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 -

“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.


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  1. Bill Gaffney

    Finally the JSSR has looked at the syntax, etc of the synoptic gospels. Much of the content reads much more fluently in Hebrew.


  2. Bill Gaffney

    Dr Notley is a member of Jerusalem School for Synoptic Research. These are Jewish and Christian scholars who have studied this area, among others, for 50 years.

    I think they would all tell you John and the letters were written in Greek. After all Greek speaking people were Paul’s primary audience.

  3. Bill Gaffney

    I am a believer that the first three gospels are written in Hebrew. Jesus’ audience was Jewish, and as Prof Shirokov has pointed out they all would have memorized the Torah, Psalms and large portions of other books in Hebrew.

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Bill, I would not (and I am not sure the JSSR would) claim that synoptic gospels were all written in Hebrew. Not that that is not believable, or possible, but we have no tangible proof, no remnants of any manuscripts, even tiniest fragments, even later copies that could be authenticated to show that. All we have is the Hebrew subtext of Greek.

  4. Celine Leduc

    My field is religion not theology and it is about history and philosophy.
    Jesus is a Latin name not his real name, some scholars think his name was Joshua other Emmanuel. The debate about his divinity only came about when Constantine converted and made Christianity the official religion of Rome. He also said Latin was the language of GOD.

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Celine, you are right his real name was Yeshua from Hebrew Yasha, “to save”. Most people here would agree with you on this. Jesus is an English adaptation, not Latin. Ancient Latin does not have a “J” and adapted the name directly from Greek Iesous by dropping the diphthong “ou” and shortening the vowel to Iesus.

  5. Raúl Avalos

    Estoy de acuerdo que la biblia cristiana esta repleta de parábolas, dudo firmemente que todo lo escrito sea “palabra de Dios” solo escribieron los hombres que siguieron a Cristo, . Soy Cristiano pero no creo en nuestra biblia ni en la iglesia de Roma, investigo todo lo que esta a mi alcance al respecto. Agradezco esta conexión con el profesor Eli.

  6. Sonia Ann Azzopardi

    It seems that in the time of Jesus the language was a bit of a stew of languages, the sign above the cross was written in 3, Greek, Latin and Hebrew, Jesus also spoke Aramaic. So it makes perfect sense to me that Jesus was a linguist and could speak according to what crowd was around Him. He was the Word so He can pick n choose as He pleases 🙂

  7. Birdie Cutair

    Thank you so much. I’ve always thought that Jesus spoke Hebrew (and Aramaic) so that I think the early New Testament writings, at least Jesus’ sayings should originally be in Hebrew.

  8. Philomena Pound

    Matthew 27:46 Ηλί, Ἠλί, λιμὰ σαβαχθανί
    Mark 15:34 Ελωΐ, Ἐλωΐ, λιμὰ σαβαχθανί
    Psalm 22:2 אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי
    σαβαχθανί is a transliteration of the Aramaic verb שבק not the Hebrew עזב so Jesus in his death agony cried out in Aramaic. Jesus would of course have known and read the Scriptures in Hebrew but his mother tongue? Unlikely.

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Excellent point, Philomena! Thanks for supplying the actual text. What I see is a mixture here what I am completely comfortable with. The Psalm uses Heb. azav and shabak is Aram. – no doubt. But why one quote has Eloi and another Eli? Curious. This does not prove that Jesus’ language of preference was Aramaic, but great point to take into account!

      1. Philomena Pound

        The difference in the Greek vowels can be explained by transliteration of the same Aramaic verse by different writers – presumably whose first language was Greek. Aramaic is all over the Gospels eg John 2:18 Απεκρίθησαν ….. καὶ εἶπαν Similar phrases corresponding to the Aramaic phrase Daniel 2:5 עָנֵ֤ה ….. וְאָמַ֣ר are all over the place .

        1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

          I agree, Philomena. Hebrew and Aramaic seem to have a lot in common grammatically and vocab. wise. Transliteration into Greek is certainly to blame… The passages you cited seem especially troubling. I wonder if you have a theory how Elahi can be mistakenly transliterated to Eloi? Seems like even the worst skills would not butcher it that bad.

          1. Philomena Pound

            Eloi could be the result of the author of Mark not realising that he was transcribing Aramaic and believing that the Hebrew holem was the correct reading. He or members of his circle would probably have heard the Torah read in the synagogue and would know that the Hebrew word for God is Elohim.

    2. Dr. Eli.Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Understanding the passage you brought up is complicated by the fact that both Eli and Eloi as well as Liama are both Hebrew words as to what last (Aramaic) word is doing in that (phrase I do not know, but I can tell you that in Israel today there are many of loan words from Arabic that are now HEBREW! Such as Phalafel, Shewarma, Sababa, Hamsa, etc

      1. Philomena Pound

        Eli is undoubtedly Hebrew. However Eloi most probably originates from the Aramaic Elaha with the Hebrew holem replacing the Aramaic qamets. An expected amendment by a native Greek speaker in the Dispersion with no knowledge of Aramaic and familiar with the Hebrew Torah readings in the Synagogue. Lema retains the Aramaic shewa and not the Hebrew qamets in both Gospels. There is no evidence that sabachthani was a loan word from Aramaic to Hebrew – it is more likely that Eli was a loan word from Hebrew to Aramaic – El and Elaha coming from the same root.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Especially, your last point highlights the issue :-). “There is no evidence that sabachthani was a loan word from Aramaic to Hebrew – it is more likely that Eli was a loan word from Hebrew to Aramaic – El and Elaha coming from the same root.”

          What is more likely or less likely is debatable to say the list. NT in many places says that the words were spoken in HEBREW, so the burden of proof is NOT on those that agree with Greek NT about its Hebrew statements, but on those who think that when NT says something was in Hebrew, it was really in Aramaic (or a Hebrew dialect of Aramaic as a variation of the same).

