What language did Jesus speak?
The name of Jesus in Hebrew
Jesus spoke Hebrew. His mother-tongue would have been Hebrew – the language of Jews in Israel and the language of their Scriptures.
Nowhere in the original Greek text of the New Testament is the word ‘Aramaic’ to be found, although a very few Aramaic words are used. Certain passages in the original text of the Old Testament Scriptures are in Aramaic, namely Daniel 2:4-7:26 and Ezra 4:8-6:18 and 7:12-28. Because Jesus studied the Old Testament Scriptures during His earthly ministry, we can be sure that He also understood and spoke Aramaic.
Jesus would also have spoken Greek and Latin.
From the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East, around 300 years before Jesus’ ministry, Greek was a dominant language in this part of the world. The New Testament was written in Greek. Certain writers of the New Testament, such as Peter and John, were disciples of Jesus. Peter was a fisherman, not a scholar. It is inconceivable that Peter and John understood and spoke Greek, and Jesus did not.
At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Israel was ruled over by the Romans. The Romans spoke Latin. When Pontius Pilate spoke with Jesus it is unlikely that he, as Roman ruler, would have stooped to speak a language other than his own. Roman soldiers and administrators and tax collectors were in positions of power throughout Israel at the time of Jesus. Everyday life demanded that people be able to understand and to speak at least some Latin.
The notice that was placed on the cross was in Hebrew, first, and also in Latin and Greek. This tells us, for sure, that these were the main languages in use in Israel at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Note that Aramaic is not mentioned.
Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.×
However, it is astonishing to see that the NIV – a popular contemporary translation of the Bible – translates the Greek word ‘Hebraisti’ as ‘Aramaic’ when it refers to the notice on the cross. Here, and at John 5:2, 19:13, 19:17, 20:16 and Acts 21:40, 22:2, 26:14 the translators take the gross liberty of turning the original text into something that it is not, in order, apparently, to satisfy certain theological and traditional biases. In other words, they fail to translate the Holy Scriptures accurately and imply that the language of Jesus, and of the Jews in Israel at the time, was not Hebrew, but Aramaic.
Inaccuracy in popular modern Bible translations can distort our understanding about the Jewish roots of the Christian faith
This act of scholarly dishonesty is compounded by the fact that at 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Philippians 3:5 and Revelation 9:11 and 16:16, they revert to translating ‘Hebraios’ and ‘Hebraisti’ as ‘Hebrew’.
This bias against the Jewishness of Jesus carries through in Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”.
Gibson attempts to inject authenticity into the film by making Aramaic the language of Jesus. The fact that a few words of Jesus in the New Testament Greek are a transliteration of some Aramaic words by no means proves that Jesus spoke Aramaic as His primary everyday language. Words like ‘Abba’ (father) and ‘Eli’ (my God) and ‘Rabbi’ (my teacher) and ‘lama’ (why) are Hebrew words as well as Aramaic.
Why should we care what language Jesus spoke?
Why? Well I, for one, don’t care at all, in the sense that what He accomplished for us – in paying for our sins on the cross of Calvary – is far more important than minute details of His life on earth.
However, I do care that accurate translations of the word ‘Hebraisti’ – like the KJV and the NASB and others – can be superseded, in a sense, by a popular English translation. This, together with a popular film, can distort the understanding of Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith.
It also shows how much of our understanding of Scripture and Christian living comes not from the Bible but through filters such as tradition and humanistic culture.