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?

3 Answers 3


Answer: There is no question, historically, and linguistically, that γλῶσσαν and διαλέκτῳ were used consistently to make clear distinctions between Major Language Groups and Language Styles/Dialects, (references below).

γλῶσσαν would have been understood, in that time, to denote a major language group.

διαλέκτῳ would have been understood, in that time, to denote a specific language's style or dialect.

In Acts 21: 40, Luke chose to use, "διαλέκτῳ/dialect" rather than γλώσσαις.

Acts 21:40, Byz - Ἐπιτρέψαντος δὲ αὐτοῦ, ὁ Παῦλος ἑστὼς ἐπὶ τῶν ἀναβαθμῶν κατέσεισεν τῇ χειρὶ τῷ λαῷ· πολλῆς δὲ σιγῆς γενομένης, προσεφώνει τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ λέγων,

In juxtaposition, consider Acts 2:11, where "γλώσσαις/tongue/glossa" is used, clearly indicating entire language families:

Acts 2:11, NASB - Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”

Acts 2:11, Byz - Κρῆτες καὶ Ἄραβες, ἀκούομεν λαλούντων αὐτῶν ταῖς ἡμετέραις γλώσσαις τὰ μεγαλεῖα τοῦ θεοῦ.

Given the clear distinctions in Acts, the Greek Septuagint, and extant literature--the phrase "Hebrew Dialect," in the New Testament would clearly indicate the Hebraicized form of Aramaic* spoken in Israel.

*Note: IF there had been a Hebraicized form of Greek--it would have pointed to that, (like how Doric is considered a dialect of Greek).

Secular Writers consistently chose "διαλέκτῳ" to distinguish language Styles/Dialects

Instead of using "γλῶσσαν"

It cannot be overstated that "dialect," and "tongue," were very separate things in the Greek Language.

Consider the epic "Burn" and Sarcasm found in Polybius:

Aulus Postumius was mocked--severely--because he was very educated, had a mastery of Greek, but was essentially a "fool" to be laughed at, because he couldn't grasp a specific style/διαλέκτου of Greek --

Polybius 23.12 - τέλος δὲ καὶ ποίημα γράφειν καὶ πραγματικὴν ἱστορίαν ἐνεχείρησεν, ἐν ᾗ διὰ τοῦ προοιμίου παρεκάλει τοὺς ἐντυγχάνοντας συγγνώμην ἔχειν, ἐὰν Ῥωμαῖος ὢν μὴ δύνηται κατακρατεῖν τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς διαλέκτου καὶ τῆς κατὰ τὸν χειρισμὸν οἰκονομίας.

Aulus Postumius deserves some special notice from us here .. Finally he attempted to write a poem and a formal history in Greek, in the preface to which he desired his readers to excuse him if, being a Roman, he could not completely command the Greek idiom or method in the handling of the subject.

From: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plb.+39.12&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0234

(This is a really fun read, check it out!)

Further, Consider Suidas' Uses of the Word διαλέκτῳ, (Dialect):

Sanchuniathon Bio.1 - Περὶ τοῦ Ἐρμοῦ φυσιολογίας, ἥτις μεταφράσθη (namely, by Philon). Πάτρια Τυρίων τῇ Φοινίκων διαλέκτῳ, Αἰγυπτιακὴν Θεολογίαν καὶ ἄλλα τινά.

Phoenician Dialect

From: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0104:entry=sanchuniathon-bio-1&highlight=diale%2Fktw%7C

This use of "Dialect/διαλέκτῳ" does not seem to indicate that the Phoenecian/Greek Dialect, (Punic), is being pointed to, or the actual Phoenician language--until it is realized that it is Suidas who has written that reference, AND uses this same construction in other lists of literary works:

The Idylls of Theocritus - Suidas has a curious note: Θεόκριτος ἔγραψε τὰ καλούμενα βουκοΛικὰ ἔπη Δωρίδι διαλέκτῳ:

English: Doric Dialect

From: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0069:text=intro:section=3&highlight=diale%2Fktw%7C

There is no question, here, that Doric is a dialect of Greek, spoken by the Dorians--firmly establishing that the word, "διαλέκτῳ" indicates a "dialect" of a larger language family--(Greek in this case).

