Stephen A. Missick
I am the author of “Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic,” “Mary of Magdala” and “Treasures of the Language of Jesus” I have studied Aramaic extensively for a number of years. I have lived in Aramaic speaking villages in Syria and studied Aramaic from native Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians when I was a soldier in Iraq.
What is Aramaic? If you have read the New Testament or have seen Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” you have been exposed to the Aramaic language.
While the New Testament is written in Greek it contains many Aramaic words, phrases and figures of speech. Words like Golgotha and Maranatha and names such as Thomas, Martha and Magdala. Mel Gibson filmed the movie “The Passion of the Christ” in mostly Aramaic but with some Latin and Hebrew as well.
ARAMAIC IS NOT ARABIC OR ARMENIAN! Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, however, in is not derived from Hebrew-nor is Hebrew derived from Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic developed independently from a now extinct language scholars call “Proto-Semitic.”
Moishe Rosen, founder of “Jews for Jesus” describes Aramaic in the following manner in his book “Yeshua: The Jewish Way to Say Jesus”:
Aramaic: A language closely related to Hebrew, Aramaic was spoken in the ancient Near East from as early as the ninth century B.C.E. Portions of Daniel (2:4-7:28) and Ezra (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26) and Jeremiah 10:11) and two words of Genesis (31:47) are in Aramaic. By the time of Jesus, it was the daily language of Jews living in Judea. The paraphrase of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Targums are in Aramaic. Jesus Himself would have likely spoken in Aramaic. Dialects of the language survive to this day in the Middle East.
This has led to a rabbi in the Talmud praising the Aramaic language:
“Let not Aramaic be lightly esteemed by thee, seeing that
the Holy One (Blessed Be He) hath given it honor in the
Law, the Prophets and the Writings”
Palestinian: Tractate Sata 7:2
Recently, certain persons have been claiming that Jesus did not speak Aramaic but rather spoke Hebrew. I have even heard these people mock Mel Gibson “What does Mad Max know?” However, in this case Mel Gibson did historical research.
I am going to present the evidence that Jesus was an Aramaic speaker and explain why it is important. Two books that present the view that Jesus did not speak Aramaic, or did not speak Aramaic as his first language, are “Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebraic Perspective” by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr. and “Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic” by Douglas Hamp.
Douglas Hamp and his attack on the Aramaic language was promoted by Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, which is and has been a very influential church (and ironically has a ministry called “Maranatha Music.” Maranatha is an ancient Aramaic prayer.)
Before I begin I want to look at some of the statements that were put out by Calvary Chapel to promote the book.
First from Brian Brodersen, an associate pastor of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. He said, “I am convinced that the language of Jesus and the apostles was indeed Hebrew rather than Aramaic.” This statement was used to promote and endorse the book and was used for such purposes by Doug Hamp. So, we see that Mr. Hamp and Calvary Chapel are not saying that perhaps Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. What they are saying is that Jesus spoke Hebrew and not Aramaic.
The second statement is by the director of Calvary Chapel’s School of ministry. Carl Westerland says, “A mind-changing book. The serious Bible student, wanting to teach accurately, should weigh Doug Hamp’s evidence, rather than parroting tradition.”
Well, #1 I am not “parroting tradition” when I say that Jesus spoke Aramaic, I am agreeing with the witness of the New Testament and the best, most ancient, and most reliable historical sources.
#2 Hopefully, a serious Bible student won’t buy into the poorly researched and fraudulent information presented by Mr. Hamp. Who is well named, If you buy into this non-sense your ability to conduct Bible study will be Hampered.
#3 If you teach that Jesus spoke only Hebrew then you are teaching inaccurate information.
#4. The best Bible scholars are convinced that Jesus spoke Aramaic-why should we believe Mr. Hamp-because he lived in Israel? Does that make him an expert? I have lived in Israel too.
#5 It is Mr. Hamp and Calvary Chapel who are not teaching accurately and are for some strange reason attacking a Bible language. (One Messianic Jew I know said we don’t have the true text of Daniel-since a large part of Daniel is written in Aramaic!)
Lastly, let’s look at a quote from Chuck Smith, the founder and Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa.
“A persuasive book that presents compelling evidence, that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the primary language of Jesus and the disciples. In light of the inerrancy of Scriptures, this is an issue that every Bible student should consider.”
