Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Did Jesus Speak Hebrew?

posted by Mark D. Roberts

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. (Photo: One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q22, a portion of Exodus in Hebrew)

dss-4Q22-exodus-5.jpgYet 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.

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posted July 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm

In this era when many Americans are suspicious of people who can speak more than one language fluently, I am not surprised when it is assumed Jesus spoke only one language. Of course, many folks think it is either Elizabethan English (as in KJV) or Latin. Colloquial Aramaic would certainly be his first language, but I expect his training at the synagogue included reading and speaking Classical Hebrew. I expect he may have had excellent familiarity with Greek or some other conversational language familiar throughout the Empire. How else could he have had an audience with Pilate? Perhaps Luke provided some sort of clue in his Penetcost episode. Anything short of having a Babel fish in his ear (Thanks to Mr. D. Addams) would have to mean Jesus, as were many other people in his time and place, was fluent in many languages, simply in order to survive.

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Dr. William L Goff

posted July 9, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Dr. Roberts,
I read your latest blog entry with great interest. I am glad to see that you are moving toward the idea that Jesus spoke Hebrew – at least part of the time as a second language. I especially appreciate your description of what it means to be a credible scholar and the reference to the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. I believe it is the most responsible and credible of institutions dealing with the question of the language(s) of Jesus. (Let me be quick to add that I am not a credible scholar regarding this question. My knowledge of Hebrew and Greek does not go beyond what I learned in seminary [although I did once teach the basic Hebrew course] and my understanding of Aramaic is non-existent. I do try to be open to the evidence and to be willing to follow wherever it goes.)
When I lived and studied in Jerusalem in 1975 – 1976 I had the great privilege of knowing one of the founders of JSSR, the late Dr. Robert L. Lindsey. In addition to being a devout Southern Baptist pastor of a congregation in Jerusalem, he was a careful and fearless student of the Bible. Prior to 1948 he came to Palestine as a college student and learned to speak Hebrew fluently. For many years he carried on a dialog in Hebrew with the late Professor David Flusser, a highly respected Jewish scholar.
In his effort to translate the Gospel of Mark into idiomatic Hebrew, Dr. Lindsey compared the Greek text of Mark to Matthew and Luke. To his great surprise, when there were parallels between Mark and Luke, the Greek easily translated into Hebrew. However when Mark stood alone it was not so easy to translate Mark into Hebrew. (This is admittedly an oversimplification of Dr. Lindsey’s discovery. The complete argument can be found in the long introduction (in English) to his book, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark. Published in 1973, this book is long out of print although it’s possible to buy a copy on for over $100.)
Following the evidence in front of him, Dr. Lindsey was led to the (nearly heretical) understanding that Luke preceded Mark and was based on Hebrew written documents. (One of the traditional arguments for the priority of Mark is that it is shortest of the Gospels. But the reason it is shorter is that it does not contain much of the teachings of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke. And, in fact, an examination of the individual sections of Mark shows that most of them are longer than the parallel sections in Matthew and Luke.)
From my conversations with Dr. Lindsey, I know that he did not argue that Jesus spoke or taught exclusively in Hebrew. I know from recent correspondence with Douglas Hamp, author of Discovering the Language of Jesus, that he also does not believe that Jesus exclusively used Hebrew. There may be scholars who assert that Jesus used Hebrew exclusively. However in my admittedly limited study of this issue I have not encountered any of them.
I’m glad to know the reasons you discount the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls in determining the use of Hebrew among Jews of the Second Temple Period and especially in the first century. However I do not find your arguments persuasive.
Your first argument is that the members of the Qumran community were nationalistic and separatistic and therefore most likely motivated to reject foreign languages. Perhaps you are right, but this seems rather speculative. And I think you are aware that the folks who lived at Qumran (in an isolated place near the Dead Sea) did not write most of the scrolls found in nearby caves in 1948. They collected them. Nearly all scrolls show evidence of a different scribe. (One observation I recall from my reading is that the Hebrew orthography used around the first century was adopted from Aramaic, hence it is distinctly different than older Hebrew script.)
These Qumran separatists, whom Rome surely considered to be terrorists, perished in AD 73 on Masada not far from Qumran. About sixty years later a Jew who called himself Bar Kochba led an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman occupation which was disastrous for the Jews of Judea in general and Jerusalem in particular. Bar Kochba wrote letters to his compatriots which were discovered among scrolls generally called the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was not a part of the Qumran community, not a separatist, but a leader of a widespread if ill advised uprising against Rome. His letters were written in Hebrew.
Your second reason to discount the Dead Sea Scrolls is that there is no evidence of Hebrew being used in Galilee in the first century. Of course this is an argument from silence. It is the same argument used to assert that Hebrew was a dead language in the first century – before the amazing scrolls were found in 1948.
Your third argument (or observation) is that among the Dead Sea Scrolls there are documents in Aramaic. This seems to be somewhat in conflict with your first argument. If the folks in Qumran were so nationalistic that they rejected foreign languages, why would they retain or write documents in Aramaic? I think this observation needs further study. What was the nature of the documents written in Aramaic? Were they translations of the Hebrew Bible commentaries on the Bible or sectarian writings? What were the dates of these documents? I seem to recall reading that an analysis of the Qumran scrolls shows that the earlier sectarian (as opposed to biblical) scrolls were written in Aramaic and the later scrolls were written in Hebrew. This may point to a revival of the use of Hebrew. Anyway it seems reasonable to me that the Qumran folks were at least bilingual.
The most distressing sentence in your blog entry starts as follows: “Even though he spoke Aramaic as his first language, Jesus had learned Hebrew…” The assertion that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language is not a fact no matter how often or how confidently it is asserted. I am surprised that you appear to be dogmatic about this.
My own view is that the preponderance of the evidence points to Hebrew being the mother tongue of Jesus. I think that there is also good evidence that he knew and used Aramaic. Although the evidence is more limited, I think it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was also able to communicate in Greek. But the lack of definitive evidence leads me not to be dogmatic.
Furthermore, my opinion is that scholarly traditions have great inertia and change very slowly. When you were in seminary thirty years ago and when I was in seminary forty years ago nobody considered the possibility that Jesus spoke Hebrew at all. Now it is at least a respectable opinion based on evidence and analysis that has emerged in the last forty years.
Finally let me suggest that those who believe that the primary language of Jesus was Aramaic and those who believe it was Hebrew can agree about this: an important element of the serious study of the Gospels involves a consideration of the spoken Semitic language or languages that lie behind them and that a knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic is useful if not necessary in understanding the Gospels.

