What Language(s) Did Jesus Speak
and Why Does It Matter?
A Series in Five Parts
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts February 2004 (updated 2/2007)
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
My Various Writings on Jesus
The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?
Was Jesus Divine? The Early Christian Understanding
Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence
What Was the Message of Jesus?
How Can We Know Anything about the Real Jesus?
What Languages Did Jesus Speak and Why Does It Matter?
Recovering the Scandal of the Cross
The Passion of the Christ: An In-Depth Review
Book -- Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better
Part 1: Introduction
Although responses to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ movie varied widely, every viewer was struck by the fact that not one word of English was spoken in the film. All dialogue was in one of two ancient languages, Aramaic or Latin. Without the English subtitles, most of us wouldn't have been able to understand a word in The Passion of the Christ .
I expect that many people who aw this movie wondered about its odd languages. What is Aramaic, anyway? Was this really the primary language of Jesus? Didn't he speak Hebrew? And, since the New Testament gospels were written in Greek, is there any reason to believe that Jesus also spoke Greek?
These questions are not merely matters of intellectual curiosity, however. Knowing something about the language (or languages) of Jesus will do much more than help you win a game of Trivial Pursuit. In fact this knowledge opens up new windows of understanding into the world and ministry of Jesus.
In my next few posts I will address the questions: What language(s) did Jesus speak and why does it matter? But before I begin to address these questions, I want to begin by saying something that seems so obvious that it doesn't need to be said. Are you ready? Jesus didn't speak English.
Why do I think it's important to state something so obvious as this? Let me mention two among several reasons. First, the fact that Jesus didn't speak English reminds us that we need to work hard to understand the original meaning of his teachings. You don't have to spend the next several years learning ancient languages because English translations of the biblical text are quite reliable. Moreover, there are plenty of commentaries and teachers who can bridge the gaps in your linguistic understanding. In fact, careful study of the English text of the Bible will allow you to discern Jesus' true meaning in most instances, even if you don't know the language(s) he spoke. But this careful study requires time and effort.
Second, the fact that Jesus didn't speak English reminds us that he lived in a culture quite different from ours. If we're going to understand Jesus, we need to take this difference seriously. Sometimes, however, we forget to do this. In a recent survey, people were asked to name the greatest American of all time. Jesus came in thirteenth on the list! (Ironically, Jesus tied with Bill Clinton.) Once we get beyond the silliness of this ranking, we discover a genuine problem. The more we see Jesus through the lens of American culture, the less we will know him as he really was - and really is.
Part 2: Jesus and Aramaic
Jesus' spoke Aramaic, the common language of Galilee during his lifetime. Aramaic was an ancient Semitic language related to Hebrew much as French is related to Spanish or as Cantonese is related to Mandarin. (Thanks to Prof. Zev bar-Lev for help with these analogies.) Though Jews had once spoken Hebrew as their primary language, this changed when Israel was overthrown, first by the Assyrians in the eight-century B.C. and then by the Babylonians in the sixth-century B.C. By the time of Jesus Aramaic was so common among Jews that the reading of the Hebrew Scripture in the synagogue was accompanied by translation into Aramaic. (For a helpful overview of Aramaic, see the "Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon" website of Hebrew Union College.)
In addition to the strong circumstantial evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language, we find direct evidence for this theory from the New Testament gospels. Though these gospels were written originally in Greek, at several points Jesus' words are given in Aramaic, for example: "Talitha cum" (Mark 5:41, "Little girl, get up!"); "Abba" (Mark 14:36. "Father"); "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?" (Mark 15:34, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). In these cases the actual Aramaic words of Jesus were remembered and passed on even by Greek-speaking Christians.
These passages and others from the gospels, combined with the predominance of Aramaic in Palestine in the first century A.D., make it virtually certain that Aramaic was Jesus' primary language. (There are a few scholars who believe that Hebrew was the primary language of Jesus, but they are quite in the minority. See, for an example, the Jerusalem School of Synopitc Research.)
But at this point you might be wondering: "So what? This is useful if you're a biblical scholar, or if you're Mel Gibson and want to use authentic ancient languages in your movie, but does the fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic make any difference to the rest of us?" Yes, I believe it does. It helps us understand something essential about Jesus, his culture, and his mission.
