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Hebrew Usage in the First Century
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Could Jesus and the other religious leaders read the (then classical) Hebrew with understanding?

In recent years much has been discovered on the linguistic transitions in Judea and earlier Israel (the northern areas, called Samaria as well as Israel before the Assyrian destruction, and including the smaller first-century Samaria and Galilee).

I should qualify my views by stating that, though I am a serious student of this question, I am not a specialist in first-century Palestine and its language.  This is one of my avid interests, about which I continue to learn more.  I approach this question from the perspective of a linguist and cultural researcher.  I enjoy investigating the crevices between the related disciplines, where so much information tends to get lost or ignored.  I have investigated the cultural, ethnic and political miliue of the era.

I am likewise a lifelong student of biblical studies and theology.  Besides general studies since the 1960s, I have probed many sources on Old Testament and the Intertestamental Period over the last several years, so my views reflect a composite of sources.  For the audience I generally address on my site, I don't try to document every detail from sources.

Some scholars believe that a modern form of Hebrew was still being spoken around Jerusalem.

I notice, as you have, that some writers still claim that there were a few who still spoke Hebrew in Jesus' time.  There is some uncertainty as to the currency of the Hebrew speech.

Use of Hebrew
It seems the strong weight of evidence, and the prevailing opinion among both biblical and "secular" scholars seems to be that Hebrew had fallen out of general use much earlier, as a language of common, general use.

It is likely some or all of the priestly class (Sadducees, perhaps some others, and their scribes) still spoke Hebrew in their own circles.  Perhaps some of the Pharisees in Jerusalem also spoke Hebrew, and the scribes of the Pharisees could read it.

It would have been even less likely in Galilee, primarily a Gentile area, and "Jews" of mixed race from the Hasmonean (Maccabees) period.  Greek may have even been the mother tongue of some of the Jews in this region.

Remember that most of the information we have on Jesus' ministry is from the Galilean area, which was a separate administrative, as well as cultural, area of the Roman Empire from Judea.  This is one reason Jesus was under such suspicion in Judea and Jerusalem.

Herod was the ruler of Galilee and of Perea, the area east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea from Judea.  This is where we are told Jesus went out to him to be baptized [John 1:28].

Encounters with Gentiles
It is probable that Jesus spoke Greek as well as Aramaic, assuming the Gospels are reporting literal events.  Consider the encounters in the Gospels where Jesus spoke directly with Greeks (non-Jews) in Greek territories:
Gedara/Gerasa (Decapolis ("Ten Cities"), east of the Jordan, northeast of Samaria) Mark 5:6ff, 18-20
Greek woman in Tyre Mark 7:24-29
Bethsaida (across Lake Galilee, out of Galilee, east of the Jordan)  Matthew 11:21, et al.

Luke also records an encounter with a Roman military officer about his sick son (Luke 7:ff).  Here, however, the account indicates Jesus talks only with the servants, not the officer directly; it is uncertain if these were Greek or Jewish servants.

It is more likely these are Greek or Roman, since Jewish individuals working inside the household would be unclean.  The servants could also have used Aramaic.  Greek is more likely in the Roman household setting, and therefore also possible in their conversations with Jesus.

Aramaic Interlingua
But it seems likely that the common language between these two groups would be Aramaic.  The Galileans would likely use Aramaic with these Judean groups.

From a linguistic or cultural point of view, there is not much reason to think that Hebrew was current other than perhaps in narrow priestly or academic circles.

The pattern appears to be that Aramaic was the common formal and informal language, also used in local commerce, Greek the language of administration and international commerce, and of the Jewish international meetings (like Passover or Pentecost), even in Jerusalem.

Likely in this and all other Gospel references, they were actually quoting from their memory, not following the modern-day procedure of laying out a scroll in front of them.  Though final forms of the documents as we now have them might have done that to make sure of the quotations.  Memorization of large portions of the Old Testament was common, and I have read that religious leaders memorized the whole Old Testament text.

Also keep in mind that scrolls were expensive, and rare by our standards.  You didn't just go out a buy a few copies.  And you could not easily carry them around with you for reference.  No, the writings were stored in human memory, a feat literate persons today cannot imagine.

Memorization would likely have been in Hebrew among the professional (priestly or scribal) classes.  It is not clear when the Old Testament was translated into Aramaic.  How much understanding would be another matter, which I would encourage you to probe further in studies from the specialists.

Language and Society
Note that in regard to the Hebrew language, we are distinguishing between three likely groups in that society:
(1) those who may still at this time have spoken Hebrew as a mother tongue,
(2) some who may have spoken it as a second language and
(3) the far greater number who could read it, but who had little or no oral fluency in the language.

At any rate, the society as a whole would have been an oral society, though many would be orally bilingual in Aramaic and Greek.

