What Language Did Jesus Speak?
- Zondervan Academic Karen H. Jobes
- 2017 3 May
Have you ever wondered what language Jesus spoke?
Let’s take a closer look.
What Languages Were Spoken in First-century Palestine?
Before we can identify which languages Jesus spoke, we need to know what languages were spoken in first-century Palestine.
Here are the three languages:
- Aramaic had been widely spoken since the Babylonian exile.
- Since the invasion of Alexander the Great, Greek had been spoken in many communities.
- The Hebrew Bible—the Scriptures of Jesus’s day—was written and studied in Hebrew (as the name implies).
Each language had its own function. Some were used only for writing, while others were used for speaking in ordinary conversation. If you were conducting business transactions or international trade, you would likely use still other languages.
What about Jesus?
To discover the language Jesus spoke, we need to examine the three most common languages found in first-century Palestine: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. We’ll look for clues about who spoke each language—and see which languages Jesus knew.
Who Spoke Greek?
Greek had been spoken in Palestine for centuries prior to the time of Jesus.
In fact, there were Greeks in Israel as early as the eighth century BC, and Greek pottery has been found dating to the sixth century BC.1
Still, pockets of Greek influence remained well into the first century. In Galilee, the area where Jesus spent much of his life and ministry, Greek was spoken in Beit She’an (Scythopolis) and the other cities of the Decapolis. It was also spoken in Sepphoris, a city near Nazareth.
Even in areas in Galilee where Greek culture did not dominate—like Capernaum—Greek influence was still felt. This is because the region of Galilee lay on trade routes to Damascus and elsewhere. Greek, as a language of international commerce and trade, was spoken by individuals traveling through the area.
Additionally, even though most Jews in Galilee fiercely resisted the influence of Hellenism, Greek was still spoken by select Jewish communities, especially in the south, in the areas around Jerusalem and Judea.
Greek was spoken more frequently in these areas because returning Jewish diaspora from Greek-speaking areas brought the language with them to Jerusalem. Many of them came from Alexandria, in Egypt, a region also conquered by the Greeks and still heavily influenced by Hellenism.2
The same was true for other regions around the Roman Empire. As these Jews returned to their homeland, they brought with them their language—no longer Hebrew, but Greek. In fact, it’s possible that as much as 20% of the Jewish population in Jerusalem spoke Greek.3
Evidence from the Bible
You’ll find evidence for this in the New Testament. The strongest evidence is found in Pilate’s speech (Mark 15:2–5; Matt 27:11-14; Luke 23:2-5; John 18:29-38). Here is Matthew’s account:
Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
Here’s how we know Pilate was speaking in Greek. His first language was Latin. We know this because he was a Roman official. However, the people mentioned in this verse—the chief priests, the elders, and the crowd listening in—would not have spoken Latin. If Pilate was speaking with them, he obviously wasn’t speaking Latin.
Of the languages they might have known—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—Pilate wouldn’t have been able to speak Hebrew, and he likely would have known Greek far better than Aramaic. Greek, then, is the most likely candidate for the language he spoke in this speech to the non-Roman audience.
Evidence from Josephus
There is also a significant piece of evidence that shows Greek, although well-known as a secondary language, was not the primary or most-understood language of Jesus’s time. This evidence comes from Josephus, a well-educated Jew and a priest.
In his writings, Josephus frequently indicates that Greek wasn’t his original language. For example, although he translated his works into Greek and required help to do so. In The Wars of the Jews, he writes:
I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians; I Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth an Hebrew, a priest also, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work]. 4
And in Antiquities, he also writes:
For those of my own nation freely acknowledge that I far exceed them in the learning belonging to the Jews. I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness . . . 5
Harold Hoehner notes that even “Josephus, who had the educational opportunities, wrote his Bellum Judaicum in Aramaic and later translated it into Greek for the benefit of those under Roman rule; this he did with the help of assistants because his knowledge of Greek was inadequate.”6
From this, we can conclude that Greek wasn’t the first language of most first-century Jews. It would have been spoken only among the diaspora in Jerusalem; among those involved in international trade and commerce; and among the upper class and educated—such as Josephus. And of those who did understand Greek—again, like Josephus—it was often only as a second language.
DID JESUS SPEAK GREEK?
Jesus probably knew enough Greek to understand it. But he wouldn’t have spoken it as his first language. He also wouldn’t have used it in his daily conversation or taught the crowds in Greek.
What about Hebrew?
Hebrew was certainly spoken in first-century Palestine. The key questions are: 1) by whom, and 2) how much?
We know that most religious documents were written in Hebrew in the centuries after the Babylonian exile. Most of the documents from the Qumran community—including nearly all of the Dead Sea Scrolls—are written in Hebrew. Much deutero-canonical literature is also in Hebrew, including 1 Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus. Shmuel Safrai has noted that “all of the inscriptions found in the temple” are written in Hebrew.7
This alone doesn’t tell us Hebrew was spoken. It only tells us it was written.
However, several documents from the Bar-Kokhba revolt show some evidence of slang terms, abbreviations, and “other characteristics of everyday speech.”8 So it seems Hebrew was spoken as well.
