Language and Culture
Theology and Christian Faith
What language did Jesus teach in?
It is thought Jesus taught in Aramaic, since no mention is made of the language used, and the common language of the whole region, and native tongue of resident Jews, was Aramaic. It appears to me that most common people in Judea would not speak Greek as a mother tongue.
On the other hand, Greek had been the common language of business, as well as government before the Romans, for about three centuries. And known factors would indicate Greek would be more prominent in Galilee, a more Gentile area. (For more on the language situation of first-century Palestine, see Stambaugh and Balch, The New Testament in its Social Environment.)
But Jesus likely spoke Greek, since he was apparently educated as a Rabbi. It is not clear what specific training Jesus would have had as a rabbi. I would think there would be fewer formal opportunities in Nazareth than in Jerusalem or other parts of Judea.
Also it is helpful here to point out that Rabbinic Judaism, while offering some helpful insights into the first century and into the development of the role of a rabbi, developed over the next few centuries of the Christian Era. Some commentators and sensitive pastor-theologians have in recent years discovered some helpful clarifications of stories and encounters in the Gospels. It is also possible that some may have read back into the time of Jesus characteristics of later Rabbinic Judaism.
The Judean Language Situation
In Jerusalem, Greek might have been common, but might have been less so in the countryside. Hebrew was used only in formal settings, and not a language of common communication.
Common literature and teaching seems to have favored both Aramaic and Greek. Several works in the Septuagint translation, later removed from the Bible into the "Apocrypha" by the Reformers, were written in Greek, not translated from Hebrew.
Some Hellenistic Jews apparently still spoke Aramaic, but their native tongue was Greek, and some probably did not speak Aramaic. They most likely would have spoken some Latin, but would not have had to be fluent, as Greek was more widely spoken than Latin.
It is instructive to note that the translators of the Septuagint were not Alexandrian, but were Palestinian, according to the common tradition. The idea of the translation in Greek and the request came from Egyptian Jews, but the legendary 70 (or 72) scholars who translated the Hebrew text into Greek were sent to Alexandria from Jerusalem.
I have wondered what language he used with Pilate. It likely was Greek, since no indication is given of any interpretation being conducted. It is possible interpretation would simply have been assumed, and thus not remarked upon by any gospel writer, since interpretation was most likely commonly used in legal proceedings. So it is a surmise.
There are other encounters recorded in the gospels that seem to have as their purpose the emphasis that Jesus came for the whole world, all the peoples (ethnicities) of the world, and not just the Jewish nation (race, ethnicity) into which he was born. It is quite possible some of these are generalized or composite for the literary considerations in each gospel. At any rate, multiple encounters are recorded where Jesus directly interacted with various individuals in Galilee and in other Roman provinces that were specifically Gentile.
It is most likely, for instance, that any direct conversation with a resident of Sidon or other Phoenician towns would have been in Greek. The Syro-Phoenician woman and Jesus further engage in clearly ethnic humour, which further focuses the role of Jesus on non-Jews. They would have been speaking in Greek.
Jesus encounters the Demoniac of the Decapolis, and while we see him engaging the demonic forces in control of the suffering demoniac, the language we would expect in that setting was Greek. This was a Greek area, east of the Jordan River (and Sea of Galilee), settled in early Greek times (about 300 years earlier), and still primarily Greek. Note that the herd of livestock was pigs, never present in a Jewish context.
These are only some of the instances we could probe to gain awareness of the multi-cultural, but heavily Greek-dominated, cultural setting in which Jesus was raised and in which he ministered. Let me analyze them in more details.
The Syro-Phoenician Woman
(Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-37)
One example is the encounter with the "Syro-Phoenician" woman in Sidon. This was never part of Israel or Judah that I am aware of, and was still a separate domain under the Greeks and the Romans. Greek would have been the likely language spoken there in Jesus' day, though I expect Aramaic would have been heard as well, since old Phoenician or Canaanite (and the form of it that became know as Hebrew) is a related Semitic language. Aramaic, introduced by Asian Empires arising in neighbouring Aram, arose alongside the related local Semitic languages, before the establishment of Greek.
