Thanks to the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchednezzar ‘the Great’ can be identified with Nabonidus

Marduk temple


 Damien F. Mackey


The historicity of the prophet Daniel and of the book that bears his name has become hopelessly clouded by factors such as the (i) inaccurate view of neo-Babylonian succession; (ii) a late authorship (C2nd BC) attribution; and the (iii) over-emphasis upon Aramaïc.  

Attempted interpretations of the Bible can suffer badly from erroneous extra-biblical factors, such as an over-inflated historico-archaeological model.

The biblical narrative is thus forced to squeeze fit, in Procrustean fashion, within a matrix that has no proper basis in reality, meaning that we end up with, not so much the prophet Jeremiah’s “Terror on every side” (e.g., 20:10), but with “Error on every side”. In Part One of this series (, however, and elsewhere, I have argued for a radical shortening of the conventional neo-Babylonian succession, with Nebuchednezzar II ‘the Great’, for instance, now to be identified with the King Nabonidus who so notably resembles “Nebuchednezzar” of the Book of Daniel.

The reason being, that Nabonidus was that Nebuchednezzar.

But historians and biblical commentators almost universally adopt an approach quite different from mine. Blindly trusting in their conventional apparatus, they, upon realisation that the biblical data cannot comfortably be aligned with it, must emasculate the biblical account in, as I said, a Procrustean fashion. One example that stands out in my mind is that of the fallen walls of Early Bronze III Jericho, which adequately fits the account of it given in the Book of Joshua, but archaeologically does not correlate with the estimated time of Joshua, but, rather, with a much earlier era. Conclusion: The Joshuan account must have borrowed from some real historical situation that had occurred many centuries before.

But, how about this approach instead? The Joshuan account adequately fits a real historico-archaeological situation that is thought to have occurred much earlier than Joshua.

Let us re-examine the conventional apparatus to see if it has all been put together properly.


Now, in the case of the Book of Daniel, what has been so colourfully narrated about its king, “Nebuchednezzar”, seems to have been borrowed from a king named Nabonidus. So – and this has been my approach – could Nebuchednezzar and Nabonidus be just the one king, meaning that the conventional neo-Babylonian succession has been wrongly constructed, with kings being multiplied.

That is not the usual approach, though, as we shall read next.



Book of Daniel and historical evidences



“The Babylonian king Belshazzar in Daniel 5 reflects the historical Bēl-šar-us-ur, eldest son of Nabonidus and regent of the kingdom during his father’s ten-year absence in Arabia. The Daniel tradition erroneously makes him the actual king and portrays him as the son of Nebuchadnezzar”.


Paul-Alain Beaulieu




The methodology that I wrote that I favoured in Part Two (i) is by no means the usual approach, however, which latter is typically the one employed by Paul-Alain Beaulieu, in his nonetheless interesting article, “The Babylonian Background of the Motif of the Fiery Furnace in Daniel 3” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 128 (2009) 289-306), also available at:

Beaulieu, who has accepted the standard view of long oral traditions leading to a late authorship of the Book of Daniel, will nonetheless find that “the story of Daniel and his three companions being taken to the court of Babylon, given rations from the king’s table, and educated in the lore and manners of the Chaldeans, fits remarkably well with the evidence available from contemporary documents”:


…. The royal order to worship the golden image, the refusal of the three Jewish youths to comply with Nebuchadnezzar’s demands, their ordeal in the fiery furnace and miraculous salvation, followed by their reinstatement in royal favor, all raise fascinating literary and theological questions. The themes and motifs that make up this narrative underwent a long process of oral and written transmission that is extremely difficult to reconstruct.


Indeed, any proposal in that direction is bound to remain speculative. Changes inevitably occurred in the tale during the long process of its elaboration, a time span covering more than three centuries. This means that the original historical background remains partly concealed behind the final redaction. How much does Daniel 3 reflect the situation of Jewish exiles at the Babylonian court in the sixth century, and the political and theological debates which took place at that time?


I propose in the next few pages to address one aspect of this question, the motif of the punishment in the fiery furnace.


  1. The Account in Daniel 3


The episode related in Daniel 3 allegedly took place at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Jerusalem who reigned from 605 to 562 …. Following the deportations he ordered, Jewish exiles settled in Babylonia in substantial numbers in the early decades of the sixth century.

The fate of some exiles is now documented by a group of cuneiform contract tablets stemming mainly from two localities in the region of Nippur, one of them called “city of Judah/of the Judeans” (Al Yahudu/Yahudayu), the Babylonian name of Jerusalem.


As the majority of the people appearing in the documents bear West Semitic and Judean names, it seems certain that this new Jerusalem in Babylonia had been founded by recent exiles. Those Judeans integrated to various degrees into the life of their new home. Some even gravitated around the royal court. Indeed, such a group of Judeans appearing in cuneiform tablets has been known since 1939, when Ernst Weidner published administrative documents discovered in Babylon at the beginning of the twentieth century in the storeroom area of the royal palace and datable to the thirteenth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.


