Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Examining “the Biblical Truth” That Jesus Spoke Hebrew, Part 2

posted by Mark D. Roberts

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!)

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.”

calvary-gordon-5.jpgJohn 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. (Photo: 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.)

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.



  • bill

    Hi Mr Roberts,
    I could NOT get on to your other site about “privacy”,
    so I’ll send my comment here.
    I believe you are right on the oney with all 3 parts.
    Self inductived privacy is a problem in the Christian
    community, which I think is the place where Christian
    try to hide their sins! Rather tha seek help for thier
    faults or failures or tendecies to fail.
    However, I disagree with the publishing or NOT KEEPING
    SECRET(PRIVATE) the sexual intimacy in your marriage! Unless
    I misread your statement, I got the idea that you thought we
    (Christians) should be open (talk about) our individual
    sexual intimacy in our marriage to other! If that is what
    you truly were saying…I STRONGLY DISAGREE… and do
    see any Scriptures that would say otherwise.
    I would prefer to send this in an e-mail, but I could NOT
    find one for you.
    Please reply via e-mail to : taxman9575@yahoo.com.
    thank you,
    Bill

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Bill: Thanks for your comment. No, I did not mean, nor do I think Paul meant, that people should talk publicly about their sexual relationship. So, just to be clear, I added a couple of sentences to a parenthetical comment in my article on privacy. It reads:
    (We do not get from Paul the idea that marital intimacy should be observed by others, only that the ethics of such intimacy is the business of God’s people. Also, nothing in 1 Corinthians would encourage a spouse to talk publicly about his or her sexual relationship. The point is that what happens even in private falls under the moral domain of Christian ethics and accountability in the body of Christ.)

  • James J. DeFrancisco, Phd

    Mark,
    The Aramaic (Syriac) Peshitta text also agrees with your position on this. Acts 26:14 uses the word ABRAIT which means Aramaic. According to most scholars the common language Jesus (along with others in the Near East in the 1st Century) would have used was Aramaic. He would have also used Hebrew when reading the Holy Scriptures (Luke 4 for example) and when in the Temple. It is also probable that he may have used Greek when visiting Hellenistic communities. The Jerusalem School is a minority opinion that takes the position of Hebrew over Aramaic. The languages are similar and have cognate words. The fact is that the New Testament must be interpreted from a Semitic rather than a Greek mind set. The early disciples thought, spoke, and wrote in Aramaic.

  • John C. Poirier

    Mark,
    There is a basic problem with your argument, which is the question of why Acts, in these instances, would even bother to mention what language Jesus spoke. Why mention the language if it is the main vernacular? The fact that the language is mentioned means that there is some significance to it, and that in itself suggests that for Luke *hebraisti* means “Hebrew”.
    See my article at http://www.bsw.org/Filologia-Neotestamentaria/Vol-16-2003/The-Narrative-Role-Of-Semitic-Languages-In-The-Book-Of-Acts/402/article-p107.html.

  • John C. Poirier
  • David N. Bivin

    If ?????? (“Hebrew”), and ???????? (“in Hebrew”), mean “Aramaic” and “in Aramaic,” respectively, as you claim, what role did the Greek words for “Aramaic” (???????), and “in Aramaic” (???????) play in Greek?
    When Josephus, for example, in retelling the biblical story recorded in 2 Kings 18, uses ???????? and ??????? in the same sentence (the parallel of 2 Kgs 18:26), what distinction was he making? Josephus writes: “As Rapsakes spoke these words in Hebrew [????????], with which language he was familiar, Eliakias was afraid that the people might overhear them and be thrown into consternation, and so asked him to speak in Aramaic [???????]” (Antiq. 10:8; trans. Ralph Marcus, Loeb).
    Josephus, a Galilean who lived before the Temple was destroyed, was able to correctly distinguish in Greek between Hebrew and Aramaic.
    And see, on this same issue, my post of 13Jul10 in this forum:
    http://blog.beliefnet.com/markdroberts/2010/07/did-jesus-speak-hebrew.html

  • http://gervatoshav.blogspot.com/ d. miller

    Thanks for this series, Mark. As a follow-up to David Bivin’s comment, Ken Penner’s paper on Hebrais(ti) surveys the evidence thoroughly and concludes that Hebrais(ti) should be translated “Hebrew” in the NT. I find his argument compelling.
    The paper is available online here: http://ocp.acadiau.ca/kpenner/papers/hebrais/index.html.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Glyn Parfitt

    Dear Mark,

    I like your careful measured approach. I am surprised that you did not use any of the recorded Aramaic? statements of Jesus such as Talitha cumi (Mark 5: 41), and Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (Mark 15: 34).

    Gods bless,

    Glyn

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