Baker Academic

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

“What Language Did Jesus Speak?” with the Pope, Benjamin Netanyahu, and guest appearances by Christopher Rollston, Stan Porter, and John C. Poirier—Chris Keith

On Facebook, Christopher Rollston posted this article about the Pope and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu getting into a disagreement about what language Jesus spoke.  When Netanyahu claimed that Jesus had spoken Hebrew, the Pope interrupted and said he spoke Aramaic.  According to the article, Netanyahu conceded that Jesus spoke Aramaic but that he knew Hebrew as well.

In terms of the state of the discussion, Pope Francis is right.  Most Jesus scholars now agree that Aramaic was Jesus' everyday language, though he may also have had some facility in Hebrew and possibly even Greek.  Stan Porter has argued for the Greek side of things.  All of these languages, as well as Latin and Nabatean, are attested from Jesus' time and locale.  The endlessly complex issue, however, is the degree to which any given instance of one of these languages is indicative of everyday realities, and further whose "everyday" we're talking about, since things would have been very different for, say, someone in rural Galilee, someone in the Jerusalem temple or at Qumran, and someone in Pilate's house when he's come to town from Caesarea Maritima.

What's perhaps most interesting about this question, however, is that it has a seriously long and detailed history of research.  Although not all of it is motivated for this reason, most of it is motivated by a search for the original words of Jesus in the Gospel texts.  For the most recent statement on languages in Jesus' milieu, see the excellent article by John C. Poirier, friend of the Jesus Blog:  "The Linguistic Situation in Jewish Palestine in Late Antiquity," Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Jduaism 4 (2007): 55-134.  To my knowledge, this is the most thorough treatment since Fitzmyer's famous article and confirms Fitzmyer on a number of issues.


  1. Technically speaking, Netanyahu was probably correct that Jesus "spoke" Hebrew, at least in the sense that I "speak" Hebrew when I pray in Hebrew. At bare minimum, Jesus must have sometimes spoken the word "Amen." While I don't know if Jesus said "Amen" in Hebrew or in Aramaic (or if he would have known the difference!), I'm reasonably sure he didn't pronounce it "Ay-men," just as I'm reasonably sure that Jesus pronounced "Hallelujah" with an "H" in front of it. Moreover, even if Jesus couldn't read, he was (as you say) textual, and most of those texts were written in Hebrew.

    Hebrew is a very big deal to present-day Jewish identity, particularly in Israel. For Netanyahu to claim that Jesus spoke Hebrew is, in effect, to claim a particularly close connection between Jesus and present-day Jewry. This is, for me, a positive surprise. For those of us who want closer Jewish-Christian relations, I think we could afford to let Netanyahu "win" this argument.

    And, take THAT, Mel Gibson! The Pope says Jesus couldn't speak Latin.

  2. What if the one called Jesus never existed?

    1. Mr. Dillard,

      If the one called Jesus never existed, my enjoyment of Monty Python would diminish considerably.


  3. Was Sepphoris some kind of international hubbub? If Jesus worked there, how many languages could he have been exposed to?

    I agree with Larry about Netanyahu. It can mean only good.

    As to Gibson, as a "traditional Catholic," he no doubt parted ways with the Pope a while ago.

  4. Larry,

    I doubt that any person would think of the difference between amens in terms of dialects. I guess this is further to your point, but also to suggest that the difference between Aramaic and Hebrew on this point is not illustrative and perhaps a nonstarter.

    BTW, I say "amen" in Northern Californian.

    Your point about Netanyahu's association between Jesus and Hebrew is very interesting.


  5. John Poirier's piece offers an important discussion on this much-discussed topic, and it is great that you have drawn readers' attention to it. I myself also favour the Aramaic side of things for some of the reasons Poirier points out for us, though perhaps more mildly than the article puts it. In relation to the use of Hebrew among the Dead Sea materials, one issue not sufficiently taken into account is the supposed "Qumran" context. (a) Historically speaking, the term "Qumran" should be avoided as a descriptor for the finds of the 11 caves, as for none of those who copied or collected the manuscripts there did the term have any meaning. Beyond this obvious point, (b) avoidance of the term helps us to think less to simplify the finds into relating somehow to "the Qumran community", as if here we have to do with the essential origin of most of the "non-biblical" Hebrew texts. In other words, so many of the texts cannot be shown to have been composed by the community (Yahad) that eventually settled there. (c) If the latter point holds - and since a number of the texts are not merely priestly or presuppose a narrowly self-defining group - then we are faced with the more widespread use of Hebrew outside a smaller circumscribed social location.

  6. For Netanyahu, Jesus spoke Hebrew because he was a real Jewish. For this reason it was better to not mention Aramaic, which is perceived as an old spurious language as a result of cultural contamination - therefore not very "Jewish". It even tastes a bit sectarian, cause it's not the “original” language of the Scriptures. That's why Pope's historical (correct) caveat was probably perceived as a bit out of line.
    I think Larry is correct when he underscores the cultural meaning of Netanyahu’s statement, which in my opinion definitely aimed to link Jesus to present-day Jewish identity in Israel. But I'm not sure that such link is entirely for the positive, cause it may sounds more like a religious "appropriation" rather than a religious "sharing": I have many Israeli friends who think that, since Jesus was a (present-day) Jew, then Christianity is necessarily "wrong", a foreign forgery operated by "Roman" Catholic Church and pagans.
    What I usually do, it's to draw their attention to the curious fact that the *founder* and *first Pope* of the "Roman" church was a certain Shimon Bar-Jonah, a contemporary of Jesus, friendly known as “Kefa”, and all this correctly sounds very Jewish and very little Roman to them!
    So, I believe that a fruitful inter-religious dialogue should better focus on *Jewish roots* of Christianity rather than (just) on Jesus' Jewishness.

  7. In related bizarre news, I just noticed that the Magdala stone was apparently used as a coffee table (or was at least contained within the coffee table) used for this meeting between the Pope and Netanyahu. As someone who has dug at Magdala, I really don't know what to make of this fact.

  8. To clarify, the stone in the photo I posted above is apparently a replica. Still, very interesting.

  9. The language of Jesus debate has a twentieth-century phase as well as a first-century phase, and the "received wisdom" among biblical scholars has been influenced far more than most of them realize by political and social forces, such as anti-semitism. I tracked part of this history in my article "Gustaf Dalman, Anti-Semitism, and the Language of Jesus Debate" (Journal of Religious History, 2010).

  10. The Journal for the Study of Historical Jesus though, has a c. 2013 article suggesting that assertions that Jesus was wholly Jewish, contain a kind of subtle racism in them, for their own part.