(Tomb-stone. 1 cent. C.E. Private collection)
by Patrick Angiolillo
Language is communication. Without language, whether written or spoken or in whatever medium it may be, one is unable to communicate with others in a meaningful, relational way. When we ask how God communicates with humanity, language necessarily plays a role in this inquiry. This is perhaps why there may be such high stakes surrounding the answer to the question What language did Jesus speak?
In the Summer of 2014, during his visit to Israel, Pope Francis found himself in a minor scholastic repartee with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The exchange was short, but not without implication: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” Netanyahu said, in connection to the strong relationship between Judaism and Christianity. “Aramaic,” the pope corrected. “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” said the prime minister, regaining his ground.
Aside from the historical question of the primary language of the person Jesus from Nazareth, we may have here an example of miscommunication in the ongoing Jewish-Christian interreligious discourse.
First the historical matter. Did Jesus speak Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek?
It is likely that Jesus’ primary language was in fact Aramaic, as the pope suggested, and as Netanyahu admitted. Aramaic, a Northwest Semitic language, was popularized as the lingua franca of the ancient Near East in the Neo-Assyrian period (745-609 BCE) and was used widely as the language of diplomacy during the Persian period (539-332 BCE). The Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and Roman periods in Palestine all display a use of Greek and Hebrew as well. Hasmonean coinage, for instance, bears examples of each of these languages being used in official minting. Thus when we arrive at the figure of Jesus, a Roman period Palestinian Jew from the Galilee region of the province of Judea, and as we move into the works of the New Testament authors, it is not surprising to find that all three of these languages cooperate together.
Documentary and textual evidence seems to point to the use of Aramaic as a “default” language for communication in Jewish Palestine at this time. While Hebrew may have been favored for biblical, poetical, or liturgical texts (and may have even been used colloquially especially in Jerusalem), Aramaic appears to have been the “low” language, to frame things in sociolinguistic terms. These two registers of language existed simultaneously, in a condition known as diglossia, and Aramaic seems to have been the vernacular. Thus when Pope Francis corrected Prime Minister Netanyahu, he was, in fact, correct. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, but the prime minister’s caveat also holds water—Jesus knew, and maybe at times even spoke, Hebrew. I would not doubt if Greek were in his repertoire as well, but it is hard to say how much language knowledge a first-century Jewish Galilean mason possessed beyond the two already determined.1
The deeper issue, I think, resides in the simple fact that the pope corrected the prime minister, interrupting his point about familiarity and relationship. There was nothing technically wrong with Netanyahu’s saying Jesus spoke Hebrew. And indeed, this fact functioned well in supporting his greater point—Jews and Christians are not so different. Or in the very least, we are capable of speaking the same language (so to speak!).
The person Jesus was incontrovertibly a first-century Palestinian Jew. He is, for Christians the world over, also the son of God, the divine second person of the triune deity. But the historical figure links the Christian faith to the Jewish faith, and any attempt at deconstructing the common language, that is, the channels of communication, between these faiths, whether on scholarly principle or in jest, is a distraction from the effort of overcoming the weight of the historically polemical relationship between these two great faiths.
None of this is to say that Pope Francis insidiously sought to undermine the prime minister’s gesture of welcome and hospitality. Historical facts about Jesus matter to the pope, as they matter to many Christians, and so his input in the moment is understandable. But I think his interjection does, unintentionally, reinforce the barrier between the faiths.
An Insistence on speaking different languages is an insistence on non-communication.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s point is and ought to be the backbone of contemporary interfaith discourse. “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew”—and Jews are here, in this land, and speak Hebrew. The door is open, we are in the same space, and we can speak the same language. An openness to dialogue is the first step in creating dialogue. The ability to come to the table to talk must exist before any conversation can ensue. This openness and ability creates a space in which learning and growing between the faiths, and even within each faith respectively, can foster greater and deeper understanding.2
- For information on the use of Aramaic, as well as Hebrew and Greek, in the ancient Near East, especially in first century Palestine, I was indebted to the brief summary by see E. Cook, “Aramaic,” pages 360-62 in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (ed. J. Collins and D. Harlow; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010); see also, J. Barr, “Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in the Hellenistic Age,” in Cambridge History of Ancient Judaism, vol. 2, The Hellenistic Age (ed. W. D. Davies and L. Finkelstein; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 79-114.
- For further reading on the “rules” of interfaith dialogue, I send those interested in the same way Dr. Ruth Langer directed me, to L. Swidler, “The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20,1 (Winter, 1983): 1-4.