What Language Did Jesus Speak?
A question that I am often asked is, “What language did Jesus speak?” Now, I’m not going to Bible-juke you and say Jesus spoke all languages because He was God and, therefore, omniscient. Jesus was divinely human, and lived as on earth as Yeshua, the Jewish craftsman from Nazareth.
Let’s get right to the point. Contrary to many mainstream theologians, we feel pretty convinced that the evidence suggests that Jesus spoke and taught regularly in Hebrew.
Now, it’s virtually undisputed that Jesus spoke or at least understood three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
The opinions begin to differ regarding what Jesus’ primary language was. For years the academic and theological community has dogmatically taught that Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic. Modern scholarship understands that Jesus would have most likely understood some Hebrew but argue that Aramaic was the language during Jesus’ time in the Galilee, and would have been the language spoken in His ministry and to His disciples.
However, historical, theological, and archeological discoveries have led many to realize what our forefathers seemed to understand — that the King of the Jews spoke Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people. Now, we are not advocating that Jesus spoke Hebrew and Hebrew alone. We believe that Jesus and other Jews in the Second Temple period spoke and understood many languages, including Hebrew.
Why does this matter?
Before we dive deep into history, archeology, and scripture, you may be wondering why the topic of Jesus’ language is even relevant. Well, it matters for two reasons. One is theologically beneficial, and the other is philosophically crucial.
First, understanding the Hebrew origins of Jesus’ ministry is vital for proper translation and theology. The New Testament was strategically written in Greek, since that was the language with the furthest global reach (as we will discuss further in this article). However, the New Testament writers weren’t primarily speaking Greek; they translated their language into Greek. Don’t you think it would be essential to know the language they were talking, thinking, and teaching in? When scholars understand the Hebrew language, syntax, idioms, and expressions, more excellent knowledge is gained on the meaning of the text.
But more important than the theological side is the philosophical. Why does much of the Church and academic community insist that Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew? Many have accepted this idea for years because there seemed to be no debate. But for some of us, the thought of a thoroughly Jewish Jesus makes us a little uncomfortable. It’s easier for people to accept the pale-skinned Jesus found in many paintings, or even the Aramaic-speaking Middle Easterner, because they struggle with Jesus being a Hebrew-speaking, Torah-reading, Jewish Son of Israel.
In 2014, we saw this happen in real-time when the Pope was visiting Israel. He was interviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said, “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.” Netanyahu’s statement was jarring; even Yahoo news reported that the Pope looked “unhappy at his comments, quickly correcting the prime minister.” The Pope responded, “He spoke Aramaic.” Probably realizing this was a fruitless debate, Netanyahu conceded, “He spoke Aramaic, but He knew Hebrew.”
Why was this major Christian leader so apprehensive about the idea that Jesus spoke Hebrew?
There is no question that antisemitism has been a major part of church history and has been an unfortunate black stain on the Church for years. Whether it was the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, or hundreds of other examples, terrible things have been done to the Jewish people in the name of Jesus.
It should be highly puzzling how all those atrocities have been done to the Jewish people in the name of the Jewish Messiah. But the thing is, if we are honest, we have tried not to think about that part. We like to think of Jesus as the first Christian, not the Messiah of the Jewish people.
We have tried to “de-Jew” Jesus for centuries, whether through a stained-glass window of a blue-eyed Jesus or the poor carpenter who spoke Aramaic in “Palestine.” Either way, it feels like we don’t want to confront Jesus’ Jewishness — or how the enemy is trying very hard to conceal that idea from the Church.
When we get a revelation into how Jewish Jesus was and still IS, currently seated at the right hand of the Father, it begins to change our perspective. Understanding Jesus as a Jew opens our eyes to the true meaning of Scripture and opens our hearts to the Jewish people, of whom God calls His “Firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), “The Apple of His Eye” (Zechariah 2:8), and “His Special Treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
If something doesn’t sit well with you when you hear Jesus was a Hebrew-speaking Jew from Israel, it’s possible that you might have some innocent antisemitism the Lord wants to reshape.
