Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

According to Mark 15:34 (ESV):

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus spoke Aramaic in his final moments. Was this his usual language? If so, why are the rest of his words quoted in Greek?

share|improve this question
This is a case where asking the question well required enough research that I was able to provide my own answer. Feel free to answer the question yourself. (I'd especially appreciate dissenting opinions.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 10 '11 at 20:36
N.B. I'm not so sure the question, as asked, is right for this site: Should all questions of interpretation include specific texts? –  Jon Ericson Oct 10 '11 at 21:35
20140527, and this question is in the news. See George Athas, "What language did Jesus speak?" posted today for an interesting discussion. –  Davïd May 27 '14 at 12:09

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Jon gives a good answer as to why Jesus would have been able to speak Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. He also asked for more information regarding the existence of Hebrew in the Land at the time of Jesus. Mishnaic Hebrew was very well known in the first century and was distinguished from Aramaic in such works as the Letter of Aristeas and Josephus. See below for more details.

Mishnaic Hebrew as a Common Person's Language in the Land

Based on old research, some claim that Hebrew was not a living language in use among the common people of the Land. Instead, they claim it was a scholarly or liturgical language. However, more and more evidence is coming to light that this is not so.

New Testament scholars have for years translated the Greek Ebraios into "Aramaic" when it appears in the NT instead of "Hebrew." They do this because the prevailing theory for many years was that Hebrew was only used by religious people and scholars. However, the weight of evidence says otherwise.


From the return from Exile onward, there was a concerted effort to restore Hebrew as the national language. It had been lost among most of the people during the Exile. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are all written exclusively in Hebrew (Ezra has a few Aramaic sections, but these are correspondence with a foreign King). Daniel's middle section is in flawless, Imperial Aramaic (from 2:4a to the end of ch 7), but the rest of the book is in Biblical Hebrew (and it's good Hebrew). Those middle sections needed to be in Aramaic to reflect the original language of the decrees and events.

During the Hasmonean/Maccabean Revolt, even more emphasis was placed on Hebrew. Coins from this period (and other bilingual periods) are Greek/Hebrew and not Greek/Aramaic (with one exception in the middle of the period). Literature from the period and place is almost never Greek or Aramaic but Hebrew.

That literature includes: 1 Maccabees (originally in Hebrew), the Dead Sea Scrolls (almost exclusively Hebrew), all of the Palestinian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, all Palestinian rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, all the Midrash). The Midrash can be compared to sermon illustrations that would be used in a preaching environment. Note that they were to be told to the common people and were in Hebrew.

The only collections of rabbinic literature in Aramaic is the Babylonian Talmud. This should not be surprising because it was compiled in Babylon where Aramaic was spoken. However, even the Babylonian Talmud preserves its Mishnah portion in Hebrew. The commentary on the Mishnah (called Gemerah) is in Aramaic, but the Mishanh remains in Hebrew. In addition, whenever a later, Palestinian rabbi is quoted in the Gemerah, the quote will be in Hebrew while the discussion of the quote is in Aramaic. Parables are also preserved in the Babylonian Gemerah in Hebrew. Parables were intended to be taught to the common people. They were far from academic exercises. Even though thousands of parables have been found in Hebrew (or Greek as recorded in the New Testament), not one parable in the Talmud or anywhere else has been found in Aramaic.

The Targumim (Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible) date to the second and third centuries after Christ and came about because of an Aramaic-speaking Jewish immigration from Babylon to Israel.

The early rabbis forbade the teaching of Greek to one's sons and insisted that only Hebrew be used for religious instruction. The forbidden nature of Greek applied only to religious matters as commerce with the west required Greek.

The New Testament includes Hebrew idioms that do not exist in Aramaic and makes wordplays that only work when a Hebrew source is considered. A good example of this is the "son from stones" word play Jesus makes in Matthew 3:9. It also never uses the word Suristi to describe the language used. It only uses Ebraios.

Even though modern scholarship is admitting that Hebrew existed in the academies and temple, the rabbinic literature says that even children and women (who were not allowed to obtain formal, rabbinic instruction) spoke Hebrew.


