What Languages Did Jesus Speak?
- David A. Croteau Author & Professor
- 2020 4 Dec
There are several views about which language Jesus spoke. Some people believe he spoke primarily Hebrew, with others arguing it was primarily Greek or Aramaic. Actually, the correct question is: what languages did Jesus speak? My view can be summarized like this.
- 1a. Aramaic
- 1b. Greek
- 3. Hebrew
- 4. Latin (unlikely)
Jesus probably primarily spoke in Aramaic and Greek. He likely spoke Hebrew very sparingly and there is no solid evidence he spoke Latin. But what is the evidence for these views and why does it matter?
What Were the Common Languages of Jesus’ Day?
There were four common languages in Israel in the first century: Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, with a small portion in Aramaic. Since languages change over time, and since the writing of the Old Testament took place over hundreds of years, the Hebrew language changed throughout the writing process. Hebrew is a Semitic language. This language group typically does not contain vowels, only consonants. The Neo-Assyrian empire came to prominence around the eight century BC and the Persian from the sixth-fourth century BC. These empires caused the Hebrew language to fade out as the primary language spoken in Israel.
Aramaic in the Old Testament Era
Aramaic replaced Hebrew during this time period. Aramaic is also a Semitic language. In fact, Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages, similar to Spanish and French. There are four passages in the Old Testament that provide evidence that Aramaic was surpassing Hebrew as the common language of Israel. First, Nehemiah 8:8 says, “They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read” (CSB). The book of the law is likely a reference to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch. These books were written in Hebrew. Nehemiah was written in the fifth century BC, about 1000 years after the Pentateuch. The people hearing the reading of the book of the law needed the passages translated and explained in order to understand it. This is strong evidence that Hebrew was no longer the common language of the people of Israel, and this was hundreds of years before Jesus was born.
Second, Ezra 4:18 says, “The letter you sent us had been translated and read in my presence” (CSB). In order for the letter to be understood, it had to be translated because the Hebrew language was no longer the common language of the people of Israel. Third, Nehemiah 13:23–24 says, “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples but could not speak Hebrew” (CSB). This passage clearly states that half the children of Israel could not speak Hebrew. Fourth, portions of Daniel were originally written in Aramaic (Daniel 2:4–7:28). While there is debate among scholars regarding the date of Daniel (either written in the sixth century BC or the second century BC), either date provides strong evidence that Aramaic had surpassed Hebrew as the primary language of Israel before Jesus was born.
Aramaic in the New Testament Era
Evidence from the New Testament is also helpful. In John 19:13, the Apostle John refers to a place called “the Stone Pavement,” which he translated into “Aramaic” as “Gabbatha” (NIV). Just a few verses later, in John 19:17, the Apostle John refers to another location, “the place of the Skull,” which is translated into Aramaic as “Golgotha” (NIV). In Acts 1:19, Luke refers to the location where Judas died as “Hakeldama (that is, Field of Blood” (NIV). Hakeldama is an Aramaic expression. The key here is not just that Aramaic words were used in the New Testament but that locations in Jerusalem had Aramaic names. This is a strong indication of the prevalent use of Aramaic in and around Jerusalem. Finally, Jesus is recorded as having spoken Aramaic in Matthew 27:46 (parallel to Mark 15:34); Mark 5:41; and 7:34.
Greek in the New Testament Era
Koine Greek is the language of the New Testament. The word koine means “common” in Greek. It refers to the common language of the people, the language of the street. This form of Greek was a precursor to Byzantine (or, Medieval) and modern (Demotic) Greek. Koine Greek was the primary language spoken throughout the Greek empire from about 330 BC to AD 300. The Old Testament was translated into Greek over a century before Jesus was born. This translation is called the Septuagint, usually abbreviated LXX. This translation had a significant impact on Jews who had been influenced by the spread of Greek culture (called “Hellenism”).
There is evidence that Jesus not only taught in Aramaic, but also in Greek. Jesus has a conversation directly with a Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. It would be very unlikely for a Roman centurion to be able to speak Aramaic, and less likely he could speak Hebrew. Therefore, the most likely conclusion is that they spoke Greek. While it is possible there was a translator present, the text makes no reference to one. Jesus spoke to a Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:25-30. She was a Gentile, and it is very unlikely that she would know any other language besides Greek. Therefore, Jesus probably spoke with her in Greek. The wordplay on Peter’s name in Matthew 16:13-20 also suggests that Jesus was speaking to Peter in Greek. Finally, toward the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke with Pontius Pilate. Again, while it is possible a translator was present, neither Matthew 27:11-14 nor John 18:33-38 make reference to one. They seem to be speaking directly to each other. Pilate would probably be fluent in Latin and Greek. Jesus and Pilate, therefore, probably spoke to each other in Greek.
