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4. Hebrew and Aramaic

If we had lived in Capernaum in Jesus' time, we might well have been surprised at the confusion of languages in that little town. Following Jesus into the synagogue on a sabbath morning, we would have heard the Old Testament scripture read out in Hebrew. Then we would have heard Jesus preach in Aramaic. When the Roman officer came to plead for his slave, we would have heard him make his plea in Greek. (1) Palestine in those days reverberated with the sound of many languages.

Some languages were ancient dialects spoken by neighbouring communities, such as Phoenician and Nabatean. Then there was Latin, the language of the Romans, used by the Roman authorities in Palestine for some of their administration. (2) But the three most important languages were Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.

Greek had been introduced to Palestine during the two centuries of Greek occupation. Greek was the international language at the time. Greek was spoken by many citizens of the new, 'modern' cities that had been built in Palestine, such as Tiberias, Sephphoris, Scythopolis, Caesarea, and many others. Greek was spoken by the Jewish communities outside Palestine and would become the main language of communication for the Early Church.(3) But did Jesus himself use Greek in his preaching ministry?

No one today can doubt the fact that many people in Palestine spoke Greek; even that there were groups of Jews for whom it was the only or principal language. (4) The 'Greeks' among the Christians in Jerusalem may have been such a group. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that Greek was the language Jesus himself used, as some scholars have done.

Like many of his contemporaries, Jesus must have known a smattering of Greek. He will have used it on some occasions; for instance, when he was approached by Greeks in Jerusalem, as John tells us. (5) Jesus may have spoken Greek in his exchange with Pilate; Greek was the language the Romans employed for such public transactions. (6) But these were exceptions. Jesus addressed himself to ordinary Jews. (7) And ordinary Jews, we can be sure, spoke either Aramaic or a colloquial form of Hebrew. (8) It is these two languages we will now discuss in more detail.

The origin of two sister languages

Hebrew and Aramaic belong to the family of languages called 'Semitic'. Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related to each other. They have many words in common. They share a good deal of grammar and syntax. In the time of Abraham (1850 BC?) they must have been almost identical. In an ancient prayer the patriarchs are called 'wandering Arameans'. (9) But the same mother tongue gave birth, in later centuries (1100 - 722 BC), to two distinct languages: Hebrew among the Jews in Palestine, and Aramaic in the Aramean kingdoms of Mesopotamia: Damascus, Zobah and Hamath.

Hebrew was the language spoken by Saul and David, by Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other prophets. Most of the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. Though Hebrew changed in the course of the centuries - as languages invariably do, it retained its official place in Israel until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. This is known as classical Hebrew.

Fragment of cuneiform script, the script used for imperial Aramaic in early times.
The letters were formed by impressions with a pointed stylus on clay tablets.
Scholars believe this reveals the origin of the script.
It was invented by Accadic or Sumerian tradesmen who imprinted short messages
on the clay vessels that contained their merchandise.

Meanwhile Aramaic flourished and spread beyond expectation. When the Assyrians regained control over Mesopotamia (883 - 606 BC), it was not their own language, but Aramaic that gradually became the official language of the empire. Historians ascribe this to the fact that the Aramaic speaking people were good traders, intelligent scribes and excellent organisers. The Assyrians had the practice of dispersing conquered peoples, like the Arameans, throughout their territory. This may effectively have boosted Aramaic as a universal language of communication. The same trend intensified among the Babylonians (606 - 539 BC) and later the Persians (539 - 333 BC). Imperial Aramaic, as we call it today, dominated administration, trade, correspondence and diplomacy.

The Old Testament recounts an interesting incident that illustrates the relationship between classical Hebrew and imperial Aramaic. In the year 701 BC the Assyrian king Sennacherib sent an envoy to Jerusalem to demand that Hezekiah surrender the city to his troops. The envoy, who was seated on an elevated platform outside the walls, proclaimed the Assyrian demands in Hebrew.

