Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus

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Professor Safrai presents an overview of the three languages used in the land of Israel during the days of Jesus, and concludes that Hebrew was the primary language spoken by the Jewish residents at that time.

How to cite this article: Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 30 (1991): 3-8, 13 [https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/2551/].

The land of Israel was under the influence of Greek culture from the time of its conquest by Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century B.C.E. Although scholars have divergent views regarding the influence of Hellenism on religious works, literature and everyday life in first-century Israel, it is generally accepted that the Greek language was used by many of the inhabitants.

Latin was also used to some extent in the land of Israel in the time of Jesus. For example, John 19:20 and a few manuscripts of Luke 23:38 record that the sign above the cross was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and the names of the Roman legions which served in the land were sometimes inscribed in Latin over wells and on garrison buildings. Apparently, however, Latin was used only by the Romans for matters of army administration. Civil administration was conducted entirely in Greek, and inscriptions written by non-Jews that have been found in Israel are all in Greek.

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Conclusion

Hebrew was certainly the language of instruction in schools, as well as the language of prayer and Torah reading. The language of instruction in the house of study also most certainly was Hebrew, and this was likely the case regarding instruction in the synagogue. It would seem that Hebrew was spoken in the marketplaces of Jerusalem (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 37d), but there is not enough information to determine whether this also was the case in other cities. It is not impossible that there were religiously uneducated people who did not understand Hebrew and were conversant only in Aramaic. There is some evidence for this linguistic phenomenon beginning in the second century C.E., but it is unlikely that such was the case in the first century.

Although the Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel in the time of Jesus knew Aramaic and used it in their contacts with the ordinary, non-Jewish residents, Hebrew was their first or native language. It is especially clear that in enlightened circles such as those of Jesus and his disciples, Hebrew was the dominant spoken language.

See also the companion article, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus.”
This article originally appeared in issue 30 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Professor and Rabbi Shmuel Safrai died on July 16, 2003. He was buried the following day in a section of Jerusalem's Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery reserved for faculty of the Hebrew University. His grave is only a few feet from the grave of his close friend…
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