What Language Did Jesus Speak?

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  • What Language Did Jesus Speak?

    Search "Language of Jesus" on Wikipedia to read the popular singular view. The 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, that Aramaic was the only language spoken by Jesus.

    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. However, the findings after a century of archaeological evidence have challenged this assumption and brought a vast treasury of evidence to alter the understanding regarding the linguistic environment of first-century Judea.

    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 tri-lingual land in which Koine Greek, Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic were widely in use. By the first century C.E. Aramaic served as the language of the Near East, and there is little question that Jesus knew and spoke Aramaic as his native tongue. Aramaic was the language of trade and of the elites since the Babylonian Captivity. Hebrew, on the other hand, was limited use as the language of discourse among the Jewish people. Aramaic was used for trade and official documents throughout the region. Jesus had to be at minimum bilingual in order to speak to the masses, many who only knew Aramaic and others Hebrew.

    This is where past scholarship falls short, the New Testament presents Jesus knowledgeable of both written and spoken Hebrew. He is portrayed reading and teaching from the Tanakh in the synagogue which would have been Hebrew. 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 from Hebrew origin. These were delivered orally in popular, non-scholarly settings. 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, therefore 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. Parables were haggadah (the way to present a high level halakhah decision/ruling in practical every day life terms) used to teach the average layman.

    Perhaps the most often quoted Aramaism in the New Testament is the sentence in Mark 15:34, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabakthani." These words are Aramaic, but it is doubtful that Jesus spoke them as Mark records--the people (Hebrew in attendance) hearing the words thought Jesus was calling Elijah. For them to make such a mistake, Jesus would have to have cried, "Eli, Eli," not "Eloi, Eloi." Why? Because Eli in Hebrew can be either "My God," or a shortened form of Eliyahu, Hebrew for Elijah. But the Aramaic Eloi can be only "My God." One must note that Matthew's account records just that, i.e., "Eli, Eli" (Matthew 27:46). Further, lama ("why") is the same word in both languages, and sabak is a verb which is found not only in Aramaic, but also in Mishnaic Hebrew. We also find this in Mark 5:41, when he said, "Talitha kum" to the little girl in Aramaic.

    Traditions are often stubbornly entrenched in higher academics despite new evidence to the contrary, and it appears this also to be the case concerning the languages of Jesus. Why scholars and others continue to believe Hebrew was not one of Jesus’ essential languages is another question, but it is not for lack of evidence. Baruch HaShem!

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