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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