Jesus spoke Semitic languages not Greek

Jesus teaching

We were reading Mark 5 recently and my curiosity was stirred by verse 41 where Mark records the healing of Jarius’ daughter.  In raising her to life, Jesus:

“He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”

This expression “Talitha cum” is Aramaic, it is transliterated into Greek.1  Ie the text is neither Greek or Hebrew, but Greek letters spelling out Aramaic words.  This raises several questions.  What language did Jesus speak?  Why are these expressions in the gospels?  What are the implications of these sayings?

The multi lingual world of 1st century Judea

The scholar Joosten notes many languages operated in Jesus’ world.

The language situation in Jewish Palestine during the 1st century is complex: at least four different languages were in use, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Latin, however, was used almost exclusively among Roman soldiers. Greek was more widely spoken, both as a vehicular, international language (comparable to English today)2

It used to be asserted that Hebrew was a dead language by the time of Jesus.  Joosten goes on to say that these assertions are incorrect – there is evidence of Hebrew continuing, especially but not exclusively in religious contexts.  It is worth noting that Hebrew and Aramaic are both Semitic languages and were quite similar:

the two languages are closely related. They also influenced one another a great deal. A word like rabbi, ‘master, teacher’, is originally Aramaic but in Jesus’ time it was used in Hebrew as well. Conversely, shabbat, ‘Sabbath’, is a Hebrew word, but Jews used it also in Aramai3

We see elements of the multi-lingual environment in the bible.  When Jesus was crucified Pilate placed a sign stating the charges in three languages – Latin, Greek and Hebrew– in John 19:20.  (Note the word “Hebrew” is used of both Aramaic and Hebrew4 which is evident from its use in the gospel accounts where it is applied to Aramaic words eg John 20:16).

The penetration of the different languages varied. Latin was likely an official language of the Roman conquerors and limited to the bureaucracy.  It wasn’t the language of international trade and education – that space was occupied by Greek.  However even Greek had limited penetration.  In Acts 21:37-40 Paul is arrested in Jerusalem/saved from the mob. He speaks to the officer in charge in Greek.  The text makes it plain that the officer did not expect Paul to speak Greek, it clearly surprised him.  This gives an insight into the status of Greek – it was the language of international commerce and learning – but it was not expected that everyone would speak it.

Jesus – multi-lingual?

So what language did Jesus speak?  It is the well accepted consensus that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his default tongue – not Greek, as Bowman says:

While Jesus probably was able to understand Greek and to speak in Greek as the occasion arose (especially in urban settings), it is almost certain that his usual speech when addressing his disciples and the Galilean crowds was in Aramaic5

This conclusion has found wide acceptance in the Christadelphian community67891011 (although not universal acceptance – Harry Whittaker consistently claimed Jesus spoke Greek1213 and some claim parts were in Hebrew like the Lord’s Prayer14)

Some would prefer to think Jesus would have spoken Hebrew all the time.  The preference should be put in context that the gap between Aramaic and Hebrew is not so great.  But the evidence is plain that Jesus was familiar with and used Hebrew.  As a child he debated/discussed things with the Jewish leadership in Luke 2:46.  Later he would read from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4:17 – meaning he read and spoke Hebrew on this occasion.  Jesus was clearly familiar with Hebrew; however, this doesn’t demonstrate that he used Hebrew as his default language day to day in his preaching and discussion.

Occasionally some will claim that Jesus spoke Greek as his default language.  The evidence for this claim is scant, often it is because the gospels are written in Greek. Did Jesus speak Greek though? Probably he had at least a working knowledge of the language, he was carpenter (Mark 6:3 –some translations obscure this, but the early manuscript evidence is strong15, presumably change crept in due to misplaced reverence) so possibly this was part of the commercial requirements for the role.  More significantly in his ministry Jesus interacted with people identified as Greek speakers, in his trial and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:25-30) and various Greeks who sort him out (John 12:20-28). Of course, these interactions provide no evidence of language.  Did Jesus speak Greek on these occasions or were the individuals multi-lingual as well? We don’t know.  Did Pilate use a translator?  Again, no-one knows.  Did Jesus use Greek in normal preaching?  Mellick points out how unlikely this is:

…it seems quite unlikely that Jesus would have, or could have, drawn the large crowds of interested listeners if He had spoken in a second language. Further, Greek was the language of the occupying nation, always hated because their presence implied the triumph of heathen nations over God’s people16

It seems the most reasonable and likely conclusion is that Jesus spoke at least three languages – Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. We do not need to make assumptions on two of these languages though.  The use of Hebrew and Aramaic by Jesus is attested by the gospels.  But what was the primary language of Jesus?

