Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


The Language of Jesus: Why Does It Matter?

posted by Mark D. Roberts

If you’ve been following this series on the language(s) of Jesus, you know that I have argued that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language and in a substantial chunk of his teaching. I think it’s highly probable that he also spoke Hebrew, and used Hebrew in contexts when that was appropriate (reading the Scripture in the synagogue, conversing with Jewish scholars, etc.). I also believe that Jesus spoke Greek, though the evidence for his use of Greek is not as strong as it is for Aramaic (very strong) and Hebrew (strong).

But why does this matter? Does the question of Jesus’ language make any difference to us, especially to those of us who are followers of Jesus today?

Yes, I believe the language of Jesus does matter. I began this series by offering one reason. When we pay attention to the language of Jesus, we remember that he did not speak English. Therefore, we are encouraged to pay close attention to the meaning of his teaching in light of his cultural and religious milieu, and not to read Jesus as if he were speaking in 21st century America. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

I do not believe that the language spoken by Jesus makes any difference for our understanding of the authority of Scripture. I dealt with the argument that Scripture teaches that Jesus spoke only Hebrew, and therefore any claim that he spoke Aramaic or Greek undermines biblical authority. This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the biblical text. One can uphold the inerrancy of Scripture and believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, and/or Greek. (Photo: A 4,000 seat theatre in Sepphoris, just modest walk from Nazareth. Jesus grew up not far from a major center of Greco-Roman culture. Used by permission of HolyLandPhotos.org)

sepphoris-theatre-5.jpgThe fact that Jesus may have spoken Greek may help us to think differently about him and his ministry. For many years it was common to envision Jesus as growing up in the countryside of Galilee, far removed from multi-cultural hodge-podge of the Roman Empire. But this idealized view of the rustic Jesus is far from the truth. Though he grew up in a small town, he was not at all cut off from the broader Roman world. In fact Jesus grew up with ample exposure to Greco-Roman language, culture, commerce, politics, religion, and philosophy. When he eventually entered Jerusalem to confront the Roman and Jewish authorities there – and to give his life in the process – Jesus was no naïve country bumpkin making his first trip to the big city. Rather he was well aware of powers and perils he faced, and he faced these knowing, as he ultimately said to Pontius Pilate (in Greek, I believe), “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36).

Jesus’ use of the language of the kingdom of God (or heaven) provides a striking illustration of why it matters to know the language of Jesus. Let me explain.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus continually refers to the kingdom of heaven, as in “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2). Many Christians take the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” as a description of what we call heaven: the place where we go to be with the Lord after we die. This makes good sense in English, because “kingdom” signifies a place ruled by a king, and “heaven” is the place we believers go after we die, the place where God rules (Matt 6:10).

But this is not what Jesus meant when he used the Aramaic phrase malkuta dishmaya (which appears in the Greek of Matthew as he basileia ton ouranon). For one thing, the Aramaic word we translate as “kingdom” referred, not only to the place where a king rules, but to the authority of the king. Thus malku could be translated as “kingly authority, rule, or reign,” and should be translated this way in the case of Jesus’ usage. He’s not saying that the place where God rules in coming near, or that we can now enter that place, but rather that God’s royal authority is about to dawn, and is in fact dawning in Jesus’ own ministry. Moreover, the Aramaic term we translate as “heaven,” literally a plural form meaning “heavens,” was often used as a circumlocution for God, much as my grandmother used to say “Good heavens!” rather than “Good God!”

So when Jesus said “malkuta dishmaya has come near,” he didn’t mean that the kingdom of the “the place we go when we die” has come near, but rather that God’s kingly authority was at hand. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and demonstrated its presence through doing mighty deeds, such as healings and exorcisms. By the way, everything I’ve just said about malkuta dishmaya in Aramaic would also be true if Jesus were speaking Hebrew and said malkuth hashamayim or Greek and said he basileia ton ouranon. For a right understanding of Jesus in this case, it doesn’t matter which ancient language he was speaking. But it does matter greatly that he wasn’t speaking contemporary English.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as a blessed afterlife or that Jesus has nothing to do with how we enter this afterlife. But I am saying that when we understand Jesus to be talking continually about what we call heaven when he speaks of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God,” we are fundamentally missing his point. He’s speaking, not so much about life after death, as about the experience of God’s kingly power in this life and on this earth, both now and in the age to come. (I have written extensively on the topic of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. See What Was the Message of Jesus?)

Given the excellent of English translations of the Bible by translators who have mastered all of the relevant languages, it’s not necessary for the ordinary Christian to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic in order to understand the teaching of Jesus. (In my days teaching Greek in seminary, I did have a few students who were not planning to pursue ordained ministry, but simply wanted to be able to study the New Testament in greater depth!) I do think that any who are going to teach the Bible in a serious way, both clergy and lay, should gain deep familiarity with the primary biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew). But the good news is that we can understand and grapple with the teaching of Jesus without knowing the language or languages he actually spoke. You don’t need to speak any ancient language to hear Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God or to be challenged by his invitation: “Follow me.”