A few tablets record deliveries of rations to groups of foreigners, some of them obviously state prisoners. Among the recipients one finds Jehoiachin, the king of Judah exiled in 597, and a number of unnamed Judean men and princes who presumably belonged to Jehoiachin’s retinue. 2 Kings25:27–30 tells us that in the twenty-seventh year of the exile, the Babylonian king Evil-Merodach (= Amēl-Marduk, son of Nebuchadnezzar II, reigned 562–560 … released him from prison, provided him with a regular allowance and received him every day at his table.


Mackey’s comment: I have identified this king Jehoiachin (Coniah) with the conspiratorial Haman of the Book of Esther:


Is the Book of Esther a Real History?


Beaulieu continues:


Therefore the story of Daniel and his three companions being taken to the court of Babylon, given rations from the king’s table, and educated in the lore and manners of the Chaldeans, fits remarkably well with the evidence available from contemporary documents.


While the general historical context of Daniel 3 seems relatively easy to assess, some aspects of its setting remain foggy. It has long been accepted that behind the Danielic Nebuchadnezzar lurks a memory of the historical Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, who reigned from 556 to 539 ….


Mackey’s comment: But, according to my reconstructions, Nabonidus was not “the last king of Babylon”, but he was Nebuchednezzar himself, hence the Book of Daniel’s lurking “memory of the historical Nabonidus”.

Beaulieu will now, again missing the point, go on to write that Nabonidus’s son Belshazzar is a reflection of the “Babylonian king Belshazzar in Daniel 5”. The truth of the matter is that this is just the one Belshazzar. Thus we read:


The figure of Nabonidus emerges most clearly in Daniel 4 and 5. It is now generally accepted that the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness and his expulsion among beasts originates in a recollection of Nabonidus’s eccentric behavior, especially regarding religious issues, and of his withdrawal to the north Arabian oasis of Teima. The Babylonian king Belshazzar in Daniel 5 reflects the historical Bēl-šar-us-ur, eldest son of Nabonidus and regent of the kingdom during his father’s ten-year absence in Arabia. The Daniel tradition erroneously [sic] makes him the actual king and portrays him as the son of Nebuchadnezzar. This latter interpolation constitutes the strongest argument for tracing the Danielic narratives about Nebuchadnezzar to a cluster of historical memories of Nabonidus. This has led some scholars to seek in cuneiform sources relating to Nabonidus historical data that might provide a background to the story of the worship of the golden statue in Daniel 3. Such data came to light with the publication of the Verse Account of Nabonidus in 1924.


This polemical account, probably written at the behest of the Persian conquerors of Babylon, largely focuses on Nabonidus’s promotion of the cult of the moon-god Sîn at the expense of Marduk, the city-god of Babylon. It claims that Nabonidus made a horrifying new cult image of the god Sîn. The Verse Account probably refers in this case to the statue of Sîn that the king claims to have returned to the temple Ehulhul in Harran. Sidney Smith, the original editor of the text, did not fail to see the relation that this episode

bears to the tale of the fashioning and compulsory worship of the gold statue in Daniel 3.

The suggestion was later taken up by Wolfram von Soden and several other scholars since.

…. The statue might also be the image of a king, perhaps Nebuchadnezzar himself, or a symbol of his regal power. In ch. 2 of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar receives a dream vision of such a statue. Some ancient exegetes clearly saw a connection between chs. 2 and 3. In the second century, Hippolytus of Rome already interpreted the statue fashioned by Nebuchadnezzar as a reminiscence of his dream: For as the blessed Daniel, in interpreting the vision, had answered the king, saying, “Thou art this head of gold in the image,” the king, being puffed up with this address, and elated in his heart, made a copy of this image, in order that it might be worshiped by all as God.

….  Originally, the tale focused on the memory of Nabonidus’s crafting of a new image of the moon-god Sîn for the temple of Harran and his effort to impose it as state cult in the Babylonian empire of the sixth century. The tradition eventually substituted Nebuchadnezzar for Nabonidus [sic] and transformed the episode into an edifying theological tale of the arrogant attempt of a pagan king to impose the worship of a statue of his own design, a statue embodying imperial hubris. The Danielic tradition transmuted this memory of Nabonidus’s failed attempt at religious reform into a timeless critique of idolatry. Forced worship of the statue, however, merely sets the background for the other elements in the drama to unfold. As in most court tales, peer envy ushers the heroes into royal disgrace. Refusing to bow down to the statue, the three Jewish youths are denounced for impiety and are sentenced to the punishment prescribed by the king for defying his order: to be thrown alive into a furnace of blazing fire …. Burning as a death sentence occurs occasionally in the biblical and Near Eastern worlds. ….


  1. Punishment by Fire


Punishment by Fire in the Bible


The Bible contains few allusions to execution by burning. In spite of their small number, they indicate that punishment by being burned alive was part of the legal system of ancient Israel. For example, this punishment is prescribed for prostitution or fornication in the episode of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38:24) and, more specifically, for prostitution by the daughter of a priest in the laws of Leviticus (Lev 21:9). Leviticus also prescribes that punishment for the particular form of incest committed by a man who weds both mother and daughter (Lev 20:14). The same end befalls the thief of sacred paraphernalia and his family according to the episode of the sin of Achan (Josh 7:13–19), although Achan himself is stoned to death before being burned.

