Benzion Netanyahu, the late historian of Jewish history, would have probably been dismayed to hear his son, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claim during a meeting with Pope Francis this week that Jesus’ native language was Hebrew.
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“Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” Netanyahu told Francis at a meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.
The pope was quick to correct the prime minister and tell him that Jesus in fact spoke Aramaic, as mainstream biblical scholars generally agree.
There is compelling evidence for this: evidence from the Christian Bible itself, and historical evidence about the linguistic milieu Jesus was raised and lived in.
The evidence is in the Bible
The New Testament of the Bible was written entirely in Greek but is speckled with Aramaic words and phrases, many of them quotes from Jesus himself that were transliterated rather than translated. In other words, they were written in Aramaic but spelled out in Greek.
For example: “She [Mary Magdalene] turned herself, and saith unto him [Jesus], Rabboni; which is to say, Master” (John 20:16). Had Mary been speaking Hebrew, she would have said ravi, the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic rabboni, both of which could be translated “my teacher.”
But the most compelling argument from the Christian Bible is a quotation by Jesus on the cross, preserved in two separate gospels and in both cases written in Aramaic not Hebrew. “Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying ‘Eli Eli lema sabachthani?’ which is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46). The quote in Mark is almost identical with the Aramaic phrase, written as “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” (15:34).
Mainstream biblical scholars agree it is very likely that this quote by Jesus is authentic, not only because it appears in the two earliest extant gospels, but also because it is very unlikely to have been made up by early Christians, who would have surely preferred an account that does not depict Jesus as despairing and questioning God.
Assuming this was in fact a quote by Jesus, he was quoting from Psalms: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (22:1) in which the Hebrew reads “Eli eli lama azavteni?” Had Jesus been quoting Psalms in Hebrew, the gospels would have used the Hebrew word azavteni, not the Aramaic sabachthani.
But could Jesus have been bilingual?
Sure, you may say, Jesus spoke Aramaic, but it’s possible he spoke Hebrew too. Well, to answer this we ought to look at the linguistic milieu Jesus would have lived in. At the time of Jesus that is, the first century C.E. the spoken language in the Holy Land was Aramaic. Already we can see in that the upper strata of Judeans spoke Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Near East, already at the close of the First Temple period. This can be learned from the episode in 2 Kings in which Sennacherib’s messenger comes to Jerusalem’s gates in the seventh century B.C.E. “Then said Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language [Aramaic]; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews’ language in the ears of the people that are on the wall” (18:26).
During the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., the exiled Judeans picked up Aramaic. Indeed, parts of the later books of the Bible, Ezra and Daniel, are in that language, indicating that the Judeans were slowly shifting languages. This was a gradual process that took hundreds of years, but slowly Hebrew was dying out. In the Galilee, where Jesus lived, Aramaic had taken over by the time Jesus was born. In the south, in Judea, archaeological evidence shows that some pockets of Hebrew still remained during the first century C.E.
In addition to these Hebrew-speaking settlements in Judea, the priests in the Temple were for the most part still speaking Hebrew, and Hebrew remained a language of the law spoken and studied by the rabbis. But this was only the upper class of Judean society. Most people couldn’t read in any language. Modern scholarship estimates that the literacy rate in Roman Palestine was 3 percent and probably much lower in a rural backwater town like Nazareth. It is extremely unlikely that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth would be literate in any language, let alone Hebrew, a language he and the people he preached to probably didn’t know at all.
This may be shocking, especially since the gospels have accounts of Jesus reading from the Bible, but one must remember that the writers of these gospels never met Jesus and were writing their accounts based on an oral tradition. From what we can surmise, the law and the Bible most likely had to be interpreted and read by the rabbis for nearly all Jews, Jesus included. Even among the literate minority, Hebrew was becoming less common, as can be evidenced by the appearance of Aramaic translations of the Bible.
After Jesus was crucified, the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Hebrew lost its bastion in Jerusalem and was slipping away. During the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century C.E. an attempt was made to revive the Hebrew language, but this did not bear fruit as the revolt was crushed by the Romans. Hebrew died off as a spoken language by the end of the century, but continued to remain an important religious language for the Jews, though later religious texts most notably the Talmud would be written in Aramaic.
Still, Hebrew remained as a literary language much like Latin remained throughout the Middle Ages. But it would only become a living language in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when, as a part of the Zionist Movement and under the leadership of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Jews in Palestine took up their ancient tongue.
Where did Aramaic come from? The Aramaeans lived in the area that is now the border region between Syria and Turkey. They began to settle in large numbers in Babylonia and Assyria, and Aramaic eventually became the main language in Mesopotamia. When the Persians took over the region, they made Aramaic the official language of their vast empire, spreading the language as far as Egypt. Even after the Persian Empire was taken over by the Alexander the Great, Aramaic remained the region’s main language, with Greek taking its place only as an administrative language used by government officials and the language of the elite.
Aramaic’s dominance in the region declined rapidly with the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E. Aramaic was being pushed out by Arabic in a gradual process which continues to this very day, with only small pockets of Aramaic remaining. There are still a couple towns in Syria that speak Aramaic, and it is spoken in some mountainous regions of Kurdistan, as well as some other small communities scattered throughout the Middle East. In addition, some pockets of immigrants from these communities still speak Aramaic, but this surely will not last forever. An estimated 400,000 people speak Aramaic today, though they speak various dialects and would find it difficult to communicate with one another.
None, by the way, speak the Aramaic dialect spoken by Jesus.