  • Evan

    You help illustrate the tension between a “translation” of the Bible, a “paraphrase” and an “amplification.”
    Most lay people desire an “accurate” translation, I think. The problem being, as you have shown, there very often is no “word-for-word” translation that will convey the precise thought. In other instances, there is slang or jargon that is highly contextual in the original, and sometimes the best of translators may not be able to discern it for a variety of reasons. I often wonder if 2,000 years from now if scholars will read a dialogue in which someone exclaims, “Cool!” as meaning “Refrigeration!” because they will not know the context.
    So in order to accurately convey the meaning, the translator may have to use multiple words… but at what point have they strayed into becoming a paraphrase? Or an amplification? Indeed, what is the “best” translation? I often think of the word used in John 21 of Peter when Jesus asks him the third time if he loved Him. (And leave aside the translation of “love” in that passage!) I have alternately read that Peter was “sad,” “hurt” and “grieved” (Greek=lupeo.) “Grieved” is probably the closest to what Peter felt of the three, yet the most accurate one-word ENGLISH translation may well be “Peter was crushed”… but that introduces a concept via English (being “crushed” by sorrow) not exactly present in the Greek in order to convey the thought in English. And even at that, my choice of “crushed” would be my subjective one-word interpretation of what John was trying to convey… and it may still not actually be correct. (When I meet him, I will ask him about that! )
    And so it goes with Biblical translations. And English certainly is not static, either, which just adds to the fun. But how do you approach a word-for-word translation without winding up with “the kingdom of heaven”? It is certainly trickier than it appears.
    I may well be previewing some points you have in the queue. We certainly want to be as accurate as possible when trying to follow what God has spoken, so your points are well-made and well-taken.

  • Gary Bell

    I enjoyed your post Mark. Concerning the Greek text of the New Testament, I was given a tract by the member of a “King James only” church recently. The tract said that the 19th century reformulation of the Greek text by Westcott and Hort was adulterated by these liberal men, and that all subsequent modern translations are based on their redaction of the Greek. Therefore, owing to the adulteration of the Greek text, the earlier King James translation was more trustworthy than all modern translations.
    I would think that only a Greek scholar would be able to answer this charge. I was left feeling puzzled about this situation. Certainly the King James version has problems. You can read a passage to church people in the KJ and they will often respond with blank stares because they can’t connect with the 17th century language. Do you have some guidance?

  • James J. DeFrancisco, PhD

    Mark,
    I appreciate your scholarship. Malkutha D’shmaya in Aramaic has a different connotation as you mentioned in the article and can also be rendered “counsel of Heaven” or “guidance from God”. It does not relate to the normal mind set of king, territory, law, and authority as is often taught in Western seminaries.
    Gary,
    KJV only logic is flawed. If you read the tracts and books written by KJV only proponents you will find much circular reasoning, i.e. the core logic is “The KJV is the only authoritative version because it is the authorized version”.

  • Harold A .Hein

    Does it matter what language Jesus spoke? or does it matter more that the Holy Spirit chose Koine Greek for the inspired Scriptures? e.g., what is more important? one’s translation of the Hebrew word in
    Isaiah 7:14 or the Holy Spirit’s definition as given in Matthew 1:23, namely , “virgin” ?

  • Jeff Dixon

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your well-written and researched series.
    In one of your posts on the language Jesus spoke, you mention the theory (which you reject) that Jesus taught mainly in Greek and accentuated some comments in Aramaic (quoting Psalm 22 on the cross, raising the girl, etc.), which is why the Gospel writers specifically record these words in Aramaic (at least in some instances as you note).
    I had always assumed Jesus spoke Aramaic, but when I heard this theory a couple of years ago, it made a lot of sense to me. I confess, though, that I have not done enough research about the social context of 1st C. Israel.
    While you raise arguments about how Greek had not fully moved into Galilee, what about Jesus’ later teaching outside of Galilee? What language might he have spoken with the Samaritan woman? What about in Jerusalem? How common would Aramaic have been in these contexts? Would Jesus have been able to reach large audiences with Aramaic in these places, or would he have needed to speak in Greek in these places?
    I also wonder about the story of Jesus reading Scripture in the synagogue. What would he have read? Would this have likely been a Hebrew text or the Septuagint which, I believe, dates to about 200 B.C.
    I’d also appreciate any further academic resources you’d recommend.
    Thanks!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment J. Morris

    Mark,
    Thank you for your insight and clarification. I’m currently taking a class studying the Synoptic Gospels and one of my classmates asked the question about Mark’s use of the Aramaic words of Jesus in 5:41 and 15:34. Definitely food for thought. Had not considered it before – but I gained quite a bit of insight from your blog.
    Thank you for your participation on the net!!

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