Why Did Paul use Hebrew in Acts 21:37-40?

Does His use of Hebrew in this passage indicate or prove that Jesus taught in Aramaic or Hebrew and that the gospels only contain the voice of Jesus and not the actual words?

Or does it indicate that Paul had specific reasons for using Hebrew in this context?

There are some scholars (Robert Thomas being one example) who hold that Jesus may actually have spoken in Greek and that we have the actual words of Jesus in the gospels. This is one of the issues that is involved in Source Criticism and the Synoptic problem.

3 Answers 3


Despite the translations of the ESV and other versions (e.g. KJV), the Greek Ἑβραΐς (Ebrais) in the New Testament can mean either "Aramaic" or "Hebrew". There are not separate words in Greek for the two languages. (By Jesus' time, Aramaic seems to have to supplanted Hebrew to a greater or lesser extent as the spoken language in Palestine.)*

The obvious reason that Paul spoke Aramaic or Hebrew here was because he was speaking to Jews and not some Roman official (who in the east generally would have spoken Greek).

I do not think, however, that on the basis of this single instance of Paul speaking Aramaic or Hebrew rather than Greek to Jews, we can conclude that Jesus only taught in one (or both) of those languages. An argument for something is valid if and only if it is impossible for the premises of the argument to be true and the conclusion to be false. This is clearly not the case here: Paul could have spoken Aramaic simply in order to emphasize his "Jewishness", for example. We might infer that Jesus generally spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, but we cannot conclusively prove it from just this passage.

* See, e.g., S. Fassberg, "Languages of the Bible"; in The Oxford Jewish Study Bible, p.2067. Many scholars maintain that some form of Hebrew continued as a spoken language as well at the time, as evidenced by the Bar Kokhba letters - written in Hebrew, as well as Aramaic and Greek. See, e.g., M. Wise, Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents

  • 1
    By Jesus' time, Aramaic had completely replaced Hebrew as the spoken language in Palestine Not true. The Bar Kokhba letters, representing the spoken language, were written in Hebrew and postdate Jesus.
    – b a
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 11:32
  • Descartes wrote Meditations in 1641 in Latin. Also, the Bar Kokhba letters were not only in Hebrew, but also in Aramaic and Greek. But your point is well taken. My statement was based on what certain Jewish Bible scholars have published, but your comment prompted me to research more. Someone wrote a doctoral dissertation of the subject in 2012. I'll probably modify or delete my answer, but I'm going to leave it up for more comment for a day or two.
    – user33515
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 14:44
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    The Mishna, the Qumran community's writings, and more are also written in Hebrew, but the Bar Kokhba letters are often specifically adduced as proof for it being a spoken language and not just literary. There are other proofs as well (some others here). This doesn't invalidate the rest of your answer, nor does it prove Paul spoke Hebrew rather than Aramaic, but I think that your point throughout your answer that Hebrew wasn't a spoken language is incorrect.
    – b a
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 15:11
  • @ba - Thank you for the constructive criticism. I have modified my answer based on your feedback.
    – user33515
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 16:00

Here is my own short answer to the question

Why Hebrew in Acts 21:37-40?

That Paul spoke Hebrew when he addressed the crowd is stated in verse 40. The question is, why did Paul speak in Hebrew after first speaking in Greek to the captain of the guard?

First of all this can only be deduced, there are no explicit reasons stated in Luke's account. Given that limitation, here are a few reasons:

  • The reason Paul had been beaten (verse 28). Paul was being acussed of rejecting the people of Israel, the law, and of bringing a Greek into the inner court of the temple. Later when addressing the people it would have further enraged the people by addressing them in Greek.

28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.

  • The effect of speaking in Hebrew is seen in verse 2 of chapter 22. Later in chapter 22, Paul gives his history as a Pharisee trained under Gamaliel and the fact that he had been a persecutor of the Church. It is reasonable to conclude, based on history that Paul understood he would get a better hearing if He spoke Hebrew.

