The Language of Jesus, Why It Matters

June 2014

Pope Francis recently traveled to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories (May 24-26th).  Jerusalem, in particular, came to a standstill during his pilgrimage.  The papal visit was intensely watched around the world, especially by the media, for any sign of his political leanings regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  During one public exchange between the Pope and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Bibi shared how Jesus had lived here in the land and had spoken Hebrew.  Francis quickly replied with a smile, “Aramaic.”  Bibi responded, yes, Jesus spoke Aramaic but Hebrew as well.  Video here.

The internet quickly exploded about what language Jesus really spoke.  The vast majority proclaimed Bibi wrong, declaring Jesus an Aramaic speaker, though possibly knowing some Hebrew for synagogue use.  JCF’s Randall Buth responded to the Jesus language debate in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, saying that Jesus, a Jewish sage living in the Land, would have spoken Hebrew just as much as he would have Aramaic.  After summarizing the linguistic data that points to the Galilee and Judea as a multilingual land (with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek usage) in the time of Jesus, Randall ended with reasons why some have defended an Aramaic-only bias for so long.

“Why is there such an emphasis on an Aramaic-only Jesus? What is the sub-text that unifies many of those who suggest that Jesus taught in Aramaic? If Jewish teachers tended to use Hebrew in the first century, then a Jesus that teaches in Aramaic can be portrayed as “non-Jewish” or “less-Jewish.” Some will be comfortable with that. Historically, many Christians have wanted to emphasize a universal (and non-Jewish) orientation for the Church and an Aramaic-teaching Jesus fit that role model. Ironically, the same motive might have been comforting within a Jewish context: Jesus is not one of “our Jewish teachers” and incidentally, he did not even teach in our language. Both sides could miss the real Jesus.”

Throughout history, at times, many of us followers of Jesus may have missed the real Jesus, when we paint him with our own agendas and assumptions.  Misunderstanding and twisting Jesus' ethnic identity has even produced deadly results.[1]  To truly know Jesus, we should also know his people and their culture, and of course, that includes their languages.

[1] One need only look back in the 20th century to Adolf Hitler, who supported the Deutsche Christen church, a group of Nazi Protestants, which rejected the Hebrew origins of the Gospel and stated that Jesus was an Aryan and that later, Paul as a Jew, had twisted Jesus’ message.  In October 1941, when Hitler made the decision to begin exterminating the Jews, he repeated this false historical assumption of Jesus and the early church.  For more see Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, Princeton University Press, 2008. pp 1-10.