Jesus Primary Language

What was Jesus’ primary language?  The gospels point us firmly in the direction of Aramaic. Some of this evidence is beyond the reach of the lay person to access as it requires command of several languages. It seems Aramaic is the base language of Jesus and his disciples:

Much evidence has been found of Aramaic traditions behind the Synoptic Gospels and John (M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts3, 1967). An Aramaic sayings source may lie behind John—Aramaic being, of course, the mother tongue of Jesus. The thought in John is often expressed with the parataxis and parallelism which are well-known features of Semitic writing. All the indications are that the linguistic background of John is Aramaic, although the theory that it was originally written in Aramaic is unconvincing.17

I.e. Jesus and the disciples typically conversed in Aramaic almost all the time, but the gospels were written in Greek.  The gospels therefore contain

…telltale indications of a Semitic origin…: sometimes the grammatical construction is unusual in Greek (e.g. ‘they rejoiced with great joy’, Matt 2:10), or Greek words are used in uncommon ways (e.g. ‘if the salt becomes foolish’, Matt 5:13). In such instances we meet, so to say, with Hebrew or Aramaic expressions in Greek dress.18

For another voice on the same, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels says:

As a generalization, the Gospels are written in a simpler style and contain some expressions that stretch the limits of what might be considered “proper” Greek. Some of these features of style could be ascribed to the Semitic background of the NT. In this line of thought, the native Aramaic language of NT authors colored their Greek style, so that many of the grammatical constructions and word usages that seem unusual as Greek are simply Aramaic (or Hebrew) idioms coming literally into Greek. Some scholars have even talked about a specifically Jewish Greek dialect used by the authors of the NT.19

We can see fingerprints of Jesus’ original language in the gospels in a few passages. There are a few different ways Aramaic shows through the Greek gospels.  Some are more indicative of Jesus’ default tongue than others.  So, from less significant to more, let’s look at some of the Aramaic in the gospels.

Aramaic place names

The gospels (and a bonus example in Acts) refer to places using Aramaic place names.  A selection is provided below where the text provides the Aramaic place name and follows this with a translation.  These place names don’t provide evidence of the language Jesus used. But it points to the prevalence of Aramaic in Jesus’ world.  It also indicates a determination to preserve the initial names in the text – even though they were meaningless to the readers and needed to be explained.

  • John 9:7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
  • John 19:13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.
  • Matt 27:33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull),
  • Mark 15:22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull).
  • Acts 1:19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

While in some instances a purpose could be implied (e.g. Golgotha referring to a skull) in other instances there is no obvious value. The logical conclusion is the Aramaic place names indicate a desire to preserve authentic details of Jesus’ ministry and witness to the prevalence of the Semitic language as a backdrop to the Lord’s life.

Other characters using Aramaic or Semitic language

There are several instances of Hebrew words transliterated into Greek and then a translation for the Greek readers is supplied (in some of these the word could be Hebrew of Aramaic given the closeness of the languages).  Like place names, some of these words are religious terms.  Some are specific measures.  Without listing all the occurrences, the following words are Hebrew or Aramaic in derivation:

  • Sabbath
  • Gehenna
  • Passover
  • Cors (a measure of grain eg Luke 16:7)
  • Rabbi
  • Messiah
  • Satan
  • Amen

This provides evidence that those around Jesus were using Semitic languages in their conversations with and about Jesus.  Obviously, the gospel writers must translate these terms.  Aramaic also appears in discussion between Jesus and others e.g.

  • John 20:16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
  • Mark 10:51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

This term “teacher” is Aramaic in origin20.