Additional evidence pointing to Hebrew as a living, spoken language comes, again, from Josephus. In AD 69, with the Romans approaching Jerusalem, Titus asked Josephus to deliver a message to John of Giscala, who had previously captured the city. Josephus delivered this message in Hebrew.
We’ve already seen that Josephus was a priest, so it’s no surprise he knew Hebrew. But his choice to use Hebrew in this public way is telling. Josephus writes (in the third person):
Upon this, Josephus stood in such a place where he might be heard, not by John only, but by many more, and then declared to them what Caesar had given him in charge, and this in the Hebrew language.9
It appears that, a generation after Jesus, Hebrew was still widely enough understood that not only could Josephus speak it, but he could do so knowing a large crowd would understand him.
HEBREW IN GALILEE
We have seen that Hebrew was understood among the Qumran community and by many in Jerusalem. What about in Galilee?
Extrabiblical rabbinic literature testifies to a Galilean dialect. Safrai notes:
There is a statement in rabbinic literature that the Judeans retained the teachings of the Torah scholars because they were careful in the use of their language, while the Galileans, who were not so careful with their speech, did not retain their learning (b. Eruv. 53a–b; y Ber. 4d, et. al.). While this saying is sometimes considered to be evidence for the dominance of Aramaic over Hebrew . . . it actually only refers to the Judeans’ feeling that Galileans mispronounced the guttural letters ח and צ and dropped the weak letters א and ה. 10
Was this a distinct Aramaic-Galilean dialect, or a Hebrew-Galilean dialect? We can’t be sure, but the dialect is noted twice in the Gospels:
- The first account of the distinct Galilean Hebrew dialect is found in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. As Peter sits in the courtyard of the high priest in Jerusalem, bystanders detect similarities in the accent between Jesus and Peter. Matthew’s account tells us that “those standing there went up to Peter and said, ‘Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.’” (Matthew 26:73). In Mark and Luke, the bystanders say “surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean” (Mark 14:70).
- The second account is found in Acts 2:7, when, at Pentecost, Jesus’s followers were identified as Galileans by their accent: “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?’”
If this was a Hebrew dialect, it wasn’t common, and it wasn’t the dialect spoken in Jerusalem.
Whatever the case, it’s likely Jesus did speak Hebrew, but, like Greek, not as his first language.
We’ll discover more about how and when he may have spoken Hebrew in a moment. But first, let’s examine the third language of first-century Palestine, Aramaic.
Did Jesus Speak Aramaic?
There is wide consensus among scholars that Aramaic was the primary language spoken by the Jews of first century Palestine.
The vast majority of Jews spoke it. Jesus spoke it.
This has been the commonly accepted view since 1845, when Abraham Geiger, a German rabbi, showed that even Jewish rabbis from the first century would have spoken Aramaic. He convincingly argued that the Hebrew from the first century (Mishnaic Hebrew) only functioned as a written language, not as a living, spoken language.
Although Geiger’s thesis has been challenged, modified, and softened over the years, his general argument remains widely accepted. Most Jews living in the heartland spoke Aramaic; almost nobody spoke Hebrew.
There are two reasons most scholars believe Aramaic was the primary language of Jesus’s time—and the language Jesus spoke:
- The overwhelming majority of documents and inscriptions recovered from the era are in Aramaic. Although documents do exist in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and other languages, they are a minority. And even though many religious texts are in Hebrew (for example, of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 15% are in Aramaic, 3% are in Greek, and the rest in Hebrew), most nonreligious texts—contracts, invoices, ownership claims, and other kinds of ordinary communication—are in Aramaic. Moreover, of the Hebrew inscriptions found, almost all have been found in and around Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness—and virtually none have been found in Galilee. If Hebrew was spoken regularly in ordinary conversation, there is little written evidence to support it.
- The second, and perhaps most convincing evidence of Aramaic primacy is that the Hebrew Scriptures were being translated into Aramaic. There may be many reasons why the Scriptures were being translated, but the most likely one is the simplest: most ordinary people could no longer understand the Scriptures in Hebrew.
This doesn’t mean Hebrew wasn’t spoken. We’ve seen above that it was.
It simply means the instances where Hebrew was spoken were the exception, not the rule.
John Poirier notes that the “contexts in which Hebrew continued to be spoken” were “localized, either geographically (i.e. in the hills of Judea), professionally (i.e. among the priests and sages), or along sectarian lines (i.e. among the Qumranites).”11
THE DECLINE OF HEBREW
How did the status of Hebrew evolve from its use as the dominant language of Israel in the sixth-century BC to a highly localized language written and spoken in only very specific contexts in the first-century AD? How did Aramaic come to replace it?
After the Babylonian exile, the Hebrew language “began to be ideaologized, so that its use was no longer a matter of indifference, but came to acquire symbolic weight and social importance.’” It became “the language whose representation symbolized Jewish nationhood.”12
This transition intensified after the destruction of the temple in AD 70 when “the Hebrew language had lost its political importance, but it maintained its significance as a symbol of Jewishness.”13
As Hebrew was displaced by Aramaic, it transitioned from a living, spoken language into a language used first in the context of religion and liturgy and second for its symbolic importance—but it was not used by most people in common, everyday life for ordinary conversation.