Now, let’s get into the evidence for why we feel confident that Jesus spoke Hebrew, as well as Aramaic and Greek.
We must remember that the region and culture in which Jesus lived were multicultural and multilingual. Let’s break down all three languages Jesus spoke/understood and the evidence that leads to these claims.
Jesus speaking or understanding Greek is the least controversial of the three. The best way to think about the Greek language during the time of Jesus is to think about modern-day English.
The Greek language became the international language through the conquests of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Just like today, when you can go to most countries and find English, you could travel far and wide throughout the ancient world and find Greek.
Greek, often referred to as “Koine Greek” (koine meaning common), was the first century’s common language of the Mediterranean world. To do business and trade throughout the ancient world, one had to be able to speak “common Greek.” This is why the writers of the New Testament chose to write their gospels and letters in Greek, as they wanted it to have the furthest possible reach throughout the world.
We know Jesus spoke, or at least understood, Greek because He had a conversation with a Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5, and later had an in-depth discussion with Pontius Pilot in the Gospel of John (John 18:28).
Aramaic or Hebrew?
The focal point of this article is to establish the primary language of Jesus and the Jewish people in the first century. The question is not, “Did Jesus speak Hebrew or Aramaic?” The answer to that is most likely, “Yes!” Jesus and many others would have spoken both very well.
Hebrew and Aramaic are very similar Semitic languages, most likely stemming from a common ancestor. Which language came first and what the common ancestral language was is open for debate, but we won’t cover that topic in this article.
So, let’s start with the common ground.
The language that the children of Israel spoke throughout their history was Hebrew. The Torah (Old Testament) is written in Hebrew, and the Israelites would have spoken Hebrew.
The Kingdom of Israel split into two separate nations (both speaking Hebrew) under the rule of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. Israel was the Northern Kingdom and Judah was the southern Kingdom. Both eventually were subdued and taken into captivity.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria around 720 BCE. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians around the 580 BCE.
In 586 BCE, the Judeans, from thereon known as the Jews, begin taking on certain Babylonian customs, one being their language. Aramaic was the dominant language of Babylon and was later adopted by the conquering Assyrians.
Jewish people began to speak and write in Aramaic. Parts of the book of Ezra and much of Daniel are written in Aramaic, as both of those books were written in the period of captivity.
The Jewish people returned to Jerusalem 70 years later, and Nehemiah complained that the Jews no longer spoke their native language:
“Half of their children spoke the dialect of Ashdod or the language of other peoples, but none of them understood the language of Judah.”
To combat the decline of Hebrew among God’s people, Ezra established Hebrew Torah readings, prayers, and hymns to be utilized every sabbath, many of which are still used today.
Now fast forward to the Second Temple period and the time of Jesus.
Aramaic: The Common Tongue
Aramaic was the “lingua franca” or the “common language” for the Eastern Mediterranean from roughly 700 BCE to 200 CE.
Because Aramaic was the common language of the day, many historians assert that Jesus, as a common man in Judea, would have spoken Aramaic.
Famous archeologist Yigael Yadin, who did much work pertaining to the Dead Sea Scrolls, observed that Aramaic was used in many early documents during the first century. But he noticed a “shift” to Hebrew around 125 CE during the Bar Kokhba revolt. The assertion is that Bar Kokhba perhaps wanted his people to return to their language in their quest for freedom from Rome. Therefore, Yadin’s supposition was that Jews must have spoken Aramaic as a common language up until 125 CE when you begin to see more Hebrew writings.
Hebrew: The Holy Tongue
The popular belief in the academic community is that Aramaic was the common tongue and Hebrew was the holy or religious language used only for Torah readings and prayers. This is what I was taught in Bible school, and it rang true for me as I pictured how Latin was used in many Catholic Churches. For centuries the priests spoke Latin and the Bible was written in Latin, but it was not the language that the everyday people spoke. This is how Hebrew is seen at the time of Jesus.
Though many will affirm that Jesus would have been able to read Hebrew, and perhaps understand Biblical Hebrew passages, they claim that His ministry would have been spoken in Aramaic. Let’s look at these claims a bit deeper.