What Mr. Smith is saying here is that I don’t believe the Bible because I am convinced from the text of Scripture that Aramaic was spoken by Jesus. Once again, Calvary Chapel says Jesus spoke “Hebrew, not Aramaic” and not “Aramaic and Hebrew.”
Now, let me state what I believe. I concur with biblical archeologist Alan Millard “A Jewish craftsman’s son brought up in Nazareth, a town on a main road, could be expected to talk in Aramaic, to use Greek when necessary, and to have more than a reading knowledge of Hebrew.” In other words, Jesus was tri-lingual but spoke Aramaic as his mother tongue.
Why does this matter?
It is important in understanding the Jesus of history. How can we properly understand Jesus, who he was and what he taught when we can’t even get his language right? If, in our studies, we make the false assumption that Jesus spoke solely Greek for example, it could seriously distort our view of who Jesus was. There are certain Bible scholars who seriously believe that Jesus was a Greek philosopher who belonged to the school of the Cynics.
In several places Aramaic or Aramaic figures of speech are being used in the New Testament although the New Testament is written in Greek. Thus, to understand the New Testament completely, we must have knowledge of Aramaic as well.
Many people are interested in returning to the Semitic Roots of Christianity. An entire branch of the church is the Aramaic, known as Syriac, branch. This includes many important theologians and missionaries. Due to euro-centrism the important contributions of Aramaic and Coptic (Egyptian) Christians are ignored.
Right now the Assyrians, the last Aramaic-speaking Christians are in need. I am trying to popularize Aramaic so we can save this ancient church from extinction. Douglas Hamp and Calvary Chapel are hampering my efforts to save people from certain death and a part of the body of Christ from extinction. Calvary Chapel is strengthening the Arm of Islam against the body of Christ. Why Calvary Chapel has decided to attack Aramaic and wage war against the Assyrian Christians is beyond me.
Before we look at Aramaic as the language of Jesus I want to show that Aramaic is a Jewish language and discuss how it became a Jewish language.
During the Babylonian Captivity a period of 50 years for many of the people the language of many of the Jewish people transitioned from Hebrew to Aramaic. Hebrew was still spoken by some but in Nehemiah 8 it mentions that the Scriptures had to be translated for everyone to understand. Rabbinic tradition states that the Bible was translated into Aramaic. However, Hebrew didn’t totally die out Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, which were written in the post-exilic period were written in Hebrew. (But the later books of the Old Testament show a greater Aramaic influence on how the Hebrew is used.) However, as we see in Ezra and Daniel Aramaic is becoming more influential. By the time of Jesus most Jewish people were spoke Aramaic, probably only Aramaic. Even those enclaves where Hebrew was still spoken-all the Hebrew speakers also spoke Aramaic. Aramaic had become the Jewish language so much so that Aramaic was sometimes called “Hebrew.” (As I shall prove later.)
(From The Jewish Study Bible (page 1700)
“They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.”
Translating it: Rabbinic interpretation understands the Hebrew “meforash” to refer to the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the verse, which was recited in public along with the verse. Unable to understand the Hebrew text, returnees required both Aramaic translation and interpretation (b. Meg. 3a; b. Ned 37b: Gen. Rab. 36.8). )
Aramaic is an important Jewish language. Doug Hamp and the Hebrew university people notwithstanding. Many of the Rabbis wanted to revive Hebrew so they began teaching that the angels couldn’t understand Aramaic but only Hebrew so if you want God to hear your prayers you had to pray in Hebrew. Despite this teaching, Aramaic has remained an important Jewish language. TRAINED RABBIS MUST HAVE KNOWLEDGE OF ARAMAIC.
Jewish Aramaic works:
The Kaddish, an ancient Aramaic prayer-now a prayer of mourning.
Large parts of the Talmud, (There are two Talmuds. The Babylonian and the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is thirty volumes long.)
The scribal notes to the traditional Hebrew text of the Old Testament
Kol Nidre: the main “Yom Kippur” prayer
Phrases such as “Bar Mitzvah” which is Aramaic for “Son of the Covenant”
The Kabbalah, or the “Zohar” the main text of Jewish mysticism
Popular Passover songs such as “Chad Gadyo”
Note the Aramaic alphabet displaced the Hebrew alphabet. Ezra notes the difference in Ezra 4: 7 referring to a letter written in the “Aramaic script and language.” Only the Samaritans sill use the original Hebrew alphabet.
