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What language did Jesus speak when he read Isaiah 61:1,2? Would Aramaic be spoken in the synagogue?

Luke 4:16-19 New International Version 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Research:

Language of Jesus - Wikipedia

There exists a consensus among scholars that the language of Jesus and his disciples was Aramaic.[1][2] Aramaic was the common language of Judea in the first century AD. The villages of Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his time, were Aramaic-speaking communities.[3] Jesus probably spoke a Galilean variant of the language, distinguishable from that of Jerusalem.[4] Based on the symbolic renaming or nicknaming of some of his apostles it is also likely that Jesus and at least one of his apostles knew enough Koine Greek to converse with those not native to Judea. It is reasonable to assume that Jesus was well versed in Hebrew for religious purposes.[5][6][7][8]

What Language Did Jesus Speak? | HISTORY

In particular, there’s been some confusion in the past about what language Jesus spoke, as a man living during the first century A.D. in the kingdom of Judea, located in what is now the southern part of Palestine.

The issue of Jesus’ preferred language memorably came up in 2014, during a public meeting in Jerusalem between Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Pope Francis, during the pontiff’s tour of the Holy Land. Speaking to the pope through an interpreter, Netanyahu declared:

“Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.”

Francis broke in, correcting him. “Aramaic,” he said, referring to the ancient Semitic language, now mostly extinct, that originated among a people known as the Aramaeans around the late 11th century B.C. As reported in the Washington Post, a version of it is still spoken today by communities of Chaldean Christians in Iraq and Syria.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu replied quickly.

News of the linguistic disagreement made headlines, but it turns out both the prime minister and the Pope were likely right.

What Language did Jesus Speak? Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek? (christianity.com)

The Language of Jesus: Aramaic

It is the general consensus of religious scholars and historians that Jesus and his disciples primarily spoke Aramaic, the traditional language of Judea in the first century AD. Their Aramaic was most likely a Galilean accent distinct from that of Jerusalem. Jesus spent most of his time in the communities of Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee, which were Aramaic-speaking villages. The Gospels support this view showing Jesus using various Aramaic terms: talitha koum (Mark 5:41); ephphatha (Mark 7:34); eloi eloi lama sabachthani (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34); abba (Mark 14:36). Historians, scientists, and social anthropologists largely agree that Aramaic was the prevalent language in Israel during Jesus’ time. Aramaic was very similar to Hebrew, but with many terms and expressions that were acquired from other languages and cultures, notably Babylonian.

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    Any answer is, at best, an informed guess. There is no way to reach a decisive conclusion.
    – David D
    Apr 17 at 16:44
  • I agree with the multiple comments that we really do not know the answer to this question. The comments are enlightening but speculation. Apr 19 at 19:56
  • We are talking of Jesus who knew what men were thinking. Such a man, could speak any language, if he so chooses. Since there are no documents as to what Jesus choose to speak, the question is hard to get decisive answer. I agree with @DavidD Apr 21 at 16:23

4 Answers 4

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When Jesus read from the Scrolls in the synagogue, as reported by the gospel writers, we have several possibilities:

  1. Jesus read aloud in Hebrew and then preached in Hebrew, but the gospel writer recorded all events in Greek.
  2. Jesus read aloud in Hebrew, then translated to Aramaic, but the gospel writer recorded all events in Greek.
  3. Jesus read aloud from the Septuagint (ie, Greek) but preached in Aramaic, but the gospel writer recorded all events in Greek.
  4. Jesus read aloud from the Septuagint (ie, Greek), then translated to Aramaic, but preached in Aramaic
  5. etc

Now what are the facts we know about this? We have no facts and so we cannot know which of these occurred. All are possible. Further, it is also possible that Jesus varied His practice depending on the audience and situation.

Thus, we do not have enough information to answer the OP's question.

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  • you say reported by 'gospel writers' - from my understanding only Luke mentions about the reading of Isaiah - hence my Q - how would Luke know and why would it not be reported by the others who witnessed it when talking about the same event - hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/90894/33268 Apr 19 at 9:08
  • @anothertheory - exactly the same question could be asked of the dozens of other incidents - some reported by one or more evangelists and omitted by others. Each writer selected, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which incidents to include and exclude according to the divine purpose. Put this question on your list to ask Luke when you meet him.
    – Dottard
    Apr 19 at 9:49
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    @anothertheory presumably the other gospel writers thought it not important to mention, because it's either obvious to their audience which scripture Jesus was referring to, or because they were simply focussing on different things.
    – OrangeDog
    Apr 19 at 9:49
  • @Dottard Yes one of the usual excuse - but the point I was making is that it was ‘writer’ not with a 's' at the end. Inspired Luke 1:1-3 - 1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account.....' Apr 22 at 9:06
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Written Languages

In Jesus' day, the Jewish scriptures existed almost exclusively in 2 languages:

  • The Hebrew Tanakh, Hebrew being the original language of nearly all Jewish sacred writings
  • The Greek Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek carried out 2-3 centuries before Christ

What about Aramaic?

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Targums

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 sacred writings in the local synagogues would be documents written in Hebrew (unless in a Greek dominated region), from which Aramaic oral translations were sometimes given.

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Spoken Languages

In all likelihood, Jesus spoke 3 languages:

  • Aramaic: the language of the home. Some of Jesus' statements in Aramaic are preserved in the New Testament, as ably demonstrated by Dieter.
  • Hebrew: the language of the synagogue. A rabbi teaching from the scriptures (which Jesus did regularly) would have to be able to communicate in Hebrew. Evidences of Hebrew's existence as a living language in the first-century are reviewed in my post here. Baltes reviews here the history & motivations behind some scholars' efforts to convince the world that Jesus didn't speak Hebrew.
  • Greek: the language of the marketplace. Interaction with Gentiles from the surrounding cities of the Decapolis, commerce & trade, and communication with Roman rulers would all have been dominated by Greek.

(Latin would not have been spoken by Galilean or Judean Jews. In the eastern Roman Empire Greek was the lingua franca; Latin would have only been used by Romans among themselves, such as for governmental or military communications)

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The specific case in Nazareth

We are not told whether the scroll in Luke 4 was written in Hebrew or Greek, but odds are very good that it was Hebrew. Nazareth was not a major commercial center (e.g. see John 1:46), a juncture on a trade route like Capernaum, or a site of pilgrimage like Jerusalem.

A small town like Nazareth would be extraordinarily unlikely to have Greek scriptures, which would have been found in explicitly Greek synagogues (common among Jews of the diaspora, possible in Jerusalem, very unlikely in Galilee).

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Conclusion

In Luke 4, Jesus probably read from a Hebrew scroll. After reading, it would not have been unusual to give a translation or a commentary in Aramaic.

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  • “A small town like Nazareth would be extraordinarily unlikely to have Greek scriptures” - why is the quotation in Luke from the LXX then? Apr 18 at 2:46
  • @AviAvraham great question , but probably beyond the scope of the original question. I offered an answer to a related question here. Apr 18 at 3:41
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    it may be worth specifically calling out Targum Onkelos, which is essentially the canonical Jewish Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible which (likely) dates to the 2nd century CE, adding further weight to the idea that it would be unlikely for him to read from an Aramaic translation
    – Tristan
    Apr 18 at 13:14
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    @Tristan Targum Onkelos is only on the Pentateuch. There is an older Aramaic translation on the prophets. Apr 21 at 20:47
  • good point on it being Torah only. From what I've seen though, Targum Yonatan is also generally thought to be from the 2nd century CE (although the traditional attribution to Jonathan ben Uzziel would require it to be earlier)
    – Tristan
    Apr 22 at 8:21
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This question is posed as a historical question, so it deserves an accurate historical answer that treats Luke as a historical source. That's inevitably going to conflict with religious fundamentalist and biblical literalist readings of the text.

The prologue of Luke makes it impossible to interpret it as an eyewitness account. The textual history of Luke shows a lot of variation extending into the second century. Luke's depiction often conflicts with the Pauline epistles, which are clearly historical documents from the first century. The author of Luke is mainly concerned with gentile issues, and wants gentiles not to have to become Jews in order to become Christians. So the general picture of whoever wrote Luke is that this person is very far removed from the events of Jesus's life -- far removed in space, time, and culture.

For these reasons, it doesn't really make sense to assume that this story is literally true and then try to shoehorn it into a possible historical context. In the second century, Christians were seen as disreputable by the dominant culture for a variety of reasons, one of which was that they often recruited their members from the poor, women, and uneducated people. To counteract this, it would be desirable to depict Jesus as a highly educated person. This passage from Luke also shows Jesus presenting himself as fulfilling the prophecies of the Jewish scriptures, which was a characteristic thing to do among second-century Christians. The author of Luke was probably a Greek-speaking gentile, had probably only seen the Jewish scriptures through the Septuagint, and may have had no clear idea that Aramaic was distinct from Hebrew, or that people in first-century Galilee couldn't understand Hebrew. This passage certainly doesn't show any awareness of such a fact.

Because Jesus was the son of a carpenter from Galilee, it's extremely likely that Aramaic was the only language he spoke, and also that he was illiterate. He would probably have known the Jewish scriptures only from hearing the targums orally. It is especially unlikely that he had the high level of scribal literacy that would have been required in order to read such a scroll fluently on sight. These scrolls were not easy documents to read. They had no word breaks or vowels, and no tables of contents or easy methods of locating the desired spot in the text. Jesus's scorn for "scribes and pharisees" is consistent with the fact that his literacy, if any, was not at a scribal level.

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Several languages were spoken in Judea during the time of Jesus and they had interesting origins!

Aramaic. The numerous Aramaean people of ancient Syria migrated southeastward spreading their language throughout Mesopotamia, including Babylon, where many Judeans were later forcibly exiled and resettled by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in 582 BC. When the Judeans returned starting to Israel in 538 BC, the language they brought back with them was Aramaic. This was the prevailing language of the common people in Galilee, Samaria, and Judea during the time of Jesus. The book of Matthew might have been originally written in Aramaic and some of the words of Jesus have been left untranslated in the gospel accounts: talitha koum (Mark 5:41); ephphatha (Mark 7:34); eloi eloi lama sabachthani (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34); abba (Mark 14:36).

Hebrew. Hebrew was used primarily by the religious elite, including scribes, teachers of the law, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Hebrew was likely spoken and read in the synagogues, so most of the common people understood some Hebrew. Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related, however there are several measures of nearness used by linguists.

A crude measure considers only the consonants used in common words. By that measure, Hebrew vs (Syriac) Aramaic has a score of 25.7 on a scale of 0 (identical) to 100 (78 is considered unintelligible). On that scale, French vs Portuguese scores a 27.1 and English vs German scores a 31.3. Again, there are many other measures.

Here's a famous example, Psalm 22:1a. In this case, it demonstrates considerable similarity between Hebrew and Aramaic:

English: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Hebrew: ’êlî ’êlî lāmāh ‘ăzaḇtānî

Aramaic: eloi eloi lama sabachthani (from Matthew 27:46)

Here are some Aramaic/Hebrew word-pair pronunciations: ruach/ruah, Yahuah/Yahweh (or Yahuweh), Alahim/Elohim.

Greek. Alexander the Great, conquered all of the areas covered by modern-day Greece, part of Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He brought Greek philosophy and culture into all these areas. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his empire was divided between his four generals. But by 160 BC, Jewish fighters under Judah Maccabee gained freedom for Judea. However, the Romans conquered Judea and surrounding areas by 63 BC and installed Herod the Great as King of the Jews in 40 BC.

Thus, in these areas at the time of Jesus, Greek was the primary language of commerce, the wealthy, and the political rulers. Greek was commonly spoken by Judean expatriates, and Latin was used by the Romans only for legal and military matters.

I believe there's biblical evidence that Jesus spoke all three of these languages, but that's another topic.

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    This doesn't really answer the question about the reading of Isaiah in the synagogue Apr 17 at 20:42
  • Relying on numerous sources, I wrote "Hebrew was likely spoken and read in the synagogues." This answers the question of what language Jesus read from. There's no indication whether he simultaneously translated the Hebrew into Aramaic as he read the scroll or whether the scroll that he read from was an Aramaic translation of Hebrew. We have no way of knowing this information and the most likely answer is that he read the scroll in Hebrew. The DSS include 21 manuscripts of Isaiah written in Hebrew, the most complete one being IQIsa.
    – Dieter
    Apr 17 at 21:27
  • This really is useful information, but it needs to address what language Jesus spoke when reading the scroll in the Synagogue.
    – Jesse
    Apr 21 at 0:48
  • We can consider only likelihoods in the absence of any definitive assertions in the scriptures. It says that Jesus read from the scroll, but it doesn't say that he translated from the scroll or paraphrased it. His Galilean audience spoke Aramaic, probably understood some Hebrew, but not much Greek. The scroll itself was written in Hebrew. So, after Jesus read from the scroll, in Hebrew, his comments to his listeners would have been in Aramaic.
    – Dieter
    Apr 21 at 1:30
  • I've added one famous example to compare biblical Hebrew and first century Aramaic to my answer above.
    – Dieter
    Apr 21 at 15:03

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