A study in the Aramaic Language of Jesus

Prepared by

Gabriel M. Sawma

(Published in Kolo Suryoyo: April-May-June issue 2002. Number 136. Page 85)


1- The Hebrew Language

The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC, by the forces of king of Babylon, Nabuchadnezzer, mark the beginning of what is known as the Babylonian Exile of the Jews. Up to that time, and from the moment of its appearance in a documented written form, the Hebrew language presents, a clear evidence that it belongs to the Canaanite family of languages. This means that when the Israelite tribes settled in the land of Canaan, from the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries BC, they adopted the language of that country (Isa. 19:18).[1]

The Hebrew of the poetic sections of the Bible, as well as the oldest epigraphic material in inscriptions dating from the tenth to the sixth centuries BC, is known as Archaic Hebrew. Among the biblical passages that reflect Archaic Hebrew are the Song of Moses (Ex 15), the Song of Deborah (Jg 5), the Blessings of Jacob (Gen 49) and of Moses (Dt 33), the Oracles of Balaam (Nm 23-24), and the Poems of Moses (Dt 32), as well as Ps 68 and other early psalms.

The language used in the prose sections of the Pentateuch and in the prophets and the writings before the exile, are known as Classical Biblical Hebrew, or Biblical Hebrew (BH) proper.

Many Biblical scholars characterize BH as a language which does not have the full sense of the word, a merely “fragment of language”.[2] The approximately 8,000 lexical items preserved in the books of the Bible, are not enough to meet the needs of a living language. There have also been claims by various scholars that clear traces of Aramaic can be found in the origins of Hebrew.[3]

Recently, various studies[4] have emphasized that Aramaic may have influenced the Hebrew language very strongly, mainly in the second half of the first millennium BC up to the beginning of the Christian Era. It may also be said that other languages, Semitic and non-Semitic had their influence on the Hebrew language, especially those who had a significant cultural impact in the region such as the Sumarian, Akkadian,[5] and Egyptian.[6] Those languages left their mark on Canaan before the Hebrew language came into existence. Ugarit and Phoenician on one hand, and the Southern Semitic dialects on the other, have also given rise to many loanwords in Biblical Hebrew. There is also influence, to a lesser degree, from Persian and Greek. Some Hebrew words derive from Indo-European languages, such as Hittite[7], and Sanskrit[8]. In the Oracles of Balaam (Nm 23:7) we encounter, for example (Roba) ‘dust’, attested in the Akkadian inscriptions; (Surim), which means ‘mountains’; (Nehalim) ‘palm’[9]. Some of the roots peculiar to archaic poetry are found in other Semitic dialects. For example (P’L) ‘do, make’; (Mhs) ‘strike’, and (hardus) ‘gold’ are common in Canaanite and Ugaritic texts, wheras (Yatannu) ‘let them recount’ (Jg 5:11) and (Mahaqa) ‘destroyed’ (Jg 5:26) correspond phonologically to Aramaic.

The Babylonian Exile of the Jews exposed them to an Aramaic cultural and linguistic environment. The Aramaic language before that time had been widely spread throughout the Assyrian Empire as the language of administration, commerce and diplomacy, supplanting the Akkadian as the Lingua Franca of the Assyrian Empire (1100-612 BC).[10] The incident recorded at 2 Kings 18:26 and Isa 36:11 provides some indication of the spread of Aramaic into Palestine. During Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, the Jewish officials requested that the Assyrian Rabshakeh negotiate in the diplomatic tongue, i.e. Aramaic.

In the aftermath of the destruction of Nineveh in August 612 BC by a combined force of Babylonians under Nebuchadrezzer II and Medes commanded by Cyaxares, a Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-538 BC) became the dominant power. And the Aramaic language remained a universal language during that period. It reached its zenith as the official language of the Persian Empire (538-330 BC).

With the rise of the Empire of Alexander (336-323 BC) in the East, the Greek language became influential in the region. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (at Alexandria), known as the Septuagint (LXX), and subsequently the writings of the New Testament, were only examples of such influence. But Greek never displaced Aramaic among the Jews of Palestine or Babylon.

The succeeding Maccabean, Hasmonian, and Roman administration in Palestine did not witness fundamental changes in the linguistic situation, although, with coming of the Romans to the East, Latin was introduced into many aspects of public life. 


Passages of the Old Testament written in the Aramaic language are called Biblical Aramaic. They occur in Ezra 4:8; 6:18 and 7:12-26. Daniel 2:4,7:28; and the gloss in Jer. 10:11 and Gen 31:47.

