What Language Did Jesus Speak? Why Does It Matter?

What Language Did Jesus Speak?

Why Does It Matter?

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you acknowledge the source of this material: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com. Thank you.

Some of My Other Writings on Jesus:

The Birth of Jesus: Hype of History?

Was Jesus Divine? Early Christian Perspectives

Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence

What Was the Message of Jesus?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?


Six years ago, people all of a sudden became interested in the language spoken by Jesus. The occasion for this burst of curiosity was the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. Although responses to this movie varied widely, just about every viewer was struck by the fact that not one word of English was spoken in the film. All dialogue was in one of two ancient languages: Aramaic or Latin. Without the English subtitles, most of us wouldn’t have been able to understand a word in The Passion of the Christ. (Photo: A statue of Jesus in his passion, from a church on the Mediterranean island of Menorca.)

Many who saw this movie wondered about its antique languages. What is Aramaic, anyway? Was this really the language spoken by Jesus? Didn’t he speak Hebrew, the primary language of the Hebrew Scriptures? And, since the New Testament Gospels are preserved in Greek manuscripts, is it possible that Jesus also spoke Greek?

In February 2004, the month when The Passion of the Christ was released, I wrote a short blog series on the language(s) of Jesus. Drawing from my background in New Testament studies, I tried to explain in non-technical terms the issues associated with the language or languages spoken by Jesus. My answer to the question “What language(s) did Jesus speak?” was representative of what most scholars of the New Testament believe, and was based on key passages from the New Testament itself, as well as an understanding of life in Judea during the first century A.D. In a nutshell, I showed that it’s most likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language, and that he almost certainly knew Hebrew and perhaps Greek as well. It was unlikely, I argued, that Jesus spoke Latin, as envisioned in The Passion of the Christ.

During the past six years, thousands of people have visited my series on the language(s) of Jesus, thanks to the power of Google and similar search engines. The vast majority of readers did not contact me, which is just fine. They had no particular reason to do so. A few dozen people emailed me to thank me for what I had written.

And then there were the others, those who were not happy with me and what I had written. Sometimes they wrote nasty notes, criticizing my scholarship and even my Christian character. Sometimes they wrote extensive treatises, arguing at length for a position different from the one I had taken in my series. Among those who wrote, a few referred to credible scholars who have argued that Hebrew and/or Greek were commonly used by Jews in Judea during the time of Jesus. Some who contacted me seemed to believe that because the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, Jesus must have spoken Hebrew, otherwise somehow his mission as the Messiah would have been deficient. Some were worried that if Jesus spoke Aramaic, this would contradict passages in the Gospel of John that refer to Hebrew being spoken (though not by Jesus, actually).

In the last couple of years, I have run into a new reason why some people dispute the notion that Jesus spoke Aramaic. It has to do with the passion among some Muslims for an Aramaic-speaking Jesus. Presumably, and I have not followed these arguments carefully, certain Muslims use the idea that Jesus spoke Aramaic as a support for the truth of Islam. In response, some Christians have taken up arms in favor of the Hebrew-speaking Jesus. Those who fight this battle have accused me of giving aid and comfort to the “opponents of Christianity” by suggesting that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. (Note: If you are aware of other reasons why the language(s) of Jesus matter so much to some people, please let me know by leaving a comment below.)

I must admit that I was stunned by the extent to which some people get worked up about the language(s) of Jesus. As one who believes about Jesus all the things orthodox Christians do, it would not impact my faith one jot or tittle if Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than Aramaic, or Greek rather than Hebrew. Thus I am not caught up in the emotional maelstrom of this language of Jesus debate.

But I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. (Okay, I’ve had a couple of people object to this on the grounds that Jesus was God, and that God knows everything, so therefore Jesus knew how to speak English. Apart from the theological problems with this view, it is surely true that Jesus did not actually speak English, no matter whether or not he had a miraculous ability to do so. Nobody in the first-century A.D. spoke English, least of all those who lived in Judea. So we can be sure that Jesus, Son of God and all, did not speak English.)

The fact that Jesus did not speak English serves as a reminder to those of us who do that we need to work hard if we wish to understand the original meaning of Jesus’ teachings. Now, you don’t have to spend the next several years learning ancient languages because English translations of the biblical text are quite reliable. Moreover, there are plenty of commentaries and teachers who can bridge the gaps in your linguistic understanding. In fact, careful study of the English text of the Bible will allow you to discern Jesus’ true meaning in most instances, even if you don’t know the language(s) he spoke. But this careful study requires time and effort. And it requires acknowledging the gap between Jesus’ culture and our own. Many common misunderstandings of Jesus stem from the projection of English meanings and American culture onto Jesus’ words and ways.

In the next few posts, I will offer a revised and improved (I hope!) version of my original series on the language of Jesus. I hope to show why most historians believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, as well as to consider the possibility that he also spoke Hebrew and/or Greek and/or Latin. When I finish with my historical survey, I’ll offer some further reasons why it matters to us what language(s) Jesus spoke.

