What language did Jesus speak?

Today witnessed a very minor verbal exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the language Jesus spoke. Reuters reports the incident on the final day of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East:

During his comments about a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity and tolerance towards Christians in Israel, Netanyahu told the [sic!] Francis: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.

“Aramaic,” the pontiff interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

The difference of opinion reignites a historic debate about the language Jesus spoke two millennia ago.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann added that during Jesus’ time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

Pope Francis (R) meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem May 26, 2014 (Photo courtesy of Reuters / Alex Kolomoisky).

Jesus was evidently a native Aramaic speaker. The quotation in Mark 5.41 has Jesus address Jairus’ daughter with the words Talitha koum—an Aramaic phrase meaning, ‘Kid, get up!’ He would also have been very familiar with Hebrew, the language of most of the Jewish Scriptures. His references to the Scriptures on numerous occasions within the Gospels suggests this.

However, Jesus would also have been conversant with Greek. Galilee had one of the highest concentrations of Greek speakers in the Roman Empire outside of the Greek heartland of the Aegean. In fact, within short walking distance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris—a large Greek polis in the heart of Galilee. There is every chance that Jesus not only visited the city multiple times, but he may well have worked there in his profession as a carpenter. It was, after all, one of the largest economic centres in Galilee, and it was in the immediate vicinity of Nazareth.

The Apostle Peter?

Jesus’ disciples were also probably familiar with Greek. The hometown of apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip, was the town of Bethsaida at the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee. In c. 2 BC it was granted status as a Greek polis and renamed Julias. Thus these three disciples, two of whom (Andrew and Philip) bore Greek names, grew up in a Greek-speaking environment. It also helps explain how Peter attained the name ‘Peter’. His original name was Simon, a good Hebrew/Aramaic name. Jesus, however, gave him the nickname ‘Kephas’, which is Aramaic for ‘Rocky’ <cue theme music to Rocky>. Paul refers to him as Kephas (or Cephas in modern English versions) in his correspondence with the Galatians and Corinthians. However, elsewhere, his name is easily translated into the Greek equivalent for ‘rock’, Peter (Greek: Petros).

There is a possibility that some of Jesus’ ministry was conducted in Greek. For example, there is good reason to suggest that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in John 3.3 is dependent on an ambiguity in Greek, but not in Aramaic or Hebrew. Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Unless someone is born over, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ The relevant term used in the Gospel here is ἄνωθεν (anōthen) Nicodemus hears this as ‘born again’, while it seems from the rest of the discussion that Jesus meant ‘born from above’. The rendering ‘born over’ captures something of this ambiguity in English.

Jesus also seems to have conversations with Greek speakers throughout the Gospels. He chats with a Greek woman from Syro-Phoencia (Mark 7.24–30), a Roman centurion (Mark 8.5–13), and the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. On each occasion he might have made use of an interpreter. However, it is more likely that Jesus was able to conduct the conversation personally without an interpreter.

There is even the possibility that the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying (Mark 10.25) is a misunderstanding of a saying in Greek. The word for ‘camel’ in Greek is κάμηλος (kamēlos), but the word for thick ‘rope’ (the type used to moor a ship to port) is κάμiλος (kamilos). There is virtually no difference in pronunciation between the two. Did Jesus perhaps say, ‘It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’? If he originally made the statement in Greek, he may well have. If, however, he made the statement in Aramaic, there would be no such ambiguity. I guess we’ll never know.

But all this is to say that Jesus was almost definitely a comfortable speaker of Greek, in addition to his native Aramaic, and the Hebrew of the Jewish Scriptures.

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16 thoughts on “What language did Jesus speak?

  1. perhaps even a smattering of latin. certainly hebrew and aramaic. in all probability greek. so yeah, agree with you almost completely.

        • Most of the Roman soldiers in Galilee were part of the legions drawn from Syria. Greek would probably have been the common language among them. But there was the Italian Cohort stationed with the Prefect at Caesarea Maritima. This was the cohort that travelled to Jerusalem every Passover to keep order. So yes, plausible on that level.

  2. In my opinion, Jesus’ Greek need not have been very proficient. (I made my argument on Biblical Hermeneutics–Stack Exchange a few years back. I now work for the company that runs the site.) The way I think of it is that Jesus may very well have been like the people I know here in Los Angeles who need to know English for their jobs, but can get by with a fairly rudimentary understanding. More recently, I considered the Sepphoris connection and drew a similar conclusion.

    The difficulty with determining the level of Jesus’ Greek is that we don’t have any direct evidence that he spoke that language. The examples you gave have alternative explanations: the authors of the Gospels were writing for Greek-speakers and therefore adapted his words into that language. That’s why the evidence for his Aramaic is so strong.

    At any rate, thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’ll never think of Peter the same way again. 😉

    • Yes, I don’t think Jesus was a veritable Homer in his Greek. But the research on the density of Greek speakers in Galilee is quite something. If I remember rightly, Rachel Hachlili argued for it being one of, if not the highest density outside of Greece. That suggests reasonable proficiency, more than enough to get by. It would have probably been more than a smattering–enough to hold a decent conversation.

  3. What evidence is there that the general populace, Jesus included, actually spoke Hebrew? as you’ve mentioned, there’s talitha koum, and also sabaktani rather than ‘azavtani from the cross. Couple that with the quoting of the LXX or other Greek versions, and I don’t see a lot of Hebrew in use.

    • The reading and discussion of Jewish Scriptures presupposes knowledge of Hebrew. Whether it was anyone’s language of the home in the first century is unknown. Galilee seems to have been thoroughly Aramaised. If Hebrew continued to be spoken, it would probably have been in Samaria and Judea, a kind of linguistic inertia from the Iron Age. Hebrew seems to get a look in at certain very nationalistic moments. The Maccabees might have made Hebrew widespread, but I’m not sure we have direct evidence for that. Ben Sira claims his grandfather, Jesus, wrote in Hebrew. That’s early to mid second century BC. This at least attests to Hebrew being used in literary contexts, as do the Dead Sea Scrolls. 2 Macc 7 gives the account of the tragic slaughter of a woman and her seven sons who converse in the ‘language of their fathers’. If this detail is historical rather than merely expressing dramatic nationalism in the story, then it seems to imply people could speak Hebrew. But how widely it was used as a first language we’re still not completely sure.

      • Likely, the New Testament is a Jewish document though written in Greek in its final form, it was written with a Hebraic mind. The writers thought in Hebrew or referred to the Hebrew Scriptures and wrote in Greek with Hebraic idioms in Greek.

          • Thanks for the response. The synoptic gospels have evidence of the Hebraic mind behind the text. Luke 15 using the word heaven as a euphemism for God and Matthew 6 the reference to good eye as a Hebraic idiom meaning generosity are examples of Hebraic mind.

            • I would draw a distinction between Hebraic conceptuality and Hebraic idiom. That is, one can discuss concepts that arise within the Jewish Scriptures even using the terms in it, but in another language. Hebraic idiom is where we can see the sentence structures reflecting Hebrew syntax rather than Greek. John clearly has Hebraic syntax, but Luke doesn’t. The other consideration here is preservation of what Jesus might actually have said, which was probably in Aramaic. Luke may be appropriating a saying in Aramaic and translating that into Greek, but again this does not mean he is thinking Aramaic in his head but writing in Greek. Luke’s Greek is reasonably polished.

  4. Pingback: Saint of the Day, June 28, 2014: St. Peter, First Pope | euzicasa

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