But what about Jesus?
We’ve learned that he probably spoke it, but we don’t know how much. Was he nearly bilingual, speaking Aramaic and Hebrew interchangeably? Or, like others of his time, was his use of Hebrew infrequent and localized?
To answer this, we need to know two things:
- Jesus’s education. If he was educated and literate, then he likely knew Hebrew well and perhaps spoke it.
- His listeners’ level of comprehension. Even if Jesus knew Hebrew, he wouldn’t have spoken it if it meant others—disciples, Pharisees, the crowds he taught—could not understand him.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at education and literacy in first-century Galilee.
HOW EDUCATED WAS JESUS?
We don’t know for sure, but we can make a good guess by understanding his Galilean context.
We know that Galilee contained a comparatively high proportion of literate, educated scholars. Galilean Jews knew the law well. They read it, debated it, and discussed it.
Shmuel Safrai lists the Jewish sages who came from Galilee prior to A.D. 70:
Before he came to Jerusalem, R. Johanan ben Zakkai lived in Araba (= Gabara) in lower Galilee, and had in his school R. Hanina ben Dosa, who was also a native of that city. Just before and after the destruction of the Temple we hear of Galilean sages such as Abba Jose Holikufri of Tibeon and R. Zadok from the same place. R. Halaphta and R. Hananiah ben Teradyon had magnificent law courts, the former in Sepphoris and the latter in Siknin. Also the social and religious movements in Galilee and their customs which were praised in the tradition, are doubtlessly connected with Galilean midrash schools in one form or another.14
How did Jesus fit in with this tradition of learning? David Flusser writes:
Josephus identifies Jesus with the Jewish Sages. The Greek word for ‘wise’ has a common root with the Greek term ‘sophist’, a term that did not then possess the negative connotation it has today. Elsewhere Josephus refers to two outstanding Jewish Sages as sophists, and this title was used regularly by him to designate prominent Jewish Sages. The Greek author, Lucian from Samosata (born ca. 120 and died after 190 A.D.) similarly refers to Jesus as ‘the crucified sophist’. . . Josephus’ reference to Jesus as ‘a wise man’ challenges the recent tendency to view Jesus as merely a simple peasant.15
We also know Jesus read the scroll in his hometown (Luke 4:16–30), and this scroll likely would have been written in Hebrew.
From this evidence, we know the sages from Galilee were educated, and, among them, Jesus was exceptional.
This means, by virtue of his education, Jesus knew Hebrew and certainly could speak it.
But conversing in Hebrew requires both a speaker and a listener. Would Jesus’s listeners have understood Hebrew?
HOW EDUCATED WERE JESUS’S LISTENERS?
Most scholars propose literacy rates ranging from 10 per-cent on the high end (William Harris) to less than 3 per-cent on the low end (Meir Bar-Ilan).16 Even if these figures are low estimates, it’s still likely a majority of people could not read and write, and thus did not know Hebrew.
HOW MUCH HEBREW DID JESUS SPEAK?
Although Jesus knew Hebrew and could speak it, in reality, he probably only spoke it in the synagogue or while discussing the Torah with his peers. Outside of these contexts, it’s unlikely anyone would have understood him.
Jesus’s first language—the language he used in ordinary conversation, the language he used to teach the crowds—was Aramaic.
If you were to ask Jesus what language he spoke, he very likely would have answered: Aramaic.
- Aaron Tresham, “The Languages Spoken by Jesus,” The Masters Seminary Journal, Spring, 2009, 86.
- Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker, Jesus’ Last Week, (Brill, 2006), 226 (first published in Jerusalem Perspective 30, 31 (1991).
- David A. Fiensy, “The Composition of the Jerusalem Church,” in Richard Bauckham, The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting (Eerdmans, 1995), 231, cf. Martin Hengel, The Hellenization of Judaea in the First Century after Christ (SCM, 1989), 8–12.
- Josephus, Jewish Wars, 1.1.
- Josephus, Antiquities, 20.11.
- Harold Hoehner, Herod Antipas, (Cambridge University Press, 1972), 62.
- Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker, Jesus’ Last Week, (Brill, 2006), 227 (first published in Jerusalem Perspective 30, 31 (1991).
- Ibid., 229
- Josephus, Jewish Wars, 6.96.
- Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker, Jesus’ Last Week, (Brill, 2006), 231–232 (first published in Jerusalem Perspective 30, 31 (1991).
- John C. Poirier, “The Linguistic Situation in Jewish Palestine in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 4 (2007), 66.
- Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, (Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 229.
- Shmuel Safrai and M. Stern, “Education and the Study of the Torah,” The Jewish People in the First Century, 962.
- David Flusser, Jesus, (Magnes Press, 1998), 30–32; discussed in John C. Poirier, “The Linguistic Situation in Jewish Palestine in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 4 (2007), 131.
- Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, 73–75.
* * *
This article originally appeared on ZondervanAcademic.com. Used with permission.
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/artphotoclub
Publication date: May 3, 2017