Hebrew Roots Feature
Which Language Did Jesus Speak – Aramaic or Hebrew?
by Brian Knowles
In some circles, it is still commonly believed that Jesus’ everyday language was Aramaic, the language the Jews had learned and brought back from Babylon during their sojourn there. For example, the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible tells us, "The dialect daily spoken by Jesus and the disciples was Galilean Aramaic, which, as is noted in Matt. 26:73, was recognizably different from the S [southern] dialect spoken in and around Jerusalem. It was in this same Galilean dialect that the Aramaic of the Palestinian Talmud and the older Midrashim was written" (article "Aramaic", Vol. 1, p. 186). The edition quoted above is copyrighted 1962.
In more recent times, an expanding circle of scholars has rejected this commonly believed notion as erroneous. They are now convinced that the language Jesus used to teach his talmidim – disciples – was Hebrew, not Aramaic. There is as well a growing conviction that Hebrew was also the language in which the original "Life of Jesus" was first conveyed. Christian scholars working in cooperation with Jewish scholars in Jerusalem have been among the first to develop the evidences for this relatively new theory. In this article, we consider their arguments in favor of Hebrew as Jesus’ teaching language, and as the language of an original "Gospel" account from which all others are ultimately derived.
What Dr. Lindsey Discovered
In 1939, the year Great Britain and Canada entered their war with Adolph Hitler; Robert Lindsey graduated from the University of Oklahoma. (Lindsey later earned a M.Th. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.) The young graduate had a burning desire to learn the Hebrew language in a land where it was commonly spoken. On February 4 of that year, Lindsey boarded an Italian ocean liner headed for the port of Haifa, in what was then called Palestine. Along with 50 others, Lindsey soon found himself on an Arab-driven bus bound for Jerusalem.
In 1939, Jerusalem had a population of about 100,000 -- most of them Jews. The majority spoke Hebrew. Lindsey was excited to find himself in such a setting. His Baptist background had given him a love for the Holy Land out of which was born a desire to see and experience it for himself.
Lindsey found lodging with a Jewish family named Weinstock. Mr. Weinstock made a meager living teaching foreigners Hebrew, and working as a maintenance man in one of the churches in West Jerusalem. The Weinstocks became like a second set of parents to the 21-year old Lindsey. By 1945, the year the War ended, Lindsey had speaking knowledge of Hebrew. He was also married and had two children, Lenore and David.
That year the Lindseys took up residence in Baptist House on Narkis Street in the Old City. He ministered at the Baptist Chapel there. Eventually, the Lindseys had six children, all of whom grew up speaking Hebrew. (Lindsey pastored the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem for most of the years between 1945 and 1987. My wife and I attended a Sabbath service there in 1985).
As the years passed, Lindsey found himself editing Hebrew editions of various English books, including C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. For the church, he began translating English hymns into Hebrew. At some point, he began his most ambitious translation project to date – the New Testament. Lindsey picked the shortest Gospel, Mark, to commence his project. Mark was commonly believed to be one of the sources for Matthew and Luke.
As Dr. Lindsey moved deeper into his translation, comparing the text of Mark with those of Matthew and Luke, he began to realize that something "spooky" was going on. The Greek syntax of the text he was using was not very good Greek. But, syntactically speaking, it was excellent Hebrew! This was a mystery that had to be solved.
Learning from Matthew
If you examine the first verses of Matthew, you will find there a list of "begats." This old genealogy ends with "There are fourteen sets of fathers and sons from Abraham to David, and fourteen from David to the time when the people were carried away to Babylon and fourteen from then to the birth of the Messiah" (Lindsey’s translation of Matthew 1:17).
This, as Lindsey points out, is a very Hebraic way of starting a book. As "Matthew" develops his story, it continues to follow a typically Hebraic pattern, even though the only copies of his text we have are in Greek.
Lindsey tried translating a few sentences back into Hebrew. It worked perfectly. Word for word, the sentence structure was just like Hebrew.
On to Mark
When Lindsey started translating the Greek text of Mark into Hebrew, he found that it was "full of Greek sentences and paragraphs that sound when translated word by word like Hebrew sentences and paragraphs" (Jesus Rabbi & Lord, by Robert L. Lindsey, p. 17).