The Jewish leaders, who were facing him from the city walls, shouted back: 'Please, speak to us in Aramaic, for we understand it. Don't use Hebrew within earshot of the people on the ramparts.'

But he replied: 'Do you think I'm saying this only to you or to the king? Oh no, my message is for the people sitting on the ramparts who, like you, have to eat their own dung and drink their own urine!' (12)

In 701 BC, therefore, only the leaders and not the ordinary people of Jerusalem understood Aramaic. This was to change soon with the ever growing power of Assyria and Babylon. The change came much earlier even for the north, for Galilee and Samaria. Military conquest and the forced migration of peoples gave Aramaic the edge over Hebrew.

Imperial Aramaic was extremely widespread as the lingua franca (13) of the whole Middle East for many centuries. Aramaic documents and inscriptions have been found as far south as Egypt, as far north as the Ural Mountains and the Caucasus of Russia, as far east as present-day Afganistan and Pakistan. In Jesus' own province, Galilee, it was the official language from 722 BC, when the Assyrians conquered it, until the end of the Persian rule in 333 BC. Small wonder that it had a great influence on the language of the ordinary people.

Both Hebrew and Aramaic had existed for more than a thousand years before Jesus lived. Both left their mark on Jesus' country.

Hebrew, the 'holy tongue'

Fragment of the old Hebrew inscription inside the aqueduct of Siloam.
It records the moment, in 740 BC, when two parties of stonecutters,
starting from both ends of the 1000 ft long tunnel, met in the middle
(read 2 Kings 20,20; 2 Chronicles 32,30; Sirach 48,17).
Hebrew adopted alphabetic signs that had been invented by the Phoenicians.

What was the language spoken by people in Nazareth when Jesus lived there? Was it Hebrew or Aramaic? The picture that emerges from careful studies is that Hebrew still functioned as a classical and literary language, but that the ordinary people spoke dialects: colloquial Hebrew in Judea, and Galilean Aramaic in Galilee.(14)

Classical Hebrew was no longer a language anyone spoke. But many people still understood it because it was the 'holy language', the language of the Bible. On the sabbath people would hear it read out in the synagogues; and so would remain familiar with it. Hebrew was a prestige language, a language carrying a religious and cultural heritage treasured by the community. It was like the Sanskrit of the Vedas for people in India, or the classical Arabic of the Koran for people who speak modern Arabic dialects.

The situation is described vividly in a rabbinical injunction. 'God says: “You shall teach these commands to your sons”. Notice it mentions your sons and not your daughters, says Rabbi Jose ben Akiba. Therefore it has been said: when a young son begins to speak, his father shall talk to him in the Holy Tongue, i.e. Hebrew, and teach him the Law. If the father does not speak to him in the Holy Tongue and teach him the Law, it is as if he had buried him'. (15) In other words: classical Hebrew was no longer spoken in families; it was taught as a cultural and religious language.

Hebrew's place as the prestige language is also attested by the practice of the Essenes at Qumran, who were contemporaries of Jesus. Most of their theological treatises were written in Hebrew. It is even possible that Matthew wrote the original version of his Gospel in Hebrew. (16) This would agree well with Matthew's aim to present Jesus' doctrine as a new Law replacing the Old Testament Law. (17) A Hebrew edition of the Gospel for Palestine would make sense since the Rabbis at times employed Hebrew for discussion and teaching.

