Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

What Language Did Jesus Speak? Why Does It Matter?

What Language Did Jesus Speak?
Why Does It Matter?

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts

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Introduction

Six years ago, people all of a sudden became interested in the language
spoken by Jesus. The occasion for this burst of curiosity was the
release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ.
Although responses to this movie varied widely, just about every viewer
was struck by the fact that not one word of English was spoken in the
film. All dialogue was in one of two ancient languages: Aramaic or
Latin. Without the English subtitles, most of us wouldn’t have been
able to understand a word in The Passion of the Christ. (Photo: A statue of Jesus in his passion, from a church on the Mediterranean island of Menorca.)

jesus-passion-menorca-5.jpgMany
who saw this movie wondered about its antique languages. What is
Aramaic, anyway? Was this really the language spoken by Jesus? Didn’t
he speak Hebrew, the primary language of the Hebrew Scriptures? And,
since the New Testament Gospels are preserved in Greek manuscripts, is
it possible that Jesus also spoke Greek?

In February 2004, the month when The Passion of the Christ
was released, I wrote a short blog series on the language(s) of Jesus.
Drawing from my background in New Testament studies, I tried to explain
in non-technical terms the issues associated with the language or
languages spoken by Jesus. My answer to the question “What language(s)
did Jesus speak?” was representative of what most scholars of the New
Testament believe, and was based on key passages from the New Testament
itself, as well as an understanding of life in Judea during the first
century A.D. In a nutshell, I showed that it’s most likely that Jesus
spoke Aramaic as his primary language, and that he almost certainly
knew Hebrew and perhaps Greek as well. It was unlikely, I argued, that
Jesus spoke Latin, as envisioned in The Passion of the Christ.

During
the past six years, thousands of people have visited my series on the
language(s) of Jesus, thanks to the power of Google and similar search
engines. The vast majority of readers did not contact me, which is just
fine. They had no particular reason to do so. A few dozen people
emailed me to thank me for what I had written.

And then there
were the others, those who were not happy with me and what I had
written. Sometimes they wrote nasty notes, criticizing my scholarship
and even my Christian character. Sometimes they wrote extensive
treatises, arguing at length for a position different from the one I
had taken in my series. Among those who wrote, a few referred to
credible scholars who have argued that Hebrew and/or Greek were
commonly used by Jews in Judea during the time of Jesus. Some who
contacted me seemed to believe that because the Old Testament was
written in Hebrew, Jesus must have spoken Hebrew, otherwise somehow his
mission as the Messiah would have been deficient. Some were worried
that if Jesus spoke Aramaic, this would contradict passages in the
Gospel of John that refer to Hebrew being spoken (though not by Jesus,
actually).

In the last couple of years, I have run into a new
reason why some people dispute the notion that Jesus spoke Aramaic. It
has to do with the passion among some Muslims for an Aramaic-speaking
Jesus. Presumably, and I have not followed these arguments carefully,
certain Muslims use the idea that Jesus spoke Aramaic as a support for
the truth of Islam. In response, some Christians have taken up arms in
favor of the Hebrew-speaking Jesus. Those who fight this battle have
accused me of giving aid and comfort to the enemies of Christianity by
suggesting that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. (Note: If you are aware
of other reasons why the language(s) of Jesus matter so much to some
people, please let me know by leaving a comment below.)

I must
admit that I was stunned by the extent to which some people get worked
up about the language(s) of Jesus. As one who believes about Jesus all
the things orthodox Christians do, it would not impact my faith one jot
or tittle if Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than Aramaic, or Greek rather
than Hebrew. Thus I am not caught up in the emotional maelstrom of this
language of Jesus debate.

But I do think the language of Jesus
matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us
understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us
of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English.
(Okay, I’ve had a couple of people object to this on the grounds that
Jesus was God, and that God knows everything, so therefore Jesus knew
how to speak English. Apart from the theological problems with this
view, it is surely true that Jesus did not actually speak English, no
matter whether or not he had a miraculous ability to do so. Nobody in
the first-century A.D. spoke English, least of all those who lived in
Judea. So we can be sure that Jesus, Son of God and all, did not speak
English.)