By 1960, Lindsey had begun to draw some conclusions. "The Gospel of Mark shows evidence of having descended from a Greek story of Jesus which in turn had been translated from a Hebrew original. Nevertheless the writer has inserted Greek phrases which do not go back to Hebrew. Actually," explains Lindsey, "it is easier to translate the text of Luke back to Hebrew than that of Mark. When Matthew is giving Markan parallels he usually has the same non-Hebraic phrases but when his material does not parallel Mark his texts usually translate from Greek to Hebrew very easily" (Lindsey, p. 18).
The texts of the three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – present some serious challenges to translators. Substantial portions of the text follow a typically Hebrew word order – yet the language is Greek. This is strange. Wrote Lindsey, "As far as we know no native Greek ever wrote Greek with Hebrew word order, but the Jews about two hundred years before Jesus translated the entire Old Testament to Greek and they made the translation bear the same word order found in Hebrew" (ibid. p. 19, emphasis Lindsey’s).
Dr. Lindsey explains that such a literal translation would normally be considered a bad translation. But, "Happily for us when we want to get back of the Greek to what Jesus said in Hebrew we find that the ancient translators preserved the Hebrew word order" (ibid. p. 19). The net result of all this is that we have a Greek text that often only makes grammatical sense if we retranslate it to Hebrew!
A Hebrew Undertext
After spending many years working with the texts of the New Testament, especially those of the Synoptic Gospels, Robert Lindsey concluded that behind the Greek "originals" there had been a Hebrew undertext.
Over time, Dr. Lindsey developed many academic and scholarly contacts within Israel. He began working closely with Orthodox Jewish scholars from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Among the most prominent was Prof. David Flusser. Flusser was studying first century rabbis, and Jesus happened to be a prime example. Through his studies, Flusser has become one of the world’s leading academic experts on Jesus. In his book Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, Flusser addresses the common theory that Mark wrote first, in Greek. "The spoken languages among the Jews of that period were Hebrew, Aramaic, and to an extent, Greek. Until recently, it was believed by numerous scholars that the language spoken by Jesus’ disciples was Aramaic. It is possible that Jesus did, from time to time, make use of the Aramaic language. But during that period Hebrew was both the daily language and the language of study. The Gospel of Mark contains a few Aramaic words, and this is what misled scholars" (Flusser, p. 11).
Light from the Dead Sea Scrolls
One thing that has helped to enlighten scholars on how Hebrew was used in the 2nd Temple period has been the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Writes Flusser, "Today, after the discovery of the Hebrew Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of the Bar Kokhba Letters, and in the light of more profound studies of the language of the Jewish Sages, it is accepted that most people were fluent in Hebrew…The parables in the Rabbinic literature…were delivered in Hebrew in all periods. There is no ground for assuming that Jesus did not speak Hebrew; and when we are told (Acts 21:40) that Paul spoke Hebrew, we should take this piece of information at face value" (Flusser, p. 11).
Speaking of the accounts of Jesus’ teaching, Flusser explains, "There are sayings of Jesus which can be rendered both into Hebrew and Aramaic; but there are some which can only be rendered into Hebrew, and none of them can be rendered only into Aramaic. One can thus demonstrate the Hebrew origins of the Gospels by retranslating them into Hebrew" (Flusser. P. 11).
Lindsey Translates Mark
This is exactly what Dr. Lindsey did. As I write this article, I have before me Lindsey’s A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark. Those who wish to dig deeper into the theory behind Dr. Lindsey’s belief that there was a Hebrew original behind the Greek texts -- which ended up being translated into English -- might wish to check out his article published in the scholarly journal Novum Testamentum 6 in 1963 (pp. 239-263). The title of the piece was "A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence."
Jerusalem School Founded
Dr. Lindsey and others went on the found the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels (The Jerusalem School). The school’s academic traditions reach back as far as Hebrew University Professor M.H. Segal who in 1909 suggested that the Jewish people in the land of Israel at the time of Jesus used Hebrew as their primary spoken and written language. Segal was an authority on Mishnaic Hebrew. The discovery of the Bar Kochvah letters have since confirmed his conclusions.
Professor Shmuel Safrai, also of Hebrew University, a founding member of the Jerusalem School, concluded that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the primary spoken language of Jesus. He has since written several articles on the subject, some of which may be found in the periodical Jerusalem Perspective (www.JerusalemPerspective.com).
The Process of Synoptic Development
To summarize Lindsey’s theories about the way the Synoptic Gospels came into being consider the following series of steps in textual development:
- A written Hebrew original "Life of Jesus"
- A literal Greek translation of the above.
- A Greek anthological translation.