Confession and Context
In yesterday’s post, I explained that I was beginning a series that seeks to answer the questions: What language did Jesus speak? Why does it matter? Before I delve into these questions, however, I need to make a confession and offer a bit of context.

Confession – My Scholarly Credentials (or Lack Thereof)

I am not an expert in the study of ancient languages. I’m not a historian of the languages in the Ancient Near East. Nor am I a sociolinguist (who studies the relationship of languages and societies). Nor am I an expert in the cultures of first-century Judea, where Jesus lived and spoke. In what I write in this series on the language of Jesus, I am standing on the shoulders of many fine scholars. I am also, therefore, open to correction from those who are experts in the academic disciplines that help us to determine the language or languages spoken by Jesus. In several ways, these experts have helped my thinking to mature since I first wrote about the language of Jesus six years ago.

Yet I do have more knowledge about these subjects than the average man on the street. During my doctoral work in New Testament, I did learn a great deal about the life of Jews in the time of Jesus, and I have kept on learning about this subject during the last twenty years since I finished my Ph.D. As a grad student, I studied all three languages that Jesus might have spoken: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I had plenty of Greek (five years) and Hebrew (2 ½ years), but only one semester of Aramaic. That’s enough to help me understand the technical discussions surrounding the question of Jesus’ language, but not enough to allow me to translate things into Aramaic. (In the last few years, I’ve received a couple of requests for this sort of translation, no doubt because someone read my piece on the language of Jesus and figured I was proficient in Aramaic.)

Finally, I should mention again that I have no particular bias in this conversation about the language(s) of Jesus. Yes, I have gone on record saying that I think Aramaic was his first language. But it wouldn’t trouble me to be wrong about this. In fact, my opinion is a little more nuanced now than it was six years ago. No matter which language or languages Jesus spoke, I have confidence in the historical authenticity of the Gospels and believe about Jesus everything contained in the Nicene Creed and the Symbol of Chalcedon. That’s a technical way of saying that I am an orthodox Christian.

Context – What is Aramaic?

If you’ve been hanging around churches for as long as I have, you’ve probably heard the word “Aramaic.” It was used often during the time when Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, since most of the movie script was in Aramaic. But that didn’t exactly make “Aramaic” a household word. Before we try to figure out which language(s) Jesus spoke, it would be good to have some basic notion of Aramaic, since it is a leading candidate for the starring role in this drama.

Aramaic is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew, Arabic, and similar languages. According to an expert linguist whom I consulted, Hebrew and Aramaic are related much as French and Spanish or Cantonese and Mandarin. During the time of the Assyrian Empire (8th century BC), Aramaic became used throughout the Ancient Near East as the language of diplomacy. In the time of the Persian Empire (6th-4th century BC), Aramaic was the predominant language of the region. Since Judea was part of the Persian Empire, Jews for whom Hebrew was a primary language began to speak Aramaic, especially those of the upper classes. By the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the most common language in Judea, though Hebrew may have been dominant in certain areas, such as Jerusalem or the Qumran community by the Dead Sea. Greek usage was also widespread in those regions during the first century A.D.

The widespread use of Aramaic among Jews is illustrated by the fact that portions of the Old Testament are in Aramaic, not Hebrew (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Daniel 2:4-7:28; Jeremiah 10:11). This means, for example, that one of the most important passages in the Old Testament for our understanding of Jesus appears in Aramaic. Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” is described in Aramaic (kebar ‘enash; 7:13). Moreover, around the time of Jesus, though probably after his death, the Hebrew scrolls of the Old Testament were translated into Aramaic for use in the synagogues, because so many Jews did not understand Hebrew.)

During and before the time of Jesus, there wasn’t just one version of Aramaic being used in Judea and beyond. Some Aramaic was official and formal. This is preserved, as you would expect, in official documents and inscriptions. Some was informal and common. This was spoken and has mostly been lost to modern scholars. The fact that Aramaic was used by Jews in Judea is supported by its use in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are mostly in Hebrew, however), and in some ancient documents and inscriptions. Even many grave inscriptions around Jerusalem are in Aramaic, not Hebrew. It’s most likely that in Galilee, where Jesus was raised and where he began his ministry, Aramaic was the most common language of the people, though many would have been able to understand Hebrew and to get along in Greek as well.

In my next post in this series I’ll look at the evidence for Jesus’ use of Aramaic.

The Circumstantial EvidenceIf we take the Gospel record at face value, and I believe we have good reason to do so, then Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea and spent his earliest years in Egypt. Then his parents returned to their hometown of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up and lived until his began his itinerant ministry. This means he spent somewhere around 25 years in Nazareth.

A view of Nazareth. © holylandphotos.org. Used by permission.

The question of Jesus’ primary language would be settled if we knew what people in Nazareth in the first decades of the first century A.D. were speaking. Unfortunately, this knowledge is more elusive than we might like. As far as I know, there is no specific evidence about the language spoken in Nazareth during the life of Jesus. We don’t have inscriptions or ancient manuscripts that can be placed in Nazareth at this time.

