Getting a clear idea of the ways of communication and the main languages that existed thousands of years ago is no simple task. Religious topics are delicate, not only in a spiritual way but in a political, legal, economic and historic way. Scholars have studied documents such as the Christian Bible for hundreds of years to reach conclusions as accurately as possible. So it’s no surprise that asking ‘What language did Jesus speak’ has no one definitive answer, or at least, it didn’t for a long time.
This article will take you through some of the discoveries that have been made over the years and the main points that found agreement among specialists and professionals in the area.
A historic follow-up
Over the years there have been countless representations of the way of living that could have prevailed in biblical times. Theater plays, movies, TV series…each with its own perspective on life back then. But one of the factors more difficult to determine –and also, one of the most challenging to replicate today– is language.
Though it might seem peculiar now, in the first century, languages had in fact multiple functions. Communication, as it is today, was the main one of these. But the different channels and means by which these languages were transmitted is what gave them a unique reason.
See, some languages were used for records and writing, while in ordinary conversations, people would use an entirely different tongue. Commercial trade, for one, would demand the use of several dialects, just like religious rites and practices.
In the specific analysis of the Bible, there are three leading languages that have to be considered:
- Greek (Koine Greek)
Each had its own particular use and, in order to identify which of them was the language that a central historical and religious figure like Jesus would have spoken, the distinction is necessary.
Let’s take a closer look at that distinction.
Centuries before Jesus was born, Greek had already been spoken in the territory we know today as Palestine. Though not necessarily in areas where Greek culture was dominant, it was spoken by many in regions such as Galilee –where Jesus lived and preached for years– for economical reasons.
Back then, Greek was the language handled for international trade and commerce. So it’s reasonable to believe that merchants who traveled through the area coming from Alexandria or Egypt would have influenced certain Jewish communities around Jerusalem and Judea.
Another fundamental sign of spoken Greek is Roman authorities. Remember that, during Jesus’s lifetime, these regions were under the control of the Roman Empire. Any Roman official obligated to communicate with local Jewish on political or administrative matters wouldn’t have been able to use Latin since a non-Roman audience couldn’t understand it.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that this was the language that Jesus spoke during his preaching to the crowds since not everyone belonged to an upper class that would allow education, nor were members of the Diaspora in Jerusalem (Jewish authorities).
Did he speak Hebrew then?
There is undoubtedly a significant number of religious documents that were written in Hebrew, including deutero-canonical literature such as Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus. Actually, almost the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew. But, again, writing and speaking were not the same thing.
Hebrew was used in prayers and study, and it had a powerful and symbolic connotation. After the Babylonian exile, Hebrew gained social importance as the language that represented the Jewish nationhood.
We can imagine how this was a language used in a religious and liturgical way, but still, it was not the chosen dialect for ordinary conversation. There are even episodes in the New Testament where Jesus speaks in the synagogue and discusses the Torah with others, which probably involved Hebrew. But outside these circumstances, it’s unlikely that it was an everyday-life tongue.
What language did Jesus speak?
Jesus spoke Aramaic. He also could read and speak Hebrew as a language of prayer and study, and because of his years in Galilee, it is likely that he also spoke and understood Greek.
Now, there are some chapters in the prophecies of Ezra and Daniel in the Old Testament that were written in Aramaic which became popular as a language in the ancient world, displacing Hebrew as the main living spoken language. Some Aramaic words can also be found in the New Testament, even though most of it was written in Greek. As we’ve mentioned before, Greek was the language of scholarship during that period (50 to 100 AD).
Judging a book by its cover?
It’s important to leave prejudices behind when it comes to analyzing history. Many would think that since Jesus was part of the Hebrew people, that must have been his chosen language, and as we’ve seen, it wasn’t.
A smart first step to approach any debate is to go straight to the sources. In this case, timing makes this very difficult. All of this happened centuries ago.
Think about it. Some of the copies that contained parts of the Old Testament were discovered in 1947. Not so long ago, right? Those copies, just like the ones found from 200- 300 AD, were deeply studied and it was found that they were written 900 years ago. And still, they’re copies. Not the original. Those have all probably been destroyed.
So, how can we tell for sure? Protocol. Back in those days, copying religious texts by scribes was a very delicate procedure that involved a few instructed men with the necessary formation to handle those sacred documents with great care. Part of their job was being extremely precise. Almost 5000 hand-copied documents have been found to this day which contains the complete text of the Bible or parts of it, and they agree on 98% of the content.
This is why, before making any assumptions, is good to know that there are effective sources where it’s possible to consult and find realistic answers to basic inquires such as the language of Jesus.
When evaluating historic records and documents that may be written in a foreign language, it’s fundamental to count with a reliable language service provider with the necessary expertise to deliver an accurate translation.
Something like this will take you a step closer to the authenticity of your analysis.