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The NT written in Greek masks to some extent details about the life of Jesus. But when the gospels go through the effort of quoting Jesus directly in his final moments, they are left translating His words from the Aramaic to the Greek reader.

It would be reasonable therefore to infer based on the region Jesus grew up in and other historical clues that Jesus spoke Aramaic and that at least some of the eye witnesses immediately in the vicinity of the cross both heard and understood He was speaking Aramaic corroborating what He said in Aramaic.

Would it be too much to infer that the Scriptures Jesus had access to were also in Aramaic? Or his preferred language for reading the Tanakh was in Aramaic? Would this make the surviving manuscripts in Aramaic more or less authoritative? Jesus quoting psalm 22:1 in this case.

(Or was Jesus not quoting the psalmist, it just so happened to coincide with the psalmist? I think unlikely because of the double “Eli, Eli” or “My God, My God”. If He was merely trying to say, God why have you forsaken me, I doubt there would have been a double, “My God” given the excruciating pain of breathing let alone speaking).

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  • This question needs more detail. Are you unaware of the Aramaic Targums, which interpreted (not translated) the Hebrew Tanakh? – Perry Webb Jan 30 at 14:10
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    I think it is unlikely that Jesus read the Scriptures in Aramaic because that implies that such a translation existed in the first century or earlier. However, the earliest record we have is of some parts only in the second century. – Dottard Jan 31 at 9:38
  • @PerryWebb until the DSS were discovered we went by the corrupt MT; until some other document is discovered we assume only the 2nd century Aramaic Targum existed. In moments of great distress you don’t begin to translate texts into a language familiar to you, rather you revert to what you know. Which is why it’s so curious. One suggestion is the Scriptures were actively translated into Aramaic on the Sabbath during the reading of the text. To say because we have not discovered a copy predating the first century, means one never existed is presumptuous. We won’t find the majority of past things – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 at 13:17
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    This question is worth keeping open because of the answers - I've learned something new today because of them. – Lesley Feb 3 at 10:32
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Did Jesus read the Tanakh in Aramaic? Probably not.

Targums

As Claude Tresmontant observed,

"There were oral translations in Aramaic of the sacred books written in Hebrew; they were called targumin. A translator in the synagogue would read aloud, translating a passage from the Torah or one of the prophets. But in the era before the destruction of the Temple, putting these translations into writing was formally prohibited." (The Hebrew Christ p. 5)

So the Tanakh in the local synagogues would generally be a document written in Hebrew, from which Aramaic oral translations were sometimes given.

The Septuagint

As Steve noted in a prior post, there are various instances in the Gospels where an Old Testament passage is quoted, but the reading is found in the LXX and not in any known Hebrew text. This, combined with effective scholarship suggesting the widespread knowledge of Greek in first century Galilee (e.g. here & here), serves as evidence for the claim that Jesus at least sometimes taught in Greek.

It is also possible that some of the LXX passages found in the Gospels are Greek translations of scriptural teachings Jesus gave in Aramaic or Hebrew. For a helpful summary of arguments that Jesus spoke both Aramaic & Hebrew see Frank Luke's analysis on this site here.

How to lose a job as a translator in 5 minutes

As a translator, I have learned that when translating a statement well-known in the target language, you do not free-translate the passage. A good translator will refer to an already accepted translation. For example, if I translated "veni, vidi, vici" as "I arrived, I saw, I conquered", I would lose the confidence of my audience, because everybody knows it's supposed to be rendered "I came, I saw, I conquered."

It would be both natural and expected that, where Jesus quoted the Hebrew scriptures verbatim, an author writing in Greek would usually refer to the accepted translation of the passage, found in the LXX. When the scriptures were paraphrased, a free-translation may be more acceptable.

Conclusion

We should not rule out the likelihood that Jesus was familiar with the written & spoken Hebrew Tanakh, the written & spoken Greek Septuagint, and had heard oral renderings of the Tanakh in Aramaic.

Perhaps the plainest (and admittedly ever-so-slightly over-simplified) rendering of the trilingual nature of Jesus' world I have encountered is that Aramaic was the language of the home, Hebrew was the language of the synagogue, and Greek was the language of the marketplace.

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  • +1 for a good answer; I wish I could give you a second +1 just for the "How to lose your job as a translator in 5 minutes" section. – sharur Jan 31 at 8:22
  • +1, especially for the "how to lose your job" section :). Great answer. – Robert Jan 31 at 20:23
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Based on the text of the NT it is difficult to be confident on this point. As the texts are written in Koine Greek, the vast majority of Tanakh quotes we have are in Greek, and frequently carry over peculiarities from the LXX, and show very few indications of being directly translated from semitic texts. Many references containing such peculiarities are accredited to Jesus, and so if we take these quotations to be exactly as Jesus spoke them (and not reconstructed later), then these would suggest Jesus most likely read and taught from the Septuagint:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed,” (Luke 4:18)

Recovery of sight is only found in the LXX, and isn't there in most modern translations of Isaiah 61.

Similarly:

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. "Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,“ ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” Matthew 21:16 NIV

This references Psalm 8:2, "Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies...", and only has the nuance of calling forth praise in the LXX.