There is evidence, however, that points to the use of Aramaic in Galilee, the region where Nazareth was located. Such evidence includes inscriptions, contracts, and other ancient writings. It makes sense that residents of Nazareth spoke Aramaic, given the fact that Aramaic became the official language of Galilee from the sixth-century B.C. onward. Thus, it seems likely that ordinary residents of Galilee, including Nazareth, spoke Aramaic as their first language. This was the language of common discourse among Jesus’ family and friends.

A few scholars believe that people in Nazareth spoke Hebrew as their primary language. This is possible, but unlikely. Hebrew may well have been used primarily among some people in Judea (south of Galilee), among Jewish separatists (those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls), and among Jewish theologians, but even among these people Aramaic is prevalent. As far as I know, we have no strong evidence for the common use of Hebrew in Nazareth and the surrounding region of Galilee. However, Hebrew was the language of theological inquiry and debate among Jews, in addition to the language of their Scriptures. Scholars from the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research acknowledge the multilingual environment of Jesus’ culture, but insist that Jewish teachers ordinarily taught in Hebrew. It’s certainly possible that Jesus himself taught in Hebrew at times (see below), but, given his widespread interaction with common people and not just scholars and the fact that his early teaching was in Galilee, it seems more reasonable to assume that Jesus spoke Aramaic and used this language for much of his teaching.

In recent years, more scholars are taking seriously the possibility that Jesus spoke Greek. I’ll examine relevant evidence from the Gospels later in this series. For now, it is worth nothing that Greek was commonly used in certain strata of Galilean society. This began when Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 B.C. Under his rule, and under the rule of those who followed him (the Ptolemies and the Seleucids), Greek was the language of government and commerce. The Romans used Latin for official communication, but Greek was the common language of the Empire.

Would people in Nazareth have spoken Greek? Not as their first language. But many of them would have been familiar with Greek and used it in their businesses. In fact, Nazareth was a short walk from Sepphoris, one of the major cities of Galilee, where Greek would have been the everyday language of the marketplace. As a craftsman living near Sepphoris, Jesus might well have known enough Greek to do business with the people there.

So where does the circumstantial evidence for the language of Jesus leave us? It points to Aramaic as his first language. But the multi-lingual context of Galilee suggests that Jesus and his fellow residents of Nazareth might have spoken Hebrew and/or Greek as well. Thus, we would do well to heed the word of caution penned by Richard A. Horsley in his book, Galilee: History, Politics, People: “It is difficult in the extreme to interpret the fragmentary evidence available and draw conclusions for the use of languages in late second-temple Galilee” (p. 247). Horsley’s discussion of this issue, which is the best of which I am aware, supports the common use of Aramaic in Galilee, but documents the use of Hebrew and Greek as well (pp. 247-250).

So, the circumstantial evidence for Jesus’ use of Aramaic is strong. Yet nothing in this evidence demands that Jesus could not have known and used either Hebrew or Greek or both in his teaching.

Jesus and Aramaic in the GospelsThe earliest manuscripts of the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are written in Greek. Though a few scholars argue that Matthew first appeared in Hebrew or Aramaic, most believe that the four biblical Gospels were composed in Greek. Their writers might well have known Aramaic and/or Hebrew, and they may well have drawn upon oral and written sources in these Semitic languages, but when they put stylus to papyrus, then wrote in common Greek.

Yet the New Testament Gospels do include non-Greek words in the text (spelled with Greek letters). And some of these words are Aramaic. Others are probably Aramaic, though they might be a variety of Hebrew. The word Abba, for example, which means “father” or “papa” in Aramaic, can also be found in certain later Hebrew dialects. So, while Jesus’ use of Abba probably reflects his Aramaic speech, we can’t be 100% sure of this.

In Mark 3, we find the story of Jesus’ calling of the twelve disciples. In the list of those whom he called, we find these names: “James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)” (Mark 3:17). The word boanerges is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic phrase, though the precise phrase is not altogether clear. Several Aramaic options are possible.

A painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus, from a church in Taormina, on the island of Sicily.

One of the most striking Aramaic sentences found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels is: eli eli lema sabachthani (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 uses eloi instead of eli). The sentence is then translated into Greek by Matthew and Mark, with the English meaning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This, as it turns out, is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, which reads in Hebrew: ‘eli ‘eli lama ‘azavtani. (Here you can see, by the way, an example of the similarity between Aramaic and Hebrew.) The fact that Matthew and Mark have Jesus speaking in Aramaic does suggest that this line was remembered by the early Christian community in its original language, namely, Aramaic. But the ancient manuscripts of the Gospels include a variety of options, so we can’t be completely positive of what Matthew and Mark wrote, or which language Jesus spoke. He could have used Hebrew, which was translated and passed down in Aramaic by the early church.

