Who, What, Why: What language would Jesus have spoken?

  • 27 May 2014
Stained glass of Jesus with lamb Image copyright Thinkstock

Israel's prime minister has verbally sparred with the Pope over which language Christ might have spoken. Several languages were used in the places where Jesus lived - so which would he have known, asks Tom de Castella.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis appeared to have a momentary disagreement. "Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew," Netanyahu told the Pope at a public meeting in Jerusalem. "Aramaic," interjected the Pope. "He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew," Netanyahu shot back.

It's broadly accepted that Jesus existed, although the historicity of the events of his life is still hotly debated. But language historians can shed light on what language a carpenter's son from Galilee who became a spiritual leader would have spoken.

Both the Pope and the Israeli prime minister are right, says Dr Sebastian Brock, emeritus reader in Aramaic at Oxford University, but it was important for Netanyahu to clarify. Hebrew was the language of scholars and the scriptures. But Jesus's "everyday" spoken language would have been Aramaic. And it is Aramaic that most biblical scholars say he spoke in the Bible. This is the language that Mel Gibson used for The Passion of the Christ, although not all the words could be found from 1st Century Aramaic, and some of the script used words from later centuries.

Arabic did not arrive until later in Palestine. But Latin and Greek were common at the time of Jesus. It's unlikely Jesus would have known Latin beyond a few words, says Jonathan Katz, stipendiary lecturer in Classics at Oxford University. It was the language of law and the Roman military and Jesus was unlikely to be familiar with the vocabulary of these worlds. Greek is a little more likely. It was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire - used by the civilian administrators. And there were the cities of the Decapolis, mostly in Jordan, where Greek language and culture dominated. So Jesus would probably have known some Greek, although the balance of probability is that he was not proficient in it, Katz says.

There's no clear evidence that Jesus could write in any language, says Brock. In John's gospel he writes in the dust, but that is only one account. And we don't know what language it was in. Jesus might even have been drawing rather than writing, Brock says.

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