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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Language of Christ

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LANGUAGE OF CHRIST.—Recent historical and critical research has narrowed the ground which it is necessary to cover in the discussion of the question as to the language spoken by Christ. It has ruled Hebrew out of court. The practically unanimous verdict of recent scholars is that, considerably before the time of Christ, though when is uncertain, Hebrew had ceased to be spoken in Palestine, and its place as the vernacular had been taken by Aramaic, the language represented in OT by Ezra 4:8-16; Ezra 7:12-26, Jeremiah 10:11, and Daniel 2:4 to Daniel 7:28, and mistakenly named ‘Chaldee.’

The transition from Hebrew to Aramaic involved no great linguistic revolution, as it was simply a transition from one Semitic language to another, and that a closely cognate one. It was, however, only very gradually effected, and was chiefly due to the predominance to which Aramaic attained in Western Asia during the Persian period, coming, as it did, to be, with dialectical differences, the lingua communis from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. While, however, Aramaic thus gradually superseded Hebrew as the living tongue of Palestine, and by the time of Alexander the Great had probably reached a position of ascendency, if it had not gained entire possession of the field, yet Hebrew remained, though with some loss of its ancient purity, the language of sacred literature, the language in which Prophet and Psalmist wrote, and as the language of the books ultimately embraced in the OT Canon, continued to be read, with an accompanying translation into Aramaic, in the synagogues, and to be diligently studied by the professional interpreters of the Scriptures. It is, therefore, quite possible that Christ possessed a knowledge of Hebrew, and had thus access to the Scriptures in the original.

With Alexander the Great, however, there came a fresh disturbance of the linguistic situation. Thenceforward Greek entered into competition with Aramaic. And though, as a non-Semitic language, the adoption of Greek could not come so readily to the Jews as Aramaic, yet the circumstances were such as to tend in no small degree to counterbalance the disadvantage under which Greek thus lay. For not only was it the official language alike of the Lagid, Seleucid, and, after the Maccabaean interregnum, of the Idumaean Roman rulers to whom the Jews were successively subject; but its cause was furthered by the Hellenizing policy which these rulers generally followed, and by the existence, more or less, all through of a party among the Jews themselves favourable to that policy. The result on the linguistic situation of the political conditions thus obtaining cannot be certainly determined from the historical data bearing directly thereon. It is, however, clear that whatever headway Greek may have made before the Maccabaean revolt,—which was a revolt against the Hellenizing policy referred to, as pushed to extremes by Antiochus Epiphanes,—it suffered a decided set-back, and was practically expelled the country during the Maccabaean régime. And though it had again made considerable progress by the time of Christ, and especially through the influence of Herod the Great, who particularly affected Greek culture, there is nothing to show that the political conditions were such as to secure for it the ascendency claimed by some scholars, and notably by Dr. Roberts in his book, Greek the Language of Christ and His Apostles.

