During Pope Francis’ last visit to the Holy Land on 24th-26th May, a linguistic issue made an unexpected appearance in a pilgrimage described by the Pontiff as a “great grace” and an opportunity to “pray for peace” in the Middle East.
Only minutes after the first public encounter between Pope Francis and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter mentioned that Jesus spoke Hebrew to be immediately corrected by the Pontiff: “He spoke Aramaic”. Netanyahu was quick to reply: “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew as well.” This quick conversation immediately raised the attention of linguists, language experts and the Catholic religious community in general: what language did Jesus speak? Did he speak Aramaic or did he speak Hebrew? Or was he well versed in both languages?
As stated by Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli linguistics professor, Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker. However, he pointed out that Jesus would have also known Hebrew as it was the written language of Holy Scriptures and the language commonly spoken amongst the lower classes; the majority of people Jesus ministered to.
Aramaic: Jesus’ Native Language
According to Omniglot, considered the most complete resource of past and current world languages, Aramaic is a Semitic language which was the lingua franca of much of the Near East from 7th century BC to 7th century AD. It was the main language spoken by Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians and it was spread well into Greece and the Indus Valley. Jesus grew within an Aramaic speaking community so he definitely spoke this language.
Aramaic was once the main language of the Jews and appears in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon still use it and it is also still spoken by small communities in Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Iran, Syria and Georgia.