The Languages of Jesus
(and of others who are of interest to us)

Bob Goethe
September, 2023


1280 BC

The Hebrew that Moses wrote in used an early alphabet which is today called "paleo-Hebrew".  It looked like this:


701 BC

2 Kings 18 tells the story of how the Assyrian Empire, under the leadership of King Sennacherib, conquered and deported the people of Samaria and the Northern Kingdom.  They then came further south to attack Jerusalem, which was being led by King Hezekiah.

The language spoken by the Assyrians—which became the official language of government throughout their empire, starting in their capital city: Nineveh—was called "Aramaic". When the field commander of the Assyrian army spoke to the people manning the walls of Jerusalem, the Hebrew negotiators said to him:

“Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.”

So we can see from 2 Kings 18:26 that Hebrew and Aramaic were different languages.


612 BC

The Babylonians overthrew the Assyrians, and inherited the territory of the Assyrian Empire.  While they established their own government, they carried on with Assyrian as the official language of the empire.


587 BC

The Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon's Temple, and deported most of the people of Judah to Babylon—including Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

During the period of the Exile, there was a language shift among the Jews—from Hebrew to Aramaic.  We see how this could occur by looking at the history of immigration to Canada.

In a society where people get married and start having children in their late teens or early twenties, 70 or 80 years is all it takes for a complete language shift to take place after immigration.

And indeed, given that the return of the Jews from Exile was an extended process, and not an all-at-once thing, the Exile was long enough that the language of the Jews in their markets and even in their homes had become Aramaic.


539 BC

The Persians conquered Babylon, and inherited the Babylonian Empire.  But once again, while they created their own governmental structures, they retained Aramaic as the official language of government.


Ezra and Nehemiah

In the second half of the 5th century BC, Ezra and Nehemiah worked together to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and to re-establish the Temple and its worship.

While "the language of the Bible" (i.e. the books of Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets) continued to be Hebrew, the people Ezra trained shifted the alphabet used to write Hebrew away from the old paleo-Hebrew alphabet over to a modified version of the alphabet based on Aramaic.  Hence, the Hebrew alphabet started to look like this:

Here is the word "Hebrew" written in what we today call the "Hebrew alphabet", followed by the same word written in the alphabet that Moses and King David used.



490 BC

The situation in Palestine was now that Aramaic was spoken on the streets and in the homes, as well as being the language of government, while the language of the Bible was Hebrew. 

The rabbis had made it easier for people to read Hebrew by shifting to the Aramaic alphabet.

This is not unlike when Old English was shifted, in its written form from runes: the Latin alphabet we use today.  It was not that spoken English made a big jump at the time of the shift, but that that the way English was written down used a different alphabet.

So the Hebrew contained in the Books of Moses did not change, but the alphabet it was written in did change.

Interestingly enough, the Books of Moses continued to be written in the paleo-Hebrew alphabet in the region around Samaria. A page from the Samaritan Pentateuch looks quite different from the same passage in what we call biblical Hebrew.

As long as the Persian Empire lasted, Aramaic was the main language everywhere in the Empire.


480 BC

Xerxes, the husband of Queen Esther, tried unsuccessfully to extend the Persian Empire into Greece.  Although he was able to defeat the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, he was in turn defeated by a Greek coalition at the Battle of the Bay of Salamis, near Athens.

While there was a certain linguistic uniformity, based on Aramaic, in the region of the Fertile Crescent, from the Persian Gulf up through Syria and Turkey and down through Palestine to Egypt, Greece went along its merry way with a number of related Greek dialects.

Basically, all these areas spoke "Greek"—but people from one area would have recognized people from another by their accent, and by different spellings of similar words.  This is not unlike the situation today with Alberta and Newfoundland.  We are all Canadians, speaking English—but an Albertan can tell in a heartbeat if somebody has moved here from Newfoundland.


324 BC

In a series of lightning campaigns, Alexander the Great swept away the Persian Empire and replaced it with one of his empire that reached from Greece and Libya in the west through Palestine, Babylon, out through modern-day Iran and Pakistan.

