adventures in dysthymia

Friday, June 10, 2011


What did Jesus speak? The language, I mean. Aramaic, as is typically asserted? Or did he know and converse in other tongues as well?

Aramaic was, for a few centuries, the common tongue of much of the Middle East. In some areas, it was a trade tongue, a language people didn't speak at home but used to talk with those from other areas and cultures. For others, it was the birth tongue, what they spoke every day. The Jews had picked it up as their language while in Babylon and most who lived in Palestine still spoke it.

By the time of Jesus, Greek had been displacing Aramaic as lingua franca of the Middle East for over three hundred years. Eventually, it did so almost completely. That is until Arabic displaced Greek.

Greek was the language of government in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It was the language of Herod and the Jewish royal court. It was undoubtedly the language of Jesus' trial before Pilate. You pretty much had to have Greek to get along, if you moved in anything more than local village society.

Greek was also common in Egypt, where Jesus supposedly spent his earliest years.

It is pretty likely Jesus knew and spoke Greek. He may or may not have taught in that language but I would guess that he occasionally did, especially in the more sophisticated towns such as Capernaum. He may well have used it in everyday conversation.

But it's also certain that he preached in Aramaic. It was what most of the crowds understood in the countryside of Galilee and Judea, and most certainly in Samaria. Though when teaching in a city such as Jerusalem, with visitors from all over, Greek might have been a more universally recognized choice.

A learned Jew, one who knew the scriptures well, probably would understand Hebrew, even if it was no longer the daily language of the people. There is some evidence that Jesus taught in Hebrew on occasion, perhaps when in the synagogues. This is based on linguistic analysis of certain sermons; however, it is not absolutely sure that they were actual sermons of Jesus. It's entirely possible that rabbinical discourses by others ended up in the Gospels, attributed to Jesus.

One question that would have bearing on all this is just where Jesus grew up and what sort of society he was moving in as a boy and young man. We're not absolutely certain where his home town of Nazareth was located. It may or may not have been the village in central Galilee that has long laid claim to being his home. It has some arguments in its favor: its name, of course, the fact that it has been a claimant from just a few centuries after the death of Jesus, and its proximity to some other towns mentioned in the gospels, such as Cana and Nain.

Aramaic was still the common language in such villages. If Jesus grew up there, that's what he would have been speaking every day.

On the other hand, the descriptions of Nazareth in the Bible do not exactly jibe with this town's situation. They would suggest that it was perhaps in the hills overlooking the Lake Galilee, relatively near to Capernaum and other Hellenistic towns, i.e. closer to the centers of culture -- Greek and otherwise -- in Palestine. If Jesus and his father were doing skilled construction work (they were more likely masons than carpenters), it would be a more likely area to find employment. There was lots of building going on around there, thanks to the Romans.

And there was lots of opportunity to learn, to exchange ideas, to discourse on a hundred different philosophies floating around the Hellenistic world. We do know that Jesus eventually headquartered himself in Capernaum.

Even the more rural Nazareth was not really that far away, a journey of a day or two, so if Jesus grew up there, it was not like he was out in the middle of nowhere, learning nothing but Aramaic and village life. People could walk across the hills to Capernaum or over to the seacoast. A construction worker seeking employment would be likely to do so.

Ah, but there was also Jerusalem. Remember the child Jesus speaking in the temple? Assuming it's a true story and not a legend tacked onto the Jesus story, it would look as though he was picking up much of his own people's tradition and knowledge too. I suspect that his mother, Mary, had some pull in the temple. She did serve there as a girl and quite possibly had contacts and friends among the scribes and such.

If one is not inclined to accept the whole virgin birth concept, it is also a likely source of Jesus' paternity and an explanation of the patronage of someone like Nicodemus. Having a father in the temple could explain many things, particularly one with a bit of power and wealth. Such a man could certainly persuade Joseph to overlook his wife's pregnancy, as well as arrange for some extra education and comforts for the child.

Or they could have simply been friendly towards Mary and her family. Either way, it would appear that young Jesus may have been allowed some privileges at the Temple -- and opportunities to learn -- that were not available to all.

Well, all we can say for absolute certain is that Jesus did speak Aramaic. Why? Because Matthew quotes some of the Aramaic words. Matthew and the other gospels were written, of course, in Greek though Matthew's book is aimed largely at a Galilean Jewish readership. So we can assume such readers knew Greek! It is a bit interesting that none of the New Testament was written in Aramaic, even though all of it was completed within about sixty years from his death.

On the other hand, the earlier text (the quelle) that seems to have served as a partial source material for the gospels of Luke and Matthew may have originally been in Aramaic (though they seem to have borrowed from a Greek text). Or it may also have been written in Greek but preserved much of the Aramaic speech of Jesus. Since the actual document no longer exists (so far as is known -- and it may not be a text so much as a collection or even oral tradition) and is known only through extrapolation from the gospels, its existence is an assumption -- an almost certainly correct assumption. This text, it seems, was essentially an account of the teachings and sayings of Jesus, not a story of his life and ministry like the gospels.

Unless a copy shows up some day, hidden perhaps in some Palestinian cave, we'll never know exactly. Some more conservative biblical scholars would deny that it ever existed. Incidentally, at one time it was somewhat widely believed that Matthew was originally in Aramaic and translated to Greek. This is quite discredited now, with the recognition of this earlier source.

I do suppose it does not matter that much. The teachings are more important than the language. I'm not one to take the gospels as, well, gospel. I'm quite sure there are inaccuracies in them -- stories and fables and parables that became attached to the Jesus account. This happens to pretty much all notable people as their story becomes legend. It was probably going on even during his own lifetime.

But knowing the language does help understand the thinking. The metaphors and symbols implicit in any language shape the meanings. Changing Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English has also changed the messages of Jesus, sometimes subtly, sometimes not quite so much. Modern translation efforts continue to improve our understanding, bring new nuances to these old texts.

Anyway, it's all knowledge and that's a good thing. The more we understand, the better we can deal with what we don't understand! Knowing what Jesus spoke may not help you get through today. Shoot, you may be an atheist, for all I know, and not care. But information is what any computer needs to function properly, including the human brain.

So, go forth and function!

Stephen Brooke ©2011

P.S. I write up stuff like this mostly to clarify my own thoughts, not to 'teach' anyone else. Take what you want from it, leave what you don't.

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