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The Latest Jesus-Speak

June 10, 2014

In the past few weeks, we’ve heard more and read more and more about the speech of Jesus. “I know without a doubt which language he did surely speak!” This is what the world’s leaders and bible experts and reporters and bloggers are speaking about.

The best piece yet is one that helped kick off much of the renewed arguing. It’s a linguistically and culturally rich article:

Third-culture-kid Ishaan Tharoor (with an Indian passport and an N.Y.C. upbringing in a Hindi-English speaking home) writes in English how Israeli Prime Minister “Netanyahu is addressing the Spanish-speaking, Argentine pope in Hebrew, which is translated by the interpreter into Italian.” The Prime Minister explains in Hebrew that Jesus spoke Hebrew. The Pope listening to the Hebrew and Italian retorts with a single corrective word in Hebrew, ארמית [that is, “Aramaic”]. In other words, there’s an argument in Hebrew here (and in Italian) reported to Washington Post readers in English over which language Jesus spoke in Israel, Hebrew or Aramaic. Tharoor’s article in English refers to an exchange he excerpts via youtube, which has closed captions in Russian. (Go here to see, hear, read, translate, for yourself.) And Tharoor includes this fact: how the Pope-PM exchange prompts Farsi-English speaking-writing Iranian-American Professor-of-Islamic-Studies and expert on Jesus despite-what-Fox-news-would-report fiction writer Reza Aslan to tweet in English, “And no. Jesus didn’t speak Hebrew. He may have understood it but it wasn’t primary spoken language. He spoke Aramaic.”

The worst piece yet is another that helped kick off the arguing about the language of Jesus speak. Bilingual Elon Gilad writes in English only in Israel to side with the Pope against the PM asking “What language did Jesus speak?” and answering “Aramaic was the lingua franca in the Holy Land, not Hebrew or Arabic.”

The best scholarly attempt to respond to all of this so far is also only in English in America. The piece entitled “Why the Argument Over Jesus’ Language is More Complicated and More Interesting Than Media Experts Have Claimed” by biblical professor Seth Sanders is interesting. Sanders’s best point is that “‘Aramaic’ isn’t Entirely Aramaic” and, before that, that the writer of that odd gospel Greek “was not using ‘Hebrew’ (hebraisti) as a pure linguistic term” but was rather doing something odd with Greek like (and I paraphrase Sanders) “Hebrew-speak.” The worst thing Sanders does is to get something fascinatingly wrong when calling others fascinatingly wrong:

In John 20, Mary Magdalene is described as calling the resurrected Jesus “rabbuni,” which, every standard translation tells us, is Hebrew and means “teacher.” This is fascinatingly wrong. It’s actually the only time in the New Testament that an Aramaic form of the word is used; every other time Jesus is addressed with a similar term it’s the Hebrew “Rabbi.”

Has Sanders not recalled the only other time that this very same John 20 word is used in Mark 10:51?

The worst scholarly attempt to respond to Elon Gilad’s bad response to the Prime Minister is in English in Israel. The piece is entitled “Why Jesus really was a Hebrew speaker” by English-Arabic-modernHebrew-speaking Aramaic-ancientHebrew reading former-Wycliffe-Bible-Translators, former-United-Bible-Societies American-missionary-to-South-Africa Randall Buth. Buth’s best question in his own English text is “What is the sub-text that unifies many of those who suggest that Jesus taught in Aramaic?” The most excellent thing that Buth writes in English here is that “Rabbouni is, in fact, excellent Mishnaic Hebrew.” The worst thing he writes is this:

Parables are the third piece of the linguistic puzzle. Certain Jewish literary genres were always in Hebrew, one of which was the rabbinic story parable. In rabbinic literature, even within Aramaic contexts, the story parable was always given in Hebrew. The potential connection with Jesus is obvious, since Jesus, too, is frequently characterized as someone who taught the populace in parables. The parable genre was used for making a point that could be readily grasped by all levels of society. They were a popular literary genre, not “highbrow” or “elitist.”

Buth calls what Jesus spoke “parables,” which is not only an English transliteration of Greek but is also a highly theorized Greek genre made famous by the likes of Aesop and criticized by the likes of Aristotle. That the synoptic Greek gospel writers have Jesus speaking parables like the Greeks is just fascinating and needs more study and less giving-away-the-puzzle definite and mono-cultural conclusions.

