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The book of Acts mentions the Hebrew language a number of times:

And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: (Acts 21:40, ESV)

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said: (Acts 22:2, ESV)

And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (Acts 26:14, ESV)

Many people in English talk about the 'Chinese' language, sometimes meaning Mandarin, but sometimes meaning all of the various dialects/languages of China. I have wondered if these verses are similar.

So do these verses refer to specifically the Hebrew language, or to a language family which also would have included Aramaic?

John specifically mentions the Aramaic language (5:2, 19:13, 17, 20, 20:16) which is clear about what language is being spoken, but could Acts be ambiguous?

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2 Answers 2

That there was a Greek word for Aramaic (Suristi) and Luke chooses to use the word for Hebrew in these places (tae Hebraidi dialectow) implies that he meant Hebrew instead of Aramaic.

Paul, being a Pharisee and trained by Rabban1 Gamaliel the Elder, would certainly know Hebrew. My answer here shows from literature and archeology that Mishnaic Hebrew was used by the common people in the Land during the time of Jesus and Paul. So nothing precludes it from being Hebrew (the speaker and the audience both know Hebrew).

Also, Paul's accusers in chapter 21 are saying he is unorthodox. One way to add to his orthodox credentials (so to speak) would be to use the Holy Language. While that alone wouldn't convince them, it would help his case. The opposite, Paul being unable to speak Hebrew, would drastically hurt his case.

We also see that it was Hebrew by the crowd becoming very quiet. Israelites were raised with a reverence for the Hebrew language which was called "the tongue of Torah," "the tongue of angels," "the tongue of Heaven," and, most importantly, "the holy tongue" (Sifre to Deuteronomy 333; BT Shabbat 115a; Bava Batra 82a; Hagigah 16a, etc.; Bereshit Rabba 18:4; Kohelet Rabba 7:8, etc.).

Paul addresses them as "Men, Brothers, and Fathers." Stephen also uses the same phrase when he addresses a similar crowd in 7:2. "Brothers" shows that Paul sees himself in the same Abrahamic covenant as they are. "Fathers" is a title of honor applied to those in authority (cf. 2 Kings 13:14; Nehemiah 9:32; Daniel 9:6; Matthew 23:9; Acts 22:1). This usage was common in rabbinic circles, as the phrases Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers/Religious Authorities," a tractate in the Mishnah), Avot d’Rabbi Natan ("The Fathers/Religious Authorities according to Rabbi Nathan," another early rabbinic work), Av-Bet-Din ("Father/Leader of the House of Judgment [i.e., the Sanhedrin]", a title used for the head of the Pharisees) all attest. Religious instruction was expected to be in Hebrew; his use of this phrase would imply this and the following are in Hebrew.

1The title Rabban instead of Rabbi means that Gamaliel was recognized as the greatest teacher of his generation. He was the first of only seven to be granted it.

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Many scholars think that Luke is referring to Aramaic or at the very least that it's ambiguous. For example, the NET Bible just translates it directly as "Aramaic," while the ESV translates it as "Hebrew" but has a note "Or the Hebrew dialect (probably Aramaic)." The issue here is less one of a "language family" as that "Hebrew" also refers to the Jewish people and so the "Hebrew language" could refer to the language spoken by the Hebrews (i.e. Aramaic).

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So it seems there is some disagreement about this then! –  curiousdannii Jul 10 at 3:33

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