Aramaic and Hebrew Words in Scripture:
The most prevalent evidence for Aramaic being the language spoken by Jesus is the use of Aramaic words found in the New Testament.
“’Talitha kum,’ which translates as, ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up.’”
“And looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” which is ‘be opened’.”
And there are plenty more, like Abba (Mark 14:36) or Golgotha (Matthew 27:33).
However, this debate is usually one sided. If the Aramaic found in Scripture leads us to believe Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic, what do we do with all the Hebrew words used in the New Testament?
Mammon is used, which is Hebrew for “money.”
Corban is used, which is “gift of God” in Hebrew.
Levonah is used, which is the Hebrew word for “frankincense.”
These along with a slew of other Hebrew words like:
Rabbi (Matthew 23:7,0); Beelzebub (Luke 11:15) Satan (Luke 10:18); Raca (Matthew 5:22); and amen.
Remembering that Hebrew and Aramaic are both Semitic languages and that Aramaic was a spoken language in this region, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Aramaic words in these narratives. The region of Judea (Judah) had become a multilingual society with Hebrew and Aramaic used side by side. We also know that throughout history Hebrew borrowed many words from Aramaic, and Aramaic borrowed many words from Hebrew. The presence of Aramaic words in Scripture does not refute the idea that Jews spoke Hebrew at this time.
And it’s not only the prevalence of Hebrew words in the New Testament that leads us to claim that Jesus and His people spoke Hebrew. It’s also the Hebrew style imbedded in the New Testament.
Hebrew Influence on the New Testament
As we have mentioned, the New Testament is written in Greek, with the occasional Hebrew or Aramaic word transliterated or used.
One of the arguments for the use of Hebrew in Jesus’ day is the clear influence the Hebrew language has on the text. Many Hebrew idioms and expressions in the New Testament only make sense when seen through a Hebrew lens.
Jesus encourages people to have a “good eye.“
“If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness”
The term “good eye” and “bad eye” are Hebrew idioms to mean “look generously upon someone/the poor.” You will hear this expression in Israel even today, but it is found nowhere in the Aramaic language.
We see the Gospel according to Matthew translating Jesus’ words as “The Kingdom of the heavens.” Many modern translations have adjusted it to “The Kingdom of Heaven.” But the Greek is read literally, so the word “the” comes first and the word “heaven” is plural.
Matthew 13:44 BLB
“The Kingdom of the heavens is like treasure having been hidden in the field, which a man having found, hid. And for joy over it, he goes and he sells all that he has, and buys that field.”
Matthew chooses to add “the” and made “heavens” plural because in Hebrew it is Hashamayim. “Ha” – is “the” and the ending “im” is plural, literally “The Heavens.” This is strong evidence that Jesus spoke Hebrew and Matthew carefully translated the Hebrew words to Greek.
Some countless other idioms and expressions point to a Hebrew foundation. The idiom “flesh and blood” in Matthew 16:17 is another Hebrew idiom meaning “human,” which is not found in Aramaic. When talking about the Phoenician woman in Matthew 15:20, the word “Canaanite” is a very Hebrew way of describing her — not Aramaic or Greek.
Many scholars have even mentioned the syntax used in the New Testament is often very Hebrew, especially when quoting Jesus. For instance, Jesus used the traditional Hebrew blessings, prayers, and hymns in Matthew 26:26, and also when He spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 26:14. When the Apostle Paul corralled the crowd in Acts 21:40 and 22:22, he did it by addressing them “in the Hebrew tongue.”
But the most prominent evidence for Hebrew being the spoken language of the Hebrew people is found in Luke 23:38 and John 19:20.
“And a superscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
“Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.”
If Aramaic was the common language of the Jewish people at this time, wouldn’t Pontius Pilot write this inscription in Aramaic so the people could read it? He wrote it in Hebrew because the people spoke and understood Hebrew.