The Septuagint chooses to use "γλῶσσαν" to distinguish between major language groups

Instead of using διαλέκτῳ

Dan. 1:4, LXX - νεανίσκους οἷς οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς μῶμος καὶ καλοὺς τῇ ὄψει καὶ συνιέντας ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ γιγνώσκοντας γνῶσιν καὶ διανοουμένους φρόνησιν καὶ οἷς ἐστιν ἰσχὺς ἐν αὐτοῖς ἑστάναι ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ τοῦ βασιλέως καὶ διδάξαι αὐτοὺς γράμματα καὶ γλῶσσαν Χαλδαίων

English: grammar and language/tongue of the Chaldeans

Daniel 4:1 - Ναβουχοδονοσορ ὁ βασιλεὺς πᾶσι τοῖς λαοῖς φυλαῖς καὶ γλώσσαις τοῖς οἰκοῦσιν ἐν πάσῃ τῇ γῇ εἰρήνη ὑμῖν πληθυνθείη

Nebuchadnezzar the king to all the peoples, nations, and men of every language, that live in all the earth: “May your [c]peace abound!

Josephus chooses to use "γλῶσσαν" to distinguish between major language groups

Instead of using διαλέκτῳ

Josephus, J. AJ 3.12.6 - ἀσώσρα καλεῖται κατὰ τὴν Ἑβραίων γλῶσσαν.

it ended in the form of a bell, like common trumpets. Its sound was called in the Hebrew tongue Asosra

Josephus distinguishes between major languages, Egyptian and what is presumably the Chaldean/Hebrew language:

Josephus, J. AJ 2.108 - ταῦτα δ᾽ ἔλεγον πρὸς ἀλλήλους οὐχ ἡγούμενοι τὸν Ἰώσηπον γλώσσης τῆς αὐτῶν συνιέναι. κατήφεια δὲ πάντας εἶχε πρὸς τοὺς Ῥουβήλου λόγους καὶ τῶν πραγμάτων μετάμελος, ὥσπερ οὖν καὶ τῶν ταῦτα ψηφισαμένων, ἐφ᾽ οἷς δίκαιον ἔκρινον τὸν θεὸν κολαζόμενοι.

Thus they, (Joseph's 10 brothers), spake to one another, not imagining that Joseph understood their language

Josephus distinguishes major languages, Greek and Chaldean ... (?) (or Hebrew/Aramaic--either way its a major distinction).

Josephus, J. BJ 1.3 - προυθέμην ἐγὼ τοῖς κατὰ τὴν Ῥωμαίων ἡγεμονίαν Ἑλλάδι γλώσσῃ

I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country.

  • 1
    So does Acts use γλῶσσαν or διαλέκτῳ? Please edit this, because without that information you haven't actually answered the question...
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 0:18
  • 1
    @curiousdannii : that was an epic oversight! Sorry! Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 3:05
  • Thanks! You said that in Acts it indicates the Hebraicized form of Aramaic, how do you know it's not Hebrew instead?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 4:05
  • 1
    @curiousdannii : A specific grammatical construction is used when THE "Hebrew" tongue/language is spoken about, (Ἑβραίων γλῶσσαν, "Hebrew Tongue", from the Josephus references). In acts, the other construction is used, indicating the Hebrew Style--of some other language,--certainly not Greek. That only leaves the Hebrew dialect of Aramaic or Chaldean. Neither Chaldean or "Hebrew," are represented in secular writings at the time, (letters, etc), though Aramaic was. However, "Mishnaic Hebrew" or "Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew" may have been used in academic/legal/theological contexts. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 4:54

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.

  • Frank: 1.) Aramaic in Greek is either Συριακά, (Syriac), or Αραμαϊκά. 2.) Paul's knowledge of "Biblical" Hebrew is irrelevant--if no one else understood. 3.) No one doubts that the Hebrew Tongue was used legally, and even academically in Scholarly/Theological contexts, but secular use of Hebrew, by "common people," is not substantiated by evidence--as opposed to the thousands of different Aramaic texts, letters, etc, we have. 4.) Archaeologically, the absence of evidence that Hebrew was used Secularly makes no sense, unless it wasn't spoken Secularly. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 3:18
  • @e.s.kohen, there's lots of evidence for Mishnaic Hebrew as a spoken language. The evidence in that answer can be found in the sources footnoted.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 14:37

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).

  • So it seems there is some disagreement about this then!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 3:33
  • @Noah: because a well used grammatical construction is employed in this text, this precludes the Interpretation: "Language of the Hebrews/Phoenicians/Dorians", (Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ, Φοινίκων διαλέκτῳ, Δωρίδι διαλέκτῳ, Ἑλληνικῆς διαλέκτου). -- "In the Style/Dialect of the Phoenicians, Dorians, Hebrews," would work--but Hebrew here is singular. It either has to be "Hebrew Language, or Hebrew Style. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 3:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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