At the time of Christ, then, Palestine was bilingual, Greek as well as Aramaic being, to some extent at least, spoken. The question, therefore, to be answered is, Which of these languages did Christ speak, or, if He knew and spoke both, which of them did He mainly, if not exclusively, employ as the vehicle of His teaching? Consideration need be given to the question only in its latter form. For, as undoubtedly spoken by some of the Palestinian Jews, as the language of perhaps the great majority of His countrymen scattered throughout the Roman world, as the predominant language of the representatives of the Gentile world in Palestine and of that Gentile world itself, which, though wide, was not yet wider than He conceived the scope of His mission to be, and as, besides, the language of the Septuagint Version of the OT, which had no doubt acquired considerable popularity, it may reasonably be assumed that Christ would acquire some knowledge of Greek, and be able, in some measure at least, to speak it. Was it, then, Aramaic or Greek that Christ habitually employed in His public ministry? The question resolves itself into that of the relative prevalence of the two languages in the country at the time, so far as that can be determined by such evidence, direct and indirect, as is available. And this evidence, though somewhat meagre, is decisive for Aramaic. That furnished by the reported words of Christ Himself does not go very far, but yet goes some length towards that conclusion. All that it certainly establishes is that Christ knew Aramaic, and, apart from His employment of Aramaic terms and proper names, on which perhaps little stress is to be laid, as these terms and proper names may have formed part of the ordinary vocabulary of Greek-speaking Jews, expressed Himself in Aramaic on three different occasions. The three expressions are: (1) ταλειθὰ κούμ, the Gr. transliteration of the Aram. Aramaic טַלִיֽתָא or טָלִיחָא קוּם Mark 5:41; (2) ἐφφαθά, euphonic for the Aram. Aramaic אִתְפַתַּח Mark 7:34; and (3) ἠλεὶ ἠλεὶ λαμὰ σαβαχθανεί (Matthew 27:46), or according to Mark 15:34 ἐλωί, ἐλωί, λεμὰ σαβαχθανεί, the Aram. Aramaic אֵלִחִי אֳלָהִי לִמָא שְׁבַקחַּנִי or אֵלי אֵלי. How these three Aramaic expressions alone came to be preserved is matter of conjecture. An obvious explanation is that they alone were preserved because they were exceptional, Greek being the language for the most part used by Christ. That, however, is not the only possible explanation. More probable is it that they alone were preserved because associated with moments of exceptional emotion on Christ’s part, and therefore felt to be exceptionally precious. The cry upon the cross was peculiarly a cry de profundis. In the case of the deaf and dumb man, Christ, for some reason or other, was unwontedly moved, for it is said that ‘he looked up to heaven and sighed.’ And, though it is not stated, the spectacle of Jairus’ child-daughter lying cold yet beautiful in death, was calculated to touch profoundly the heart of the great Child-Lover.

The two main sources of direct evidence conclusively proving the predominance of Aramaic as the popular language, are the Book of Acts and the Works of Josephus.

1. In Acts 1:19 it is said with reference to the suicide of Judas in the field which he had purchased ‘with the reward of iniquity,’ ‘And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their own tongue (τῇ διαλέκτῳ αὐτῶν) Akeldama.’ Now Akeldama is the Aram. Aramaic חֲקל דּֽמָא, and points not only to the fact that Aramaic had superseded Hebrew as the vernacular, but that at the time of Christ it was the popular language, even of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Equally conclusive on the latter point are two other passages in the Acts. In describing his conversion to Agrippa, St. Paul said, ‘And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying, in the Hebrew tongue’ (τῆ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ), Acts 26:14. By ‘Hebrew’ St. Paul undoubtedly meant Aramaic. The terms Ἑβραΐδι and Ἐβραϊστί, as is generally admitted, are used both in the NT and by Josephus when not Hebrew but Aramaic is meant. Thus in John 19:13 it is said that ‘Pilate sat down in the judgment-seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew Gabbatha’ (Ἐβραϊστὶ δὲ Γαββαθά); and Γαββαθά is not Hebrew, but Aramaic. That the ascended Christ should have spoken to Saul in Aramaic is unintelligible except on the supposition that that had been the language which He had spoken when on earth, and that it was the prevailing language of Palestine.

Quite as significant is the circumstance mentioned in Acts 22:2 that Paul addressed the infuriated Jerusalemites in Aramaic, and that when they ascertained from his opening words that he was to speak to them in that language, ‘they kept the more silence’ (μᾶλλον παρέσχον ἡσυχίαν), the reference being to the fact that Paul had not attempted to speak until by a gesture indicative of his desire to be heard he had stilled the uproar, and, as it is said, ‘there was made a great silence.’ It does not necessarily follow, as has been maintained, that the people expected Paul to address them in Greek, and that the fact that they were prepared to give him a hearing when they expected him to speak in that language, proves that they were familiar with it. The simple fact that, as his gesture indicated, Paul was going to address them was in itself sufficient to secure their quiet attention. And in any case, even though they had expected to be addressed in Greek, the deeper silence into which they settled when they found that they were to be addressed in Aramaic, proves that they were more familiar with the latter language than the former, and that the latter was the language generally spoken by them.

