DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
Languages Spoken by Jesus

Many Christians today may not know what language Jesus spoke. Yet they often take for granted that they know pretty much word-for-word what Jesus "really" said when they read the gospels in their own language.

It may come as a surprise to them to realise that we don't know for sure what language Jesus in fact spoke. Many assumptions are made - but in the final analysis, there is no direct evidence. Thus every copy of every Bible today is a translation into a modern language of an ancient tongue which may in turn have been translated from whatever language Jesus spoke.

The oldest texts we have of the gospels are written in Greek. Perhaps that should settle the question. But it doesn't. They are in fact all copies of original documents which have long since been lost. We therefore can't assume that they are not translations into Greek from some other language.

However, it is possible to make an educated guess about what language Jesus spoke as he travelled around Galilee and Judea as a young man.

But why should it matter what language he spoke? There are a number of important reasons:

  1.  It is well known that there is always a loss of meaning when a language is translated. So if what he said was translated from whatever language he spoke into Greek and then into English or any other of the thousands of languages and dialects current today, it's certain that we are getting a somewhat distorted version of the original. This loss of meaning happens regardless of how expert a translator is.

  2. We know for certain that Palestine of Jesus day was multi-lingual. It may be, therefore, that his sayings were translated from his tongue into that of those listening to him. If so, the distortion of meaning would have been that much greater. As in some parts of the world today, there may even have been translations into more than one language or dialect. Some Jewish people, for example, spoke only Latin or only Greek or Nabatean (once used from Western Iraq to Damascus in Syria and southwards into the Sinai Desert).

  3. Depending on what language he spoke, Jesus may not have been able to reach certain types of people. In some countries and situations language can bar a person from certain groups, from education and from employment. If Jesus' message was confined to a minority language, it would have been more difficult for him to speak across social barriers.

  4. Some cultures still have two forms of the same language. A high form can exist parallel to a low form, or a formal version might be used alongside an informal one. There are even situations in which a language exists only in a written form having little or no direct reference to the spoken form. The "picture" scripts of China, Japan and some other Eastern countries are examples. In this case, the spoken language is not written down at all.

The main languages of Palestine in the first century were Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek.

Hebrew was underpinned in earlier times by a number of local dialects. Like all languages, its primitive forms developed over the centuries into various forms or types. In the 200 or so years before the first century it was superceded by Greek as the official language. Herod the Great's coinage carried Greek letters. Its written form varied with social context. Richer, better educated people wrote a higher form and others probably used a lower, less complicated written language. The latter was closer to spoken Hebrew.

Many scholars assume - with limited evidence, it has to be said - that Jesus spoke Aramaic. This was a variant of Hebrew dating back some 700 years, when a type of Aramaic was the international language of diplomacy used by the Assyrian Empire and later (in changed form) the Persian Empire. By the first century a standard written form of Aramaic had developed. Like Hebrew, it was underpinned by a variety of spoken dialects and was probably spoken in some form by most people of Palestine. In its spoken form it was the language of the marketplace.

Some think that an educated Hebrew in Jesus time would have spoken Aramaic, but have been educated in Hebrew [1]. But even someone who spoke Aramaic but could not read Hebrew could probably have understood the latter being read (as many Muslims today understand Arabic and Jews understand Hebrew even if their home language is not the latter).

The use of Greek in Palestine began with the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. It was used by the region's bureaucrats for local administration, so most people had to have some knowledge of it. By the time of Jesus, Greek had become the lingua franca of the entire Roman Empire. Because of its wide use, words from Greek tended to penetrate other languages. Educated people had to have in-depth knowledge of Greek which extended to Homer and the Attic poets. The Hebrew historian Josephus wrote good Greek, for example, though he was teased for his poor pronunciation. The gospels and Paul's letters were written in a common or street version of Greek called koine (a word closely related in meaning to "unclean").

Latin was the language of the Roman Empire but was probably used only by the army and officials in Palestine - hence, say some, the use of the language on Jesus' crucifix rather than Aramaic or Greek. Some suggest that Latin's position meant that it would have been useful for even ordinary people to know some words and phrases [2]. So, for example, the wine jars in Herod's palace at Masada turn out to have been labelled in Latin. Latinisms have been noted in various Greek and Hebrew texts.

Some may wonder if people could have got by in what seems to have been a Babel of tongues in Palestine. Certainly, a person with only a single language would have been at some disadvantage. And those in more rural areas would most likely have been in just that position. But in towns and cities many would have been proficient in two languages and able to communicate in one or two more [3]. Josephus as a young man probably knew Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek - and probably also Latin, for he lived in Rome on a state pension from the year 70 until he died.