The clearest example of Aramaic on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels occurs in Mark 5:41. Jesus entered the home of a synagogue leader whose daughter had died. “Holding her hand, he said to her, ‘Talitha koum,” which means “Little girl, get up!” Both Matthew and Luke tell this same story, but without the Aramaic sentence (Matt 9:24; Luke 8:54). Matthew simply describes the healing while Luke includes only the Greek translation. Mark, however, passes on what appears to be the actual words of Jesus, word in Aramaic.

Mark 5:41 provides persuasive evidence for Jesus’ use of Aramaic in this particular instance. But the text does not tell us exactly what to make of this usage. One could argue that Mark’s account of the raising of the girl shows that Jesus’ use of Aramaic was unusual, and that’s why it was remembered. Or one could conclude that Jesus used Aramaic in this situation, which was not, at any rate, a teaching time.

The existence of Aramaic words and phrases on the lips of Jesus, combined with what we know about the probably use of Aramaic in Jesus’ homeland, convinces me beyond any doubt that Jesus spoke Aramaic and used it in his ministry. I think it would be very difficult to argue otherwise. However, the fact that Jesus used Aramaic at times does not prove that he used only Aramaic. Living and ministering in a multi-lingual environment, Jesus might have used other languages as well, namely Hebrew and/or Greek. I’ll consider these possibilities in more depth below.

Did Jesus Speak Hebrew?
Thirty years ago, when I was studying New Testament in graduate school, it was widely assumed that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language and taught in Aramaic. I can’t remember a conversation in which the possibility that Jesus spoke or taught in Hebrew was seriously considered.

Since my days in grad school, however, some credible scholars have begun to argue that Jesus either spoke Hebrew as his first language, or used Hebrew when he taught, or both. (By “credible scholars,” I mean people who have mastered the relevant languages and historical/cultural data, whose arguments are taken seriously by others with similar credentials, and who don’t seem to have an agenda that forces the evidence in a predetermined direction.) I am thinking, for example, of members of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. Unfortunately, many of those who make the case for a Hebrew-speaking Jesus seem to be motivated by something other than a desire to know which language(s) he actually spoke.)

So what evidence do we have that Jesus spoke Hebrew?

We do not have in the New Testament Gospels a quotation of Jesus in Hebrew such as we have in Aramaic (Talitha koum). We do have his use of words, such as abba, that are Aramaic but are also found in some Hebrew dialects. More importantly, we do have a few instances in which a Hebrew word is preserved in the Gospels as having been spoken by Jesus. Perhaps the most well-known example is his frequent use of amen, which is a Hebrew word (for example: Matt 5:18, John 3:11, and many others). (I think amen was absorbed into Aramaic at some point in its history, but I can’t remember the details.)

There is one story in the Gospels that strongly suggests Jesus knew and spoke Hebrew. In Luke 4, Jesus went to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. In the midst of the gathering, he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This reading was most certainly in Hebrew. Even though he spoke Aramaic as his first language, Jesus had learned Hebrew, like almost all Jewish men in his day. But we don’t know whether Jesus, upon finishing his biblical reading, continued to speak in Hebrew, or rather transitioned into Aramaic.

Many stories in the Gospel also support the theory that Jesus could use Hebrew when it suited his purposes. Jesus frequently found himself in conversations and debates with Jewish religious leaders. These dialogues usually happened in Hebrew, even among those for who Aramaic was a first language. For Jesus to be credible as a debate partner, and for him to impress his audience as a learned teacher, in all likelihood he would have used Hebrew when engaging in theological discourse with the Pharisees, the Scribes, and other Jewish leaders.

Many of those who believe that Jesus spoke Hebrew primarily and taught in Hebrew primarily (or exclusively), point to the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls demonstrate that Hebrew was being used in the time of Jesus, and had not been completely eclipsed by Aramaic.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q22, a portion of Exodus in Hebrew.

Yet this evidence of the scrolls is not nearly as strong as some believe, in my opinion, for three reasons. First, the community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls was a highly nationalistic and separatistic community. Of all Jews, the folks at Qumran were perhaps the most likely to reject foreign languages and to use Hebrew as a political and religious statement. Assuming that the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us something about the average Jew in the time of Jesus would be a little like arguing that since Amish people speak Pennsylvania Dutch (German) that language is used throughout the United States. Second, we have evidence that Hebrew was used among some Jews in Judea, where the scrolls were found. But we have virtually no evidence for the conversational or official use of Hebrew in Galilee in the time of Jesus. It’s a mistake to assume that what was done in Judea would also have been done in Galilee. Third, even among the Dead Sea Scrolls we find documents in Aramaic. This is surprising, given the Qumran community’s apparent and understandable preference for Hebrew. This suggests that Aramaic was commonly used by Jews who were not part of Qumran, and was even known and used by members of the Qumran community.

Given Jesus’ roots in Nazareth, and given his early ministry among common folk in Galilee, it seems most likely that he usually employed Aramaic in his teaching, and this is confirmed by the data of the Gospels. But, given the likelihood that Jesus knew Hebrew as a second language, and given his frequent debates with Jewish religious teachers, and given the movement of his ministry to Judea, where Hebrew was more common, I am convinced that Jesus did teach in Hebrew at times.

