The recent tet-à-tet between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis has set the blogosphere atwitter. While their exchange was amicable, the prime minister’s correction of the holy father ushered into public discourse a subject more at home in the arcane halls of scholarly deliberation.
What language did Jesus speak?
Their differences of opinion reflect changes taking place among scholars, but which have yet to make their way fully to mainstream, popular understanding. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century a mistaken notion took hold that has by-and-large continued to dominate both scholarly and popular opinion.
Today many still assume that by the first century C.E. Hebrew was a dead language, or existed only among sparse pockets of the highly educated – not dissimilar to Medieval Latin.
As a consequence, it is commonly thought that Jesus only knew Aramaic.
Yet, the results of a century of archaeological evidence have challenged this assumption and brought a sea change of understanding regarding the linguistic environment of first-century Judaea.
The inscriptional and literary evidence reflects a reality not unlike what we find with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of the 700 non-biblical texts from the Qumran library, 120 are in Aramaic and 28 in Greek, while 550 scrolls were written in Hebrew.
Jesus lived in a trilingual land in which Hebrew and Aramaic were widely in use. A relative latecomer, Greek was introduced in the 4th century B.C.E. with the arrival of Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors.
By the first century C.E. Aramaic served as the lingua franca of the Near East, and there is little question that Jesus knew and spoke Aramaic. Hebrew, on the other hand, was in more limited use as the language of discourse among the Jewish people.
The New Testament presents Jesus knowledgeable of both written and spoken Hebrew.
He is portrayed reading and teaching from the Bible, and there are clear indications in these accounts that he used the Hebrew Scriptures. In this he was not alone. We have not a single example of a Jewish teacher of the first century in the land of Israel teaching from any other version of the scriptures than Hebrew.
In addition, Jesus is often described speaking in parables. These were delivered orally in popular, non-scholarly settings. They were also in Hebrew. Outside of the Gospels, story-parables of the type associated with Jesus are to be found only in rabbinic literature, and without exception they are all in Hebrew. We have not a single parable in Aramaic, so it seems that according to Jewish custom one did not tell parables in Aramaic. To suggest that Jesus told his parables in Aramaic is to ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Old ideas die hard, and it appears this also to be the case concerning the languages of Jesus. Why scholars and others continue to believe Hebrew was not Jesus’ mother tongue is another question, but it is not for lack of evidence.
Author: R. Steven Notley, Ph.D. (Hebrew University) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, and Director of Graduate Programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins on the New York City Campus of Nyack College.