What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate?

What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate? February 17, 2018

THE TWO QUESTIONS above have been raised online in 1) a 2018 article for a Catholic Website and 2) several 2017 Web postings, among other places.


That first one is easy: Aramaic. As writer Philip Koslowski stated January 21 on the international Catholic aleteia.org, it was the common language spoken by Jews in the 1st Century Holy Land. There’s virtually no doubt Jesus would have taught in that tongue.

For one thing, the original Greek New Testament carried over numerous Aramaic words, especially in Mark and Matthew. Our Gospels in English are translations from Greek that report sayings Jesus would have uttered in Aramaic — something the experts continually ponder.

Question #2 is more complex. On literacy, there’s no way to know whether Jesus could read or write Aramaic. Scholars like England’s Chris Keith and America’s Bart Ehrman think it’s most probable he could not read and write. On the popular level, Reza Aslan asserted this in his heterodox Jesus biography “Zealot,” which was so lauded by the “mainstream” media. (Yes, he’s the Muslim-turned-Christian-turned-Muslim-again that CNN then hired to host a religion series but sacked over his profane tweet assailing President Trump.)

As an aside, note that Random House promoted Aslan’s book as “balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources” instead of “other historical sources.” Such sleight of hand excludes the Gospels — our earliest and most extensive material — from the historical materials regarding Jesus.

Whatever Jesus’ skill with written Aramaic, one Bible passage indicates he had some working knowledge of Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Scriptures and used by the religious elite.

In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus attended the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, stood up and read Isaiah 61:1-2, a messianic prophecy about the coming “year of the Lord.” He then made the dramatic announcement that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The illiteracy camp can point out that the parallel in Mark 6:2 quotes no Isaiah text and doesn’t say Jesus read Hebrew Scriptures, only that he taught.

Jewish tradition emphasized the education of children as the duty of parents, though royal families employed tutors. Ehrman emphasizes the widespread illiteracy in Jesus’ day. But Jewish historians say a century before Jesus’ time the reforming Sanhedrin leader Simeon ben Shetah founded a Jerusalem academy for boys (yes, no girls) that could be attended by youths from the provinces. Later, such public schooling was established in country towns so Nazareth could have been included. We don’t know, and that doesn’t prove Luke 4, but it becomes plausible.

On 10 occasions Jesus challenged scribes or Pharisees with “have you not read?” He could have been quoting memorized passages that were quoted back to his opponents, but evangelical exegete Ben Witherington finds key circumstantial evidence: “It would have been singularly inept, ineffective, and inappropriate for Jesus to upbraid them for not reading if he himself had never read these texts and they knew he was illiterate.”

Then there’s a third language. Some suppose Jesus might have had some ability to speak if not read Greek, which in that era was supplanting Aramaic as the international language of administration and business across the eastern Roman Empire. Jesus didn’t run in those elite circles, of course. But there’s been speculation about Greek since a University of Michigan team began excavating the extensive ruins of Sepphoris (Zippori in Hebrew), followed by archaeologists from the University of South Florida, Duke University, and Hebrew University.

Sepphoris was located at the intersection of two major roadways just four miles north of Nazareth, a reasonable walk away. After Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., Roman troops put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed the town. The next ruler, Herod Antipas, rebuilt Sepphoris as his grand capital city for the Galilee region complete with a 3,000-seat amphitheater. When Jesus was young, that building boom would have provided ample work for carpenters and if Joseph and Jesus were among them they’d have picked up some street-level Greek. Not proveable, but fun to think about.

More on language in the ancient Mideast. Ask yourself, What is humanity’s most important invention of all time? One saying listed the top three as baseball, the symphony orchestra, and chloroform (think about having your leg amputated without anesthesia!). How about math, printing, indoor plumbing, light bulbs, cars, radio, antibiotics, computers, or sliced bread?

The Religion Guy would propose two candidates. First, the writing of narrative history, which as a high art was more or less invented by biblical Israel. Second, the alphabet. also interwoven with biblical environs. The alphabet, a most clever concept, made writing much more flexible and easy to learn by ordinary folk, fostering widespread education and, in the distant future, democracy.

Alphabets gradually replaced the difficult pictographic writing of neighboring Egypt (hieroglyphics) and Mesopotamia (cuneiform). The oldest surviving alphabetic inscriptions yet discovered, in the Sinai, date to approximately the early 16th Century B.C. A bit later, the Phoenecian alphabet is witnessed at Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) up the coast from biblical Sidon and Tyre.

Aramaic and Hebrew are among the world’s longest-living languages. Aramaic was the literary and colloquial standard that dominated the Mideast for a millennium till Muslim conquerors instituted their scriptural tongue, Arabic. Aramaic is still spoken by some in the Mideast and survives in classic Syriac form in Bibles and church liturgies.

Hebrew, on the other hand, became a “dead” language like Latin, largely restricted to religious purposes. But beginning in the 19th Century it began to be revived because Zionists needed a shared spoken language for Jews emigrating to the Holy Land from many different countries.



"(First off, a correction: telescopes were invented about 1,300 years after Ptolemy's death.)Skeptics have been ..."

UFO buzz: Will life on distant ..."
"NIPs... spurn labels and are averse to “organized religion” with its expectations about moral lifestyles ..."

How do categories differ among America’s ..."
"Atheists are those who are certain God does not exist, and the same for all ..."

How do categories differ among America’s ..."
"We already know what happens, Christianity is the only worldview that has completely answered all ..."

Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs?

Browse Our Archives