: The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in Greek, took pains to learn Hebrew well because he considered it essential to understanding his own people’s history and religion. His writings suggest that Hebrew still held an important place in the Jewish world of the first century C.E.
In summary, a review of historical, linguistic, and scriptural evidence strongly corroborates the view that Hebrew continued as a living language long after the Babylonian Exile, into the Second Temple period, and beyond. Therefore, the claim that Hebrew was replaced by Aramaic lacks substantive proof and contradicts various lines of evidence, both from within the Jewish community and from external records.