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Mark D. Roberts

posted July 9, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Dr. Goff: Thanks for your extensive comments. I’ve already explained that I find the likelihood of Hebrew begin spoken as the first language of Nazareth to be lacking. This, combined with the fact that the Gospels have Jesus speaking Aramaic, seems to me to be sufficient evidence for the fact that Aramaic was his first language, the language he learned from his parents and spoke among his fellows. The Dead Sea Scrolls literature – and, notice, this is literary – has very little to say about what someone in Nazareth would speak. All the evidence we have for Nazareth points toward Aramaic. Thus, I am confident in saying that Aramaic was Jesus’ first language. Sure, I could be wrong. But I can’t go around in life qualifying every statement for which I have some measure of uncertainty.
I’m curious, do you have any evidence at all for the speaking of Hebrew in Nazareth in the time of Jesus (besides the reading of Isaiah)? If there were such evidence, I’d be most interested.
Peace to you.

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Dr. William L Goff

posted July 9, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Dr. Roberts,
I am surprised how quickly you responded to my comments. It is quite amazing to me that you could sit in Texas and I am in St. Petersburg, Russia, while we have this discussion.
I surely agree with you that you need not qualify every statement for which you have some uncertainty although I believe that this issue merits some caution.
I am also glad that you admit that you could be wrong. As I keep saying, my knowledge of this issue is mainly derivative and I could be completely misled and in error.
To answer your question, I do not have any extra-biblical evidence that Hebrew was spoken in Nazareth in the time of Jesus. Neither do I know of evidence that Aramaic was spoken there. When I visit Nazareth later this month I will be on the lookout for such evidence. If I come across any really old scrolls there, I’ll bring them back and let you examine them yourself.
But I think that this argument from silence hinges on the idea that Galilee and Judea were such isolated regions that residents there spoke different languages. I think the Gospels suggest that there was considerable contact between Jews living in the two regions. Joseph and Mary had to go from Galilee to Judea to register for taxes. Observant Jews tried to go to Jerusalem three times a year to observe the main feast days. Jesus’ parents took him to Jerusalem at least once when he was a boy. He engaged people in the Temple by listening and asking questions. There is no hint that he needed a translator to do this (but this is another argument from silence).
Jesus was raised in Galilee; his cousin John was brought up in Judea. How did they communicate when they met? Jesus traveled to Judea and taught there.
Perhaps Jesus and his parents are exceptional regarding their visits to Judea, but it seems to me that residents of Galilee and Judea were not all that separate. Therefore it seems plausible to me that if there is good evidence that Jews in Judea in the first century spoke Hebrew, it is most likely that Jews in Galilee did too.
Let me again confess that I am no expert on this topic even though it interests me very much. My doctorate is pastoral theology not biblical studies. Furthermore I am now retired from the ministry and may not have all my marbles. I’ll defer to others regarding this question.