For some, this conclusion is not acceptable. They argue that Jesus spoke and taught exclusively in Hebrew. In my next post in this series, I’ll examine the arguments for this position.

Examining the “Biblical Truth” that Jesus Spoke HebrewFor some Christians, the fact that Jesus spoke Hebrew is a matter of biblical truth. Therefore, any claim that he spoke Aramaic is not just a difference of opinion about history. It’s a threat to the very authority of Scripture. So, you’ll find a number of theologically conservative Christians (of which I am one, by the way) who argue passionately for a “Hebrew-only” Jesus.

The so-called “biblical case” for the Hebrew speaking Jesus rests mainly on one verse in, not in the Gospels, but in Acts of the Apostles. It is in Paul’s story of his conversion on the road to Damascus, where Jesus appeared to him. Here is this verse in the ESV, one of the most literal translations today:

And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,* ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (Acts 26:14).

The asterisk points to this note: “*Or the Hebrew dialect (that is, Aramaic),” which provides a literal translation of the Greek of this phrase (te Hebraidi dialekto). As a reader of English, you can see in this Greek transliteration words that are similar to “Hebrew” and “dialect.”

Here, some argue, is the definitive answer to the question of Jesus’ language. He spoke Hebrew! That’s it. There is no need for further conversation. Any claim that Jesus spoke Aramaic or Greek is inconsistent contradicts the Bible, and must be jettisoned.

Andrea Schiavone, “The Conversion of St. Paul,” c. A.D. 1550

Unfortunately, however, the truth is not nearly so tidy as this. First of all, even if Acts 26:14 does mean that Jesus spoke Hebrew to Paul, one cannot use this as proof that he always spoke Hebrew, or mainly spoke Hebrew, or even spoke Hebrew in any other circumstance. In no other place does the New Testament tell us that Jesus spoke Hebrew. So, even if he did speak Hebrew to Paul on the road to Damascus, this in no way invalidates the proposition that Jesus spoke Aramaic and/or Greek in other settings. One could hold that Jesus usually (or always) taught in Aramaic during his earthly ministry, but chose to speak to Paul in Hebrew for special reasons. And one could hold this view and still affirm the absolute inerrancy of Scripture. (I’m not making this argument, by the way. I’m simply allowing that it is possible and still consistent with the highest view of biblical authority.)
The second reason why Acts 26:14 does not establish the fact that Jesus spoke Hebrew has to do with the meaning of the Greek phrase te Hebraidi dialekto. The ESV, as we have seen, translates this as “in the Hebrew language,” but adds in a note that it could mean “in the Hebrew dialect (that is, Aramaic).” Elsewhere, in fact, the ESV translates a similar word, Hebraisti, as “in Aramaic” (see, for example, John 19:17). But notice how other English translations render Acts 26:14:

“in the Hebrew tongue” – KJV “in the Hebrew language” – NRSV “in Aramaic” – NIV “in Aramaic” – TNIV (with note: Or Hebrew). “in Aramaic” – NLT(SE) “in Hebrew” – The Message

Many of the top biblical translators, including those with conservative theological convictions, believe that the phrase te Hebraidi dialekto actually means “in Aramaic,” not “in Hebrew.” So when Paul used this phrase and when the author of Acts included it in his account of early Christianity, they were actually referring to what we would call Aramaic, not Hebrew.

Some Christians see this translation as utterly unacceptable. Douglas Hamp, for example, in his book, Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? explains:

This belief [that Aramaic was used by Jews in the time of Jesus] became so commonplace that the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible followed suit with the assumption by systematically translating the words Hebraidi and Hebraisti (both mean Hebrew) as Aramaic. . . . For example, in John 5:2 the NIV translates “. . . near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda . . .” instead of the literal translation Hebrew (though “or Hebrew” is in the footnotes). Obviously, the rationale for doing so stems from the belief that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew. Is this justifiable when the word is clearly Hebrew? (Hamp, p. 4)

Is Hamp correct? Are biblical translators, such as those who translated the NIV, plainly wrong? Does the Bible itself actually reveal that Jesus spoke Hebrew? Tomorrow I’ll examine these arguments more closely.