  • We should not allow a few Aramaisms to cloud the case of the many Hebraisms that appear in the New Testament. Levonah (Frankincense, Matt 2:11), mammon (Luke 16:9), Wai (Woe Matt 23:13), rabbi (Matthew 23:7,8), Beelzebub (Luke 11:15), corban (Mark 7:11), Satan, cammon (cumin Matthew 23:23), raca (Matthew 5:22), moreh (Matthew 5:22), mor (myrrh, Luke 7:37), sheekmah (sycamore, Luke 17:6), and amen which appears about 100x.
  • Alongside the Aramaic names in the New Testament are many Hebrew names such as Judah (preserved as Jude and Judas), Jacob (preserved as James), Yehushua (preserved as Jesus), Saul, Mattithyahu (Matthew), Mary (comes from Miriam), Simeon, Joseph, Y'hochanan (John), and others. Drawing conclusions from personal and place names tells us very little about the language of the common people.
  • Joseph A. Fitzmyer, one of the world's more prominent Aramaic scholars, admitted in 1975 in hindsight: "...the way in which claims are sometimes made for the Aramaic substratum of the sayings of Jesus, when the evidence is merely 'Semitic' in general, or, worse still, derived from some other Semitic language, e.g., Hebrew, should no longer be countenanced." [Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Study of the Aramaic Background of the New Testament” (1975), reprinted in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramaean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979): 5.]
  • MH Segal in his Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (see pp. 5 and 9-10) demonstrates that this was a spoken language and not an artificial language of the academy.
  • Writings from the time have been found that show us Hebrew was a living language. These include the Masada Fragments, which have 6 items that are definitely not biblical material written in Hebrew. (There are other pieces which are biblical [numbering 7] or unidentifiable [numbering 2].) Included in these documents are about 2/3 of Ben Sira in Hebrew. They date to the first century BC.
  • Likewise, the huge cache of documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls (~250 BC - ~AD 50) shows that Hebrew was in use for centuries while it was thought unknown. While the Qumran caves uncovered copies of the Hebrew Bible and some apocryphal works, the vast majority was sectarian literature unique to the Qumran community. This material was written in Mishnaic Hebrew. The Dead Sea writings were not intended for use only by scholars but for all Jews willing to become an Essene.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls have also shown that many of the Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works were originally written in Hebrew. These works were intended for the common person to be able to read (the synagogues did not preach on them). As such, an understandable language was needed. That language was Hebrew.
  • An example of the above is Tobit, the apocryphal work. For centuries, it was assumed that Tobit had been first written in Aramaic. However, both Aramaic and Hebrew versions have been discovered in the Dead Sea Scroll caves. It was further determined, based on comparisons between the two, that the Hebrew Tobit was the original.
  • Other works from the second and third century BC are written in Hebrew: 1 Enoch, Jubilees, 1 Maccabees (tho preserved in greek, experts all agree that its original language of composition was Hebrew on the basis of internal evidence), Judith (ditto), Ben Sira (cf. prologue which states it was in Hebrew), and others.
  • Documents from Nahal Hever are in Mishnaic Hebrew.
  • There is also the Targum Neofiti and Hebrew fragments of Ben Sira.
  • Even though Greek has a perfectly good word for Aramaic (Suristi), the Greek New Testament never once uses it. Instead, the Greek New Testament refers to Ebraios (or cases thereof) (Luke 23:38; John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; Rev. 9:11; 16:16).
  • Suristi appears in the epilogue to the book of Job in the Septuagint. It also appears in the text of the Septuagint (2 King 18:26; Ezra 4:7; Isaiah 36:11; Daniel 2:4). Hence, it was known that Ebraios and Suristi were distinct languages.
  • Josephus in Antiquities 10 1.2 says this: "When Rabshakeh had made this speech in the Hebrew tongue, for he was skillful in that language, Eliakim was afraid lest the multitude that heard him should be disturbed; so he desired him to speak in the Syrian tongue." Josephus clearly draws a line between Ebraios and Suristi. More on Josephus' use of Hebrew can be read here.
  • A very important piece of evidence here is the Letter of Aristeas 11, "The Jews are supposed to use Syrian [Aramaic] language, but this is not so, for it is another form [of language]." The author of the letter clearly states that the Jews do not use Aramaic. While some claim that he is speaking of the script used, this cannot be. Mishnaic Hebrew shared a script with Aramaic. Both languages used the Aramaic Square Script for writing. Paleo Hebrew writing had fallen into disuse during and after the Exile.

  • The Bar Cochva Letters proved conclusively that Hebrew was still a living language and was used as the primary means of communication among Jews in Israel a century after Jesus. Scholars do not divide the letters into Early and Late. They all came from the same period. There were 26 letters uncovered: 2 are in Greek, 8 are in Aramaic, 3 could be either Aramaic or Hebrew (the text is too short too conclude), and 13 are unambiguously Hebrew. These letters are not all religious (some discuss items needed for religious observance) but are of military conquests and other non-religious matters.

  • Wisdom is passed on to the common people in Hebrew. Shmuel Safrai writes:

    The parable was one of the most common tools of rabbinic instruction from the second century B.C.E. until the close of the amoraic period at the end of the fifth century C.E. Thousands of parables have been preserved in complete or fragmentary form, and are found in all types of literary compositions of the rabbinic period, both halachic and aggadic, early and late. All of the parables are in Hebrew. Amoraic literature often contains stories in Aramaic, and a parable may be woven into the story; however the parable itself is always in Hebrew (b. Baba Qam. 60b; or b. Sotah 40a). There are instances of popular sayings in Aramaic, but every single parable is in Hebrew.

    “Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. 1 [ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005], 238; see also Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week, 58, n. 17. Emphasis added.

  • Epigraphical material from the Second Temple Period is more often in Hebrew than Aramaic. A recent sarcophagus contained these words: ben hacohen hagadol, that is, "son of the high priest." While some may say that this shows it was a religious language (being on a priest's son's tomb), it should be noted that this was on a tomb and meant for the common person to know who was interred within.

  • Josephus (War 5:269-272) points out that Jewish soldiers used a play on words that only makes sense in Hebrew. In 272, whenever a stone was on its way (being thrown from ballistea), the watchmen would shout "in their native language, 'The Son Cometh!'" While translators are confused by the Greek text, the answer makes sense in Hebrew. The translator even admits how the words could be confused in Hebrew but not Aramaic. The watchmen would have shouted, in Hebrew, Ha-even ba’ah ("the stone is coming!"). However, because of urgency, the words would be clipped to ben ba ("son comes!"). They reduced the syllables due to time constraints. This pun is known in Hebrew and even appears in the NT (Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8) "God is able from these avanim [stones] to raise up banim [sons] to Abraham."

    This wordplay is unambiguously Hebrew. In Aramaic, the phrase would be kefa ate ("the stone is coming") or the more literary avna ata. Neither sounds like bara ate ("the son is coming"). Another option for Aramaic would be to use the word aven, which is related to the Hebrew. However, aven would change the gender of the verb and still not work to make a pun on "son," bar/a.

    Obviously, a warning of dire straits needs to be quick and in the common language. (American soldiers would yell, "INCOMING!" to warn of mortar fire.) That the pun works in Hebrew but not Aramaic means the soldiers (who were not scholars or priests) spoke in Hebrew.

  • Josephus also refers to words that exist in Hebrew but not Aramaic as Ebraion. For example, in * Antiquities of the Jews* I 33, he states:

For which reason we also pass this day in repose from toil and call it the Sabbata, a word which in the Hebrew language means "rest."

The verb SHBT does not exist in Aramaic. Aramaic translations, such as the targums, use NCH.

Likewise, in Antiquities I 34

Now this man was called Adam which in the Hebrew tongue signifies "red."

Josephus derives adam from adom (red). In Aramaic "red" is expressed by sumka, there is no root ADM in Aramaic.


  • Coins from the period are in Hebrew. They did not have Aramaic writing on them with one exception. As money requires a common language of the people, Hebrew must have been known.

