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How Did People Talk in Bible Times?

This week's question comes from David Bullen in Loganville. He writes, "Did ordinary people talk like they do in the Bible? Would a housewife speak to her husband this way: 'To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord'?"

When we read the Bible it is important to remember there are many different literature types (genres). The Bible does contain conversations, but the majority of the Bible is a written record of other types of communication styles and as we read we should be aware of these.

For instance, Psalm 22 begins, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest" (Psalm 22.1-2). At first glance the passage looks like it's part of a conversation, or speech. The reality is, however, this passage is poetry and follows the rules of Hebrew poetry precisely. Although it may have the ring of speech to it, that's not how the poet meant for it to be heard or read.

In the Bible there are many types of literature, but they can all be placed into two categories -- written communication and oral communication. Although the format of the Bible is written communication, there are many examples of conversations recorded for us. However, since all of the conversations are written, keep in mind that some of the conversations are stylized by the writer, while others are closer to natural speech.

The passage cited above is from 2nd Corinthians 5.8. It is a quote from a letter written by Paul to the Corinthian church. It is true that people did not talk like that then, nor do they now. But Paul wasn't trying to preserve speech patterns, he was writing a letter according to the rules of Greek rhetoric. Additionally, at least one of our gospel writers, John, recorded conversations as if they were literary rhetoric instead of typical speech patterns. One of the best known scripture passages, John 3.16, is stylized speech, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Even in Greek, the rhetoric is so formal that scholars are certain no one verbalized the verse in this form -- though there is little doubt Jesus said something similar, John took the oral speech and wrote it for the eye, not the ear.

On the other hand, we do have examples of ordinary speech in the Bible. Much of it is found in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, in the Old Testament there are examples of speech we know have not been stylized. The prime example is found in 2nd Kings 18.27. In this passage the commander of the Assyrian army has surrounded Jerusalem and is taunting the Judean leaders. He says, "Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?" (2 Kings 18.27). Even in English it sounds like a rather vulgar taunt, but in Hebrew it is even more so. In Hebrew the passage contains the preservation of what we might call soldier talk -- it isn't very pretty nor aesthetically pleasing -- and you won't find a literal translation in English anywhere.

Scripture is primarily a record of written communication. There are lots of laws, many stories, and much poetry. When we read a passage we should be aware of the type of literature we're reading if we want it to make sense.

However, on those rare occasions when oral speech is preserved, we can see the people in Bible times didn't speak any differently than we do -- except they spoke in Hebrew, Aramaic, and/or Greek. If the wife wanted her husband to go to the market and get a quart of milk she didn't speak formally, "My husband, go forth and receive from the hand of the merchant sustenance for our family." Instead she probably said, "Honey, run down to Joshua's and pick me up some milk -- the kid's need it for breakfast tomorrow."

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