Introduction

What was the language that Jesus (Yeshua) communicated in as he taught and interacted with the people of Israel? Some say it was Greek since that is the language of the New Testament. Some say Aramaic, picked up by the children of Israel during their seventy-year captivity in Babylon, since they suppose that Hebrew was a dead language at the time of Jesus. Finally, the minority view holds that Jesus spoke Hebrew, the language of his people, of Moses, David and the prophets. Nevertheless, Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew, couldn’t he have spoken all three? While it is entirely possible that he spoke all three, the issue that our discussion will focus on is what language he most often communicated in. After all, the creator of the universe would obviously be able to speak whatever language he desired, but of course speaking a language is only useful if those around you can understand what you are saying. So our question quickly becomes limited to what language the disciples and followers of Jesus spoke. That is not to say what they were capable of speaking, but rather, what language they spoke in the markets, their homes and in their inner circles when sharing their thoughts.

Even if we can determine what language Jesus most often communicated in, does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! The language of Jesus is important to our understanding of the Jewish culture and world in which Jesus lived, taught and interacted. So much of a culture is wrapped up in its language that it is often difficult to separate the two. Knowing what language Jesus and the Jewish people living in Israel[1]in his day spoke, helps us better understand the words, phrases and teachings that were used in the New Testament

Perhaps even more significant to why this is important is that the Bible says that he spoke Hebrew! The idea that Jesus spoke only Aramaic and not Hebrew is neither historical nor Biblical. The New Testament clearly and unambiguously says that Jesus spoke Hebrew and that Hebrew was used in his day; it never refers to Aramaic. In spite of this, most Biblical scholars have taught that Hebrew was a dead language at the time of Jesus. They claim that when the New Testament says Hebrew, it really means Aramaic; in other words, they say that the phrase Hebrew language really means Aramaic. Just as the phrase American language means English, so they say that the Hebrew language in the New Testament actually means Aramaic.

Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew

Perhaps Greek?

We see evidence in the New Testament that Greek was indeed spoken in first century Israel. A number of Greek inscriptions have also been found in the land from this period (a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC). Greek for centuries had been the international language of the Ancient Near East including Israel. Moreover, Josephus reports that there were signs in the Jerusalem Temple “…declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that ‘no foreigner should go within that sanctuary’ for that second [court of the] temple was called ‘the Sanctuary,’…” (Wars 5,5,2) Also one of the languages of the sign on Jesus’ cross[2] was Greek (John 19:20) – thus there can be no doubt that Greek was used in Jesus’ day. In fact, this is an issue which hardly needs to be mentioned. After all, the entire New Testament has come down to us in Koine Greek, a dialect of Jesus’ day. However, almost all scholars agree that the mother tongue of the Jews in Israel was not Greek. As we will see, the New Testament records various words written in the spoken language and then transliterated and translated into Greek.

Aramaic or Hebrew?

So, if not Greek, then we are left with two options: Aramaic or Hebrew. This is truly where opinions differ. Admittedly, nearly all scholars have argued and still maintain the position that the common language of Jesus’ day was Aramaic. The theory is so prevalent that it is taught in seminaries as fact that Hebrew was a dead language by the time of Jesus.

Barbara Grimes, in her book, Language Choice in First Century Christianity, unambiguously declares, “In the homeland of the Jewish people in the first Century AD, Aramaic was the mother tongue and principal language of most of the people, including virtually all of the women.” (Grimes 1987:20-21) Alfred Edersheim, an expert on the life of Jesus, suggests that Hebrew was nothing more than a language used in the Temple and synagogues and the messages had to be translated into Aramaic for the commoners (Edersheim 1993:91). Edersheim and Grimes are not alone; perhaps the majority of scholars have had a mistaken view of Mishnaic Hebrew, the Hebrew of Jesus’ day. Probably typical of the prevailing opinion was Abraham Geiger’s suggestion, given in 1845, that Mishnaic Hebrew was an artificial creation of Rabbis whose native tongue was Aramaic (Buth 1987:25). One of the most frequently cited scholars is Matthew Black, an expert of Aramaic and proponent of the idea that Hebrew was a dead language in the time of Jesus. He says

…the Aramaic speaking masses…could no longer understand Hebrew. The use of the term ‘Hebrew’ to refer to Aramaic is readily explicable, since it described the peculiar dialect of Aramaic which had grown up in Palestine since the days of Nehemiah and which was distinctively Jewish … (Black 1967:48)

This belief became so commonplace that the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible followed suit with the assumption by systematically translating the words ῾Εβραΐδι Hebraidi and ῾Εβραϊστὶ 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? When Paul, in Philippians 3:5, describes himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” the NIV correctly retains Hebrew instead of Aramaic or Aramean. They translate the same word ῾Εβραῖος (Hebraios – related to the two variations above) as Hebrew in Philippians; why not retain the translation in the other passages which are talking about the language? It is unfortunate that the belief that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew is so strong that Bible translators feel justified in changing the text of the New Testament instead of simply faithfully translating what it says even if it is in contradiction to current scholarship.

Though the prevalent theory of Aramaic as the mother tongue of Jesus is overwhelming, the view is in need of a revision that more accurately represents the language situation in Jesus’ day. Once we begin investigating, we discover that there is a great deal of evidence from the New Testament, as well as a plethora of external evidence showing that Jesus spoke Hebrew (not Aramaic) as his mother tongue and in his daily life and ministry.

This is not to say that Aramaic was not spoken. The amount of evidence is irrefutable that Aramaic was one of the languages of His day. However, the historical and biblical evidence attests to the fact that He was speaking Hebrew. Again, this is important since to say otherwise does not accurately represent Jesus. Also, recognizing His language as Hebrew demonstrates the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God, and provides a continuum of teaching from the Old Testament up to and through the life and ministry of the Messiah.

A Road Map

In order to resolve the question of just what Jesus was speaking as His day-to-day language of communication, we will, first of all, look at the historical evidence coupled with the testimony of the New Testament in order to see what ancient authors had to say about the language of the day. After reviewing what history has to tell us, we will then examine, from a linguistic point of view, the actual words of Jesus (plus a few others), as recorded in the New Testament. This is necessary since words and phrases, such as talitha kumi have so often been used to "prove" that He really spoke Aramaic. Our linguistic examination will reveal that He was speaking Hebrew, just like the New Testament says.

 

[1] Israel at the time of Jesus refers generally to the areas of Judea, Galilee and perhaps Samaria as well.

[2] See The Sign on the Cross of Jesus for the discussion of the supposed hidden message on the sign on the cross.