A Brief Response to Witherington’s “Was Jesus Illiterate?”

Recently, Ben Witherington posted the third part of a longer discussion regarding reading and writing in the first century and Jesus’ place on the spectrum of this landscape (Reading and Writing in Herodian Israel– Was Jesus an Illiterate Peasant? Part One; Reading and Writing in Jesus’ World— Was he an Illiterate Peasant? Part Two). Part 3, “Was Jesus Illiterate?,” is the final post and contains the one matter that we will take up today. The comments that concern us are made in the first paragraph,

“That Jesus spoke Aramaic most of the time very few dispute any more. The Gospels are clear enough on this— here is a short list of Aramaic words found on his lips— abba,eloi,eloi sabachthanai, ephphatha, kephas, messias, qorban, rabbuni, talitha qumi, amen, Gehenna, mamonas, pascha, raka, sabbaton, satana, saton, and we could go on. We have not mentioned personal names Jesus used which have the Aramaic ‘bar’ (son) in them like Simon bar Jonah. Generally speaking we see the decrease of Aramaic in the texts of Gospels as we move from the earliest (Mark) to the latest (John). Luke leaves most of Mark’s Aramaic out, but when he includes it, he is unable to translate. Now the point of mentioning this is of course that if the normal language of Jesus was Hebrew, it is inexplicable why we have all these Aramaic words and phrases predicated of Jesus. But what could Jesus read, if anything?”

It has been noted and beyond dispute that the land of Judaea in the first century C.E. was at a minimum tri-lingual (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic)—perhaps Latin (Fitzmyer). The Gospels texts cannot stand by themselves but must include outside linguistic evidence. Even on a superficial level some attention must be given to the traditions that the Evangelists receive regarding Jesus and in what language those traditions might have been preserved. That said, let us look a bit closer at Prof. Witherington’s comments.

1. “The Gospels are clear enough on this— here is a short list of Aramaic words found on his lips— abba,eloi,eloi sabachthanai, ephphatha, kephas, messias, qorban, rabbuni, talitha qumi, amen, Gehenna, mamonas, pascha, raka, sabbaton, satana, saton, and we could go on.”

Some of the terms noted here are Hebrew, not Aramaic, or Aramaic incorporated into the Hebrew language.

a. “abba” (‏אַבָּא) is a term that is utilized in Mishnaic Hebrew (Pes 2:4)—there is significant evidence that elements of Mishnaic Hebrew were already in use during the time of Jesus.

eloi, eloi sabachthanai” First, Matthew 27:46 contains the more Hebraic “Eli, Eli” (ηλι ηλι), and it has been argued by some “sabach” (שבק) is in fact a mishnaic term and is evidence of this Aramaic term entering the Hebrew language. So for instance we have the term ‏שִׁבּוּקִין, a techical term for ‘divorce’ which derives from שבק and appears in m. Gittin 9:3. Though it appears in an Aramaic sentence it has been argued by Moshe bar Ashre to be purely Hebrew (Randall Buth, forthcoming article).

qorban” and “amen” are both Hebrew, not Aramaic. “qorban” (‏קָרְבָּן) appears for the first time in Lev 1:2. “amen” is as well-attested Hebrew term (multiple occasions of the Hebrew A/M/N appear in the Hebrew Bible, and the nominal “Amen” appears in Hebrew in the m. Ber. 2:4).

rabbuni” (‏רַבּוּנוֹ) is also attested in a Hebrew portion of the Mishnah (Ta’an 3:8).

We should note that Mishnaic Hebrew retains some Aramaic terminology and grammatical elements, for example the “ן” as a plural case ending (but one would not suggest that Mishnaic Hebrew is Aramaic). Rather, this indicates how a language develops in a poly-linguistic setting. Therefore, authentically Aramaic terms, of which we have noted are not well established by Witherington, could have easily been incorporated into Hebrew and not necessarily indicate the language that was originally spoken. Two thousand years from now it would be mistaken for a scholar to presume that I spoke Yiddish because I use the terms schlep, and tuckus.

