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.”
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.
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.