While scholars generally agree that Jesus was a real historical figure, debate has long raged around the events and circumstances of his life as depicted in the Bible.
In particular, there’s been some confusion in the past about what language Jesus spoke, as a man living during the first century A.D. in the kingdom of Judea, located in what is now the southern part of Palestine.
The issue of Jesus’ preferred language memorably came up in 2014, during a public meeting in Jerusalem between Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Pope Francis, during the pontiff’s tour of the Holy Land. Speaking to the pope through an interpreter, Netanyahu declared: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.”
Francis broke in, correcting him. “Aramaic,” he said, referring to the ancient Semitic language, now mostly extinct, that originated among a people known as the Aramaeans around the late 11th century B.C. As reported in the Washington Post, a version of it is still spoken today by communities of Chaldean Christians in Iraq and Syria.
“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu replied quickly.
News of the linguistic disagreement made headlines, but it turns out both the prime minister and the Pope were likely right.
Jesus Was Likely Multilingual
Most religious scholars and historians agree with Pope Francis that the historical Jesus principally spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Through trade, invasions and conquest, the Aramaic language had spread far afield by the 7th century B.C. and would become the lingua franca in much of the Middle East.
In the first century A.D., it would have been the most commonly used language among ordinary Jewish people, as opposed to the religious elite, and the most likely to have been used among Jesus and his disciples in their daily lives.
But Netanyahu was technically correct as well. Hebrew, which is from the same linguistic family as Aramaic, was also in common use in Jesus’ day. Similar to Latin today, Hebrew was the chosen language for religious scholars and the holy scriptures, including the Bible (although some of the Old Testament was written in Aramaic).
Jesus likely understood Hebrew, though his everyday life would have been conducted in Aramaic. Of the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark records Jesus using Aramaic terms and phrases, while in Luke 4:16, he was shown reading Hebrew from the Bible at a synagogue.
Alexander the Great Brought Greek to Mesopotamia
In addition to Aramaic and Hebrew, Greek and Latin were also common in Jesus’ time. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Mesopotamia and the rest of the Persian Empire in the fourth century B.C., Greek supplanted other tongues as the official language in much of the region. In the first century A.D., Judea was part of the eastern Roman Empire, which embraced Greek as its lingua franca and reserved Latin for legal and military matters.
As Jonathan Katz, a Classics lecturer at Oxford University, told BBC News, Jesus probably didn’t know more than a few words in Latin. He probably knew more Greek, but it was not a common language among the people he spoke to regularly, and he was likely not too proficient. He definitely did not speak Arabic, another Semitic language that did not arrive in Palestine until after the first century A.D.
So while Jesus’ most common spoken language was Aramaic, he was familiar with—if not fluent, or even proficient in—three or four different tongues. As with many multilingual people, which one he spoke probably depended on the context of his words, as well as the audience he was speaking to at the time.