What Language Did Jesus Speak?

Aaron Tresham | September 3, 2015

The hypothesis that Jesus usually spoke Aramaic has dominated scholarly discussion for decades. For example, several years ago Darrell Bock noted, “Most New Testament scholars believe Aramaic was the primary language of Palestine in Jesus’ day” (BibSac 159/633 [Jan 2002]: 126).

Coming from a leading evangelical scholar of the NT, this assessment of the state of current scholarship is surely accurate. If that analysis is correct, then the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels in Greek are usually translations of original Aramaic sayings (at best).

This would make the number of Jesus’ ipsissima verba (exact quotations) found in the Gospels very small, and it would discredit the independence view of Synoptic Gospel origins. (How likely is it that three independent witnesses would make the same translations from Aramaic into Greek?) It also leads many scholars to adopt an exegetical method whereby the “original” Aramaic is sought to elucidate the Greek text.

Is this scholarly consensus correct? Is it possible that Jesus actually spoke and taught in Greek? Do the Gospels provide the original words spoken by Jesus in Greek (at least occasionally)?

To decide which languages Jesus commonly spoke and which languages He used for teaching, the languages spoken in Israel in the first century A.D. must be identified.

Such a study is necessarily limited and tentative. Available evidence comes from written sources, but spoken and written languages may not coincide. The linguistic milieu was subject to change in the period from 200 B.C. to A.D. 135, but the evidence is spotty and not evenly distributed. Different languages and dialects were spoken by various groups of people, some of which have no written record preserved to the present day.

Since the teaching of Jesus is the focus of this study, the discussion will be limited to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Of course, a distinction may exist between the languages spoken by Jesus and the languages usually spoken in Israel, but it is reasonable to assume that Jesus taught in a language his audience understood. In fact, no reason supports the assumption that Jesus always spoke the same language. Evidence shows that many Jews in the first century were at least bilingual. Jesus would have used whatever language best met the needs of the occasion.

Which languages the Lord spoke is not merely an academic concern. This article seeks to answer whether it is likely that the sayings of Jesus recorded in Greek in the Gospels are based on the spoken Greek of Jesus or are the translations of words He spoke in another language. The external evidence may prove it to be likely that Jesus could speak Greek; the internal evidence can reveal if He actually did.

To continue reading Aaron’s article in The Master’s Seminary Journal, click here.

Aaron Tresham avatar

Join Our Mailing List

Here's what you can expect from us:

Doctrine, discourse, & doxology delivered to your inbox.

Articles from trusted TMS faculty and friends.

A free eBook for your enjoyment.

No spam.

Related Posts

Handling the Hard Passages, Part 2 image

Handling the Hard Passages, Part 2

Abner Chou | December 5, 2017

In Handling the Hard Passages, Part 1, we looked at why dealing with difficult areas of scripture matters. If you didn’t get a chance to read that post yet, it would be beneficial for you to check it out as a foundation to understanding today’s topic. This week I want to take the time to […]

Handling the Hard Passages, Part 1 image

Handling the Hard Passages, Part 1

Abner Chou | November 28, 2017

  We all get embarrassed sometimes. Whether it be by a messy house, a family member, or a quirky habit. To try and diffuse our embarrassment, we do things like stuffing our messes in a closet when company is on the way, or cropping the offending family member out of our profile pictures. We want […]

Denomination or Deformation? image

Denomination or Deformation?

Nathan Busenitz | May 17, 2016

Baptists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All three claim to believe in Jesus. Yet, only one of these groups can be rightly classified as a denomination rather than a false religion. With that in mind, the question we are asking today might be stated as follows: What are the marks of cult groups and apostate forms […]