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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Language.

1.

The original language of the OT is predominantly Hebrew, though there are a few sections in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8–6:18, 7:12–26; Dan 2:4–7:28 ). Aramaic and Hebrew are related, but not mutually comprehensible, languages belonging to the Semitic family, which also includes Arabic, Ethiopic, and the ancient language Akkadian. Aramaic was more important historically, since it was the lingua franca of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, whereas Hebrew is simply the language of Palestine, closely related to the tongues of Israel's neighbours, Moab, Edom, and Ammon.

2.

Hebrew and Aramaic, like some other Semitic languages, were originally written without vowels. In any language written with an alphabet more information is provided in the writing-system than is actually needed to make sense of most words: for example, if we wrote ‘Th Hbrw lngg’ no-one would have any difficulty in understanding this as ‘the Hebrew language’, especially if they were helped by the context. So long as Hebrew was a living language, this caused few problems. Although some words might be ambiguous, the context would usually determine which was meant. Modern Hebrew is usually written without vowels, too, and this seldom causes difficulties for readers. Once biblical Hebrew became a ‘learned’ language and passed out of daily use, however, systems of vowel points—dots and dashes above and below the consonant letters—were devised to help the reader, and the system now used in printed Bibles is the work of the Masoretes (see E.2). The unpointed text continues in use today in the scrolls of the Torah read in synagogue worship.

3.

Most scholars think that two phases in the development of Hebrew can be found in the pages of the OT: a classical Hebrew which prevailed until some time after the Exile, and a later Hebrew, first attested in Ezekiel and P, which develops through Ecclesiastes and Chronicles in the direction of later Mishnaic Hebrew—the learned language of Jews from about the first century CE onwards, by which time Aramaic had become the everyday tongue. However, this is disputed, and anyone who acquires classical Hebrew can read any biblical book without difficulty. As in many languages, there are wide differences between the Hebrew of prose narrative and that used in verse, where there is often a special vocabulary and many grammatical variations. In some cases these may be due to the use of dialect forms, though this is not certain. Some scholars believe that the oldest parts of the OT, such as the Song of Deborah in Judg 5 , preserve an archaic form of the language. (See Saenz-Badillos 1993 .)

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