- The first Greek reconstruction.
Safrai Suggests Oral Original
Professor Safrai, after doing further research into Lindsey and Flusser’s theories, concluded that they were fundamentally sound, but that the original Hebrew "Life of Jesus" was probably not a written account, but an oral one. This would follow the pattern of the way the teachings of the great rabbis of that period were preserved – first as an oral tradition, later in a written form. The Mishnah (Oral Law of the Jews) is a classic case in point. It developed over centuries as oral tradition. It was not written down until around 200 CE. Yet it contains the sayings and rulings of generations of rabbis dating back to the pre-Tannaitic period (200 BCE – 10 CE). This Torah wisdom has been preserved with remarkable faithfulness as oral tradition.
Lindsey’s Work Carried On
Dr. Lindsey died a couple of years ago. His work continues on through the Jerusalem School. Among his most faithful students is David Biven who, with Dr. Roy Blizzard, has written a wonderful little book called Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, to which Lindsey wrote the Foreward.
Biven & Blizzard state, "Although it is true that our Gospels do have some Aramaic words, so do all of the Hebrew documents written around the time of Jesus – for instance, the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls" (Understanding, p. 9). It is very much like our English language – we borrow words from other languages all of the time – Greek, French, Latin and German for example. So the presence of a smattering of Aramaic words does not prove that Jesus spoke mainly in Aramaic, or that the original "Life of Jesus" was written or told in that language.
Biven and Blizzard show that not only is the Hebrew undertext revealed in the sentence structure but also "in many literalisms and idioms present, which are peculiar to the Hebrew language" (Understanding, p. 53). Because translators have not generally recognized the Hebrew thought, idioms, and sentence structure behind the Greek texts "The Gospels are rife with misunderstanding," explain Biven and Blizzard. "…had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place" (Understanding, p. 67).
Jesus spoke and taught in the Hebrew language. His disciples listened and understood Hebraically. The story of Jesus and his teachings was originally circulated (apparently orally) in the Hebrew tongue. Says Professor Flusser "The early Christian writings reflect ideas, beliefs, views and trends in Second Temple Judaism. They reflect the world of the Sages, including the Sages’ Biblical exegesis, their parables, and even their own uncertainties" (Jewish Sources, p. 9).
Continues Flusser, "One should view Jesus against his Jewish background, the world of the Sages, to recognize and appreciate his great influence on those around him. Only thus shall we be able to understand how Christianity was formed. Jesus was part and parcel of the world the Jewish Sages. He was no ignorant peasant, and his acquaintance with the Written and Oral Law was considerable…The truth of the matter…is that there is no difference between the views of Jesus and authentic Jewish tradition" (Flusser, pp. 19,20,25).
There is every indication that Jesus learned Torah at a very early age and that he was fluent in the language and literature of the Sages. He passed through the same educational passages as did other Jewish boys his age. He grew up in the synagogue environment. At the age of twelve, he was already dazzling the Sages with his knowledge of Torah. Writes Flusser, "Jesus grew up in a home which was probably steeped in learning, and he probably studied with men who close to the world of the Sages" (Flusser, p. 39).
Why the Misunderstanding?
For all that is written and said about Jesus in Christian circles, the misunderstanding of who and what he was is staggering. Dr. Brad Young explains at least some of the reasons for this: "Although Jesus was Jewish, his theology is sometimes treated as if he were Christian. But Jesus never attended a church. He never celebrated Christmas. He never wore new clothes on Easter Sunday…Jesus worshipped in the synagogue. He celebrated the Passover. He ate kosher food. He offered prayers in the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish religious heritage of Jesus impacted his life in every dimension of his daily experience.
"Jesus must be understood as a Jewish theologian. His theology is Jewish to the core…The attacks of the church against the synagogue have stripped Jesus of his religious heritage. As Christians we have been taught wrong prejudices about Jews and Judaism. Hatred for the Jewish people has erected a barrier separating Jesus from his theology…Jesus is Jewish both in his ethnic background and in his religious thought and practice" (Jesus the Jewish Theologian, p. xxxiv).
The figure of Jesus has been Hellenized, Westernized and even politicized in mainstream Christianity. Instead of viewing him in his authentic Jewish setting, the church has turned him into a very unJewish person. Replacement theology has robbed Christianity in general of an understanding of its Jewish origins and roots. Jesus’ religion was not Christianity as we know it today, it was Judaism. All of his rabbinic students (talmidim) grew up in the synagogues of Galilee.
