Your Holiness, Netanyahu Was Right – Jesus Spoke Hebrew!

"Duccio di Buoninsegna 036" by Duccio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_036.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_036.jpg

“Duccio di Buoninsegna 036” by Duccio

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.


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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.


Source:  http://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/2014/05/judean-lingo/

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  1. Robert

    http://www.yaiy.org/literature/HebrewOrigionalLang.html
    http://www.yaiy.org/literature/HebrewAramaic.html
    http://www.yaiy.org/literature/NewGreek.html

    Notice above comments so I thought I could help to add inputs on Netanyahu’s claim on which language our Mashiach Yahshua spoke. Indeed it was, is and will be Hebrew, maybe Aramaic were used by Ishmaelites/Edomites, hm?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      As we contend that Jesus spoke Hebrew (alongside of Greek and Aramaic… and probably some Latin), I invite you to read my article that argues that NT was written in Judeo-Greek – http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/new-testament-originally-written-hebrew/

  2. Elias Ndlovu

    Interesting debate about what language Jesus spoke or read or wrote or even thought in!Another similar question is “What language shall we speak in heaven?”Any answers?

    1. Cathy Arvin

      Hebrew! He is going to turn us back to a pure language. He had the scriptures written in Hebrew. I Believe Biblical Hebrew is the pure language we will speak. It is the language that created everything!!! (Just my opinion!)

    2. Pat Whiteman

      Good question, the answer is the Spirit tongue, understood by everyone in their own tongue, at Pentacost (Not unknown as widely taught). Paul was also the minister to the Gentiles and probably spoke and wrote many languages to perform that ministry, hence the gift of tongues. Great subject Dr. Eli, one that could correct a lot of bad doctrine.

    3. Ruth Cockram

      Elias , I am sure in Heaven we have love language can be understood to everyone and nothing to worry about….it’s meaningless discussion. Been honest with you it’s more better to understand what we should do to live according to God will, instead thinking about what language speaks, don’t you brother…Shalom!

      1. Tony Cook

        Sorry Ruth that’s not how I see it. I think Jesus’ mission was aimed at bringing understanding to our world. Maybe this talk will shed light on what it is God wants us to learn from that time. E.g. to focus on what it would have been like for him back then. We’re inclined to just go along with the churchified thumbnail version of his life and in doing that we may be cutting ourselves off from a clear understanding of God’s purpose.
        I meet many people who are living lives of quiet despair right now, and they don’t need to be. Jesus came so that we could appreciate what we have here and now, without waiting til after we die to be “rewarded”. So question everything I say. No offence Ruth

  3. Stephen Beals

    On the question of the language of parables, is there not a difference between what was written and what was spoken? If he was preaching to the crowds, would he not have spoken in a language they would understand? Or could the scriptural assertions to his disciples that they could understand and other listeners could not be a reference to language?

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      This is the point exactly! If the parable of the vineyard (Mat 20 )is based on the familiar text of Is 5 known to my audience from the synagogue worship in Hebrew why should I translate it into a (non-original) language like Greek or Aramaic and preach it in translation? Not very logical or practical.

  4. Timothy

    Was the book of Isaiah ever written in Aramaic? Jesus read from that book in the temple and declared it fulfilled so he had to have known, read , understood and spake the Hebrew language! Case closed unless they can produce an Aramaic copy in that timeline …just my two cents!

  5. Brad Thompson

    I have never questioned whether or not Jesus taught in Hebrew or not. I always assumed he did. I agree that although the question seems like a topic for university advanced studies, the answer does matter. Trying to understand scripture from the point of view of the culture it was rooted in is important. This web site it proof of that I think.

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Brad, unfortunately most scholars embrace another theory, that Jesus spoke mostly Aramaic, some Greek and a little Hebrew (since it was dead already). And this is what this blog post is about, rethinking the previous theories in light of new evidence. Sometimes tradition dies hard…

  6. Todd Maloney

    Solid theory I think. I would estimate 70-80% of His speech was Hebrew. His mission was to the lost sheep of Israel and His main focus. A software program analyzing the pattern might be able to substantiate the theory quite well. It would be a reverse engineering so to speak of the translation from Greek back to Hebrew or other language.

  7. Todd Maloney

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Shirokov. If we could know with certainty the audience He was addressing, we could infer the native language used. For instance, the Samaritan woman. However, the multitude of over 5,000 begs the question as to the majority makeup. We must know as much as possible about the sitz em leben to fully understand the text but at what point are we slicing bologna with a laser? Will it actually change the flavor of the sandwich? (tongue in cheek of course) I am sure He spoke Hebrew to a Hebrew speaking audience, Aramaic to an Aramaic audience and so forth. Identifying with certainty is the difficulty.

