Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Jesus and Aramaic in the Gospels

posted by Mark D. Roberts

The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are written in Greek. Though a few scholars argue that Matthew first appeared in Hebrew or Aramaic, most believe that the four biblical Gospels were composed in Greek. Their writers might well have known Aramaic and/or Hebrew, and they may well have drawn upon oral and written sources in these Semitic languages, but when they put stylus to papyrus, then wrote in common Greek.

Yet the New Testament Gospels do include non-Greek words in the text (spelled with Greek letters). And some of these words are Aramaic. Others are probably Aramaic, though they might be a variety of Hebrew. The word Abba, for example, which means “father” or “papa” in Aramaic, can also be found in certain later Hebrew dialects. So, while Jesus’ use of Abba probably reflects his Aramaic speech, we can’t be 100% sure of this.

In Mark 3, we find the story of Jesus’ calling of the twelve disciples. In the list of those whom he called, we find these names: “James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)” (Mark 3:17). The word boanerges is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic phrase, though the precise phrase is not altogether clear. Several Aramaic options are possible. (Photo: A painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus, from a church in Taormina, on the island of Sicily).

crucifixion-taormina-painting-5.jpgOne of the most striking Aramaic sentences found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels is: eli eli lema sabachthani (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 uses eloi instead of eli). The sentence is then translated into Greek by Matthew and Mark, with the English meaning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This, as it turns out, is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, which reads in Hebrew: ‘eli ‘eli lama ‘azavtani. (Here you can see, by the way, an example of the similarity between Aramaic and Hebrew.) The fact that Matthew and Mark have Jesus speaking in Aramaic does suggest that this line was remembered by the early Christian community in its original language, namely, Aramaic. But the ancient manuscripts of the Gospels include a variety of options, so we can’t be completely positive of what Matthew and Mark wrote, or which language Jesus spoke. He could have used Hebrew, which was translated and passed down in Aramaic by the early church.

The clearest example of Aramaic on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels occurs in Mark 5:41. Jesus entered the home of a synagogue leader whose daughter had died. “Holding her hand, he said to her, ‘Talitha koum,” which means “Little girl, get up!” Both Matthew and Luke tell this same story, but without the Aramaic sentence (Matt 9:24; Luke 8:54). Matthew simply describes the healing while Luke includes only the Greek translation. Mark, however, passes on what appears to be the actual words of Jesus, word in Aramaic.

Mark 5:41 provides persuasive evidence for Jesus’ use of Aramaic in this particular instance. But the text does not tell us exactly what to make of this usage. One could argue that Mark’s account of the raising of the girl shows that Jesus’ use of Aramaic was unusual, and that’s why it was remembered. Or one could conclude that Jesus used Aramaic in this situation, which was not, at any rate, a teaching time.

The existence of Aramaic words and phrases on the lips of Jesus, combined with what we know about the probably use of Aramaic in Jesus’ homeland,  convinces me beyond any doubt that Jesus spoke Aramaic and used it in his ministry. I think it would be very difficult to argue otherwise. However, the fact that Jesus used Aramaic at times does not prove that he used only Aramaic. Living and ministering in a multi-lingual environment, Jesus might have used other languages as well, namely Hebrew and/or Greek. I’ll consider these possibilities in more depth below.



  • Steve Caruso

    Ahoy again Mark,
    One major piece to go over amidst some other lesser comments on my end. :-)
    “Abba” does not mean “pappa” or “daddy.” It simply means “father.” The “Daddy Hypothesis” originated in the works of the Aramaic scholar Joachim Jeremias who was faced with immense backlash from the scholarly community (spearheaded by James Barr in his article “Abba Isn’t Daddy”) and subsequently retracted any and all claims in that direction.
    “Abba” in Aramaic is the Emphatic form of “Av.” The Emphatic works similarly to the definite article “ha-” in Hebrew or “ho-” in Greek, but in most Aramaic dialects (specifically Eastern ones) it lost its “definiteness” and became the most common form of the word. This lead some later dialects to re-invent a definite article (like we see it in Turoyo “u malko” = “*the* king”) where others simply used a genitive construct (“kthav-eh d-malka” = “his book, that of the king” = “*the* king’s book”).
    However, one feature of Western dialects, such as Galilean Aramaic, is that it retained *most* of the Emphatic distinction, so Jesus is likely to have used this distinction as well.
    This is also supported by the Greek:
    Where we see “abba” we find the translation, in Greek, as “ho pater” (“‘the’ father”), a simple definite nominative (rather than a vocative or other form).
    All of this in mind, what we find strikingly *absent* is the Greek word for “papa/daddy” (“pappas”) or any of the well-attested Aramaic words for “daddy” (“baba,” “papi” or even “abbi” in some contexts).
    What tends to confuse matters is that in *Modern Hebrew* (Hebrew less than 200 years old) the word “abba” has been *adopted* from Aramaic as “daddy.” This is very recent, as “abba” in Aramaic literature is also used by people of any age to refer to their father (be they 70 days or 70 years old). :-)
    In short, the evidence simply does not support the notion of “abba” meaning “daddy” anywhere in antiquity.
    More comments soon! For now I must see to breakfast. :-)
    Peace,
    -Steve

  • Percival

    Two thoughts:
    I never called my father “daddy” so when people insist that’s what Abba means, it seemed artificial to me. I think people should feel free to call God “Daddy” if they really feel it’s appropriate, but often it’s a kind of pressure towards artificial intimacy.
    We named our daughter “Talitha” and it’s amazing how often we have to explain it to Christians. I think Jesus is quoted directly because this is what people in his family called precious little girls. Some things really are lost in translation and the Gospel according to Mark recognizes that.

