Catholic Planet
[ Home | Theology | Articles | Poetry | Music | Resources | Links | Contact ]
Roman Catholic Theology and Biblical Studies

Home > Theology > Insights into Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium >

The Writing of the Gospels - Which Languages Did Jesus Use?


Christ taught and spoke mainly in Aramaic. The Gospels record some of Christ's words in the original Aramaic. When He healed a little girl, He said in Aramaic, “Talitha cumi,” (Mk 5:41) which means, 'Little girl, get up.' When He healed a deaf man, who spoke poorly because he was deaf, He said, “Ephphatha,” which is Aramaic for, “Be opened.” (Mk 7:34). On the Cross, when Christ cried out to His Father in Heaven, He spoke in the language of His daily life on earth, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). Christ mainly spoke Aramaic, as was the custom for persons living in Israel and other areas around the Mediterranean during that time period.


Christ also spoke and taught, occasionally, in Hebrew. He often read the Scriptures and taught in the synagogues on the Sabbath. “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written…” (Lk 4:16-17). When Jesus read from the Scriptures, He read in Hebrew. The Hebraic Jews of Israel generally knew both Aramaic (their daily language) and Hebrew (the language of their faith). Hebrew was their preferred written language since it was the language of their Scriptures. After reading the Scriptures, Jesus could have taught in either Aramaic or Hebrew and been understood. However, He probably taught in the synagogue in Hebrew.

When Paul had to defend himself, and his faithfulness as a Jew, to the Jews of Jerusalem, he spoke in Hebrew. “ 'Brethren and fathers, hear the defense which I now make before you.' And when they heard that he addressed them in the Hebrew language, they were the more quiet.” (Acts 22:1-2). The Jews listened more intently when Paul spoke in Hebrew, because it was their faith language, the language associated with their Scriptures. When Christ taught in the synagogues, He may well have used Hebrew for much the same reason.

Christ may also have used Hebrew when debating with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They would have preferred to use Hebrew when arguing with Christ for several reasons. Hebrew was the language of their faith. They were literate and well-educated, in contrast to the illiterate or minimally-literate general population. They could therefore show off their education to the crowd listening to the debate by speaking Hebrew. Also, they considered Christ to be uneducated because He was not one of them and did not study and learn from them. They could test Christ by speaking to Him in Hebrew, thinking that they would be able to speak that language more eloquently than He would (which turned out not to be the case). Christ would have used Hebrew to reply to their arguments in Hebrew, and He would have done so with simple and profound eloquence.

Matthew wrote in Hebrew; Mark wrote in Latin; Luke wrote in Greek. Christ taught, at least some of the time, in Hebrew. Matthew had to translate much, but not all of Christ's words from Aramaic into Hebrew. Some of Christ's words in Matthew's Gospel were probably written just as Christ spoke them, in Hebrew. Likely verses in Matthew, which Christ originally spoke in Hebrew, include the following. Wherever Christ quotes Scripture, there is a likelihood that He quoted it in the Hebrew language. For example, Christ said, “Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' ” (Mt 9:13; Hos 6:6). Christ was speaking to some Pharisees, who knew Hebrew well, and he was speaking somewhat privately, i.e. not teaching a large crowd as in Matthew 5. When Christ spoke privately to Saul, who was at the time a Pharisee, He spoke in Hebrew (Acts 26:14). A nice example of Christ quoting the Hebrew Scripture is found in Matthew 21:42. Jesus there uses the Hebrew expression, “head of the corner,” sometimes translated to English as “cornerstone.”

Christ may also have integrated some Hebrew when He was teaching or speaking in Aramaic. For example, Christ said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mt 11:15). In addition to quoting from Scripture, Christ also used some expressions that are similar to, or that play off of, Scripture passages. The Old Testament has many verses that use some version of an expression which refers to hearing God or being heard by God. Much of what Christ says has similarities to Old Testament expressions. When quoting the Old Testament, Christ may have switched from Aramaic to Hebrew, and when using expressions based on Scripture, He may also have used Hebrew. Putting an expression in Hebrew, in the midst of a talk to Jews using Aramaic, would have the effect of coining a phrase or of giving particular emphasis to that expression.

Other Persons Who Spoke Hebrew

Some of the other persons quoted by Matthew in Hebrew may also have originally spoken in Hebrew. For example, two blind men shouted, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” This exclamation was meant to indicate that Christ is the Messiah; it was a deeply religious expression with roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, the expression could well have been in Hebrew. When Paul wanted to be heard by the Jews of Jerusalem, he spoke in Hebrew (Acts 22).

When the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons,” (Mt 9:34), they may have been speaking in Hebrew, because they were well schooled in Hebrew and were speaking of a religious matter as (supposed) religious experts. When the Sadducees and the Pharisees argued with Christ, they may have used Hebrew, partly because it was a religious argument based on the Scriptures, but partly also to test him. They likely considered Christ to be uneducated, since He was not a student or teacher among the religious parties who held sway at that time (the Pharisees and Sadducees). So, they may have spoken in Hebrew for at least some of their debates. A good example of this is seen in Matthew 22:15-46. Likewise, then the chief priests and the council brought false testimony against Jesus, and judged Him guilty of blasphemy, they perhaps held this religious proceeding in Hebrew (Mt 26).

