October 26, 2020
While it is commonly recognized that Jesus Christ is a real historical figure, there is no unified opinion about what language did Jesus speak since there are no written records left by himself that would serve as hard evidence. Moreover, this is a rather sensitive question as has not only historical and linguistic but also cultural, religious, political implications. Like many other aspects about Jesus and his life, this question creates an enigmatic aura around his personality. Still, research in historical linguistics and different clues from writings of that time can give some hints and allow outlining what most probable versions are.
Historians and linguists single out trances of three distinct languages in the Bible – Hebrew, Koine Greek, Aramaic, which could possibly be the language Jesus spoke. There are several other sources of information from which it is possible to make some assumptions about a tongue spoken by Jesus. Starting points are, for sure, time period and geography. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine circa 4 BC. At that time, common scholars’ lingo and leading one in writing was Hebrew. It is a Northwest Semitic language nowadays mostly spoken in Israel. Hebrew is fascinating from a linguistic view considering it is among oldest languages that has been suppressed but revived and still spoken by a large ethnic group and learned by non-natives. Unlike Latin or other ancient dialects that are now taught purely for scientific purposes, it remains a live, developed tongue used for modern communication. Also, major part of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament was written in Hebrew. So it can be considered primary language of the Holy Scripture. Thus, all these facts point out that this may be native language of Jesus.
However, Bethlehem’s population did not use Hebrew in their everyday communication. Instead, in the birthplace of Jesus original language was Aramaic. More than that, after conquests of Alexander the Great of Mesopotamia, Persia, Greek (Koine Greek) has been widely used regionally.
People there would also be familiar with Latin as Judea was once a part of the Roman Empire. But for the most part, Latin was used as language of officials as well as military. Back then, the Greek had a considerable influence. It served as a lingua franca for international trade and was widely used across the Roman Empire and beyond it (like English now used as a common international communication tool).
Koine Greek, also known as Alexandrian dialect, is a non-standardized form of Greek spoken across Mediterranean region and Middle East. It has derived from Greek, from a Hellenic branch of the Indo-European family. From all three languages under consideration, it is the only one that has Indo-European origin and does not belong to the Semitic group. Koine Greek is a language in which most parts of the New Testament were written. Christ spent much of his time preaching using Galilee, northern Israel region where Greek was common. However, scholars find it very unlikely that the primary language that Jesus spoke was Koine Greek. Besides, it is much more logical to look for the answer in his immediate linguistic environment, that explores lingo spoken by his family and community.
Most of the clues indicate that Jesus spoke Aramaic language. It is the most probable theory commonly agreed upon by scholars. Initially, primary tongue spoken in Judea was Hebrew but after the Babylonian captivity, Aramaic has superseded it. It follows that by the time Christ was born, Bethlehem people have used Aramaic as their everyday communication language.
Aramaic is the Northwest Semitic language belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is one of the oldest dialects traced back to 900 BC. Aramaic alphabet served as a basis for development of Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic writing systems and alphabet. For a long time, widely believed to be language of Jesus, Aramaic, was a lingua franca to a wide region from Syria, Palestine, reaching southern parts of Mesopotamia and Anatolia. It had a considerable cultural and linguistic influence until the 7th century BC when it gradually started fading. One can find many usages of Aramaic words and toponyms in the New Testament and some traces of it are still present in modern Hebrew along with Arabic. But going back to question of what language did Christ speak, there are some more important aspects to consider. One of them is native language environment.
Jesus was born in an Aramaic-speaking community, so perhaps his mother tongue was Aramaic. Considering that majority of population of Judea although speaks Greek would still prefer communication in Aramaic too. So language environment of Palestine and Judea, in particular, can serve as considerable evidence that supports this theory. Unfortunately, as his speech was retold and mostly in Greek, it is not possible to find out Jesus Christ language from any primary sources.
However, linguistic analysis of the Bible shows that Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic when preaching and talking to his disciples. Scholars have found many evidence in different parts of the New testament proving it. Gospels contain many specific words that had neither Greek nor Hebrew origin but were later identified as Aramaic. So, most probable answer question – what was the language of Jesus is that he spoke Aramaic. However, this might not be whole truth and there are still some points left for consideration.
The Bible does not contain any specific references to what Jesus’ education was. Most likely, as per tradition, during his early years, he would be taught by his parents. As the Bible says that for some time he worked as a carpenter, as his father Joseph, it can be concluded that he was taught this craft at home. In the Holy Scripture, Jesus is called a rabbi, which means a teacher. It probably suggests that he got some education. Like other boys, at the age of six, he would go to Bet Sefer (synagogue school) to study Torah (the first part of the Hebrew Bible). Since the Torah was written in Hebrew, Christ would be expected to read it. So answering question – what was Jesus’ language, one can say that he probably knew some Hebrew. However, he would prefer speaking Aramaic in everyday communication.
Education of Jesus’ listeners and disciples would likely be similar, which was very common. The only difference would be for women since they did not attend synagogue schools to study the Holy Scripture. It presupposes that most of his listeners would know Aramaic. So addressing question – what language did Jesus Christ speak when preaching, most probable answer would be Aramaic. Thus, although he might have known Hebrew too, for the most part, he would prefer language of his disciples.
Considering diverse linguistic situation at the times of Jesus’ life, it is very likely that he might have spoken several languages. So far we have touched upon Aramaic and Hebrew, but Christ might also have known more dialects. Among interesting questions to consider in this respect is what language would Jesus have spoken in Pilate’s Court? Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea that was under rule of the Roman Empire. His years of service were from 26 to 36 AD under Emperor Tiberius. From what is known about Pilate, he would speak Latin since he was a Roman Empire official. But since his communication would not be limited to other officials who spoke Latin, he should know at least one more language to communicate with locals.
So, an episode in Pilate’s Court poses another discussion concerning multilingualism of Christ. During the trial, when Jesus spoke what language did he use to communicate with Pontius Pilate? Evidence in the Bible suggests that they communicated in Greek. It is unlikely that Jesus would know more than a few words in Latin, which obviously would not be enough to keep a conversation, but it is not only about him. Then, nobody would record court proceeding script, but according to the Bible, there were witnesses during trial, elders, and chief priests that testified against Jesus. Since they were not familiar with Latin, they would most probably speak Greek, as Pilate was more likely to know it rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. Additionally, Koine Greek was a lingua franca in Jerusalem, which supports theory that it was language of communication between Pontius Pilate, Jesus, and witnesses.
Life and personality of Jesus Christ seem yet to have many blank spaces. With an attempt to find out what language Jesus spoke there seem to be more questions than answers and many theories seem plausible. It is hard to talk about the past with certainty and much information about Christ is only theories that have more or less supporting evidence. But what can be said without a doubt is that he is person who has changed the Christian world in many different ways and his legacy is fascinating.
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