SHOW EXAMPLES of Hebrew and Aramaic Script
WE ARE NOW GOING TO EXAMINE THE EVIDENCE THAT JESUS SPOKE ARAMAIC:
EVIDENCE FROM THE BIBLE, FROM ARCHEOLOGY, FROM THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS AND FROM THE TARGUMS.
Evidence from the Bible
To deliberately omit information in an effort to deceive is unethical and is the same as telling a lie. Mr. Hamp in his book “Discovering the Language of Jesus” fails to mention ACTS 1:19 Luke says, discussing the death of Judas Iscariot;
And it became known to all those dwelling in Jerusalem; so that field is called in their own language, Akel Dama, that is Field of Blood (NKJV)
Luke lived in the Holy Land during the times of the apostles. Akel Dama is Aramaic-not Hebrew. Here Luke describes Aramaic as the language of the people of Jerusalem! This means that Mr. Hamp is saying, when he claims that the Jewish people at the time of Jesus did not speak Aramaic as their common language he is saying that the New Testament is wrong. Unlike Mr. Hamp I believe that the New Testament is a reliable and trustworthy account of the life and times of Jesus and the apostles.
PRAYERS AND TITLES OF DIVINITY
In the New Testament we have Jesus and the early church praying in Aramaic:
And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:36)
The Aramaic word “Abba” is also found in the writings of Paul in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6) Abba is an Aramaic loan word in modern Hebrew. The Hebrew word is “avi.” God is called “Father” over 100 times in the Gospels!
Eloi, Eloi lama sabachtani
And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi lema sabachtani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, for what have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) See also Matthew 27:46. It Jesus had been speaking Hebrew he would have said, “Eli, Eli, lama azabanti.” Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 from the Aramaic version. An Aramaic translation (or paraphrase) of the Old Testament is called a Targum. In the Traditional Hebrew text of Psalm 22 it says “Like a lion my hands and feet” the original reading as “They have pierced by hands and feet.”
“Maranatha” 1 Corinthians 16:22. This word is also used in the Didache. It means “Come, Our Lord.” The word for “Lord” in Hebrew is “Adonai.”
Ben Witherington III notes the importance of the Maranatha prayer in his book The Brother of Jesus, “In concluding his letter, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 16:22 offers up a prayer in Aramaic, “Maranatha”, which means “Come, Lord.” In other words, Jesus is already called Lord by Aramaic speaking Jewish-Christians, and he is prayed to. Now, early Jews did not pray to people who were merely revered dead rabbis, teachers, or even prophets. They might well pray for a rabbi to be raised on the last day, but they would not pray to him and implore him to come. Yet, that is what Paul is doing here, and he is probably echoing a prayer he heard offered in the Jerusalem church, where such prayers were spoken in Aramaic. The dramatic importance of such a prayer should not be underestimated. Jews were forbidden to pray to someone other than God. This prayer strongly suggests that Jesus was included within the earliest Aramaic Jewish Christians understanding of God. In other words, Jesus was already viewed very early on as divine by his earliest followers, and this included James [the Just]. The notion that seeing Jesus as a divine figure was added only late in the first century and was done so only by Gentiles is simply not true.”
Hamp admits that Maranatha is indeed Aramaic but then notes that when Paul uses it he “is writing to his non-Israelite, non-Hebrew-speaking audience” (Hamp 32). But Corinth is between Athens and Sparta!
Son of Man
The Aramaic phrase “Son of Man” can mean “a man,” “a human being,” “a person” or even “I” or “me.” In the Gospels and other places in the New Testament it is used as a Messianic title. It seems to have come from a prophecy of the coming of a pre-existence divine being in the Aramaic section of the Book of Daniel.
I was watching in the night visions, and behold one like the Son of Man, coming in the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. Then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations, and language should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.
The book of Enoch, which was also written in Aramaic, also contains prophecies of the coming of a Messianic figure which it also calls the Son of Man.
