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John records the following statement by Jesus:

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. (John 5:39)

The scriptures that Jesus refers to--at this time would they have been documents in Aramaic or Hebrew?

I am trying to find the earliest date when Targum would have existed. Was Targum the choice translation to read in Jesus' times, or was it the Hebrew Bible? And is there a difference between those two?

Thanks.

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  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for your question. Please remember to take the tour (link below left) to better understand how this site works. This question may be closed because it does not deal with a specific Bible passage. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targum
    – Dottard
    Jul 27 at 22:53
  • Does this answer your question? What language did Jesus commonly speak?
    – Michael16
    Jul 28 at 2:45
  • Nobody used Hebrew. Hebrew has always been minority language since the coming of Greek and Aramaic the international languages. But remember that NT was written in Greek, not Aramaic. The Aramaic translation is late. Its a myth that some gospels were originally in Heb or Aramaic. There maybe some ques on that topic as well en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Jesus
    – Michael16
    Jul 28 at 2:49
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    @Michael16 I just don't understand why Hebrews won't speak Hebrew but Aramaic when the Tanakh is written in Hebrew?
    – sam kim
    Jul 28 at 3:30
  • @samkim I modified your question a little to try to keep it in scope for the site, so it doesn't get closed--let me know if you disagree with how I've updated it. FWIW, Origen of Alexandria, a top Hebrew scholar of his time (2nd-3rd centuries) explicitly recorded that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. Pantaneus had a copy of Matthew in Hebrew. Papias, Irenaeus, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Jerome, and other early historians provide supporting evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew. Jul 28 at 3:38

3 Answers 3

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Jesus would not have used written Targums--they didn't exist yet.

"The Targums" are translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic. While oral translations into Aramaic were permitted in the second-temple period, written translations into Aramaic were not. This did not come about until after AD 70.

From New Testament scholar and linguist Claude Tresmontant:

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)

The scrolls in the synagogues in Galilee would have been Hebrew documents. There is evidence of at least one Greek-speaking synagogue in Judea (in addition to the more prevalent Hebrew), meaning the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) would have been familiar to at least some of the populace in the region, but the predominant language of the local synagogues in Jesus' day was Hebrew.

When John refers to "the scriptures", this is a reference to the Hebrew Bible in the Hebrew language. While it was commonplace a century ago to argue that Hebrew was a dead language by the first century, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls overturned the evidence upon which this theory rested. Hebrew changed over the centuries (as all languages do), but Hebrew was alive and well (written & spoken) in Jesus' day.

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.



Appendix 1--the trilingual world of ancient Galilee

For a more extensive discussion of the trilingual world in which Jesus was raised, see this video on my channel: What languages did Jesus speak?.

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.

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Appendix 2--dead languages

What is a dead language? Oxford Languages defines it as:

a language which is no longer in everyday spoken use, such as Latin

When scholars have claimed that Hebrew was a dead language in the first century, what did they mean?

The following arguments were made prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Thus, the knowledge of Hebrew among the common people, unless they were learned scribes . . . was limited to the memorization of a few phrases, prayers and psalms. The rest of his private, public and religious communication would have been in Aramaic (Arnold Meyer, Jesu Muttersprache. Das galiläische Aramäisch in seiner Bedeutung für die Erklärung der Reden Jesu pp. 46-47. Published 1896)

As the proof has been offered with comparative frequency of late that the ‘Hebraists’, i.e. the ‘Hebrew’-speaking Jews of Palestine . . . did not in reality speak Hebrew but Aramaic, it seems superfluous to raise a fresh discussion in all the details of this question (Gustaf Dalman, Die Worte Jesu: mit Berücksichtigung des nachkanonischen jüdischen Schrifttums und der aramäischen Sprache erörtert, published 1898)

Guido Baltes offers the following, up-to-date (and in particular, post-Dead Sea Scrolls discovery) response:

Dalman assumed that the only raison d’être for a targumic practice was the necessity of translation because no one understood Hebrew. However, more recent studies into the character and function of the targum suggest that commentary was as important as translation as a functional aspect of targum, especially in the “Palestinian” type. The existence of targum therefore does not necessarily imply a lack of Hebrew language competence, but the desire to expound the meanings of the Hebrew text without having to alter or expand it (p.18 here)

A century ago, heavily influenced by scholars such as Pfannkuche, Meyer, Zahn, and Dalman (ibid), it was believed that Hebrew was in the time of Jesus essentially as dead as Latin is today--it was a language that existed only in academia.

Various evidences contradict this older scholarship, most notably the Dead Sea Scrolls, which show that in Qumran people were not only copying existing Hebrew writings, but producing novel Hebrew writings & actively communicating with one another in Hebrew.

Further distinction between Biblical Hebrew & Mishnaic Hebrew may be a valuable topic for discussion for a separate question. Suffice it to say that the Hebrew of the first century had been influenced by Aramaic (and other languages), and was not identical to the Hebrew of Isaiah.

The same could be said in comparing 21st century English to Elizabethan English. Elizabethan English is not "dead" in the sense that Latin is. It is not spoken colloquially, but highly influential works (e.g. Shakespeare, the King James Bible) in Elizabethan English have sustained active use of Elizabethan English in churches, theaters, and other locations outside academia.

  • Was Biblical Hebrew dead in the time of Jesus? It was about as dead as Elizabethan English is today (less dead than Latin is today).
  • Was Hebrew dead in the time of Jesus? No. The Hebrew spoken at the time of Jesus was closer to what we would call Mishnaic Hebrew than Biblical Hebrew, and it was alive. Its contemporary use is evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls, coins, Josephus, Talmudic parables, etc. See further discussion on this site by Frank Luke here.
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    thank you for the answer. I also watched your video. Question: I heard tell that the Memra (Aramaic) understanding was prevalent, and it is this Memra that John uses in John 1:1. But if there was no Targum in Jesus' times, and only oral traditions, would the "Word" be widely understood as meaning an embodied manifestation of Yahweh?
    – sam kim
    Jul 28 at 5:10
  • Woah. Almost no one argued that Hebrew was a completely dead language, they argued it was a Liturgical language -- like the situation with Latin in modern Europe. The discovery of hebrew scriptures in Qumran did nothing to overturn that at all, and it continues to be the mainstream view. For example, the Talmud was written in Aramaic, and these were the people who spoke hebrew the best, but when discussing matters of scripture between themselves, even they spoke and wrote in Aramaic. How much more the normal population?
    – Robert
    Jul 28 at 5:58
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    @Robert I have updated my post to further discuss developments in scholarship before & after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and consider Biblical vs. Mishnaic Hebrew Jul 28 at 20:58
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    @samkim the original audiences of Jesus' teachings would have been familiar with oral targums. Whether they would draw the specific conclusion regarding the meaning of "the word" you inquire about is difficult to say. We don't have John's prologue in contemporary Aramaic or Hebrew, but in Greek. I do believe John wrote in such a way that his audience would grasp what he meant. According to early Christian historians, the immediate audience of John's Gospel was in Ephesus (though that doesn't mean he hadn't taught these ideas elsewhere previously). Jul 29 at 18:07
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    @HoldToTheRod, I see. Here's the thing: I am engaged in a debate with a Oneness position person, and I am trying to show that the Jewish audience of John's gospel would have understood "Word" as the very "word of Yahweh" which manifested bodily in the Tanakh. Although I can make a case from the Hebrew text alone, it would be more compelling to show that the people understood John's "Logos" as referring to their Aramaic "Memra" or even Philo the philosopher's "logos."
    – sam kim
    Jul 29 at 19:09
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This is made complex because Hebrew and Aramaic are very similar languages, to the point where they are about half mutually intelligible, in the sense that if you dropped a Hebrew speaker in an Aramaic speaking area, the Hebrew speaker would be able to buy food, ask for basic directions, obtain shelter, using only their Hebrew, and a basic form of communication would be possible. They would understand about 50% of the words. And with a little bit of practice, would soon understand more. This must be kept in mind as people debate whether one language was spoken or another, as there are very fierce opinions that are often a matter of big arguments over small differences.

Second, the discovery of the dead sea scrolls had no impact on the debate over how much Hebrew vs Aramaic was spoken in Palestine in the time of Christ. It is the mainstream view that Hebrew scriptures were read in synagogues. It is also the mainstream view that the same scriptures were then translated (the Aramaic word for "translation" is "targum") by the rabbi into Aramaic in the same synagogue. Qumran caves have, as everyone would expect copies of Hebrew scriptures as well as copies of greek and Aramaic texts, all side by side.

Part of the the job of the rabbi in Jesus time was to translate the Hebrew into Aramaic so that his Aramaic listeners could understand the text that was read. The fixation on writing the targums (or translations) misses the point. Yes, the oral translations were not supposed to be written down so that they would not be mistaken for scripture. This means each rabbi used his own words to translate the Hebrew to Aramaic, as there was no "official" Aramaic translation during the time of Christ.

