Friday, September 30, 2016

Intepreting Scripture: Every Language

EVERY LANGUAGE                                       10/2/16

John 19:19-22, Revelation 5

I have been involved in a series of meetings alongside our Presbytery’s Urban Mission Group.  After several meetings, we have come to the conclusion that the very word for which we gather is an elusive word;  urban.  It is amazing how many rabbit trails you can go down when there is no collectively agreed upon definition of a word.   And before we place too much blame upon these Presbyterians, a simple google search of the word urban shows how little agreed upon definition there is midst the scholarly world, and even the United States government in their census endeavors.

Today’s theme is about language.  We will be providing ourselves keys this fall for Intepreting Scripture.  So far, we have looked at how Scripture defines itself, and last week, the genres (literary types) of the Bible.  Today we consider languages.

Let me be clear that I am no linguist, but the little I know, as I set out on my journey of research, only led to a wide world where I am but a stranger.  And the more I discovered, and was excited by, this led to ten more questions.  So today, I want to keep this really simple.


1.     Identify the 3 languages that Scripture was originally written

2.     Talk about how today’s passages in worship speak to language

The three languages that the Bible was originally written in are Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.  For those with strong Roman Catholic backgrounds, you might have thought that Latin was the third answer.  Up until Vatican II, the language of mass was Latin, and hundreds of years ago, Jerome translated the Bible into the Vulgate, that is Latin Bible.  But no biblical book was originally penned in Latin.

Most of what we call the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Scripture, was written in Hebrew.  It was the language of Jacob, renamed Israel, and his descendants.  This language is under a larger family umbrella called Semitic languages, all of whom are born in the Middle East.

Scholars readily agree that great care was taken by the scribes.  This was proven historically by the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were a 1000 years older than the previously oldest Hebrew documents that we had.  The differences between the two collections were minimal. 

 From historian Scott Manning,  The Process Used by Jewish Scribes for Copying Scrolls

1.    They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.

2.    Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.

3.    The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.

4.    They must verbalize each word aloud while they were writing.

5.    They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the word “Jehovah,” every time they wrote it.

6.    There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.

7.    The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.

8.    The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc).

9.    As no document containing God’s Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah – a Hebrew term meaning “hiding place.” These were usually kept in a synagogue or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery.

Aramaic has a long history (it is older than Hebrew), but weaves in and out of the story of the Bible.  For example, there is an Aramaic word for Covenant used in Genesis.  Aramaic was the language of political treaty’s in the ancient world.  Half of the Book of Daniel and 2 chapters of Ezra are in Aramaic.  Before the time of Christ, Aramaic becomes the conversational language of the people, with Hebrew preserved for religious purposes.  In the New Testament, Jesus is often quoted speaking Aramaic, such as Eli, Eli, lema Sabachthani.  Jesus spoke at least, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.  While Paul knew these three, as well as Latin.

Greek has a long history of influence, affecting languages from Ireland to Pakistan.  One of the earlier forms of Greek, Attic, was called in one book I read, “the most expressive medium ever developed for human thought”.  Through the conquests of Alexander, some 300 years before Christ, Greek becomes the dominant language in the world, used across nations and cultures.  This form of Greek is called “Koine” or common Greek.  It is what the New Testament was written in.  The point of Koine Greek was to get the message out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

I want to provide 2 brief thoughts:

1.  When reading the Old Testament, stop and read what the Hebrew names for people and places mean.  They are always helpful to the story.  Most translations will include their meanings at the bottom of pages.

2.  The Hebrew and Greek languages provide a perfect complement to what our Faith should be.  The Hebrew language reminds us of the care and devotion and attention to detail that should be in our faith.  And the Greek language reminds us of the urgency of this gospel message for the world and all people.  So we have two languages that make up all but less than 10 chapters of Scripture:  one that had little change over a 1000 year period, and one that announced good news of great joy for all the people.  In our lives, there is the important work of preservation, and the important work of proclamation.


Today, we weave three passages that are interesting because of how they use language and voice.

The Gospel passage reminds us of the power of language.  Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. The cross was the technique commonly used for execution.  And on this cross, Pilate has the phrase printed “Jesus, King of the Jews”.  This was not done unintentionally.  First, the message is written in Aramaic for the nation Israel: here is what we have done to your king.  Second, the message is written in the language of the Empire, Latin.  Third, the message is written in Koine Greek, whose influence extended geographically further, and still the most common language of Jesus time. 

There was power in the language that Pilate used.  He chose his words carefully.  The gospel message challenges Pilate’s intent. This death had redemption, and this King was a lion who was also a lamb.  Truly this was the Son of God.

Psalm 109 teaches us the practice of language.  In this song, both the wicked and the righteous use language for their purposes.  The wicked open their mouths, and concerning results occur:

Lying tongues (vs 2)

words of hatred  (vs 3)

accusation (vs 4)

cursing (vs 17)

no pleasure in blessing (vs 17)

The righteous practice language in a different way:

“With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord” (vs 30).

Let us keep in mind the words spoken by James, “With our mouths we praise our Lord and Father, and curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness…My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (3:9-10)


In Revelation was see the purpose of language.  In this picture of the heavenly throne, how are voice and language used?  We see the Angel inquire of the creation regarding someone worthy to approach God.  The Lamb, that Lion of Judah takes and opens the scroll.  4 living creatures and twenty four elders gathered around God’s throne break into song.  Then ten thousand angels squared circle the creatures and elders, giving their praise.  Finally, every creature in heaven, earth and under earth praise God. 

Voice asks a question

“The angel proclaimed in a loud voice, “who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” (5:2)

Voice sings a new song:

“And they sang a new song:  You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (5:9)

Voice comes from many:

“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” (5:11)

There is volume in voice:

“In a loud voice they were saying” (5:12)

God’s intent for language is that every language of the earth give praise to God.  None are to avoid the honor of blessing God’s name.  This is why Jesus died on that cross.  He was King of the Jews.  And He is King of kings and Lord of lords.

And this title for Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters, are the best words that our mouths can speak. 


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