Why Does It Matter?
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright Â© 2010 by Mark D. Roberts
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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.)
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.
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,
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.)
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
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.