Jesus’ Language More Complicated Than Experts Claim

“So Israel’s Prime Minister was arguing with the Pope over what language Jesus spoke” sounds like the setup to a weird joke. Which, actually, it is. Lasting just a few seconds, the dustup reflects centuries of attempts to claim Jesus through speech and to transform his native language and original words into sacred linguistic relics.

In case you missed it, during last week’s meeting with the Pope in Jerusalem Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that Jesus’ language was Hebrew, then backpedaled quickly when the Pope corrected him, asserting that “He spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew.” What’s surprising isn’t so much that Netanyahu used language politically to gain territory for his side—what defines his goals better?—as the fact that any attempt to pin this first-century Judean holy man down to one language ends up concealing him and his world from us.

Hebrew as People First and Language Second

Few sacred texts confuse monolingual thinkers as badly as the Gospels, where Hebrew and Aramaic seem to be repeatedly confused. In John 20, Mary Magdalene is described as calling the resurrected Jesus “rabbuni,” which, every standard translation tells us, is Hebrew and means “teacher.” This is fascinatingly wrong. It’s actually the only time in the New Testament that an Aramaic form of the word is used; every other time Jesus is addressed with a similar term it’s the Hebrew “Rabbi.”  Indeed, all the comprehensible words in John labeled “hebraisti” (translated “Hebrew”), like Golgotha, are Aramaic (the –tha ending—as in Mark’s famous talitha cumi, “rise (from the dead) o girl!”—is a giveaway).

The Greek writer of John was not using “Hebrew” (hebraisti) as a pure linguistic term, however, but as a cultural one to indicate “the speech of the Hebrews,” which points to an inextricably hybrid situation that baldly violates our later monoglot (and nationalist) ideals.

Indeed, the current debate is a mirror image of the last big public argument about Jesus’ language, when Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ had him speaking what was supposed to be Aramaic. Both views mislead us about Jewish linguistic life in the first century C.E. To the extent we can know them, the facts of that ancient life cast a surprising light on modern scholarship and nationalism alike.

Back in 2004 scholars attacked The Passion for claiming a documentary-like authenticity, hinting that these may have been the precise words Jesus spoke. Bible scholars such as Robert Alter, Geza Vermes and others criticized its Aramaic as a bastardization cobbled together with Hebrew, and its Latin as a theological hoax on the order of the Donation of Constantine.

First, it’s important to remember that our Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible itself comes from the Masoretes, Palestinian Jewish scholars who spoke Aramaic. A glance at the standard scholarly edition, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, shows that the Masoretic notes on the side are predominantly in early Palestinian Aramaic. Indeed, even the name of God in the best-accepted scholarly manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, Codex Leningradensis, is in fact typically written to be read not in Hebrew but in Aramaic: the tetragrammaton (יהוה or YHWH) is predominantly written with the vowels for shma, Aramaic for “the name.”

Jewish linguistic practice at the time when the Hebrew Bible’s form was being finalized and the events represented in the New Testament are set was a bricolage. Contemporary texts paint a bracingly cosmopolitan linguistic picture of first-century C.E. Jerusalem: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, with two of the three sometimes together, are inscribed all over the city. Latin was a foreign language, found in names and official terms but alien to speech. Jonas Greenfield, the great Aramaist with whom The Passion’s Aramaist-theological consultant William Fulco and I both studied, compared the synagogues of Jerusalem to those of the old Lower East Side: both were packed with diaspora Jews, moving from language to language to find a common tongue. Ancient Jewish language use resembled Spanglish, switching languages depending on what they were saying and who they were talking with. While Judeo-Spanglish may seem quirky to us, in fact we’re the historical oddities: in many if not most times and places multilingualism has been the norm.

“Aramaic” isn’t Entirely Aramaic

What languages did the area’s Jews think they were speaking? By the second century B.C.E. Palestinian Jews were writing major religious texts in all three languages, and translating the Hebrew scriptures into both Aramaic and Greek. Strikingly, they did not always even see Hebrew and Aramaic as two different “languages.”

That is, although they formed at least two distinct linguistic systems, they weren’t always differentiated, in theory or practice; the New Testament mentions of “Hebrew” usually refer to what we would call Aramaic, but sometimes Hebrew, and should perhaps be understood as an ethnic term. The more relevant opposition for them may have been ethnic and cultural: not Hebrew vs. Aramaic, but Jewish vs. Greek. It’s this opposition that may have determined how languages were named and categorized in the region as well. The ancient borders of languages, in other words, were themselves linguistically produced.

While this view complicates both scholarly and nationalist presuppositions, it is ultimately a product of them: for linguistic ideologies to be reconstructed, ancient metalanguage—discussions of who was speaking what—must be translated. Indeed, recent decades have seen an explosion in contemporary sources for Aramaic, which strengthens and nuances this picture.

And here is a further scholarly irony. From the purist’s point of view, the Jewish Palestinian Aramaic corpus, which is as close as we are going to come to the Aramaic of Jesus, is as odd as Mel Gibson’s film. Most of this “Aramaic” is not entirely in Aramaic. The inscriptions and Midrash offer Aramaic phrases, sentences, and extended passages—but freely mixed with, or embedded in, Hebrew.

That such mixture may have been closer to the rule than the exception in religious contexts is suggested by the literary standard itself. Indeed, to this day no one has explained why the book of Daniel switches the way it does between Hebrew and Aramaic.