Latin and Greek

Did Christ ever use Latin or Greek? The society of first century Palestine was a multi-lingual society. Aramaic was widely used. The Hebraic Jews generally knew Hebrew as well as Aramaic. The Roman influence in the region brought the Latin language into usage. Jews who were not of Hebraic descent, who were converts or were children of converts, generally used Greek as their written language instead of Hebrew. Many important scholarly works were written in Greek; Greek scholarship competed with Latin scholarship for the attention of educated readers. Thus, the title on the Cross was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (John 19:20). Though Aramaic was the most common spoken language, those who were literate used Hebrew or Latin or Greek (or more than one of these) as their written language. Christ lived in a society where Latin and Greek were used, so He had some familiarity with those languages.

The Herodians were a group of Jewish priests who supported the rule of the Romans and the Herod family. As Jews and educated priests, they would have known Aramaic and Hebrew. But they used religious ideas to support the rule of the Romans and the Herods. The Herodians must therefore have known Latin, for this was the language associated with their belief system. Latin was the language of the Romans. When the Herodians disputed with Christ, they likely used Latin. They did so to display their adherence to Roman rule and because they thought Christ to be much less educated than themselves. “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to entrap him in his talk.” (Mk 12:13). So, they used Latin to see if they could trap Christ with words. Their eloquence in Latin would surely exceed His-but such was not the case. Christ may well have replied to them in Latin, for “When they heard it, they marveled….” (Mt 22:22). Unfortunately for them, they marveled, not at the truth and insight of Christ's words, but in large part because Christ gave a Roman-like answer, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” (Mt 22:21). The language and the phrasing were both Latin, and the way of thinking was Roman.

In another context, when Christ and Pilate spoke privately, they may have used Latin. And Pilate may have spoken Latin, when he said: “What I have written, I have written.” (Jn 19:22). The phrase has a Latin feel to it, rather like the famous saying: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” And perhaps the centurion spoke in Latin when he said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mt 27:54). In any case, Latin was used by the Romans in first century A.D. Palestine, so Christ probably encountered one occasion or another where He used Latin.

Christ may also had occasion to speak Greek. During the time of Christ's Ministry, there were many Jews who were not of Hebraic descent. These were converts to Judaism or descendents of converts; they used Greek as their main written language. Already by the time of Christ, they had translated the Jewish Scriptures into Greek in a version called the Septuagint. They used Greek in their synagogues and the members often spoke Greek, though not always as their main spoken language; in many areas Aramaic was the dominant spoken language. There were many Greek-speaking synagogues outside of Israel, but probably also some number of Greek synagogues within Israel during that time period. Jesus customarily went to the synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath (Lk 4:16). He traveled to many different areas. His Ministry was aimed firstly at the Jews. And, though Hebraic Jews often shunned Greek-speaking Jews (who were not of descendents of Abraham; cf. Acts 21:28), Jesus even agreed to stay in a Samaritan town (Jn 4:40). The Samaritans practiced an altered version of the Jewish faith; they were not pagans. It is entirely possible, then, that Jesus could have attended one Greek-speaking synagogue or another, where the Scriptures were read from the Septuagint in Greek and where Greek was a common spoken language.

Incidentally, when Paul says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all…. (Rom 10:12),” he is not referring to Jews and non-Jews, nor, by way of analogy, to Christians and non-Christians. The term “Greek,” in this context, refers to Greek-speaking Jews. Paul is saying that there is no distinction between Christians who were formerly Hebraic Jews and Christians who were formerly Greek-speaking Jews, and, by analogy, that there should be no such distinctions within the Christian faith. The Hebraic Jews kept themselves separate from the Greek-speaking Jews and had a low regard for them (Acts 21:28). This conflict between the two groups continued even after some persons from each group became Christians (Acts 6:1ff).

The Virgin Mary and Language

Mary used Aramaic as her daily spoken language because this was the daily language of the people of Israel during that time period. Mary was one of the virgins in God's service at the Temple of Jerusalem from about three to fourteen years of age (according to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich). There she and the other girls were taught to read and write Hebrew, since this was necessary to the proper understanding of the Jewish Scriptures. Devout Hebraic Jews of that time period generally knew Hebrew as well as Aramaic. For example, when Saint Paul gave a defense of himself to the Jews at Jerusalem, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language and so they listened more intently (Acts 22). The Virgin Mary could read and write Hebrew and could speak both Hebrew and Aramaic.

When the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary at the Annunciation, he most likely spoke to her in Hebrew. This was the language of the Jewish faith. The Scriptures were read in Hebrew (in Hebraic synagogues) and the sermons were most likely in Hebrew as well. When Jesus spoke to Saul (St. Paul) on the road to Damascus, He spoke to Saul in Hebrew (Acts 26). It is likely that Hebrew was often used for conversations about the Jewish faith. When Mary replied to the angel, she replied in Hebrew.

When Mary spoke her Magnificat, she most likely spoke in Hebrew. The Magnificat contains numerous allusions to Jewish Scripture, which Mary knew well in the Hebrew language. Her canticle of praise to God was most likely spoken in Hebrew because it was an expression of religious devotion from a devout Jew. For much the same reasons, when Zechariah, a Jewish priest, spoke a similar poetic expression of praise for God (Lk 1:67-79), he also used the Hebrew language. The same can be said of Zechariah's conversation in the Temple with the angel Gabriel (Lk 1:8-20), and of the angel's words to the shepherds concerning the Birth of Christ (Lk 2:8-20), and of Simeon's words during the Jewish ceremony required by Leviticus 12 (Lk 2:22-35). The Hebrew language was the preferred language for such devout conversations and expressions of religious devotion.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005

Home > Theology > Insights into Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium > Top