Jesus spent much of his life in Nazareth of Galilee. Aramaic was the primary language spoken there. However, a significant Greek city was only a one-day walk away: Sepphoris. While we can’t be certain, it is very possible that someone with Jesus’ profession (someone who built things with wood, stone, and [sometimes] metal) would travel to a town like Sepphoris to find work. If he did, he would have spoken Greek. None of these arguments are proof but are strong implications. Essentially, a normal Jew from Galilee would typically know Greek. Jesus had conversations with people that would have most likely taken place in Greek. Certain phrases in conversations could imply that Jesus was speaking in Greek.
Hebrew in the New Testament Era
None of this is to say that Hebrew entirely disappeared from use in Israel. A book called the Wisdom of Sirach (a non-canonical writing) was written between 200 and 180 BC in Hebrew. It continued to be a written language, a scholarly language, and some Jews continued speaking in Hebrew. Most documents found at Qumran were written in Hebrew. Certain Jewish sects who were strict adherents to the Old Testament law used Hebrew. However, Aramaic was also used among these groups as well. In the end, we have no solid evidence that spoken Hebrew was common in Galilee or Nazareth.
Latin in the New Testament Era
Rome and the region around it gave rise to Latin. It is part of the Indo-European language group. The Bible was translated into Latin several times, but once the Latin Vulgate was complete, Latin started to become the dominant language of the church. In fact, many Catholic church services around the world used Latin until the 1960s.
There is very little evidence that Jews in Israel in the first century typically spoke Latin. A Jewish historian named Josephus mentioned that there was a sign at the Temple in Jerusalem that indicated the area where no foreigner was allowed to enter. The sign was apparently written in Greek and Latin. However, since it was a sign for foreigners, this is not good evidence that Jews commonly spoke (or read) Latin. John 19:20 contains a reference to Latin in the sign placed above Jesus’ head on the cross: “Many of the Jews read this sign, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek” (CSB). This is the best possible reference that Jews could read Latin.
Was Jesus Bilingual?
A typical Jewish businessman, like Jesus, who ran his business in Galilee, would not speak only one language. With all the information above, the question is not which singular language Jesus spoke. Instead, Jesus probably spoke two languages regularly: Aramaic (primarily) and Greek (secondarily). While there is no good evidence that Jesus spoke Latin, there is a small amount of evidence indicating that he knew Hebrew.
In Luke 4:17-20, we learn that Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll. The most natural way to understand these verses is that Jesus was reading from a Hebrew scroll. Also, in John 4:4-26, Jesus has a conversation with the Samaritan woman. While we can’t be certain, it is possible that the conversation occurred in Hebrew.
What Is the Significance of the Language Jesus Spoke?
First, while it should go without saying, Jesus did not speak English. This might seem obvious, but remembering this fact helps us as we interpret God’s Word. There is an original language the texts of Scripture were written in, and it wasn’t English. This is also a subtle reminder that Jesus lived in a very different cultural setting.
Second, realize that first-century Aramaic does not actually exist today, though a few communities speak a version of it. Also, Koine Greek is not the language of Greece today. It has been over 1,500 years since Koine was the language of Greece. While learning ancient Aramaic is helpful for a few passages in the Old Testament, learning Greek can greatly help Christians interpret God’s Word accurately. Yes, learning Greek is a lot of work, but it can help to clarify many things in the process of interpreting a passage.
Third, realize that we have many excellent translations available in English today. From the ESV, to the NIV, to the CSB, and many more, English speaking Christians have a virtual storehouse of excellent translations to use. With the information contained here, you know that these are “translations” of texts that were written in Hebrew, a little Aramaic, and Greek. But we can be confident in the vast majority of English translations available today.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/VladimirZapletin
David A. Croteau (Ph.D. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament, Associate Dean, and Director of the PhD program for the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. His publications include Urban Legends of the Old Testament (co-author with Gary Yates, B&H, 2019), Urban Legends of the New Testament (B&H, 2015), Tithing After the Cross (Energion, 2013), and You Mean I Don’t Have to Tithe (Pickwick, 2010).
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