    During the Hasmonean period, Alexander Jannai (78 BC) minted one set of coins that had Aramaic on them (oddly enough, in the Paleo Hebrew script). However, at other times (before and after) he minted coins in Hebrew.

  • The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan were once thought to reflect the language used in the time of Jesus. However, we now know these targums are centuries later than Jesus.

  • Most of the inscriptions around Jerusalem dating from the first century have been in Hebrew.
  • A tomb inscription from the second century BC has Aramaic that translates and incorporates spoken Hebrew idioms also found in the Mishnah.
  • A recent, in-progress cataloging of inscriptions from archeological finds shows that from the Second Temple Period (the time we are discussing), there were 116 clearly Aramaic inscriptions and 137 clearly Hebrew. There were many that overlap in the languages due to common words and the common script used for both. Also, personal names are not included in this tabulation as they are inconclusive.


Both Aramaic and Hebrew were in use in the Land at the time of Jesus. However, while we cannot say one predominated, we can say that Mishnaic Hebrew was very much a living language used by people of all walks of life in Judea and Galilee.


David Biven, Hebrew as a Spoken Language in First-century Israel, posted November 18, 2008.

_, Roy Blizzard, Jr., Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insight from a Hebraic Perspective (Revised Edition), Destiny Image Publishers: Shippensburg, PA.

Waverly Nunnally, Hebrew as the Primary Language of Jesus, an email exchange.

__. Peshitta Primacy, an email exchange.

Baltes, Guido. "Hebrew or Aramaic? Some Evidence from Inscriptions," Jerusalem Perspective Online, November 28, 2008.

share|improve this answer
@caseyr547, he doesn't need to be well traveled. Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, and Aramaic was spoken to the east (though not as much as it had been in the past). Literary and archeological evidence (see above and Jon's answer) shows that Greek, Aramaic, and Mishnaic Hebrew were all spoken in the Land. –  Frank Luke Jul 25 '14 at 14:35
@e.s.kohen, you did notice the references and footnotes in the answer, didn't you? For example, Josephus (War 5:269-272) points out the common soldiers using a pun that works in Hebrew but not in Aramaic. More of the Bar Cochva letters are in Hebrew than in Aramaic (cited above). There are all kinds of work shown above. –  Frank Luke Nov 26 '14 at 14:38
@e.s.kohen, like The Masada Fragments (from above)? 13 of the Bar Cochva letters are in Hebrew. But you aren't understanding what Josephus is pointing out. He shows that the common people (soldiers on the wall) used a pun that does not work in Aramaic or Greek, but does work in Hebrew. –  Frank Luke Nov 26 '14 at 16:00
@e.s.kohen, Yadin says there were Hebrew letters in the cave also. JSTOR offers a review of the book. The review mentions "detailed and useful grammatical surveys of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Nabatean-Aramaic of the texts." The Greek docs are in a different volume. –  Frank Luke Nov 26 '14 at 21:28
@e.s.kohen, because of where I am and time, scrounging up manuscripts is difficult. Wikipedia (I'll start there and upward), states MH was a spoken language up through the 4th century CE. The Hebrew academy likewise lists MH1 as a spoken language (cutting it off ca 200 AD). They cite Segal's work (above) as demonstrating it was a living language. –  Frank Luke Nov 29 '14 at 3:31
up vote 27 down vote

Palestine at the time of Jesus was something of a crossroads for culture and language. It's entirely possible a young man growing up in the region would have been exposed to at least four different languages: Greek, Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew.


Far and away the most common language that Jesus is quoted in is Greek. But that seems largely due to the New Testament being written to a predominately Greek-speaking audience.1 In Mark especially, we see quotations that include Aramaic words and phrases:

Mark 5:41 (ESV)

Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Mark 7:10-13 (ESV)

For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban ”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Mark 7:34 (ESV)

And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

Mark 14:36 (ESV)

And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Mark 15:34 (ESV)

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of these words are common between Aramaic and Hebrew (Corban for instance), but some were specifically Aramaic to the exclusion of Hebrew. Therefore, it's possible to argue that Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew or just Aramaic. But it's not possible to argue that he spoke only Hebrew.


