What Language Did Jesus Speak?

A small controversy erupted Monday during a meeting between Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A small controversy erupted Monday during a meeting between Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

As Netanyahu began speaking on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, he mentioned Jesus Christ, saying via a translator, “Jesus lived here. He spoke Hebrew.”

Pope Francis interrupted, pointing out that Jesus spoke Aramaic.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu responded after some chuckling arose from those seated around them.

Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters that both men had a point.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” he said. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.” Zuckermann went on to mention how Hebrew was spoken at the time by the lower class, the exact kind of people Jesus was said to have preached to.

CNEWA’s external affairs officer (and Middle East scholar) Elias Mallon offers this analysis:

The Huffington Post recounts that, during his visit to Israel, Pope Francis corrected Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It seems that in his attempt to draw links between Christians and Jews, the prime minister stated that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Pope Francis is said to have interjected, “he spoke Aramaic.”

Although Jesus most definitely did not speak Ivrit, the Hebrew of the modern State of Israel, both the pope and prime minister are probably right. Aramaic was the language generally spoken at the time of Jesus and together with Greek was the lingua franca of the entire Middle East.

While closely related, Hebrew and Aramaic speakers could not understand each other. We know this from 2 Kings 18:26-37. When the leaders of Jerusalem are negotiating the cessation of hostilities with the ambassador of the Assyrian king, the ambassador speaks to them in “the Judean language” in the presence of the Jewish soldiers. But the Jewish negotiators ask him to speak in Aramaic not Hebrew. The clear implication is that the defenders of Jerusalem would not have understood the negotiations if they were carried on in Aramaic.

One often hears that Jesus came from the hinterland, where the uneducated people spoke Hebrew, the older language of the land. However, the image of Galilee as a backwater is no longer tenable. Excavations at Sepphoris, a wealthy city and trade center about three miles from Nazareth, indicate that there was a large Greek-speaking community near the home town of Jesus. Greek merchants would most likely have been familiar with Aramaic if they were doing business in the Middle East. And as a carpenter it would be likely that Jesus had contacts with Sepphoris. It is also possible that he spoke some Greek.

There is mention in John 12:20 of some “Greeks” (hellēnēs) who wished to see Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, when referring to Greek-speaking Jews, Luke calls them “Hellenists” (hellēnistos) and not “Greeks.” So it is not unreasonable to assume the people mentioned in John’s Gospel were Greek.

Matthew, Mark and Luke each recount the story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 relate that the people were astounded at Jesus’ “wisdom” (sofia). Luke 4:16-19, on the other hand, recounts that Jesus was invited to read from the scroll in the synagogue. The reading was from the Book of Isaiah. It is highly unlikely that this reading would have been in any language other than Hebrew. So I would say it is fairly safe to assert that Jesus could speak and read Hebrew, Aramaic and perhaps Greek as well.

Of course in the contemporary Middle East, everything is politicized — demography, linguistics, even beverages. Coffee changes from “Arabic coffee” to “Turkish coffee” depending on where it is consumed. The good-hearted exchange between the prime minister and the pope, while an echo of stress lines in the Middle East, is also an example of how those stresses can be reduced through open exchange and respect.

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