|Jesus spoke Aramaic|
A question arises time and again from prilgrims visiting the Holy Land: What was the language that Jesus spoke? They ask: What was the language of Palestine in the times of Jesus? What languages did Jesus speak? Were there any indications found in the Gospels?
Palestine, given that it was always a crossroads for entire peoples in their spontaneous, and often times forced, migrations, was by necessity a multi-lingual land. It was a place where they spoke several languages at the same time. That is, in the times of Jesus, there were no less than two local languages spoken and understood by the majority of the people: Hebrew and Aramaic. Two international languages were also used: Greek and Latin. These however were spoken by a small group of persons found in State Administration and Education.
The Hebrew language, the same language used in writing the Books of the Old Testament, came into common usage in the Liturgy of the Shabbat (Sabbath) of the Synagogue, even though there were few who understood it clearly.
Besides Hebrew, there was another language -- Aramaic -- which had already been used along side for some centuries. This language was the familiar language which the people spoke in most of the villages and towns of Palestine, particularly in the North (Nazareth, Capharnaum, etc.) Where Jesus was educated, grew up, and spent the major portion of His life. It was also understood and spoken outside the confines of this region.
Besides the local languages, there were two other international languages. These two languages were spoken in the towns where there were persons of learning, and administrators of the State, as numerous inscriptions of the times have testified and come down to us. While in the villages such as Nazareth and Capharnaum, the dominant language, if not the only one, was Aramaic.
One incident recorded in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4: 16-30) helps us understand tha the Hebrew language was familiar to Jesus. In this passage, it says that Jesus read the Scroll of the Law (from the Prophet Isaiah) in the Synagogue at Nazareth. Certainly this Reading was done in Hebrew. The few words that Jesus added by way of comment were most probably spoken in Aramaic. A little like our Church, before the liturgy was reformed, when the Readings were proclaimed in Latin but the Homily was given in the native language of the people.
This, therefore, was the atmosphere in which Jesus grew up. It was a multi-lingual environment in which Hebew and Aramaic had to at least have the advantage of usage in the ordinary conversations of daily life.
The Palestinian Substructure
Besides these logical deductions, derived from Gospel texts and common sense, there are other elements -- quite probable in our view -- that allow us to reconstruct the Mid-Eastern Cultural Foundation, and thus. . . some Aramaic words and phrases spoken by Jesus.
The New Testament, written in Greek, allows us a glimpse, here and there, among the transcribed and translated words, of genuine Palestinian root words. This is the case with a number of proper names, whether of persons or places, that easily go back to Aramaic origins. For example: Bariona, Barabba. Names of persons, clearly of Aramaic origin, composed of the word bar which means son, with the addition of the name of the father. Or, Capharnaum translated, although with some difficulty, from the form Kafar Nahum, the Village of Nahum, or also the name Aceldama, as found in the Book of Acts 1:19, which unites two words Haquel dema, that is Camp of Blood.
There are also names of women: Marta (Luke 10:38), and Tabita (Acts 9:36) which mean respectively: Madame (or Woman), and Gazelle. (These were well-known and frequently used names in the times of Jesus, taken from Aramaic.) The name of Peter -- Cefa -- corresponds to the Aramaic form of Kefa which means Rock. The name Golgata (Matt. 27:33), and Gabbata (John 19:13) recalling the accounts of the Passion, are derived from two words with the sense of (place of) the skull and the elevated place.
The Words certainly spoken by Jesus
Some words that the Evangelists put into the mouth of Jesus turn out to be very interesting. For example: Effeta or Effata ( the Command form of the word patah with the meaning of to to open) is faithfully written down by the Evangelists. Or, Talita Qum which means: Arise little child! Also Abba (Mark 14:36 and Gal. 4:6) which means Papa/Father, and is still used in present-day Israel. Recall the Aramaic phrase so well recorded by the Evangelists, and spoken by Jesus as He was dying on the Cross: Eloi Eloi lema sabactani. These Words, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, are interpreted for us as a Prayer of Jesus. They were in fact the beginning of Psalm 22, spoken by Jesus in Aramaic, and faithfully written down by the Evangelists in Greek. It is possible that the Evangelists wished to preserve and hand down through their writings some words certainly spoken by Jesus, words which the Early Christians (since they spoke Aramaic) faithfully remembered.
Scarcely had the words been written down when there were some that were justly counted among the words certainly spoken by Jesus. Linguistic analysis and comparisons of contemporary Aramaic dialects with that of Jesus confirm this.
Jesus spoke Aramaic in Galilee
In the light of this data, the hypothesis -- often aired in the last two centuries -- that Jesus spoke Greek or Latin is impossible to accept. Or better yet, anyone who would wish to hold such an hypothesis must prove it. Specialists of the Aramaic language have analyzed closely this topic, and had come to distinguish various Aramaic dialects in the contemporary Palestine of Jesus as testified to by inscriptions thus discovered. B Based on this data, they are able to distinguish seven dialects that were shared by seven different localities in this small region: 1. Aramaic of Judea. 2. Aramaic of Southern Judea. 3. Aramaic of Samaria. 4. Aramaic of Galilee. 5. Aramaic from beyond Jordan. 6. Aramaic from Damascus. Aramaic spoken in the Orontes River Basin of Syria.
It is a question about a relatively restricted region that would now embrace the actual area of the present State of Israel, and parts of the bordering countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Also if this distinction seems a bit artificial, nevertheless it becomes quite clear that there were local differences in the Aramaic language. These changes did not affect the mutual comprehension of the inhabitants of the different localities (realizing that the distance between these various localities was small and contact was frequent).
Jesus certainly spoke the Aramaic dialect of Galilee, but His words were Jerusalem-ized, so to speak, for the Early Church, and transmitted to us in the dialect of Jerusalem. It is well recorded that the difference between the Jerusalem and Galilee dialects was small and, all things considered, quite negligible.
A theme that impassions students has been the reconstruction of the Our Father. It is thought that Jesus had taught this prayer in his own language, and therefore in Aramaic. Nonetheless, in the Gospels, it is the Greek version that remained for Christians of Gentile origin as well as the Primitive Church of Jerusalem. Though the Church of Jerusalem, which spoke Aramaic, continued to recite it in the original language without feeling any necessity to put it down in writing.
These brief considerations show us that Jesus, Son of His times and His earth, did not disdain to immerse Himself in the language and culture in which He lived.
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Created / Updated Monday, December 20, 1999 at 11:19:23 by John Abela ofm
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