HEBREW — The Primary Language of Jesus in Israel in His Day – 2 June 2014

Why Jesus was a Hebrew-speaker

Hebrew, and not only Aramaic, was a spoken language at the time of Jesus, but PM Netanyahu’s exchange with the pope wasn’t only academic: It’s a debate with a clear religious and cultural subtext.

By | Jun. 2, 2014 | 10:28 AM  (HAARETZ)

Around the turn of the millennium, I received an email from a party looking to create a film script about a first century Jewish sage teaching in Aramaic. Since my PhD was in Aramaic, and Semitic languages are an area of expertise, would I be interested? It aroused my curiosity, so I wrote back with a question: Since Jewish teachers in the first century tended to use Hebrew, why would the filmmakers want an Aramaic script? I received a short response that this film script was about Jesus, as if that was enough said. I declined their offer.

Last week’s news controversy over Jesus’ language, sparked by the exchange between Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and the pope, brings to light how an Aramaic-only speaking Jesus has been enshrined within the academy and society at large. Elon Gilad’s Haaretz article “What language did Jesus speak?” is a prime example.

Gilad starts his case by quoting John 20:16 where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabbouni, “my master, my teacher.” Since the Hebrew word rabbi is widely known by specialists and the common reader alike, the assumption is made that rabbouni cannot be Hebrew and must be Aramaic. But the gospel writer called the word Hebrew, not Aramaic, and he was correct. Rabbouni is, in fact, excellent Mishnaic Hebrew. It is attested in Codex Kaufmann of Mishna Ta`anit 3.8. Mistaken conclusions like Gilad’s are perpetuated by wrong assumptions which lead to wrong expectations. A century of Israeli Mishnaic Hebrew scholarship has laid the foundation for a different perspective.

Three backdrops to the language situation of Judea and the Galilee in the first century should actually reverse the expectations regarding Jesus and his languages: The colloquial nature of Mishnaic Hebrew, the anachronistic and foreign character of the Aramaic Targum translations, and the exclusivity of Hebrew in story parables.

A common fallacy presents Hebrew usage in first century Judea and the Galilee as a strictly sacred, literary language, comparable to Latin in Medieval Europe. The notion that both Hebrew and Latin were monolithic is erroneous. During the Second Temple period, Hebrew had developed into two social dialects. The high register was a literary dialect used for prestigious communication, known today as “Late Biblical Hebrew,” the language of books like Ezra and Nehemia and much of the Qumran writings. The low register can be seen in works like the Copper Scroll from Qumran Cave 3, and in various papyri, graffiti, and inscriptions from the Second Temple period, as well as the tannaitic and amoraic writings of rabbinic literature. Already in 1908, M.H. Segal had pointed out to the scholarly world that Mishnaic Hebrew showed the marks of the internal development of a colloquial language – it was definitely not an artificial usage by a scholarly elite.

Secondly, it is argued that first century Judean and Galilean Jews needed a translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Aramaic Targums. The argument runs that the existence of the Aramaic Targums must mean that the people did not know Hebrew. However, the Targums served an interpretive interest beyond simple translation, a commentary that elucidated and expanded the plain text. Also, although many Aramaic writings are found among the Qumran community’s scrolls, except for the foreign (imported) Job and a potential text for a pilgrimage holiday, there is no Aramaic Bible. The Targum traditions that we have stem from the 2nd and 3rd century C.E. At this point in time, a widespread, first-century Aramaic Targum practice in Israel remains speculation and the evidence available, meager though it is, actually points away from such an assumption.

Parables are the third piece of the linguistic puzzle. Certain Jewish literary genres were always in Hebrew, one of which was the rabbinic story parable. In rabbinic literature, even within Aramaic contexts, the story parable was always given in Hebrew. The potential connection with Jesus is obvious, since Jesus, too, is frequently characterized as someone who taught the populace in parables. The parable genre was used for making a point that could be readily grasped by all levels of society. They were a popular literary genre, not “highbrow” or “elitist.”

Archaeology has also been heralded as decisive evidence in the Aramaic-only Jesus. According to Gilad: “In the Galilee, where Jesus lived, Aramaic had taken over by the time Jesus was born. In the south, in Judea, archaeological evidence shows that some pockets of Hebrew still remained during the first century C.E.” This is ironic. The real problem is that we have virtually no archaeological evidence for first century Semitic (Aramaic or Hebrew) languages in the Galilee. We do have Galilean names found in the south, and they are Hebrew!

All of the above is to point out that there are strong evidences that support the prime minister’s comments on Jesus. Yes, in all probability Jesus did teach in Hebrew. Contra Gilad, Bibi’s father, a historian, could be proud of his son. However, the pope countered that Jesus spoke Aramaic. He, too, is partially correct. The Gospel of Mark records at least two utterances in Aramaic, both in private healing accounts, Mark 5:41 and 7:34.