Jesus saith unto her, Mary, She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabbouni; which is to say, Master. (John 20:16)
So Jesus answered and said unto him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” The blind man said to Him, “Rabboni, that I may receive my sight” (Mark 10:51, NKJV)
The Rabbinic title “Rabban” is of Aramaic origin and “Rabbi” as well.
The Aramaic form of the word for Passover “Pascha” is used in the Greek of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7 and many other places). (Douglas Hamp uses some very tortured logic and states that when Hebrew words are written in Greek they take on an Aramaic form but they are Hebrew really and not Aramaic. This is illogical and incoherent.) The holiday Hannakah is Aramaic for “Dedication” Jesus celebrated this holiday. Judas Maccabee is Aramaic for Judah the Hammer. Titles of religious groups such as the Pharisees, from the Aramaic “Separated Ones” and the Essenes, from the Aramaic Chasya, the “Pious” are from Aramaic.
Many of the names of people in the New Testament are Aramaic names. Why would go many people have Aramaic names unless they are speaking Aramaic.
Bar is Aramaic for “Son of” Ben in Hebrew for “Son of.” (Mr. Hamp tries to dismiss the fact that there are so many Aramaic names in the New Testament. This demonstrates an error in his methodology-he is explaining away evidence instead of explaining the evidence.)
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). NIV footnote: Both Cephas (Aramaic) and Peter (Greek) mean rock. John 1:42. (See also 1 Corinthians 1:12 and Galatians 2:9). In Matthew it is mentioned that when Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest, the people said that he must be a Galilean because “his speech” gave him away. The bystanders were probably commenting of Peter’s Galilean accent. The Talmud describes how the Galileans had their own accent to their Aramaic. They didn’t pronounced their gutturals clearly. This is probably why Jesus’ name in Aramaic is pronounced “Yeshu” in ancient Jewish sources and by Aramaic Christian till this day.)
Simon Peter, Thomas called Twin, Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples were gathered together. (John 21:2)
Canaanean means Zealot, which means “terrorist” or “insurgent.” (Mark 3:18)
“And also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) out of whom seven demons had some out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. (Luke 7: 2-3 NIV) Magdala is the Aramaic word for “tower.” Jerome commented that perhaps she acquired this title since her faith was like a tower. However, it seems she is called Mary of Magdala because she came from the town of Magdala.)
Thaddeus and Lebbeus
(Matthew 10:3) Thaddeus means “breast” or “nipple” and Lebbeus, or Libba, means “heart.”
In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. (Acts 9:36). This Aramaic name means Gazelle.
Martha in Aramaic means “Lady” Luke 10:38-41. John 11:1-39, John 12:2.
Matthew 10:3. Son of Ptolomey or perhaps “son of furrows” or “son of the ploughman.”
In Hebrew “Son of…” is Ben. In Aramaic it is “Bar.” There are many people with this Aramaic name-form in the New Testament.
Barabbas means “Son of the Father,” He was the one whom was chosen by the crowds to be released instead of Jesus the Messiah. He was a terrorist and a murderer (Matthew 27:16)
Barsabbas was considered as a candidate to be numbered among the Twelve Apostles (Acts 1:23). His name means “Son of the Sabbath,” perhaps because he was born on a Sabbath day.
This Barsabas was sent to Antioch carrying a letter from the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 22). He was a prophet (Acts 15:32) Judas Barsabbas is most likely a close relative of Joseph Barsabbas.
Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4:36) from Bar-Nava meaning “Son of Prophecy,” translated as “The Son of Encouragement” or “The Son of Consolation.” This was the companion of Saint Paul.
NAMES OF PLACES
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). John 19: 13.
Josephus in The Jewish War V. ii. 1:51 states that Gabbatha means “high place’ or “elevated place.”
Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.) Here they crucified him, and with him two others-one on each side and Jesus in the middle. (John 19: 17-18). See also Mark 15:22.
Meaning “House of Dates”
NOTE: Hebrew and Aramaic are so similar that some words are the same in both languages also certain words originating from Hebrew, such as HOSANNA, made their way into the Aramaic language. (Hosanna means “Save Now” in Hebrew but came to mean “praise” in Aramaic.)
