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.

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