Many people believe that the mother language of Jesus was Hebrew. This is because if you actually visit Israel, the country of Jesus today and open some of its newspapers, read the signs on the streets, or listen to the transmissions of the radio, you will find them all in Hebrew.
But, was it the same some 2,000 years ago? No. When Jesus was born, Hebrew had long disappeared as a living and everyday language. Another language had replaced it: Aramaic.
The Hebrew that is being spoken today in Israel is a modern language. A Jew of Lithuania, called Eliezer Ben Yehuda, invented it in 1880. According to his own story, it was taken from a Hebrew Bible that he had, and he created the new words that he needed. By this, the Jewish immigrants that settled in Palestine speaking different languages according to the countries from where they came, could communicate in the same language, and had a more solid base for national unity.
Why had Hebrew disappeared during the time of Jesus? Before explaining this, let us see first how this language started.
The origins of Hebrew
Curiously, Abraham, the first Hebrew and father of the Hebrew people, did not speak Hebrew. He arrived in Palestine (at that time was called Canaan), proceeding from lower Mesopotamia (Gen 11:31), and therefore spoke some Semitic dialect that was being used in the region.
Going up to Canaan with his clan, he found that the primitive inhabitants of Canaan spoke a more evolutionary language, more precise and better constructed than their own. And little by little, their descendants assimilated this “Canaanean” language. When, after the exodus from Egypt, they finally establishing themselves in the Promised Land, they adapted that language.
Thus, this “Canaanean” language is called “Hebrew”; because it was the Hebrew people who popularized it, used it increasingly, and made it known.
This is the language in which the Law of Moses was written, in which the psalms of David were sung, in which the wise judgments of Solomon emanated, in which the world-known story of creation in seven days was written, in which Amos prophesied, and in which Isaiah announced the coming of the future Emmanuel. Of the 46 books that we have in the Old Testament, 39 are written in Hebrew. This remained as the living language in Israel until the year 587 BCE.
The End of the Hebrew Language
In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrew people suffered a terrible catastrophe. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, invaded the country, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, burned the temple constructed by Solomon, and brought to exile a great portion of the population.
There in Babylon, the Hebrew people cried out for their beloved country. And they remained captive for 50 years until a new king, Cyrus the Great, allowed them to return in the year 538 BCE.
But when the people of Israel returned to Palestine from exile, the new generations who returned had almost forgotten Hebrew, for they had learned the language spoken in Babylon, Aramaic.
The immigrants, in spite of being a minority, established themselves in the capital, Jerusalem. From there, many settlers, in reality, determined the development of the country. With the passing of time, Aramaic had become the more important language and the use of Hebrew was slowly diminishing. First it happened in Jerusalem, then among the Jews of the villages and neighboring towns, and finally in the entire country. Finally, toward the year 200 BCE, the Hebrew language was understood only by the cultured people, the writers and the educated.
The language of the synagogue
Even though Aramaic triumphed as the popular language, the old national language did not completely disappear. Though it was no longer spoken, it was persevered as written language. Books, much later than the Bible, appearing in this time, continued to be composed in Hebrew.
With the passing of years, Hebrew disappeared even from writing and remained only as the liturgical language. This is to say, it was used only for praying in the synagogues, and when the Sacred Scriptures were read. Therefore, Hebrew started to be considered as the “sacred language.”
But as the Jews who came to pray in the synagogues on Saturdays did not understand the Bible in Hebrew anymore, they formed the habit of having a special session, an explanation in Aramaic, so that everybody could comprehend the texts that were being read.
The First Language of Jesus
When Jesus was born, the standard language of Israel then, was Aramaic. And it was in Aramaic that he learned to speak from the lips of his mother, Mary. In Aramaic, he related his parables and shared his sermons. With this language, he worked his miracles and cured the sick.
The gospel of Mark confirms this. It is the only one that carries four Aramaic phrases of Jesus. These came from what was recorded very carefully in the tradition, so carefully that the phrases were conserved in his original language, without being translated when the Gospels were composed in Greek.