Have no fear of those who kill the body, but can by no means kill the soul. Fear him instead who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Matthew 10:28)
The word “Gehenna” in Aramaic came to be the word used for “the burning hell” or “hell-fire.” This was from the symbolism found in the burning rubbish dumps of Gey-Hennom, in the valley outside of Jerusalem. The Aramaic word Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew “Gey-Hennom,” meaning “Valley of the Sons of Hennom.” This cursed place was a place of idolatrous worship and human sacrifice in the Old Testament era. The Aramaic word “Gehenna” is found in many places in the Greek text of the New Testament but is usually translated as ‘hell” in English versions.
Also, in should be noted that Jesus in this saying in Matthew 10:28 what the Aramaic scholar Joachim Jeremias called the “divine passive.” This was reverencing the name of God by speaking of the Lord by means of circumlocutions.
ARAMAIC WORDS AND PHRASES USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” which is “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34). This word is Ethpatach and is the same in both Hebrew and Aramaic because these languages are so closely related.
And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which is translated, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” (Mark 5:41)
This Aramaic phrase here is important because Jesus is using it in an Aramaic speaking household. So we see that the household of a president of the synagogue is an Aramaic speaking household. Thus we see that it wasn’t just the uneducated who spoke Aramaic but also the educated and the elite.
Talitha means little girl-not “Tallit” (garment) or “Little lamb”
But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)
In the Aramaic of the Talmud, Raka means empty one, fool, empty headed.
No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)
See also Luke 16:9-13 and 2 Clement 6.
Also-look how the word KOWBAIN is used in the Lord’s Prayer. In Christ’s teachings we see in parables a link between sin and debts and the idea of forgiveness of sins as forgiveness of debt.
“But you say, “If a man says to his father or his mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”-(that is a gift to God),
This word refers to an offering or a sacrifice. Modern Assyrians call their Holy Communion service the Korban. In this passage Jesus was condemning a doctrine of the scribes and Pharisees that stated is you swore to give money to them, this released you from the obligation of using that money to support your needy elderly parents. Korban is both Hebrew and Aramaic. “KORBAN” meaning “a gift to God” has been found being used in an Aramaic inscription on an ossuary.
Evidence from Archeology
The King Uzziah Tablet
King Uzziah is mentioned in Isaiah 6, 2 Chronicles 26. The Tablet is dates to the first century (the time of Jesus) and says in Aramaic “Herein are the bones of Uzziah, King of the Jews. Do not remove.” It is only logical that such an important notice would be written in the most commonly used language so that it could be understood by the greatest number of people.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
“The Dead Sea Scroll Bible” mentions some interesting information about the Dead Sea Scrolls “Song of Solomon” which “features several scribal errors and, although written in Hebrew, contains several Aramaic word forms that reveal Aramaic influence on the scribe” (612).
The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew. Many others are in Aramaic and a few are in Greek.
Why would a scribal community use Aramaic at all unless it was the language of the common people? Their rules for their community and some of their commentary on Scripture are in Hebrew but much of the popular literature such as the Genesis Apocryphon, Enoch and Tobit are in Aramaic. A targum, Aramaic translation, of Job was discovered. The Testament of Levi, the New Jerusalem and other Aramaic books were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls prove Jewish people in the Holy Land were Aramaic speakers!
Certain Hebrew primacists say that Joachim Jeremias and Matthew Black, two respected scholars who investigated Aramaic as the language of Jesus maintained that Jesus spoke Aramaic because they formed their opinions before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, this is untrue, they were aware of the Dead Sea Scrolls and used them in their research. Actually, the Dead Sea Scrolls are very helpful in reconstructing the words of Jesus in Aramaic since several of them are in Aramaic and Maurice Casey has used them for this purpose.
The Bar Kokhba letters
Bar Kokba, which is Aramaic meaning “Son of the Star” was a false Messiah. Many Hebrew primacists feel that the Bar Kokba letters prove somehow that Jesus spoke only Hebrew, despite the fact that they were written 100 years after the time of Christ and as many of the Bar Kokhba letters are Aramaic as are Hebrew.
So-Hebrew speakers such as the Dead Sea Scroll community and Bar Kokhba also spoke Aramaic. The reason they used Aramaic in addition to Hebrew is because Aramaic was the common language.
Ossuaries (basically a tombstone)
Ossuaries are often inscribed in Aramaic. Some are inscribed in Greek and some are in Hebrew. This proves Alan Millard true.