There were still native speakers of Greek there in modern times, and Greek (Melkite) churches operate there today, though many of those community members have emigrated due to the wars.
Jesus was probably speaking Greek with the woman. And the focus and point of that exchange is not the healing of her daughter, but the ethnic point the Gospel makes of the universality of the Kingdom of God. It is rarely if ever recognized that the phrases and ethnic jibes are an example of the humour of Jesus, and the reason for this exchange is to point out that the Good News of God's Kingdom, while coming through a Jew to the Jews, was a universal message, not a Jewish commodity.
This story makes that point as Jesus and the woman exchange common ethnic abuses or proverbs reflecting cultural stereotypes. I can hear the lilting sarcastic humour and see the tongue-in-cheek smiles at the edges of their mouths as she and Jesus make fun of their respective cultures' prejudices! Jesus is making the point that the common Jewish attitudes toward other cultures is not in sync with the plan of God.
Jesus only incidentally heals the woman's daughter, and we are left with the challenge that we (the Jews as the original audience) cannot claim a monopoly on God. The point is therefore simultaneously an encouragement and comfort to the Gentile believers in the audience where this Gospel would be read (and thus to us who are the non-Jewish cultural recipients of the bounty of Gospel Grace).
If this is meant to also be an actual historical event, then surely this was going on in the native language of the region, Greek. This encounter is just like many I witnessed and took part in during my cross-cultural adventures over nearly 40 years living in various places! I loved the richness of this cultural reflection among my Kenyan friends and colleagues of many tribes and languages! Much of the humourous exchange was ethnic fun!
Whether we veiw this as a record of an actual historical encounter (as we would think of "history" in the modern scientific terms) or as a literary device of the Gospel writer to make the point, Jesus is portrayed as managing this encounter directly. The assumption seems to be that he could do this on his own in the language of the woman, or at least in a language common to them both — which I would take to be Greek.
The Roman Centurion
(Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)
Jesus healed (raised from the dead) the servant of a Roman centurion. While Luke's version of this story has Jewish synagogue elders approaching Jesus on behalf of the Roman, reporting him as a benefactor of their synagogue, Matthew's version portrays the centurion directly approaching Jesus and making his request in person. This discussion would certainly be carried out in Greek. Jesus is portrayed as speaking directly with the centurion.
(Luke 8:26-39; Mark 5:1-19)
Similarly Jesus interacts directly with the people in the Decapolis (Gadara/Gerasa), the possessed man, the pig owners (definitely not Jews!), the people of the village, etc. This would have been in Greek, since this was a specifically Greek area, settled by Greeks, still identified as the Ten (Greek) Cities [Deca-Polis].
(Matt 27:11-14; Luke 23:1-5; Mark 15:1-5)
And look at the discussion Jesus had with Pilate! Laying aside the practical question of historical verification — "Who was in that chamber taking notes on their conversation?" — that conversation would have been in Greek, unless Pilate was using an interpreter, of which we have no indication in the Gospel story (though, admittedly, that is probably irrelevant to the purposes of the Gospelers). Jesus seems to be communicating one-on-one with this Roman governor.
Pilate would be a native speaker of Greek (though he may have also spoken Roman, or Latin). He may have been a primary speaker (Greek as the main language he used every day) and not necessarily a native bilingual of Greek. Greek was the language of Roman administration, and many governors were not Romans from Italy. They did not even have to be Roman. So I would be very surprised if anybody should put forward some evidence purporting to show that Pilate could even speak Aramaic.
We don't have much historical information on Jesus, but in the Gospels he is certainly not portrayed as the ignorant country bumpkin who only spoke Aramaic and could not manage even that common multi-lingual and multi-cultural society of the north. The standard stereotypes of that era and its personages, both in and out of the church, are not the picture we get if we really read the Gospels to actually see what they say!