So, no - the evidence would seem to present Jesus as primarily teaching from the Greek translation, or else if he did teach from a Hebrew or Aramaic version then it was reconstructed using the LXX later on.

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  • †פְּקַח־קוֹחַ S6495 TWOT1803b GK7223, read פְּקַחְקוֹחַ n.[m.] opening (of eyes; cf. Comm., Ges 85 n, proposes wide, or complete, opening);—לַאֲסוּרִים Is 61:1, fig. of freeing from dark prison; but 𝔊 Che read לְעִוְרִים, cf. Di-Kit. -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 824). Oxford: Clarendon Press. – Perry Webb Jan 30 at 19:04
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    @SteveTaylor You are comparing the BHS, which for the most part dates to ~1000 AD, and whatever Hebrew copies Old Greek was based on and concluding Jesus must have been citing the LXX? Leaving aside that LXX is not a single document, many view the LXX as simply working from an earlier member of the MT stream, so differences would be (mostly later) corruptions. Another view is that LXX worked from a different hebrew stream, but neither view suggests that Jesus taught in Greek, only that the Hebrew stream he used was closer to that used by LXX, which makes sense given the timeline. – Robert Jan 30 at 19:20
  • @Robert - I am typically suspicious of the idea that where Gospel quotations of the Tanakh consistently match the LXX that they are just being re-translated from an earlier Hebrew stream - I haven't ever found much evidence to that theory, and personally consider it a reconstructionist approach trying to justify divergences from the LXX tradition. Though I'm always open to evidence if there are any particularly convincing papers you're aware of substantiating such claims on something other than the NT alone. – Steve Taylor Jan 30 at 19:24
  • @SteveTaylor Well, the Old Greek from 150BC would consistently match the Hebrew copies available in Palestine at the time of Christ better than the Hebrew copies in Leningrad in AD 1000, no? Isn't this the null hypothesis? Is this really something that causes suspicion on your part? That 150 is a smaller number than 1000? Or if you believe they are different textual traditions, this is still not an argument that Jesus spoke in Greek, only that the he was closer to the textual tradition on which the Old Greek was based, and why would the Old Greek not be based on what was used in Palestine? – Robert Jan 30 at 19:35
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    @NihilSineDeo - if you compare the DSS in the Isaiah case I've cited above, you'll see it's the DSS and MT that are in agreement, and unfortunately we don't have a Psalm 8:2 reference to work from. Yes, the MT has been corrupted, but that's a side-issue. Jesus follows the LXX here, so I still hold to my answer. Though based on these excellent counter-points I do need to update the answer with more full information. – Steve Taylor Feb 4 at 9:14
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Jesus can't have been reading the scriptures in Aramaic, since that was forbidden. The targums were oral during Jesus's lifetime. If you believe in the literal truth of the bible, then you are going to look at Mark 2:25 and Luke 4:16 and say that Jesus was literate, but most scholars think that the historical Jesus was illiterate, as were almost all of his followers. He would therefore know the Hebrew bible solely through hearing the oral targums. When he said something that included a quote or paraphrase of these, people would remember, "Oh, yes, when Jesus was debating about X, he quoted verse Y from Isaiah." This oral memory was most likely preserved in Aramaic by Galileans. This tradition probably remained oral (or in fragmentary written form like the hypothetical Q source) until a generation after his death (and some years after the Pauline epistles), at which point the sayings were codified in Greek by the evangelists and rendered authoritative. When writing a Greek gospel for a gentile audience, they would at that point look up verse Y in the septuagint, to make sure they were getting it right, and write that down as what Jesus said.

Yes, the fact that the passions of Mark and Matthew quote Jesus's last words in Aramaic is an obvious confirmation that he spoke Aramaic. If there hadn't already been an oral tradition saying that these were his last words, then there is no way that the author of Mark would have painstakingly written down the Aramaic words, transliterated into Greek, and then supplied the translation for his gentile audience.

Or was Jesus not quoting the psalmist, it just so happened to coincide with the psalmist?

A very large percentage of Jesus's words in the gospels are quotes from the Hebrew bible. He was either quoting from memory or else other people embellished some of his sayings by packing extra authoritative quotations into them. Both Jesus, in the gospels, and Paul, in the epistles, say a variety of things that fall on a spectrum from literal quotes of scripture to what could be loose allusions. This all gets extra blurry because the OT is in Hebrew and the NT in Greek.

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    “and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭21:16‬ ‭ “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭4:16-17‬ ‭ not only was Jesus literate but he was literate from a young age – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 at 20:16
  • @NihilSineDeo: Right, as I say in the third sentence of my answer, this all depends on whether you believe in biblical literalism. – Ben Crowell Jan 31 at 23:21
  • Not in this case it doesn’t – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 at 23:40
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    Not to beat a dead horse, but I looked at Mark 2:25 in Greek recently, and Jesus's words are "Οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε..." The verb literally means "re-recognize," and has a variety of meanings, including to know something well, or to read a document out loud. This line is often given as evidence that Jesus was literate, but in fact it doesn't even imply any discussion of the Pharisees' literacy. – Ben Crowell Mar 9 at 23:48

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