What then of Jesus? What was his first language, and did he speak more than one? After all, he was born in Nazareth, then populated by only some 400 people and very much a rural town. He could have fallen into the uni-lingual category of so many rural people. If so, he would have been able to speak directly only to his own language group.

John Meier thinks that

... since as a teacher he obviously wished to be understood by his audience, which was largely made up of ordinary Palestinian Jews, Jesus would have spoken whatever was the language commonly used by ordinary Jews in their daily lives in Palestine. [3]

This would have been mainly Aramaic. But as the above indicates, we can't be absolutely sure what language or languages ordinary Jews did use. Very few were literate, so the languages used in texts and scrolls they left behind can't be a representative sample of the whole population. Pottery lettering, coinage, official inscriptions and gravestones would all have been brief and would presumably have been translated for the illiterate. All over the world to this day, people earn livings by reading and writing for others. And, Meier points out, some scholars distort the evidence by lumping together language samples from different centuries rather than focusing on a specific time.

Nevertheless, there is a very strong scholarly consensus that Jesus, like most other ordinary rural people, almost certainly spoke Aramaic at home and in his village. His would most likely have been a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, no doubt containing local words, phrases and accent. Meier thinks that Peter's denial in Matthew 26.73 indicates the existence of such a dialect when the onlookers say, "For sure you belong to them [followers of the Galilean Jesus] because your speech betrays you."

The sayings of Jesus which have been passed down to us through the gospels were probably originally in Aramaic and were then translated into Greek and other languages as Christians gradually spread throughout the Roman Empire. This argument is strengthened by the existence in the Greek text of the gospels of phrases in Aramaic. The phrase talitha coum ("young girl arise") in Mark 5.41 is a good example. Similarly, the Aramaic word abba for "daddy" in Mark 14.36 probably derives from an Aramaic original. So also do the words from the cross in Mark 15.34 (eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"). And when the Greek text is analysed in depth, the influence of many similar Aramaic words and phrases can be detected.

A majority concludes that Jesus also probably knew a good deal of Hebrew. He would have been taught the Hebrew scriptures as a boy, and would have heard it and used it during worship in village meeting places (which were, in effect, proto-typical synagogues).

Many think that Jesus probably also spoke some Greek. It would have been useful in getting around, although his primary audience would have spoken Aramaic. Galilee was more Hellenised than Judea to the south. The Decapolis or "Ten Cities" were mostly of Greek foundation (and included Gadara, Gerasa, Medeba and Philadelphia).

One of the best known and largest city of Greek foundation was Sepphoris. It lay only about seven kilometers the the north-east of Nazareth, not much more than an hour's walk away. It had shopping malls, planned streets, Greek temples and a theatre. Greek was its main language and because it lay on the main road leading to Tiberias and Capernaum it was a thriving trading post. It stretches the imagination to suppose that Jesus, an enterprising and quite well-travelled man, would never have visited the city and in the process have learned some Greek and absorbed some Greek culture.

Even Jerusalem was Hellenised to a considerable degree. But we don't know that Jesus ever said anything in Greek to be passed on as oral wisdom to new Jewish-Christians. Meier says that 

... without formal education in Greek, it is highly unlikely that Jesus ever attained "scribal literacy" - or even enough command  of and fluency in Greek to teach at length in it with his striking verbal artistry [in Aramaic].

So he could probably get through everyday situations like buying and selling or asking directions and the like. Similarly, Jesus could well have had a smattering of Latin.

In summary, it is probably too restrictive to describe Jesus merely as an illiterate peasant. He may have been illiterate - but then so was 99 percent of the population. Illiteracy was no bar to culture. The spoken word was used effectively in a way we in the more literate 21st century find hard to appreciate. People knew how to listen and remember. Their verbal skills were well honed.

More likely is that Jesus was a cultured man, well versed in the intricacies of the multi-lingual society in which he lived. Like any cultured person of his time he would have known much about the world, about its myths and stories, and about the varied peoples who flowed constantly through this bottleneck between the Roman north and the Coptic south.
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[1] M O Wise in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992
[2] S E Porter in Dictionary of New Testament Background, IVP, 2000
[3] Many South Africans, for example, speak three or four of the 11 official
      languages
[4] A Marginal Jew, Vol. I, Doubleday, 1991

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