The best blogpost is the one ordained minister Judy Redman writes in English down under today. She reminds us that before Pope Francis corrected Prime Minister Netanyahu in Hebrew-Italian-Hebrew speak, Englishman Maurice Casey was asking “In Which Language Did Jesus Teach?” and American Stanley E. Porter was asking “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?”

This mostly English blogpost of mine, for the record, can be ranked as one of the worst. I have nothing to add about the latest Jesus speak today really, except to recall that when I was a little bilingual boy in South Vietnam reading a red-letter edition English Bible that my American Southern Baptist missionary parents had given me for Christmas I noticed that an editor and / or the publisher neglected to color one little phrase that quoted Jesus. Maybe I was a good child for reading my Bible. Perhaps I just was a little bookish and enjoyed reading lots of different things. At least I was paying attention, but I don’t think I ever bothered anybody else with the what-could-seem-to-some a grave mistake (until now).


6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2014 11:56 am

    What you have added, Kurk, is an explicit view of the social+linguistic locations of the various participants of the discussion: which is valuable in itself and by implication underlines the complexity of the question “What language does/did a person speak?”


  2. June 10, 2014 12:16 pm

    I posted that complexity link that you mention on facebook by accident as a comment in a completely unrelated topic. I was then surprised to be receiving updates on the comment – something about a recent shooting. Then since I had no access to my computer to correct my error, I tried on the mobile fb site and failed, but eventually succeeded. Mine was language out of place – an easy thing to do. How we search for words in each human interaction – mine with my African and First Nations children and also with my English-British daughter and my mid-western son (who just brought me an 18 year old Scotch from Scotland direct as a father’s day present – that being a language in itself where tasters strive for analogy.).

    Yesterday I was reading an English translation of a modern Hebrew book on the religious experience of the Psalms – a work in process. I questioned the use of two terms – allegoristic (first use 1828) and allegorical, first use Tyndale in 1528. Both it turns out were used in various forms of mashal in the original Hebrew – how many shades of meaning to take from two adjectives concerning allegory! And how did the Hebrew read? I hope to ask the translator when I see him again.

    thanks for letting me write a bit – my story this morning on a return ferry journey cannot be written – too James Joyce – language – even a joke from Hashem who turned the shower on me while I was yet in my pj’s. Nothing like a good laugh from the Most High in the early morning while rushing to a ferry appointment. One day I will write this Bloom like episode but may not till I am no longer available for comment. Can anyone be clean in your sight, O God?

  3. June 10, 2014 1:42 pm

    Thank you, Vicky. I wrote the post way too quickly. I guess that also raises the question which language(s) Jesus used for writing.

    Bob, You make me laugh, out loud. And you do lead a rich life of languages: “How we search for words in each human interaction – mine with my African and First Nations children and also with my English-British daughter and my mid-western son (who just brought me an 18 year old Scotch from Scotland direct as a father’s day present – that being a language in itself where tasters strive for analogy.).”

    During the wartime in South Vietnam, one evangelism tactic or strategy or something the American missionaries followed was to give away Vietnamese translations of the gospel of John to people on the streets. I kid you not when I say that this little missionary kid thought the hyphen-ated and flat-toned names sounded pretty funny (for Vietnamese) – Giê-xu, Ma-ri, What’s also strange is that in John 20:16 Ma-ri (Μαριάμ, Mary, Miriam) says to Giê-xu (Ἰησοῦς, Jesus, Y’hoshua), “Ra-bu-ni” (for Ραββουνι); but in Mark 10:51 the Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew-speak or whatever language it is that the blind man is speaking to him in has been simply translated directly into Vietnamese as “Thầy” (for Teacher). At least the non-synoptic gospel in Vietnamese shows the conversation in perhaps two different languages, clearly the one being tiếng Hê-bơ-rơ (aka tiếng Do-thái or tiếng Hebrew). What’s even stranger for literate Vietnamese is that even though the name of Jesus can be pronounced in two level-tone (ngang) syllables, no body really knows how to write Giê-su, Giê-xu, Yê-su, Jesus, Gia-tô, Da-tô, 耶穌. Clearly then he spoke tiếng Aramaic.


  1. “Each one in his own native language!” So much internet, Pentecost edition | Gaudete Theology
  2. Jesus-Speak in the LXX | BLT
  3. Latin-Speaking Jesus | BLT

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