Languages Spoken by Jesus
Many Christians today may not know what
language Jesus spoke. Yet they often take for granted that they know
pretty much word-for-word what Jesus "really" said when they read the
gospels in their own language.
It may come as a surprise to them to realise that we don't know for
sure what language Jesus in fact spoke. Many assumptions are made - but
in the final analysis, there is no direct evidence. Thus every copy of
every Bible today is a translation into a modern language of an ancient
tongue which may in turn have been translated from whatever language
The oldest texts we have of the gospels are written in Greek. Perhaps
that should settle the question. But it doesn't. They are in fact all
copies of original documents which have long since been lost. We
therefore can't assume that they are not translations into Greek from
some other language.
However, it is possible to make an educated guess about what language
Jesus spoke as he travelled around Galilee and Judea as a young man.
But why should it matter what language he spoke? There are a number
of important reasons:
It is well known that there is always a loss of meaning when a
language is translated. So if what he said was translated from
whatever language he spoke into Greek and then into English or any
other of the thousands of languages and dialects current today, it's
certain that we are getting a somewhat distorted version of the
original. This loss of meaning happens regardless of how expert a
We know for certain that Palestine of Jesus day was
multi-lingual. It may be, therefore, that his sayings were translated
from his tongue into that of those listening to him. If so, the
distortion of meaning would have been that much greater. As in some
parts of the world today, there may even have been translations into
more than one language or dialect. Some Jewish people, for example,
spoke only Latin or only Greek or Nabatean (once used from Western
Iraq to Damascus in Syria and southwards into the Sinai Desert).
Depending on what language he spoke, Jesus may not have been
able to reach certain types of people. In some countries and
situations language can bar a person from certain groups, from
education and from employment. If Jesus' message was confined to a
minority language, it would have been more difficult for him to speak
across social barriers.
Some cultures still have two forms of the same language.
A high form can exist parallel to a low form, or a formal version
might be used alongside an informal one. There are even situations in
which a language exists only in a written form having little or no
direct reference to the spoken form. The "picture" scripts of China,
Japan and some other Eastern countries are examples. In this case, the
spoken language is not written down at all.
The main languages of Palestine in the first century were Hebrew,
Aramaic, Latin and Greek.
Hebrew was underpinned in earlier
times by a number of local dialects. Like all languages, its primitive
forms developed over the centuries into various forms or types. In the 200
or so years before the first century it was superceded by Greek as the
official language. Herod the Great's coinage carried Greek letters. Its
written form varied with social context. Richer, better educated people
wrote a higher form and others probably used a lower, less complicated
written language. The latter was closer to spoken Hebrew.
scholars assume - with limited evidence, it has to be said - that Jesus
spoke Aramaic. This was a variant of Hebrew dating back some 700
years, when a type of Aramaic was the international language of diplomacy
used by the Assyrian Empire and later (in changed form) the Persian
Empire. By the first century a standard written form of Aramaic had
developed. Like Hebrew, it was underpinned by a variety of spoken dialects
and was probably spoken in some form by most people of Palestine. In its
spoken form it was the language of the marketplace.
Some think that
an educated Hebrew in Jesus time would have spoken Aramaic, but have been
educated in Hebrew . But even someone who spoke
Aramaic but could not read Hebrew could probably have understood the
latter being read (as many Muslims today understand Arabic and Jews
understand Hebrew even if their home language is not the latter).
The use of Greek
in Palestine began with the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great
in 332 BCE. It was used by the
region's bureaucrats for local administration, so most people had to have
some knowledge of it. By the time of Jesus, Greek had become the lingua
franca of the entire Roman Empire. Because of its wide use, words from
Greek tended to penetrate other languages. Educated people had to have
in-depth knowledge of Greek which extended to Homer and the Attic poets.
The Hebrew historian Josephus wrote good Greek, for example, though he was
teased for his poor pronunciation. The gospels and Paul's letters were
written in a common or street version of Greek called koine
(a word closely related in meaning to "unclean").
was the language of the Roman Empire but was probably used only by the
army and officials in Palestine - hence, say some, the use of the language
on Jesus' crucifix rather than Aramaic or Greek. Some suggest that Latin's
position meant that it would have been useful for even ordinary people to
know some words and phrases .
So, for example, the wine jars in Herod's palace at Masada turn out to
have been labelled in Latin. Latinisms have been noted in various Greek
and Hebrew texts.
Some may wonder if people
could have got by in what seems to have been a Babel of tongues in
Palestine. Certainly, a person with only a single language would have been
at some disadvantage. And those in more rural areas would most likely have
been in just that position. But in towns and cities many would have been
proficient in two languages and able to communicate in one or two more
. Josephus as a young man probably knew Hebrew,
Aramaic and Greek - and probably also Latin, for he lived in Rome on a
state pension from the year 70 until he died.