The problem arises when people try to push the issue into exclusivity, either one language or the other. This reaches the most problematic point on the words of the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34). It is probable that Matthew’s transliteration reflects the original form of the story, and that Mark is the one who has edited the sounds. Matthew appears to have Jesus referring to Psalm 22 either in Mishnaic Hebrew, or a mixed language, while Mark has Jesus speaking fully in Aramaic, similarly to the two healing accounts mentioned above. In any case, a few statements in Aramaic do not prove its exclusivity.

It is no longer questioned nor considered a viable option that only Aramaic was a colloquial language in the land in the first century. Hebrew was also a colloquial language and a candidate for any teaching with Jewish audiences throughout the land, and may be the primary candidate for such teaching. As for a mother tongue, we simply do not know enough to speak about any particular family situation anywhere in the country.

Why is there such an emphasis on an Aramaic-only Jesus? What is the sub-text that unifies many of those who suggest that Jesus taught in Aramaic? If Jewish teachers tended to use Hebrew in the first century, then a Jesus that teaches in Aramaic can be portrayed as “non-Jewish” or “less-Jewish.” Some will be comfortable with that. Historically, many Christians have wanted to emphasize a universal (and non-Jewish) orientation for the Church and an Aramaic-teaching Jesus fit that role model. Ironically, the same motive might have been comforting within a Jewish context: Jesus is not one of “our Jewish teachers” and incidentally, he did not even teach in our language. Both sides could miss the real Jesus.

A Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jesus challenges long-held misconceptions. And even if we disagree, Netanyahu and the pope demonstrated that we can begin discussing these issues amicably.

Randall Buth, PhD, is Director of the Biblical Language Center and a member of the Jerusalem School for Synoptic Research, a consortium of Christian and Jewish scholars who collaborate in studying Jesus and the Gospels. He is a co-editor of the recent book, The Language Environment in First Century Judaea, (edited by Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley), Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Volume Two (Brill, 2014).

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Thanks to Randall Buth for responding to the opportunity afforded by the exchange between the Pope and the Israeli PM, Bibi Netanyahu, to give scholarly support for what the Scriptures have long indicated.

I (Howard) have always thought that Jesus spoke Hebrew as the primary spoken language of the Jewish people in His day.  If Nehemiah pulled out the hair because the returning Jews from Babylonian exile were speaking the language of Babylon (which I assume was Aramaic), and not the language of the Jewish people, then surely the Messiah Himself would be speaking the language of the Hebrew man.  (At the same time, I also believe that the language of the original texts of the New Testament was Greek, with many Hebraisms, given that nearly all of the writers were Israeli Hebrew speakers who could also communicate in Greek, the universal language of the day.  There are lots of Americanisms in my own Hebrew!)

Erasing Hebrew as the language of Jesus and of the Israelis in His day is similar to referring to Him living in Palestine, rather than in the Land of Israel, as mentioned in Matthew when His mother and foster father returned with Him from Egypt.  This is, on the one hand a form of anti-semitism; and on the other hand the righteousness of God:  Israel wants to blot out the name and memory of Yeshua; the nations want to blot out Israel from being a nation anymore.  Thanks and praise to God for our Redeemer and Savior to deliver us from the wrath to come!

The Gospel, The New Covenant, and The Messianic Faith Are Neither Jewish Nor Greek – 19 Dec 1998

Jude 3 – contend earnestly for the faith which was once-for-all delivered to the saints
[Lk 22:19-20]; 1Cor 11:23-26 – remember Yeshua and His death until He comes again

The heart and foundation of the gospel and of the New Testament and of our faith as Christians is Yeshua the Messiah and Him crucified, risen from the dead, ascended to glory, and coming again.  Our sins are forgiven through faith in the once-for-all sacrificial and atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.  We have fellowship (communion) with God our Father and with His Son, and with one another through the Holy Spirit indwelling all who are born again by the Word and the Spirit of God.

Does this sound like the religious teaching of Judaism?  Does it sound like the wisdom of the world’s great thinkers and philosophers?  NO!  For the cross is an offence to the one born with natural honor and privilege before God, such as to the Jews being the chosen  people, and  a  rock of stumbling to our fleshly pride and ambitions.   For the wise of this world, the cross – the means of a sure and shameful death for the transgressor – is foolishness, simplistic.  Yet for the one who believes, whether Jew or Gentile, the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God is the power of God unto salvation!

The gospel breaks down the wall of hostility between God and mankind, and also between Jews and gentiles, men and women, free and slave – in such a new way that it was a mystery known only to God until He revealed it in His own time to the Apostle Paul, in particular, who then made it known to the gentiles (nations), to kings, and to the children of Israel.

From the beginning in the Garden of Eden, the LORD God promised a Deliverer – a Savior – from the devil and evil to humankind through the Seed of the woman.  We learn in Romans how this deliverance extends to the whole creation.  To Abram the gospel was preached in that God told him that through him all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  It is faith such as Abraham showed which characterizes the faith of the true Messianic:  he believed the LORD; he believed what God said; he believed and trusted in the LORD that God Almighty could and would fulfill His promises, even if He had to raise the dead to do it!  The God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob is the living God of the living, the God whose power raises the dead to life eternal!  The Creator of the heavens and the earth is the one God of both the Jews and the Gentiles!