Even apparently monolingual Hebrew or Aramaic texts edited by Palestinian Jews revert to their linguistic counterpart at key points. The best manuscripts of Palestinian Targum (Bible translations into Aramaic) sometimes use the old Hebrew circumlocution for the name of God, adonay, (though we also find the Greek loanword kurios!). Surely many readers of the Hebrew Bible would be surprised to know that the Tetragrammaton, which they are taught to read adonay in Biblical Hebrew class, is, as noted above, often vocalized as shma—Aramaic for ‘the name’—in the very text they have in front of them. Their eyes pass over the disruptive evidence of another language standing between them and text.

Hebrew: Dead Language, Sacred Relic, or Something More?

The problem is not that Aramaic is tainted with Hebrew or vice-versa; mixture is what readers of Galilean inscriptions, the Palestinian Talmud, or early Midrash like Genesis Rabbah would expect. The real problem is the pretense of purity itself: the presentation of the languages of Palestine either as purely Aramaic or Hebrew.

Why Aramaic? Christological Aramaic is an old theological project. It dates at least as far back as Johann Albrecht von Widmanstadt’s 1555 translation of the Syriac New Testament into Latin, which he presented as the original language of Jesus. That tradition claims that Aramaic (not Hebrew or Greek) is the key not merely to Jesus’ cultural background, but to hisipsissima verba, his very words, and thus an unmediated experience of him. This idea is connected to a common story about the death of Hebrew, in which the “Semitic” background of the New Testament is exclusively Aramaic, and that Hebrew is a moribund, strictly liturgical language. Unfortunately the moral of this story is itself a theological polemic: Judaism is a “dead” religion serving the “letter of the law,” not its living spirit.

This view of Hebrew as confined to the synagogue avoids conclusive evidence for spoken Hebrew in this period, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bar Kokhba documents, and early Rabbinic literature. The Jewish scholar Moshe Segal wrote his groundbreaking grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew as a polemic to combat this view, pointing out continuities between late Biblical Hebrew and the language of the early Rabbis.

Until recently, the scholarly debate about ancient Hebrew’s lifespan had split along ethnic-religious lines. Most major studies of the continuing life of Hebrew have been by Jews, and the “Aramaic approach” to the original words of Jesus was the province of Christians.

Now the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, unfortunately propelled by just as much ideological energy. A recent trend has Christian scholars digging up fragments of evidence in favor of Hebrew—and in the process showcasing how words excavated from their context give only a broken picture. In a Haaretz opinion piece titled “Why Jesus really was a Hebrew speaker,” Randall Buth argues that we should take John’s ethno-religious term “Hebraisti” as literally “Hebrew” even when applied to obviously Aramaic words. For example, despite abundant appearances in Palestinian Aramaic, Mary Magdalene’s respectful term for lord or teacher rabbouni “is, in fact, excellent Mishnaic Hebrew” because “It is attested in Codex Kaufmann of Mishna Ta`anit 3.8.” 

This sounds impressive until one actually reads Codex Kaufmann, a priceless source for early Rabbinic Hebrew. What Buth neglects to mention is that this form appears only once, as opposed to over 50 instances of the normal Hebrew forms “rab” or “rabbi.” He also doesn’t mention that, by contrast, this Aramaic term for “lord” is overwhelmingly dominant in the earliest Palestinian Aramaic translations of the Torah, where it appears over 100 times, as opposed to zero in the original Hebrew. Words travel, especially when multiple languages rub shoulders, and just as saying “Rabbi” today wouldn’t classify you as a Hebrew speaker unless the rest of your conversation was Hebrew too, “rabbouni” is no more decisive back then; we need to look at overall patterns, not isolated examples. 

Since we are not used to linguistic pluralism, the fruitfully multilingual environment of early Palestinian Judaism is particularly vulnerable to this kind of cherry-picking. Both Buth and his Jerusalem School for Synoptic Research colleague Steve Notley add the same peculiar argument that, as Notley wrote in the Times of Israel: “Outside of the Gospels, story-parables of the type associated with Jesus are to be found only in rabbinic literature, and without exception they are all in Hebrew. We have not a single parable in Aramaic.” Even if this were true (Jews were already reading the Aramaic parables of Ahiqar in the 5th-century BCE at Elephantine in Egypt), it is unclear what it could mean. Did Hebrew have a copyright on wise sayings, so that Aramaic-speaking elders would need to acquire the gift of tongues whenever they wanted to dispense parables?

In fact, this has nothing to do with spoken language but with literary choices by later erudite, multilingual Jewish writers, which these admirably Judeophile Christians miss in their affection for Hebrew. While Rabbinic literature typically presents its readers with longer anecdotes (ma’asim) in Hebrew, brief, pithy sayings (ptitgamim) are usually in Aramaic. And as Yale’s Steven Fraade points out, in the Talmuds “Hebrew is generally the language of teaching… while Aramaic is the language of debate, question and answer.” Language does more than directly reflect speech here, and none of these texts can be mined for the perfectly preserved ipssissima verba of Jewish holy men, whether Jesus or the Rabbis.

What all of these accounts share is the idea that Jesus’ language is something for others to excavate. It must come from somewhere else, somewhere older, destined to be forgotten and resurrected for other people’s purposes. The traditions and languages of the Jews, both homogenized and subsumed under the title “Jewish,” are already buried artifacts to be excavated and displayed for someone else.

But the reality of Jesus’ language and audience was vernacular and hybrid, reaching beyond existing loyalties to state or people. It wasn’t Jesus but his followers who translated his adventures and sayings into the cosmopolitan Greek, an aspirationally universal language that reached beyond the Levant. If his language had stayed Hebrew or Aramaic he would never have become Jesus. In the end, what is most remarkable about his disruptive and otherworldly words is precisely that they’re still being claimed by the same sorts of institutions he disrupted.