Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jesus' Mother Tongue Part 2: The Supposed Dominance of Aramaic in First Century Galilee

My aim in this post is not to demonstrate that Hebrew rather than Aramaic was the dominant language in the first century or that Jesus taught in Hebrew rather than Aramaic, but to raise some questions about the nature of the evidence.

(1) As I mentioned in part 1, it is often claimed that the Greek words Hebrais and Hebraisti should be translated "Aramaic" instead of "Hebrew." In response I will simply quote from Ken Penner, whose argument I find persuasive:
In summary, all the anomalies to the otherwise consistent ancient distinction between Hebrew and Aramaic can be accounted for: First, John's Rabbouni can be considered a Hebrew word. Second, Josephus and Philo's Pascha and sabbata are taken directly from the Septuagint, and Asarta has a final alpha to aid pronunciation. Third, John's three place names called Hebraisti, namely Bethzatha, Gabbatha, and Golgotha should not be given much weight in the light [of] the resistance of proper names to translation. Thus all the apparently Aramaic words cited could easily have been used in Hebrew speech. Finally, Philo's claim that the Bible is written in chaldean is insubstantial, given that he probably knew neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. To refute the claim in the lexicon that Hebrais "refers to the Aramaic spoken at that time in Palestine," only one of the following three premises must be conceded. I have demonstrated the first two: First, Hebrais(ti) normally means Hebrew; second, Hebrais(ti) never certainly means Aramaic; and third, Hebrew was a spoken language in first century Palestine. This last premise has also now been generally conceded . . . (p. 10)
(2) Scholars who accept that both Aramaic and Hebrew were widely used often suggest that Aramaic was more common in Galilee, while Hebrew was more common in Jerusalem and its environs:
  • Chaim Rabin* concluded in 1976 that "while in Jerusalem mishnaic Hebrew was a home language and probably already also a literary language, and Aramaic a lingua franca, in Galilee Aramaic was a home language and mishnaic Hebrew the upper language of a diglossia" (1036).
  • Michael Wise** agrees, though he is less confident about the use of Hebrew: "The fact that the region [of Galilee] came under Jewish control only after some centuries of government by Aramaic and Greek-speaking rulers suggests that Hebrew was much less well known in Galilee than it would have been in Judea. . . . With the passage of time Aramaic became the most widely spoken language in Syria and Palestine, and, presumably, among the Jews, with the possible exception of the Jews of Judea" (437).
  • Mark Roberts refers to the "fact" that Aramaic was "the official language of Galilee": "It makes sense that residents of Nazareth spoke Aramaic, given the fact that Aramaic became the official language of Galilee from the sixth-century B.C. onward. Thus, it seems likely that ordinary residents of Galilee, including Nazareth, spoke Aramaic as their first language. This was the language of common discourse among Jesus' family and friends."
The problem with Roberts' assertion, in particular, is that Galilee came under Jewish/Judaean Hasmonean control in the second century BCE. Since there is strong evidence for Hasmonean preference for Hebrew, it is at least possible that Hebrew spread widely during this period among the Jews in Galilee. To be sure, this is an argument from silence. Wise** notes that written evidence for the use of Hebrew applies "only to Judea. . . . Similar evidence for Galilee is entirely lacking" (437). But Wise cites no epigraphic evidence that Aramaic was spoken in Galilee either. (There are inscriptions from late antiquity, but I know of no Galilaean Aramaic inscriptions dated to the Second Temple Period. I confess my ignorance: are there any? Scratch that: According to this article by Mark Chancey, there are perhaps two Galilaean Hebrew or Aramaic inscriptions from the Second Temple period. If there is little or no written evidence, both sides argue from silence--at least with respect to written evidence.

(3) Scholars now rightly avoid citing Rabbinic literature without further ado as evidence for first century usage. The reason is simple: Literature written after 200 CE must be examined first for what it says about the time in which it was composed (or compiled); it cannot be read as direct evidence for speech and practice hundreds of years earlier. It is worth noting, however, that the earliest Rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, the Tosefta) is preserved in Hebrew not Aramaic.

(4) As Wise** explains, the evidence from the Gospels about the language of Jesus is extraordinarily difficult to assess. In a bilingual context "Aramaic words might appear, for example, in the course of a conversation conducted mainly in Hebrew or vice versa; such phenomena are commonly observed in the speech of modern bilinguals" (442). Apart from the Aramaic command recorded in Mark 5:41,
"The other verbal sentences recorded as Jesus' direct speech . . . [Mark 7:34; Mark 15:34 and Matt 27:46] . . . are problematic as to language. . . . Thus it is impossible to be certain whether on these occasions Jesus spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. As a result, based on Mark 5:41 one can only say that Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic on occasion. This much was to be expected on the basis of our knowledge of the dominant language among the Jews of Galilee" (542).
I would merely add that "our knowledge of the dominant language among the Jews of Galilee" rests on inference; it seems not nearly as well-founded as is commonly supposed.

In the end I remain agnostic about Jesus' mother tongue. I assume Jesus was at least bilingual; he may well have taught in both languages. (I am not persuaded by arguments that Jesus taught in Greek.) I'd like to think he taught primarily in Hebrew, but see no way of knowing for sure. When I talk about Jesus' original language, I refer to "Hebrew/Aramaic" just to be safe.


*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. 
**Michael O. Wise, "Languages of Palestine." Pages 434-44 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP: 1992).
See also David Goodblatt, "Constructing Jewish Nationalism: The Hebrew Language." Pages 49-70 in Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.  

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