Some of the language comprises technical religious terms (particularly Sabbath and Passover).  The inclusion of the original language expression makes sense as a Greek alternative was not to hand.  In other instances, it is hard to see any purpose for the inclusion unless it is to literally record verbatim what was said in an instance.  That the writer included a translation demonstrates the value was primarily historical.

Jesus bestows Aramaic names on the disciples

Did Jesus use Aramaic in times of stress but usually spoke Greek or Hebrew?  Aside from the evidence already presented – particularly the quality of the gospel texts – the evidence of how Jesus spoke to his disciples suggests not this is not the case.  Jesus gave several disciples Aramaic nicknames.

  • Mark 3:17-18 James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean,

Boanerges” is an Aramaic word21.  Mark translates the word into Greek for his readers – the sons of thunder.  Similarly “Cananaean” is an Aramaic word22.  Why give an Aramaic nicknames/surnames rather than use Hebrew or Greek words? Logically because Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke to his disciples.

Most famously John renamed Simon to be called Cephas (or Peter)

  • John 1:42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)

We know Simon as Peter and this is the word used of him throughout the gospels except here.  Jesus did not call Simon “Peter”, Jesus had an Aramaic name for this close friend and that’s what we expect he used:

Cephas, meaning rock. A Syriac surname given to Simon which in the Gr. is rendered Pétros23

So Jesus’ name for Peter was Cephas – this is the name Jesus gave him.  This is the only instance where Cephas is used in the gospels.  Paul also says “Cephas” in 1 Corinthians and Galatians, recording his interaction with Peter and the ‘Peter party’.  So did Jesus call Simon the Greek term “Peter” or the Aramaic term “Cephas”?  The evidence says Cephas.  This was the language Jesus used to name his other disciples.  John’s record makes clear “Peter” is JUST a translation.  After this point John’s gospel sticks to the translation – “Peter”.  Jesus did not call Simon by the Greek “Peter” but rather this is the gospel writers translating the name into Greek for their readers (since both “Cephas” and “Peter” mean “rock”)

This appears to be good evidence that Jesus spoke mainly Aramaic and that the gospels are translations of his words rather than recording him speaking in Greek.

Jesus used Aramaic words and phrases

The gospels provide more evidence of Aramaic use when they specifically record Aramaic words from the lips of Jesus.  Usually, but not always, the writers translate these expressions.

A couple of examples occur in the sermon on the mount:

  • Matt 5:22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire
  • Matt 6:24 No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

This speech of the Lord contains at least these two Aramaic expressions – Raca24 and mammon25.  This is interesting but perhaps doesn’t tell us too much – other than it would make no sense for Matthew to break out of Greek and insert Aramaic words unless these were the actual words of the Lord.

Mark alone contains several Aramaic sayings of the Lord.  In reviewing them collectively they do not share any common elements.  Eg while there is an Aramaic saying during the crucifixion, not all the sayings are uttered in extreme situations.  The instances are below:

  • Mark 5:41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (Luke 8:54 Luke uses diff Greek – shows not exact words)
  • Mark 7:11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) (Matt 15:5 doesn’t record original)
  • Mark 7:34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”
  • Mark 14:36 He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
  • Mark 15:34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It is worth pausing on the final example for a second.  On the cross Jesus unquestionably refers to Psa 22:1 but uses Aramaic for “my God” and “forsaken” rather than Hebrew.26  This provides excellent evidence that Aramaic was Jesus default tongue.  In Matt 27:46 the saying of Jesus is Hebraicized, making it closer to the Hebrew of Psa 22:1 (which points to Mark being verbatim and Matthew being a translation).

What are we to make of these sayings?  They record verbal utterances of Jesus in a variety of contexts, some good, some awful. That Aramaic comes out in the authentic impassioned voice of Jesus is telling.  Why has Mark does this?

The gospels were not written contemporaneously. Jesus told people to listen, not to write things down.  The disciples expected Jesus to return from heaven as the victorious Messiah in their lifetime.  A written testimony was not required.  Instead the disciples and their converts spoke of the things they “had seen and heard” Acts 4:20, 22:15 & Phil 4:9. When time came that the gospel was committed to paper in Greek, they went to audiences which either personal or (increasingly) received eye witness reports and what Jesus said and did.

