Pope Francis and Benjamin Netanyahu on the Language of Jesus

  It was recently pointed out to me that there is a story of Pope Francis who during his trip to the Holy Land corrected Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, after he made the claim, “Jesus was here in this land. He spoke Hebrew.” The Pope interjected, “Aramaic”. Bibi responded, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.” (see story here)

The conversation brings up what seems to be the perennial blind spot regarding what languages were spoken during the time of Jesus. Christian tradition has maintained that Aramaic was Jesus’ primary Semitic language. This idea, partly based on the thought that Hebrew was either dead or not spoken in the first century, has permeated NT scholarship. To that, even the use if the Greek term ebraisti (Hebrew) in the NT has been argued to be a form of Aramaic and not, in fact, Hebrew at all. This is despite the modern consensus among Hebrew philologist who work on classical Hebrew whom note that Hebrew remained a spoken language, especially in the Jewish villages of the Galilee and Judea. The works M. Segal in 1908, philologists have argued that Hebrew remained living language. Numerous scholars supported Segal’s theory, e.g., Chaim Rabin, Eduard Kutscher, Moshe Bar Asher, and, most recently, Takitsu Muraoka—even Gary Rendsburg. While Aramaic has received the lion’s share of attention, the evidence for Hebrew (consider that the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were penned in Hebrew) is significant enough that it should be part of the academic enquiry of scholars who work in the NT.

Pope Francis, of course, follows a longstanding tradition. Netanyahu was perhaps concerned with reminding the Pope that Jesus was Jewish, born in the the Land of Israel, and spoke the language of the Jewish people. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that the Pope had already visited Jordan and the West Bank, praying by the so-called security fence (wall) that has been decried by the rest of the world.

Apart from modern day politics, however, the conversation reflects the divide between Christian and Jewish scholarship. Academics who work on the first century, the historical Jesus, etc. seem to have missed the critical scholarship done on languages in the first century and assess how it assists in understanding the Gospels and the historical Jesus. The implicit problem that often goes unspoken is that if Jesus speaks Hebrew than he must be Jewish and Judaism is then a necessary component to understanding Christian Origins. Unfortunately, scholarship has not always been fond of Jesus’ Judaism (see Susanah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus) and my sense is that some of that un-comfortability—though academics have become more progressive—still remains.

To that end, some Christian scholars have attempted to build bridges and make Hebrew, a more central part the larger tri-lingual discussion (see here).

The conversation between the Pope and Netanyahu highlights a separation that has existed for centuries, a conversation with more than just academic repercussions.

—J. Garcia


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