Wednesday, 4 April 2012

What language did Jesus speak?

In his article "What Language Did Jesus Speak? Why Does It Matter?" Mark D. Roberts argues that the main language spoken by Jews in the first century was Aramaic which he suggests is also Jesus' primary language. He also argues that Jesus was at least bilingual also speaking Hebrew, and probably trilingual also speaking Greek.

Most of what he writes seems reasonable, though I have some sympathy for the idea that the Jews spoke Hebrew. One place I may differ with Roberts is what we the Dead Sea Scrolls imply. He states Hebrew is more common in these Scrolls.
During and before the time of Jesus, there wasn’t just one version of Aramaic being used in Judea and beyond. Some Aramaic was official and formal. This is preserved, as you would expect, in official documents and inscriptions. Some was informal and common. This was spoken and has mostly been lost to modern scholars. The fact that Aramaic was used by Jews in Judea is supported by its use in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are mostly in Hebrew, however), and in some ancient documents and inscriptions. Even many grave inscriptions around Jerusalem are in Aramaic, not Hebrew. It’s most likely that in Galilee, where Jesus was raised and where he began his ministry, Aramaic was the most common language of the people, though many would have been able to understand Hebrew and to get along in Greek as well.
And he is prepared to concede that the Qumran community may have spoken Hebrew in preference to Aramaic
By the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the most common language in Judea, though Hebrew may have been dominant in certain areas, such as Jerusalem or the Qumran community by the Dead Sea. Greek usage was also widespread in those regions during the first century A.D.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden in Qumran, but if many of them originated from elsewhere in Judea such as Jerusalem then perhaps Hebrew was more widespread than Roberts concludes?

5 comments:

  1. I am not sure how wise it is to use the Essenes to determine how widespread Hebrew was. That is kind of like using Amish documents to determine the prevalenxe of German.

    I thhink what would be more telling is the number of Aramain Tanakhs in the regions. From what I undrerstand Tanakh Aramaic translations weren't as common as the LXX suggesting that even in Aramaic speaking Jewish communities they knew cenough Hebrew to understand the Bible. Indeed I would not be surprised if the commoners spoke a blend of the two languages.

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  2. Jesus most definately spoke Aramaic and Hebrew (you can not read scripture at the synagogue unless it is in Hebrew), and most definitely Greek.
    If say, you were Chinese and living in NZ, you would speak Mandarin/Cantonese with your family and friends, English when you were doing business, shopping, etc, and christianese when you go to church...

    Yeah I know, a bit lame but it gives you the idea of how it would work. Greek was the "english" of the day, Aramaic was what the Jewish people spoke in their community, and Hebrew was a special language reserved for holy occasions like reading Scriptures, ceremonies and festivals etc..

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  3. JCF, yes and that is what Roberts is saying. I was questioning his conclusion with my final comment.

    Yes the scrolls were found in the region where the Essenes lived, and the common belief is that the scrolls belonged to the Essene community, ie. reflects their subculture.

    I believe it has been proposed that the scrolls are not peculiar to the Essenes, but were scrolls from the larger Judean region hidden in Qumran to protect them from the invading Roman forces. If this is indeed the case the the scrolls represent 1st century Judaism and not the 1st century Essenes.

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  4. Geoff, no issue with the multilingualism. But there is some debate around your comment Aramaic was what the Jewish people spoke in their community,. Some are arguing that not only was Scripture read in Hebrew, but that the Jews used Hebrew in the community also.

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