How We Got Our Bible -- Part 3: The Hebrew Language of the Old Testament


Letís pick up the study of how we got our Bible.   Last week we argued that the Bible is the Word of God.   By way of proof of that, we pointed out: Only God could have known about the details of Jesus.

We then used the proof that Jesus referenced the Old Testament in the Septuagint form, which validates the Septuagint as the Word of God. This is circular, but nevertheless valid.

By the way, someone asked for the name of the book by J. Barton Payne that had the long list of Messianic prophecies; it's the Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy.

We finished last week with the question of how to read the Bible -- should you take it literally?   And I suggested that you take it like Jesus did: every jot and tittle.   That means literal, down to the parts of the letters.

Today's Lesson:

There are a couple of terms we probably should define.

For you and me, both mean that the Bible is dependable.   So one may not mean much different from the other, but if you get into a debate with a technician, there is the difference.   Inerrancy is attributed only to the autographs, the original documents.   The doctrine of inerrancy recognizes that there are transcription errors -- imperfections in the transmission of the original document.   And of course in the translations, as Dave will explain.   Inherent in translation are generalizations and cultural equivalences.   Any translation loses much of the literal inerrancy.   The hope is that the concepts and principles can be related in the new ["target"] language.

The cultural differences also introduce differences of understanding.   Any language is dependant on the culture and even the time of the writing, which is clearly different today and in a different culture.   This can create, and often does create rhetorical gaps between the writer and the reader.   So part of the imperfection is in the understanding, which is why so much study goes into the Hebrew or Greek words used in the original, if we can prove what they were.

But here is the important thing you need to understand:   There are all kinds of textual disputes.   But less than 1% of all the Scriptures are under any competent dispute.   There are controversies among scholars, but of the less than 1% under competent dispute, no doctrine of Scripture depends on any of the disputed texts.   So the things that really matter are not effected by the disputed passages.   That is really encouraging.   In reality, we could stop and go home.   What else do we need to know?

While we are on terms, the word Bible comes through the Latin from the Greek Biblia, which denotes anything written -- any written document.   And by inference is often tied to papyrus which is the material used to write on in the earliest writing.

Testament ~ Covenant:

The word testament as we use it in the name Old Testament and New Testament is really a misunderstanding.   Testament comes from the Latin testamentum which is a translation of the Greek word diatheke which has as its usual and best meaning "covenant" rather than "testament".   There is a big difference between testament and covenant:

The best names for the Old and New parts of this single message should be Old Covenant and New Covenant.   Jeremiah 31 led to this term being used.   God promises Israel that they will have a new covenant.

A new covenant.   Hebrews makes reference to that.

The New Testament is viewed as the New Covenant, replacing the Old Covenant.   But this is the concept that has been used to partition the two sets of manuscripts, but there is some misunderstanding with it also.

Jewish Groupings of Old Testament:

Let me talk specifically about the Old Testament.   What I want to talk about is the Hebrew Bible.   Jewish scholars would call it the tanak.   Remember to not confuse the Torah with the tanak.

The tanak consists of three separate sections, with separate names:

These three spell TNK, an acronym generating the word "Tanak".

The Torah:

The Torah in the Greek is called the Pentateuch, which is just a fancy word for five, since there are 5 books in the Pentateuch.   It is the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.   A Hebrew Jew would call it the Torah.   A Greek Jew would call it the Pentateuch.   And since the New Testament came to us in Greek, we tend to call it the Pentateuch also.  Both terms refer to exactly the same five books.

The Nevi'im:

The next section is called the Neviíim which is divided into two parts:

The Ketuvim:

The third group is the ketuvim, or the writings consisting of

The tanak has the books in different groups, different numbering, different order, and even some different verse separations, but the same content.   If you have a computer Bible program, all of this is automatically adjusted to show you what we are used to in our form of the Old Testament.

The Hebrew Language:

The One Original Language?   I want to set up one more basis of understanding for our study of the Bible.   Letís talk about the Hebrew language.   Do you remember that the Bible says that the whole world was of one language?   Genesis 11:1 says, Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.   This was just before man rebelled and built the Tower of Babel, and God confused their plan by giving them different languages.   You can make a good case for the notion that perhaps Hebrew was that one language.   Not all scholars buy that, because some scholars think the Bible is an allegory, not to be taken literally.   Letís go with Jesusí lead, and say that there was one language.   And there is some support that it may have been Hebrew.

