Was Jesus Bilingual?

Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have entered into a debate regarding the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

Several languages were spoken in the places where Jesus is said to have lived – the basis for a momentary disagreement between the Pontiff and Netanyahu last month.

On the last day of his trip to the Middle East, Pope Francis met Netanyahu at a public event at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. The two discussed connections between Judaism and Christianity, and attitudes towards Christians in Israel today.

Netanyahu told Francis, “Jesus was here. In this land, he spoke Hebrew.”

“Aramaic,” the Pope interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” retorted Netanyahu.

It is widely accepted that Jesus existed, although the validity of his life events and their means of documentation are still subject to extensive debate. With the vast development of linguistic research, language historians can provide an insight into what language Jesus would have spoken two millennia ago.

Dr Sebastian Brock, emeritus reader in Aramaic at Oxford University believes both Netanyahu and the Pope are right, however Netanyahu needed to clarify his argument.

Now used as an umbrella term for numerous Semitic (Syro-Arabian) languages, Aramaic would have been Jesus’ “everyday” language – as believed by many historians and biblical scholars. Hebrew however, was the language of scholars and scriptures.

Brock adds “There’s no clear evidence that Jesus could write in any language. In John’s gospel he writes in the dust, but that is only one account. And we don’t know what language it was in. Jesus might even have been drawing rather than writing”.

Aramaic is an ancestor to both Modern Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and was widely spoken across the Middle East. Today, Modern Aramaic has a few native speaking communities in West Asia. These largely isolated linguistic groups encompass differing Christian, Jewish, and Mandaean ethnicities.