In a different way, this is seen with Jesus’ parables. Parables as they appear in Jewish literature (which are used pedagogical tool)—as stated by Shmuel Safrai—always appear in Hebrew, even when they are surrounded by Aramaic commentary. This indicates that it was Jewish custom to teach a parable in Hebrew. The same can be said of Jesus’ parables which appear only in Greek only because they appear in the Gospels, not because this was the original language of instruction. The linguistic evidence of parables elsewhere indicates that Jesus likely taught them in Hebrew. This is important since Young has suggested that parables consist of a third of the teachings we have preserved.

2. “We have not mentioned personal names Jesus used which have the Aramaic‘bar’ (son) in them like Simon bar Jonah.”

Personal names do not function as good indicator of spoken languages, but may assist in indicating linguistic influence. That said, the use of בר (bar) appears in the names of several Tannaitic rabbis but is not an indication of their primary language. In fact, many of the traditions associated them are persevered in Hebrew. Bar may simply indicate a connection with the thriving Babylonian Jewish communities or rather the appropriation of Aramaic terms into Hebrew, as mentioned above.

3. “Now the point of mentioning this is of course that if the normal language of Jesus was Hebrew, it is inexplicable why we have all these Aramaic words and phrases predicated of Jesus.”

I am not sure the point is to determine Jesus’ “normal” language but rather to uncover the language(s) that function in Jesus’s ministry and teachings. If we focus our attention on the evidence from Eretz Israel, specifically numismatics (i.e. coins), inscriptions, and texts, not only will it be noted that we are dealing with three languages but that within Jewish communities it is apparent that Hebrew dominated. This comes to light among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those documents that are formative to the Qumran community, as well as those texts that speak to the larger Second Temple Jewish world, appear again, in all three languages, but are dominated by Hebrew. To that, one might add that on several occasions, especially in Luke, where Jesus is shown interpreting Scripture or bringing together two disparate passages from the Bible indicate that Jesus is working in the Hebrew scriptures and that his audience readily recognized his Hebrew exegesis.

Thus, things are not as clear as Witherington might suggest.

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7 thoughts on “A Brief Response to Witherington’s “Was Jesus Illiterate?”

  1. Hello

    I also pondered a little over Witherington’s focus on the use of Aramaic (even of the Hebrew being claimed to be Aramaic), since I thought it was pretty established that Aramaic had become the spoken language in E”Y, or at least was about to be so, in the first century CE. That the Mishnah later was compiled in Hebrew, is probably more based on the fact that it’s an oral tradition and that Hebrew was viewed as the language used for holy practices in all Jewish rituals (or most).

    That Jesus should have been speaking Aramaic with people instead of Hebrew, doesn’t really come as a surprise. And that the synoptic witnesses would give account of what he said in Aramaic, even when and if he said something in Hebrew (as for example on the cross), wouldn’t be much surprising either, especially if it was directed at the common Jew.

    What would have been more interesting, is to focus on Paul and his use of the Pentateuch as source, and Paul-critical accounts that existed among Christian groups, as far as anyone wanted to direct criticism against early Christian figures.

    All the best.

    • My point had little to do with his larger discussion. My focus was on his discounting of Hebrew. Further, that this discounting was done with so-called Aramaic words which are in fact not Aramaic at all. Moreover, there was little interaction with the actual linguistic evidence that we have from this period. Linguists, like Segal, Safrai, Kutscher, and most recently, Y. Breuer, have all noted that within Eretz Israel Hebrew functioned as a living language among the other known languages, Greek and Aramaic.

  2. Jeff,

    Your criticisms are spot on! Witherington places a lot of weight on Mark’s translation of the Aramaic/Hebrew words and phrases in Mark, but it is not at all clear that Mark was responsible for these translations. They very well could have been added during the history of reception of Mark. There is no way of proving this, of course, but this interpolation is precisely the kind of things ancient scribes would do.

    And I would be very interested to read the article by Buth. Where might I look for it? Keep up the good posting!

  3. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants

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