Did Jesus speak Hebrew? The common understanding and teaching of most theological schools of the West is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. The reasoning behind this is that Aramaic was the language of the Jews during the captivity in Babylon and that the Jews who returned to Israel after the captivity brought Aramaic home with them. But before we try to answer this question, perhaps we need to ask a more fundamental one. Why does it matter? What difference does it make if Jesus spoke Hebrew or Aramaic? After all, they are sister languages with many common words. Furthermore, the New Testament is neither in Hebrew or Aramaic. Anything that Jesus said had to be translated into Greek anyway, so why does it matter?
The reason that the spoken language of Yeshua is so important is this: If Yeshua spoke Hebrew, then the teaching that we have preserved in the Greek New Testament can be correlated directly with Old Testament concepts, idioms and texts. In other words, there is a direct correspondence between what Jesus said and what the Hebrew Bible says. No intermediate step requiring a translation into Aramaic is needed. We do not have to go through the Targums (the Aramaic Old Testament translations and commentaries) in order to understand what Jesus said. This means that wherever we find Hebrew expressions in the New Testament, we have an immediate contextual understanding by going directly to the Old Testament. Furthermore, this implies that Jesus was not teaching something new but rather was restoring the structure and purpose originally revealed in the Old Testament. Jesus’ teaching is a direct extension of the Old Testament context.
The implications are rather staggering. Concepts like salvation, discipleship and the church are to be understood in their Old Testament context. When Jesus proclaims that He did not come to abolish the Law, we now understand that He is speaking directly about the Torah. When He speaks about the faithfulness of God, we now see that He is using language from the covenant with Israel. This changes so many Christian ideas because it draws a solid line of continuity between the Older revelation and the Newer revelation. Yeshua comes to restore, not to replace.
How do we determine what language He spoke? Let’s lay some groundwork. There is no doubt that Hebrew was spoken in the synagogues of first century Israel. It is still spoken in the synagogues today. Rabbinical history proclaims that children were instructed in the Hebrew Torah from at least 150 BC. Since the Jews returned from Babylon nearly 400 years before that, the Hebrew language certainly must have been preserved during their captivity in order for it to be used in childhood education centuries later. Its preservation is the direct result of those who were left behind when Babylon removed Israel’s leadership. Hebrew never stopped being the common language of Israel. It’s just that the people of Israel learned Aramaic when they were displaced from their homeland. When they returned, they found that the Jews still living were speaking the same language they had always spoken – Hebrew.
In 586 b.c.e., the Jews were taken captive to Babylon. They returned 70 years later. In Babylon the captives learned Aramaic and many (but probably not all) of those who were born there, grew up speaking Aramaic. We know that the returning captives learned Aramaic in Babylon, because the Bible tells us that when the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem (after the Exile “ended”), Ezra “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read (Neh 8:8). Obviously, Ezra spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. The need to “render” the Hebrew into Aramaic produced a whole genre of Jewish literature known as the “Targumim” (a “Targum” [singular] is any of several explanatory translations or paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic for the benefit of the returning Exiles). But the suggestion that the returning Exiles (who did speak Aramaic) changed the mother-tongue of the inhabitants of Judah (who were not taken captive) seems preposterous. This means that after the return to Israel, the general population spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic. But it is unlikely that the language spoken by the returning citizens became the common language of the country. That would be like suggesting that because America has Spanish-speaking immigrants, America’s native tongue will become Spanish within two generations. Centuries of acculturation do not justify the conclusion that everyone who already lived in the land changed their language to the tongue spoken by those who were returning. It is much more likely the case that those returning needed to re-learn that language of their homeland. This gives us reason to think that both languages could easily have been part of the culture of Israel in the first century. In fact, if Hebrew was the language of the synagogue and certainly of the Torah, Jesus would have been fluent in it even if He also spoke Aramaic and the Galilean dialect.
The current theological teaching that Hebrew was a “dead” language is addressed by Robert Gorelik:
“ Hebrew was not a “dead language” until the Middle Ages. And, by “dead,” I don’t mean that it wasn’t spoken. It was after all, and still is, used in the synagogue.
1) People tend to treat Hebrew as if it were an “extinct” language – not a “dead” one. A language is “extinct” when it is no longer has any native speakers. It is “dead” when its structure and syntax are kind of “frozen in time” and it no longer adapts to contemporary circumstances.
2) Hebrew, the language of the rabbinic literature was a living language (i.e., it continued to change) at least through the 3rd century c.e. The Mishnah is written in “mishnaic Hebrew” – not biblical Hebrew. It is an adaptation of its biblical counterpart. It attests to the fact that Hebrew was a “living” language in the 1st century – not a “dead” one. It is the language that Yeshua spoke.