2. The evidence of Josephus is as direct and conclusive as that furnished by the Acts of the predominance of Aramaic. In BJ v. vi. 3, Josephus records how during the siege of Jerusalem the Jewish watchmen warned their compatriots of the discharge of the Roman missiles by crying out in their native tongue (τῇ πατρίῳ γλώσσῃ), ὁ ἰὸς ἔρχεται. In the same work, vi. ii. 1, he tells how in his capacity of intermediary during the same siege he communicated the proposals of Titus to the besieged in their native tongue (τῇ πατρίῳ γλώσσῃ). In the preface to BJ he records how that work was at first written in Aramaic and afterwards translated into Greek.

The passage runs: ‘I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate these books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our own country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians,’ i.e. to the Aramaic-speaking peoples, whom he describes in the following paragraph as ‘the Parthians, Babylonians, the remotest Arabians, and those of our nation beyond Euphrates, with the Adiabeni.’

That a Palestinian Jew such as Josephus, who was of a distinguished priestly family, who received a careful rabbinic education and studied in the various schools of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, should not only characterize Aramaic as ‘the language of our own country,’ but should write his first book in that language, is in itself conclusive proof that Aramaic had not then been materially driven from its position as the vernacular of Palestine. Suggestive also in this connexion, and giving added weight to the case for Aramaic, is Josephus’ own confession of the difficulty he experienced in acquiring such mastery of Greek as that which he ultimately attained. In the preface to his Antiquities he tells how he found the writing of that work a hard and wearisome task, ‘it being,’ as he says, ‘a large subject, and a difficult thing to translate our history into a foreign and to us unaccustomed language’ (εἰς ἀλλοδαπὴν ἡμῖν καὶ ξένην διαλέκτου συνήθειαν), and how he was able to continue and accomplish the task only by the encouragement and help of a friend, Epaphroditus. To the same difficulty he refers in the closing paragraphs of the Antiquities:

‘I am so bold as to say, now that I have completed the task set before me, that no other person, either Jew or Greek, with whatever good intentions, would have been able to set forth this history to the Greeks as accurately as I have done; for I am acknowledged by my countrymen to excel them far in our national learning. I also did my best to obtain a knowledge of Greek by practising myself in the grammar, though native habit prevented me from attaining accuracy in its use.’

Josephus’ difficulty with Greek is very significant. For if that difficulty obtained with him, what of his countrymen generally? Stress has been laid, as, e.g., by Dr. Roberts, upon the attainments in Greek of such men as Peter and James and John, as shown in the speeches or writings attributed to them, and it has been argued there from that a knowledge of Greek must have been common among the rank and file. But even though Peter and James and John were the authors of the speeches and writings referred to and did speak or write such Greek as is found therein, which is open to question, they cannot fairly be regarded as representative of the people generally in this respect. The very fact of their not only being of the number of the Twelve, but forming the inner group of that favoured circle, differentiates them from the crowd. ‘Unlearned and ignorant men,’ the Council at Jerusalem dubbed them (Acts 4:13); but the contemptuous epithets were but the expression of a twofold prejudice, the prejudice of antagonism and the prejudice of the Schools. In virtue of their discipleship, Peter and James and John have to be placed in a different category from the mass of the people of their social rank, who, as compared with them, must have been ‘unlearned and ignorant’ in the broader sense of the terms.

3. The case for Aramaic as the prevailing language of Palestine in the time of Christ, and the language, therefore, which Christ must necessarily have employed generally in His teaching, is thus incontestably established by the direct evidence of the Acts and of Josephus. And though less direct and certain, there is other evidence to the same effect to which reference may be made, and specially that furnished by the Targums and what is known as The Aramaic Gospel.

