The Socio-linguistic study of First-Century Galilee helps to uncover the underlying politics surrounding National identity, Social class, and the Urban-Rural divide at the time of Jesus. The insights drawn can richly benefit us, particularly those of us who live in contexts where language choice shapes Ethnic/National Identity, language type feeds a regional bias, and accent betrays caste/ class.


Did you know several popular words in our Christian vocabulary, such as Abba, Maranatha, and Golgotha – are actually Aramaic words? The New Testament contains many other transliterations of Aramaic words, phrases and names.

Both Aramaic and Hebrew were popular at the time of Jesus. Both co-existed for several centuries in the Near East. In fact, some portions are entirely written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Daniel 2:4b-7:28; Jer. 10:11)

By the 8th Century, Aramaic became the “Lingua Franca” of West Asia, during the Late Assyrian Empire. Aramaic was widely used for diplomacy, trade and commerce. Aramaic usage spread in Palestine after the Assyrians deported Aramaic speaking populations. Over time, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the primary language spoken by the Jews, particularly those who lived in Palestine and the regions to the East.

Aramaic was commonly spoken in everyday conversations and the Marketplace, besides everyday conversations. However, Hebrew was mostly used for religious purposes such as liturgical worship and the public reading of Scripture.

So then, did Jesus speak Aramaic or Hebrew (or perhaps both), and should his language choice/use matter at all?

LANGUAGE AS AN IDENTITY MARKER

The question regarding the language/s of Jesus is inextricably related to the larger question of language use/choice during the First Century, particularly within the socio-linguistic milieu of Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee.

As Marc Turnage rightly reminds us, questions on language choice and/change can be “socially loaded” (Turnage, 2014). For example, language can easily become a marker for the ‘Religious’, ‘ Ethnic/National’ and ‘Caste/Class’ affiliations.

The question really is: Did Jesus prefer Aramaic to Hebrew (or perhaps selectively use either)? A person’s language (both in its choice and usage) can be quite revealing. Even a simple either “this or that” or “maybe both” answer to the question at hand can be “socially loaded”, far more than we can recognise.

Jesus’ language use (whether preferred choice or by practical consideration) and style (simple or advanced) can provide informative details about the general cultural preferences, socio-economic attitudes and political leanings.

Therefore, Jesus’ language choice/use does matter!

THE SOCIO-LINGUISTIC WORLD OF JESUS

Agreed, Aramaic was widely spoken as a kind of “first language.” But, the scholarly agreement on the widespread use of Aramaic does not negate the use of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Surprisingly, despite the popularity of Aramaic (and the importance of Greek), Hebrew did not disappear completely. Hebrew was spoken in some pockets and certain strata of society. But, of course, Hebrew usage was not as widespread as Aramaic.

The “Hebrew usage” within the language mix presents a “problem of choice”. Thus, the social world was far more complex with the prevailing cultural tensions surrounding religion and (linguistic) politics.

Language preference ( either by choice or for practical consideration could reveal the underlying politics and social-cultural attitudes. So then, did Jesus speak Aramaic or Hebrew as a preference, or did he selectively use a language depending on his listeners? 

THE POLEMICS OF IDENTITY

Did language play a crucial role in the social, political and religious affiliations between the Jewish populations within Galilee and Judea? The polemics of identity underlying the differentiation in the choice of language expression (and use) is not very difficult to see.

Here are a few pointers:

a. Expression, Usage and Form: Aramaic was the common language of the people and widely used. However, Hebrew was more a scribal language. Both Aramaic and Hebrew could be spoken as well as written. But, Aramaic was more popular as a spoken language (rather than in written form).

b. Setting: Aramaic was used in casual conversations and the Marketplace. Hebrew usage, however, was limited to liturgy and literature.

c. Social Class: Aramaic was spoken by all classes of people. Hebrew was spoken by particular social strata, mainly the Religious and cultural elite. Hebrew enjoyed a certain degree of Prestige and loyalty. On the contrary, Aramaic had neither.

d. Indigeneity: The Jews learnt Aramaic during the Babylonian Exile (which may explain why parts of the book of Ezra and Daniel are written in part in Aramaic). And therefore, Aramaic was “the language of the captors” while Hebrew was “the language of the Jews”.

e. Religious and National Identity: Hebrew played a significant role in shaping National and Religious identity. On the other hand, Aramaic did not shape any “cultural message” (Cf. Rabin). Love of Hebrew was fuelled by messianic ideology.

Not surprisingly, there were efforts to preserve Hebrew by promoting its usage through emotional appeals. Hebrew became a symbol of Nationalist pride and loyalty to the Jewish cause with the Maccabean revolt.

