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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Language of Christ

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LANGUAGE OF CHRIST . The records of our Lord’s words and discourses have descended to us in four Greek Gospels. Some early Christian writers assert that St. Matthew wrote in Hebrew; but the Greek St. Matthew has universally, and from the first, been accepted as an authoritative and inspired document. It is not improbable that the writer published his book in the two languages, and that the Greek edition alone has survived. Josephus, who wrote in Greek, prepared a Semitic edition of his Wars for the benefit of those who understood only their vernacular.

At the present day, perhaps, most scholars would admit that the vernacular of Palestine in the time of our Lord was Semitic, and not Greek; but a difference is observed between their theory and their practice; for in all kinds of theological writings, critical as well as devotional, the references to the text of the Gospels constantly assume that the Greek words are those actually uttered by our Lord. But if Greek was not commonly spoken in the Holy Land, it is improbable that He who ministered to the common people would have employed an uncommon tongue. It follows that the Greek words recorded by the Evangelists are not the actual words Christ spoke. We may think we have good grounds for believing that they accurately represent His utterances; but to hear the original sounds we must recover, if that be possible, the Semitic vernacular which underlies the traditional Greek.

The evidence as to the nature of the Palestinian vernacular may be thus stated. In the first century of the Christian era the Holy Land was peopled by men of more than one race and nationality, but there is no reason to suppose they had been fused into one people, with Greek for their common tongue. Most of the inhabitants of Judæa were Jews, being descendants of the returned exiles. In Galilee there was a mixture of races; but the name ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ was a survival of the description of an earlier condition. The Syrian and Assyrian in vaders of the Northern Kingdom had passed, though leaving their mark, and a period of Jewish ascendency had followed, created by the victories of the Maccabees. The Idumæan princes, though Inclined to alliance with Rome, sought to pose as Judaizers. Herod the Great, while in sympathy with Hellenism, was famous as the builder of the third Temple. The strict, orthodox Jews, who were opposed to Hellenism, and compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, would lose no opportunity of re-occupying their fatherland, from Jerusalem in the south to the north of Galilee, and would take with them the ancient customs and the ancestral tongue. Samaria, however, preserved its integrity as a foreign colony, with its own Semitic dialect. Beyond the Jordan, and in the border lands of the south, there was some mingling with the neighbouring Moabite, Idumæan, and Arab tribes, and probably many dialects were spoken, the records of which have perished for ever. Yet the Hebrew of the Jerusalem Pharisee, the language of the Samaritans, the speech of the men of Galilee, and the patois of the borderers, were all Semitic dialects. No place is found for the alien speech of Greece. Yet it must not be forgotten that Greek was the language of trade and literature. It would be heard in the seaports, and in the neighbourhood of the great roads by which communication was kept up through Palestine between Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. It was spoken by many in the Roman garrisons, and was the adopted tongue of the Jews of the Dispersion, who cultivated Hellenism, and brought their foreign customs to Jerusalem, when they came to worship or for temporary residence (see Acts 6:1 ). But the language of the Palestinian home, of the Palestinian synagogue, of farmers, artisans, and labourers, as well as of educated Jews, who cultivated the ancient ways, was Hebrew, using that, term for the moment in a somewhat extended sense. Very significant is the reference to the vernacular in Acts 1:19 , and the obvious inference is confirmed by the description of the title on the cross. Besides the official notice in Làtin, which probably few could read, the accusation was written in Greek and in Hebrew. If the majority of the passers by would understand the former, the latter was superfluous. Even if the Hebrew was added only to please the mob, this fact would prove that the lower classes were partial to their vernacular, and were at least bilinguists, and not in the habit of using Greek exclusively (cf. Acts 22:2 ).

The story of Peter’s denial incidentally adds another confirmation. He conversed in a language which was understood by the servants and others of the same class assembled round the fire, but he was recognized as a northerner by his accent. There is no evidence that the Galilæans pronounced Greek differently from the Judæans, but it is known that their pronunciation of some of the Hebrew letters differed from that of the southerners. Peter and the servants had a Semitic vernacular in common, though with dialectic differences of pronunciation, and possibly of vocabulary.

In the Syrian Church historical documents have been handed down which, whatever be the dates of the existing works, undoubtedly represent very ancient traditions, and depend on documents such as would have been preserved amongst the archives of Edessa. In the Doctrine of Addai this remarkable statement occurs: ‘Him whose Gospel has been spread abroad by the signs which his disciples do, who are Hebrews, and only know the tongue of the Hebrews, in which they were born.’ In the same Church there was a tradition that their national version of the NT was rather a second record than a translation, and dated from Apostolic times. Such a view (whether true or false matters not now) depends on an assumption that some language related to Syriac, if not Syriac itself, was the vernacular of the Apostles.