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Jim Foley

posted July 11, 2010 at 10:38 pm

I think you can make a strong argument that Jesus had a basic familiarity with several languages and most especially Greek.
The predominantly Greek speaking enclave of Sepphoris was a short walk from Nazareth and one of the largest cities in Galilee. Josephus called Sepphoris “the ornament of all Galilee” and Herod Antipas chose it as the capital of his government. We also know from excavations that Jews also lived in the city. It is inconceivable that such an important city was not an economic hub for the region and that Jews in the area would not have had to develop some proficiency withy Greek to do business with its inhabitants.
A synagogue dedication plaque has been unearthed in the City of David. It is written in Greek, the language of the city during the Hasmonean era, and mentions the community members who built the synagogue.
Dating from the period of the Herodian Temple, stone plaques have been found in the Court of the Gentiles in Latin and Greek, warning that entry to the precincts of the Temple was forbidden on pain of death.
I also think you discount the evidence for Hebrew provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Assuming that the Qumran community was an Essene center, we then must recognize that the Essenes also had outposts in the principal cities. The Essene center in Jerusalem was on Mt. Sion where Jesus is alleged to have held the Last Supper. It is unlikely the Qumran community would have written their religious literature mainly in Hebrew if their urban compatriots could not understand it.

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Mark D. Roberts

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:02 am

Jim: Thanks for this comment. You’re ahead of me! I’m going to make quite similar arguments in a couple of days. Thanks so much for you input.
I still think one must be very careful arguing from what the Essenes did because they were basically separatists. But the fact that even they had Greek and Aramaic manuscripts is a strong indication of the widespread use of these languages among Jews, even Jews who probably spoke Hebrew for religious and political reasons.

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David N. Bivin

posted July 13, 2010 at 7:59 am

Thanks to Mark, Bill and Jim for this fascinating discussion!
There is an often overlooked indication that Hebrew was the spoken language of ordinary Jews in first-century Israel. The Jewish historian Josephus describes an incident that took place during the siege of Jerusalem (War 5:269-272). Josephus relates that watchmen were posted on the towers of the city walls to warn residents of incoming stones fired from Roman ballistae. Whenever a stone was on its way, the spotters would shout “in their native tongue, ‘The son is coming!’” (War 5:272). The meaning the watchmen communicated to the people was: Ha-even ba’ah (the stone is coming). However, because of the urgency of the situation, these words were clipped, being abbreviated to ben ba (son comes). (This well-known Hebrew wordplay is attested in the New Testament: “God is able from these avanim [stones] to raise up banim [sons] to Abraham” [Matt 3:9 = Luke 3:8].)
The wordplay (and pun) that Josephus preserves is unambiguously Hebrew. This wordplay does not work in Aramaic: kefa ate (the stone is coming), or the more literary avna ata, when spoken rapidly, do not sound like bara ate (the son is coming). Another Aramaic word for “stone,” aven, which is related to Hebrew, changes the gender of the verb and, in any case, does not work with “son.”
Certainly, a warning about an incoming missile needs to be as brief as possible (and, of course, shouted in the language of speech). How many words would an English-speaking soldier use to warn his unit of an incoming artillery shell? The Hebrew-speaking spotters on the walls of the besieged city of Jerusalem needed only two, and these they abbreviated to one syllable each.

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posted July 18, 2010 at 7:58 am

I am sorely disappointed in the lack of dialog after Mr. Bivin’s post on July 13th. I’ve come back several times to this page since July 13th. Each time to be saddened by your lack of respect for or ability to engage with Mr. Bivin’s well thought out comments.
Mr. Bivin, a few notes/questions:
English speakers from America are aware of the oft used term “incoming” used by our men and women in uniform. I will ask some of our fine servicemen what are other terms used for you to provide example in the future.
Josephus’ words “their native tongue” are very curious and intrigue me. Is there any way to read that his wording choice could be seen as something other than “native”? For example, could “ancient” or synonym be rendered? A native tongue according to English language would tend to imply that it was their main language.
It’s one thing to show that the Hebrew language used was known (as you have), it is another to show that the language was their common or native tongue. Should you have shown both here…it appears to render Mr. Roberts argument quite void.

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posted July 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I would be interested along these lines if the Hebrew term for hell that was used had a different meaning then todays eternal fire pit. I have read theories that the word used in Hebrew for hell has a much different meaning then the concept that was developed by the Catholic church.

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Your Name Peter Nathan

posted August 25, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Mark: Thanks for your post. Your evaluation of the DSS falls apart if they were the work of more than one organization or group. Candidly, your stated position ends up being untenable, as why would a nationalistic sect have scrolls written in Greek and some Aramaic as well? The DSS provide a much stronger argument for the prevalance of Hebrew than you would like and also of a multi-linguistic society rather than just an Aramaic.

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