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?
Image source: David Bowman
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- The Bible says 5