Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


What Language(s) Did Jesus Speak? The Circumstantial Evidence

posted by Mark D. Roberts

If we take the Gospel record at face value, and I believe we have good reason to do so, then Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea and spent his earliest years in Egypt. Then his parents returned to their hometown of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up and lived until his began his itinerant ministry. This means he spent somewhere around 25 years in Nazareth. (Photo: A view of Nazareth. © holylandphotos.org. Used by permission.)

Nazareth-5.jpgThe question of Jesus’ primary language would be settled if we knew what people in Nazareth in the first decades of the first century A.D. were speaking. Unfortunately, this knowledge is more elusive than we might how. To my knowledge, there is no specific evidence about the language spoken in Nazareth during the life of Jesus. We don’t have inscriptions or ancient manuscripts that can be placed in Nazareth at this time.

There is evidence, however, that points to the use of Aramaic in Galilee, the region where Nazareth was located. Such evidence includes inscriptions, contracts, and other ancient writings. It makes sense that residents of Nazareth spoke Aramaic, given the fact that Aramaic became the official language of Galilee from the sixth-century B.C. onward. Thus, it seems likely that ordinary residents of Galilee, including Nazareth, spoke Aramaic as their first language. This was the language of common discourse among Jesus’ family and friends.

A few scholars believe that people in Nazareth spoke Hebrew as their primary language. This is possible, but unlikely. Hebrew may well have been used primarily among some people in Judea (south of Galilee), among Jewish separatists (those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls), and among Jewish theologians, but even among these people Aramaic is prevalent. As far as I know, we have no strong evidence for the common use of Hebrew in Nazareth and the surrounding region of Galilee. However, Hebrew was the language of theological inquiry and debate among Jews, in addition to the language of their Scriptures. Scholars from the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research acknowledge the multilingual environment of Jesus’ culture, but insist that Jewish teachers ordinarily taught in Hebrew. It’s certainly possible that Jesus himself taught in Hebrew at times (see below), but, given his widespread interaction with common people and not just scholars and the fact that his early teaching was in Galilee, it seems more reasonable to assume that Jesus spoke Aramaic and used this language for much of his teaching.

In recent years, more scholars are taking seriously the possibility that Jesus spoke Greek. I’ll examine relevant evidence from the Gospels later in this series. For now, it is worth nothing that Greek was commonly used in certain strata of Galilean society. This began when Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 B.C. Under his rule, and under the rule of those who followed him (the Ptolemies and the Seleucids), Greek was the language of government and commerce. The Romans used Latin for official communication, but Greek was the common language of the Empire.

Would people in Nazareth have spoken Greek? Not as their first language. But many of them would have been familiar with Greek and used it in their businesses. In fact, Nazareth was a short walk from Sepphoris, one of the major cities of Galilee, where Greek would have been the everyday language of the marketplace. As a craftsman living near Sepphoris, Jesus might well have known enough Greek to do business with the people there.

So where does the circumstantial evidence for the language of Jesus leave us? It points to Aramaic as his first language. But the multi-lingual context of Galilee suggests that Jesus and his fellow residents of Nazareth might have spoken Hebrew and/or Greek as well. Thus, we would do well to heed the word of caution penned by Richard A. Horsley in his book, Galilee: History, Politics, People: “It is difficult in the extreme to interpret the fragmentary evidence available and draw conclusions for the use of languages in late second-temple Galilee” (p. 247). Horsley’s discussion of this issue, which is the best of which I am aware, supports the common use of Aramaic in Galilee, but documents the use of Hebrew and Greek as well (pp. 247-250).

So, the circumstantial evidence for Jesus’ use of Aramaic is strong. Yet nothing in this evidence demands that Jesus could not have known and used either Hebrew or Greek or both in his teaching.



