Everything You Need to Know About Jesus’ Speaking and Communication

The first question we will attempt to answer is, ‘How did Jesus speak?’ ‘what language did he use while preaching the multitudes?’, ‘how did the disciples receive his parables, and what effects did his words have on his listeners?’ 

Jesus taught in the Roman provinces of Galilee and Judea, and his words had substantial influence; thus, Jesus spoke in the language (or dialect) understood by the people of those regions. But now the question is, what language did the people of Galilee and Judea speak? The simple answer to that, as John P. Meier pointed out is we do not know for sure. We do not have an audio recording from first-century Palestine. All we have are compositions and inscriptions which date back to that era in Palestine. The ambiguity of this evidence, however, caused a sharp division amongst researchers about the language Jesus spoke. Some asserted that he spoke Greek, others believed it to be Aramaic, and others argued he spoke Hebrew. One of the most meticulous researchers in regards to this matter was John A. Emerton who attempted to find common grounds and said that “Aramaic was the common language among the people of Galilee; thus, Jesus spoke Aramaic there (i.e. amongst the people of Galilee). However, He spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic in Judea at different times, which were both the common languages of those regions.

The ambiguity regarding what language Jesus spoke can be due to many factors, such as the scarcity of two primary sources, namely, the literary works and archaeological inscriptions of the time. The most notable of these inscriptions are the funerary inscriptions found on the tombs of the dead, which show us the language of the dead or the language of their families. However, some factors impacted these funerary  inscriptions. For example, some families were inclined to write on tombstones in the language that dominated at their time. The scholar, Jan Nicolaas Sevenster, points out that many containers that contained Jewish bones (or their relics) had inscriptions in Greek, which was the language of the family. (It was very common for the Jews to put the bones of the dead who were poor in a coffin made of wood or in stone if they were rich). However, some scholars mention that the Aramaic language declined in light of the Hellenistic dominance of the Seleucids in Syria during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. (The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic/Greek state that ruled central Anatolia, Persia, Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and what is now Kuwait, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan and Turkmenistan). It is important to note that the evidence, gathered from the inscriptions dating back to the 2nd century BC up to the 2nd century AD, does not necessarily tell us what language the Jewish people spoke at the beginning of the first century AD.

The real decline in Jewish identity began under the authority of the Maccabees (They are a Jewish military group that revolted against the rulers of Syria (the Seleucids???) and were capable of establishing the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled Judea and surrounding regions between c. 164 to c. 63 BCE. They were famous for their strong zeal for the Jewish religion and they opposed the spread of the Hellenistic culture and the Greek language in the Jewish community) and the Hasmoneans (OUTLINE RELATION WITH MACCABEES They were the ruling dynasty of the kingdom of Judea in the second and first century BCE and they were mentioned in 1 Maccabees, Chapter 2 and 14). The second Hasmonean king in Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, and who acted as high priest as well, issued the first coin during his reign which contained both Hebrew and Greek (He ruled from 103 to 76 BCE and the son of John Hyrcanus. He inherited the kingdom from his brother Aristobulus I and married his brother’s widow, Queen Salome Alexander. He was recognized as a blood-thirsty and cruel tyrant because he was behind the civil war that erupted for the sake of expanding the kingdom). At the end of the 1st century BC, King Herod the Great continued to Hellenize the Jewish community (or make the Jewish community Greek). However, there was an attempt to revive the language of the ancestors during the time of the Maccabees, during which the spread of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages was emphasized in Palestine, as evidenced by the texts of Qumran (which were discussed briefly in our study of the Didache).

However, one can ask: how widespread was Greek in first-century Palestine? The use of Greek differed from region to region and from one social class to another. However, these differences were not significant since even the well-known Jewish historian, Josephus, did not have a good grasp of the Greek language despite using it when he wrote about the history of the Jews. Nevertheless, Meier points out that Josephus wrote his book the “Antiquities of the Jews” in his native Aramaic, and others helped him translate it into Greek.

There is an incident in the “Antiquities of the Jews” that informs us about the dominance of both Hebrew and Aramaic in first-century Palestine. When Emperor Titus besieged Jerusalem, Josephus was sent to convince the Jews to surrender the city, and he spoke to them with the language of the ancestors (Emperor Titus Falvius Caesar, 39 – 81 CE; the tenth roman emperor who launched a war against the Jews). The language of the ancestors (in this case) was Aramaic. In order for everyone to understand the emperor’s message, he (Josephus) spoke to them in the common language of the people, which was the Aramaic language: the language of the educated and uneducated.

The fact that the common language of the Jewish people was Aramaic, does not refute the fact that Jesus probably knew Greek. In fact, the Jewish community, itself, used Greek on several occasions. Jesus was likely able to communicate in Greek, as evidenced in his dialogue with Pontius Pilate during his trial, or in the healing of the servant of the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10), or the Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), who is referred to by the word Ἑλληνίς (a Greek woman or a Gentile), which indicates that she spoke Greek. However, Jesus’s knowledge of Greek was probably somewhat superficial to some degree since it is unlikely that he was educated in Greek. Nor can we say that Jesus’ sayings were in originally in Greek. This opinion is simply illogical.