The fact that Jesus did not speak English serves as a
reminder to those of us who do that we need to work hard if we wish to
understand the original meaning of Jesus’ teachings. Now, you don’t
have to spend the next several years learning ancient languages because
English translations of the biblical text are quite reliable. Moreover,
there are plenty of commentaries and teachers who can bridge the gaps
in your linguistic understanding. In fact, careful study of the English
text of the Bible will allow you to discern Jesus’ true meaning in most
instances, even if you don’t know the language(s) he spoke. But this
careful study requires time and effort. And it requires acknowledging
the gap between Jesus’ culture and our own. Many common
misunderstandings of Jesus stem from the projection of English meanings
and American culture onto Jesus’ words and ways.

In the next few
posts, I will offer a revised and improved (I hope!) version of my
original series on the language of Jesus. I hope to show why most
historians believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, as well as to consider the
possibility that he also spoke Hebrew and/or Greek and/or Latin. When I
finish with my historical survey, I’ll offer some further reasons why
it matters to us what language(s) Jesus spoke.

 


Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

Confession and Context 

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.

The Circumstantial Evidence 

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.

Jesus and Aramaic in the Gospels 

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.

Did Jesus Speak Hebrew?

Thirty years ago, when I was studying New Testament in graduate school,
it was widely assumed that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language
and taught in Aramaic. I can’t remember a conversation in which the
possibility that Jesus spoke or taught in Hebrew was seriously
considered. 

Since my days in grad school, however, some credible
scholars have begun to argue that Jesus either spoke Hebrew as his
first language, or used Hebrew when he taught, or both. (By “credible
scholars,” I mean people who have mastered the relevant languages and
historical/cultural data, whose arguments are taken seriously by others
with similar credentials, and who don’t seem to have an agenda that
forces the evidence in a predetermined direction.) I am thinking, for
example, of members of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research.
Unfortunately, many of those who make the case for a Hebrew-speaking
Jesus seem to be motivated by something other than a desire to know
which language(s) he actually spoke.)

So what evidence do we have that Jesus spoke Hebrew?

We do not have in the New Testament Gospels a quotation of Jesus in Hebrew such as we have in Aramaic (Talitha koum). We do have his use of words, such as abba,
that are Aramaic but are also found in some Hebrew dialects. More
importantly, we do have a few instances in which a Hebrew word is
preserved in the Gospels as having been spoken by Jesus. Perhaps the
most well-known example is his frequent use of amen, which is a Hebrew word (for example: Matt 5:18, John 3:11, and many others). (I think amen was absorbed into Aramaic at some point in its history, but I can’t remember the details.)

There
is one story in the Gospels that strongly suggests Jesus knew and spoke
Hebrew. In Luke 4, Jesus went to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. In
the midst of the gathering, he read from the scroll of the prophet
Isaiah. This reading was most certainly in Hebrew. Even though he spoke
Aramaic as his first language, Jesus had learned Hebrew, like almost
all Jewish men in his day. But we don’t know whether Jesus, upon
finishing his biblical reading, continued to speak in Hebrew, or rather
transitioned into Aramaic.

Many stories in the Gospel also
support the theory that Jesus could use Hebrew when it suited his
purposes. Jesus frequently found himself in conversations and debates
with Jewish religious leaders. These dialogues usually happened in
Hebrew, even among those for who Aramaic was a first language. For
Jesus to be credible as a debate partner, and for him to impress his
audience as a learned teacher, in all likelihood he would have used
Hebrew when engaging in theological discourse with the Pharisees, the
Scribes, and other Jewish leaders.