Jewish use of the text in Aramaic appears to have been primarily oral, and discussion and teaching of the meaning of the text seems to have been in Aramaic (in Palestine).  During the first century AD, it appears Aramaic notes or "lectionary" translations were being used in the Asian synagogues to explain the readings in Hebrew.

Greek Among Jews
In the Hellenistic diaspora, Greek would have been used.  I don't know which language(es) Gamaliel might have favoured.  I warrant he was fluent in both Greek and Aramaic.  In Jerusalem, Aramaic was perhaps favoured.

Where Paul lived in Anatolia, both languages were current, but I would say Greek was more prominent.  Shaye Cohen concludes more radically that diaspora Jews in the first century knew no Semitic language, only a form of Greek, even in Asia Minor.  He states that "there is no sign that the Jews of these places spoke or knew any Semitic language" (Cohen, From Maccabees to Mishnah, p. 39).

Jesus' quotations from the Old Testament seem to be mainly from the Septuagint (LXX).  When he read from the scrolls in his home area, can you tell from what he read if it was from Hebrew or from Greek?

The one reported synagogue event of Jesus actually reading from the Tanak (Hebrew Scriptures) and teaching the congregation is found in Luke 4:14-20.  I expect that when Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in Nazareth, he was reading from the Hebrew text, but there is some possibility he was reading from the Aramaic copy.

In synagogues of that day, it appears the common procedure would have been something like this:
1.  The text would be read in the Hebrew (in Judah and Eastern domains).
   a.  It is uncertain whether the dominant form in Galilee was Hebrew or Greek.  I would assume Hebrew to be safe.
   b.  In the Hellenistic synagogues, it seems the reading was commonly from the Greek.

In the second century, we find that Hebrew was still used for some written documents. We cannot tell to what degree this reflects any oral facility in the spoken Hebrew. Many may be able to read and interact with a text, but not speak the language well or even at all.

For example, consider the large number of Christian pastors and teacher or theologians who focus much of their time and work reading and analyzing the Greek biblical tests, yet never speak the language. They talk about it in their native tongue or another common language.

I myself lived in Cyprus for 3.5 years, and gained some modest facility in Modern Greek.  I have used the Greek New Testament text in my studies for decades, and regularly use a bilingual Koine-Modern Greek New Testamtent.  But after some years out of a Greek-speaking community, I cannot truly claim to be fluent in Modern Greek, though I could quickly make my way again perhaps if back in the country.

"Some letters and other documents from the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 132-35 CE are written in Aramaic, some in Hebrew, and some in Greek" [J A Emerton, "Aramaic," Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.45].

2.  After reading from the sacred text in Hebrew, the text would be restated in the local language, followed by some discussion or teaching.

In Nazareth I would expect that interpretation or reading in the local language to be definitely the local form of Aramaic.  We are told this Aamaic Targum, or interpretation, was the basis for the development of an Aamaic translation and ful text of the Hebrew scriptures. (See below)

Interpretative Principles
In the Gospels, I find it helpful to distinguish between four different aspects:
1.  the language that would have been used in the actual event or exchange,
2.  the language in which it might have been orally transmitted (most likely Aramaic in the case of Jesus' actual teachings),
3.  the language in which it might have been first written down to preserve and circulate (but still for oral reproduction, just as Paul's letters were read aloud in the churches)
    [See the excellent study on oral patterns in Paul's writings compared with other classical and first-century Greek literature: John D. Harvey, Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters]
4.  the language in which the final full Gospel story was finally composed or finalized.

Scholarly discussions of these aspects may be found in many online resources.  There are differences between the Gospel writers on how much like the Septuagint the Old Testament quotes or allusions seem to be, and how much like Hebrew or Aramaic.

Luke was writing for a Gentile audience, and likely for Hellenistic Jews.  Theophilus (God Lover) could have been a Jew or a Greek.

The language he used (Greek), and the version of the Old Testament he would quote from would largely be determined by his audience.  The Greek Old Testament was the Bible of the Greek-speaking Jews.

LXX Quote
Luke's quotation from Isaiah is from the wording of the LXX.  This means only that this Gospel writer used the Septuagint text when reporting that reading.

Some of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament writings are word for word, some are generally like the Greek, some are very vaguely similar.  Paraphrase was common in the New Testament.  Numerous scholarly studies have been published in recent years on that subject.

I don't know of any direct documentation available, or claimed to be possible, on the actual specific language situation of the scroll reading in Nazareth.

There is an extensive literature on the topic of the Old Testament (Tanak) used by the original Christians, the missionaries (apostles), New Testament writers, early apologists and theologians.  It seems the weight of current scholarship that the Old Testament of the Christians was the Septuagint.