Jesus himself knew some Hebrew, as is clear from his reading Isaiah 61,1-2 in the synagogue at Nazareth. (18) Did he speak Hebrew when he argued with the scribes: about the meaning of the sabbath rest,(19) about divorce,(20) about the washing of hands (21) and similar topics? Personally, I do not think so. It would have been far more natural for him to continue speaking in Galilean Aramaic, the dialect he and his own people were used to. After all, Jesus was a builder, not a scribe; he came from Galilee, not ifrom Judea where rabbinical Hebrew was more common. (22)

Jesus' own language

Without any doubt, Jesus' own language was Aramaic. We know this because the Gospels have preserved some original Aramaic words spoken by Jesus. Some are phrases he employed during his ministry:

Talitha, qum!’ - ‘Little girl, get up!’ (23)
Ephphatha!’ - ‘Be opened!’ (24)

Others are spontaneous expressions. When Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemani, he says:'Abba (father, Dad), everything is possible for you. Please, take this cup away from me . . . .' (25) And on the cross he cries out: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’, i.e. 'My God, my God, why have you deserted me?'.(26) These are very personal utterances which Jesus surely made in his own language.

A scroll of Scripture text such as Jesus read from in the synagogue at Nazareth (see Luke 4,16 - 22).
Scrolls were made of pieces of parchment (sheep skin), sewn to each other.
Some scrolls reached a length of more than seven meters (21 feet).
The reader held the scroll by the handles, unwinding it to the left. Columns and text were read from right to left.

The ordinary people, especially in Galilee, spoke Aramaic - that is, their own brand of it. Since most people could no longer follow classical Hebrew, the custom grew up of giving an Aramaic translation of the Scripture immediately after the text. This was later known as the targum. The custom started early. Already in Ezra's time (428 BC ?) the scribes 'read out the Law of God, translating and rendering the sense, so that the people understood what was read'. (27) Usually the reader would improvise the translation, giving a line by line rendering in Aramaic of the Hebrew text. But already in Jesus' time Aramaic targums were written down, as we know from texts preserved at Qumran. (28)

The Galilean Aramaic Jesus spoke, was a mixture of the old 'imperial Aramaic' and colloquial Hebrew. I am sure that Jesus and his contemporaries did not look on it as a foreign language; for them it was simply a form of spoken Hebrew, a dialect, Galilean Hebrew. They did not see it in opposition to their 'holy tongue', classical Hebrew, but as a modern form of it. We can deduce this from the way they speak about their language.

In the Gospel of John we read:

Pilate seated himself on the judgment seat at a place called the Pavement, in Hebrew 'Gabbatha'. John 19,13

Fragment of text on the scroll of Isaiah found in Qumran cave 1 (column 44 in document lQlsa).
The writing may go back to the second century BC.
This fragment records Isaiah 52,13 - 53,7; that is, the song of the Suffering Servant that meant so much to Jesus:
'Behold, my servant shall prosper. He shall be lifted up and exalted and raised highly . . . .'

Gabbatha clearly responds to the Aramaic word 'gabbeta' (raised place), and not to any Hebrew. An Aramaic expression is, therefore, simply called 'Hebrew' because it was the spoken language of the Jews.

Flavius Josephus tells us that he wrote the original version of his Jewish Wars in his 'native tongue' and he repeatedly calls his native tongue 'Hebrew'. (29) But an internal analysis of the work proves the original was written in Aramaic. He tells us the book was written for Parthians, Babylonians, the tribes of Arabia, and for the Jews who live beyond the Euphrates and in Adiabene. These people would only understand Aramaic. Also, for many Jewish religious terms he gives the Aramaic equivalents, not the Hebrew ones. (30) Josephus realised, of course, that classical Hebrew and his own contemporary Aramaic differed. But he saw the one as an extension of the other. Both for him were his native tongue, 'Hebrew'.

We know, therefore, that Jesus spoke Aramaic but that for him, as for his contemporaries, it was just one form of their ancestral tongue, 'Hebrew'. We find this situation even today in many languages: an ancient, classical language co-exists with modern, spoken dialects. The whole complex is considered one language.

Jesus spoke the Galilean version of Aramaic, just like Peter. The Judean servants in the high priest's court recognise him by it. 'You too are from Galilee!', they said to Peter. 'Your speech betrays you'.(31)

Jesus, too, must have been recognisable as a Galilean by his speech.

