18 Nov 2008

The Author

David N. Bivin

David Bivin is founder and editor-in-chief of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., David has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew University until 1969 specializing in Jewish history and literature under professors Menahem Stern, David FlusserShmuel Safrai and Yechezkel Kutscher, and in archaeology under professors Yigael Yadin, Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah. During those six years, and for many years afterwards, David also studied the Synoptic Gospels with Jerusalem scholar-pastor Robert L. Lindsey.

David has written more than one hundred scholarly and popular articles. Recent scientific articles include the entry “Hebraisms in the New Testament” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2013), 2:198-201, and the article “Jesus’ Petros-petra Wordplay (Matt 16:18): Is It Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?” in The Language Environment of First-century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels 2 (JCP 26; ed. Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2014), 375-394. David continues to work on a projected 5,000-page commentary on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, currently being published at JerusalemPerspective.com. David has presented scholarly papers at U.S. and international meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature.

David’s popular book, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center), appeared in 2005.

David is a member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, a think tank made up of Jewish and Christian scholars dedicated to better understanding the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In the early 1980s, before the School became a legal entity, David coined its name. For many years following the School’s registration in Israel as a nonprofit research institute in 1985, David served as its director and Executive Board chairman.

During the years 1970 to 1981 David directed the Hebrew Language Division of the American Ulpan, and the Modern Hebrew Department of the Institute of Holy Land Studies (later renamed Jerusalem University College) on Mt. Zion. During those years, he authored the video language course, Aleph-Bet: A Beginner’s Introduction to Reading and Writing Hebrew, and co-authored, with the late Robert Goldfarb, Fluent Biblical and Modern Hebrew, a home-study language program.

For twelve years (1987-1999) David published Jerusalem Perspective, a print magazine that presented the life and teachings of Jesus in their original cultural and linguistic settings. In 1999 the magazine evolved into a website, www.jerusalemperspective.com.

Active in Israeli life, David served as a sergeant in an Israeli army reserve infantry unit from 1974 to 1991. He is a member of Jerusalem’s Narkis Street Congregation, where he served as an elder under the pastorate of the late Robert Lindsey. He and his wife Josa (née Keosababian) met and were married at the Narkis Street Congregation in 1969. Today, the Bivins live in the village of Maoz Zion, near Jerusalem.

Photo Copyright Chris de Vries Studio, Zeeland, Michigan

David has co-authored several articles including:

Hebrew as a Spoken Language in First-century Israel
1 Comment Print
Date First Published: November 18, 2008

n extremely interesting discussion is now taking place on the Bible Translation Discussion List (Bible-Translation@lists.kastanet.org). Jack Kilmon has stated (13Nov08), “Jesus/Yeshua’s native language was Aramaic. That is no longer disputed in serious scholarship,” and (15Nov08), “There is no evidence whatsoever that ordinary people spoke Hebrew in the late 2nd temple period.”

Contra Kilmon: Hebrew was a living language in first-century Israel, part of a multilingual environment (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). Jewish teachers of that period (first-century tannaim from both Galilee and Judea) ordinarily passed on their teachings in Hebrew. For example, parables were preserved in Hebrew. Shmuel Safrai writes,

The parable was one of the most common tools of rabbinic instruction from the second century B.C.E. until the close of the amoraic period at the end of the fifth century C.E. Thousands of parables have been preserved in complete or fragmentary form, and are found in all types of literary compositions of the rabbinic period, both halachic and aggadic, early and late. All of the parables are in Hebrew. Amoraic literature often contains stories in Aramaic, and a parable may be woven into the story; however the parable itself is always in Hebrew (b. Baba Qam. 60b; or b. Sotah 40a). There are instances of popular sayings in Aramaic, but every single parable is in Hebrew” (“Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. 1 [ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005], 238; see also Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week, 58, n. 17).

Hebrew also was typically chosen for written accounts of Jewish religious significance, as evidenced by post-biblical writings such as Ben Sira, 1 Maccabees (according to consensus), by the Qumran texts and tannaic Hebrew texts. On the significant lack of Aramaic targum at Qumran, see Randall Buth, “Where Is the Aramaic Bible at Qumran? Scripture Use in the Land of Israel.”

The Second Temple period epigraphical material is more frequently Hebrew than Aramaic. Just last month Israeli archaeologists unearthed part of a first-century limestone sarcophagus cover with the Hebrew inscription בן הכהן הגדול (ben hacohen hagadol, son of the High Priest).

If it is likely that the literary language of Jews in the time of Jesus was Hebrew, and the ordinary language of teaching was Hebrew, what was the primary spoken language of the Jewish residents of the Land? It appears that it, too, was Hebrew.

Randall Buth has pointed out to me a fascinating indication that Hebrew was the spoken language in the first century. The Jewish historian Josephus describes an incident that took place during the siege of Jerusalem (War 5:269-272). Josephus relates that watchmen were posted on the towers of the city walls to warn residents of incoming stones fired from Roman ballistae. Whenever a stone was on its way, the spotters would shout “in their native tongue, ‘The son is coming!’” (War 5:272). The meaning the watchmen communicated to the people was: האבן באה (ha-even ba’ah, the stone is coming). However, because of the urgency of the situation, these words were clipped, being abbreviated to בן בא (ben ba, son comes). (This well-known Hebrew wordplay is attested in the New Testament: “God is able from these avanim [stones] to raise up banim [sons] to Abraham” [Matt. 3:9 = Luke 3:8].)

The wordplay (and pun) that Josephus preserves is unambiguously Hebrew. This wordplay does not work in Aramaic: kefa ate (the stone is coming), or the more literary, avna ata, when spoken rapidly, do not sound like bara ate (the son is coming). Another Aramaic word for “stone,” aven, which is related to Hebrew, changes the gender of the verb and, in any case, does not work with “son.”

Certainly, a warning about an incoming missile needs to be as brief as possible (and, of course, shouted in the language of speech). How many words would an English-speaking soldier use to warn his unit of an incoming artillery shell? The Hebrew-speaking spotters on the walls of the besieged city of Jerusalem needed only two, and these they abbreviated to one syllable each.

1 Comment
  1. I am not sure I find this argument convincing. If I consider Latin as a close analogy, it’s ‘death’ as a language was gradual. It remained in formal settings long after it died as a colloquial language. So, given the importance of Hebrew I. The eArly centuries, I would expect a certain amount of use in academic areas and on inscriptions long after it had stopped to be a language of the everyday. This seems more consistent with the first century, than as the every day language that this article seems to argue for.

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