The argument for Jesus speaking Hebrew hinges on how much the language was still in use in and around Jerusalem. In the Galilean region, where Jesus was raised, Aramaic seemed to be the common language of the day. But we see Jesus interacting with a variety of religious leaders in Jerusalem and it's likely they would have used Hebrew to quote and discuss the Hebrew Tanakh. It's possible on the other hand that they would have used Aramaic. One clue is the crowd's response to Jesus' final words in Mark 15:35 (ESV)

And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.”

Apparently, some people misheard "Eloi" and thought Jesus was calling to Elijah. (The difference is between "elāhî" or "êlî", and "Ēlīyā" or "Ēlīyāhū" according to Wikipedia.) If the hearers were expecting Jesus to speak Hebrew when he fell back into Aramaic, that might explain their confusion. Assuming that's the proper reading of this passage (and its parallel in Matthew 27:46), it strongly indicates Jesus also spoke Hebrew at times. (But not at this particular moment.)

References to Jesus reading and teaching in synagogue (Mark 1:21-22 for instance), suggest he was trained in Hebrew though we need to know more about 1st Century Jewish practice to know for sure. There existed translations of the Tanakh in both Aramaic (Targum) and Greek (Septuagint).


Evidence for Jesus speaking Greek seems limited and is clouded by the fact that he is quoted in Greek documents. Since Greek would have been the bridge language between Jews and Romans, Jesus' interactions with Roman officials (the centurion in Matthew 8 and Pilate in Mark 15 and parallels) suggests Jesus spoke some Greek. However, these conversations could easily have been through interpreters.2 A more compelling case could be made for Jesus needing to speak Greek in order to navigate the commercial realm, which would probably be primarily conducted in Greek. In any case, the level of Greek required would be fairly low.3

On the other hand, Koine (literally "common") Greek was the linga franca of the Mediterranean following the conquests of Alexander. The precise extent of Hellenization isn't clear, but we do see evidence of it in the Gospels. Jesus spent some time in the Decapolis, where Greek had displaced Aramaic. We can speculate that as a young man, Jesus might have had business in the nearby city of Sepphoris where he would have had contact with many Greek speakers. His family probably worked as carpenters for the well-to-do Jews building fairly upscale homes. He certainly had opportunities to become conversant in Greek, but we don't know if he took them.


While Latin was certainly spoken by Roman soldiers and other officials, the odds that Jesus would have needed, or even been able to acquire, a working knowledge of the language seems very low. Anyone living in the region who knew only Latin would likely need to pick up Greek in short order to get by.


Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic as a native tongue, probably Hebrew in religious settings, certainly a bit of Greek (perhaps fluently), and almost certainly no Latin. In this particular case, Mark quoted Jesus directly because of the confusion his words created in the crowd. In general, Aramaic is used only when Jesus' original words can't easily be translated into Greek.


1 I'm reminded of the joke I've heard about why we should use the King James Version: "If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."

2 The same argument is not as easily made about interactions with Hebrew speakers as many of Jesus' conflicts with religious leaders turned on careful reading of the Scriptures. The conversations with Romans did not require very fine linguistic distinctions.

