Languages of the Old Testament world (Ezra 2)

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The ancient Near East encompassed a large number of different languages, the most significant of which were Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic and Hebrew. Understanding these languages has considerably aided our knowledge of Israel’s social, economic, political and linguistic environment.

  • Sumerian: History’s first written language (ca. 3100 B.C.), Sumerians used pictures (called pictographs) to represent words or ideas. Thousands of pictographs were needed to write in Sumerian, but these eventually came to be written abstractly as cuneiform, wedge-shaped characters incised into clay with a pointed, reed stylus. Although Sumerian was unrelated to the ancient Semitic languages of the Near East (such as Hebrew), many Semitic languages adopted the use of cuneiform writing.
  • Egyptian: As history’s second written language (also ca. 3100 B.C.), Egyptian produced a unique pictographic script called hieroglyphics, which is found in pyramid inscriptions. Though not Semitic, Egyptian was related to Semitic languages and shared some features with them.
  • Akkadian: A Semitic language, Akkadian falls into the same language group as Hebrew. Used from at least the seventeenth century B.C. to the first century A.D., it was a northeastern, Mesopotamian Semitic language that borrowed some Sumerian vocabulary. Akkadian was spoken in both Babylon and Assyria, and thousands of Akkadian tablets preserve records of economic, religious, royal and legal life of these societies. The Babylonian dialect became the international language of communication during the Late Bronze Age. Knowledge of the Akkadian language often helps to clarify the meaning of an obscure word in Biblical Hebrew.
  • Ugaritic: This language has significantly improved our understanding of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. It too was a nortwestern Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and similar to the language of the Canaanites (by comparison, Akkadian was a northeastern Semitic language and somewhat more distant from Hebrew). Ugaritic employed an alphabetic cuneiform (i.e. used cuneiform signs to represent individual letters) and is preserved in approximately 1,300 administrative, economic and religious documents from the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C.
  • Aramaic: This language spans at least the last 3,000 years of the Old Testament period. Like Hebrew and Ugaritic, it was a Northwestern Semitic language. Aramaic utilized a 22-letter alphabet borrowed from the Phoenician language. It became the international language of communication for the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persian during the first millennium B.C. The Persian empire’s “standardized” Aramaic has been dubbed Imperial Aramaic – the dialect of the governmental communique in Ezra 4. The books of Ezra and Daniel were partially written in Aramaic, and traces of Aramaic are scattered throughout the Old Testament.
  • Hebrew: Hebrew uses the same alphabet as Aramaic. Attested outside the Bible from the tenth century B.C., it was the language of the Israelites and of most of the Old Testament. Although the present Old Testament is primarily rendered in a standard Biblical Hebrew, traces of ancient Hebrew dialects are apparent in the text (e.g. Judges 12:6). During the intertestamental period Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews (Jesus spoke Aramaic, e.g. Matthew 27:46). A modern version of Hebrew is spoken by Israelites today, but it has a number of substantial differences from the classical form.

Bilderesultat for Languages of the Old Testament world

Illustration: Administrative tablet with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs and boars.


 

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