Failures of the Aramaic Solution: Aramaic’s Inability to Explain Jesus’ Halachic Questions on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5; Matt. 12:11-12a)

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How well does Aramaic explain Jesus' sayings on healing on the Sabbath?

How to cite this article: JP Staff Writer, “Failures of the Aramaic Solution: Aramaic’s Inability to Explain Jesus’ Halachic Questions on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5; Matt. 12:11-12a),” Jerusalem Perspective (2022) [https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/26023/].

A great deal of scholarly research on the words of Jesus rests on the assumption that Jesus’ teachings were spoken and transmitted in Aramaic before being translated into Greek. However, the foundations of this scholarly assumption have proven to be shaky, not because Aramaic was not a spoken language in the time of Jesus, but because the scholarly assumption ignored or dismissed the possibility that Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew. Scholars used to assume that by the time of Jesus Hebrew was a dead language known only to the religious elite but foreign to the common people, and since Jesus’ teaching was addressed to the masses, he must have taught in Aramaic.[1] But this assumption is not valid. Over the last three quarters of a century it has become increasingly clear that Hebrew was by no means a dead language in the time of Jesus. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kochva Letters, and accumulating epigraphical evidence has shown that Hebrew continued to be used as a language of discourse well into the second century C.E. When combined with the evidence from rabbinic literature, it is possible to trace developments in the Hebrew language beyond the literary Hebrew preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, Hebrew was by no means a fossilized language in the time of Jesus; the Hebrew of the Second Temple period was a vibrant, living language with vocabulary and grammar that distinguishes it from classical Biblical Hebrew.[2]

Proof that Hebrew remained a spoken language into the second century C.E. means it is possible that Jesus taught in Hebrew. But is it probable? Wouldn’t Jesus have preferred to teach in Aramaic, which was known alike to Jews and Gentiles of the East? Are there any indications that Jesus did use Hebrew in his teachings? There are indeed. Jesus’ teachings are of a religious nature, often dealing with the interpretation of Scripture or proper religious observance. Both these subjects were regularly discussed in Hebrew. In the pesharim discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in the various compilations of midrashim in rabbinic literature, exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures is conducted in Hebrew.[3] Discussions regarding religious observance (halachah) were also conducted in Hebrew, as demonstrated in the Halakhic Letter from Qumran (4QMMT) and in the vast compilations of halachot contained in the Mishnah and the Tosefta. Since the types of literature we have just mentioned were composed for religious scholars, it might be argued that the examples we have cited are too academic to establish the probability that Jesus taught the masses in Hebrew, but we can also cite popular examples of religious teachings, such as rabbinic sermons (derashot) and parables (meshalim), which were also delivered in Hebrew.[4] The delivery of these more popular styles of discourse in Hebrew suggests that the masses were fluent Hebrew speakers, since it would have been counterproductive for the sages to have taught the public in a language they did not understand.

Since Jesus delivered sermons to the masses on subjects pertaining to the interpretation of Scripture and religious observance using parables to illustrate his message, it is both possible and probable that Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew. This probability means the old scholarly assumption that the words of Jesus, which have been preserved in Greek, go back to Aramaic originals must be reexamined. Jesus’ sayings in Luke 14:5 and Matt. 12:11-12a that justify healing on the Sabbath are a good test case, since many scholars have attempted to explain the difficulties within these sayings and their similarity to one another by appealing to a conjectured Aramaic original. Now that the assumption that Aramaic was the probable language in which Jesus taught has been called into question, how well do these explanations based on the Aramaic model hold up?

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  • [1] On the anti-Semitic origins of this outmoded (albeit prevalent) scholarly assumption, see Guido Baltes, “The Origins of the ‘Exclusive Aramaic Model’ in the Nineteenth Century: Methodological Fallacies and Subtle Motives” in The Language Environment of First Century Judaea (Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels vol. 2; ed. Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley: Leiden: Brill, 2014).
  • [2] On the use of Hebrew in the Second Temple period, see Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 30 (1991): 3-8, 13; idem, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 31 (1991): 3-8.
  • [3] Cf. R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García, “Hebrew-Only Exegesis: A Philological Approach to Jesus’ Use of the Hebrew Bible,” in The Language Environment of First Century Judaea (Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels vol. 2; ed. Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley: Leiden: Brill, 2014).
  • [4] Virtually all rabbinic parables have been preserved in Hebrew. See R. Steven Notley and Ze’ev Safrai, Parables of the Sages: Jewish Wisdom from Jesus to Rav Ashi (Jerusalem: Carta, 2011), 6.

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    JP Staff Writer

    Articles that are designated as authored by “JP Staff Writer” were written by Jerusalem Perspective’s editorial staff.
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