It seems most likely that Jesus' teachings out in society were in Aramaic. Likely this was also the common language of his disciples. On the other hand, there are indications now that Galilee had remained a Greek-speaking area, even under the Maccabees, who rebelled against the Greco-Persian empire. So perhaps they were bilingual.
Aramaic would likely be the language used in the synagogues, though the Torah would be read in Hebrew. It seems likely from recent studies that Hebrew was still being used by the priestly class (the Sadducees). It had not been a common spoken language of the people for several centuries, definitely since before the Babylonian Exile.
The Shift to Aramaic
Indications in the stories of the Hebrews under the Assyrians indicates that Aramaic was the common language used by leaders of the House of Israel (northern kingdom) directly with the Assyrian authorities before the Assyrian desolation of Israel, though Hebrew was still spoken by the people among themselves. After two generations in Babylon, the re-established nation of Judah was an Aramaic-speaking people, as well as the northern territories formerly called Israel.
The Pharisees of Jesus' time surely spoke both Aramaic and Greek, with Aramaic mother tongue. Sadducees likely used Greek in communication with the Roman authorities, who also used Greek among themselves.
Greek in Private?
A correspondent asks further:
Is it possible that Jesus sometimes spoke Greek in private?
The exchanges in the Gospels seem to favor Aramaic in the private exchanges of Jesus and the core group, referred to sometimes as "The Twelve." It seems to me likely that his interchanges across the Judean or Galilean countryside would also have been in Aramaic, that being the established language of interchange for over 600 years.
Here are some background perspectives that might shed light on this question.
Gospel writers were likely native speakers of Aramaic, except perhaps Luke. Some also propose that he was actually also a Jew, though perhaps in the Diaspora like Paul, and not a Palestinian Jew (Judean or Galilean).
Some of the Disciples could have been "native bilinguals," though it seems to me likely they would have been Greek speakers of a second-language variety. The Galileans would have more likely been Greek speakers than the Judeans, except for the elite and leaders of Judea, the Sadducees and leaders of the Pharisees.
We do find that there were synagogues with Greek members, especially in the Diaspora. Acts and Paul's letters make reference to Greeks or Greek-named persons who might be Jews or Greeks, in the synagogues where Paul and his companions always went first when they entered a city.
In one story in the Gospels (Luke 7:1-10) we see one such person where a group of Jewish elders support the request of a Roman benefactor who requests Jesus' assistance with his sick servant. So in the outlying areas, especially Galilee and the surrounding Greek areas (Decapolis, Phoenicia, Syria), the Jews would have had to speak Greek. Those growing up in that area we may assume were native bilinguals of the form of Greek spoken there. Details are missing.
The point of this is that there were Palestinian Jews who would have been able to make the appropriate correspondence between the puns and idioms of the two languages. It not just a one way street as the Aramaic Primacy advocates tend to simplistically assume. In the bilingual areas like Palestine, we would expect that people would commonly merge their idiomatic expressions and wordplays. I see this everywhere I have lived, all multi-lingual areas. These sociolinguistic factors are ignored in all the Aramaic Primacy advocacy I have seen.
Many times, bilinguals will actually translate the pun from one of their languages into the literal equivalent (as opposed to the cultural-social equivalent) in the other language. This makes a new hilarious joke that entails the original meaning. This is a nuance unavailable to those outside that multi-lingual setting. We would do this all the time with our Kenyan and international friends, in Swahili, Kikuyu or English, or other languages used there. Such nuances from speakers of 1st century languages in their multi-cultural setting are likewise unavailable to us in our later cultural context.