The first phrase is that which Jesus used to bring back to life the daughter of Jairus. After making all of the relatives who were weeping in the room of the young girl leave, he took her hand and told her talitá kum, which in Aramaic means “young girl, rise up” (Mk 5:41). It was such a powerful phrase, pronounced to the young girl that she was brought back to life.
The second was pronounced to cure a deaf-mute. Mark said that he took the deaf-mute aside, placed his fingers to the man’s ears, took saliva from his tongue, and looking up to heaven, said Eph’pha-ta, which means “open up” (Mk 7:34). With this expression, he restored the man’s hearing and speech.
The third phrase of Jesus in Aramaic is in the agonizing prayer that was directed to God in the Garden of Gethsemani, when he called God, Abba, which means “Father” (Mk 14:36).
Finally, we have the prayer that Jesus proclaimed while hanging on the cross: Eloi, Eloi, lamá sabactani, which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Mk 15:34). It is the start of Psalm 21 that well expresses pain and doubt of God, but ends with a great act of hope. Matthew conserves this prayer in Hebrew also (Mt 27:46).
Besides these four well-known phrases, the Gospels conserve other words that confirm Aramaic was the language spoken in the time of Jesus.
For example, certain names of persons like Barrabas (Mk 15:7), Martha (Lk 10:38), Cephas (Jn 1:42), Boanerges (Mk 3:17), and Tabitha (Acts 9:36) are all clearly Aramaic.
There are also Aramaic names of places like Capernaum, the city where Jesus lived (Mk 1:21); Golgotha, the mountain where he was crucified (Mt 27:33); Gabbatha, place where Pilate judged him and condemned him to die (Jn 19:13).
Lastly, the Gospels conserve some Aramaic expressions used by the first Christians like hosanna (Mt 21:9), that literally means “save us, we entreat,” but in the time of Jesus had become a simple cry of acclamation equivalent to our “long live.” It is the same with maranatha, which means, “the Lord has come,” the phrase with which Revelation ends (Rev 22:20).
The dialect of treason
Aramaic, as all languages, was deformed and adapted according to the distinct regions where it was spoken. And in the Palestine of Jesus, two different forms of speaking in Aramaic had appeared: that of Galilee (in the north) and that of Judea (in the south).
In Galilee, because of the strong foreign influence, the people spoke with a pronunciation that differed notably from that of Judea. The Galileans contracted much the words, were very negligent with the initial consonants, preferred the sound of “a” to that of “i”, and it seems that they pronounced the sounds of “d” and “t” very badly. For example, instead of immar (lamb), they said ammar (wool); and instead of jamar (wine), they pronounced it as gamar (donkey).
Jesus, having been raised in Nazareth, spoke with the Galilean accent, as did his apostles who were all from this zone, with the exception of Judas. This way it can be understood that when Jesus was being judged in the house of the High Priest Caiphas, those who were present had told Peter: “For sure, you too are one of them. Even your accent betrays you” (Mt 26:73). Peter swore that he did not know him. But his bitter “I do not know him,” which he responded in Aramaic leth aná hadá, was sounded in his Galilean dialect lená jaká, confirming in his accent what his lips denied.
The second language of Jesus
If Jesus did spoke in Aramaic, did he also know Hebrew, the language of the sacred texts? When he attended the synagogues on Saturdays, did he understand the readings of the law and of the Prophets, or was there a necessity for a translator in Aramaic?
One episode related by Luke gives us the answer. One day, Jesus entered in the synagogue of Nazareth, as on all other Saturdays, and they invited him to go in front and do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was brought to him, which was written in Hebrew, he read it without difficulty (Lk 4:16-19), showing that Jesus understood Hebrew as well.
Another clue confirms this. Jesus is commonly called in the Gospels as rabbi, that is to say, “teacher,” by his disciples (Mk 9:5), by the ordinary people (Jn 6:25), and even by the typical rabbis of the time (Jn 3: 2). Now, we know that the title rabbi was not attributed to just anyone—only to those who had a recognized public function, those who proclaimed, translated and commented on the Scriptures in the synagogues.
This allows us to assume that Jesus did this frequently. Matthew attested it when he says: “Jesus went all around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues (Mt 4:23).