3 Consider the difference in language mastery required to order food in a French restaurant versus debating Rousseau.

share|improve this answer
It's worth remembering that this is not unusual, even today. Most people are at least bilingual, and code-switching of various forms is the norm. An introductory text on sociolinguistics would show that the type of linguistic diversity represented in this answer is fairly common in much of the world. –  TRiG Mar 23 '12 at 17:57
Your argument for Jesus non-fluence in Greek sounds pretty flimsy here. I agree on your conclusions about Aramaic and Hebrew, but your summary of the issues surrounding Greek don't seem to warrant your conclusion that he "possible spoke a bit of Greek". In general your reasoning in this post and elsewhere seem very tried to certain premises about the usage of language that only really hold true in mono-lingual societies, particularly ones who's language is the lingua franca. –  Caleb Aug 4 '12 at 13:32
People in some countries don't even identify their "first" language like we do, having grown up with several they find them either entirely interchangable or use them for different purposes without the stumbling blocks that we usually deal with when using a "second language". –  Caleb Aug 4 '12 at 13:32
@JonEricson By the time of Jesus, Attic Greek had probably fallen out of use. Koine Greek was the lingua franca by the time the LXX was written. Lingua franca doesn't mean that everyone had to always speak that language, but that it was the language of commerce and governmental interaction. I don't think that the case for Hebrew over Greek is convincing and that they were probably employed equally, and that Aramaic was the "primary" language of "social" interaction. –  swasheck Aug 6 '12 at 21:47
I think the evidence presented here that he would have spoken Greek is a bit flimsy. It basically hinges on him needing to do business directly with rich people in Sepphoris. But the gospels never mention Sepphoris, and we know almost nothing about the details of Jesus's business activities. It's certainly possible that he knew a little Greek, but most of the scholarly work on this point suggests that very few rural Galileans knew any significant amount of Greek. –  Noah Apr 27 '13 at 15:49

What Language Did Jesus Speak Most Often?

The scholarly consensus is clear on this issue: Jesus' native tongue was Aramaic, specifically a Galilean dialect of Aramaic.

Why Were Jesus' Words Recorded In Greek?

It is simple to understand why the Gospels were written in Greek. Most of the communities of early Christians were Greek-speaking; this was certainly true of most Gentiles taking on Christianity, but even many Jews were likely bilingual during this period. Gentile or Jewish Christian, Greek was the easiest way for one community to communicate to another, or for a movement to spread its message and win followers. Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin was simply not understood on a wide level in the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, outside of Palestine, only Greek cities in the East had Christian communities.

The historical record is consistent on this point - the gospels were originally written in Greek. This database of early manuscript fragments shows just how consistent the record is. All our earliest fragments of NT texts are written in Greek.

This is primarily a result of the fact that the educated classes in Ancient Rome used the lingua franca of the Empire, which was Greek.

Although Latin remained the main written language of the Roman Empire, Greek came to be the language spoken by the well-educated elite, as most of the literature studied by Romans was written in Greek. In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which became the Byzantine Empire; Greek was the main lingua franca as it had been since the time of Alexander the Great, while Latin was mostly used by the Roman administration and its soldiers. Eventually Greek would supplant Latin as both the official written and spoken language of the Eastern Roman Empire, while the various dialects of Vulgar Latin used in the Western Roman Empire evolved into the modern Romance languages still used today.

During the time of the Hellenistic civilization and Roman Empire, the lingua francas were Koine Greek and Latin. During the Middle Ages, the lingua franca was Greek in the parts of Europe, Middle East and Northern Africa where the Byzantine Empire held hegemony, and Latin was primarily used in the rest of Europe.

It was also related to the dismally low rates of literacy in the Roman Empire - the best estimates generally find that the average literacy rate was around 5-10% at best.

The most favorable estimate I have found claims that the literacy rate was a bit higher than the general consensus view, but still only 15% under the best possible circumstances:

"Literacy in the Roman Empire was confined to about 15% of the population, with a far lower rate in rural areas. Contrary to older assumptions about "the Jews" being a "people of the book", the literacy rate in Judea and Galilee was far less, perhaps less than 10% or 5%."
Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus

It has been argued that literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world averaged perhaps not much above 10 percent in the Roman empire, though with wide regional variations, probably never rising above 5 percent in the western provinces, and that the literate in classical Greece did not much exceed 5 percent of the population.
Harris W.V. "Ancient literacy", 1989, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

"Literacy in the Roman empire, by very rough estimate, did not exceed 10 percent on average."
Wayne Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians

In reality, a very loose definition of "literacy" was used to reach the more optimistic estimates. What we would consider true literacy was relegated to a tiny fraction of the population, and these people make up the 5% who were truly literate. The rest of the so-called "literate" people were not so lucky; they are only categorized as literate by virtue of the fact that they were able to write their own names. This does not meet the modern definition of literacy. Even among the bona fide literate minority, in most cases, the standards of proficiency in reading and writing would probably be far below our expectations. This is not to say that Ancient Rome was devoid of brilliant writers - that is obviously not the case; it is a broad assessment of the population as a whole.