In recent years, scholars in both Judaism and Christianity have been recognizing the importance of understanding the Jewishness of Jesus. Writes Prof. Marvin Wilson, "Recently…an almost uniform voice of both Christian and Jewish scholars strongly supports the Jewish background to the life and teachings of Jesus. Representative of this group is Rabbi Harvey Falk. He affirms that ‘Jesus of Nazareth…never wished to see his fellow Jews change one iota of their traditional faith. He himself remained an Orthodox Jew to his last moment" (Our Father Abraham, p. 116).
Many prominent scholars held out for the Aramaic theory, even after the evidence for Hebrew was piling high. Included in the holdouts were Gustaf Dalman, J.H. Moulton, W.F. Howard, Emil Schurer, Morton Ensilin, Matthew Black, Joachim Jeremias, Geza Vermes and others. Nigel Turner goes a step further, claiming that Jesus spoke a vitiated Greek not unlike that of the Septuagint. Unfortunately, many of these scholars formed their opinions before the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries were fully known and analyzed.
Dr. Lindsey, and the Jerusalem School, swam up stream when they advanced the idea that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the language in which Jesus taught his disciples. They again went against the tide when they proposed that Mark was not the first Gospel, but that Luke, then Mark, and finally Matthew were composed in order – and that they used earlier documents as sources. Today, more and more scholars are jumping on the Hebrew bandwagon as evidence for that view mounts. Earlier we mentioned M.H. Segal as one of the first in this century to do so. Jehoshua Grintz was another who held out for Hebrew over Aramaic.
Dr. Brad Young, arguably the preeminent authority on Jesus’ parables, writes, "Since the linguistic medium of the rabbinic parables was Hebrew, it is only reasonable and at least a high probability that Jesus also employed Hebrew in telling his story illustrations and that they would have been recorded and preserved in the Hebrew language" (The Parables, by Brad Young).
Joseph Frankovic writes, "From the available evidence, it is almost certain that during the first century AD Hebrew as well as Aramaic, and to a lesser degree Greek were the spoken languages of the Jews in Israel.
"The question of the language in which Jesus primarily communicated to his people also involves the question of which language a biography of Jesus would have been originally recorded. Archaeological data and linguistic research are tipping the scales in favor of Hebrew. A recently published tenth-century Arabic document, which is partially based on an earlier fifth century Aramaic document, identifies the language of ‘the prophets,’ ‘Christ,’ and ‘the true Gospel’ as Hebrew. Furthermore, it excoriates the non-Jewish Christians for discarding Hebrew in favor of foreign languages not spoken by the Savior" ("An Introduction to the Research of Robert Lindsey – Part II: Synoptic Theory and Trends in NT Scholarship" by Joseph Frankovic, Yavo Digest, Vol. VII, No. 4, p. 12).
A Final Witness
In addition to the witnesses of the New Testament itself (Hebrew syntax in Greek text, Hebrew idiom, literalisms), archaeology, and linguistic scholarship, we also have that of the Church Fathers. Of them, Jean Carmignac says, "Eight early writers assert that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew: altogether there are over thirty formal assertions that this was so in the works of Papias, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius and Jerome" (Jean Carmignac, "Studies in the Hebrew Background of the Synoptic Gospels," Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute 7 (1968-69), p. 88.
The most important of these testimonies is that of Papias, a second century Church father: "Matthew recorded in the Hebrew language the words [of Jesus], and everyone interpreted them as he is able" (Grintz, p. 43, quoting Eusebius).
Dr. Brad Young sums up the importance of considering the Jewish background of Jesus’ life and teachings: "…without consideration of the Jewish parallels, the Gospels will forever be filtered through Western culture, and Jesus will be completely missed or greatly misunderstood…The world…including church leaders and outstanding scholars, often has missed Jesus. The original Jewish environment of his life promises to reveal a new vision of Jesus and his message" (Jesus the Jewish Theologian, p. xxxvi).
For Further Reading
Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad H. Young, Hendrickson, Peabody, MA 1995
Jesus Rabbi & Lord by Robert L. Lindsey, Cornerstone, Oak Creek, WI, 1990
Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Biven and Roy Blizzard, Destiny Image, Shippensburg, PA, 1995
Jewish Sources in Early Christianity by David Flusser, Adama Books, NY, 1987
Our Father Abraham by Marvin R. Wilson, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1989
The Parables by Brad H. Young, Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998