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Could Jesus Speak English?

child and Jesus

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language?… A Kiwi (or American, or English…)

There’s been some discussion recently about how many and which languages Jesus spoke. [For example, here]. These discussions came as a result of the discovery of ossuaries (chests for the bones of the dead) found in a 2000-year-old Tiberian burial cave with the names on them in Greek, demonstrating that (many of) those living in Galilee at the time of Jesus were multilingual.

So, what languages did Jesus speak?

If you have a magical (read ‘Docetist’) Jesus, then the discussion becomes trivial. Your Jesus knew Einstein’s theory of Relativity and kept quiet about the English language that hadn’t been invented yet.

For the rest of us, I’m suggesting a different tack to the debate you can follow elsewhere; you can credit me if this becomes your doctoral thesis. I’m wondering if / suggesting that there is a correlation between a theologian/historian’s context/background and their assumptions about how many languages Jesus spoke. In other words, English-language theologians/historians start more from the assumption that Jesus was monolingual. African, Dutch, Melanesian and other multi-lingual theologians/historians start more from the assumption that Jesus was multilingual.

In my travels (say in Africa) the norm for even those in their early teens is to speak their tribal language, their neighbouring tribe’s language, the trade language of the area (say, Hausa), the religious language (eg. Arabic), and the colonial language (eg. French).

I have simply assumed that was the situation for Jesus. He spoke Aramaic (fluently) at home, Hebrew (well) in the Synagogue, Greek (fine) in the supermarket, and was OK in Latin (eg. possibly used to speak to the Centurion, or to the Roman Governor). As a tekton (τέκτων – a builder?) Jesus (and his dad?) probably worked on the building sites of Sepphoris (Tzipori), an hour’s walk from Nazareth. That was a Greek-speaking, multi-cultural city, being rebuilt during Jesus’ day.

There is only one reference to Jesus reading (Luke 4:16-22). [Is that historical?] Might the reading at the Nazareth Synagogue have been from the (Greek) Septuagint? [Remember, New Testament quotes from the First Testament are from that Greek translation rather than directly the Hebrew.]

Jesus chose Matthew, a tax collector – who would have been well-connected through Greek. And Jesus’ conversation reported in John 3 only works because of the punning on ἄνωθεν (born again/from above) – a pun that only works in Greek and not Aramaic.

My thesis is that in our estimate of Jesus’ linguistic ability, (as we do with so much else about him) people tend to make Jesus into their own image (or – into fulfilling their need, which is the shadow of that).

What do you think?

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Image source: David Bowman

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6 Responses to Could Jesus Speak English?

  1. As I’ve studied Aramaic and Syriac, I find that exoticism is also a factor. It’s a simple instinct that Greek is boring, Aramaic exciting.

    That Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and Greek fits what we know of the linguistic formation of that time and place. The more urban and ‘modern’ used Greek more, while rural backwaters preferred Aramaic. But it would be rare for someone not to get by in both. After three centuries since the conquests of Alexander and Seleucid rule, even your granny could speak some Greek.

    The place of Hebrew is much contested. Some would say that it was just the Holy Language at the time, pointing out the use of Targumim and Septuagint in the synagogues. There is trend amongst some to demonstrate that Hebrew was always living active (particularly showing that Modern Hebrew is more a continuation than a revival, even reinvention), pointing to legal documents and contracts in Hebrew. It’s probably best to sit on the fence with this one, knowing that Aramaic-speaking Jews wouldn’t have too much of a problem comprehending its close relative Hebrew.

    Latin was probably not widespread, but mostly confined to Roman monumental inscriptions that weren’t designed for the people to read. Educated Romans spoke Greek and proudly so. Military and monetary words (‘centurio’, ‘denarius’) would be known, as we can see in the Greek of the New Testament, but anything more than a few simple sentences would have been unlikely. An educated, cosmopolitan Easterner would much prefer the medium of Greek to Latin.

    • Thanks for providing scholarly support, Gareth, for my prejudices 😉 So are you supporting the possibility that the Septuagint was used, say, in Galilee synagogues? And in Judea? Blessings.

      • Reading between the lines of the New Testament and from contemporary Jewish documents, we see the cultural distinction of Hellenistic Jews, and, while they were mostly found in the Diaspora, it looks like the draw of the Temple meant pilgrims and synagogues catering for their needs. The Septuagint saw widespread use among Hellenistic Jews, and there is evidence that it was seen as just as worthy as whatever pre-Masoretic Hebrew text was available. Although this is unimaginable to modern Jews, Philo and Josephus appear to suggest this is the case. It is difficult to know how those Septuagint manuscripts found at Qumran were used, but they are an essential part of what was stored away. Jewish use of the Septuagint flourished into the second century AD when Greek Aquila began to become the standard among Hellenistic Jews.

        What was happening in first-century Galilee is a little difficult to discern, despite many claims. Cities like Sepphoris would have been full of Greek, while most smaller places would use Aramaic. From what I can remember, the excavated Tzippori Synagogue does not show any Greek inscriptions, only Aramaic and Hebrew, which might suggest that Hellenistic Jews did not settle in this otherwise Hellenistic city.

        An additional reflection on how prominent Greek was in this time and place is how Hellenisms flood written Aramaic. The names of some of the musical instruments listed in chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel are Greek, and Greek particles, like δε and γαρ, come into widespread use in Aramaic.

  2. Rev, I just have to laugh. Simply EVERYONE knows that Jesus was blonde, blue-eyed and spoke King James English with all the words coming out in red!

    ;o)

    Seriously, though I’ve never thought of this, but overall I can agree with your assessment that English speakers would start from the assumption of mono-linguistic.

    However, as a counter to that, the US might surprise you (if that’s possible any more) since we are a nation of immigrants. My father could read some German based on his background (and we had German-language bibles in our Indiana church until the 1980s), my husband’s father (born in the US) spoke Italian/Sicilian, and his mother only spoke Maltese until 5– she still lapses into this in her 90s. People in the plains needed to trade with the French and with the Native peoples. Where I live now, we hear quite a bit of Polish, Thai, and Chaldean, so we pick up different phrases. So while we (the US) seem to be scarily jingoistic these days, I’m thinking more of us might start with believing Jesus spoke at least two languages… though of course we wouldn’t be able to list them and we would probably ban them from our schools. :o)

    Once again, a very interesting post that made me think and gave me a wonderful distraction. Many thanks.

    Stephen

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