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.
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!