With all the specific details missing, however, from a scientific linguistic point of view, there is insufficient evidence for us to be definitive on the effect, good or bad, of the wordplays that might have occurred in Aramaic or other sources languages, which are available to us only in Greek. The arguments of the Aramaic Primacists that the wording they have in their translation are the original are unconvincing from the linguistic point of view. It is quite likely, however, that their Aramaic Bible does retain much of the original flavour of the life interchanges which are lost in the Greek.
A Greek Region
Greek had encroached during the last 300 or so of that period, though. Greek was definitely the language of commerce and interchange among the broader population, since the Greek Empires had ruled every area of life, including the Jewish political and religious life. The Hasmoneans seem to have operated through Greek, while maintaining Aramaic.
I would expect their conversations included words, phrases or whole sentences in Greek, since they were all Galilean natives (from the little we do know about them, assuming the few comments may be taken as historically accurate in our modern terms).
In regard to the multilingual situations where I have lived, mentioned above, it is common for a second language to enter in to the conversations of a group of bilinguals, even if they are not native speakers. In Kenya, we would commonly hear to Indians talking to each other in their Indian language and throw in phrases or whole sentences in English or Swahili. Three or more language might be used in one phone call or live exchange. We could often follow the conversation (at least to get the gist) even though we did not know the Indian language they were supposedly using.
In multi-lingual situations it is common for everyday terms, phrases or frames of reference to default to the language more commonly used for that in the broader context. Thus business terms, names for things, even numbers in many languages, would be English or Swahili, instead of the known and used ones in the language of conversing.
In Kikuyu, for instance, the language of the largest people of Eastern Africa, among whom we lived for decades, they always used English numbers, though they would still recognize the Kikuyu numbers if you used those with them. Since English was the common language of commerce, prices, ages and phone numbers were always given in English.
Likewise in the TV commercials in Swahili, English numbers were almost always used to avoid confusion. The same here in South Africa, where TV commonly uses many languages: Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, Zulu. Almost all numbers are in English.
In Galilee and areas north, the default was likely Greek, since Damascus was the capital of the Greek (Seleucid) Empire until taken by the Romans about a century before. In the more rural areas and as we go farther south (on the west side of the Jordan), I would expect Aramaic to become the default, with considerable Greek also used. The larger and more international the market, the more you would expect Greek to be the expected language of commerce.
It seems very likely that Greek was a common component of the Aramaic multi-cultural life of Jesus and his Galilean companions. (Keep in mind that the weight of historical context for this Galilean identity is increased by the perspective that the Synoptic gospels have the totality of Jesus' ministry in Galilee, until the last few days of his life in Jerusalem.)
I doubt, though, that Greek was the primary medium of exchange for Jesus and his apparently all-Jewish core group. The impression I get from my study of authorities on this topic matches the picture I get from the known linguistic and cultural factors. The picture is that they were Aramaic speakers, and this was the primary medium of their relationships, but Greek would have been a prominent component of their general living context.
Let me add here that the portrayal in the Gospels does not seem to have the intention of providing these details that are important to us now. That said, I have seen some indications that Jesus did use Greek personally in some exchanges, with non-Jews in Greek settings. From some other comments that are made at certain times, the lack of comment on how these exchanges occurred tends to indicate that Jesus himself handled these exchanges in competent cross-cultural communication in the native language of the context.
Christians Started with a Greek Old Testament
The Gospels in their Jewish Setting
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE. Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
Hebrew Usage in the First Century
Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
Jesus and the Hebrew Language
Language the New Testament was Written In
Language Usage in the First Century
Literacy Training in 1st Century Palestine
Time or Character – The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios: How Words "Mean" in Greek and English
Was the New Testament Written in Aramaic?
What Was Koine Greek?
Related on the Internet:
Evidence from History and the Gospels that Jesus Spoke Greek
What Language(s) Did Jesus Speak and Why Does It Matter?
Topic originally addressed in an email exchange 12 August 2002
Updated and posted 21 November 2004
Rewritten 24 September 2008
Last edited 12 August 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2004, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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