3) We know this because of the idioms, expressions and words that Yeshua uses, e.g., in Mat 5:17-20, Yeshua says; “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
a) Greek: kataluo, to destroy = Heb: levatel, to cancel.
b) In Yeshua’s time, lekayem (fulfill) was usually the antonym of levatel (cancel, nullify) and used in the sense of “preserve” or “sustain”—As a rabbinical term, it means “to sustain by properly interpreting” (which is precisely the way that Yeshua uses it).
4) Another example is in the Parable of “The Merciful Lord and His Unforgiving Servant” (Mat 18:23-35) (See my “Parables” Seminar).
a. The KJV renders the word “canceled” in v. 27 as “forgave”—it preserves the idiomatic character of mishnaic (not biblical) Hebrew.
1) Debt is not “forgiven”—it is canceled. Sin is forgiven.
2) In biblical Hebrew the word “forgive” comes from the root salach—it is not used of “canceling” debts.
3) In mishnaic Hebrew—the word derived from the root shalach—to send (away), can be used of cancelling a debt and/or forgiving sin.”
Many other examples could be offered. All of them point to the underlying Hebraic structure of New Testament thought and syntax. (See Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebraic Perspective by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr.).
Additional evidence comes from archeological finding. There are a substantial number of artifacts that confirm the Hebrew was also written during the time of Yeshua. In fact, there are more Hebrew language artifacts than there are Aramaic ones.
Perhaps the critical evidence comes from the Gospels. Contemporary theological positions point to the passages in the Gospels where Aramaic is retained in the text and then translated for the reader (for example, Mark 5:41 and 7:34). On the surface, these occurrences are used to support the idea that the “original” spoken word was Aramaic. But this presents us with an immediate problem. If the first readers of the Gospels were Jews (and clearly this is the case since the earliest Christian communities were almost exclusively Jews), then why would it be necessary to translate the Aramaic expressions if the audience already used Aramaic? The only reason for a translation is that the reading audience does not understand the original language. When Mark retains these Aramaic expressions, his word imply that the audience did not understand what he wrote in Aramaic.
In addition, there were many common Aramaic expression in the ordinary Hebrew language of the day, just as English today contain French, German and Spanish expressions (for example, bon voyage and a la carte). There is no need for us to translate these expressions because they are now part of the English language. After 400 years of a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, we could certainly expect the same thing to happen in Israel.
Robert Gorelik adds the following:
“Since Yeshua spoke Hebrew and the first Gospel was written in Hebrew, when the first Greek translation was made, the translators retained the Aramaisms, i.e., did not translate them—but simply retained them in the translation. If Yeshua spoke Aramaic and/or the first Gospel was written in Aramaic, then why would the translator preserve isolated terms rather than translate them with the rest of a text (or speech) that he was translating? They were preserved precisely because they were “special” words that Hebrew speakers and writers used, i.e., they had “special” significance.
The issue of Mark’s Aramaic rendering and Matthew’s Hebrew rendering of Yeshua’s words from the cross are the result of a different issue. And, even though Peter (and Yeshua too) probably spoke Hebrew with the Galilean version of a “country” accent—it was still Hebrew. It is NOT possible the Yeshua cried out in Aramaic while he was on the cross —if he did, no one could have questioned what he said, i.e., whether he was quoting Psalm 22 or calling out to Elijah (cf., Mat 27:47) because “Eloi” (in Aramaic, Mark 15:34) does NOT [have the double meaning of] “My God” AND the shortened form of the Hebrew name “Eliyahu” (Elijah), “Eli” like it DOES in Hebrew.
Finally, Yeshua spoke to Paul in Hebrew—not Aramaic (when he was on the road to Damascus) (Acts 26:14) and Paul spoke to the crowd assembled on the Temple Mount after his arrest in Hebrew—not Aramaic (Acts 21:40; 22:2). The language is rendered “Hebrew” in the KJV but “Aramaic” in the NIV—even though the words in Greek for “Hebrew” and “Aramaic” are different. Is it possible that Luke (who was probably a Hellenistic Jew like Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla—not a Gentile) didn’t know the difference between them?”
With this additional information, we must ask why the church consistently purports the idea that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, and that the “original” Gospels were written in Greek, not Hebrew. The evidence suggests that shortly after the death of the apostles, the early church fathers began to shift the foundation away from Jewish (Hebrew) roots. These men were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and the culture of Hellenism. They were motivated by others considerations to break the church from the idea that the Gentiles were grafted into a living Israel. The political and religious history that led to our contemporary mis-understanding is a fascinating study of diverting God’s plan. But it begins here, with the question of language.
Jesus is Jewish. His language is Hebrew. If you want to know what He taught, you will have to reach further back than the first century, for He is the Word become flesh.