There were Aramaic versions (translations) of the Old Testament used in Jewish synagogues for the interpretive reading (or paraphrase) after the reading of the Hebrew texts.  These are referred to as Targums (Hebrew targum/plural targumim).  The earliest of these appears to be during the 1st century AD.

Some of these were very free, as interpretations for local understanding.  It is not clear how these are related to the later Aramaic Old Testament texts versions that were used as a basis for the Peshitta edition.  The Peshitta, however, was a Christian version, not Jewish.*

Jesus and the Languages
I comment somewhat on the use of Hebrew in the first century in the my article The Language Jesus Used

We have only indirect evidence for the language usage of Jesus.  Jesus likely did speak and teach in Aramaic.  His primary audiences were the common people, though he was conversant with the leaders as well.  Even his exchanges with the elite, in the settings described in the Gospels, would have been in Aramaic.

But I have come to think he was likely fluent in the Greek current in the area, because this had been a Greek-dominated region for over three centuries.  The form of Greek would not have been Attic or the formal eastern Greek, but the local form of eastern Greek ("koine") common in the bordering Seleucid Empire.

Summary of Jesus and the Synagogue Reading
In an email discussion of this topic of Jesus' reading from the prophets in the Nazareth synagogue with my friend Dr. Ted Bergman, I expressed my view of the situation and possibilities.  Dr. Bergman summarized my discussion of the factors in these terms:

As for the reading in Nazareth, here is a summary of what I hear you saying:
1.  The text in the scroll itself was probably Hebrew, less likely to have been Greek (the Septuagint) and even less likely, but possibly to have been an Aramaic copy.

2.  When reading the Torah, Jesus would most likely have been reading it in Hebrew.

3.  If it was in Hebrew, then Jesus could read Hebrew with understanding.

4.  There is no evidence one way or another of what Jesus would have been speaking as he read the Scripture.  It is possible that he could have been translating a Hebrew text into Aramaic.

5.  The gospel writers reporting on what Jesus read out loud is not hard evidence, since
        (a) the writer might have been going from his memory of the event,
        (b) it could have been from the writers' memory of the quoted passage, or
        (c) it might have been a paraphrase of either of the first two. It is unlikely that the writer looked up the passage in order to quote it.

6.  In any case, the subsequent teaching would likely have been in Aramaic.  Hebrew would not have been in common use in Galilee though Greek might well have been possible.

LXX – The Greek Jewish Scriptures
The Septuagint was originally translated over a considerable period of time in Alexandria, by the large Jewish community there whose primary language was Greek.

A Jewish community had been established in Egypt since a large group, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled before the onslaught of Nebuchadnezzar's second destructive invasion and evacuation of Jews from Jerusalem.  Under the Ptolemaic Greek dynasty, more Jews had gathered in Alexandria.  The community became more and more hellenized.

Since Hebrew was no longer viable, it became imperative to render the Hebrew scriptures into a language the Jews could use.  There is growing evidence in recent scholarship that, though the LXX was originally prepared for Alexandrian Greek-speaking Jews, it became common in the homeland also, and among the large Babylonian Jewish community.

This Babylonian community developed largely from the original Exile community.  Some have proposed that more Jews remained in Babylon and other cities of the Persian Empire than returned to rebuild Jerusalem and resettle Judea.  This community is known in the modern era for the Babylonian Talmud, finalized around 800 AD.

After the time of Alexander the Great, Greek had become the general language of the Seleucid Greek empire, including Judea and the northern areas of Palestine.

In the Roman Empire, Greek use expanded across the whole Roman world.  Thus more Jews in the first century BC-AD probably spoke Greek as a mother tongue than Aramaic.  Hebrew was long before relegated to a formal language and the in-group language of the diminishing elite of Judea.

The situation in Galilee (where Jesus lived and ministered primarily) is unclear, but indications are that Hebrew had not been commonly used there since the demise of Israel in the 700s BC.  Aramaic was already a common language there even before Israel fell to Assyria. Aramaic continued alongside Greek long into the Christian era.

What Was the Question?
Did I forget what you asked?  No, the question is multi-faceted.  The factors I have commented on help clarify the background context for a possible answer.  It was a complex time, a multi-cultural, multi-lingual setting of business, religion and political administration.

LXX and Hebrew
Scholars have fairly well established that the Septuagint text is in many ways older than the later medieval Masoretic text.  Sources from the early Christian era indicate that revisions were made to the Masoretic text from the 2nd century onwards.

It appears the purpose of the edits was to modify or even eliminate certain passages used by the Christians, in order to diminish the susceptibility to Messianic interpretation or defend against the Messianic claims of the Christians from the Old Testament scriptures.  This concern was one of the matters addressed in the Jamnia council of the Jews in AD 90, which closed the Jewish canon of the Old Testament.