Many of those who believe
that Jesus spoke Hebrew primarily and taught in Hebrew primarily (or
exclusively), point to the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The
scrolls demonstrate that Hebrew was being used in the time of Jesus,
and had not been completely eclipsed by Aramaic. (Photo: One of the
Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q22, a portion of Exodus in Hebrew)

dss-4Q22-exodus-5.jpgYet
this evidence of the scrolls is not nearly as strong as some believe,
in my opinion, for three reasons. First, the community that wrote the
Dead Sea Scrolls was a highly nationalistic and separatistic community.
Of all Jews, the folks at Qumran were perhaps the most likely to reject
foreign languages and to use Hebrew as a political and religious
statement. Assuming that the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us something about
the average Jew in the time of Jesus would be a little like arguing
that since Amish people speak Pennsylvania Dutch (German) that language
is used throughout the United States. Second, we have evidence that
Hebrew was used among some Jews in Judea, where the scrolls were found.
But we have virtually no evidence for the conversational or official
use of Hebrew in Galilee in the time of Jesus. It’s a mistake to assume
that what was done in Judea would also have been done in Galilee.
Third, even among the Dead Sea Scrolls we find documents in Aramaic.
This is surprising, given the Qumran community’s apparent and
understandable preference for Hebrew. This suggests that Aramaic was
commonly used by Jews who were not part of Qumran, and was even known
and used by members of the Qumran community.

Given Jesus’
roots in Nazareth, and given his early ministry among common folk in
Galilee, it seems most likely that he usually employed Aramaic in his
teaching, and this is confirmed by the data of the Gospels. But, given
the likelihood that Jesus knew Hebrew as a second language, and given
his frequent debates with Jewish religious teachers, and given the
movement of his ministry to Judea, where Hebrew was more common, I am
convinced that Jesus did teach in Hebrew at times.

For some,
this conclusion is not acceptable. They argue that Jesus spoke and
taught exclusively in Hebrew. In my next post in this series, I’ll
examine the arguments for this position.

Examining the “Biblical Truth” that Jesus Spoke Hebrew 

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.

Examining the “Biblical Truth” that Jesus Spoke Hebrew: Part 2

 

In
yesterday’s post, I began looking at a particular kind of argument for
the position that Jesus spoke Hebrew. This argument is based on
“biblical truth,” because it points to Acts 26:14, a text that reads in
the ESV, “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, “*Or the Hebrew dialect [that is, Aramaic]“). 

Many
modern English translations actually prefer the rendering found in the
ESV footnote, going with something like “in Aramaic” (NIV). But some,
such as Douglas Hamp, author of Discovering the Language of Jesus:
Hebrew or Aramaic? disputes this translation:

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)

According to the
Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa website, where Douglas Hamp is employed in
their School of Ministry, he has an MA in the Hebrew bible from the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem. So he clearly has some background in
Hebrew, and presumable Aramaic. Thus it is surprising that he should
make such an obvious mistake in his writing. He asks, “Is this
[translating Hebraisti as Aramaic] justifiable when the word is clearly Hebrew?”
But it is not clearly Hebrew. You cannot find the letters “H-e-b-r-e-w”
in the text, even in Greek letters. Truly, Hebraisti looks quite a bit
like Hebrew, to be sure. But it is not the English word Hebrew. And one
cannot argue that just because an old Greek work looks and sounds like
a modern English word therefore that Greek word means what the English
word means.

Take, for example, the Greek word gar. It looks and sounds exactly like the English word gar. But gar in Greek does not mean “a freshwater fish of North America.” In fact, gar in Greek meant “for” or “because.” Similarly, the words Hebraisti and Hebraidi, which look and sound like Hebrew, may or may not mean Hebrew.
The question is not similarity of form or sound. Rather, it’s a
question of how these words were used in the first century. When Paul
said that Jesus spoke to him te Hebraidi dialekto, did he mean
“in Hebrew” or “in Aramaic” or even “in a Hebrew dialect that could be
either Hebrew or Aramaic.” We cannot answer this question by the way
the words look and sound, but only by how they were used at the time.

Consider
another example. When one learns to speak Spanish, one discovers that
there are many, many words in Spanish that look like words in English.
This makes understanding and translation much easier. So, suppose you
meet a young woman who speaks Spanish. You’re not very good at Spanish,
but you want to ask her if she’s intelligent. So you take a stab at it
and say, “¿Eres intelligente?” She smiles and says “Sí.” Job well done.
But suppose you want to ask her if she’s embarrassed. So you make
another educated guess and ask, “¿Eres embarazada?” Sounds good, right?
But the young woman slaps you in the face and stomps off. What went
wrong? Well, embarazada looks and sounds a lot like embarrassed, but it
doesn’t mean that. It means pregnant. Oops. Linguistic error. Not
prudent to ask a young woman if she’s pregnant. ¡Que vergüenza! (How
embarrassing!)

