by Luke Wayne
As a Galilean Jew living in the first-century Roman Empire, Jesus would have been multilingual. At a minimum, Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. The regions in which Jesus lived and traveled appear to have had many spoken languages1 and it would not be surprising if He were at least minimally conversant in a few other local languages and dialects. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus spoke at least these three languages.
That Jesus spoke Aramaic is an uncontroversial claim. Aramaic was a common language among the Jews of Palestine in Jesus' day.2 Even the Dead Sea Scrolls, famous for their Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts, also contained Aramaic translations and commentaries3 testifying that Aramaic was an important language in use among the Jews there. As a first century Jew, it simply goes without saying that Jesus spoke Aramaic.
The Bible also makes this explicit by in some instances mentioning Jesus' Aramaic words and then translating them. The plainest example of this is in Mark 5:41:
"Taking the child by the hand, He said to her," “Talitha kum!” "(which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”)."
Interestingly, the fact that Mark spells out that Jesus spoke Aramaic here may indicate that Jesus did so in this personal setting but had not been doing so in His prior public interactions. In other words, this could suggest that, while Jesus spoke Aramaic, it was not the language of His public teaching.
While various regional languages persisted, Greek was the common language of business and communication that allowed the Roman Empire to function together.4 Rabbinic citations,5 numerous local inscriptions,6 original Jewish writings of the time composed in Greek,7 and even some Greek documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls8 demonstrate that Greek was a widespread and prominent language among the Jewish people of the time. In such a context, it is almost unthinkable that Jesus would not have been able to speak Greek.
During Jesus' trial before Pilate, the conversation would almost certainly have been in Greek. In Mark 7:24-37, when Jesus travels to the region of Tyre and converses with a Gentile woman there, and then goes on through other non-Jewish lands such as Sidon and the Decapolis, addressing crowds and healing their sick, it is hard to imagine that these conversations did not occur in Greek. Indeed, when Jesus frequently addressed the crowds during festival times in Jerusalem when God-fearing men and women gathered from disparate lands, Greek seems the most likely language in which He would have taught. It is not unthinkable that most of Jesus' public ministry would have been in Greek, the language that the broadest spectrum of people would have understood. At any rate, it is almost certain that, in at least some instances, Greek was the language Jesus was using.
In Luke 4:16, we are not only told that Jesus read from the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogue, but we are also informed that this was His custom. Jesus apparently read the Hebrew scriptures publicly on a regular basis. Jesus also frequently challenged His opponents among the scribes and Pharisees based on their common ability to read the Hebrew Scriptures. For example:
"At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, 'Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.' But He said to them, 'Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent,'" (Matthew 12:1-6).
"Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?'" And He answered and said, 'Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate,'" (Matthew 19:3-6).
Jesus' vast knowledge of the Scriptures throughout His ministry points to His ability to read and understand Hebrew, and His challenge "Have you not read..." would lose its force if He Himself was unable to read it. He is even called "teacher" or "rabbi" by many throughout the gospels. It is plain, then, that Jesus could read aloud and deeply understand the Hebrew language along with His ability to speak and converse in Greek and Aramaic.
- 1. G. Scott Gleaves, "Did Jesus Speak Greek?: The Emerging Evidence for Greek Dominance in First-Century Palestine" (Pickwick Publications, 2015) 4
- 2. ibid, 3
- 3. Geza Vermes, "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Revised Edition" (Penguin Books, 2004) 11
- 4. Howard F. Vos, "Bible Manners and Customs: How the People of the Bible Really Lived" (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999) 384
- 5. G. Scott Gleaves, "Did Jesus Speak Greek?: The Emerging Evidence for Greek Dominance in First-Century Palestine" (Pickwick Publications, 2015) 5-7
- 6. ibid, 8-13
- 7. ibid, 9
- 8. Geza Vermes, "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Revised Edition" (Penguin Books, 2004) 472-473