  • Dr. W. L. Goff

    After returning from a visit to a Russian village where I did not have access to the Internet, I read your blog entries about the language of Jesus with interest.
    I tend to agree with you that Jesus spoke Aramaic, at least it seems apparent that he knew some words and phrases of Aramaic. However the evidence with which I am most well acquainted leads me to believe that Hebrew was a living language in Galilee and Judea during the first half of the first century and my assumption is that Jesus spoke the prevailing language of his time, Hebrew.
    Before briefly reviewing the evidence that is persuasive for me, I want to make two parenthetical comments.
    1) Historical accuracy is not always determined by scholarly consensus. In your July 1st blog entry you stated in part “what most scholars of the New Testament believe…” and later “I hope to show why most historians believe Jesus spoke Aramaic…”. I know you are a careful scholar and you are not asserting that our understanding of the Bible or any history is determined solely by scholarly consensus. But it appears you are close to saying something like that. And this could be very misleading. Most likely there were scores of books written prior to 1948 that confidently asserted that Hebrew was a dead language in the first century. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948 and their general publication many decades later, biblical scholars know that Hebrew was a living language (at least among the Qumran sectarians) in the first century. These scholars may still be in the minority.
    I think you would agree that truth is not determined by democratic vote or scholarly consensus, but by a careful examination of available evidence.
    When Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 the scholarly consensus was that the world was flat. New evidence brought back from “The New World” changed most minds (although it took the Catholic Church centuries to concede that Galileo was right about the earth circling the sun).
    2) From my days in law enforcement for the U.S. Government, I learned about levels of certainty. To convict someone of a felony the evidence has to be persuasive “beyond a reasonable doubt”. For a civil conviction the standard is “a preponderance of the evidence”. As this applies to the discussion of the language(s) of Jesus, I believe that the best any of can do is believe in a preponderance of the evidence.
    So what is the evidence that I find persuasive? Douglas Hamp’s book, Discovering the Language of Jesus, gives a good summary of the evidence for Hebrew being the first language of Jesus. Since I am away from home I don’t have access to this book. So I have to rely on my feeble memory and the Bible I brought with me.
    I am much more impressed by the Dead Scrolls as evidence of Hebrew being a living language in the first century than you seem to be. Among the scrolls discovered near Qumran were many sectarian scrolls regarding the rules and beliefs of their community. These were written in Hebrew. Is it really plausible that only these Jews were fluent in Hebrew in the first century? Part of the Dead Sea scrolls were letters written by a general Bar Kochba about AD 135 concerning a rebellion he was leading (unsuccessfully) against Roman occupiers. These letters were written in Hebrew long after the Qumran community had been destroyed by Rome or killed themselves on Masada after an heroic stand against the Roman Army. Certainly by the start of the second century Hebrew must have been widely spoken and read throughout Galilee and Judea.
    Today I reviewed my English Bible and found some references to Hebrew (often gratuitously translated as Aramaic by the New Living Translation).
    I am open to correction by fact checkers, but I am not aware of a single mention of the term Aramaic in the Greek New Testament. However there are many references to the Hebrew language. Among them are the following:
    – John 19:13, a translation of the word Gabbatha from Hebrew to Greek
    – John 19:17, a translation of Golgatha from Hebrew to Greek
    – John 19:19 the sign Governor Pilate posted on the cross stated “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”. John writes that the sign was in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. If Hebrew was not a living language at the time of our Lord’s crucifixion, why did Pilate bother to have his sarcastic (but true) sign written in Hebrew? Did John not know the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic? Were the terms used interchangeably? In my opinion the burden of proof rests on those who would contend that John meant Aramaic when he wrote Hebrew.
    The book of Acts contains several important references to the use of the Hebrew language. One reference is Acts 21:40 which tells about Paul addressing the people in Jerusalem in their own language, Hebrew. When Paul appeared before King Agrippa in Caesarea as recorded in Acts 26:14 he recalled the experience that led to his dramatic conversion: “I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew…”. If Luke is accurate, there was at least one important occasion when the risen Lord Jesus Christ spoke Hebrew. Again the burden of proof is on those who would assert that Luke (or Paul) didn’t know the difference between Aramaic and Hebrew.
    So I will wrap up my overlong comment by asking you and others to address my observations, correct me when I am in error, and be willing to change your thinking if you are also persuaded by a preponderance of the evidence that the mother tongue of Jesus was Hebrew.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Steve: You are basically right. But I’m pretty sure there is evidence for abba being used in a less formal sense, much as a young child would refer to a father as “papa.” I think your rejection of this option is a little too strong, though you are right that Jeremias way over-played his hand.