The third language of Jesus
But there was a third language that was spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus: Greek.
In fact, from the year 331 BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered the nearby Orient, the Greek language was imposed gradually in the conquered towns. Among these, was Palestine. The rabbis tried in vain to fight against its penetration, to save Aramaic and the Semitic culture. “One who teaches Greek to his son—they said—is as damned as one who eats pork.”
Still, even the great doctors of the Law, like Gamaliel, knew Greek. And also Paul, a Jewish fanatic, used it with enough correctness seen in his letters.
In the times of Jesus, the Roman authorities knew Greek, as did the people involved in commerce and international businesses. In Galilee, bordered by territories using the Greek language that was always a region of mixed population, and with international routes of communication, the Greek language had to be quite diffused. So it is assumed that Greek was spoken as well in Nazareth.
It is not improbable then, that Jesus has learned a minimum of Greek, which can be assimilated by being in frequent contact with the people who spoke it.
Dialogues without translators
Is it possible to know when Jesus spoke in Greek? If we put our attention to the evangelical stories, we can assume that he did so on five occasions.
The first was when he healed a demoniac in the city of Gerasenes (Mk 5:1-20). The herd of pigs that was there, an animal prohibited in Judean territory, shows that Mark was referring to a Greek zone and not Judean.
The second was when crossing the region of Phoenicia, a place using Greek language, Jesus encountered a woman who asked him to cure her daughter possessed by a spirit. The dialogue between the woman and Jesus, who when faced with her great faith conceded to the miracle, must have been in Greek (Mk 7:24-30).
The third time was with the centurion of Capernaum, a Roman military and therefore, knowledgeable of the Greek language, who pleaded for the health of a servant who was at the point of dying (Lk 7:1-10).
The fourth time occurred in the Temple of Jerusalem, when Philip and Andrew obtained from Jesus an audience with some Greeks who wanted to speak with him (Jn 12:20-21). They were foreign Jews who, impressed by what was said by the Teacher, and were staying for the Paschal Feast, wanted to know him personally.
Finally, during the passion, the interrogation that Pilate subjected Jesus to could not be in any other language aside from Greek. It seems unlikely that the prefect Pilate had taken the trouble to learn the language of his subjects. And Jesus seemed to have answered the questions directly without the need of an interpreter (Mt 27:11).
Did Jesus know how to write?
For us, a person who knows how to read also knows how to write, because for us both functions go normally together. It was not like this in the ancient times. In order to write, it was necessary to learn a costly special technique; it was difficult to buy papyrus, parchments or enclosed boards; and there was still a lack of inks and of pens, that were also expensive.
Because of this, to know how to write was entirely an art, a profession. And one who came to master it received the name of a “scribe.”
Probably in his childhood, Jesus learned not only to read but also to write in the synagogue of his town. In fact, at least once, in the gospel of John, we see him writing. It was when a woman caught in adultery was presented to him. Before the questioning accusers, without saying anything “ Jesus inclined himself and started to write with his fingers on the ground” (Jn 8:6). And upon their insistence, responded to them: “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” and “inclining anew, continued writing on the ground” (Jn 8:8).
It is not known what Jesus wrote, but many scholars have assumed that these were the words of Exodus 23:7: “Turn away from all lies and do not murder the innocent and the just.”
Therefore, we can say that Jesus knew how to write. He was not a scribe by profession. He was the preacher of the Reign of God, who announced the definitive Word of the Lord.
The true language of Jesus
We can conclude that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his mother language. It was the language that structured his thoughts, his life, and his heart. He spoke it, yes, in a Galilean dialect.
He also understood and read classical Hebrew, the language of the Sacred Scriptures, and could translate it into Aramaic.
He knew and spoke Greek as well; at least enough to communicate with the frequent contacts that he had with the Jews who came from strange lands, or with persons of Greek origin.
But Jesus spoke, and taught, above all, the language of love. It is the only language capable of communicating to us and makes us communicate with the people of all languages, all cultures, and the entire world. The language of love allows us to communicate even with those farthest from us like our possible enemies.
For this, he taught once: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This way, you become children of the Father who is in heaven, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the sinners” (Mt 5:44-45).