2 (And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,)

In this account there is no doubt that Luke records the Greek translation of what Paul said, because the text states that he spoke in Hebrew. Would some of the same arguments point to Jesus speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, it is certainly possible but not definite.


The Roman officer's question to Paul, "Do you speak Greek?" calls into question the average Jew's ability to speak Greek.

Note the following answer while not direct supports the idea that Paul spoke Aramaic/Hebrew because it was better understood by the people there.

Here is some New Testament Evidence that Jesus spoke in Aramaic influenced Hebrew:

1) It explains the difference between Luke and Mathew’s wording of the Lord’s Prayer:

In Aramaic, Jesus had available to him the word khoba which means both debts and sins. Greek, like English, expresses these two ideas with separate words. When the Lord’s Prayer was translated into Greek, there was a problem. Matthew chose debts and Luke managed to use both words. Whichever word is chosen for worship in English, the faithful need to remember that they are asking for forgiveness for failing to fulfill what God requires of them (debts) and for their failure to do the right thing when they did act (trespasses). [Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 126). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.]

2) It explains the Aramaic play on words the passage about no servant can serve two masters before the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man:

THE PARABLE OF LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN (Lk 16:19–31) … A few verses before the parable of Lazarus there is a short poem on God and mammon (Lk 16:9–13). …. This text exhibits a play on words in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke at home. He says:

If you have not been amin [faithful]
in the unrighteous mammon [your material possessions]
the amuna [the truth]
who will ja’min ith kun [entrust to you].

The root amn, which appears in the word amen, is used here four times.

[Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (pp. 378–380). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.]

Note: I am not trying to debate, but seeking an answer. Here is a passage that tends to support your answer:

Acts 6:1. The related questions to this passage are:

1) How unfamiliar were the Hellenistic Jews to understanding Aramaic/Hebrew?

2) How able were the Hebraic Jews to understand Greek?

I think we would understand that Paul addressed the Hebraic Jews.

Are there archaeological finds, such as ostraca, that would support an answer to these two questions?

Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews in Acts 6:1

  • I appreciate your comment -- "I am not trying to debate, but seeking an answer." In that vein I have been trying to find a copy of the PhD paper I wrote on the subject but after my hard disk crashed last year I have lost some things. I only have a copy that was 75% done and the one with all of the teacher's hand written corrections that came after I turned it in. I will keep looking
    – Ken Banks
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 15:13
  • All the investigation I've done on possible Hebrew/Aramaic words Jesus used has substantiated the accuracy of the Greek text and the theology it conveys. Here's an example: τετέλεσται (It is finished, ESV) – See 4:34: שָׁלֵם is often translated in the Torah as to make restitution. It also means to complete, or accomplish. The Syriac Peshitta translates τετέλεσται here with שָׁלֵם(ܫܠܡ). If this is the verb that Jesus actually used, then it implies restitution for sin completed as in the Torah, the completion of the Law.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 21:30
  • The Septuagint also translates שׁלם as τετέλεσται in some cases. But it doesn't imply restitution for sin in those cases. I think that's reading a little into the word: e.g. God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. (Dan 5:26)
    – user33515
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 18:04
  • Anytime we try to second guess what Jesus said by translate his words in Greek to Hebrew or Aramaic we are in a since reading too much into his words. My point is not matter what meaning you take for שׁלם it still does not alter the picture of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the New Testament. Here is another example: Since Nica
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 22:47
  • Sorry the 5 min. time cut me off: Here is another example: Since Nicodemus was a Pharisees, likelihood of Jesus speaking to him in Aramaic/Hebrew is greater. The question is the ambiguity in ἄνωθεν in 3:3 still relevant. The Peshitta translates this term (ܕ݁ܪܻܝܫ) with the same root as רֹאשׁ. Words based on this root mean the head, the beginning and the top. This Hebrew word is used for the top of the ladder reaching to heaven in Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12). The word is used for the beginning of the year to express the Hebrew New Year (Rosh Hashanah), i.e. used for new.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 22:58

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