Mark’s gospel we believe is inspired and in it we find an echo of Jesus’ actual voice in his default tongue.  Perhaps this dovetailed into the oral testimony in the possession of church elders.  Writings claiming to be authoritative had to match the received testimony about Jesus. Personal recollections (some of which were probably written down) and pseudo-gospels were identified as inauthentic or non-authoritative through a process which is not clear to us today.  It makes sense that the first written gospel is the one which retains the Aramaic sayings of the Lord.

Conclusion

There is good reason to think Jesus used the most common tongue of his day – Aramaic – for the bulk of his teaching and interaction with people.  Linguists detect Aramaic patterns in the gospels.  Further the writers themselves record authentic details of Jesus naming people and specific sayings of his – particularly in Mark.  These demonstrate that Jesus used Aramaic (although the existence of Hebrew cannot be denied especially in the synagogue).

This has consequences for a bible reader when they come to word studies.  The Greek gospels are themselves translations of what Jesus said.  They are not a word for word record.  Aramaic doesn’t readily translate to Greek on a straight one word for one-word basis (and often the semantic ranges of word differ).  We have God’s inspired word.  That is not the same thing as the word’s Jesus spoke. This of course points to the interesting question of whether we have the inspired meaning rather than the inspired pronouncement.  I will leave it to readers to ponder the implications of Aramaic on this point.

Footnotes

  1. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament(electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  2. Joosten, J. (2004). Aramaic or Hebrew Behind the Greek Gospels?.
  3. Joosten, J. (2004). Aramaic or Hebrew Behind the Greek Gospels?.
  4. (2011). The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Logos Bible Software.
  5. Robert, M. Bowman, J.. (2014). Synoptic Criticism and Evangelical Christian Apologetics. Midwestern Journal of Theology Vol 13.1 page 97-117
  6. Robert, Roberts (1888). The Christadelphian, Vol 25(electronic ed.), pg 241.
  7. Ed. Perry, A. W., Paul. Gaston, Thomas. Burke, David. (n.d.). Christadelphian eJournal of Biblical Interpretation Vol 7.
  8. Burke, D. B., J. Gilmore, K. Matthiesen, C. (n.d.). Defence & Confirmation, Issue 1, April 2014
  9. Dancer, G. E. (1939). Testimony Magazine Vol 9. Page 400
  10. Adams, PH (1947) “Did Jesus Speak Greek” Testimony Magazine Vol 17. page 212
  11. Elliot, D.  (2002) “The Importance of Aramaic” Testimony Magazine Vol 72 page 460-461
  12. Whittaker, H. A. (n.d.). Studies in the Gospels.
  13. Whittaker, H.A. (1987) Bible Studies-An Anthology, , Biblia, p. 17
  14. Walker, CC (1930). The Christadelphian,67(electronic ed.), 362.
  15. Omanson, R. L., & Metzger, B. M. (2006). A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament: an adaptation of Bruce M. Metzger’s Textual commentary for the needs of translators(p. 71). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
  16. Melick, R. (2007). The Language Jesus Spoke. In Holman Christian Standard Bible: Harmony of the Gospels(p. 295). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
  17. Marshall, I. H. (1996). John, Gospel of. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary(3rd ed., p. 600). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  18. Joosten, J. (2004). Aramaic or Hebrew Behind the Greek Gospels?.
  19. Graves, M. (2013). Languages of Palestine. In J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, & N. Perrin (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition(p. 490). Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; IVP.
  20. Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains(electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 415). New York: United Bible Societies.
  21. Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990–). Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament(Vol. 1, p. 222). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
  22. Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990–). Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament(Vol. 2, p. 248). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
  23. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament(electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  24. Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains(electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 387). New York: United Bible Societies.
  25. Hauck, F. (1964–). μαμωνᾶς. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament(electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 388). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  26. Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark(p. 572). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

Daniel is a lifelong Christadelphian and married to Sarah. They have a poodle and three teenagers. He is interested in apologetics (partly to answer his children’s questions) but suffers from an addiction to all books but particularly history and science.