Important Aramaic ossuaries include the ossuary of Caiphas and the controversial “James the Brother of Jesus” ossuary. The Talpiot Ossuaries are also Aramaic and controversial. (Yeshua was a common name and other Jesus son of Joseph ossuaries have been discovered.)
Business records and legal archives, marriage contracts, divorce decrees and promissory notes.
Business was conducted in Aramaic. Sebastian Brock describes important discovery that gives us important insight into everyday life. Aramaic “was also the language of the delivery man at a village called Beit Qarnayim (otherwise unknown, but evidently near Jerusalem), as we learn from four ostraca belonging to the first half of the first century AD. On these pieces of broken pottery (which served as the equivalent of modern notebooks) he writes down in ink his deliveries of fig cakes, bread and barley, specifying year, day of the week, day of the month, and sometimes even whether it was morning of evening… Another vivid glimpse into everyday life is provided by a note scribbled on an ostracon from Masada, perhaps dating from the time of the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73). Someone has left a bill unpaid for far too long and in desperation his creditor, evidently the baker, sends him a note: “I beg you have pity on me and pay me the 5 silver denarii you owe me for the loaves of bread. Have pity, for I haven’t got anything.”
Evidence from ancient authorities
Douglas Hamp appeals to myth to prove his premise that Jesus only spoke Aramaic. He refers to the Letter of Aristeas which says “the Jews are assumed to speak Aramaic but it is a different kind.” This probably refers to the fact that the Jews spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic or that their Scriptures are in Hebrew.
But lets look at more reputable historical sources such as the writings of Flavius Josephus. Hamp doesn’t quote from Josephus.
Josephus lived from 37- circa 100 AD. He was a contemporary of St. Paul. He wrote about John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem.
Josephus was a priest and related to the Hasmoneans, a royal family.
In his preface to “The War of the Jews” he mentions that he originally wrote this book in Aramaic because he felt he was deficient in Greek and he also wrote it in Aramaic for the “barbarians” in Mesopotamia!
In Antiquities III 10.6 he mentions that the Hebrew used Aramaic:
When a week of weeks has passed over after this sacrifice, (which weeks contain forty and nine days,) on the fiftieth day, which is Pentecost, but is called by the Hebrews Asartha, which signifies Pentecost, they bring to God a loaf, made of wheat flour, of two tenth deals, with leaven; and for sacrifices they bring two lambs.
In War of the Jews Book IV Chapter 1 Section 5 Josephus mentions a Roman soldier was an Aramaic speaker from Syria, but not a Jew, sneaking into Jewish household and listening to the Jewish rebels discussing their war-plans. (Josephus was often used by the Romans to speak to the masses of the Jewish people on their behalf and it is obvious that when he describes himself as doing so, he was speaking to them in Aramaic.)
According to the Talmud, there were silver trumpets in the temple into which people deposited their offerings. The offering trumpets were labeled in Aramaic, which is not surprising since they are dealing with money. We also have three epistles written by Rabban Gamaliel, the Rabbi who instructed Paul. They were meant for the Jewish community in the Holy Land and are written in Aramaic. Another important ancient document from the times of the apostles called “the roll of the fasts” is also written in Aramaic.
Evidence from the early Church Fathers
Douglas Hamp’s main argument is that the Greek word “Hebraidi” means the language that we in English know as Hebrew and can only mean Hebrew.Look at John 19:17
And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.
To which Mr. Hamp says “See it says “Hebrew” that settles it-Jesus spoke Hebrew and not Aramaic.
A LAW OF LINGUISTICS: CONTEXT DETERMINES THE MEANING OF A WORD, I.E. HOW A WORD IS USED DETERMINES ITS MEANING.
In this case Golgotha is an Aramaic word. Also, the language we know as “Hebrew” is never called “Hebrew” in the Old Testament, it is called “Judean” and “Canaanite.” (2 Kings 18:26, Isaiah 19:18).
The Church Fathers state that Jesus and the Apostles spoke “Hebrew.” Did they mean Aramaic or the language we know today as Hebrew.