(For further study you can read this article 9789004263406_04-EBRAISTI)
Extra-biblical evidence for Hebrew being spoken regularly
Although many claim Hebrew was only a religious language used in synagogue, extra-biblical evidence is abundant (evidence outside of the Bible) that proves otherwise.
Dead Sea Scrolls
The most notable find in recent years was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish manuscripts that were discovered in Israel near the Dead Sea community of Qumran in 1946. To date, there have been roughly 25,000 fragments found. These contain, but are not limited to, every book of the Old Testament besides Esther, biblical commentaries, and certain communal laws specific to the Qumran community. These documents were written roughly between 200 BCE and 100 CE.
What’s interesting regarding the topic of language is that all of these scrolls were written during the period that scholars agree Jews were speaking Aramaic. Well, all the Scriptures were written in Hebrew, but so were the majority of the commentaries and the writings of their internal laws for their community. Ten of these major scrolls were published in 1982, nine of them being in Hebrew and one in Aramaic. If Aramaic was indeed the “common language” for Jews, you would expect to see the scriptures in Hebrew, but the commentaries and the community’s rules were primarily in Aramaic.
Again, I am not suggesting that Jews didn’t speak Aramaic in the first century. But I am advocating that Hebrew was spoken as well, most likely as the primary language of the Jewish people, including Jesus.
Professor Frank M. Cross of Harvard University, one of the leading scholars on the handwriting in the Dead Sea Scrolls, says about the ancient writers, “They had an inferior knowledge of Aramaic grammar and syntax and their principle language was Hebrew.”
For example, let’s consider the account in the Talmud (Nedarim 66b) about the communication difficulties an Aramaic-speaking Jew from Babylon had with his Hebrew-speaking Jewish wife from Jerusalem.
Or the author of the Letter of Aristeas (a Hellenistic work from the around the 2nd century, which is the earliest letter mentioning the library of Alexandria) writes, “The Jews are supposed to use Syrian [Aramaic] language, but this is not so, for it is another form [of language].”
These texts show Aramaic and Hebrew commonly spoken by the people of Israel. They don’t give the impression that Aramaic was dominant and Hebrew only ritualistic, but both languages, especially Hebrew, were vibrant and used in this period.
There also seems to be some interesting church history that supports the claim that Hebrew was not only spoken in the day of Jesus, but most likely used to write the book of Matthew, the first Gospel written to a Jewish audience.
Papias, a church father who lived from 70 CE – 130 CE, wrote, “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.” Irenaeus, a church father from 120 CE – 202 CE, wrote, “Now Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their own tongue…”
Jerome, who lived from 347 CE – 419 CE, translated the New Testament in Bethlehem for much of his life. Jerome wrote that, “Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek, though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered.”
There have also been many findings in Israel dating back to the first century bringing this debate back to the surface.
Many coins embossed in Hebrew have been found in Israel, dating from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Of the 215 Jewish coins found, 99 were minted with Hebrew inscriptions. Only one has an Aramaic inscription.
Hebrew inscriptions on first century ossuaries (basically ancient tombs where the bones of family members were kept) are being found all over Israel. These were not inscribed by rabbis or the ultra-religious, but by families. There is an ossuary lid from a town three miles east of Jerusalem that lists the payroll of all the undertakers working the graveyard, and this payroll list is written in Hebrew. Payroll is not a religious text, meaning Hebrew may have been their everyday language.
We can conclude, based upon a variety of well-founded evidence, that Hebrew was a living and vibrant language among first century Jews. Aramaic was also spoken in Israel since the time of the Babylonian captivity, and yes, Jesus most likely spoke both Greek and Aramaic. But no longer can Hebrew be brushed aside as a dead language spoken only in the synagogue. The Hebrew commentaries and texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls show otherwise. The hundreds of Hebraic idioms and phrases laced throughout the New Testament show otherwise. The Hebrew inscriptions on coins and tombstones throughout Judea show otherwise. The letters from early Church fathers regarding a Hebrew version of Matthew suggest otherwise.
So, wouldn’t it make sense that the King of the Jews spoke Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people?
By David Blease
Gateway Center for Israel