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Which Language did Jesus Speak (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek?)

By Peter Pellerin, 10 February 2012 · 1,195 views

I came across Acts 22:2 today: "And hearing that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they granted him more silence. And he said:"

The Bible clearly states that the Paul spoke to them in Hebrew and not Aramaic.  This got me thinking about a book I had been meaning to read but had not gotten around to it yet.  I read through much of it today and found it fascinating.  It is a premium module at theWord.net, but it is only $3.95. Doug presents compelling evidence that Jesus and the apostles actually spoke Hebrew and not Aramaic.  This is confirmed by scripture and Josephus.  He presents the historical, scriptural, and linguistic evidence that the primary language of Jesus was Hebrew and not Aramaic as is commonly believed today.  

Doug Hamp Bio:
Douglas Hamp

graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with an M.A. in the Hebrew Bible and Its World. He is a specialist in ancient languages including Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. He is the author of three books and dozens of articles and has lectured on biblical languages, creationism and prophecy in the United States and internationally for over eight years in English and Spanish.   Douglas is a committed follower of Yeshua (Jesus).

If anyone is interested in these issues, you might want to check it out:


You can also get it as an e book or book here:

In Roman times Greek was the "lingua franka", but anyone dealing with the bureaucracy had at least some Latin as that was the "official" language of the Roman government. They would likely speak their own local dialect as well as that of at least one of the neighboring lands just as in modern Europe.

There is no reason to think that Jesus or anyone else in that area and era spoke one language exclusively, but as to the Acts 2:22 reference, it might be that the citation actually works against your point.

It was a mob of Jerusalem dwellers that were perusing him, they heard him speak in Hebrew (the language of scripture rather than the language in common usage there and then) they recognized that here was someone who had been educated in scripture, a priest or Pharisee most likely, not a foreigner, and so they began to listen. Had Paul been addressing them in the language commonly spoken on the streets, why would that have any special effect on their willingness to listen?

The Hebrew dialect (as some translations render it) especially after the Babylonian exile, was closer to Aramaic than to the Hebrew of scripture (which had become a “sacred language” for that very reason).

Nehemiah 8:8 indicates that the people who had returned had difficulty understanding the scriptures that were being read to them in classical Hebrew. By the time of Christ the Septuagint was in wider circulation in Jerusalem (and Judea) than the Hebrew texts, which again indicates that classical Hebrew had become less of a common tongue and more a sacred language rather than common speech.

John 5:2 “Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.” Is another example, Bethesda is not Hebrew in origin, but Aramaic or Chaldee. There are other such examples, but I have rattled on long enough.

I think that there can be too much emphasis on what language Jesus and the disciples spoke. It was not the language but the message that changed the world, and it remains so to this day.
Hi Baunlaw,

Thanks for commenting.

I agree that it is not that big of an issue and the view in the book is definately in the minority. It is more of a curiosity for me. Jesus probably did speak multiple languages. Doug presents some compelling historical data in his book. He also an expert in Hebrew which I am not.

Here is what Doug said about Neh 8:8 and Ezra:

One of the most commonly cited passages used to supposedly prove that the returning captives spoke Aramaic is Nehemiah 8:8. “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense (meforash מפרשׁ), and helped them to understand the reading.” The pro-Aramaic camp sees in this verse proof that the Hebrew Scriptures needed to be translated for the solely Aramaic speaking people, which is reflected in some versions of the Bible (The Message and the New American Standard Bible). “They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.” (NASB) But does this verse really say that they translated from one language to another?

The first few words of this verse in Hebrew are straight-forward – They read in the book of the law of God (translation mine). The disagreement occurs when we come to the word מפרשׁ meforash, which comes from the Hebrew root פרשׁ parash meaning to distinguish, separate, make clear. The idea that this means to translate is simply not supported by the Hebrew text. In Leviticus 24:12 we encounter this same Hebrew root with the meaning to make clear “Then they put him in custody, that the mind of the LORD might be shown (parash) to them.” We then later find it in Numbers 15:34 with the same meaning. “They put him under guard, because it had not been explained (parash) what should be done to him.” There is no indication whatsoever of translating from one language to another. Finally, we see this in another place that has caused some to conclude that it must mean translate. Ezra 4:18 records that Aramaic speaking King Artaxerxes received the letter sent to him and then he replies. This verse, of course, is in Aramaic since it is the correspondence between the king and Rehum and Shimshai as discussed below. It says: “The letter which you sent to us has been clearly (mefarash) read before me.” The word clearly is the Aramaic word mefarash – a cognate of the Hebrew word meforash.

How should this word be understood here? Should it be translated or is it clearly or distinctly? Fortunately, the context will only support one of the two options, thereby making it clear for us which one it should be. We need to recall that the letter written by Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe, two leaders of the inhabitants who were against the returning Jews, to the king was translated into Aramaic (“In the days of Artaxerxes also, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabel, and the rest of their companions wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the letter was written in Aramaic script, translated [meturgam] into the Aramaic language…” Ezra 4:7). This letter was put in Aramaic and then sent to the king, which is why from Ezra 4:8 onward the entire text switches from Hebrew to Aramaic. So, if the letter sent to the king was in Aramaic, then why would there be a need for another translation, if the word mefarash/meforash actually means to translate? Would the king’s scribe translate it into any other language besides Aramaic, which was the official court language? The obvious answer is no. There was no need to translate the letter into Aramaic since it was already written in Aramaic! We are left with only one option of the meaning of meforash; clearly, distinctly. So, Ezra 4:18 does not mean translate but clearly, distinctly. That is, the letter was read carefully and apparently the king must have really paid attention and not have been sleeping or daydreaming! And so the meaning in Nehemiah 8:8 also means clearly, distinctly and not translate.

In addition to examining the meaning of the Hebrew word meforash, there are several other contextual factors which serve to clarify that Nehemiah 8:8 is not referring to translating. It must not be overlooked that the entire book of Nehemiah was written in Hebrew! If it had been written in Aramaic, then the argument of translation might hold some weight. The book of Nehemiah was written at or a bit after the time of this event showing that Hebrew was the common language. Yes, but isn’t Ezra written in Aramaic and doesn’t that therefore prove that the Jews spoke Aramaic? Again, there is little doubt that the returning Jews knew Aramaic. The real question, however, is whether Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the mother tongue of the Jewish people.

It is true that three and one half chapters of Ezra are written in Aramaic. However, what is crucial to a proper understanding is what was written in those three and a half chapters. The book of Ezra, like every other book in the Hebrew Bible begins in Hebrew. Only in the middle of chapter four does the book switch from Hebrew to Aramaic. The reason is all too obvious: beginning in 4:8 the antagonists to the Jews who were trying to rebuild the walls write a letter to the King Artaxerxes in Persia. Ezra 4:7 describes the letter: “In the days of Artaxerxes also, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabel, and the rest of their companions wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the letter was written in Aramaic script, and translated into the Aramaic language.” (emphasis mine) Notice that they needed to write the letter in a language other than that of the land! We are told specifically that they translated it into Aramaic. And then in 4:11, we read, “This is a copy of the letter that they sent him,” which tells us explicitly that what follows is a copy of the very letter that they sent in the king’s language (Aramaic) and not in their language (Hebrew). The word for translate is not meforash but מתרגם meturgam.

The following three chapters follow a similar course. The bulk of chapter five is a letter from Tattenai to Darius, most of chapter six is Darius’ response and then most of chapter seven is the letter of Artaxerxes to Ezra. Thus to suggest that the fact that these chapters are in Aramaic somehow proves that the returning exiles didn’t speak Hebrew does not follow the context of the passages. Very clearly we are told that in the chapters mentioned what we have are copies of the actual letters of correspondence between the Persian Empire, which spoke Aramaic, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Thus the proper understanding of Nehemiah 8:8 in no way suggests that they needed to translate the Scriptures into the Jews’ “new” language (Aramaic), but rather they gave an understanding of the Scriptures to the nation that had not embraced them for the previous seventy plus years. It is no different than how we read the Bible and then back up to expound and explain what those words mean and how they apply to our lives. Nor can we conclude from Nehemiah or Ezra that Aramaic could be considered Hebrew. Hebrew remained Hebrew and Aramaic, as we have seen, was referred to as Aramaic. Therefore, we conclude that Hebrew never did die out.
The people in Nehemiah were (for the most part) returning from 70 years of exile in a land that used Aramaic, which is linguistically a closely related tongue. This would be the equivalent of modern day immersion language study, no matter how isolated they tried to be the language of their masters was Aramaic. This would distort the common street language spoken, and make "pure" or classical Hebrew into a "sacred" language, frozen in time and unchanging because it was the language of home, and scripture.

Hebrew would remain Hebrew and Aramaic Aramaic because Hebrew would be protected as "sacred", and Aramaic with an admix of Hebrew to be sure (just as English is heavily sprinkled with words of Greek and Latin derivation) would be the common tongue. They likely didn't need translators, nor did I state or imply that they did. What they did need was people who could take the classic Hebrew that was contained in the scrolls read to them and, just as many modern English speakers need help in reading the KJV, help overcome any difficulties caused by differences in grammar, usage and other forms of language shift..

The language of Portugal and that of Spain is so closely related that with careful concentration and a little help conversations are possible between people who do not know one or the other but only its counterpart. By the same token with effort and a bit of assistance a person speaking modern English can read the KJV or Shakespeare, or the founding documents of the United States.

I cannot lay claim to any degree beyond a high school diploma, so if diplomas are the arbiter, I will loose even the ability to enter the conversation. But i am not ashamed to admit that the bulk of my knowledge has been self inflicted . (That does not mean that I have not learned at the feet of pastors and others who do have degrees, some of them quite advanced, it does mean that my path has been self directed and my education informal but, I hope and believe, reasonably thorough.)

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