Examining the “Biblical Truth” that Jesus Spoke Hebrew: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I began looking at a particular kind of argument for the position that Jesus spoke Hebrew. This argument is based on “biblical truth,” because it points to Acts 26:14, a text that reads in the ESV, “And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,* ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’” (Acts 26:14, “*Or the Hebrew dialect [that is, Aramaic]“).Many modern English translations actually prefer the rendering found in the ESV footnote, going with something like “in Aramaic” (NIV). But some, such as Douglas Hamp, author of Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? disputes this translation:

This belief [that Aramaic was used by Jews in the time of Jesus] became so commonplace that the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible followed suit with the assumption by systematically translating the words Hebraidi and Hebraisti (both mean Hebrew) as Aramaic. . . . For example, in John 5:2 the NIV translates “. . . near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda . . .” instead of the literal translation Hebrew (though “or Hebrew” is in the footnotes). Obviously, the rationale for doing so stems from the belief that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew. Is this justifiable when the word is clearly Hebrew? (Hamp, p. 4)

According to the Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa website, where Douglas Hamp is employed in their School of Ministry, he has an MA in the Hebrew bible from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. So he clearly has some background in Hebrew, and presumable Aramaic. Thus it is surprising that he should make such an obvious mistake in his writing. He asks, “Is this [translating Hebraisti as Aramaic] justifiable when the word is clearly Hebrew?” But it is not clearly Hebrew. You cannot find the letters “H-e-b-r-e-w” in the text, even in Greek letters. Truly, Hebraisti looks quite a bit like Hebrew, to be sure. But it is not the English word Hebrew. And one cannot argue that just because an old Greek work looks and sounds like a modern English word therefore that Greek word means what the English word means.

Take, for example, the Greek word gar. It looks and sounds exactly like the English word gar. But gar in Greek does not mean “a freshwater fish of North America.” In fact, gar in Greek meant “for” or “because.” Similarly, the words Hebraisti and Hebraidi, which look and sound like Hebrew, may or may not mean Hebrew. The question is not similarity of form or sound. Rather, it’s a question of how these words were used in the first century. When Paul said that Jesus spoke to him te Hebraidi dialekto, did he mean “in Hebrew” or “in Aramaic” or even “in a Hebrew dialect that could be either Hebrew or Aramaic.” We cannot answer this question by the way the words look and sound, but only by how they were used at the time.

Consider another example. When one learns to speak Spanish, one discovers that there are many, many words in Spanish that look like words in English. This makes understanding and translation much easier. So, suppose you meet a young woman who speaks Spanish. You’re not very good at Spanish, but you want to ask her if she’s intelligent. So you take a stab at it and say, “¿Eres intelligente?” She smiles and says “Sí­.” Job well done. But suppose you want to ask her if she’s embarrassed. So you make another educated guess and ask, “¿Eres embarazada?” Sounds good, right? But the young woman slaps you in the face and stomps off. What went wrong? Well, embarazada looks and sounds a lot like embarrassed, but it doesn’t mean that. It means pregnant. Oops. Linguistic error. Not prudent to ask a young woman if she’s pregnant. ¡Que vergüenza! (How embarrassing!) (Besides, a Spanish speaker would not use the verb “eres” with “embarazada,” since this verb implies a permanent situation, which is rarely the case when one is pregnant. Thanks to Ramiro Rodas for this observation.)

So the only way of knowing the meaning of Hebraisti and Hebraidi in Acts 26:14 is by a careful study of how these words were used both in the New Testament and in other related texts from the first century A.D. These words show up in the New Testament ten times, all in John, Acts, and Revelation (John 5:2; 19:13; 19:17; 20:16; Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; Rev. 9:11; 16:16). In several instances, we cannot tell whether the word means “in Hebrew” or “in Aramaic.” But there are two cases that lend clarity to our investigation.

John 19:13 reads: “When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha [Hebraisti de Gabbatha].” Gabbatha is an Aramaic word that means “height” or “eminence.” Thus, in this case, Hebraisti means “in Aramaic,” not “in Hebrew.”

One of the possible locations for Golgotha, chosen because it looks rather like a skull. Golgotha represents an Aramaic expression that means “place of the skull.” Photo used by permission of www.holylandphotos.org.

John 19:17 says: “[A]nd carrying the cross by himself, [Jesus] went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha [ho legetai Hebraisti Golgotha].” Once again, the word Golgotha is in Aramaic.

The fact that place names in Jerusalem were in Aramaic surely supports the common use of Aramaic among Jewish people in that city and surrounding area. Indirectly, it supports the use of Aramaic by Jesus. This is verified by other evidence from the New Testament. In Acts 1:19, for example, we find this description of the field in which Judas killed himself: “This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” Hakeldama is an Aramaic expression. Notice that Acts refers to the fact that this Aramaic name was “in their language,” that is, in the language of the residents of Jerusalem. So, we should not be surprised that Gabbatha and Golgotha are also Aramaic words, words that are described in John as Hebraisti. Even though this word looks like “in Hebrew,” it actually means, or at least can mean, “in Aramaic.”

In sum, the argument that Jesus must have spoke Hebrew because of Acts 26:14 fails on several counts. Not only does this verse not tell us what language Jesus spoke in other contexts, but also the phrase te Hebraidi dialekto, which looks to us like “in the Hebrew dialectic” turns out to mean, in all likelihood, in the Aramaic dialect.

This should give reassurance to Christians who fear that the argument that Jesus spoke Aramaic somehow undermines the authority of Scripture. In fact, it does nothing of the kind. Whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, or, as I believe, a combination of the two depending on his context, either option concords with a fully authoritative Bible.

