What Language Did Jesus Speak?

This week we leave the Culture Wars behind and return to some basic apologetics…well, some interesting information about the Scriptures that informs our apologetics.

I once had a discussion with a person who insisted that Our Divine Lord spoke only Hebrew.  The conversation had begun centered around the word “rock” in St Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 16:18), but quickly devolved into a debate about ancient languages.  My friend held that the word “rock” couldn’t possibly refer to St. Peter because the Gospel was written in Greek, and the Greek words used in that passage are “petros” and “petra,” which mean “rock” and “small rock,” respectively.  I pointed out that Jesus didn’t speak Greek, He spoke Aramaic, and the Aramaic word for rock is “kepha,” which means “big rock” or “boulder.”

My friend was thunderstruck, he had never considered that a Jew in that time would speak any other language but Hebrew.

By the time Christ arrived on the scene, the Jewish people had been through a series of calamities that fundamentally altered their society.  The Jewish state, Judah, was a rump of Israel’s former glory under King David, having been invaded and imprisoned a number of times by the Persians, the Greeks, the Assyrians, and the Romans.  During the Babylonian Exile and the subsequent occupation by the Assyrians (700-330 BC), the Imperial Language of Aramaic became the common language of the Jews.  In fact, the books of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic.  Similar to the way that the Church’s official language is Latin even today, the Rabbis and Temple officials maintained the Hebrew language of worship and the Scriptures, but the people spoke Aramaic in their daily lives.

The linguistic patchwork of first century Judea was complicated by two more civilizations…Greek and Roman.  Greek was the common language used by the Roman elites in the conduct of business in the Empire.  Latin, of course, was the official language of the Empire spoken by Roman officials and military forces, as well as the Roman citizens.

History aside, how do we know from the Scriptures that Christ spoke Aramaic?  Simple.  In several places He is quoted speaking Aramaic.  In St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s Gospels, some of Christ’s words are rendered in the language the people spoke.  “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34), “Talitha cuom”  (Mk 8:41), and “Ephphatha” (Mk 7:34) are all Aramaic phrases.  Even the word “Abba” which Christ uses often to refer to the Father is the Aramaic word roughly translated as “Daddy.”  Incidentally, the Arabic word “Abu” has the same meaning… so “Abu Sulieman” means “Father of Solomon.”

Why is all this language study important to defense of the Faith?  Just this: properly translating the Scriptures leads to proper interpretations.  For example, when the “brothers of Jesus” are referred to in Scripture, it’s important to know that they are cousins, not children of Mary.  We know this because Aramaic has no word for “cousin” and Semitic cultures usually consider all male relatives as “brother” or “uncle.”  In fact, not to refer to a male relative as “brother” or “father” or “uncle” is a way of distancing oneself from them.  If we try to go with the English word, or even the Greek one, then we run the risk of drawing the wrong conclusion from the word “brother” or “rock,” and that weakens our personal understanding of the faith.

The Church recognizes the need for linguistic variety in her worship.  It’s also a reason the Latin Rite uses Aramaic (Amen), Greek (Kyrie), Latin (Sanctus, Gloria, Angus Dei), and the vernacular (mostly English or Spanish in the USA) during Holy Mass.  Words have power and real meaning…how else could we believe what someone tells us if words do not mean real ideas?

So the language Jesus Christ spoke on earth is important, both for our heads and our hearts.  If words were not important, then the Father wouldn’t have spoken the Eternal Word.  We are thankful He did.

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  • gk

    Amen!

  • belise

    We know that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but I have been wondering in what language Jesus and Pilate spoke to each other.
    What I think is that it must have been Greek. It was the lingua franca at the time and Jesus must have been able to speak it, just as many people around the world speak English nowadays. Also, it is unlikely that Pilatus would have learned Hebrew or Aramaic, but Greek was widely spoken in the Roman Empire.
    Of course, I am no Biblical scholar. It just seems to make sense to me.
    Elise B.

  • goral

    Obviously Jesus and Pilate did not speak the same language because at the end of their conversation neither one got his point across.
    When it comes to communication between God and man, it’s all Greek.

  • c-kingsley

    In Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, Jesus speaks Aramaic to most people, but speaks Latin with Pilate. (Not that that’s real evidence of what it was. Gibson tried to do many things historically accurately, but also allowed to do some things symbolically or traditionally.) “Quis est Verum?”
    I noticed that because I could vaguely get the Latin parts, but I didn’t get any of the Aramaic parts.

  • Dr. J. Carver

    Thank you for your information. I still wonder if Jesus spoke Assyrian because I met a person who grew up in Lebanon and his family heritage goes back as far as converting to the Church during the time St. Peter was alive. His family is still strong in the Catholic Faith and before his death (from stomach cancer) he ask me what language did I think Jesus spoke. I answered Hebrew (of course) and he said, “No. Assyrian! He spoke Assyrian!” I believe Eli was correct as this was still being spoken at that time.

  • king_assyrian

    jesus spoke the assyrian language and wrote assyrian in arabic its الأشوري named after king ashur or ishtar

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