…. In the prophetic and apocalyptic literature of the postexilic period, burning is sometimes mentioned as a form of eschatological punishment, notably in Daniel7:11, where the beast of the fourth kingdom is killed and given over to be burned with fire. For the interpretation of Daniel 3, the most interesting mention of death by burning in the Bible is the execution of the false Jewish prophets mentioned in the letter sent by Jeremiah to the first wave of exiles in Babylon (Jer 29:1–23).


The time frame of the letter should be 594–593 … between the two captures of Jerusalem, when many in Judah still entertained hopes of casting off the Babylonian yoke. Yet Jeremiah encourages the exiles to settle in their new country and patiently await the term of seventy years prescribed for their return; he warns them against false prophets who predict Judah’s impending liberation (Jer 29:21–23NRSV):


Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: I am going to deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes. And on account of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The Lord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” because they have perpetrated outrage in Israel and have committed adultery with their neighbor’s wives, and have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them; I am the one who knows and bear witness, says the Lord.


Ahab, son of Kolaiah, and Zedekiah, son of Maasiah, both occur in a list of false prophets from Qumran (4Q339).


They proclaimed the end of Babylonian hegemony over Judah. Therefore, fear of their spreading a spirit of rebellion appears to be Nebuchadnezzar’s most likely motive for ordering their execution. Consonant with Jeremiah’s interpretation of history, Nebuchadnezzar acts here as a mere instrument of God’s plan. However, it is interesting that Jeremiah further indicts the two prophets for fornication, a crime that in some circumstances entailed death by burning in Israel and is listed here as the primary reason for their execution. Jeremiah provides a biblical rationale for their condemnation, a rationale that conceals the political motives of the Babylonians in carrying out that sentence. As I will dis-cuss below, death by burning occurs a number of times in Babylonian sources from the eighth to the third centuries … in some cases as a sentence imposed by the king. The punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 29 involved roasting in fire, but it does not say explicitly how, and therefore burning in a furnace cannot be excluded, even if death at the stake seems more likely. Be that as it may, Jeremiah 29 provides a crucial parallel to Daniel 3 and may yield some clues as to how the tale originated and expanded. Both narratives portray Nebuchadnezzar imposing capital punishment on rebellious Jewish exiles, and the punishment involves death by burning in the two cases.


Punishment by Fire in Ancient Egypt


Burning as a form of capital punishment is attested a few times in texts from the pharaonic and Hellenistic periods in Egypt.


Anthony Leahy has reviewed the various allusions to such punishment in Egyptian sources.


Burning is attested for adultery, murder, conspiracy to murder, sacrilege, and rebellion. It is uncertain whether legal codes prescribed it, but in some cases it could be ordered by royal decree. Execution by burning usually involved placing the condemned on the (“brazier, open furnace”). The Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy, a Demotic text from the first century … describe how the king ordered a group of conspirators to be burned in this manner; however, there is no agreement on whether the text refers to an open fire or an enclosed furnace.


Leahy points out two possible examples of large furnaces that could accommodate several individuals.


At Edfu a relief shows the king condemning four prisoners to be tied together in a type of box that is depicted also in Papyrus Salt 825, where it is identified as a “furnace” … with two men tied back to back inside it. He also gives examples of punishment by burning in the metaphysical realm; for instance, the Book of Gates depicts some large furnaces …. In Demotic the word … means both a censer or brazier and a large furnace.



Punishment by Fire in Ancient Mesopotamia


Execution by burning occurs in Mesopotamia both as a provision of the legal system for certain crimes and as a punishment imposed by the king.


It is attested already in the Old Babylonian period.



… the Babylonian king Nabû-šuma-iškun, who reigned in the middle of the eighth century, burned alive sixteen residents of the city of Kutha at the gate of Zababa in Babylon.


In a passage warning against the brazen confidence of strength and wealth, the Babylonian Theodicy remarks how the prominent citizen can be burned in fire by the king “before his time,” that is to say, before the natural end of his life.


In addition, the astrological series Enuma Anu Enlil mentions a royal condemnation to be burned.


There is also evidence in mythology and magic for burning as metaphysical punishment.


Punishment by the Fiery Furnace in Mesopotamia


The precise manner of execution in the texts discussed so far cannot be determined. Although death at the stake seems the more likely possibility, one can envisage a number of different ways in which a sentence of death by burning can be carried out. It is fortunate that we have three instances in Mesopotamia where the manner of execution by burning is specified, and all three cases involve being thrown into an oven or a furnace. However, these sources have not been discussed in previous commentaries on Daniel 3. The earliest text (BIN 7, 10) is a letter of King Rīm-Sîn of Larsa, who reigned from 1822 until 1763

… according to the middle chronology …. Thus says Rīm-Sîn, your lord. Because he cast a boy into the oven, you, throw the slave into the kiln.


The context of this letter cannot be reconstructed and remains enigmatic. Is the king quoting a proverb or some other form of saying, or is he ordering these officials to carry out an execution? The two words for “oven” and “kiln” are tinūru and utūnu. The latter derives from Sumerian UDUN, and occurs more rarely as atūnu, the form under which it entered the Aramaic language (Nwt) in Daniel 3). The second occurrence comes from a palace edict of the Assyrian king Aššur-rēša-iši I (1130–1113 …). It was originally published by Ernst Weidner, who noted with his usual acumen the parallel between the edict and the motif of the furnace in Daniel 3.


The relevant part of the edict reads as follows: …. They shall throw them, either the woman or the man, the eye-witness, in the oven.

The word for oven is again utūnu/atūnu, written here with the logogram udun. Unfortunately the edict is not fully preserved, so it is not entirely clear which transgression results in death in the oven. Many provisions in Middle Assyrian edicts sanction inappropriate behavior by palace women and personnel. Thus a misdemeanor of sexual nature seems probable. The third and final example occurs in a Neo-Babylonian school text from the Sippar temple library. It is datable to the first half of the sixth century and is therefore contemporaneous with the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus. The text may well have been composed earlier, however, since it purports to reproduce a letter of the Old Babylonian king Samsu-iluna (1750–1712) to a certain Enlil-nādin-šumi, who is given the title of governor …. The king orders the governor to inscribe on a stela an encyclical address to the superintendents of all cult centers of Babylonia.

…. To Enlil-nādin-šumi, governor of the land … superintendent of all [the cult centers of A]kkad, speak, thus [Samsu-ilun]a, king of the world …. “(Concerning) all the cult centers of the land of Akkad, all of those from east to west [which] I have given entirely into your control, I have heard (reports) that the temple officials, the collegium … priests of the cult centers of the land of Akkad, as many as there are, have taken to falsehood, committed an abomination, been stained with blood, spoken untruths. Inwardly they profane and desecrate their gods, they prattle and cavort about. Things that their gods did not command they establish for their gods.”

After having thus chastised local priests and officials for impiety and sacrilege, the king concludes his remonstrances with a series of curses, and instructs Enlil-nādin-šumi to enforce them: You now, destroy them, burn them, roast them, . . . to the cook’s oven . . . make their smoke billow, bring about their fiery end with the fierce flame of the box-thorn!

In spite of the gap in the text, it seems clear that the punishment by burning and roasting envisaged in the curses is effected by means of a cook’s oven. The term for oven here is

kīru, which refers normally to a lime kiln rather than the oven used by cooks and bakers. Remarkably, in his classic commentary on Daniel, James Montgomery noted that the furnace of Daniel 3 “must have been similar to our common lime-kiln, with a perpendicular shaft from the top and an opening at the bottom for extracting the fused lime.”


The Letter of Samsu-iluna provides the closest known parallel to Daniel 3, not only in the manner of execution but also regarding the context in which it is envisaged, that of a royal order on the correct performance of cultic duties. The text belonged to the curriculum of Babylonian schools. Apprentice scribes who joined the royal administration were required to copy and study it. The Letter propagates an idealized view of the Babylonian monarch as religious leader and custodian of traditional rites. Given its status as official text, it is hardly surprising that elements of its ideology resurface with a slightly different formulation in the Harran Stela of Nabonidus. The Harran Stela openly propagandizes Nabonidus’s devotion to the moon-god Sîn of Harran, whom he sought to promote as imperial deity. In a passage that recalls the tone and thematic content of the Letter of Samsu-iluna, Nabonidus chastises the administrators and citizens of the cult centers of Babylonia for behaving sinfully, committing blasphemy and sacrileges, and disregarding the true nature and worship of Sîn: The god Sîn called me to kingship. He revealed to me in a night dream (what follows): “Build quickly Ehulhul, the temple of Sîn in Harran, and I will deliver all lands into your hands.” (But) the people, the citizens of Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk, (and) Larsa, the temple administrators (and) the people of the cult centers of the land of Akkad, offended his (Sîn’s) great godhead and they misbehaved and sinned, (for) they did not know the great wrath of the king of the gods, Nannar. They forgot their rites and would speak slanders and lies, devouring each other like dogs. (Thus) pestilence and famine appeared (ušabšû) among them, and he (the moon-god) reduced … the people of the land.



There are two other striking points of resemblance between the Letter of Samsu-iluna, the Harran Stela, and Daniel 3. In all three cases the Babylonian king addresses his subjects by means of an encyclical proclamation, and the individuals most specifically targeted by the anticipated punishment are the priesthood and high officials, who were generally royal appointees. Daniel 3 records that Nebuchadnezzar’s proclamation is addressed to “the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces” (Dan 3:2, 3), and the biblical material further emphasizes that the Jewish companions of Daniel had been nominated by the king to oversee “the affairs of the province of Babylon” (Dan 3:12). The motif of the Chaldeans denouncing the three Jewish appointees stems from the paradigm of the court tale, but the story of officials falling into disgrace because they contravened the king’s religious pronunciamentos very probably originates in actual conflicts that erupted during the reign of Nabonidus.



The executions recorded in Daniel 6 and in the story of Bel and the Dragon, effected by throwing the condemned into a lion’s pit, appear more feasible and on the surface more believable than the punishment in the fiery furnace. However, such a mode of execution finds no parallel in the ancient world. Karel van der Toorn argued that the story probably originated in the literalization of an ancient metaphor that is recorded in a letter addressed by the scholar Urad-Gula to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.


The scholar complains that he has unexplainably fallen into disgrace, and in a broken passage states that he prays to the king day and night “in front of the lion’s pit.” Earlier in the letter Urad-Gula had said that he used to eat “lion’s morsels,” which can be understood to mean the fine food apportioned to members of the staff of schol-ars who advised the king. ….


Mackey’s comment: Beaulieu will now proceed to discuss what he (wrongly, I suggest) considers to have been “the transformation of the figure of Nabonidus into that of Nebuchadnezzar”:


  1. Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar


A very important element in the elaboration of Daniel 3 is the transformation of the figure of Nabonidus into that of Nebuchadnezzar. This could have happened any time before the court narratives of Daniel 1–6 reached their final form. However, the discovery of the Prayer of Nabonidus among the Qumran manuscripts(4Q242) shows that even after the compilation of Daniel in the first decades of the second century [sic], there continued a parallel tradition that correctly ascribed to the historical Nabonidus the episodes of the royal disease and the residence in the oasis of Teima. These episodes appear in Daniel in the form of the sudden madness, animalization, and exile of Nebuchadnezzar among the beasts. The Danielic figure of Nebuchadnezzar does not entirely depend on a memory of Nabonidus, however. The book accurately portrays Nebuchadnezzar as conqueror of Jerusalem (Dan1:1–2) and builder of Babylon (Dan 4:30). Thus, in Daniel, various memories of the two kings were woven together into one archetypal figure. It seems difficult to deny that there is a very close relation between the story of the two false prophets burned by the historical Nebuchadnezzar in Jer 29:21–23 and the story of the three Jewish exiles thrown into the fiery furnace by the fictionalized Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3. The books of Daniel and Jeremiah share many more traits. For one thing, the two prophets were allegedly near contemporaries. The final redactors of Daniel highlighted this connection in their prophet’s reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prediction of the length of the exile (Daniel 9).


Mackey’s comment: The Book of Daniel does not, in fact, need any “reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prediction of the length of the exile”. What stands in need of “reinterpretation” is the neo-Babylonian succession, the incorrect estimation of which by conventional scholars has led to apparent discrepancies between Jeremiah and Daniel. On this, see my:


Prophet Jeremiah’s “Seventy Years” of Babylonian Rule

Jesus would have spoken Hebrew with a Galilean accent




 Damien F. Mackey


“But there is another issue at stake. Aramaic is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. Yet on numerous occasions it speaks of the “Hebrew” language in first century Judaea – from the title over Jesus’ cross “in Hebrew” (John 19:20), to descriptions of places like Gabbatha and Golgotha “in the Hebrew tongue” (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Rev. 9:11; 16:16), to Paul gaining the silence of the Jerusalem crowd by addressing them “in the Hebrew tongue” (Acts 21:40; 22:2), to Jesus himself calling out to Paul, on the Damascus road, “in the Hebrew tongue” (Acts 26:14)”.

 Rev. Brenton Minge



Jesus Spoke Hebrew, written by Brenton Minge, is a most important book for, as its sub-title reads: Busting the “Aramaic” Myth.

I give here only the beginning of it, but recommend that one reads the entire book itself:




The powerful Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, has once again raised the question of what language Jesus actually spoke. Some say it doesn’t matter, and in one sense they are right. Jesus is still the Saviour of the world, who walked on water, raised the dead, and made atonement for our sins by his blood, whether he spoke Hebrew or Hindustani. Yet in another sense it DOES matter. If your natural language is, say, English, and I go about claiming it to be Dutch, I am clearly misrepresenting you. While there is nothing whatever wrong with Dutch, it is a simple matter of fidelity to the record, and of doing justice to the person. By the same token, if Jesus’ “mother-tongue” was Hebrew, then it is as much a misrepresentation to claim he spoke Aramaic – as is all but universally held – as to say Churchill spoke in Spanish, or Tolstoy wrote in Norwegian. But there is another issue at stake. Aramaic is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. Yet on numerous occasions it speaks of the “Hebrew” language in first century Judaea – from the title over Jesus’ cross “in Hebrew” (John 19:20), to descriptions of places like Gabbatha and Golgotha “in the Hebrew tongue” (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Rev. 9:11; 16:16), to Paul gaining the silence of the Jerusalem crowd by addressing them “in the Hebrew tongue” (Acts 21:40; 22:2), to Jesus himself calling out to Paul, on the Damascus road, “in the Hebrew tongue” (Acts 26:14). In each instance, the Greek text reads “Hebrew” (Hebrais, Hebraios or Hebraikos), the natural translation followed by nearly all the English versions, as also by the Latin Vulgate and the German Luther Bible. Do we have the right to insert “Aramaic” for this plain reading – particularly when the Jewish people of the period, as we shall see, were so insistent on distinguishing them? The evidence is compelling that we do not, and that the New Testament expression, “in the Hebrew language”, ought to be taken as read.




The Dead Sea Scrolls, known to date from the same general period, reveal an overwhelming preponderance of Hebrew texts. The figure is generally accepted as around 80%, with Aramaic and Greek taking up most of the balance. In their comprehensive translation of the Qumran literature, Michael Wise and others observe that: “Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the dominant view of the Semitic languages of Palestine in this period was essentially as follows: Hebrew had died; it was no longer learned at mother’s knee. It was known only by the educated classes through study, just as educated medieval Europeans knew Latin. Rabbinic Hebrew … was considered a sort of scholarly invention – artificial, not the language of life put to the page. The spoken language of the Jews had in fact become Aramaic … The discovery of the scrolls swept these linguistic notions into the trash bin … the vast majority of the scrolls were Hebrew texts. Hebrew was manifestly the principal literary language for the Jews of this period. The new discoveries underlined the still living , breathing, even supple character of that language … prov[ing] that late Second-Temple Jews used various dialects of Hebrew…”[1]. This sheer dominance of Hebrew goes far beyond the Biblical writings, which actually comprise, by Emanuel Tov’s calculations, just 23.5% of the overall Qumran literature.[2] It includes also the famed Copper Scroll (written, as Wolters notes, in “an early form of Mishnaic Hebrew”[3]), the day-to-day letters (where Hebrew, says Milik, is the “sole language of correspondence”[4]), and its general commentaries and literature (where, as Black concedes, “Hebrew certainly vastly predominates over Aramaic”[5]). No wonder the Scrolls are said to “prove that late Second Temple Jews used various dialects of Hebrew”. And not just as an “artificial” language, but a “natural, vibrant idiom”, as the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls declares[6]. How else can such extensive evidence of the Hebrew language be taken – from commentaries to correspondence, from documents to daily rules? Likewise with the sixteen texts found at Herod’s stronghold of Masada, all predating the fortress’ overthrow in 73. No less than fifteen are definitely in Hebrew[7], with some doubt over the final one. Is it conceivable that Hebrew would have been used for ordinary communications (Biblical texts are again in a minority) if it was not the language of daily life? Surely the burden of proof must lie with those who would argue otherwise.




Well before the Scrolls and Masada provided their archaeological insights into Hebrew’s place in late second temple language, Moses Segal had come to the same conclusion on purely linguistic grounds. Co-translator of the Talmud and winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies, Segal was a Hebrew lexicographer of the first order. While still believing that Jesus, as a Galilean, probably spoke Aramaic, he was in no doubt that the prevailing Judaean language of the time was Hebrew, as he already wrote in 1927: “In earlier Mishnaic [rabbinic] literature no distinction is drawn between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew. The two idioms are known as Leshon Hagadesh, the Holy Tongue, as contrasted with other languages … What was the language of ordinary life of educated native Jews in Jerusalem and Judaea in the period from 400BCE to 150CE? The evidence presented by Mishnaic Hebrew and its literature leaves no doubt that that language was Mishnaic Hebrew”.[8] Such is the observation of one of the outstanding Hebrew scholars of the twentieth century, and editor of the Compendious Hebrew-English, English-Hebrew Dictionary. For Segal, as for the Dead Sea scholars, there is no doubt that the “language of ordinary life” in first century Judaea “was Mishnaic Hebrew”. It was the first language acquired by children in the home, and the natural medium of communication in daily speech. As Milik early recognized, “Mishnaic [Hebrew] … was at that time the spoken dialect of the inhabitants of Judaea”.[9]




It is astonishing, in light of this, that the Aramaic assumption – at least as it pertains to the language of first century Judaea – still persists. As relatively recently as 1994, Angel Saenz-Badillos could claim, in his major study A History of the Hebrew Language, that “the exile [ie., 586BC] marks the disappearance of the [Hebrew] language from everyday life, and its subsequent use for literary and liturgical purposes only”.[10] What is going on here? On the one hand, the clear archaeological and linguistic evidence for Hebrew’s daily use in late second temple Judaea, yet on the other a protracted scholarly denial of the same! No wonder Oxford’s Edward Ullendorff takes Saenz-Badillos to task: “I cannot accept the author’s novel argument [cited above] … This assumption would curtail the active life of Hebrew by about half a millennium. Of course colloquial Hebrew will have changed somewhat, possibly as a result of external influences, during the post-exilic era, but it no doubt remained the principal vehicle of communication”.[11] Time was, when Saenz-Badillos’ obituary for Hebrew as a living language would have held centre-stage. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church spoke for virtually the entire scholarly world (Segal and Harris Birkeland[12] two notable exceptions), when, in its first edition of 1958, it confidently stated that Hebrew had “ceased to be a spoken language around the fourth century BC”.[13] Yet such was the mounting weight of evidence to the contrary, that by its third edition, in 1997, this had become “Hebrew continued to be used as a spoken and written language … in the New Testament period”.[14] This represents a remarkable about-turn, due, not least, to the extensive publication of the Scrolls in the intervening period. How fitting that from the lowest geographical region on earth – the Dead Sea – where death reigned even in its name, there should break forth from the “dead”, as it were, the vindication of Hebrew’s primary place in the language of first century Judaea, exactly as the New Testament consistently showed! Truly, “this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).




A clear distinction was made, among the Jewish people themselves, between Hebrew and Aramaic. Not only was Hebrew the choice of scholarship and literature, but it was also upheld as the normative language of daily life. “In the land of Israel”, said the Mishnah, “why the Aramaic tongue? Either the Holy Tongue (Hebrew, sic) or the Greek tongue”.[15] Aramaic had no “prestige”, and “commanded no loyalty”, as Safrai and Stern observe, whereas Hebrew had both. Even in the later times of the Talmud, it was forbidden to retrieve a burning Aramaic manuscript from a fire on the Sabbath, whereas it was permitted of a comparable Hebrew text.[16] To depart from the synagogue service during a Hebrew Bible reading was forbidden, but not for an Aramaic reading.[17] Even memorising the Scriptures in Aramaic was not enough, whereas just to hear them in Hebrew, without understanding a word, was to “perform [one’s] obligation”![18] To the Jewish people, it was Hebrew that was “the Holy Tongue”, whereas Aramaic was seen as “the language of the Evil Force”.[19] Not that the latter was rejected altogether, but that it was regarded as a second fiddle language to Hebrew – the real “tongue of the fathers” and medium of ordinary speech. Thus the Jerusalem Talmud declares that “Four languages are of value: Greek for song, Latin for war, Aramaic for dirges, and Hebrew for speaking”.[20] That was the place for Aramaic – in “dirges”. But to Hebrew belonged the high ground of daily speech (“for speaking”) and worship. Thus for a Jewish father not to speak to his son “in Hebrew”, from the time he was a toddler, and teach him the Law, was “as if he had buried him”.[21] Concerning Aramaic, by contrast, the rabbis warned: “Whoever makes personal requests [in prayer] in Aramaic, the ministering angels pay no attention, since angels do not understand Aramaic”[22]. This, of course, is not a canonical position, but merely reflects the depth of feeling against Aramaic among the Jewish scholars. Indeed, the Talmud relates an earlier occasion when Gamaliel – the same Gamaliel under whom Paul had studied (Acts 22:3), and whose astute word concerning the Christians is recorded in Acts 5:34-40 – was sitting on the still-unfinished temple steps. Someone showed him a copy of an Aramaic translation of Job, the first and at that time the only “Targum”. So disgusted was he by it, that he told the builder to “bury it under the rubble”.[23] Such was the regard for a pioneering attempt at an Aramaic portion of Scripture, in the Judaea of Jesus’ time! The internal Jewish evidence is thus all one-way traffic for Hebrew.




As a contemporary, and largely an observer, of the final years of the second temple, Josephus (37-100AD) is an invaluable witness to the period.

While not without his faults, they are, as historian Paul Maier notes, heavily outweighed by his credits, particularly for the period during which he and his parents lived, when, as Maier says, he is “at his best”.[24] Like the Mishnah and Talmud, Josephus takes pains to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic, showing that it was Hebrew that was spoken in the first century Israel of which he was largely a part. When news of the emperor Tiberius’ death is hastily conveyed to Agrippa on his way to the bath, the message is given “in the Hebrew tongue” (glosse te Hebraion, Antiquities xviii, 228). Presumably Hebrew was the most natural and readily understood language in such an emergency situation. Concerning this “Hebrew tongue”, he writes in another passage: “… though their script seemed to be similar to the peculiar Syrian (Aramaic, sic) writing, and their language to sound like the other, it was, as it happened, of a distinct type” (idiotropon, Ant. xii, 2, 1. Thackeray translation). Thus elsewhere he writes: the “Sabbath … in the Hebrew language” (Ant. 1:33); “Adam … in Hebrew signifies …” (Ant. 1:34); “Israel … in the Hebrew tongue” (Ant. 1:333); “written in the Hebrew books” (Ant. ix, 208); “the books of the Hebrews” (Ant. x, 218). It is difficult to see how “the Hebrew language” here can denote anything but Hebrew. Not only do the uniquely Hebrew connotations of “Sabbath”, “Israel”, etc., require it, but so too does the fact that, at the time of Josephus, the only holy “Hebrew books” possessed by the Jews were the actual Hebrew Scriptures – the Aramaic Targums (Job aside) not yet having come into being. So when we come to Josephus’ address to his own countrymen from outside the walls of besieged Jerusalem, there can be no doubt as to what language he speaks. He addresses them, of course, “in their own language” (War 5:9, 2), which he explicitly states, of the same episode, to be “the Hebrew language” (War 6:2, 1). Given the consistent meaning of “Hebrew” as real Hebrew, not Aramaic, elsewhere in Josephus, and the distinction he himself draws between the two languages, how can “Hebrew” here be taken at anything other than face value? That is, Josephus’ address to the Jews of around 69AD, like Paul’s address to the Jews of around a decade or so previously in the same city, were both – as the respective texts of Josephus and Acts state – “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 22:2). Logic would further require that the only reason this was so, was because “the Hebrew language” was the vernacular of Judaean Jews at the time.




But what does this mean, in terms of our enquiry into Jesus’ language? A great deal, actually. Self-evidently there is a nexus between the Jewish vernacular of first century Israel, and the language Jesus spoke. It would fly in the face of common sense if the “Word made flesh” addressed the very countrymen he was first sent to by his Father, in anything other than their normal tongue.[25] As face answers to face in a mirror, so the prevailing language of his people at the time must, by any reasonable standard, have been the language Jesus used. Once that “prevailing language” is established, it requires no great leap to determine what Jesus spoke. The only way around this is to resort to the artificial construct of an “interpreter”, or to the circuitous explanation of Jesus being fluently bi- or tri-lingual during his earthly ministry, which – though by no means inconceivable or, still less, impossible, for the very Son of God – certainly has no actual support from Scripture, and must remain, therefore, a supposition. Consistent with this, we find Jesus speaking of the “jot” and “tittle” of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:18). By universal consent, this refers to the text of the Hebrew Bible. Let two modern authorities suffice – one Catholic, one Protestant: “‘Jot’ refers to ‘yod’, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet; ‘tittle’ is a slight serif [or hook] on a Hebrew letter that distinguishes it from another”. (The New Jerome Bible Commentary, emph. added). Likewise John Broadus, in his Commentary on Matthew: “Jot, in the Greek iota, signifies the Hebrew letter iod (pronounced yod) … tittle – in the Greek, horn – denoting a very slight projection at the corner of certain Hebrew letters …” (emph. added). Would Jesus have used such a term, indeed two of them, both referring to the “Hebrew letters” of the “Hebrew alphabet”, if his immediate audience did not understand Hebrew? Would a French speaker, addressing his or her own countrymen today, use the umlaut of the German Bible to illustrate a point! Hardly. The most obvious conclusion is that, as Jesus was referring to the Hebrew alphabet – which no one disputes – his hearers must have understood that same alphabet, otherwise the point would have been lost on them. Logically, therefore, Jesus must have been speaking Hebrew, and his audience must have understood him in Hebrew. Should it be objected that, as the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets were the same, Jesus could just as well have been referring to the Aramaic alphabet, we would respectfully reply that this is to miss the point. Jesus expressly says “the jot and tittle of the Law”, there being but one “Law” in Israel – the Hebrew Bible. Even the Talmud declares, “the Torah is in Hebrew” (Soferim 35a).




But what of Jesus’ reference to “mammon” in the same sermon (Matt. 6:24) – quite possibly an Aramaic word? This is no difficulty. Loan words frequently occur between languages, as with Italian words like pizza and pasta today in English. There is no reason why Hebrew should be any exception. Yet we must beware of reading too many “Aramaisms” into the New Testament. In a parallel context, Segal observes that “Aramaic influence on the Mishnaic Hebrew vocabulary has been exaggerated …. It has been the fashion among writers on the subject to brand as an Aramaism any infrequent Hebrew word …. Most of the ‘Aramaisms’ are as native in Hebrew as they are in Aramaic.”[26] Even the very term “Mishnaic Hebrew” can, through overuse, become an historical exaggeration, as though second temple Hebrew were a different species from “normal” Hebrew – an inevitable result of emphasizing small differences rather than recognizing greater commonalities. Just as Elizabethan English and modern English are still, whatever their differences, both English, so Biblical Hebrew and “Mishnaic” Hebrew are likewise both Hebrew.




In New Testament studies, an over-exuberance for Aramaic at first led C.K. Barrett to attribute a quotation in John (Jn. 12:40) to Aramaic influence, only to change it to Hebrew in his commentary of eight years later.[27] Luke 6:7, too, was once held by scholars like Black, Fitzmyer and Wilcox to be an “Aramaic” construction, found nowhere else in the Greek of the period. Subsequently, J.A.L. Lee demolished this in his study “A non-Aramaism in Luke 6:7”, citing no less than 23 parallel constructions in Greek literature of the period![28] Time and again the Aramaic assumption has turned out to be a lemon, prompting Semitist Kenneth Kitchen to observe that “some ‘Aramaisms’ are actually Hebraisms in Aramaic”.[29] What is more, merely because a word does not appear in the Old Testament Hebrew Bible, does not automatically make it a candidate for the Aramaic club. “Hosanna” and “Gehenna” are words not found in that form in the Hebrew Old Testament. Yet both occur in Mishnaic Hebrew, and are found, in identical form, in the modern Hebrew dictionary. Yet they were once claimed to be “Aramaic”. And even if originally they were, so what! “Restaurant” and “serviette” are good French words, yet today they are well and truly part of standard English. Besides, as Glenda Abramson has noted, there were some 20,000 words in “Mishnaic” Hebrew, as against some 8,000 used in the Old Testament Bible.[30] Thus there is statistically a 2½ times greater likelihood that a Hebrew word will not be found in the Old Testament, yet still be a regular part of the Hebrew language of the New Testamental period. So the days are gone for the reflex assignation of “Aramaic” to any New Testament Semitism not found in the Old Testament.