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Todd, I have a theory… It seams reasonable to me that Jesus would speak Hebrew when teaching, because of the abundant amount of direct quotes and allusions to Torah and Prophets which were usually memorized verbatim in Hebrew (original) not Aramaic (translation) in Synagogues. Sure people knew both, but they memorized the verses in Hebrew.

      1. Lois

        If they memorized in Hebrew, why is it that I have heard that most NT quotations from the OT quote from the Septuagint? Which is in Greek.

        1. Wolf Paul

          @Lois, because the NT is written in Greek, to a wider audience than just Judean Jews, and it would thus be a bit strange if interspersed with the Greek narrative there were quotations in Hebrew — not to mention that most readers would not be able to understand them. Septuagint was THE Greek translation of the OT – what else to quote?

          1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Wolf, I agree with you on the conclusion I disagree on the premise. I think that something written in Koino Judeo-Greek does not presuppose (necessarily) a wider (none Jewish) audience, though of course it is open to it. Israelte Samaritans after all just like Israelite Jews had a Greek version of Samaritan Torah (Samaritikon).

            Something else to interact with http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/new-testament-originally-written-hebrew/

        2. Prof. Peter Shirokov

          There is a good reason for that…the writers themselves (we are talking about Gospels not entire NT). Some quotes are direct LXX, many are not quotes at all, but keyword allusions (gospels), a third group are rough translations and paraphrases of original.

          1. Brad Thompson

            I noticed this over the weekend during my bible studies. In Luke 1:46-48 Miryam says, “My soul magnifies Adonai; and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, who has taken notice of his servant-girl in her humble position” This seems like a key word allusion to 1 Samuel 1:11 and 1 Samuel 2:1.

          2. Brad Thompson

            Also, in Luke 1:49,50 Miryam says, ““The Mighty One has done great things for me! Indeed, his name is holy; and in every generation he has mercy on those who fear him.” This appears to be a paraphrase of Psalms 103:17; 111:9

          3. Brad Thompson

            The interesting thing is when you go back and read 1 Samuel 1:11, 2:1 and Psalms 103:17, 111:9 in context you get a more complete picture. I.E. Psalms 103 suggests two conditions; to those who keep His covenant and remember and do His precepts.

        3. Prof. Peter Shirokov

          As a writer (Matthew or John) who write to a broader intended audience in Greek (not to the ones who were actually there and herd it in Hebrew) why not take the already existing translation of the Hebrew text? Most people who write books today do not translate their bib. quotes themselves (though they can) but use NIV, ESV, RSV. Same logic. 🙂

  8. Prof. Peter Shirokov

    Dear truthmatters, no one argues that the manuscripts are in Greek. Question which the author raises is not which language Matthew or John wrote in, but which language did Jesus teach in before they wrote. I would request that do refrain from making off color remarks about people groups (Jews, Catholics, or Protestant) on this blog.

  9. truthmatters

    First the new testament was written in the common language of the day Greek .Also Jesus being God in the flesh He knew Greek and all languages .Jesus could speak any language . Next who cares about what the Pope said .Catholics fail to really comprehend Jesus went to the cross in our place .He did this to offer us the free gift of forgiveness and a

  10. Todd Maloney

    While I understand the academic debate regarding evidence of what languages Jesus actually spoke, it seems a little odd to me. We affirm Jesus’ divinity and recognize His power to heal, to walk on water, calm the storm and raise the dead. It stands to reason He would have had the power to use any language He chose, especially those in His day.

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Yes, Todd. Point taken… Jesus could have spoken Russian if he wanted. It makes a difference for those of us who seek to not just hear/read but also truly understand his words. If most of his teachings were actually uttered in Hebrew it makes a difference how we study them. Reverse translation from Greek then becomes helpful, for example.

    2. Harry

      I see the answer to what language speak? Any one he wanted to at any time he wanted.

    3. Tony Cook

      Todd I see the answer to that as: In his humamity Jesus didn’t know any language other than the one he learnt from hearing growing up, same as we’ve done. It makes sense to me that Jesus’ access to divine powers was blocked by his humaness, while he was living in this m-p (material-physical) world per medium of his m-p body. If not then to say he was fully human does not make sense.
      The question then arises, how did he perform those miracles? An answer that occurs to me is that those events might have been genuine miracles performed by God – God breaking into this m-p world as God has been seen to do from time to time.
      Please let me know how you feel about that, I’d value your input.