In my book Jesus Revealed I explain this observation: "The prevalence of Aramaic throughout the world of Jesus was a nagging reminder of a sad history [the history of Jewish domination by Aramaic speaking nations]. . . . Although Aramaic-speaking Jews in Jesus' day would have taken their language for granted most of the time, they surely would have felt a sense of dislocation when they couldn't understand the weekly synagogue reading of their own Scripture in its original Hebrew. . . . [Jesus and his contemporaries] didn't speak the language in which God had once revealed his own name. While living within the physical boundaries of the Promised Land, they were not fully at home. The words they spoke - and their yearning hearts - remained in exile" (Jesus Revealed, p. 20). Thus, even from the fact that Jesus and his people spoke Aramaic we can derive a sense of the Jewish longing for the full restoration God once promised through the Hebrew prophets.
Speaking of Hebrew, you might wonder if Jesus spoke Hebrew in addition to Aramaic. To this question and its significance I'll turn in Part 3.
Part 3: Jesus and Hebrew
So far we've learned that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and that this fact reminds us of the Jewish longing for the restoration God had promised through the Hebrew prophets. But did Jesus speak Hebrew in addition to Aramaic?
We have very little direct evidence by which to answer this question. As I explained in my last post, Jesus and his Jewish peers spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. Yet upper class Jews learned Hebrew as a literary and liturgical language. Many others, even those from the lower classes - like a carpenter, for example -- learned Hebrew so that they might be able to read and understand the Torah (the Mosaic Law) in its original language.
One text from the biblical gospels strongly suggests that Jesus had learned Hebrew as a second language. In Luke 4 Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, where he read a section from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-19). It is almost certain that this scroll was written in Hebrew, not Aramaic.
The only other passages from the gospels that might indicate Jesus' knowledge of Hebrew are those in which he debates theology with learned Jewish teachers (scribes and Pharisees). These debates generally occurred in Hebrew, much as Catholic theologians have used Latin for scholarly debates at the Vatican, even into modern times.
Did Jesus know Hebrew as a second language? Though we cannot prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt, it seems most likely that the answer is "yes."
What difference does this make to us? It reminds us of Jesus' Hebrew roots. These roots grew deeply into the fertile soil of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophets, and most pointedly the prophet Isaiah. Christians are often familiar with the idea that Jesus fulfilled the prophets, understanding this to mean that he did things the prophets predicted. But Jesus' fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets goes much deeper than this. His way of thinking about God's work in the world, his view of his divine calling, his fundamental message, and ultimately his understanding of the necessity of his death all come from the prophets.
I have known this for most of my adult life. But I had never fully grasped the extent to which Jesus' ministry must be understood in light of the Hebrew prophets until I wrote Jesus Revealed. In preparation for this project I re-read the prophets and was astounded by how much their message was continued by and fulfilled in Jesus. I concluded more than ever before that we will never truly understand Jesus until we immerse our minds and hearts in the Hebrew prophets. There we find expression of the yearning for restoration that Jesus offers. There we find hope for the coming of God's kingdom, that which was inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus.
So far I've argued that Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic and probably knew Hebrew as well. But what about Greek? This is the original language of the New Testament writings, not to mention the common language of the Roman world during the time of Jesus. Is there any reason to believe that Jesus could speak Greek in addition to Aramaic and Hebrew? I'll seek to answer this question in Part 4.
Part 4: Jesus and Greek
So far in this article I've shown that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language, and that he probably knew Hebrew as well. But what about Greek, the language of the New Testament writings? Is there evidence in the gospels that Jesus was conversant in Greek as well?
Once more I'd like to begin with the circumstantial evidence. Scholars have shown that the region in which Jesus grew up was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual area. Many Greek-speaking Gentiles lived around Nazareth, especially in the large city of Sepphoris that lay within reasonable walking distance from Jesus' hometown. Since Jesus worked as a carpenter prior to beginning his messianic ministry, it's quite likely that he would have interacted with people from Sepphoris, and therefore he may have known at least enough Greek to get by in business.
Several times throughout the New Testament gospels Jesus converses with someone who spoke Greek as a primary language, and who may not have known Aramaic. See, for example, Jesus' dialogue with the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. Of course it's possible that there was a translator present, and this detail was not included in the gospel story because it added nothing of substance.