The same is true, by the way, if Jesus spoke Greek. In my next post in this series I examine this possibility.

Did Jesus Speak Greek?

So far in this series, I’ve presented the case that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language and in a substantial portion of his teaching, especially when he was speaking with average people in Galilee, where Aramaic was the common language of the day. I have also suggested that it’s likely that Jesus spoke Hebrew, which he learned as a Jewish boy in a faithful family. His facility with Hebrew enabled him to read the biblical text in the synagogue and to engage in respectable debate with other Jewish teachers of the day (the Pharisees, the scribes, etc.).But could Jesus have known Greek as well? Might he have used Greek at times in his teaching, or at least in some of his conversations?

Because the manuscripts of the Gospels are in Greek, we do not have the advantage such as we have in the case of Aramaic, where Aramaic words and phrases are actually transliterated and included in the Greek text of the Gospels. Quotations of a Greek-speaking Jesus would not stand out, and would simply flow with the Greek text.

Every now and then, I have run into commentators who argue that some of the sayings of Jesus imply that he knew Greek. If, for example, there is a play on words that works in Greek but not in Aramaic or Hebrew, this points to a Greek original. At this moment I can’t remember any specific examples. Perhaps a commenter can fill us in. But, to this point, I have not been convinced that any of the sayings must have had a Greek origin. I have been more convinced by those who propose a Semitic (Aramaic or Hebrew) original for the sayings of Jesus.

So, the evidence for Jesus’ speaking Greek will be circumstantial only. But this evidence is not insignificant.

The fact that the Gospels are written in Greek shows that many if not most of the earliest Christians, including some who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry, knew Greek and used it often, perhaps as their first language. Many Jewish writings from the era of Jesus were written in Greek, including works such as 2 Maccabees and 1 Esdras. Other Hebrew writings were being translated into Greek in Jerusalem (the book of Esther, for example, in 114 B.C.). Speaking of Jerusalem, scholars have found some ninety Greek inscriptions on ossuaries (boxes for bones) that date to around the time of Jesus and were found in or around Jerusalem.

Ever since Alexander the Great conquered Judea  in 332 B.C., Greek had been the language of government and, increasingly, commerce and scholarship. Though Aramaic continued to be spoken by many, Greek grew in its popularity and influence. In the time of Jesus, well-educated Jews, mainly those of the upper classes, would have known and used Greek. So would those who were involved in trade or government. But many other Jews would have had at least a rudimentary knowledge of Greek which they used in their business and travels to the larger cities.

A portion of the scroll found at Nahal Hever. This shows a passage from Habakkuk 2-3. Notice that the letters are all capitals and there are no spaces between words. That was commonplace in the first century.

The presence and pervasiveness of Greek in Judea is demonstrated by a discovery in the Nahal Hever region of the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. In a cave, a scroll was found that contains substantial portions of the minor prophets in Greek. The so-called Nahal Hever Minor Prophets Scroll, dated around the time of Jesus, shows the influence and popularity of Greek, even among highly religious Jews.

Though the New Testament Gospels do not tell us whether Jesus spoke Greek or not, they do describe situations in which it’s likely that Greek was used. In Matthew 8:5-13, for example, Jesus entered into dialogue with a Roman centurion. The centurion almost certainly spoke in Greek. And, as Matthew tells the story, he and Jesus spoke directly, without a translator. Of course it’s always possible that a translator was used and simply not mentioned by Matthew. Still, the sense of the story suggests more immediate communication, which would have been in Greek.

The same could be said about Jesus’ conversation with Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion (Matthew 27:11-14; John 18:33-38). Once again, there is the possibility of an unmentioned translator. But the telling of the story points to a Greek-speaking Jesus. (Pilate would have used Greek, not Latin, as imagined by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ. And it’s unlikely that he would have known or used Aramaic. Pilate was not the sort of man who would stoop to use the language of common Jews.)

If Jesus knew enough Greek to converse with a Roman centurion and a Roman governor, where did he learn it? Some have suggested that he might have learned it during his early years in Egypt. A more likely explanation points to his location in Galilee. Though Aramaic was the first language of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown was a short walk from Sepphoris, which was a major city and one in which Greek was spoken. Jesus quite probably had clients in Sepphoris who utilized his carpentry services, and he would have spoken with them in Greek.

But given the multi-lingual context in which Jesus lived, it’s not surprising that he would have been reasonably fluent in Greek and Hebrew, in addition to Aramaic. People in the United States often have a hard time understanding this. But if you’ve known people who have grown up in Europe, for example, they often can get by in several languages, including English, German, Spanish, and French, even if their first language is Italian.

Can we know for sure that Jesus spoke Greek? No. Is it reasonable to assume that he could speak Greek and did upon occasion? Yes, I believe so. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the variations in the Gospels among the sayings of Jesus reflect that fact that he said more or less the same things in Aramaic, Hebrew, and/or Greek.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll suggest some reasons why I think the language of Jesus matters . . . or, better, why the languages of Jesus matter.