Now we come to the Hebrew language, the scriptural and ancestral language of the holy people of Israel, and which suffered a significant decline following the Babylonian exile and the return of the Jews to Palestine. While the Hebrew language declined, Aramaic, which was the language of the ancient Near East began to be spread increasingly. David Flusser, however, has a special view on this matter. He says: “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 was what misled scholars. Today, after the discovery of the Hebrew Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), of the Dead Sea scrolls, and of the BarKokhba Letters, and in the light of more profound studies of the language of the Jewish Sages, it is accepted that most of the people were fluent in Hebrew. The Pentateuch was translated into Aramaic for the benefit of the lower strata of the population. The parables in the Rabbinic literature, on the other hand, were delivered in Hebrew in all periods. There is thus 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.” (David Flusser, Jewish sources in early christianity, Adama Books, New York (1987), p.11)

(Also known as the alphabet of Ben Sirach, which is an anonymous medieval text inspired by the Book of Wisdom of Ibn Sirach. It is dated to be between 700-1000 AD, and is a compilation of two lists of wisdom and parables, 22 of which are in Aramaic and 22 in Hebrew, which are arranged alphabetically.)


BarKokhba Letters – (It is fifteen letters, most of them written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and two of them are in Greek. Directed by the leader (BarKokhba) to his subordinates, Yehonathan and Masabala, who sat at En-Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea.)

While Aramaic was the prevalent language amongst the ordinary people of the first-century palestine, it was also the language of the Targum of the Jewish people (the analogous “targama” in Arabic which means ‘translation’ – these were spoken translations of the Jewish scriptures (also called the Tanakh) that a professional interpreter would give in the common language of the listeners, such as Aramaic). In support of the prevalence of Aramaic, many bone inscriptions from the middle of the first century are written in Aramaic. The popularity of Aramaic in first-century Palestine is evidenced in the Gospels. Many Aramaic scholars mention that the words of Jesus recorded in Greek in the Gospels have a more poetic nature, and their meaning is made much clearer if rendered in the Aramaic language. One of the most common examples for this is the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12, and specifically the verse that says, “Forgive us our debts (sins or guilts), as we also forgive our debtors.” The word ‘debt’ here, does not only imply the sin or iniquity as in Greek or Hebrew translations. The word in Aramaic [ḥôbāʾ] provides a richer and deeper metaphorical meaning in this context.

More examples that prove the dominance of the Aramaic language in first-century Palestine include the transliterations of certain Aramaic expressions, such as “Talitha koumi (or Koum in Greek)!” in Mark 5:41, and “Abba, Father” in Mark 14:36. The example that supports this proposition the most is that of Peter in the book of Acts, where it says: This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood(Acts 1:19). The word ‘Hakeldama’ is derived from the Aramaic word bēqēl děmā, to which Luke, the author of the book of Acts, refers to by saying that “the field was called in their language”. This example suggests that the language which dominated over the Christians in the first-century Jerusalem was Aramaic given that the book of Acts was written in the first century.

In conclusion, the nature of the question of what language(s) Jesus spoke is complicated in light of the diverse linguistic landscape of the first-century Palestine which had four different languages – Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. There is no reason to believe that Jesus spoke Latin, the language of the Roman authorities and officials at that time and the wealthy Jews who dealt with them, especially the families of the chief priests; rather, Jesus most likely spoke Greek for communication and public dealings with the Gentiles and some Jews dispersed beyond the borders of Israel, also known as the Diaspora Jews. As for Hebrew, Jesus acquired the knowledge of the Hebrew language through instruction in the synagogue of Nazareth or a rabbinical school near his home. Hebrew was the language he used in his debates with the scribes and Pharisees. Whereas, Aramaic was the best means of communication among Jesus’ fellow Jews, which was clearly observed in the Gospels.

John P. Meier poses a critical question (and that is): How did Jesus talk with the Jews in Jerusalem during the final week of his life? We know that the first-century Jerusalem was strongly influenced by the Hellenic culture, and during that time of the year, i.e. the  time of the Passover, Jerusalem was crowded with Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora. How did Jesus preach to them? How did he interact with this multilingual and multicultural community? Meier provides an intriguing answer. He asserts that Jesus taught the multitudes in Aramaic and his teachings were translated by one of his disciples who knew Greek – Andrew and Philip (What supports this opinion is what was mentioned in the Gospel of John when some of the Greeks asked Philip to see Jesus: 20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. (John 12: 20 -22). Notice the presence of Philip and Andrew in this scene, which supports Meier’s view). Thus, Jesus was a trilingual Jew but not a trilingual teacher. In other words, he was able to speak three languages in casual conversations with his fellow Jews; however, he was unable to use these three languages to effectively communicate his teachings.