A book I have read provides a clear portrayal of the role of the LXX in early Christian life.  Dr. Dale Heath provided a great summary of the use of the LXX, with some great historical and cultural information.  I previously had an Internet link to this book, but it is now not available.  Dr. Heath was Professor of Old Testament at Taylor University in Indiana.
Heath, Dale E. The Orthodox Septuagint. no location: Dale E. Heath, 1997. 156p.


*See the excellent work on this topic by Shaye J. D. Cohen, a specialist in the period between the Restoration of (return of exiles to) Jerusalem and Judea.  In his book From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987), Cohen deals with the Aramaic language situation in Chapter 6, "Canonization and Its Implications."
Find this book on Amazon

Related Articles on this site
Aramaic New Testament
The Language Jesus Used
Was Hebrew the Original Language?
What Was Koine Greek

Other Resources on this Topic
Hellenistic Influences on the Hasmoneans (Macabees)
John D. Harvey, Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters
Search for books on the Septuagint by Dr. Dale Heath
The Septuagint Online
Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987)

ADDENDUM:  Seleucid Empire
More Cultural Background Pertinent to the Language Situation in First-Century Palestine

This Empire from the time of Alexander the Great's death lay only a few miles away, just across the fragile border.  Philip's territories east of Galilee were a buffer.  At the time of Alexander the Great's death, the administration of the Empire was divided into sections governed by his generals.

The Eastern area, Mesopotamia and Persia went to Seleucos.  The boundaries among the sections of the empire varied as border skirmishes took place, sometimes becoming wars between what became the separate Greek Empires.  The various areas finally settled down into three separate, but still definitely Greek Empires, until ovcercome by the Romans.  One was Egypt, another Macedonia with its European domains and Asia Minor.  The third empire, the eastern domains, continued to be called Seleucid, after Seleucos.

Palestine and Syria had been part of the Egypt of the Greek Ptolemies until they lost it to the Seleucids in 198 BC (militarily) 195 BC (ceded by treaty).  The Seleucid Empire in turn lost it to the Maccabees (167-164 BC).

The Jewish homeland was a cauldron of cultural and linguistic diversity.  The following article gives a good picture of the linguistic, cultural and  social situation resulting from the political tug of war that perpetually engulfed Palestine and Syria during this Maccabean era.  This article portrays well the Greek influence in Judea in the Hasmonean period before the Romans took over in the first century BC.

By 150 BC, the Seleucids had lost the primary domains of the Persian Empire to the rising Parthians, who by 226 had in turn ceded power to the new Persian Sassanids.  Even then, the Mesopotamian area remained heavily Greek and Roman Syria was a strong centre of Greek culture and religion.

The re-Persianization of the empire in the 200s and 300s under the Sassanid Persians included military pressure westward against the Roman Empire.  Not only this, but indigenous Christians in their own territories, resisting the official revival of Zoroastrianism, were persecuted as "Romans."

Under these conditions, in the late 600s, the Christians and Jews of the region welcomed the invading Arab Muslims as liberators.  The Greek language and culture had been suppressed by the Persians, and Greek-speaking communities gradually fled west or were assimilated.  As the Arab Empire consolidated and became stable, Greek language and learning began to rise again in the east, and in Spain, through the Moors.

The Arabs in their turn likewise lost control of the territories of the former Persian Empire, as the Empire suffered invasion and depredation by Seljuk Turks, then Mongols and finally the Ottoman Turks.  The latter finally took over the remaining beleaguered Roman Empire (called Byzantine in the west), conquering the capital Constantinople in 1453, and making the Byzantine home territory (Anatolia) the homeland of the Turks.

In the next few decades, the Turks continued to push west, and came to rule much of Europe into the 20th century.  All these powers to some extent suppressed and persecuted the Christian minorities, most of whom spoke forms of Aramaic.

Related Articles
[TXT] Aramaic New Testament
[TXT] Christians Started with a Greek Old Testament
[TXT] Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
[TXT] Hebrew — The Original Language? (Of Course Not!)
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[TXT] Jesus and the Hebrew Language
[TXT] The Language Jesus Used
[TXT] Literacy Training in 1st Century Palestine
[TXT] Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
[TXT] Textual Themes and Language Variations in the late Prophets
[TXT] That Abominable Greek?
[TXT] What Was Koine Greek?

For More on this Topic
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE.  Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
Hellenistic Influences on the Hasmoneans (Macabees)
John D Harvey, Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters
Search for books on the Septuagint by Dr. Dale Heath
The Septuagint Online
Shaye J D Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987)


Topic first addressed in an email discussion during February and March 2006
Finalized as an article and posted 30 March 2006
Last updated 30 January 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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