Is this what Judaism or any other of the world’s religions teaches?  Yet it is this good news and covenant of grace through repentance and faith in God which Yeshua came to bring and to fulfill.  He came to fulfill all that is written in the Law and the Prophets; He came to fulfill the word of God His Father – not the words or interpretations of anyone else.  The Jews and the nation of Israel as a whole rejected Him; so have too the gentile nations and peoples once the gospel is brought to them.  For the gospel allows no flesh to glory in itself or to approach God and live:  we must all – both  Jews and  gentiles from whatever nation or culture – be born again.  When we are baptized, we acknowledge not only Jesus’ death for us and His resurrection, but also our own death in His death, and our own resurrection in His, that we may no longer live unto ourselves but rather unto God in holiness and righteousness.  Therefore, there is continuity with our past life as unbelievers in that the Law and the prophecies are still being worked out fully; yet there is discontinuity in that we are alive in the reality of resurrection life, eternal life by the indwelling Holy Spirit –no longer under law but under grace.  The Holy Spirit will fulfill in us the righteousness of the Law, which we establish by faith.

The gospel and new covenant are so contrary and transcendent  to the natural man’s religion and intellect.  Let’s consider just a few points regarding Israel, since God gave Israel as an example for the Church and to the world:

  1. The religious and political leaders (in whom the people were represented) claimed that Yeshua consistently  broke the Sabbath regulations, even as He was manifesting the grace and mercies and compassion of God the Father towards others .  (Mt 12:2,10; Mk 3:2; Lk 23:14; John 7:23; Is. 58)
  2. They claimed that He was demon-possessed and cast out demons by the power of Satan, even as He was bringing the reality of the Kingdom of God into their midst.  (Mt 12:24; John 7:20; 10:19-20)
  3. They called Jesus a blasphemer because He claimed to be  God’s Son, or that God was His Father, thus making  Himself equal with God;  they accused Him of blasphemy because He, as a man, forgave sins.  (Mk 2:7; John 5:28; 10:31-39;  cp. 1 Chron. 22:9-10)
  4. The meek shall inherit the earth, rather than the rich and mighty who trust in their wealth and power and wisdom.  (Mt 5:5; 19:23-26; Jer 9:23)
  5. Many of the disciples themselves stopped following (walking with) Jesus when He spoke about eating His flesh and drinking His blood – a thought contrary to Israel’s law received from God.  (John 6:66; Lev. 17:11-12; Gen. 9:4; Acts 15:18-20)
  6. The apostles themselves were scattered when the Shepherd was crucified.  (Mt 26:31; Zech 13:7)
  7. Before knowing the Lord, did we see any beauty in Him that we desired Him?  Did we not, each in our own way perhaps, despise and reject Him?  Did we not consent to His death, assuming that there must have been some justification for it because of some sin of His own rather than for ours?  Paul, as Saul, was a blasphemer and a persecutor of Yeshua (who was already exalted back in Heaven) through the believers, the Body of Messiah, while being himself a zealous and God-fearing  Israeli!  (Is 53; 1Tim 1:13; Gal 1:13; Acts 9:4-5)
  8. A new commandment has been given God’s elect:  to love on the level of God’s love to us as shown and demonstrated through Jesus.  (Mt 5:43-48; John 15:12)

Brothers and sisters, the Christian testimony of Jesus being the Messiah and the Son of God the Father is confessed by both Jews and Gentiles who have believed and obeyed this revelation.  The gospel crosses every nation, culture, and language; the gospel brings Heaven’s rule and authority into the midst of the rule of the prince of this world’s power.  Jesus came to bring a sword into the world and to give His peace to the believer.  The church of the first-born includes all from Adam and Eve onward who have put their faith for salvation in the Creator God Almighty, who later revealed Himself as YEHOVAH, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and still later as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The equality of Jews and Gentiles before God under the New Covenant in Christ is still difficult for both to accept and be reconciled to.  The Jews wanted to stone Yeshua and, later, Paul  when they spoke of their mission including gentiles.  For about 15 years after the death and resurrection of the Lord and after Pentecost (Shavuot), the early church was Jewish in character.  The Jews thought that all gentile believers had to become Jewish.  The Holy Spirit and the council at Jerusalem declared otherwise in the wisdom of God.  Later in Church history the opposite occurred:  the non-Jewish believers thought that all Jewish believers had to become gentile, fitting the cultural norm wherever they were living.

The truth is that in Messiah God has made of the two one new man – one loaf representing Christ’s one body in unity.  Today there is still a spiritual battle being fought to bring the Body of Christ to full maturity of the faith of the Son of God – comprised of both Jews and Gentile believers, but not being either quite Jewish or ethnic in character.  Our unity in Messiah and our love for one another is our testimony in and to the world that we are disciples of the Lord Jesus and that God sent Him and loves us as our Father, even as He loved Jesus.

The gospel is God’s good news – offering peace on earth, goodwill towards mankind.  Give thanks and  praise His Name!