          Anyone interested in an informed layman presentation of the argument for Hebrew (along with Aramaic and Greek) as a spoke language in the time of Jesus to listen to this YouTube video –

          1. Philomena Pound

            In the New Testament Εβραϊστὶ and its derivatives only occurs 14 times in total and in the Gospels only five times and then only in the Fourth Gospel. Εβραϊστὶ can be translated as Hebrew or Aramaic – Hebrew having adopted the Aramaic script following the return of the Exiles. Only in four cases is the term Hebrew used to refer to language being spoken John 20:16 which says that Mary addressed Jesus in Hebrew as “Rabboni” and on three occasions in Acts when Paul is said to have spoken in Hebrew – Paul of course came from Tarsus, was a Roman citizen and may not have spoken Aramaic.

          2. Philomena Pound

            The reference in Matthew 26:73 to Peter’s accent is also interesting as it is known that different Aramaic dialects were spoken in Judea and Galilee – unfortunately almost nothing of the Aramaic dialect that was spoken in Galilee at that time survives.

        2. Prof. Peter Shirokov

          Philomena, I am aware that people believe that Εβραϊστὶ is Aramaic, not Hebrew. I am not sure I can agree. I was under the impression that Aramaic had its own name – Suristi and that is what is used when references are made to it, not Hebraisti. There are references to Aramaic in LXX and period literature like Josephus. He in fact speaks of both Hebraisti and Suristi and differentiates between them. This is a just a generation after Jesus.

          Please see pages 63–66 that I find interesting

          1. Philomena Pound

            I’m working on a paper which will propose that parts of the Fourth Gospel are a direct translation from an Aramaic source. It won’t be ready for at least a couple of months I’m afraid so I can’t carry the discussion forward yet. If anyone’s still interested when it’s ready I’ll make it available – unless the evidence makes me change my mind of course!!!!!!

          2. Philomena Pound

            I have spent the last couple of days looking at the scrolls as part of my research – El Elyon is the most common designation for God in the Aramaic scrolls so I’m going back on my previous statement that Eli is definitely from a Hebrew source.

          3. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza



            According to Rudolph Meyer, and for his argument is attractive, Εβραϊστὶ is Aramaic and Έβραϊδι διαλεκτο is Hebrew as is possible to verify from quotes into Gospel… “whose name in Εβραϊστὶ is… Gabatá’, gulgaltá’, Avadón, &c., and indeed, the title put on the cross, was in Εβραϊστὶ, Greek and Latin.

          4. Philomena Pound

            And also Eric many of the words in John which are referred to as Εβραϊστὶ are Aramaic – Bethesda, Gabbatha and Golgotha all have the Aramaic definite article, Rabboni appears to be Aramaic, bar meaning son of which occurs in several names in the Gospels is Aramaic – the Hebrew would be ben. Jesus probably spoke in more than one language – he could even have spoken in Greek particularly when he was in Jersusalem and looking to reach a wider audience but Aramaic is certainly very well attested in the Gospels and Cephas is a very heavy hint that the mother tongue of Jesus and Peter was Aramaic.

          5. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Philomena, please, listen carefully to the video I posted in the comments above. It deals with the aramaic definite article (take it from a specialist in Syriac) and how in the case of NT words you are reffing to there is another option to understand it. Please, watch it and ONLY then reply to more of this discussion.

          6. Philomena Pound

            Any why do you assume Eli that I havn’t already listened to it carefully? There are undoubtedly other options – there always are. It doesn’t mean though that I’m bound to agree with them. I have yet to hear a convincing argument that Jesus spoke Hebrew as his first language. I don’t expect however that everyone will agree with my point of view on any subject – not just this one. I always welcome an open and lively debate based on sound scholarship. Under the circumstances I think it is probably best if I don’t make any further contributions to your forum.

          7. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            The burden of proof is on those who seek to show that when NT says “Hebrew”, it means Aramaic. Is it possible that you correct in your assertions? Of course! But what I think this discussion did convincingly showed is this: The traditional persuasion that Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew, is far from a proven fact. About your participation in this forum. You are welcome to participate as you wish :-). Its just since you were complaining that you had not chance to debate me in our class , I thought that you would not pass by this opportunity :-).

    3. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza



      I said this on other post but here is opportune. Gospel was writen in both language Hebrew and Aramaic for different purposes, ’cause Aramaic is more theological and hebrew more popular. It’s clear the poor people didn’t speak aramaic, for they never went to Babylon. So that, we can find some words in aramaic for Theological purposes into a hebrew text, e.g. גולגלתא Gulgaltá’ meaning “Skull” but into Academic language is the name of the Self-nullification of God, self-humilliation of God. So that maybe was remarked. To say Psal 22 in aramaic has a theological purpose, leading to its Midrash… Shalom!

  9. Cathy Arvin

    Another thought to think about. In scripture it says that G-d is going to turn us back to a pure language. What language would that be? I believe the earth was formed and made by the Word of G-d and that the pure language is Hebrew. The biblical hebrew, not the modern. I also believe we will be all going back to it!

    1. Lois

      Do you think that it is possible that the pure language refers to those who have undivided hearts, like Jesus said of Nathanial, that he was without guile? It is not obvious to me that the passage using the term pure language means original Hebrew. After all, the prophets’
      main complaint about Israel constantly was there hearts being adulterous, ie. following after other gods.

  10. Cathy Arvin

    It amazes me how many people don’t read and understand the scriptures for themsleves. From the idiums used and just knowing that all the authors where Jewish. I believe that the gospels and letters where all written in Hebrew and translated over to Greek. I think people who are blinded, partially or fully can’t see the truth of things.