For many years scientists have been studying what it takes to differentiate random sounds or signals from a message: How to tell if a series of signals or sounds is static noise, or a message.   They have studied this with computers with the idea that if there were to be intelligent life on a distant planet, how would we distinguish a message from space static.   And of course facilities like the VLA [Very Large Array] west of Socorro is for that purpose, as well as for many other studies.

Several science fiction movies have used this premise in movies like "Contact", Carl Saganís novel. There was a three dimensional language that actually reflected some of the thinking about how you would have to communicate to another life form for it to work as a language.

This is real science.   This field is called paracryptology.  

There is only one language on earth that meets those requirements:

That language happens to be Hebrew.   Hebrew meets the requirements for a language to be used for interplanetary communication.

If you had a Cray computer on a distant planet, and you got a signal set, you could analyze it and determine that it was a message.

Self-parsing - Hebrew has 5 letters that have a different form for when they occur as the last letter in a word.   There is no space between words, so less space is required to communicate.   It is self parsing, naturally dividing itself up into words.

When we were in Israel, I got a CD to teach me to read Hebrew.   It did not work.   It is still in the box, and I do not read Hebrew.   But all of these rules are a part of reading Hebrew.

Compressed - It has no written vowels, so it takes up less space in a document.   The vowels are inferred.   It is very amazing.

You might think that a language that leaves out all the vowels like Hebrew does would be difficult.   But think of our use of Bldg, or Blvd.   You readily understand that Bldg is the same as "building", and Blvd is the same as boulevard.   You impute vowels to the word.   That is the Hebrew system, except that they leave out all the vowels in the language, and the context allows the reader to imply or "impute" the vowels.

It was the 8th century A.D. before the Masoretes started to add little dots and symbols under the letters to show which vowels were implied, These are called pointed conventions, or vowel points.

Because of its structure, Hebrew is very concise, very simple.   But that also makes it hard to translate, since the meaning may be context dependent.   If you look at a Hebrew text alongside an English text, you will see that it takes 2, 3 or 4 English words to say what one Hebrew word says.   Hebrew is very compact.

Other Features - Another unique thing about Hebrew is that the verbs are not inflected for number, tense or voice.   That is, the verb does not indicate if the action is by one person or several, of it the action is now or in the past or in the future, or whether it is active or passive.   Again, the context determines these inflections.   This leads to lots of challenges in translation.

Phonetic and Pictograph - The Hebrew alphabet is not just phonetic.   There are some languages that are pictographic, like Chinese, where the letters are really pictures of something.   Those languages are very hard for abstract concepts.   They work fine or things you see, physically, but not for thoughts or feelings or emotion.   One interesting note here is that the Chinese pictograph characters make sense only if you understand Genesis 3, and the garden and Satan.   Serious scholarly work has been done to show that the people who originally designed the Chinese alphabet clearly were schooled in Genesis 3, long before Mao, and Confucius and Buddha.   That is the only way that some of those pictographs make sense.   But the point is that they are lexical pictures, showing graphically what the character means. English does not do that.   They are clumsy and very limiting.   But for things that are physical, a lot of information can be communicated with a pictograph language.

Hebrew is both phonetic and pictographic.   I have been told that in a matter of an hour, if you learn the pictographic aspects of the Hebrew letters, you can get a general understanding of Hebrew writing, and comprehend about 80% of the message.   So this a very unique language.   Hebrew is both phonetic and pictographic; very efficient for physical concepts, but also effective for abstract issues; very efficient and compact, and has the required structure to be a universal language, and uniquely discernable as a language, differentiated from just noise.   It sounds like something God might give man to communicate a supernatural message; a way for God to communicate with man.


Next week: I want to contrast Greek and its structure with Hebrew and its structure.   It will help us understand more about the various translations, and the history of both the Old and New Testaments.

In two weeks, on February 10, Pat & I will be in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast.   Dave Westley will describe some of the issues involved with translation of the Bible by showing you his translation work in Mexico.