Alexander (and his successors) felt that they were not only building an empire, but "bringing the light of Greek civilization" to the ancient world.  This included bringing the Greek language.

Alexander decided to standardize the Greek of his empire.  Rather than allowing all the various regional dialects of Greek to flourish, he standardized the Greek that was spoken in Athens.  While called "Attic Greek" before Alexander lived, after Alexander this came to be called "Koine Greek" or "Hellenistic Greek".  It was the Greek of the empire, and came to be spoken on the streets, in the markets, and in the homes of people from Egypt through Israel and on out to Persia and (modern day) Pakistan.

So it is that people we think of as Greek philosophers and scientists were actually Greek-speaking individuals living in Egypt, including Euclid**, Ptolemy**, and Eratosthenes**.


200 BC:  The Septuagint

The rabbis of Alexandria, Egypt, were concerned that the Jewish inhabitants of Egypt had lost the ability to read and understand Hebrew.  So they undertook the task of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek.  Allegedly there were 70 translators, so the version came to be named the Septuagint, from the Latin word for "seventy", abbreviated by the Roman numeral "LXX".


First Century Galilee

The evidence of the NT suggests that, as in Egypt, the Jews of Galilee had lost the ability to read and understand Hebrew.  It appears that the Greek LXX was the official Bible of the synagogue, while Aramaic was the language most often heard on the street.  Here is the evidence:


Daniel, of course, lived during the Babylonian Exile period, and portions of the book of Daniel are written in Aramaic, while the balance is in Hebrew.  We can see the beginnings of a transition here starting back around 500 or 550 BC.

By the time of Jesus, there is evidence that the language he spoke during his ministry was Aramaic.  There are several instances where the gospel writer will tell us Jesus' exact words, and he makes a point of indicating that these words were in Aramaic.

  • Talitha cum meaning “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41)
  • Ephphatha meaning “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34)
  • Abba meaning “Father” (Mark 14:36)
  • Raca meaning “fool” (Matthew 5:22)
  • Rabbouni meaning “teacher” (John 20:16)
  • Eli Eli lema sabachthani meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)


Luke 1:46-55 is Mary's song of praise, and it is filled with allusions to OT Scripture...all of which are clearly drawn from the LXX translation, rather than from the Hebrew.

From this, it seems pretty clear that the version of the Bible that Mary grew up hearing in the synagogue was the Greek LXX version, and not the Hebrew Bible that synagogues typically use today.

As an aside, whatever opportunities there might have been for girls to be educated in the synagogue, it is clear that Mary had had enough exposure to the LXX to memorize many portions of it.

We see further indication of the use of the LXX in Galilean synagogues from the account of Jesus' Nazareth sermon in Luke 4.  He was handed a scroll to read from and this is what he read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,

However, when we read this in a translation based on the Hebrew OT, we read:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;[a]
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

There is nothing in Hebrew about recovery of sight for the blind.  It is very clear that Jesus is reading from the LXX, where this phrase occurs, rather than from the Hebrew text, where it does not.

The question of why the LXX diverges from the Hebrew text we have available to us today is a fascinating one, and leads to an intriguing question about the exact wording as written by Isaiah, around 700 BC.

That is a bigger question which I will not, however, address in this essay.

We know that there was no translation-into-Aramaic of the OT available.  The only options were Hebrew and the LXX translation...and it appears that the synagogues were using Greek.

Nazareth was located at the crossroads of several major Roman trade routes. 

So likely a good number of people were involved in the hospitality industry—providing food and lodging to travelers and their camels.  Anybody involved with travelers would have needed to speak Greek.  It was the language of commerce from Libya to Pakistan.

In sermons today, we often have Galilee presented to us from a Jerusalem perspective.  But the truth is that from an international perspective, Galilee was the cosmopolitan region of Palestine, while Jerusalem was a cultural and economic backwater.

The evidence suggests that Jesus spoke both Aramaic and Greek.  This being the case, Jesus would have needed no additional translator when he spoke to the woman of Mark 7:26.