The greater part of the NT consists of writings intended for the benefit of Jews who resided outside Palestine, and of converts from heathenism. For such readers the vernacular of Palestine would have been unsuitable; and those of the writers who were not familiar with Greek could employ a translator. St. Peter is said to have been attended by Mark in this capacity. We have already referred to the tradition that Matthew, who wrote for the benefit of his countrymen, composed a Gospel in Hebrew. That some one should have undertaken a work of that nature is highly probable; but the circulation would be limited, for the native Jewish Church did not long retain the position of importance it possessed at first (Acts 21:20 ), and the collection of sacred writings into a Canon was the work of Greek-speaking Christians. The Epistle of St. James is one of the earliest books of the NT, but though intended for Jewish Christians it was written in Greek, as a literary vehicle. An apparent, though not a real, difficulty is presented by the style of certain pieces included in the sacred narratives. The Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis , and Lord’s Prayer, for example, which must be translations, in accordance with our view of the use of a Semitic vernacular, are thought to savour rather of original composition than of translation. But it should be remembered that the ancient idea of a version was different from ours. Literal rendering often (though not always) yielded to the demands of commentary. Perhaps (to take another, and, as some think, crucial instance), the angel could not have saluted Mary in the native dialect with the famous alliteration Chaire kecharitômenç ; and yet the Evangelist may have recorded the ‘ Hail! highly favoured ’ in that form, influenced by the style of OT diction, in which play on words is a marked feature.

The majority of the quotations in the Gospels appear to be derived from some form of the Septuagint Greek text of the OT. It does not follow that the speakers habitually used Greek. All we can safely infer is that the Evangelists, when writing in Greek, employed a version which had acquired considerable authority by usage, to express the quotations they recorded.

It has been thought that the conversations between our Lord and the woman of Samaria and the Syrophœnician woman must have been carried on in Greek as a common language. It is forgotten that Syriac, Samaritan, and the so-called Hebrew of Palestine, were nearly related. Many to whom one or other of these was the vernacular, would have some slight acquaintance with the others. However, the object of this article is not to deny that Christ knew, and sometimes spoke, Greek, but to reinforce the arguments by which we conclude that the vernacular of Palestine was Semitic, and that therefore Christ’s teachings were, for the most part, delivered in a different tongue from that in which they have come to us in the Greek Gospels.

By far the greater number of personal and place names connected with Palestine in the NT are of Semitic derivation, but they afford no evidence in relation to our inquiry. The preservation and use of such names would be consistent with a change in the vernacular. Place names are practically permanent; personal names are often sentimentally borrowed from a dead ancestral tongue. Nor would we lay stress on the occurrence of Semitic words, as rabbi, korban, pascha (‘passover’), in the Greek text. The men of our Lord’s day, whatever dialect they spoke, were the heirs of a religious and social system which had its roots in Hebraism, and of which there were constant reminiscences in the daily use of words belonging to the ancient terminology. But other non-Greek expressions are recorded in connexions which lend them a much greater significance. In Acts 1:19 we are informed that the Semitic name Akeldama , which was given to a certain field, was in the ‘proper tongue’ of ‘the dwellers at Jerusalem.’ Our Lord’s words on two occasions are given in Semitic, Talîtha kûmi ( Mark 5:41 ), and Ephphatha ( Mark 7:34 ). On the cross He uttered a cry which might have been a quotation from Psalms 22:1 ; but the form preserved in Mark 15:34 varies dialectically from the Hebrew of the opening words of that psalm.

These and other Semitic remains preserved in the pages of the NT, even when account has been taken of all place and personal names and single words, as well as of the few phrases, afford but limited evidence, and are only a few specimens of the Palestinian vernacular. Yet they suffice to show that the dialect was neither ancient Hebrew nor the classical Syriac. It had arisen through corruption of the ancestral tongue, under the influence of surrounding languages, especially Aramaic. Probably it varied considerably in different parts of the Holy Land, and there were ‘dialects’ rather than ‘a dialect’ of Palestine. But all the evidence tends to the conviction that Christ habitually employed some form of the vernacular in His discourses, and not the alien language of Greece.

G. H. Gwilliam.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Language of Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/l/language-of-christ.html. 1909.

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