Scholars Agree That Jesus Probably Spoke These Languages

If you’ve ever watched a movie that purports to depict the life of Jesus, the actor portraying him probably spoke modern English. There are obvious reasons for this, including sparing the actor the trouble of having to learn an ancient tongue for his part, and to spare the audience of having to read subtitles. It’s one of those mismatches between fiction and reality that audiences are just expected to accept without question.

If you were to depict Jesus on film speaking the language the historical figure actually spoke — as Mel Gibson famously did in 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ,” according to BBC News — most audiences wouldn’t have understood a word of it. What’s more, Jesus probably spoke one language in his daily life, and might have spoken at least one more (if not understood it), and might have understood another (but rarely spoken it). There is, of course, no knowing for certain, considering that he lived and died 2,000 years ago. But the cultural and historical clues point to Jesus possibly being bilingual, if not even trilingual.

Jesus likely understood and spoke a few languages

As far as the language that Jesus spoke in his daily life, it was almost certainly Aramaic, according to History. That was the tongue of 1st century Palestinian Jews, and indeed, it’s still spoken to this day by a small number of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Aramaic is in the same linguistic family as Hebrew, according to The Washington Post, although the two tongues are not mutually intelligible.

On the subject of Hebrew, Jesus might have understood (if not spoken) that language as well. In much the same way that liturgical Latin is used in certain Catholic contexts, Hebrew was the language of religious scholars of Jesus’ day, and of course, the language in which the Old Testament (the sacred text of Jews) was written. Indeed, Luke 4 records Jesus having read from a scroll of the Book of Isaiah, which was written in Hebrew.

Finally, he may have understood, if not even spoken, ancient Greek. Owing largely to the spread of Greek culture in the area (due to military conquest), the ruling and educated classes of Jesus’ day spoke that language, and indeed, the New Testament was written in it. At least one scholar, Jonathan Katz, a classics lecturer at Oxford University, is convinced that Jesus might have known at least a few words in Greek.

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