The woman was Greek-speaking, of the Syrophoenician race. She was asking him that he might cast out the demon from her daughter.


The Gospels: AD 35 to 95

Given that the Jews of both Palestine and Egypt appear to have been fluent in Greek, it is no surprise that the Holy Spirit inspired all four Gospel accounts to be written in Greek.  This was the language that everybody in their world spoke.

Indeed, we see that when the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome, even there, in the heart of the Roman Empire, the language of the letter was Greek and not Latin.

Greek was as universal in the first century world as English is in many parts of the world today.  It is the language you want to learn if you want a first rate education, or if you want to get ahead in business. 

It is the case in Germany today that if two Germans meet on the street, they are as likely to speak English to each other as they are to speak German.


The Fall of Jerusalem and the Resurrection of Hebrew

In 135 AD, the Jews had their second (and final) major attempt at rebelling against Rome.  The Roman response was to kill many of the Jews, exile the rest, and ban every Jew from Jerusalem forever.

It became clear to the rabbis that they could no longer build their nation around Jerusalem and the Temple.  The Temple was gone, and living in Jerusalem was no longer an option.

The solution, they decided, was to center the Jewish identity around Scripture...what we know as the Old Testament Scripture.  So they began a huge effort to preserve the Hebrew Bible, and to educate people to read and understand the Scripture in Hebrew.

An additional motive here was that the Christians had thoroughly "owned" the LXX translation into Greek, using quotes from the LXX to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The rabbis attempted to limit further evangelism among the Jews by commissioning a new Greek translation of the OT, a translation where the passages that pointed to Jesus were "fuzzed up a bit" so they didn't LOOK as obvious at pointing to Jesus. 

And then, the other thing was to try and focus in on Scripture in Hebrew, and then try to have rabbis control the interpretation of this Hebrew, also as a way to point people away from Jesus rather than toward him.

Not until the 20th century did Jews again turn to Jesus in any significant numbers.


150 AD

An empire existed out beyond the eastern border of Rome's influence:  the Armenian.

The language of the Osrhoene region, just east of Syria, was still basically Aramaic.  However, they developed a different alphabet.  Scholars today consider that anybody using this new alphabet was using a language called "Syriac".

Probably a "Syriac" speaker would have been able to understand spoken Palestinian Aramaic, but Syriac used a different alphabet than Aramaic.

The Gospels were, of course, all written originally in Greek.  But Christians started making translations of the Gospels (as well as the rest of the NT) into Syriac and Armenian by AD 150.


400 AD

During the early centuries of the Church, the LXX was the "official" version of the Old Testament.  Augustine considered that the LXX translators were as completely inspired by the Holy Spirit as were the original authors.  He thought of the Hebrew OT as "the Jewish OT" and the LXX as "the Christian OT".

Most of the OT translations into other languages (e.g. Latin, Armenian, Egyptian) were actually translated from the LXX, not from the Hebrew version.


420 AD

Jerome took it on himself to create a fresh translation of the whole Bible into Latin.  He had a poor grasp of Hebrew, but good grasp of marketing.  He suggested that his translation into Latin was superior because it used "the Hebrew originals".

His translation became dominant.  We know it today as the Vulgate.


1522 AD

When the Reformers created their modern language translations of the Bible, they were interested in going ad fontes—"back to the sources".  So rather than using the Latin of the Vulgate (which for them was closely identified with the Roman Catholics and the Dark Age of the Church), they returned to the Greek of the NT writers, as well as the Hebrew Bible used by Jewish synagogues.


2023 AD

Even to this day, Bible translators look primarily to the Hebrew of today's synagogues for doing an OT translation.

My expectation is that over the course of the next one or two centuries, people will start to look back to the LXX and to ponder the significance of its differences from the modern Hebrew text. 

Does the LXX point (potentially) to a version of the Hebrew that is closer to the original version than even today's synagogue version?  If Jesus tarries long enough, we may start to answer this question.