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Biblical Loanwords

Words in the Bible that are borrowed from other languages can help us understand the development of biblical texts and ideas.

maranatha,” an Aramaic loanword in 1 Cor 16:22 as presented in Codex Sinaiticus, fourth century CE. Courtesy the Codex Sinaiticus Project.

Considering where our words come from helps us to better understand their meaning as well as the concepts they represent. This is because loanwords are artifacts of cultural exchange and influence. By studying loanwords in the Bible, then, we gain insight into the development of biblical texts and ideas. 

What is a loanword?

Without realizing it, most English speakers today use words that are not English in origin. In fact, nearly 75 percent of the words in English have come from other languages, including common words such as people (adopted from French) and chocolate (adopted from Nahuatl/Aztec). These English words are all examples of loanwords, or words adopted or “borrowed” from one language into another.

Loanwords appear in many of the world’s languages. The original languages of the Bible are no exception. The Hebrew Bible—written primarily in Hebrew—contains words adopted from both Semitic languages (such as Akkadian) and non-Semitic languages (such as Egyptian). Similarly, the New Testament—written in Greek—contains words adopted from other languages, like Aramaic and Latin.

How does the study of loanwords help us better understand the Bible?

There are many ways the study of loanwords can help us better understand the Bible. Here are two of the most important ways:

First, analysis of the Bible’s loanwords helps us to better understand what the Bible says. The origin of a word does not necessarily determine its meaning. Yet, knowing where a word came from can sometimes clarify its meaning. Because the meaning of the Bible depends partially on the meaning of its individual words, the study of loanwords ultimately leads to a better understanding of the Bible.

An example is the phrase marana tha, which is written in Greek characters in 1 Cor 16:22. Unfortunately, the apostle Paul does not explain the meaning of this word; he simply uses it. The KJV transliterates this word as “Maranatha,” which is not a very helpful translation because “Maranatha” does not itself mean anything in English. Knowing that marana tha originally comes from Aramaic is therefore a useful piece of information. The NRSVue translates this phrase as “Our Lord, come!” because that is what this phrase means in Aramaic. The NRSVue’s translation is therefore much more understandable for speakers of English than the KJV’s.

Second, study of the Bible’s loanwords helps us to understand historical contact between the people who wrote the Bible and speakers of other languages. Loanwords in the Bible do so because words are typically borrowed when different cultures are in contact with one another. By examining the kinds of words that were borrowed and the kinds of languages they came from, we can learn about the connections the ancient Israelites had with other peoples. An example is the Hebrew compound word rav-shaqeh, which appears eight times in the account of Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18–19; compare Isa 36–37). This compound comes from Akkadian, where it refers to a high official. Thus, a translation like the NIV’s “field commander” is better than the NRSVue’s and the JPS’s “Rabshakeh.” The use of this word in the book of Kings gives us insight into historical connections between Assyria and Judah. We can conclude that contact between Assyrian speakers of Akkadian and Judahite speakers of Hebrew plausibly took place during the first millennium. We can also conclude that this contact especially took place between bilinguals in the upper levels of society, such as government officials and scribes.

  • Benjamin J. Noonan is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. His books include Non-Semitic Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible: A Lexicon of Language Contact (Eisenbrauns, 2019) and Advances in the Study of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: New Insights for Reading the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2020).