  • Percival

    I think Jesus was familiar with all three languages. The idea that he primarily spoke Greek seems very doubtful. The nearby Decapolis cities were Greek speaking, of course, as well as cities like Sepphoris, as you mention, but Nazareth seems to be a conservative Jewish town, not a mixed community at all. Palestine did not seem to be a melting pot although there were varieties of cultures and groups.
    Greek-speaking Jews like Stephen or Philip were notable because scripture refers to them as belonging to a somewhat different community. If Jesus, brother James, and the Galileans were Greek speaking, why would Acts make a distinction between the communities?

  • Pastor Bob

    A couple of thoughts:
    1. Archeological work shows that Sepphoris was a racially mixed city at the very least. The evidence is based on the existence of a bunch of ritual baths (mikveh) used by Jews to become ritually clean. That is not to say that the language spoken in Sepphoris was not Greek. It’s just to point out that the situation in Sepphoris and other places were not either Jewish or non Jewish in population.
    2. When I was in seminary (many years ago) professors pointed to certain phrases in NT Greek that suggests that the Gospels had some connection to Hebrew (or maybe Aramaic). Quite often when introducing a quote the text says “so and so answered and said). This was not found in Koine Greek. It’s an import from Hebrew or Aramaic speech. I’m allowing for the possibility that it might have been Aramaic instead of Hebrew although it was referred to as a “Hebraism.”
    All of which is to suggest that the question is a lot more complicated than most realize. If Sepphoris was racially mixed did everyone speak Greek in everyday life? Or was there a mixture of languages? In languages around the world today we hear imports from other languages. Example: the word “cash.” This is an import from China brought back by sailors who traded in China. Curiously when I used the word to someone from Scotland she didn’t know what the word meant. It was never imported into English in Scotland.
    It is entirely possible that someone who lived in Galilee used Greek and Aramaic for everyday conversation (and sometimes a mixture of the two) and for a Jewish citizen, Hebrew may have been used in Synagogue and for religious purposes.
    The eastern Roman empire in Jesus’ day was a lot more cosmopolitan that we usually imagine.

  • Turmarion

    Just as a side note, I forget where I read it (I think in some Biblical archaeology magazine), but not long ago I saw that there was some questioning of the importance of Sepphoris to the context of Jesus’ life. It was there, for sure, and at one time it was a thriving boomtown. The issue is that there has been some debate about the exact time frame. That is, the assumption that it was booming and being expanded in the early 1st Century AD led to the speculations that Jesus and Joseph, as carpenters, would have likely been employed there, thus coming into contact with cosmopolitan crowds; thus Jesus would have had a broader understanding than the typical small-town provincial, etc.
    However, if the boomtown window was in the 1st Century BC or in the latter part of the 1st Century AD, then these speculations become less probable.
    As with so many things, it comes back to the New Testament, its sometimes maddening terseness, and our (probably unfulfillable) desire to find out more than it actually tells us.
    On the language issue, I’ve long thought that Jesus’ many interactions with Gentiles (the Syro-Phonecian woman, the centurion, and Pontius Pilate) most of whom likely did not speak Aramaic at all but rather Greek (this would almost certainly have been the case with Pilate), as well as the likelihood that even in Nazareth some of his pre-ministry carpentry customers would have been Gentiles indicates that he was probably reasonably conversant in Koine Greek. Look at the American Southwest, where even poor, semi-literate Hispanics often are bi-lingual, and places like India where even the less-educated may speak three or four languages out of necessity for modern-day equivalents.

  • LutheranChik

    I’ve never heard a serious argument that Hebrew was Jesus’ first language. Is this really a “going” academic discussion, or just within a segment of conservative Evangelicalism?

  • Dr. Goff

    To LutheranChick: If you want to explore an answer to your question, look up the works of the late Dr. David Flusser, a prominent Jewish historian who firmly believed that Jesus spoke Hebrew and that his teaching in Hebrew is reflected in the Synoptic Gospels. Many Jews are serious biblical scholars. You may argue that contemporary speakers of Hebrew, may have a bias toward the idea that Jesus spoke Hebrew, but the discussion is not some conservative Evangelical side show.

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