Friday, July 30, 2010

Jesus' Mother Tongue

That Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic, not Hebrew, is one of those "assured" results of modern scholarship that has filtered down into popular consciousness--assisted, no doubt, by the Aramaic script to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ as well as by modern English translations. BDAG, the standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, explains that although the noun ἑβραΐς (hebrais) means "the Hebrew language," it is used to "refer to the Aramaic spoken at that time in Palestine." The lexicon entry shows how firmly entrenched this view is in New Testament scholarship; it also contributes to its continued dominance. Among modern translations, the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NET, follow the lexicon's lead by translating ἑβραΐς by Aramaic instead of Hebrew when it appears in the New Testament (Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; cf. the adjective, Ἑβραϊστί [hebraisti] in John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16; Rev 9:11; 16:16).

It may come as a surprise, then, to discover that scholars of post-exilic Hebrew and Aramaic agree that Hebrew continued as a spoken language until the 3rd century AD:
  • Moshe Bar-Asher*: "Research has further shown that Hebrew was spoken in Palestine until roughly 200 CE. The view is generally accepted that the Hebrew preserved in Tannaic literature reflects living speech current in various regions of Palestine" (568). "The theory was once proposed that MH had never been a living language, but an artificial creation, and that the Jews in the Tannaic period had spoken Aramaic exclusively. This view has now been universally abandoned" (586 n. 74). (See below for full bibliography.) 
  • Yohanan Breuer**: "Today . . .  everyone agree[s] that Hebrew speech survived in all walks of life at least until the end of the Tannaic period (beginning of the third century CE)" (598).
I suspect most pastors and more than a few scholars simply repeat what they learned when they were in school--namely, that the Jews of Jesus' day spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew and therefore that Jesus taught in Aramaic. This view rests on the outdated scholarship of past giants such as Gustaf Dalman, who wrote before the great manuscript discoveries of the 20th century (the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kokhba letters).

The standard position among those who actually study the question has changed, however. As the quotations from Bar-Asher and Breuer show, scholars of the linguisitic setting of first century Palestine agree that both Hebrew and Aramaic were spoken languages. To be sure, there is debate about how common each language was. On one side, Joseph Fitzmyer*** concluded that Aramaic was the vernacular, and that even Greek was more common than Hebrew: "pockets of Palestinian Jews also used Hebrew, even though its use was not widespread" (46). As far as I can tell, most linguists of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic now give more prominence to Hebrew than Fitzmyer did in 1970, and the standard view is now that most Palestinian Jews in the first century--including Jesus--would have been bilingual in Aramaic and Hebrew, at least to some extent, and possibly trilingual in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.

This, of course, does not prove anything about Jesus' mother tongue or his normal language of instruction. The majority of scholars still seem to conclude that, as a Galilaean, Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic and that he most likely taught primarily in Aramaic. This is the conclusion of Mark D. Roberts in a fine recent blog series (scroll down and begin reading at the bottom; most of the series is also collected here) as well as Michael O. Wise****, who concludes wisely: "In view of all the unproven assumptions and complexities involved with the question of Semitic sources behind the Gospels, it is no exaggeration to say that even after 150 years of scholarly effort, research is still at a very early stage" (444).

For my part, I am impressed with how little evidence there is for Aramaic dominance in Galilee, and I am convinced by my friend Ken Penner's excellent paper  (online here) that both ἑβραΐς (hebrais) and Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti) should be translated "Hebrew" when they appear in the New Testament. But more on this in part 2.



*Moshe Bar-Asher, "Mishnaic Hebrew: An Introductory Survey," in The Literature of the Sages: Second Part: Midrash, and Targum; Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism; Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature  (Fortress, 2007), 567-595.
**Yohanan Breuer, "The Aramaic of the Talmudic Period," in The Literature of the Sages: Second Part: Midrash, and Targum; Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism; Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature  (Fortress, 2007),597-625.
***Joseph Fitzmyer, "The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970): 501-31, reprinted in A Wandering Aramaean (Scholars Press: 1979; Eerdmans: 1997), 29-56.
****Michael O. Wise, "Languages of Palestine." Pages 434-44 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP: 1992).

Other sources:

Rabin, Chaim. “Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century.” Pages 1007-1039 in The Jewish People in the First Century: Section One: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, cultural and Religious Life and Institutions. Edited by Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976. 
I haven't yet read these two essays mentioned by Jeffrey Garcia: Shmuel Safrai, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus”; Hanan Eshel, “Use of the Hebrew Langauge in Economic Documents from the Judeaen Desert” in Jesus’ Last Week (eds. S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker; Leiden; Brill, 2006).


Ken Penner said...

Thanks for this, Dave. I put a better version of the talk up at

d. miller said...

Thanks, Ken. I was going to inquire about a revised version. I've updated the link.

StuntMonk said...

Hey Dave, just thought I would add another article to the discussion to round out your post. This one is by Dr. Michael Brown, who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University: