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The Four Languages of Jesus’s Judea

Jews of Jesus’s day were multilingual. To varying degrees they understood Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.

Hebrew

Even though Hebrew was the native language of the Jews, it was not the household language in first century Judea—Aramaic was. Hebrew was the original language of the Old Testament Scriptures, Judaism, and the Jewish cultural identity. Hebrew was widely understood among the religiously educated groups such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. This language was used in formal religious settings or ceremonies, such as the Temple Sacrifices, and in scripture readings and teachings in synagogues. As a people who deeply identified with their religion, Jews were at least somewhat familiar with Hebrew if not fluent. As a Rabbi, Jesus would have been familiar with Hebrew.

It was customary, however, from an early point in Jewish history for Jews to translate the Hebrew Text into the vernacular language of the day so that every Jew had access to the scriptures. The work to translate the Old Testament into Aramaic began during the Jewish Exile in Babylon and was apparently finished by the time of Jesus. This work was done by the scribes and Pharisees; these interpreters were called a “meturgeman” and they worked within the synagogue system. These sanctioned Aramaic translations, alongside the abundance of copied scrolls of the original Hebrew, might explain the apparent discrepancies between Old Testament Scriptures and the New Testament quotes of those same scriptures.

Aramaic

A form of Aramaic was the primary street language used by Jews in Judea. It was a holdover from their ancestors’ exile in Babylon. It was the language of household conversation, gossip, and small talk. Even though Jesus would have been proficient in Hebrew as a Rabbi, scholars believe that He typically taught in Aramaic, and not Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament) nor Greek (the language of the yet-to-be-written New Testament). Perhaps the main reason Jesus taught in Aramaic was so that His kingdom message would not be limited to the religiously trained but could be understood by all—including the uneducated and poor.

It is possible that some books of the New Testament, particularly the book of Matthew, were originally written in Aramaic, and were later translated and circulated into Greek, with the Aramaic versions lost to us.

Greek

Greek was the informal language of commerce throughout the eastern portion of the Roman empire. Greek was spread through the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 B.C.) It became the “lingua franca” which meant that it was the universally understood language between peoples of one part of the empire with another. Most Jews would have been acquainted with Greek, but few were proficient. As a craftsman carpenter who grew up in Nazareth and likely helped rebuild the nearby Roman town of Sepphoris, Jesus would have been at least somewhat familiar with Greek.

Greek was the language in which the New Testament was composed. Greek was likely the preferred language of New Testament writers, because it made their gospels and epistles readable by a much larger (Empire-wide) audience. The four Gospel writers translated what Jesus said in Aramaic or Hebrew into Greek.

Latin

Latin was the official government language of the Roman Empire. It was used by politicians and bureaucrats. It is reasonable to suppose that only a few Jews would have been fluent in Latin. Most of the Jews who were fluent in Latin probably worked directly for or with the Roman bureaucracy. Tax collectors, for example, like Matthew.

 




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