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Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor questioned Him, saying, “So You are the King of the Jews?” And Jesus said to him, “It is as you say.” (Matthew 27:11) NASB

Pilate questioned Him: “So You are the King of the Jews?” And He answered him, “It is as you say.” (Mark 15:2) NASB

Now Pilate asked Him, saying, “So You are the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:3) NASB

Pilate is Roman and speaks Latin as his native tongue and Jesus a Jew speaking Hebrew/Aramaic so then in what language did Pontius Pilate communicate with Jesus? Greek, Aramaic, Latin or something else?

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    We are not told which language or even if they used an interpreter! Therefore, we do not know.
    – Dottard
    Jun 25 at 9:16
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    Does this answer your question? What language did Jesus commonly speak?
    – Michael16
    Jun 25 at 11:06
  • Roman officials would speak the international language Greek, as did most Jews in Israel. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Jesus
    – Michael16
    Jun 25 at 11:07
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    @Daniel Dahlberg Latin is the least plausible, for it was not the most spoken language even in Rome which in those times was more Greek speaking. Aramaic - possible, for Pilate could have learned the local lingua franca. I would vouch for Greek. But only on a plausibility grounds. Jun 25 at 14:28
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    Re vote to close, this strikes me as not a duplicate...the language spoken by Pilate is relevant here. Jun 25 at 15:52

2 Answers 2

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Let us consider the 4 most prominently spoken languages in that region at that time.

Greek

The lingua-franca of the Eastern Roman empire, it had been widespread in the East since the time of Alexander. The prevalence of a common language was a very effective tool for Roman governance. Greek was the language Rome used to communicate (in the east) with the people it subjugated (source).

Pilate, an educated man and a member of the equestrian order (source), would most definitely have spoken Greek.

For the evidence that Jesus would have spoken Greek, see:

  • Stanley Porter's work here
  • JN Sevenster's work here
  • My video here: What Languages Did Jesus Speak?
  • The prevalence of Greek speaking Jews in the book of Acts (including Galileans with Greek names)
  • Jesus' time spent in the Greek-speaking cities of the Decapolis

Pilate & Jesus both spoke Greek, and Pilate would have expected to communicate with his subjects in Greek. This gives a high probability to their conversation taking place in Greek.

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Aramaic

The familial language of many Jews as a result of the Babylonian captivity, Jesus undoubtedly spoke Aramaic (and several of his statements, in Aramaic, are preserved in the Gospels).

Pilate was a transplant to the region and there is no evidence he ever spent any significant time in the far east. It is unlikely that he spoke Aramaic, nor would he as a Roman official have felt it his duty to learn the common-tongue of the people he ruled.

Jesus could have spoken Aramaic to Pilate, but the conversation would have had to have been conducted through an interpreter.

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Hebrew

The religious language of the Jews, and the language of the synagogue. Prior to the destruction of the temple, the Tanakh was not written in Aramaic (see my post here); the scrolls in the synagogues were Hebrew documents.

Jews in Judea & Galilee would have regularly encountered Hebrew as they worshipped and learned in the synagogue. Boys who received even the most rudimentary education would have been taught the Torah in Hebrew. Although Jesus may well have been familiar with the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanakh), His primary association with the Jewish scriptures would have been in Hebrew.

A century ago it was fashionable to claim that Hebrew was a dead language by the first century, but the Dead Sea Scrolls have since undone these arguments. Josephus, Rabbinic literature, coins, and the New Testament itself also give evidence that Hebrew was still being spoken. See further discussion in this Hermeneutics post by Frank Luke.

  • For evidence that ἑβραϊστί in the New Testament is a reference to Hebrew, not to Aramaic, see Buth & Pierce's work: Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean 'Aramaic'?.
  • For a review of the political (and anti-Semitic) reasons for which 19th-century German scholars tried to convince the world that Jesus did not speak Hebrew, see Baltes' work here.

Jesus spoke Hebrew. There is no reason to believe that Pilate, a man antagonistic towards the Jews (source), ever learned the Hebrew language.

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Latin

Latin was the original language of the Romans and remained the language of imperial administration, legislation, and the military throughout the classical period (source)

Pilate spoke Latin, as did many of the soldiers at his command. Latin was not the lingua franca of the Eastern Empire and was not what Romans used to communicate with their subjugated peoples in the region. There is no reason at all to believe Jews in the region would have taken the time (or had the opportunity!) to learn the administrative language of their pagan overlords.

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Conclusion

Pilate had a sign posted (see Luke 23:38) at Jesus' crucifixion in Latin (Rome's language), Greek (the lingua franca), and Hebrew (the Jews' language--note that Aramaic was spoken by the Jews, but the most important writing was done in Hebrew).

Perhaps the plainest (and admittedly ever-so-slightly over-simplified) rendering that I have encountered of the trilingual nature of the Jewish world in which Jesus lived is: Aramaic was the language of the home, Hebrew was the language of the synagogue, and Greek was the language of the marketplace. (Latin being a language of soldiers & politicians).

  • Pilate spoke Latin & Greek.
  • Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.

Although this does not rule out the slim possibility that they communicated via an interpreter, in none of Jesus' or the apostles' conversations with Roman officials is there any hint that an interpreter was needed.

The most practical language for them to use in conversation was Greek.

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  • "His primary association with the Jewish scriptures would have been in Hebrew.". Would you say then that when Jesus read the scroll of the prophet Isaiah as recorded in luke 4:17-18, Jesus read it as it was written in Hebrew? Jun 26 at 0:14
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    @AlexBalilo yes. A synagogue in Nazareth would be unlikely to have scrolls of the Septuagint, and the Aramaic Targums were oral-only at this time. Hebrew is far and away the most likely language. Jun 26 at 2:44
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While "Hold To The Rod" gives accurate speculation, as an appendix, Paul's encounter with the Romans in Jerusalem specifically mentions the languages spoken, specifically because it explains the difficulty the Romans had with understanding why there was an uproar among the Jews over Paul. If they had understood what Paul said, they would tend to have sided with Paul much sooner. This gives some background within the New Testament about the languages spoken in Jerusalem and those who spoke them.

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek [Ἑλληνιστὶ]? (Acts 21:37, ESV)

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language [τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ], they became even more quiet. And he said: (Acts 22:2, ESV)

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  • I like this. So, is your conclusion Greek? Jun 26 at 3:53
  • Very effective passage, +1. I think it's noteworthy that the audience expected Paul to address them in Greek Jun 27 at 1:47

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