Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Examining “the Biblical Truth” That Jesus Spoke Hebrew

posted by Mark D. Roberts

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.

schiavone-paul-conversion-5.jpgUnfortunately, 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. 



  • Evan

    The question of whether Paul’s testimony means that Jesus spoke exclusively in Hebrew or not is one that I had not ever thought much about. I always concluded that Jesus, now seated in His deity at the right hand of the Father, would be able to communicate in whatever language He chose. If He only spoke in Hebrew, EVER, that would put most of us at a severe disadvantage, so I always inferred He tailored His language to His audience.
    But the reason I never thought much about this was because those of my Learned Professors who touched on the matter took the position that “God is ‘Wholly Other'” and it was therefore impossible and indeed inconceivable that He could ever “speak” to ANYONE, much less in Hebrew. Their thought was that God has no physical being and is so powerful, infinite and perfect that there is no possible way for finite, imperfect and physically-bound beings to interact with Him on any basis. I once asked, in the form of a question, naturally, if this impossiblity were solved by the Incarnation… that if God became a man, He would therefore have the ability to interact with mankind as one of them? The answer was full of scoffing and highly esoteric theological terms, and it took a very ominous turn, so I wisely let the matter drop.
    I guess it boils down to the proposition that a God who can become a man, die and return from the dead is probably powerful enough to speak to finite humans in whatever way He desires… including any language of His choice. If the idea of Jesus rising from the dead seems impossible to you, well, it was “nonsense to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews” as well, so you are in good company. I guess that means that my professors were Greek. ;)
    As to whether that passage in Acts refers to Hebrew or Aramaic, I must defer to those better trained in Greek than me (virtually everyone. :) ) But I would have to agree that it would not necessarily be dispositive of what Jesus spoke while He was a man on Earth. As the resurrected Christ, He can communicate in any language He chooses, whether or not He spoke it as a man on Earth.

  • JT Thomas

    Funny, I didn’t know this was a controversy. It would seem that Jesus and the Apostles were tri-lingual. They would have learned Hebrew in Hebrew school (where all Jewish boys went when young); known Aramaic as the common Mid-East peoples’ tongue; and used Greek when interacting with the large Gentile population of the Decapolis when engaged in construction projects (as the Scriptures indicate that Joseph was a contractor) and selling their product as commercial fisherman.
    I know the Scriptures say that the disciples were ignorant men, but that refers to higher theological instruction that would have been common to the priests and Levites.
    Even today, we have tri-lingual people who many would consider ignorant–they’re called “Amish.” (Who speak Pennsylvania German, understand and read High German, and converse with outsiders in English.)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment James

    just google busting the aramaic myth, and you’ll see the truth.

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