Mark D. Roberts

In yesterday’s post, I explained that I was beginning a series that seeks to answer the questions: What language did Jesus speak? Why does it matter? Before I delve into these questions, however, I need to make a confession and offer a bit of context.

Confession – My Scholarly Credentials (or Lack Thereof)

I am not an expert in the study of ancient languages. I’m not a historian of the languages in the Ancient Near East. Nor am I a sociolinguist (who studies the relationship of languages and societies). Nor am I an expert in the cultures of first-century Palestine, where Jesus lived and spoke. In what I write in this series on the language of Jesus, I am standing on the shoulders of many fine scholars. I am also, therefore, open to correction from those who are experts in the academic disciplines that help us to determine the language or languages spoken by Jesus. In several ways, these experts have helped my thinking to mature since I first wrote about the language of Jesus six years ago.

harvard-divinity-school-5.jpgYet I do have more knowledge about these subjects than the average man on the street. During my doctoral work in New Testament, I did learn a great deal about the life of Palestinian Jews in the time of Jesus, and I have kept on learning about this subject during the last twenty years since I finished my Ph.D. As a grad student, I studied all three languages that Jesus might have spoken: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I had plenty of Greek (five years) and Hebrew (2 ½ years), but only one semester of Aramaic. That’s enough to help me understand the technical discussions surrounding the question of Jesus’ language, but not enough to allow me to translate things into Aramaic. (In the last few years, I’ve received a couple of requests for this sort of translation, no doubt because someone read my piece on the language of Jesus and figured I was proficient in Aramaic.) (Photo: Harvard Divinity School, where I took most of my language classes.)

Finally, I should mention again that I have no particular bias in this conversation about the language(s) of Jesus. Yes, I have gone on record saying that I think Aramaic was his first language. But it wouldn’t trouble me to be wrong about this. In fact, my opinion is a little more nuanced now than it was six years ago. No matter which language or languages Jesus spoke, I have confidence in the historical authenticity of the Gospels and believe about Jesus everything contained in the Nicene Creed and the Symbol of Chalcedon. That’s a technical way of saying that I am an orthodox Christian.

Context – What is Aramaic?

If you’ve been hanging around churches for as long as I have, you’ve probably heard the word “Aramaic.” It was used often during the time when Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, since most of the movie script was in Aramaic. But that didn’t exactly make “Aramaic” a household word. Before we try to figure out which language(s) Jesus spoke, it would be good to have some basic notion of Aramaic, since it is a leading candidate for the starring role in this drama.

Aramaic is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew, Arabic, and similar languages. According to an expert linguist whom I consulted, Hebrew and Aramaic are related much as French and Spanish or Cantonese and Mandarin. During the time of the Assyrian Empire (8th century BC), Aramaic became used throughout the Ancient Near East as the language of diplomacy. In the time of the Persian Empire (6th-4th century BC), Aramaic was the predominant language of the region. Since Palestine was part of the Persian Empire, Jews for whom Hebrew was a primary language began to speak Aramaic, especially those of the upper classes. By the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the most common language in Palestine, though Hebrew may have been dominant in Judea. Greek usage was also widespread in those regions during the first century A.D.

The widespread use of Aramaic among Jews is illustrated by the fact that portions of the Old Testament are in Aramaic, not Hebrew (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Daniel 2:4-7:28; Jeremiah 10:11). This means, for example, that one of the most important passages in the Old Testament for our understanding of Jesus appears in Aramaic. Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” is described in Aramaic (kebar ‘enash; 7:13). Moreover, around the time of Jesus, though probably after his death, the Hebrew scrolls of the Old Testament were translated into Aramaic for use in the synagogues, because so many Jews did not understand Hebrew.)

During and before the time of Jesus, there wasn’t just one version of Aramaic being used in Palestine and beyond. Some Aramaic was official and formal. This is preserved, as you would expect, in official documents and inscriptions. Some was informal and common. This was spoken and has mostly been lost to modern scholars. The fact that Aramaic was used by Jews in Palestine is supported by its use in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are mostly in Hebrew, however), and in some ancient documents and inscriptions. Even many grave inscriptions around Jerusalem are in Aramaic, not Hebrew. It’s most likely that in Galilee, where Jesus was raised and where he began his ministry, Aramaic was the most common language of the people, though many would have been able to understand Hebrew and to get along in Greek as well.

In my next post in this series I’ll look at the evidence for Jesus’ use of Aramaic. 

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