The process of translation

All the present books of the New Testament: the four Gospels, the Acts, the letters of the Apostles and Revelation, have come down to us in Greek. They were written in Greek because that was the international language. The message of Jesus needed to be proclaimed to people throughout the world in the one language they all used as the lingua franca.

This means that Jesus' teaching too, though it was in Aramaic originally, has come down to us in a Greek translation. At first, we may feel this as a loss. But then we realise the opposite is true. Translation into many languages was and is needed for Jesus' teaching to reach people in all continents. It is a liberating thought that the Early Church, in spite of its singular respect for Jesus' words, did not want to cling to his original expressions, but insisted that the meaning of his words counted more; and that required translation.

As people who read Scripture in depth, we need to acquire a very good understanding of this process of translation which permeates the Gospel.

At the point of origin we always find Jesus' own Aramaic words; words with all the refinements and limitations of any human language. Then we find the translation of these words by the evangelist into a Greek text with characteristically Greek ideas and expressions. Finally we have the formulation of Jesus' message and its meaning in our own language, a formulation which corresponds to our way of thinking and speaking. It is a dynamic process that should both faithfully reflect the original inspiration and present a creative interpretation for our own time.

To help us understand the process, it is sometimes good to reconstruct the original words of Jesus and see what has happened to them in the course of interpretation.

The 'Our Father'

The original 'Our Father' spoken by Jesus probably had the short form we find with Luke. (32) Let us begin by closely examining the first two phrases:

Father, be sanctified your name.
May come your kingdom.

We notice that in the Greek, as in our literal English translation, the verbs come first. This feels unnatural in English; as it does in Greek. Here we have a clear trace of the original Aramaic text. For in Aramaic, as in all Semitic languages, the verb comes first.

Then, we might well be puzzled by the strange expression: 'May your name be sanctified.' How on earth do we 'sanctify' a 'name'?! It is the kind of thing we would never say in our ordi- nary speech; nor do we find this kind of expression in Greek. Here again an old Jewish way of speaking shines through. For the Jews the 'name' stands for the person. 'I love your name' means: 'I love you'. The expression 'to sanctify' means: 'to praise, to worship, to acknowledge as holy'.

The overall meaning becomes crystal clear when we discover that this phrase, and the next one, derive from an old Aramaic prayer, the Kaddish, which Jews say even today:

'Exalted and hallowed be his great Name
throughout the world which he created according to his will.
May he establish his kingdom
in your lifetime and in your days and
in the lifetime of the entire house of Israel
speedily and soon!'(33)

In this way we discover the Aramaic origin of these two opening lines of the Our Father. The Gospel, though written in Greek, has left us here a rather accurate record of Jesus' Aramaic words and thoughts. And we know now what these phrases mean. Jesus wants us to pray, as all Jews did in his time, for the final revelation in this world of God's liberating kingship.

The word 'Father', standing on its own, is exceptional. This is something we never find in Jewish prayer. If 'Father' is used at all, it is qualified by expressions such as 'Our Father', 'Father in heaven', and so on.,'Father' reveals Jesus' personal and intimate relationship to God. It reminds us of Jesus' own Aramaic term: Abba. (34)

Scholars have reconstructed the Our Father in Aramaic. This is what it sounded like in Jesus' own words:


Yitqaddash shemâk.
May be sanctified name yours.

Têtê malkûtâk.
May come kingdom yours.

Lachmân de limchâr
Bread ours of tomorrow (35)

hab lân yômâ dên
give to us today this.

û shebôq lân chôbênan
and forgive to us debts (36) ours

kedi shebaqnân le chayyâbênan
s herewith forgive we to debtors ours.

we lâ ta'êlinnan le nisyôn.
and not let fall us into trial.(37)

Matthew, who wrote a Gospel for the Jews in Palestine and who probably composed it in classical Hebrew, has his own version of the Our Father.(38) In this literal translation of the Greek text I have printed in italics what Matthew has changed or added:

Father ours who (is) in the heavens,
may be sanctified name yours!
May come kingdom yours!
May be done will yours as in heaven so on earth.
Bread ours of the day give to us today.
And forgive to us debts ours,
as also we have forgiven debtors ours.
And not let fall us into trial,
but deliver us from evil.