The vast majority of people who spoke Aramaic as their first language were, as we have seen, illiterate peasants; the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus suggests that the literacy rate in Galilee was even lower than in the rest of the Empire, "perhaps less than 10% or 5%". Even for the lucky 5% who knew Aramaic and were able to read and write, writing a book in their native language would be almost pointless - the vast majority of Aramaic speakers couldn't read the book anyway.

The people who needed the texts were literate and educated. They were most comfortable reading and writing in Greek. Texts were copied by the local scribe, who might not be as literate as one might hope. The only people who could even use the texts were the few upper class individuals who had some degree of education. These people were primarily Roman pagans, but there were also a few Hellenized Jews.

All of these people would have known how to read and write Greek. A much smaller number of people would know Latin, which was more common in the Western Empire, and was mainly reserved for official functions. A tiny number would have known Hebrew, and an even smaller number might know Aramaic.

The best way to spread an idea, therefore, would be to write your books in the language most frequently used by the literate classes. This means that you want to publish your books in Greek.

The linguistic analysis of the gospels suggests that Jesus' sayings were spoken in Aramaic, but recorded (significantly later) in Greek. For instance, the passage in John in which Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus displays clear indications that the conversation didn't happen, at least not in the way John describes it. By way of a play on words, Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of God, he must be born from above/born again. This double entendre only makes sense in Greek, because the words for "born from above" and "born again" are the same in Greek: "ἄνωθεν" (anōthen). In Aramaic, however, the words have nothing in common. A few verses later, a similar situation unfolds, this time with a double entendre using the Greek word for both "spirit" and "wind" - "πνεῦμα" (pneuma). The fact that John is the only gospel which has Jesus using double entendres, the fact that John is the only gospel which has Jesus saying things that only make sense in Greek ( the Synoptics are usually language-neutral or provide hints of Aramaic roots), and all the other factors that make John so different from the Synoptics, it seems likely that John is telling a story that never really happened.

Contrast this with the passage in Matthew in which Jesus is debating the Pharisees about picking heads of wheat on the Sabbath. Jesus' argument is:

"The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, therefore the son of man is lord of the sabbath." The word "therefore is a non sequitur in English and Greek - the fact that sabbath was made for man doesn't necessarily mean that the son of man is lord of the sabbath. But in Aramaic, it logically follows, because the terms for "man" and "son of man" are colloquially the same - i.e., "bar enash".

"The sabbath was made for bar enash, not bar enash for the sabbath, therefore bar enash is lord of the sabbath"

The cases in which Jesus speaks Aramaic are almost certainly a reflection of his native tongue; cases in which he speaks Greek are likely to be written this way for sheer convenience.

share|improve this answer

I should think that the language in which you pray to your God and father in a dire situation at the end of your life would probably be your primary language, no? And since he was quoting a passage that he would have only been exposed to from Hebrew or Greek scriptures and yet spoke them in Aramaic it gives further evidence that his native tongue was Aramaic.

According to Wikipedia Aramaic was in a family of Canaanite languages that included Hebrew and Phoenician:

Aramaic (Classical Syriac: ܐܪܡܝܐ Arāmāyā) is a family of languages or dialects belonging to the Semitic family. More specifically, it is a part of the Northwest Semitic subfamily, which also includes Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician. Aramaic language - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramaic_language

One might find it analogous to the difference between Latin and Italian. Italian, like French and Spanish evolved from Latin. They share a lot but a lot is different. I mention this because some might imagine that Hebrew and Aramaic were completely different languages, like Chinese and Greek.

But what I find the most interesting is that the writers of the NT clearly relied on Greek scrolls for their OT rather than Hebrew. "Saul" opted to be known as "Paulus" so I think calling Iesous (Jesus) "Yeshuah" is not really a scriptural impulse.

Presuming that the NT was written in Hebrew, based on a Hebrew OT is completely void of manuscript support.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.