So the only way of knowing the meaning of Hebraisti and Hebraidi
in Acts 26:14 is by a careful study of how these words were used both
in the New Testament and in other related texts from the first century
A.D. These words show up in the New Testament ten times, all in John,
Acts, and Revelation (John 5:2; 19:13; 19:17; 20:16; Acts 21:40; 22:2;
26:14; Rev. 9:11; 16:16). In several instances, we cannot tell whether
the word means “in Hebrew” or “in Aramaic.” But there are two cases
that lend clarity to our investigation.

John 19:13 reads: “When
Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the
judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew
Gabbatha [Hebraisti de Gabbatha].” Gabbatha is an Aramaic word that means “height” or “eminence.” Thus, in this case, Hebraisti means “in Aramaic,” not “in Hebrew.”

calvary-gordon-5.jpgJohn
19:17 says: “[A]nd carrying the cross by himself, [Jesus] went out to
what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called
Golgotha [ho legetai Hebraisti Golgotha].” Once again, the word Golgotha
is in Aramaic. (Photo: One of the possible locations for Golgotha,
chosen because it looks rather like a skull. Golgotha represents an
Aramaic expression that means “place of the skull.” Photo used by
permission of www.holylandphotos.org.)

The fact that place
names in Jerusalem were in Aramaic surely supports the common use of
Aramaic among Jewish people in that city and surrounding area.
Indirectly, it supports the use of Aramaic by Jesus. This is verified
by other evidence from the New Testament. In Acts 1:19, for example, we
find this description of the field in which Judas killed himself: “This
became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was
called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” Hakeldama
is an Aramaic expression. Notice that Acts refers to the fact that this
Aramaic name was “in their language,” that is, in the language of the
residents of Jerusalem. So, we should not be surprised that Gabbatha and Golgotha are also Aramaic words, words that are described in John as Hebraisti. Even though this word looks like “in Hebrew,” it actually means, or at least can mean, “in Aramaic.”

In
sum, the argument that Jesus must have spoke Hebrew because of Acts
26:14 fails on several counts. Not only does this verse not tell us
what language Jesus spoke in other contexts, but also the phrase te Hebraidi dialekto, which looks to us like “in the Hebrew dialectic” turns out to mean, in all likelihood, in the Aramaic dialect.

This
should give reassurance to Christians who fear that the argument that
Jesus spoke Aramaic somehow undermines the authority of Scripture. In
fact, it does nothing of the kind. Whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or
Hebrew, or, as I believe, a combination of the two depending on his
context, either option concords with a fully authoritative Bible.

The same is true, by the way, if Jesus spoke Greek. In my next post in this series I examine this possibility.

Did Jesus Speak Greek?

 

So
far in this series, I’ve presented the case that Jesus spoke Aramaic as
his first language and in a substantial portion of his teaching,
especially when he was speaking with average people in Galilee, where
Aramaic was the common language of the day. I have also suggested that
it’s likely that Jesus spoke Hebrew, which he learned as a Jewish boy
in a faithful family. His facility with Hebrew enabled him to read the
biblical text in the synagogue and to engage in respectable debate with
other Jewish teachers of the day (the Pharisees, the scribes, etc.). 

But
could Jesus have known Greek as well? Might he have used Greek at times
in his teaching, or at least in some of his conversations?

Because
the manuscripts of the Gospels are in Greek, we do not have the
advantage such as we have in the case of Aramaic, where Aramaic words
and phrases are actually transliterated and included in the Greek text
of the Gospels. Quotations of a Greek-speaking Jesus would not stand
out, and would simply flow with the Greek text.

Every now and
then, I have run into commentators who argue that some of the sayings
of Jesus imply that he knew Greek. If, for example, there is a play on
words that works in Greek but not in Aramaic or Hebrew, this points to
a Greek original. At this moment I can’t remember any specific
examples. Perhaps a commenter can fill us in. But, to this point, I
have not been convinced that any of the sayings must have had a Greek
origin. I have been more convinced by those who propose a Semitic
(Aramaic or Hebrew) original for the sayings of Jesus.

