Q: #305. What language did Jesus speak?
A: There is some controversy over this topic, but in my studies, I have come to the conclusion that a case can be made that Jesus spoke in as many as three different languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. Most scholars seem to agree that in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, the primary language was Aramaic. Some archaeological evidence has been found to back this up. This being the case, Aramaic was likely Jesus’ primary language. There is also evidence in the Bible that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Several phrases that He used are Aramaic: “talitha cumi” (Mk 5:41), “ephphatha” (Mk 7:34), “eloi eloi lama sabachthani” (Mk 15:34), “Abba” (Mk 14:36), and Boanerges (Mk 3:17).
However, there is also quite a bit of evidence that He almost certainly could speak and read Hebrew as well. Of course, the Old Testament (and the Torah) were written in Hebrew. In order to read and understand these scriptures, one would have to know Hebrew (there were not translations into different languages like we have today). In Jewish school, Jesus would have been taught Old Testament scriptures extensively, particularly the Torah. For those who wished to study scripture and other Jewish documents in more depth, there were places called a “beit Midrash,” which was something like a library today, with an emphasis on all things Jewish. Jesus most likely would have taken advantage of this as well.
*** Note: Places such as this, and synagogues, and schools were probably the only places that would have had copies of scripture since each copy had to be written by by hand, and therefore, the number of copies available were limited.
As we can see in (Lk 2:41-50), by the age of 12, Jesus seemed to be very well versed in the scriptures, as He was in the Temple having deep discussions with the Jewish leaders of that time. These Jewish leaders would have spoken in Hebrew, which also points to Jesus being able to speak Hebrew. Later, there are a number of other places where Jesus almost certainly would have spoken Hebrew as well. He spoke in the synagogue and read from the scriptures (in Hebrew) in (Lk 4:16-21). He taught in many other synagogues (Mt 9:35)(Lk 4:15). He had discussions with Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees (Mt 12:2-8,38-45)(Mt 15:1-12)(Mt 19:3-9), the Sadducees (Mt 22:23-33)(Mk 12:18-27), Jairus (Mk 5:22-24,35-36), and the High Priest (Jn 18:19-23). He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, who likely would have spoken in Hebrew (Jn 4:6-26), as well as other Samaritans (Jn 4:39-42). (Although this might not count since Jesus was back in Heaven, He also spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus in Hebrew: Acts 26:14.)
Finally, there is some evidence that He could speak at least some Greek as well. Greek was the language of the Roman Empire that ruled the land during the time Jesus lived. Growing up, He almost certainly would have interacted with Romans who lived in that area and spoke this language. A large Roman city named Sepphoris (modern day Tzippori) was only 3.7 miles NNW of Nazareth. In addition, Jesus had conversations with several Romans in the Bible. He spoke to the Roman centurion (Mt 8:5-13)(Lk 7:1-10) and with Pontus Pilate (Jn 18:33-38)(Mt 27:11-14). (It is possible that an interpreter was used or that the Romans could speak some Hebrew, although it seems unlikely the Romans would have “stooped to that level.”).
To speak several languages is not that uncommon for people in other parts of world (outside of the U.S.). I believe this was the case with Jesus too.