Neh. 8:8

In the “Jewish Translations of the Bible” essay I was intrigued to do a little more digging on what was mentioned about Nehemiah 8 when Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the people.  The essays discusses how there is debateover how to interpret vs. 8 in particular due to the fact that it is an explanation done in Aramaic.  So correct me if I am wrong…something that does happen quite often…but I assumed that was saying that this was one of those rare spots where Hebrew is not used in the original text. 

It occurred to me to look up that chapter in my NIV Bible and read it again for myself.  There was no way of reading that English version that I could have, or anyone for that matter, known that this particular text was written originally in two different languages, with vs. 8 being different than the rest of the chapter.

Then I looked it up in the Jewish Study Bible to see the footnotes, and Nehemiah was not where it was supposed to be.  I had to do something I hadn’t done in a long time and look up the page number in the table of contents.  While maybe I knew the Jewish Bible was in a different order than our OT, it never occurred to me what that order actually was.

My point is not the debate over Neh. 8:8, but rather that as an Englishspeaking/reading Christian American I would never have been aware of that.  Not only did I find it interesting, but am curious to do more research on what other verses from the OT may have not been originally written in Hebrew.  I think we take those things for granted, the OT was written in Hebrew and the NT was written in Greek, but most church goers never go beyond just the words on their page to dig deeper into how those words got there in that form.

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4 Responses

  1. Hey Niki,

    I think you really are catching on. Nehemiah 8 is written in Hebrew; it is a narrative of an event–Ezra reading the Law (Torah) to the people in Hebrew. But after 70 years or more (three or four generations) the exiles who returned from Babylon no longer understood Hebrew as a first language. So maybe Ezra read a verse or two at a time in Hebrew, then gave a translation in Aramaic.

    Or perhaps, what he is doing is more like an expository sermon or commentary. I think that is what the debate is about, which of the two, translation or commentary, does the passage refer to.

    There ARE parts of the OT in Aramaic: Several chapters of Daniel and Ezra. Of course, once they are translated into English, we can’t tell the difference. If you read the introductions to Ezra and Daniel in the JSB, it should give you the references.

  2. So one thing that confuses me is whether those parts of the OT written in Aramaic were origionally written in Hebrew or not. I assume not, but I wonder if what was meant by that in some of the JSB articles. What I mean is that in the oldest texts that are in Aramaic we assume that is what they were translated to, but were still probably origional Hebrew? Even this question confuses me. I guess that would depend on when daniel and Ezra were written and if the time period would match up with Hebrew vs. Aramaic.

  3. Both Daniel and Ezra were written after the Exile, i.e., at a time when most Jews spoke Aramaic as their primary language. The Babylonians used Aramaic as the language of administration–the official language of the empire, even though they spoke their own dialect of Akkadian. The Persians continued the same policy after they conquered the Babylonians.

    The peoples they ruled could understand Aramaic; and since it used an alphabet, it was much easier to read than Akkadian (or Persian) cuneiform. After three or four generations in exile the Jews spoke Aramaic as their native language. They had to learn Hebrew in school so they could read the text of the Bible.

    The events in the book of Daniel take place during the exile under first the Babylonian empire then under the Persian empire. The events in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah take place under the Persian empire when the Persians allowed them to return from the exile; so these books are post-exilic.

    Many of the leaders, such as Ezra, were bilingual; they were competent in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Ezra quotes a lengthy letter in Aramaic; that explains the language’s presence in that book. It is something of a mystery why a large section of Daniel is in Aramaic. Was it a first draft? Or a translation of an original Hebrew?

    You might re-read the section on “Languages of the Bible” in the JSB.

  4. That’s really interesting. I had no idea that the language kept changing and that there were parts of the OT written in Aramaic. I read the “Languages of the Bible” section again, and realized that in Jeremiah’s day Aramaic was already being spoken in some circles. I’m still not able to completely grasp this whole subject, but I’m starting to get it. Language is one of those things I definetely take for granted. The farthest I’ve been able to go on my own is grabbing a commentary and reading (in english) what some other guy has to say about a particular text. I guess I won’t have to worry about Wycliffe Bible Translators banging my door down to offer me a job!

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