For 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.
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.) (Photo: Andrea Schiavon, “The Conversion of St. Paul,” c. A.D. 1550)
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.