What then of Jesus? What was his first language, and did he speak more
than one? After all, he was born in Nazareth, then populated by only some
400 people and very much a rural town. He could have fallen into the
uni-lingual category of so many rural people. If so, he would have been
able to speak directly only to his own language group.
John Meier thinks that
... since as a teacher he obviously wished to be
understood by his audience, which was largely made up of ordinary
Palestinian Jews, Jesus would have spoken whatever was the language
commonly used by ordinary Jews in their daily lives in Palestine.
This would have been mainly Aramaic. But as the above indicates, we
can't be absolutely sure what language or languages ordinary Jews did
use. Very few were literate, so the languages used in texts and scrolls
they left behind can't be a representative sample of the whole
population. Pottery lettering, coinage, official inscriptions and
gravestones would all have been brief and would presumably have been
translated for the illiterate. All over the world to this day, people
earn livings by reading and writing for others. And, Meier points out,
some scholars distort the evidence by lumping together language samples
from different centuries rather than focusing on a specific time.
Nevertheless, there is a very strong scholarly consensus that Jesus, like
most other ordinary rural people, almost certainly spoke Aramaic at home
and in his village. His would most likely have been a Galilean dialect of
Aramaic, no doubt containing local words, phrases and accent. Meier thinks
that Peter's denial in Matthew 26.73 indicates the existence of such a
dialect when the onlookers say, "For sure you belong to them [followers of
the Galilean Jesus] because your speech betrays you."
The sayings of
Jesus which have been passed down to us through the gospels were probably
originally in Aramaic and were then translated into Greek and other
languages as Christians gradually spread throughout the Roman Empire. This
argument is strengthened by the existence in the Greek text of the gospels
of phrases in Aramaic. The phrase talitha coum ("young girl arise")
in Mark 5.41 is a good example. Similarly, the Aramaic word
abba for "daddy" in Mark 14.36 probably derives from an Aramaic
original. So also do the words from the cross in Mark 15.34 (eloi,
eloi, lema sabachthani - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me").
And when the Greek text is analysed in depth, the influence of many
similar Aramaic words and phrases can be detected.
concludes that Jesus also probably knew a good deal of Hebrew. He would
have been taught the Hebrew scriptures as a boy, and would have heard it
and used it during worship in village meeting places (which were, in
effect, proto-typical synagogues).
Many think that Jesus probably
also spoke some Greek. It would have been useful in getting around,
although his primary audience would have spoken Aramaic. Galilee was more
Hellenised than Judea to the south. The Decapolis or "Ten Cities" were
mostly of Greek foundation (and included Gadara, Gerasa, Medeba and
One of the best known and largest city of Greek
foundation was Sepphoris. It lay only about seven kilometers the the
north-east of Nazareth, not much more than an hour's walk away. It had
shopping malls, planned streets, Greek temples and a theatre. Greek was
its main language and because it lay on the main road leading to Tiberias
and Capernaum it was a thriving trading post. It stretches the imagination
to suppose that Jesus, an enterprising and quite well-travelled man, would
never have visited the city and in the process have learned some Greek and
absorbed some Greek culture.
Even Jerusalem was Hellenised to a considerable degree. But we don't
know that Jesus ever said anything in Greek to be passed on as oral
wisdom to new Jewish-Christians. Meier says that
... without formal education in Greek, it is highly unlikely that
Jesus ever attained "scribal literacy" - or even enough command
of and fluency in Greek to teach at length in it with his striking
verbal artistry [in Aramaic].
So he could probably get through everyday situations like buying and
selling or asking directions and the like. Similarly, Jesus could well
have had a smattering of Latin.
In summary, it is probably too restrictive to describe Jesus merely
as an illiterate peasant. He may have been illiterate - but then so was
99 percent of the population. Illiteracy was no bar to culture. The
spoken word was used effectively in a way we in the more literate 21st
century find hard to appreciate. People knew how to listen and remember.
Their verbal skills were well honed.
More likely is that Jesus was a cultured man, well versed in the
intricacies of the multi-lingual society in which he lived. Like any
cultured person of his time he would have known much about the world,
about its myths and stories, and about the varied peoples who flowed
constantly through this bottleneck between the Roman north and the
 M O Wise in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels,
 S E Porter in Dictionary of New Testament Background, IVP,
 Many South Africans, for example, speak three or four of the 11
 A Marginal Jew, Vol. I, Doubleday, 1991