by Bil Aulenbach

Was Jesus Trilingual?

Jesus is one of the best-known names on earth, though we don’t know much about him other than he was Jewish, he was born in Galilee, he was an itinerant preacher who was crucified as a criminal, and his message changed the course of civilization. When trying to figure out who the real Jesus was, one often has to compare information from the Gospels and history and then draw conclusions.

 I had to do that to answer the question of whether Jesus was trilingual.

Let’s start with the fact that much of the New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek (versus Classical Greek), the common language used in the Eastern Roman Empire. Consequently, many folks think that Jesus’s native language was Greek.

The everyday language of the Jews in Jesus’s time was Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew that had been around since the tenth century BCE. Today, it’s an endangered language.

On our first trip to Israel in 1963, Annie and I visited a remote village in Israel where everyone still spoke a dialect of Aramaic. On another trip in 2017, we found out that village no longer exists, nor does that dialect.

The Jews of Jesus’s day also used Aramaic as a secret language understood only by themselves. Some probably used it to make derogatory or insulting comments about outsiders without getting caught.

When Annie and I lived in Strasbourg, France, in 1963–64, the locals had a patois that only they understood. So, the Strasbourgeois could trash-talk the Americans occupying Vietnam or the tourists without being understood.

I wonder if Jesus, as a Jewish Aramaic speaker, might have done that?

Jesus likely also spoke and even read some Hebrew. In synagogue, Jewish men often recited parts of the Pentateuch and said prayers in Hebrew. Before Jesus’s time, the Jewish Bible had been translated into Greek. This was called the Septuagint, referring to the seventy scholars who supposedly translated it, but handwritten scrolls were too expensive for villages like Nazareth, so Jesus probably learned scripture from a Hebrew version.

I also believe that Jesus could speak Greek because many people in Galilee spoke Greek. The area had pockets of Jewish settlers, but Matthew 4:15 calls the region “Galilee of the Gentiles,” implying a diversity of people and languages with Greek as the common tongue.

Matthew 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10 tell the story of a Roman centurion who wanted Jesus to heal his sick servant. I doubt the centurion spoke Aramaic, which may be why Luke’s account depicts messengers speaking on the centurion’s behalf.

The gentile woman whose daughter was possessed in Mark 7:24–30 probably had to speak with Jesus in Greek for him to understand the problem.

Jesus and Pontius Pilate supposedly conversed before Jesus was crucified. Pilate, as an official in the Roman government, spoke both Latin and Greek but didn’t know Aramaic, so his conversation with Jesus would have been in Greek.

The evidence indicates Jesus was trilingual and spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.

Why do I even care? The apostle Paul made Jesus into something he never was: either a god or the son of one. I feel part of my role as a Progressive Christian is to help eradicate Paul’s misguided theology and try to bring the church back to the human Jesus and my Christ.

Do you like the human Jesus?

Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski(CC BY-SA 2.0)

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