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Is Acts 26:14 testifying ישׁוּעָ Jesus ( Ἰησοῦς) spoke עִבְרִי Hebrew (Ἑβραΐδι) or ܐܪܡܝܐ Aramaic?

When studying Acts 26:14 from the [ESV] translation, we read :

" And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew [Language] "

However in the [NIV] translation, we notice Acts 26:14 changes Jesus' language by stating : "We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic".

Hebrew עִבְרִי is not ܐܪܡܝܐ Aramaic.

  • Which of these two spoken languages does the Greek phrase "Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ" refer to?
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Acts 26:14 New International Version

We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'

It is not the ancient Hebrew but the dialect of their everyday language.

Thayer's Greek Lexicon

STRONGS NT 1446: Ἑβραΐς
Ἑβραΐς (WH Αβραΐς, see their Introductory § 408), ἑβραιδος, ἡ, Hebrew, the Hebrew language; not that however in which the O. T. was written, but the Chaldee (not Syro-Chaldaic, as it is commonly but incorrectly called; cf. A. Th. Hoffmann, Grammat. Syriac., p. 14), which at the time of Jesus and the apostles had long superseded it in Palestine: Acts 21:40; Acts 22:2; Acts 26:14; Ἑβραΐς φωνή, 4 Macc. 12:7; 16:15. (Cf. B. D., under the phrase, Shemitic Languages etc.; ibid. American edition, under the phrase, Language of the New Testament.)

The same incident is mentioned earlier in Acts 9:4

He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

Here it is just assumed that it is the everyday language of Aramaic.

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Hebrew was still a spoken language

Ancient Greek had a word to refer to Aramaic: Suristi. This word never appears in the New Testament. Since they could have referred to Aramaic if they wanted to, but never did, that would tend to support the view that when they say Hebrew they mean Hebrew.

Hebrew shows up in many places in late second temple Judaism, and not just in copying previously-written ancient Hebrew documents, but in additional writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, letters, coins, and numerous Jewish teachings & commentaries. (drawn from a much more detailed discussion by Frank Luke on this site here)

For a summary discussion of the presence of Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew as spoken languages in the time and place where Jesus lived, I provided some thoughts on this site here.

For a sharp critique of the theory that spoken Hebrew no longer existed in Jesus' time (and how that theory developed), see here. The idea that Hebrew was not spoken is oft-repeated but rarely argued from evidence.

Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ

Interpreting Ἑβραΐδι as "Aramaic" worked in a scholarly world that assumed Hebrew was not spoken. The evidence of a living Hebrew language (Mishnaic--see below) at the time of Jesus has invalidated the Aramaic interpretation.

In a region in which Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew were spoken, "Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ" would be a plausible way to say "Hebrew", but would not be an effective way to disambiguate Aramaic.

Buth & Pierce have recently argued cogently that ἑβραϊστί and related words were never used to refer to Aramaic.

(see R. Buth and C. Pierce "Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean 'Aramaic'?")

What about BDAG?

BDAG suggests that "Ἑβραΐδι" and related words refer to Aramaic. The aforementioned 2014 work by Buth & Pierce challenges the assumptions behind the consensus BDAG represents:

"The present study will investigate the claims of BDAG. It will be shown that there is reliable, lexicographical, and contextual support for the meaning "Hebrew language"...for the passages cited in BDAG. It also will be shown that there is no methodologically sound support for the meaning "Aramaic language". This is a classic example where a priori assumptions have led a field to ignore the evidence and to misread it." (ibid)

Biblical Hebrew vs Mishnaic Hebrew

It's worth clarifying that Hebrew, like any language, changes over time. It has frequently been noted that Biblical Hebrew was a dead language in the 1st century. Was it? Well, it was a dead language in the same sense we might say Shakespearean English is a dead language today. It's dead in that it isn't spoken colloquially. But it's not dead in the sense that it only exists in academic circles. Because some of the most influential English texts of all time (writings of Shakespeare himself, the King James Bible) were written in this dialect of English, the dialect is still understood by numerous English speakers today.

1st Century Biblical Hebrew appears to be in the same boat -- important writings like the Torah & Isaiah ensured that even though people didn't colloquially speak Biblical Hebrew, they understood it. This video presents a more extended form of this argument (disclaimer: I made this video).

The spoken Hebrew of the time was Mishnaic Hebrew, a descendent of Biblical Hebrew. For a discussion regarding the relationship between these dialects, see here and here. It's nuanced as all language development is--people didn't just stop speaking one and start speaking the other in an instant.

Conclusion

Although it was fashionable a century ago to argue that 1st century Galileans were monolingual (this may be why some modern translations gratuitously introduce the term "Aramaic" when the original Greek said "Hebrew"), more recent evidence has overturned this older theory.

If they could speak Hebrew, why be surprised when Acts says that someone spoke in Hebrew? Rather than read something into the text that isn't there, I would favor the most straightforward explanation: they say Hebrew because they mean Hebrew.

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Note the subtlety on the phrase here which says: τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (= "the Hebrew dialect"). Note that it does NOT say "the Hebrew language".

The fact that we are talking about either:

  • The Hebrew language and never used in common speech except in priestly and religious settings for reading the ancient scrolls
  • The Aramaic which was commonly spoken and had various accents or dialects depending on the person's upbringing

The above suggests that we are discussing Aramaic and that Christ spoke to Paul in his mother-tongue, specifically the Aramaic dialect. This is confirmed by BDAG:

Acts 21:40, 22;2, 26:14; Papias (2:16). These passages refer to the Aramaic spoken at that time in Palestine.

Thayer makes almost identical claims:

Ἑβραΐς (WH Αβραΐς, see their Introductory § 408), ἑβραιδος, ἡ, Hebrew, the Hebrew language; not that however in which the O. T. was written, but the Chaldee (not Syro-Chaldaic, as it is commonly but incorrectly called; cf. A. Th. Hoffmann, Grammat. Syriac., p. 14), which at the time of Jesus and the apostles had long superseded it in Palestine: Acts 21:40; Acts 22:2; Acts 26:14; Ἑβραΐς φωνή, 4 Macc. 12:7; 16:15. (Cf. B. D., under the phrase, Shemitic Languages etc.; ibid. American edition, under the phrase, Language of the New Testament.)

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