Papias was an early church father who interviewed people who had known the apostles. He wrote his book from 110-140. It has only survived in fragments. Some of his stories seem interesting or plausible, such as stories about Barsabas and the daughter of Phillip. On the other hand he describes Judas Iscariot as being so fat he was wider than a chariot and mentions Jesus saying that in the Millenium grapes will call out to people saying “Take me, take me!” Papias contains a legend that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in “Hebrew.” Douglas Hamp seizes on this as proof that Jesus spoke Hebrew exclusively. Jerome (lived 347-420) knew of an described the Hebrew Matthew.
Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew…
Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men
In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is written in the Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters, and is used by the Nazarenes to this day (I mean the Gospel according to the Apostles, or, as is generally maintained, the Gospel according to Matthew, a copy of which is in the library at Caesarea), we find ... .Jerome, Against the Pelagians
Chaldean and Syrian is another way of saying Aramaic. (Aram is an old way of saying Syria. In Daniel the Chaldeans, Babylonian magicians, are quoted speaking in Aramaic. For this reason Aramaic has been called Chaldee in the past.)
Also, in Jerome’s “Commentary to the Book of Daniel” he uses the words Aramaic and Hebrew interchangeably almost immediately after differentiating between the two languages!
Jerome, in his commentary on the Book of Daniel, differentiates between Hebrew and Aramaic, but then while in the Aramaic section of the Book of Daniel, consistently calls Aramaic Hebrew. This proves that the early church fathers did call the language we know as Aramaic “Hebrew” at times and used “Hebrew” and other words for Aramaic interchangeably. This is illustrated by the following quotations from Jerome’s commentary on the Book of Daniel the Prophet:
Verse 4. "The Chaldeans replied to the king in Syriac." Up to this point what we have read has been recounted in Hebrew. From this point on until the vision of the third year of King Balthasar [Belshazzar] which Daniel saw in Susa, the account is written in Hebrew characters, to be sure, but in the Chaldee language, which he here calls Syriac.
Verse 27. "As for the secret for which the king is asking, neither the wise men nor the magi nor the soothsayers nor the diviners are able to declare it to the king." In place of diviners (haruspices), as we have rendered it, the Hebrew [sic!] text has Gazareni [actually the Aramaic word is gazerin.] which only Symmachus has rendered…
follows as far as the end of the Song of the Three Youths is not contained in the Hebrew [i.e. the Aramaic].
". ..I, Daniel, was much troubled with my thoughts, and my countenance was altered within me; but I preserved the word in my heart." Up to this point the Book of Daniel was written in the Chaldee and Syriac language. All the rest that follows up to the very end of the volume we read in Hebrew.
In his book Demonstration of the Gospel Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339) describes the Twelve Apostles as “quite common men, and barbarians [non-Greeks] to boot, with no knowledge of any tongue but Syrian.” After Jesus gives the Disciples the Great Commission and to preach his message to all the world, Eusebius has them ask, “But how…can we do it? How, pray, can we preach to the Romans? We are men bred up to use the Syrian tongue only, what language can we speak to the Greeks?” (See Eusbius Pamphylis Demonstration of the Gospel, in the English translation, DE Book III, chapters 5 and 7, cited Dem. Ev. III. 4.44; 7.10.) This helps us to understand that Eusebius means that Matthew wrote his Gospel originally in Aramaic when he states, “For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue ...” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III. Eusebius makes it very clear that the apostles spoke Aramaic only so obviously he refers to Matthew’s “native tongue” he means Aramaic and not Hebrew. Eusebius-who is the source of our quote of Papias was convinced that Jesus and the Apostles spoke only Hebrew! He had information available to him that we no longer possess today!
This shows 1. That the Greek word “Hebraidi” can indeed mean “Aramaic” and 2. the most ancient sources state that the apostles spoke only Aramaic.
Evidence from the Targums
The entire Old Testament, with the exception of Ezra and Daniel (which are largely Aramaic already) were translated into Aramaic as the Targums.
The Aramaic Targums are important because they originated from the time of Christ, and their interpretation reflect understandings of the text current with his era. Bible translators often refer to the Targums to clarify where it seems obscure in the original texts.
In Mark 4:12 Jesus quotes the Targum of Isaiah 6:9-10. Also, St. Paul quotes from the Targum. New Testament quotations of Old Testament passages usually are from the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Some quotations match the Hebrew text, others the Aramaic Targums. In Romans 10:7 St. Paul quotes from a Targum Reading found in Targum Neofiti being a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:13.
