The Hebrew Gospels – What language did Jesus really speak?
Hebrew Gospels and the Mother Tongue of Jesus
It is the commonly accepted scholarly opinion that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his native tongue. This theory has so dominated Christian thinking that even Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, portrays Jesus as an Aramaic speaking Jew. Ask almost anyone what language Jesus spoke from birth, and the answer you will get is “Aramaic.”
Almost anyone, but not everyone.
In recent times, several highly respected scholars have begun to question this common theory. As they uncovered evidence from the earliest Christian writers, from the Dead Sea scrolls, and from the Greek text of the New Testament, it became clear that Jesus and the contemporary culture of first-century Palestine spoke Mishnaic Hebrew, not Aramaic, as the birth language. Of course, Palestine was an occupied land for quite some time. It is easy to imagine that most people were multi-lingual and certainly Aramaic, Greek, and Latin circulated among the people. How else do you explain the fact that the Romans attached a sign to the cross of Jesus in three languages (which, by the way, did not include Aramaic)?
The New Testament Greek text itself hints at this Hebrew origin. There are many, many examples of Hebrew idioms in the Greek gospels; idioms that do not make sense in Greek because they are really Hebrew expressions woodenly translated into Greek. But once the gospels are converted back into Hebrew, the language comes alive and these stiff words take on flow and meaning not found in the Greek.
Before we examine the evidence from the text, we must look at the significant extra-biblical material that points toward a Hebrew foundation. In summary, this material is as follows (this is not an attempt to provide all the scholarly documentation which can be sourced from the bibliography attached):
- Josephus, the most widely accepted ancient historian of the period, refers to the language of the people of Palestine as Hebrew. However, translators are so convinced by the Aramaic theory that they often translate the words of Josephus as “Aramaic” when his own writing clearly says “Hebrew”.
- Pottery inscriptions and other artifacts including coins from this period routinely have Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words. Only a very small percentage (about 10%) of these are found with Aramaic inscriptions. If Aramaic were the common language of the people, we would have expected it to be found on the majority, not the tiny minority, of these artifacts. Some of the most important evidence comes from burial containers which routinely are inscribed by Hebrew words and names.
- The religious writings of the period, with very few exceptions, are all in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Since these are the common basis of practiced faith, it is hard to imagine that they would not be found in a language that was supposed to be the native tongue of the region. When Aramaic documents do appear, they are not the documents used in routine religious practice. This is confirmed by discoveries among the Dead Sea scrolls.
- M. H. Segal, a Hebrew grammar scholar, states that the evidence from the writings of this period (400BC to 150AD) demonstrates convincingly that Mishnaic Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the common language of the people.
- Matthew Black, one of the influential researchers of the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea scrolls) concludes that these non-biblical texts show that Hebrew was not confined to the rabbis and the temple but was a “free, living language” and “a normal vehicle of expression.”
- Other notable scholars, familiar with archeological discoveries and ancient manuscripts of the period (M. Grintz, D. Flusser, M. Ben-Asher, P. Lapide, H. Birkeland, W. LaSor, F. Cross and A. Milik) conclude that “the normal language of the Judean population in the Roman Period” was Mishnaic Hebrew.
- The Ante-Nicean church fathers (significant church leaders who lived before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) offer additional evidence for the Hebrew priority of the gospels. Papias, the earliest source (mid-second century) claims that Matthew wrote his gospel in “Hebrew and others have translated it as best they could.” Irenaeus, who was born about 20 years after the death of John, says the same thing, that Matthew wrote in Hebrew. Origen makes the same claim, as does Eusebius. Epiphanius offers even more tantalizing information when he says that a sect of the Nazarenes, “have the entire Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. It is carefully preserved by them as it was originally written, in Hebrew script.” Epiphanius notes that the Ebionites also have a copy of the same document, written in Hebrew. Finally, Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), says that “Matthew was the first in Judea to compose the gospel of Christ in Hebrew letters and words . . . who it was that later translated it into Greek is no longer known with certainty.” Jerome goes on the say that this Hebrew document is preserved in the library at Caesarea.
- The most widely recognized historian of the period, Josephus, often refers to the language of the populace as Hebrew. The fact that scholars alter his words to mean Aramaic despite the clear references to actual Hebrew words and meanings demonstrates only that the Aramaic theory is presupposed, not that it is supported by the facts.
- Finally, the extra-biblical evidence is supported by the large volume of rabbinic literature, which is all written in Hebrew except for a few loan words from Aramaic. The Mishnah, which was transmitted orally until it was finally written down in approximately 200 AD, is entirely in Hebrew. One might serious question why this would be the case if the spoken language at the time was Aramaic.
The biblical evidence is just as compelling. There are a considerable number of passages where Aramaic words are left untranslated in the Greek text. Mark 15:34 is but one of these. If the common language of the period was Aramaic, then we would have expected these words to have been translated into Greek along with all the rest of the dialogue. But they are not translated. We can rightly conclude that these words were the exception, not the rule, of linguistic communication and for this reason the writers of the gospels include them in their original form (and often go on to tell us what they mean).
Furthermore, there are dozens of idioms, allusions and references in the Greek New Testament that only make sense from a Hebrew perspective, not an Aramaic one. Many of these references have no equivalent term in Aramaic and can only be understood if the original language was Hebrew. Some of these include the words for frankincense, Woe!, Beelzebub, Satan, cummin, contempt, rebel, bushels, tares, sycamore, and Amen!
Nevertheless, the Aramaic theory has so predominated the history of Christian interpretation that translations like the NIV routinely render the Greek word for “Hebrew” as “Aramaic”, a word that does not appear in the Greek text.
This is only a sample of the evidence, but it should at least, cause us to ask, “If Mishnaic Hebrew was so pervasive in first century Palestine, why has Christian scholarship been predisposed to the Aramaic theory?” That question leads directly to the anti-Semitism of the early church; an effort which deliberately attempted to strip Christianity away from its Jewish roots. It is unfortunate that we are the inheritors of this miss-applied theology. How much we have lost in translation because we as Christians distinguished ourselves from the legacy of Judaism is beyond calculation. We have much to recover if we are going to understand and appreciate the teachings of our Lord.
For a concise summary of the available literature on this subject, please see Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Biven and Roy Blizzard, Jr. (Revised Edition, 1994), Destiny Image Publishers.
This is a supporting article to the email series, Thirty Days of the Hebrew Worldview.