What language did Jesus speak? The Tablet knows

What language did Jesus speak? The Tablet knows May 29, 2014

So, did the pope and Israel’s prime minister have a rancorous exchange in Jerusalem over the topic of Jesus’ mother tongue?

One thing is certain: Headline writers had a field day with the “spar”, as Reuters characterized the encounter. Was it a “spat,” as per The Chicago Tribune? Did they “publicly bicker” as per The Age of Melbourne? Did Francis “correct” Netayahu, as Time reported? Or was the National Post  correct in calling it a “quibble”?

Commentators were quick to jump. I’ve seen a fair number of anti-Semitic comments on Facebook, as well as anti-Catholic ones (I move in mixed circles), that denounce Francis or Netanyahu with vigor.

Aslan Reza tweeted his views:

Carolyn Glick of The Jerusalem Post noted the political ramification of the remarks, placing them in the context of what she saw as a failed papal visit that set back Catholic-Jewish relations.

In one of his blander pronouncements during the papal visit, Netanyahu mentioned on Monday that Jesus spoke Hebrew. There was nothing incorrect about Netanyahu’s statement. Jesus was after all, an Israeli Jew.

But Francis couldn’t take the truth. So he indelicately interrupted his host, interjecting, “Aramaic.”

Netanyahu was probably flustered. True, at the time, educated Jews spoke and wrote in Aramaic. And Jesus was educated. But the language of the people was Hebrew. And Jesus preached to the people, in Hebrew.

Netanyahu responded, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

Reuters’ write-up of the incident tried to explain away the pope’s rudeness and historical revisionism, asserting, “Modern-day discourse about Jesus is complicated and often political.” The report went on to delicately mention, “Palestinians sometimes describe Jesus as a Palestinian. Israelis object to that.”

Israelis “object to that” because it is a lie.

Setting aside the politics of the Middle East and inter-faith realtions, when it comes to the reporting on the interchange between pontiff and prime minister Yair Rosenberg of The Tablet has the story. Offering a cross section of headlines that painted the exchange in tense or harsh tones, Rosenberg wrote:

But unfortunately for headline writers hoping to gin up controversy for clicks, there is video of this supposed smackdown, and it shows nothing of the sort. As you can see [above], Pope Francis is laughing throughout the entire exchange, which to a normal observer would appear to be an amiable conversation between friends (albeit one mediated by a translator), not a “spat.” As New York Times Middle East reporter Liam Stack tweeted, “not sure this counts as sparring.”

As an aside, Reza Aslan’s pronouncements on Jesus’ mother tongue do not represent the current scholarly consensus, according to R. Steven Notley, who is identified as the distinguished professor of New Testament and Christian Origins and director of graduate programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins on the New York City Campus of Nyack College. In an article entitled “Your Holiness, Bibi was right — Jesus spoke Hebrew!” published by the Times of Israel Notely set forth the evidence about the language used by Jesus and concluded:

Old ideas die hard, and it appears this also to be the case concerning the languages of Jesus. Why scholars and others continue to believe Hebrew was not Jesus’ mother tongue is another question, but it is not for lack of evidence.

I wholeheartedly agree with Rosenberg’s thoughts about the sloppy journalism that arose from this encounter.

Perhaps the reason the Pope is chuckling when he quibbles with Netanyahu is that he knows they are both right. As the scholar quoted by Reuters in their own piece explains, “Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker, but he would have also known Hebrew,” which was spoken by “the kind of people he ministered to.” Whatever language Jesus may or may not have spoken, it is clear that despite attempts by some media outlets to imply otherwise, the incident is not indicative of any hostility Francis harbors towards the Israeli Prime Minister. This can be seen not only from the video of their exchange, but from the photo above from the Pope’s farewell ceremony, where the two parted on warm terms.

In his Tablet piece Rosenberg lays out an argument that the meeting of prime minister and pontiff was a success and bodes well for Jewish-Catholic relations. I encourage you to read his well written, thoughtful piece. For that matter, add The Tablet to your list of essential religion news sources. It is consistently one of the best religion weeklies in the business.

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8 responses to “What language did Jesus speak? The Tablet knows”

  1. It might also be mentioned, by some enterprising journalist, that Christians, believing Jesus was and is the Son of God, could speak any language he chose to speak! (Did He, btw, speak to Pilate in Latin? I can’t see Pilate condescending to speak to the rude natives in their own tongue.)

  2. Looked like a friendly discussion as per the video.

    FWIW It’s also likely that Jesus had a passing familiarity with Latin and Greek. Quotations from scripture in the New Testament seem to be from the Septuagint. Also Wikipedia says:

    At the time of Jesus, Sepphoris was a large, Roman-influenced city. Reza Aslan describes it at the time of Jesus’s growing into maturity one mile away in the following terms:

    Rich, cosmopolitan, deeply influenced by Greek culture, and surrounded by a panoply of races and religions, the Jews of Sepphoris were the product of the Herodian social revolution – the nouveaux riches who rose to prominence after Herod’s massacre of the old priestly aristocracy.'[15]

    It has been suggested that Jesus, while living in Nazareth, may have worked as a craftsman at Sepphoris,[16] where, during his youth ‘the largest restoration project’ of his time took place.[17]Archaeological investigations at the site have led to numerous debates about the influence of this town on Jesus, and shed light on differences within Galilean society.


    • Bravo for recommending the UK Catholic Herald. See also my reply to fredx2 above.

  3. Remember the Tablet is where Robert Mickens works, the reporter who referred to Pope Benedict as “The rat” and seemed to be hoping for him to die.
    The Tablet suspended him after it became a big deal on the internet.

    • Disambiguation is needed here.The article by Yair Rosenberg appears in the _Jewish_ Tablet Magazine, not in the liberal Catholic UK Tablet for which Robert Mickens writes/wrote. Rosenberg’s article is indeed excellent.

  4. At least according to Wikipedia, Aramaic was:

    “the day-to-day language of Israel in the Second Temple period (539 BC – 70 AD), the language that Jesus probably used the most,[3]

    • And, as I understand it, there was quite the difference culturally between Northern Israel (Galilee) and Southern Israel (Judea) back in the day. In fact, recent studies indicate that the Northern area was more cosmopolitan than the area of Jerusalem which was in an isolated mountainous area.
      I think the oft-quoted statement that “nothing good comes out of Galilee” is not about the area being a backward backwater, but a criticism that it was too much influenced by Hellenistic thinking and Roman legalism.

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