What language or languages did Jesus speak? Was it Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek or more?
The Languages of the Bible
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek but the New Testament also contains some Aramaic. The Greek that was commonly spoken in the New Testament period was called the Koine Greek or the “common” (Koine) Greek which at that time was in common use. We know that the Apostle Paul spoke Greek but He also spoke Hebrew as we see in Acts 21:40 “And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying.”
The Aramaic Language
The Aramaic language is very old and closely resembles the Hebrew language. These two languages were in use during the early parts of the Old Testament as we read in Genesis 31:47 “Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed.” Laban called the “heap of witnesses” Jegar-sahadutha which is Aramaic while Jacob called it “Galeed” which is Hebrew for a “heap of witnesses.” The Jews had learned Aramaic due to their frequent captivities, for example the Assyrians. This explains why Daniel the prophet and Ezra the Scribe both wrote and spoke Aramaic. After the Jews exile ended, Nehemiah complained that none of them could even speak Hebrew any more (Neh 13).
The Languages of Jesus’ Day
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Roman Empire was ruling a broad area of the civilized world and so there were likely several languages in use during the time, depending on which part of the empire you were in. Since Jesus carried on conversations with the Romans (e.g. the Roman Centurion and with Pontius Pilate), He must have spoken to them in Koine Greek since it is highly unlikely that the Romans would have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic, so we must conclude that Jesus at least spoke Greek because that was the predominant language spoken in the Roman Empire at the time but Latin was also known by the more educated. Greek was also used in everyday circumstances like in the market place and in certain civil matters. Since the four gospels were written in Greek, we might conclude that the disciples could have known this language and if they did, you would expect that Jesus would too. Obviously Jesus must have known Hebrew because He “had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39) and apparently knew enough about the Scriptures, which were in Hebrew, because He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). Clearly, Jesus must have known the Hebrew language very well because He “taught in their synagogues” (Luke 4:15) and “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written” about Him (Luke 4:16-17). So it appears that Jesus knew both the Hebrew and Greek languages, but what about Aramaic?
Jesus Speaks in Aramaic
Just before Jesus’ death on the cross He said “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27:46)? Matthew translates “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which is Aramaic into the Greek as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” which gives us strong evidence that Jesus also spoke in Aramaic. Many Bible scholars believe that this is the language which Jesus customarily used during His earthly ministry. In the Hebrew of Matthew 27:46 it reads “‘eli ‘eli lama ‘azavtani” which shows us that the Hebrew and Aramaic languages closely resemble one another. In another place, after Jesus’ raises a little child from the dead, He tells the girl “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” which is also Aramaic” (Mark 5:41). Some believe that this doesn’t necessary prove that Jesus could speak or regularly spoke Aramaic because it might have been Mark that translated this for the reader but knowing that the real source behind the gospel of Mark is actually the Apostle Peter, it would seem strange to just translate Jesus’ words from Aramaic into Greek if Jesus never actually said it.
The time and place in which Jesus grew up must have necessitated His need to speak Koine Greek. His teaching and reading of the Scriptures seems to indicate that He knew Hebrew. The many places in the gospels where He is quoted in Aramaic and then translated into the Greek would leave us with the idea that He also spoke that language. Jesus, like Paul, was tri-lingual, at least. There is a lot of extra-biblical evidence that Jesus’ primary language was Aramaic but really, He could speak any of the three languages used at that time and likely did, depending on who He was speaking with (e.g. Pontius Pilate, the Pharisees or the disciples). Is Jesus’ message affected by what languages He actually spoke in? No, because in any language, you stand either condemned or cleared of your sins. Jesus said “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18) and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). In any language, Jesus gives you a choice; to choose eternal life by repentance and faith or eternal destruction by rejecting Him as your One and only chance to be saved. That’s about as plain as it comes in any language.
Another Reading on Patheos to Check Out: What Did Jesus Really Look Like: A Look at the Bible Facts
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon