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.


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