What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate?

THE TWO QUESTIONS above have been raised online in (1) a 2018 article for a Catholic website and (2) several Web posts in the past year or so.


That first one is easy: Aramaic.

As writer Philip Koslowski stated January 21 on the international Catholic aleteia.org, it was the common language spoken by Jews in the 1st Century Holy Land. There’s virtually no doubt Jesus would have taught in that tongue.

For one thing, the original Greek New Testament carried over numerous Aramaic words, especially in Mark and Matthew. Our Gospels in English are translations from Greek that report sayings Jesus would have uttered in Aramaic -- something the experts continually ponder.

Question #2 is more complex. On literacy, there’s no way to know for sure whether Jesus could read or write Aramaic.

Scholars like England’s Chris Keith and America’s Bart Ehrman think it’s most probable he could not read and write. On the popular level, Reza Aslan asserted this in his heterodox Jesus biography “Zealot,” which was so lauded by the “mainstream” media. (Yes, he’s the Muslim-turned-Christian-turned-Muslim-again that CNN then hired to host a religion series but sacked over his profane tweet assailing President Donald Trump.)

As an aside, note that Random House promoted Aslan’s book as “balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources” instead of “other historical sources.” Such sleight of hand excludes the Gospels -- our earliest and most extensive material -- from the historical materials regarding Jesus.

Whatever Jesus’ skill with written Aramaic, one Bible passage indicates he had some working knowledge of Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Scriptures and used by the religious elite.

In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus attended the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, stood up and read Isaiah 61:1-2, a messianic prophecy about the coming “year of the Lord.” He then made the dramatic announcement that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The illiteracy camp can point out that the parallel in Mark 6:2 quotes no Isaiah text and doesn’t say Jesus read Hebrew Scriptures, only that he taught.

Jewish tradition emphasized the education of children as the duty of parents, though royal families employed tutors. Ehrman emphasizes the widespread illiteracy in Jesus’ day. But Jewish historians say a century before Jesus’ time the reforming Sanhedrin leader Simeon ben Shetah founded a Jerusalem academy for boys (yes, no girls) that could be attended by youths from the provinces. Later, such public schooling was established in country towns so Nazareth could have been included. We don’t know, and that doesn’t prove Luke 4, but it becomes plausible.

On 10 occasions Jesus challenged scribes or Pharisees with “have you not read?” He could have been quoting memorized passages that were quoted back to his opponents, but evangelical exegete Ben Witherington finds key circumstantial evidence: “It would have been singularly inept, ineffective, and inappropriate for Jesus to upbraid them for not reading if he himself had never read these texts and they knew he was illiterate.”

Then there’s a third language. Some suppose Jesus might have had some ability to speak if not read Greek, which in that era was supplanting Aramaic as the international language of administration and business across the eastern Roman Empire. Jesus didn’t run in those elite circles, of course. But there’s been speculation about Greek since a University of Michigan team began excavating the extensive ruins of Sepphoris (Zippori in Hebrew), followed by archaeologists from the University of South Florida, Duke University, and Hebrew University.

Sepphoris was located at the intersection of two major roadways just four miles north of Nazareth, a reasonable walk away. After Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., Roman troops put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed the town. The next ruler, Herod Antipas, rebuilt Sepphoris as his grand capital city for the Galilee region complete with a 3,000-seat amphitheater. When Jesus was young, that building boom would have provided ample work for carpenters and if Joseph and Jesus were among them they’d have picked up some street-level Greek. Not proveable, but fun to think about.

More on language in the ancient Mideast. Ask yourself, What is humanity’s most important invention of all time?

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