But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the Abyss (that is to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved (The Hebrew says ‘sea’ and the Aramaic Targums, “Targum Neofiti” has ‘Abyss’). Paul quotes from the targum because as a trained Rabbi he would have been familiar with these Jewish traditions.
Paul also quotes the Aramaic Targum of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high, he made captivity captive; he gave gifts to his people”. When it says “He ascended” What does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.
Paul’s quote does not match the Hebrew or the Greek Septuagint Old Testament. It does follow the Aramaic Targum and the Aramaic Peshitta (which is a type of Targum). (In this verse in the Hebrew the gifts are given to God. The Aramaic has the gifts given by God). John the Revelator often refers to Targums of Deuteronomy 31-32 especially in the Song of Moses (Rev. 15: 1-5) which follows Targum Onkelos
A note about scholarly consensus
The majority of Bible scholars believe Jesus spoke Aramaic because this fact is born out by the evidence-which is cumulative. We should take mainstream and not extremist positions. The “Jesus spoke only Hebrew” position is an extremist position and cannot withstand scrutiny. Certain people believe that Jesus spoke Hebrew because Hebrew is viewed by them as the language of God. Jesus is God incarnate and he spoke Aramaic so, Aramaic is the “language of God.” (Daniel mentions the finger of God writing on the wall of the palace in Babylonia. Also, in the Talmud there is a story of God speaking out from the Holy of Holies in Aramaic. This was during the High Priesthood of John Hyrcanus. See. J. Sot. 24b.) As Jesus proclaimed his Gospel in Aramaic, Aramaic is also the language of the Kingdom. According to Deuteronomy 26:5, Abraham and the Patriarchs were Aramaic speaking. In the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 38b) the Rabbis teach that God spoke Aramaic to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden-and that Aramaic was the language of Adam! If Jesus actually spoke Aramaic, then to attack, disparage and insult his language is to attack and insult Jesus Christ himself.
I have heard Zephaniah 3:9 used to say that we all must learn to speak Hebrew in order to be acceptable to God. This scripture reads, “For I will restore to the people a pure language” (literally the Hebrew says a “pure lip” this means pure speech or conversation and is not necessarily referring to a specific language) “that they all ay call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one accord.” Jesus spoke about the same thing when he said “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). It is unreasonable to require all believers to learn Hebrew, or Aramaic for that matter. This passage in Zephaniah actually refers to God giving his people a new heart-a truth Jesus and other prophets of the Old Testament refer to. To understand God you need to come with him with childlike faith and simplicity. Learning a language will not get you into heaven and may not even please God. In ancient times there were and today there are many Hebrew speakers who are terrible sinners and don’t know God. Hannibal and the Carthaginians spoke a form of Hebrew as did many of the ancient Israelites who worshiped Baal and the Ashtorah. Nicodemus knew Hebrew, Aramaic and the Scriptures and Jewish tradition. Jesus wasn’t impressed with all of this. Jesus was concerned about his soul-because Nicodemas was lost. Jesus told him “For a man to enter into the Kingdom of God he must be born again.” We must preach the simplicity of the Gospel These Hebrew-only people are harming the body of Christ and confusing the Gospel message.
Jesus was the Son of David, but he called himself most often-the Son of Man. Jesus is the Son of all Mankind and the savior of humanity. Jesus says when he comes in power and glory to judge the world he doesn’t judge the people on if they kept Kosher, or if they observed the Sabbath, or if they spoke Hebrew or were “Torah observant”-the concern is did they show love and compassion to “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25). The Lord requires mercy-not sacrifice. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 says, you can have all knowledge-even perfect knowledge of Hebrew-but if you don’t have love-it is NOTHING! The Hebrew and Aramaic roots of our faith are important –but nothing should be allowed to complicate the simple message of Salvation preach by Jesus and the Apostles.
The reason that the majority of Bible scholars believe that Jesus spoke in Aramaic is because this is what is indicated by the evidence.
The Aramaic language is still spoken. Let us pray for the Assyrian people who are being slaughtered for Jesus by Islamic fanatics. (See my Crossover Productions program of “You-tube” entitled “Iraq’s Christians in Crisis.)
For more information contact me:
Stephen A. Missick
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