  • http://aramaicdesigns.blogspot.com Steve Caruso

    Dr. Goff,
    1) As I mentioned in my first comment on Mark’s series here (back on the first article), the abundance of Aramaic spellings and Aramaic loan words for common “classical” Hebrew forms seems to indicate that Hebrew was not the first language of these individuals, not to mention the increasing use of Targums and then abundance of Rabbinic literature written in Aramaic as well. Hebrew was probably more the scholarly or elite language much like how Latin is for English speakers today.
    2) Along those lines, it’s not *so* gratuitously translated as “in Aramaic.” Even looking at your examples cited, “Golgotha” and “Gabbatha” are both Aramaic. If they were Hebrew, we would have seen “Gulgeleth(a)” instead of “Golgotha” and “Gabboth(a)” instead of “Gabbatha” (note the vowel patterns and lack of assimilation). The fact of the matter is that what the NT consistently labels as “Hebrew” is more often than not demonstrably Aramaic. “Hebrew” in that context merely meant “the language of the Jews.”
    Mark,
    Seeing that Rabbis in the Palestinian Talmud (written in Galilean Aramaic, the ‘granddaughter’ of Jesus’ dialect) used “abba” to refer to, not only their own fathers, but the fathers of their fellow Rabbis in the midst of formal debate, this isn’t really a word that could be as informal as “papa.” :-)
    If you think about it, though, “father” in and of itself (or any familial term) does convey *some* amount of intimacy, if only because of the family tie that it describes. As such I don’t think that it was the matter of informality that is unique to Jesus, nor the use of “abba” itself, but more the focus of that familial bond and emphasizing it in in Jesus’ own words.
    Anyways on to more comments as I promised. :-)
    You’re bang on with eli eli lama sabachthani. Another interesting indicator as to the ‘provenance’ of the phrase is the following “Look, he’s calling to Elijah!” as “Elijah” in Hebrew is “Eliyahu” where in Aramaic it is simply “Elia” (much more easily confused with “Eli” or “Elahi” [eloi] = “my God”) as theophoric elements in Aramaic were shorter (for example, “Yehoshua” [Joshua/Jesus] in Hebrew vs “Yeshua” in Aramaic).
    Overall, I think you’ve presented things very well and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about what Hebrew and Greek was in Jesus’ vernacular. :-)
    Peace,
    -Steve

  • Percival

    I know it is off topic and not pertinent, but I have to say something about Columbus. Actually, the consensus of both scholars and navigators at that time and for many years before that was that the Earth was round. They scoffed at Columbus because he grossly underestimated how big the globe is (by 33% I believe). He thought it was a short trip around to the Indies, but other navigators knew better. The fact that he found the New World was an unintended fluke of an accident. Until his death many years later, he continued to maintain that the lands he had found were the East Indies. So, he is actually an example of someone who clung to his error despite the majority of learned people telling him otherwise.

  • Percival

    Question: As far as Semitic languages go, how closely related were Aramaic and Hebrew at that time? Any idea of the percentage of words that were shared, number of cognates, pronunciation similarities and differences, grammatical constructions? Was it like Arabic dialects today where the most common words are different, but many less commonly used words were shared? In other words, was Aramaic considered a dialect of Hebrew or perhaps a kind of corruption of pure Hebrew?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kenneth

    What is the name of Jesus in Aramaic? I am being told by someone who is a follower of the Sacred Name Movement that Jesus’ name in Aramaic is Yahshua, yet he cannot give any written evidence to that claim. He does claim that John 5:43 is proof of it.

    Any help would be gladly accepted.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Mark D. Roberts. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Red Letters with Tom Davis Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading!  

posted 2:09:11pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Conclusions
In this series on the death of Jesus, I have presented four different perspectives on why Jesus had to die: Roman, Jewish, Jesus’, and Early Christian. I believe that each of these points of view has merit, and that we cannot fully understand the necessity of Jesus’ death without taking them all

posted 2:47:39am Apr. 11, 2011 | read full post »

Sunday Inspiration from the High Calling
Can We Find God in the City? Psalm 48:1-14 Go, inspect the city of Jerusalem. Walk around and count the many towers. Take note of the fortified walls, and tour all the citadels, that you may describe them to future generations. For that is what God is like. He is our God forever and ever,

posted 2:05:51am Apr. 10, 2011 | read full post »

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? The Perspective of the First Christians, Part 3
An Act and Symbol of Love Perhaps one of the most startling of the early Christian interpretations of the cross was that it was all about love. It’s easy in our day, when crosses are religious symbols, attractive ornaments, and trendy jewelry to associate the cross with love. But, in the first

posted 2:41:47am Apr. 08, 2011 | read full post »

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? The Perspective of the First Christians, Part 2
The Means of Reconciliation In my last post, I examined one of the very earliest Christian statements of the purpose of Jesus’ death. According to the tradition encapsulated in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (15:3). Yet this text doesn’t expl

posted 2:30:03am Apr. 07, 2011 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.