So, the evidence for Jesus’ speaking Greek will be circumstantial only. But this evidence is not insignificant.

The
fact that the Gospels are written in Greek bears shows that many if not
most of the earliest Christians, including some who followed Jesus
during his earthly ministry, knew Greek and used it often, perhaps as
their first language. Many Jewish writings from the era of Jesus were
written in Greek, including works such as 2 Maccabees and 1 Esdras.
Other Hebrew writings were being translated into Greek in Jerusalem
(the book of Esther, for example, in 114 B.C.). Speaking of Jerusalem,
scholars have found some ninety Greek inscriptions on ossuaries (boxes
for bones) that date to around the time of Jesus and were found in or
around Jerusalem.

Ever since Alexander the Great conquered
Palestine in 332 B.C., Greek had been the language of government and,
increasingly, commerce and scholarship. Though Aramaic continued to be
spoken by many, Greek grew in its popularity and influence. In the time
of Jesus, well-educated Jews, mainly those of the upper classes, would
have known and used Greek. So would those who were involved in trade or
government. But many other Jews would have had at least a rudimentary
knowledge of Greek which they used in their business and travels to the
larger cities.

manuscript-hab-nahal-hever-5.jpgThe
presence and pervasiveness of Greek in Palestine is demonstrated by a
discovery in the Nahal Hever region of the Judean Desert near the Dead
Sea. In a cave, a scroll was found that contains substantial portions
of the minor prophets in Greek. The so-called Nahal Hever Minor
Prophets Scroll, dated around the time of Jesus, shows the influence
and popularity of Greek, even among highly religious Jews. (Photo: A
portion of the scroll found at Nahal Hever. This shows a passage from
Habakkuk 2-3. Notice that the letters are all capitals and there are no
spaces between words. That was commonplace in the first century.)

Though
the New Testament Gospels do not tell us whether Jesus spoke Greek or
not, they do describe situations in which it’s likely that Greek was
used. In Matthew 8:5-13, for example, Jesus entered into dialogue with
a Roman centurion. The centurion almost certainly spoke in Greek. And,
as Matthew tells the story, he and Jesus spoke directly, without a
translator. Of course it’s always possible that a translator was used
and simply not mentioned by Matthew. Still, the sense of the story
suggests more immediate communication, which would have been in Greek.

The
same could be said about Jesus’ conversation with Pontius Pilate prior
to his crucifixion (Matthew 27:11-14; John 18:33-38). Once again, there
is the possibility of an unmentioned translator. But the telling of the
story points to a Greek-speaking Jesus. (Pilate would have used Greek,
not Latin, as imagined by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ.
And it’s unlikely that he would have known or used Aramaic. Pilate was
not the sort of man who would stoop to use the language of common Jews.)

If
Jesus knew enough Greek to converse with a Roman centurion and a Roman
governor, where did he learn it? Some have suggested that he might have
learned it during his early years in Egypt. A more likely explanation
points to his location in Galilee. Though Aramaic was the first
language of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown was a short walk from Sepphoris,
which was a major city and one in which Greek was spoken. Jesus quite
probably had clients in Sepphoris who utilized his carpentry services,
and he would have spoken with them in Greek.

But given the
multi-lingual context in which Jesus lived, it’s not surprising that he
would have been reasonably fluent in Greek and Hebrew, in addition to
Aramaic. People in the United States often have a hard time
understanding this. But if you’ve known people who have grown up in
Europe, for example, they often can get by in several languages,
including English, German, Spanish, and French, even if their first
language is Italian.

Can we know for sure that Jesus spoke
Greek? No. Is it reasonable to assume that he could speak Greek and did
upon occasion? Yes, I believe so. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if
some of the variations in the Gospels among the sayings of Jesus
reflect that fact that he said more or less the same things in Aramaic,
Hebrew, and/or Greek.

In my next and final post in this
series, I’ll suggest some reasons why I think the language of Jesus
matters . . . or, better, why the languages of Jesus matter. 

The Language of Jesus: Why Does It Matter?

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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