This may, perhaps, explain why most texts in Qumran were in Hebrew when most Palestinian Jews were speaking Aramaic. The Essene community was closely related to the Maccabean Revolt. 

Hebrew, thus, played a significant role in shaping the National and Religious ethos of the Jewish people. Hebrew usage was definitely a marker of Religious and National identity.

SO, WAS IT ARAMAIC OR HEBREW?

Jesus taught in all the villages,  towns and Cities ( (Mk 6:6f, Mk.6:56f) in and around Galilee (Mk. 4:33f;). He was popularly known as “ teacher” (Mk.9:6; 10:17) all over Galilee and almost everyone who heard him was amazed (Mk 1: 22),

The New Testament records several Aramaic words and phrases of Jesus:

  • Talitha kum – Ταλιθὰ κούμ (Mk 5:41)
  • Ephphatha (Ἐφφαθά) Mk 7:34
  • Abba (Ἀββά[ς]) Mk 14:36
  • Raca (Ρακά) Matt 5:22
  • Mammon (Μαμωνάς) Matt. 6:24
  • Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (Ἠλί, Ἠλί, λιμὰ σαβαχθανί) Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34

Moreover, Jesus even taught in the Synagogues in Galilee and was hugely popular (Mk. 1:28). Jesus could have generally spoken Aramaic since Aramaic was the cultural preference for casual conversations and the Marketplace. In any case, it was the common people’s language in Galilee.

It could be that Jesus commonly spoke Aramaic but probably used Hebrew in religious settings. The New Testament alludes to Jesus’ knowledge of Hebrew.

Boy Jesus’ debate with teachers (Lk. 2: 4f) requires advanced knowledge of Hebrew Scripture. The reference to the “increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man” ( Lk. 2:53) could be read as increasing in literary abilities and social acceptance of his scholarship and Scriptural insights”.

The public reading of Scripture (Lk 4: 14f) is also evidence of his ability to read the Hebrew Scriptures. He regularly taught at Synagogues (Mk 1:21), and his teaching style was remarkably different from the other religious teachers (Mk 1:22).

He interacted with individual Jewish leaders (Jairus Mt 9:18f, Mk 5:21f;  Nicodemus Jn 3:1f) and debated with various Jewish Religious groups (Mk 2:6; Mt 12:2). Jesus also ministered in the Region of Judea (Mk.10:1) and beyond Jordan.

Jesus’ intimate Scriptural knowledge, his ministry in Judea, and his interaction with Jewish leaders could indicate his familiarity with spoken as well as literary Hebrew. But, interestingly, the Hebrew during the time of Jesus was Mishnaic Hebrew, which bore an influence of Aramaic. 

CONCLUSION

It appears that Jesus was more at home in Aramaic. His Galilean-Aramaic, with its distinct regional twang, helped him better communicate story-truths with rural audiences. However, He could also read Hebrew Scripture, re-call specific passages   (Lk. 4:14f; Mk. 2:23f; Mk. 7: 1f; Mk. 12: 35f), ingeniously reinterpret religious traditions, and debate with Religious Scholars. It is quite possible that Jesus spoke Hebrew with the Judean Jewish elite and Jewish Religious leaders.  

In my view, Jesus spoke both Aramaic and Hebrew (and possibly Greek too). He selectively used languages depending on his listeners. Jesus was probably not swayed by appeals to Hebrew Nationalism but he might have been aware of Nationalist ideology (as one of his disciples was a Zealot – Lk 6:15, Acts 1:13)  

The Socio-linguistic study of First-Century Galilee helps to uncover the underlying politics surrounding National identity, Social class, and the Urban-Rural divide at the time of Jesus. The insights drawn can richly benefit us, particularly those of us who live in contexts where language choice shapes Ethnic/National Identity, language type feeds a regional bias, and accent betrays caste/ class. 

FURTHER READING

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “The Languages of Palestine in the First” (Chapter 2) in A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays. 1979.

Marc Turnage, “The Linguistic Ethos of the Galilee in the First Century C.E.” in Buth, Randall, and R. Steven Notley. The Language Environment of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels. 2014.

Ong, Hughson T. The Multilingual Jesus and the Sociolinguistic World of the New Testament. 2016.

Serge Ruze, “Hebrew versus Aramaic as Jesus’ Language: Notes on Early Opinions by Syriac Authors” in Buth, Randall, and R. Steven Notley. The Language Environment of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels. 2014.


www.lumoproject.com / LUMO Photo taken from www.freebibleimages.org

Samuel Thambusamy is a PhD candidate with the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.