While scholars generally agree that Jesus was a true historical figure, the debate has long raged around the events and circumstances of his life as described in the Bible.
In particular, there has been some confusion in the past as to the language spoken by Jesus, as a man living in the first century AD in the kingdom of Judea, located in what is now southern Palestine.
The question of Jesus’ preferred language was raised in a memorable way in 2014, during a public meeting in Jerusalem between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Pope Francis, during the pontiff’s visit to the Holy Land . Addressing the Pope through an interpreter, Netanyahu said, “Jesus was here in this country. He spoke Hebrew. ”
Francis entered, correcting him. “Aramaic,” he said, referring to the ancient Semitic language, now largely extinct, which came from a people known as Aramaeans in the late 11th century B.C. As stated in the Washington Post, a version of it is still spoken today by Chaldean Christian communities in Iraq and Syria.
“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu quickly replied.
News of the linguistic disagreement made the headlines, but it turns out that the Prime Minister and the Pope were probably right.
Jesus was probably multilingual
Most religious scholars and historians agree with Pope Francis that historic Jesus spoke mainly a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Thanks to trade, invasions and conquests, the Aramaic language had spread far in the 7th century BC and would become the lingua franca in much of the Middle East.What Language Did Jesus Speak
In the first century AD, it would have been the language most commonly used by the ordinary Jewish people, as opposed to the religious elite, and the most likely to have been used by Jesus and his disciples in their daily lives.
But Netanyahu was also technically correct. Hebrew, which belongs to the same linguistic family as Aramaic, was also commonly used in the time of Jesus. Similar to Latin today, Hebrew was the language of choice for religious scholars and the Holy Scriptures, including the Bible (although part of the Old Testament was written in Aramaic).
Jesus probably understood Hebrew, although his daily life was spent in Aramaic. Of the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark record Jesus using words and phrases in Aramaic, while in Luke 4:16 he was shown to read Hebrew from the Bible in a synagogue.
Alexander the Great brought Greek to Mesopotamia
In addition to Aramaic and Hebrew, Greek and Latin were also common in the time of Jesus. After the conquest of Alexander the Great in Mesopotamia and the rest of the Persian Empire in the fourth century BC, Greek supplanted other languages as an official language in much of the region. In the first century AD, Judea was part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which embraced Greek as lingua franca and reserved Latin for legal and military matters.
Like Jonathan Katz, professor of classics at the University of Oxford, Told BBC News, Jesus probably did not know more than a few words in Latin. He probably knew more Greek, but it was a common language among the people he spoke to regularly, and he was probably not too proficient. He certainly did not speak Arabic, another Semitic language that did not arrive in Palestine until after the first century AD.
So while Jesus’ most widely spoken language was Aramaic, he knew – if not fluent, or even mastered – three or four different languages. As with many multilingual people, the one he was talking about probably depended on the context of his words, as well as the audience he was talking to at the time.