Jesus and the “Holy Tongue”

December 1, 2010

by: Dwight A. Pryor

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First, some background. The “holy tongue” (lashon kodesh) of Hebrew has been spoken for millennia by the Jewish people. Even written evidence of Hebrew dates back more than three thousand years, to the time of David and Solomon. In the sixth century B.C., however, the First Temple was destroyed and the educated population of Judea was exiled to Babylon. There they learned to speak Aramaic, a sister Semitic language to Hebrew and the lingua franca of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires.

The remnant that returned to the Land of Israel seventy years later, under Ezra and Nehemiah, spoke Aramaic in daily discourse, like the majority of their fellow Jews who remained behind in Babylon. (The Babylonian Talmud, for instance, was compiled in Aramaic around the year A.D. 500.) The widespread influence of Aramaic continued in the Eastern Mediterranean until the Arab conquest of the seventh century.

It is not a stretch therefore to surmise that Aramaic was the vernacular in the Land of Israel in the time of Jesus (the first century). This supposition seems supported by the appearance in the Gospels of occasional Aramaic words, like “Talitha kumi” (Mark 5:41) or “Raca!” (Matt. 5:22).

WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE TO THE CONTRARY?

First, with the resurgent nationalism evoked by the successful Maccabean revolt a century and a half before Jesus, came a corresponding revival in Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people. Second, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has confirmed that, by the first century, Hebrew was again a spoken language in Israel. The various documents, the vast majority of which are written in Hebrew, reflect a distinctive and developing Hebrew language in spoken as well as written forms.

Dr. Randal Booth, in JerusalemPerspective.com, has noted another significant feature of the Qumran library: that with one exception, no Targums (Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible) were discovered. Apparently, the Essenes had no need of them, since they both read and spoke Hebrew. This finding accords with Luke’s account of Jesus’ synagogue sermon in 4:16ff, in which no use is made of a Targum. Only later, in the second and following centuries do Targums play an important role in Jewish life.

Considerable additional data supports Hebrew as a commonly spoken language in the first century: such as epigraphic evidence (e.g., Hebrew inscriptions on coins and ossuaries) and literary evidence (e.g., in Josephus’ account of the Jewish war against Rome and the Temple’s destruction). Thousands of parables preserved in rabbinic literature, including from the earliest period, are all in Hebrew. In the Talmud, even a parable that appears in the midst of a story in Aramaic, will be related in Hebrew.

Within the Synoptic Gospels themselves, Matthew and Luke especially have preserved hundreds of Hebraisms (words or expressions characteristic of the Hebrew language); idioms or figures of speech (some of which could be either Aramaic or Hebrew, but many of which can be only Hebrew); and extended passages that, though written in Greek, can be retroverted word-for-word into perfect Hebrew syntax, word order and even idiomatic expressions characteristic of the period. (For scholarly analysis of this subject, see Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. 1 (Notley, et al; Brill, 2005).

Based on the pioneering research in Israel the last fifty years by Jewish and Christian scholars, we now can state the following confidently: Jesus of Nazareth lived in a vibrant multilingual and theologically rich milieu, in which Hebrew was a living, spoken language, along with Aramaic and Greek. Like other Jewish sages, who used Hebrew to transmit their teachings, such as parables, the historical Jesus also taught primarily in the “holy tongue.” The significance of this discovery is far reaching and helps us to appreciate more fully our Hebrew Lord.

Copyright 2010 Dwight A. Pryor and The Center for Judaic–Christian Studies, www.jcstudies.com.
Dwight Pryor is the founder and president of The Center for Judaic–Christian Studies in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a founding board member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research in Israel. Since 1984, he has traveled the world as one of the most widely acclaimed teachers on Christianity’s Hebraic origins and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Centre for the Study of Biblical Research.

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