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What Language Did Christ Speak?

A forum for discussion of Indo-European (which includes "Semitic") languages

What Language Did Christ Speak?

Postby Kentucky » Mon Nov 26, 2012 1:56 am

I was recently asked this question and have always assumed that Judea and the entire Mediterranean world was Hellenized and therefore Greek was the predominant language. However, trying to do some research on this subject, I found out that there is a catholic and Messianic movement which claims that Aramaic was the language that Christ spoke and that the original New Testament manuscripts were likewise written in Aramaic. This thesis seems to undermine everything pertaining to Greek sources for the New Testament as most people understand it today. Is this something new or has the Aramaic contention been around for some time?

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Re: What Language Did Christ Speak?

Postby Nayto » Mon Nov 26, 2012 4:55 am

A Christian Israelite friend of mine explained his view that Galilee was a very conservative Hebrew country and they as much as possible tried to speak Aramaic/Hebrew. He went as far as to say that Christ would not have understood Greek at all.

To be honest, I'm not sure what the truth is. It seems to make sense that they could speak Greek in Judea and Galilee considering that the entirety of the New Testament was written in Greek. This implies that each writer was able to read and write in Greek.

Mark, do you have any literature (online or otherwise) to suggest on this topic?
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Re: What Language Did Christ Speak?

Postby Kentucky » Mon Nov 26, 2012 12:45 pm

Nayto wrote:A Christian Israelite friend of mine explained his view that Galilee was a very conservative Hebrew country and they as much as possible tried to speak Aramaic/Hebrew. He went as far as to say that Christ would not have understood Greek at all.

To be honest, I'm not sure what the truth is. It seems to make sense that they could speak Greek in Judea and Galilee considering that the entirety of the New Testament was written in Greek. This implies that each writer was able to read and write in Greek.

Mark, do you have any literature (online or otherwise) to suggest on this topic?

I plead ignorance on the subject (and ancient languages in general), which is why I inquired of the group. The hyper-Aramaic primacy adherents seem to be coming from quarters that are antithetical to Christian Identity. While I do appreciate that Aramaic has its place in Scripture, it seems to be more of a cultural crossover of certain expressions (some of which are important), than the predominant language from which we owe our Bibles, the Word of God to His people. While I do have in my library George Lamsa's (who was raised in an Aramaic speaking community) book 'Idioms In The Bible Explained and A Key To The Original Bible,' it does not answer the question of what language Christ spoke. Hopefully, Bill will chime in and clarify the topic.

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Re: What Language Did Christ Speak?

Postby wmfinck » Mon Nov 26, 2012 7:13 pm

I have treated this topic often in podcasts, but I would be lost trying to remember which ones. This is a topic which people often get emotional about, especially if they are jews or if they have been reading jewish literature and have been fooled by it. The jews want nothing more than to convince us of a totally jewish identity and culture and language for Christ and the apostles, in order to next convince us that is was not really right of any of the apostles to take the gospel outside of the jewish sphere. There is of course the easy answer (from a smart-assed point of view): Christ is God incarnate and can speak any language He wants. The jews would hate that one, too.

More academically: Any honest look at the Scriptures themselves insists that Christ and the apostles often spoke and wrote in Greek, and that they were familiar with the Greek scriptures of the Septuagint which they frequently quoted from verbatim, and that all of the New Testament books were originally written in Greek, but it is also clear that in their daily discourse they had used both Greek and Hebrew.

While there are Aramaic words, influences and/or pericopes in many of the later books of Scripture (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah et alii), the corpora of those books were primarily Hebrew. This, however, has no real bearing on the world of the apostles. Nevertheless, the existence of the Aramaic Targums and the fact that such targums had been created both before and after the time of Christ proves that Aramaic and Hebrew must have remained distinct until that period. Aramaic clearly eclipsed Hebrew among the people some time after the sixth century BC, but that does not mean Hebrew had disappeared entirely.

The New Testament was written originally and entirely in Greek, but it cannot be ignored that Christ and several of the apostles were familiar also with Hebrew, and that at least some of the apostles were more comfortable with Hebrew than with Greek, since Hebrew was their native tongue. I am calling the language of the apostles Hebrew, because that is what the apostles called it. They never referred to their language as "Aramaic", but as "Hebrew". If the Hebrew of the apostles had come to resemble Aramaic, that is immaterial, they still called it Hebrew.

It can also be ascertained that there was a peculiar Levantine dialect of Koine Greek extant from as early as the second century BC, and that the New Testament books reflect that dialect in many ways. While it was called Koine (Common) Greek, meaning Greek which was common to the entire Hellenistic world, it nevertheless had its peculiarities from region to region. Some of those peculiarities are even evident when examining the differences between ancient New Testament manuscripts.

Here it how it is established that the New Testament books were originally all written in Greek:

There are many passages in the New Testament which give Greek renderings of Hebrew terms, that would never have been necessary if those books had been written in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and then later translated to Greek. Examples are Matthew 1:23, Mark 5:41, 15:22, John 5:2, 19:13 and 19:17.

There are many Hebraisms in the Greek of the New Testament. Hebraisms are the use of language elements generally peculiar to Hebrew which are used in Greek speaking or writing. These are found not only in Matthew and Mark, for instance, but also in the sayings of Christ as they are quoted by the native Greek speaker Luke! The existence of these in all of these texts helps to prove that a translation from Hebrew to Greek did not occur in order to produce Greek New Testament books.

Furthermore, the nature of the many variations of Greek words among all of the oldest manuscripts shows divergence among the manuscripts for various other reasons, but the consistency of the preponderance of words among those manuscripts precludes the possibility that the Greek manuscripts are mere translations of older Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts.

Additionally, the archaeology (in the original sense of the word: the study of ancient documents) of the manuscripts proves beyond doubt that all of the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek. The earliest Aramaic (aka Syriac) manuscripts which could be cited by the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (27th edition, the NA27) date from the fourth and fifth centuries and are clearly Aramaic translation made from Greek manuscripts, something which is also evident in history. (The estimations of Lamsa in this regard are biased and unfounded.)

Conclusion:

Christ and the apostles spoke Greek. That is clear from the manuscripts and their history, and also from their many interactions with Greeks or Romans who were very unlikely to have spoken Hebrew.

Christ and the apostles also spoke Hebrew. That is clear from the manuscripts in the many places where Hebrew words were used, as is stated explicitly by the apostles.

Greek in Judaea:

The inscriptions on coins issued by the Herodians and on signs in Jerusalem were predominantly Greek, and rarely any other language.

Josephus originally wrote his Wars in Aramaic, for the benefit of the "northern Barbarians" (Parthians and Scythians and Alans). Josephus needed to learn Greek more exactly in order to translate Wars into Greek, and to write his other works in Greek. (cf Prefaces to both books.) Josephus attests that the rulers in Judaea discouraged mastery of Greek among the people, however Josephus nevertheless knew Greek well enough to read and quote from Strabo and other Greek writers. (cf. Antiquities 14.4.3, 14.7.2, 20.11.2).

I hope all of this might help.
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Re: What Language Did Christ Speak?

Postby Kentucky » Tue Nov 27, 2012 1:33 am

Thanks Bill. That helped immensely. The discussion started with a mother whose daughter tried to tell her "that the NT was never written in Greek, but rather Aramaic because those were the texts that were originally found and later translated into Greek." I'll share your comments with her and I'm sure she'll be glad to hear them.

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