The Language of Jesus: Why Does It Matter?

If you’ve been following this series on the language(s) of Jesus, you know that I have argued that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language and in a substantial chunk of his teaching. I think it’s highly probable that he also spoke Hebrew, and used Hebrew in contexts when that was appropriate (reading the Scripture in the synagogue, conversing with Jewish scholars, etc.). I also believe that Jesus spoke Greek, though the evidence for his use of Greek is not as strong as it is for Aramaic (very strong) and Hebrew (strong). But why does this matter? Does the question of Jesus’ language make any difference to us, especially to those of us who are followers of Jesus today?

Yes, I believe the language of Jesus does matter. I began this series by offering one reason. When we pay attention to the language of Jesus, we remember that he did not speak English. Therefore, we are encouraged to pay close attention to the meaning of his teaching in light of his cultural and religious milieu, and not to read Jesus as if he were speaking in 21st century America. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

I do not believe that the language spoken by Jesus makes any difference for our understanding of the authority of Scripture. I dealt with the argument that Scripture teaches that Jesus spoke only Hebrew, and therefore any claim that he spoke Aramaic or Greek undermines biblical authority. This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the biblical text. One can uphold the inerrancy of Scripture and believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, and/or Greek.

A 4,000 seat theatre in Sepphoris, just modest walk from Nazareth. Jesus grew up not far from a major center of Greco-Roman culture. Used by permission of HolyLandPhotos.org

The fact that Jesus may have spoken Greek may help us to think differently about him and his ministry. For many years it was common to envision Jesus as growing up in the countryside of Galilee, far removed from multi-cultural hodge-podge of the Roman Empire. But this idealized view of the rustic Jesus is far from the truth. Though he grew up in a small town, he was not at all cut off from the broader Roman world. In fact Jesus grew up with ample exposure to Greco-Roman language, culture, commerce, politics, religion, and philosophy. When he eventually entered Jerusalem to confront the Roman and Jewish authorities there – and to give his life in the process – Jesus was no naive country bumpkin making his first trip to the big city. Rather he was well aware of powers and perils he faced, and he faced these knowing, as he ultimately said to Pontius Pilate (in Greek, I believe), “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36).

Jesus’ use of the language of the kingdom of God (or heaven) provides a striking illustration of why it matters to know the language of Jesus. Let me explain.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus continually refers to the kingdom of heaven, as in “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2). Many Christians take the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” as a description of what we call heaven: the place where we go to be with the Lord after we die. This makes good sense in English, because “kingdom” signifies a place ruled by a king, and “heaven” is the place we believers go after we die, the place where God rules (Matt 6:10).

But this is not what Jesus meant when he used the Aramaic phrase malkuta dishmaya (which appears in the Greek of Matthew as he basileia ton ouranon). For one thing, the Aramaic word we translate as “kingdom” referred, not only to the place where a king rules, but to the authority of the king. Thus malku could be translated as “kingly authority, rule, or reign,” and should be translated this way in the case of Jesus’ usage. He’s not saying that the place where God rules in coming near, or that we can now enter that place, but rather that God’s royal authority is about to dawn, and is in fact dawning in Jesus’ own ministry. Moreover, the Aramaic term we translate as “heaven,” literally a plural form meaning “heavens,” was often used as a circumlocution for God, much as my grandmother used to say “Good heavens!” rather than “Good God!”

So when Jesus said “malkuta dishmaya has come near,” he didn’t mean that the kingdom of the “the place we go when we die” has come near, but rather that God’s kingly authority was at hand. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and demonstrated its presence through doing mighty deeds, such as healings and exorcisms. By the way, everything I’ve just said about malkuta dishmaya in Aramaic would also be true if Jesus were speaking Hebrew and said malkuth hashamayim or Greek and said he basileia ton ouranon. For a right understanding of Jesus in this case, it doesn’t matter which ancient language he was speaking. But it does matter greatly that he wasn’t speaking contemporary English.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as a blessed afterlife or that Jesus has nothing to do with how we enter this afterlife. But I am saying that when we understand Jesus to be talking continually about what we call heaven when he speaks of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God,” we are fundamentally missing his point. He’s speaking, not so much about life after death, as about the experience of God’s kingly power in this life and on this earth, both now and in the age to come. (I have written extensively on the topic of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. See my series: What Was the Message of Jesus?)

Given the excellence of English translations of the Bible by translators who have mastered all of the relevant languages, it’s not necessary for the ordinary Christian to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic in order to understand the teaching of Jesus. (In my days teaching Greek in seminary, I did have a few students who were not planning to pursue ordained ministry, but simply wanted to be able to study the New Testament in greater depth!) I do think that any who are going to teach the Bible in a serious way, both clergy and lay, should gain deep familiarity with the primary biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew). But the good news is that we can understand and grapple with the teaching of Jesus without knowing the language or languages he actually spoke. You don’t need to speak any ancient language to hear Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God or to be challenged by his invitation.