(a) The Targums are Aramaic translations or paraphrases of the OT books, and cover the whole of those books with the exception of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The two principal Targums are (1) that on the Pentateuch, known as the Targum of Onkelos, which is characterized by its almost slavish literalism; and (2) that of Jonathan ben-Uzziel on the Prophets, i.e. the Historical books and the Prophets properly so called, which is largely paraphrastic. The dates of these Targums are uncertain, and by scholars they have been made to range from the end of the 1st to that of the 4th cent. a.d. The important point, however, is that they undoubtedly embody material from a much earlier time, and were the outcome of the practice, originating in the gradual disuse of Hebrew as the vernacular, of translating the synagogue readings of the OT into Aramaic for the benefit of the people generally. Written Targums were at first forbidden. The translation was required to be oral, the translator (מְהֻדְנְּבָן) giving his translation after each verse of the Pentateuch and every three verses of the Prophets. Whether the rule which forbade written Targums had fallen into desuetude by the time of Christ cannot be definitely determined. Probably it had. But even though it had not, and there were no written Targums till a later date, yet the existence of written Targums at that later date points conclusively to the prevalence of the practice of the oral translation of the synagogue lessons into Aramaic, and therefore to the prevalence of that language as the vernacular.

As against this, the supporters of Greek hold that the Septuagint version was in such general use that it may be described as the ‘People’s Bible.’ The special arguments in favour of this theory are: (1) that copies of the Septuagint could be had at a much smaller cost than Hebrew or Aramaic Manuscripts , that indeed the price of the latter was prohibitive so far as the people generally were concerned; and (2) that the OT quotations in the NT point to a very general familiarity with the Septuagint, inasmuch as the majority of them are verbatim or practically verbatim, or show unmistakable traces of the Septuagint, and particularly as in some cases the Septuagint is followed when it differs from the Hebrew. The price argument scarcely deserves notice, and very little weight is to be attached to the quotation argument. For while it must be admitted that those who were responsible for the quotations were familiar with the Septuagint, it by no means follows that such familiarity obtained with the people generally. And while it was to be expected that the writers of the NT books would not only be familiar with the Septuagint, but in quoting from the OT would take advantage of a translation ready to hand, it is yet a significant fact that that translation was not always taken advantage of, not a few of the quotations showing an entire independence of the Septuagint.

(b) The question of an Aramaic Gospel (Ur-Evangelium), while important chiefly in connexion with the Synoptic problem, bears closely upon that of the language spoken by Christ. If Christ spoke Aramaic, such a Gospel was to be expected, and at the same time its existence would furnish weighty proof at once of the prevalence of Aramaic and of the use of that language by our Lord. And the labours of recent critical scholars, if they have not conclusively established the existence of an Aramaic Ur-Evangelium, have at least made it much less open to question. Of special interest in this connexion is the series of articles in the Expositor (Ser. iv.), by Professor Marshall, on ‘The Aramaic Gospel.’ The theory which Professor Marshall in these articles works out with great ability and skill is that the variant Greek words in parallel passages of the Synoptic Gospels can be traced to one original Aramaic word; and the result of the application of his theory is that the Aramaic Gospel contained, speaking generally, the ministry of Christ in Galilee. That Professor Marshall’s theory will ever find anything like general acceptance is perhaps unlikely. But whether or not it may be possible by his or any other method to recover with certainty and to any extent the precise Aramaic words used by our Lord, there can be no doubt that Aramaic had the supreme honour of being the language in which He gave expression to His imperishable thoughts.

Literature.—Pfannkuche, Language of Palestine, Clark’s Cabinet Library, vol. ii.; Roberts, Greek the Language of Christ and His Apostles, 1888; W. H. Simcox, Language of the NT, 1889; T. K. Abbott, Essays chiefly on the Original Texts of OT and NT, 1891, p. 129; A. Meyer, Jesu Mutter-sprache, 1896; Dalman, The Words of Jesus, English translation 1902; Schultze, Gram, der Aram. Aramaic Muttersprache Jesu, 1899; Marshall, Expositor, Ser. iv. ii. 69 ff., iii. 1 ff., 109 ff., 205 ff., 275 ff., 375 ff., 452 ff., iv. 208 ff., 373 ff., 435 ff., vi. 81 ff., viii. 176 ff.; Exp. Times, iv. 260; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] i. i., ii. ii.

James Young.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Language of Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/language-of-christ.html. 1906-1918.

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