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The Language and Bible of Jesus

The Bible of Jesus, the Bible of first century Galilean Jews, is less, I think, an actual written text than it is the stories that were told.  Most people in the first century are illiterate.  They gained their biblical stories from preaching that they heard in the synagogue, from teaching they might have heard from their parents or their neighbors. 

Jesus is soaked in the biblical tradition.  He would have heard the stories of Genesis, of Isaiah, of Daniel; and He may well have thought some of these stories are speaking directly to me; some of these stories may even be speaking directly about me.

The dominant language of first century Jews in Galilee was Aramaic.  Although, Hebrew had gone through a bit of a renaissance, and some people may well have been speaking it, when Jesus heard his Bible being read in the synagogue for example, most likely it was read in Hebrew, but it’s quite likely somebody provided an Aramaic gloss. 

In the same way, even today, in a synagogue, the Bible is still being read in the Hebrew but in the United States, we’ve got the English translation on the other side.  So, we have to worry about, what was the text that was being written, what were the exact words that were being read, and how was that text interpreted by people in the synagogue, by people in the broader community?

Whether Jesus knew Greek is an open question.  The New Testament preserves some of His words in Aramaic, such as ‘ephphatha’, be open, as he says to the man who cannot hear, or ‘talitha koum’, “Little Girl, get up!” to the dead child.  So it’s likely his original language was Aramaic.  Did he have a smattering of Greek? It’s certainly possible.  But, I suspect what we’ve got in the New Testament is Aramaic material already translated into Greek, already filtered through a variety of oral tradition in at least two languages, which means it’s very difficult to get back to what Jesus actually said, let alone, what he actually heard and what was actually read to him from scripture.

  • Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.