Over time, the translations were standardized, written down, and became official sanctioned targums. That process of standardizing the ad-hoc translations provided by each rabbi was completed in first to second century for the law and continued until the 7th C AD for the other targums. Therefore it's safe to say that in the time of the Christ, the process of standardizing the oral translations was in progress but had not been finalized. But just because the translations weren't frozen as official translations doesn't mean that the rabbi didn't give targums during the time of Christ. They did.

Here, we have to be careful whether we use the word "interpretation" or "translation". A targum contains a translation with expository text added. It was both a translation and an explanation.

Also, it may be that some synagogues didn't use Aramaic. In some Synagogues it might be in Greek or Latin, in which case the Hebrew would still be read, but the rabbi would also translate into that language. But because Aramaic was so common and was the main driver for translation, when we say "targum", we mean Aramaic.

At the same time, all of the Aramaic listeners would know some Hebrew, and some would know a lot of Hebrew, because these two languages are very similar and they heard the Hebrew scriptures regularly. They are sister languages. So I see no problem accepting any claim that a large proportion of the population in Palestine also spoke some Hebrew -- especially if we are talking about those who were literate.

But we have to remember that those who had the best knowledge of Hebrew were the Pharisees, and they, when they wrote the Talmud, did it in Aramaic (Palestinian Aramaic for the Jerusalem Talmud, and Babylonian Aramaic for the Babylonian Talmud). So I think it's fair to say that a majority -- a very large majority -- of the people in Palestine felt more comfortable speaking Aramaic than Hebrew, even if they had some command of Hebrew. From that, you can make your own determination as to what language was used when writing personal letters, or remembrances of the words of Jesus, and then in what language this source material was collected, redacted, examined and used as source material for the gospels by each Gospel author.

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  • Thank you for the carefully presented, competing perspective. I don't disagree at all that Qumran shows use of Aramaic--it just shows use of Hebrew & Greek too (most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew). While the Babylonian Talmud is in Aramaic (not surprising given its place of origin), the other Talmudic writings are a mix of Aramaic & Hebrew. Jul 28 at 21:04
  • The Jerusalem Talmud was written in Palestinian Aramaic. This is a different dialect of Aramaic than in Babylon, which is to be expected. Neither was written in Hebrew. Again, I'm not saying that no one knew any Hebrew, but am speaking about what would be their native language. Jesus, in pain and dying on the cross, uttered Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani.
    – Robert
    Jul 28 at 22:10
  • @Robert, thank you for your answers. Please correct my summary if wrong: 1. Deportation of the northern Israel (722 BC), and deportation of southern (605,597,586 BC). Learning Aramaic in foreign lands. 2. Aramaic becomes prevalent for Israelites. 3. Inter-testamental writings in Aramaic about "Memra" (which I am interested to learn more). 4. Septuagint written by 1st C BC Extra questions...1) if they allowed Septuagint to be written, why wouldn't they allow Aramaic translation of Tanakh? 2) Is there surviving intertestamental Aramaic Bible commentaries (specifically the Memra mentions)?
    – sam kim
    Jul 28 at 23:56
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    @samkim Yes, the loss of hebrew occured when Judah was scattered in the Persian Empire. It's no different than an Italian family moving to the US and the grandkids forget the mother tongue. There are many examples of forgotten words or misinterpreted passages that give evidence that the post-exilic rabbis struggled with Hebrew texts. The teachings about Memra have nothing to do with language, they are just teachings that developed and happened to be expressed in Aramaic. Septuagint written from 3C BC to 1C BC (many versions of Septuagint). You can buy targums today if you like.
    – Robert
    Jul 29 at 2:44
  • @Robert Interesting... Why do you think they prohibited translation of the Tanakh into Aramaic, but translation into Greek was allowed?
    – sam kim
    Jul 29 at 3:03
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There are a number of good responses so far. For what it is worth, I will add the following observation from Dennis Barton's, The Clementine Gospel Tradition(emphasis added):

In his De Viris Illustribus, Jerome states that Matthew wrote in Hebrew letters and words for the sake of the Jews and then translated into Greek. He writes, “the Hebrew itself is preserved even now in the library at Caesarea...” Jerome also says he “was given the opportunity of transcribing this volume by the Nazarenes who use it in Beroea, a city of Syria.” He adds that Matthew, when quoting from the Old Testament, had used the Hebrew Scriptures not the Greek Septuagint (RO 203 & DVI, ch 3&7).

Of course, this does not prove that Jesus did not reference the LXX. But it does put into perspective any conclusions drawn from Greek Matthew quoting the LXX.

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