Perhaps the most striking example of this sort of dialogue happens during the passion of Jesus as he interacts with Pontius Pilate. All four New Testament gospels record this conversation, with John providing the most extensive account (see John 18). It is unlikely that Jesus knew enough Latin to converse in the official tongue of the Roman empire. And it's equally unlikely that Pontius Pilate knew Aramaic. He was not the sort of gracious governor who would have made the effort to learn the tongue of his subject people, that's for certain. So it's possible that Jesus and Pilate used Greek in order to communicate. Of course it's also possible that they used an interpreter. (Here Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ is probably not historically accurate. I can't remember now whether Jesus and Pilate dialogued in Aramaic or Latin, but I'm quite sure they didn't speak Greek or have an interpreter. Whatever the case, Mel Gibson can be forgiven for such an oversight. We're dealing with probabilities at this point, anyway.)
At most we can conclude that it's likely Jesus knew at least some Greek. But even if his knowledge of this language was minimal, this fact still helps us understand Jesus more completely. For many years it was common to envision Jesus as growing up in the countryside of Galilee, far removed from multi-cultural hodge-podge of the Roman Empire. But this idealized view of Jesus is far from the truth. Though he grew up in a small town, he was not at all cut off from the broader Roman world. In fact Jesus grew up with ample exposure to Greco-Roman language, culture, commerce, politics, religion, and philosophy. When he eventually entered Jerusalem to confront the Roman and Jewish authorities there - and to give his life in the process - Jesus was no naïve country bumpkin making his first trip to the big city. Rather he was well aware of powers and perils he faced, and he faced these knowing, as he ultimately said to Pontius Pilate (in Greek?), "My kingdom is not from this world" (John 18:36).
Part 5: The Importance of Jesus' Languages: An Illustration
In my previous posts in this series I showed that Jesus' primary language was Aramaic, that he most probably spoke Hebrew, and that he quite possibly knew Greek also. Along the way I tried to show some of the implications of these conclusions. The question of Jesus' language(s) is not merely something to entertain scholars and Trivial Pursuit addicts. It matters significantly to our understanding of Jesus and his ministry.
Let me offer another illustration that shows why it's important for us to take seriously the language(s) of Jesus.
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus continually refers to the kingdom of heaven, as in "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matt 3:2). Many Christians take the phrase "the kingdom of heaven" as a description of what we call heaven: the place where we go to be with the Lord after we die. This makes good sense in English, because "kingdom" signifies a place ruled by a king, and "heaven" is the place we believers go after we die, the place where God rules (Matt 6:10).
But this is not what Jesus meant when he used the Aramaic phrase malkuta dishmaya (which appears in the Greek of Matthew as he basileia ton ouranon ). For one thing, the Aramaic word we translate as "kingdom" referred, not only to the place where a king rules, but to the authority of the king. Thus malku could be translated as "kingly authority, rule, or reign," and should be in the case of Jesus' usage. He's not saying that the place where God rules in coming near, but that God's royal authority is about to dawn, and is in fact dawning in Jesus' own ministry. Moreover, the Aramaic term we translate as "heaven," literally a plural form meaning "heavens," was often used as a circumlocution for God, much as my grandmother used to say "Good heavens!" rather than "Good God!"
So when Jesus said "the malkuta dishmaya has come near," he didn't mean that the kingdom of the "the place we go when we die" has come near, but rather that God's kingly authority was at hand. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and demonstrated its presence through doing mighty deeds, such as healings and exorcisms.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that there isn't such a thing as a blessed afterlife or that Jesus has nothing to do with how we enter this afterlife. But I am saying that when we understand Jesus to be talking continually about what we call heaven when he speaks of "the kingdom of heaven," we are fundamentally missing his point. He's speaking, not so much about life after death, as about the experience of God's kingly power in this life and on this earth.
In future posts I'll have much more to say about the kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus. For now, I think I've shown how knowledge of Jesus' original language(s) helps us to understand his teaching more accurately.
If you are looking for scholarship on Jesus that is careful and yet readable, you might find my book Jesus Revealed to be helpful. Each chapter summarizes historical evidence that helps us to understand Jesus, yet in a way that is meant for non-specialists. Plus, each chapter also connects the historical discussion to our personal faith today.
For more information on this book, click here.