Matthew's three additions can be well understood by the purpose of his Gospel. Since he was writing for Jews, he defines the invocation 'Father' with the addition: 'who art in heaven'. This is how Jews would pray. Matthew knew that Jesus called God simply Abba, 'Dad'. But here he is teaching the prayer to us.

Then he had to explain what Jesus meant by the coming of the kingdom. Jesus was not praying for a nationalistic, political restoration of Israel, but for a kingdom of moral values. That is why he adds what the kingdom means: that the Father's will be done on earth as in heaven.

Jesus' petition : 'Do not let us fall into trial' was also open to misunderstanding. It did not mean that Jesus wants us to pray to be saved from suffering or pain; it means, as Matthew explains, that we should pray to be saved from sin, from doing anything wrong. We see Matthew doing here what the evangelists do throughout their writing. They act as 'dynamic' interpreters of Jesus' words; often giving the sense of what he said rather than just a 'dead', word-for-word rendering.

For the sake of comparison I will print here a reconstruction of what Matthew's Hebrew version of the Our Father looked like, next to the Aramaic original. It is not difficult to see how close the old, classical text (Hebrew) is to the dialect (Aramaic) which Jesus spoke. (40)

Abba! Abbênû she beshamâyim
Yitqaddash shemâk Yitqaddash shemâk
Têtê malkûtâk Tabô malkûtâk
  Yu’ashah rissônekâ
  ka’asher beshamâyim kên bâ’ârss
Lachmân delimchâr Et-lachem hayyôm
hab lân yômâ dên. ten lanû hayyôm
Shebôq lân chôbênan Selach lanû et-chabôtênû
kedi shebaqnân ka’asher selachnû gam anachnû
lechayyâbênân lechêbênû
We lâ ta’êlinnan le nisyôn We al-tabînû lêdê nisyôn
  kî im chalassnû min harra’.


1. Matthew gives us this incident from Jesus' passion:

Jesus cried out in a loud voice: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is: 'My God, my God, why have you deserted me?'
Some of the bystanders said: ‘He’s calling on Elijah!’, and one of them quickly went to get a sponge and dip it in vinegar. Putting it on a stick, he gave Jesus to drink.
‘Let us see’, the others said, ‘whether Elijah will come to save him!’ Matthew 27,46-49

Did they really think Jesus was calling on Elijah?

2. The Gospel of Mark has preserved two unusual, Aramaic words of Jesus: Talitha, kum! (Mark 5,41) and Ephphatha (Mark 7,34).

What would be Mark's interest in the original Aramaic here?

3. Please, comment on these instructions of Vatican II:

Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all Christian believers ....
With motherly concern the Church sees to it that readable and accurate translations be produced in different languages. These translations should be based on the original texts of the sacred books.' Divine Revelation, no 22.


1. Matthew 8,5-13; Luke 7,1-10.

2. That is why Jesus' condemnation was written on the cross also in Latin (see John 19,20).

3. Much more will be said about this in our WALKING ON WATER book. The Gospel transcends barriers.

4. S.LIEBERMANN, Greek in Jewish Palestine, New York 1965; J.N.SEVENSTER, Do you know Greek? How much Greek could the first Jewish Christians have known?, Leiden 1968.

5. Acts 6,1 - 7; C.F.D.MOULE, 'Who were the Hellenists?', Expository Times 70 (1958-59) pp. 100 - 102.

6. See S.M.PATTERSON, 'What language did Jesus speak?', Classical Outlook 23 (1946) pp. 65-67; A.W.ARGYLE, 'Did Jesus speak Greek?', Expository Times 67 (1955-56) pp.92-93.

