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.
Join the conversation (69 comments)
The Jewish name of the Lord is Yeshua which means Yahweh is Salvation
Like Emmanuel which means God among us….
When translated into Greek Yeshua became Ιησού.
Thus the English name Jesus,from Greek Ιησού
Your words show me Isa.:7:4, just the same text I quoted, giving me the reason: Emanuel; for more, remember “Oseas bar Nun”, known as Joshua( when he replaced Moses in leading Israel to promised land). Matthew possibly did not know/remember the book of Isaiah(he and Mark wrote the same )excepting very few words at all. However, the main matter is who we know Him as Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, the rest, clouds on the wind. Best regards.
The New Testament repeatedly gives the language used as Hebrew e.g. Acts 22 v 2.
Surely well educated and well traveled people knew/know what
language they’re speaking. I’ve long suspected that the church & their theologians don’t believe
their own Bible. If we are that wrong about something as obvious as this, what
else are we wrong about?
And about the language who Jesus did speak: It is the same if He spoke aramaic, martian. russian, hebrew, spanish, which do matter is He spoke and said: “take your cross each day and come after me” and ” Bigger things than these you shall do if…..”, but many times take the cross and go, is too hard to us, weak human beings, lack of power of will
I think, respectfully, that you made a mistake about the name of Jesus, based on Isaiah prophecy on His birth:” And His name shall be Emmanuel which declared is God with us ,and will be known as Jesus, because He will bring salvation to His people”. About that “scholars” I think that they should go to school, and stay there forever
Dear gustavo vargas angel, I still fail to see my mistake. Would you please be kind to point it out to me? I am a little confused. Are you saying Jesus’ name is really Immanuel and not Jesus? Is Jesus his nickname? Did I misinterpret your comment? Look at the Greek and Hebrew, not translations (below). According Matt 1:25 (below) Jesus seems to be his actual name and exact equivalent of Hebrew “kara” from Is. 7:4 – “kaleo” is used in Matt 1:25. So I do not see the difference, both translations literally say – “call/called his name” How is one his real name and the other one not… the language is identical.
and she will call His name Immanuel.(Is 7:14)
וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל
καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ (LXX)
and he called His name Jesus (Mat 1:25)
καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν
In Jesus time people mostly spoke Aramaic and Greek (Priests and higher class Jews knew Hebrew)
I believe Jesus taught in Aramaic.. The NT was written in Greek and used inside some Aramaic words like, Abba, Raka, Taltha kumi, and on the cross: Eloi,Eloi,lama savachtani. Jesus last words were not clear , as He was in pain. But they were Aramaic.
Dear Prof. Shirokov:
Some “scholars” says who Jesus did not know how to read and how to write,but if so, how could He had read from Isaiah in the temple? I think who that “scholars” did get their degrees from a candy or some like that.
Ha-ha… I guess some might have. Jesus did read Isaiah though not in the Temple, but in a Synagogue, so he was literate, no doubt. Illiterate people are not addressed as “rabbi” too. Have you considered that it is possible these same scholars believe the NT was written 300 after Jesus and is bogus, thus the claims…