7. John 12,20. 8. John 18,33-38. 9. Matthew 10,5-6; 15,24.

10. The findings of modern research, with plentiful detail and abundant bibliography, are provided by: J.A.FITZMEYER, 'The languages of Palestine in the First Century AD', Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970) pp.501-531; and C.RABIN, 'Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century, in The Jewish People in the First Century, ed. S.SAFRAI and M.STERN, Leiden 1976, pp.1007 - 1038.

11. Deuteronomy 26,5.

12. 2 Kings 18,26-28.

13. A lingua franca is a language used for inter-communication by people with different home languages.

14. Scholars have argued a lot about the spoken language in Jesus’ time, - and are still arguing about it. The reasons are easy to understand. The records left in literature or on momuments usually concern the written language, not the spoken one: it is far more difficult to trace the latter. Then, many records whichscholars rely upon, are either earlier or later than the first cenury AD, when Jesus lived. But through wars and movement of populations much changed exactly in that period: so how valid are these records as evidence? Finally, the ancient records themselves refer to Hebrew and Aramaic by conflicting names. See FITZMYER and RABIN, above, p.77 note 2.

15. Sifre on Deuteronomy 26,4; see also 11,19. The saying is from the 2nd century AD but reflects a long tradition.

16. J.M.GRINTZ, 'Hebrew as the spoken and written language in the last days of the second Temple', Journal of Biblical Literature 179 (1960) pp.32 - 47. The author makes an impressive case for a Hebrew Matthew from internal text analysis. But his overall claims for Hebrew go too far.

17. Matthew 5,1-48.

18. Luke 4,16-19; see above chapter 3, pages 70 - 72.

19. 5. Mark 3,1-6. 20. Matthew 19,3-9. 7. 21 Mark 7,1-13.

22. It is known as 'Mishnaic Hebrew' since part of the later rabbinical teaching of the Mishna was phrased in it.

23. Mark 5,41.

24. Mark 7,34.

25. Mark 14,36; Jesus always employed this Aramaic phrase in his prayer as we can see from later Christian usage: Romans 8,15 and Galatians 4,6.

26. Matthew 27,46; Mark 15,34.

27. Nehemiah 8,8.

28. The Essenes lived near the Dead Sea at Qumran. They had a great devotion to Scripture. According to one community rule, at least one member of the community should be studying the Bible at any time of day or night. When the Roman armies approached Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Essenes sealed their pre- cious books in clay vessels and hid these in caves. This 'library' was discovered in 1947. A Targum on Job was found in both cave 4 and 9, and a Targum on Leviticus in cave 4.

29. J.M.GRINTZ, 'Hebrew, etc.'; see above, page 81 note 2.

30. These include: the Pasch, Pentecost, priests, the high priest, sacred linen, etc.

31. Matthew 26,73; cf. Mark 14,70; Luke 22,60.

32 Luke 11,2-4.

33. Siddur Tehillat Hashem, New York 1982, p.42; here in its earliest form, cf. I.ELBOGEN, Der jiidische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwickliing, Hildesheim 1962, pp.92 - 98.

34. Mark 14,36; more on this in my WALKING ON WATER book God is close. See also J.JEREMIAS, Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Gottingen 1966, pp. 15 - 67.

35. The 'bread of tomorrow'; like the Jews gathered in the desert (Exodus 16,4-5). It implies the future bread brought by the Messiah; also the bread needed from day to day, as we find in the Greek translation (Luke 11,3).

36. Jews understood that 'debts' here means 'sins'; Luke translates it as 'sins' for his non-Jewish readers (Luke 11,4).

37. For the reconstruction and a good explanation, see J.JEREMIAS, New Testament Theology, London 1981, pp.193 - 203.

38. Matthew 6,9-13.

39. This Hebrew reconstruction of Matthew 6,9-13 is based on Habbeshûrah Haqqedôshah Mattai, ed J.M.BAUCHET, Jerusalem 1948, pp.16 - 17.

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