Various scholars have tried to show that the original language of a number of books from the Persian and Hellenistic periods, were written in Aramaic, and that they were later translated into Hebrew. This view has been presented in connection with Job, Koheleth, Daniel, Esther, 1 and 2 Chronicles, proverbs, and Ezekiel[11]

In the New Testament, various Aramaic words or expressions occur, e.g. “Talitha Cumi” (little girl, stand up) Mark 5:41; “Ephphata” (etphtah, be opened) Mark 7:34; “Eli, Eli, Lama Shabachthani” (my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me) Matt.27:46, Mark 15:34; “Rabboni” (my Lord) Mark 10:51, John 20:16; “Maran Atha” (our Lord, come) Cor. 16:22.

Aramaic influence is apparent in personal names such as “ Cephas” John 1:42, 1 Cor 1:12 and “Tabitha” Acts 9:36, 40, and in place names, including “Akeldama” (field of blood) Acts 1:19; “Gesthsemane (oil press) Matt 26:36, Mark 14:32; and “Golgotha” (skull) Mark 15:22


We possess an abundant number of inscriptions written in Aramaic. They constitute an extremely important source of information for our knowledge of Biblical Aramaic. With the earliest inscriptions dating as far back as the ninth century BC, from Zinjirli in north Syria; from Nineveh, Kouyunjik, Nimrud, Khorsabad (8th to 7th century BC; from Babylonia (6th –4th cent. BC); from Tello, bilingual in Aramaic and Greek (3rd cent. BC); from Egypt (fifth to beginning of third cent. BC); the so-called stele of Sakhara, bilingual (Egyptian and Aramaic) dated the fourth year of Xerxes 482 BC; from Taima, north of Hijaz; Al-Hijr; Petra and Hauran; the Palmyrene inscriptions belong to the first three centuries of the Christian Era[12]; from the Sinaitic Peninsula; from Pakistan (3rd. cent. BC); from the former Soviet Union (2nd cent. BC); and from Afghanistan (3rd cent. BC).[13]


At the beginning of the Christian era, Aramaic, in various dialects was the dominant spoken language of Syria and Mesopotamia. It developed a number of literary dialects, known as Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, Syro-Palestinian Christian Aramaic, Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic, and Mandaic Aramaic. In Galilee[14]and Samaria[15], Aramaic dialects became the day-to-day means of communication.

It is generally agreed that the inhabitants of Palestine, at the dawn of the first century, were acquainted in varying degrees with the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.

Differences emerge, however, regarding the geographical and chronological limits of each language. Some scholars defend the theory that Jesus spoke in Greek, among those in favor of this is Vosius, in the seventeenth century, D. Diodati In the eighteenth century and Paulus, Hug and Credner[16] in the nineteenth century. More recently, A.W Argyle argued that Jesus spoke Greek and that his audience understood it as easily as they did in Aramaic[17]. Some welcomed this claim, but others were in opposition[18].

Evidence of Hellenistic influence, is attested by numerous Greek inscriptions, graffiti, and correspondence, Greek Pseudepigrapha written in Palestine, the Greek fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the Greek influence found throughout rabbinic literature.

Others have stressed the role of Latin, the language of the Roman administration[19], they argue that Latin left its mark on a number of public inscriptions as well as in a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Latin influence is manifested in certain aspects of Rabbinic Hebrew.

M. Wilcox, on the other hand, considers the Hebrew language of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predominates over Aramaic, as an indication that Hebrew, in New Testament time, was not confined to rabbinical circles, but appears to be a “normal vehicle of expression”[20]. Along this, runs a similar view of H. Birkeland[21], who challenged the usual view that Aramaic was the regular spoken language of the first century Palestine. According to Dr. Birkeland, Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the language of the Jews and of Jesus.[22]

In an age of reason, one has to look at the facts surrounding the spread of the Aramaic language, especially the Galilean Aramaic. In the Synagogue, following the Babylonian Exile, Palestinian Jews had their public reading of the Scripture, rendered in vernacular Aramaic. That tradition was necessary due to the growing number of Jews who were more familiar with Aramaic than with Hebrew (Neh. 8:8)[23]. This oral interpretation began as a simple paraphrase, but later, it became more elaborate and the various explanations tended to become fixed and traditional, and finally, these Aramaic interpretations were reduced to writing, which is known as Targums (or Targumim).

Aramaic Targums exist for the Pentateuch[24]. The oldest appears to be the Palestinian Pentateuch Targum, which is available in its entirety through the Codex Neofiti I of the Vatican Library. It preserves the idiomatic Aramaic used in Palestine perhaps as early as the first centuries of the Christian era. The second is known as the Jerusalem Targums of the Pentateuch (I and II), also known as the Pseudo-Jonathan Targums. The third is the Targum of Onkelos, which was the official Targum of the Synagogue. We might add another Aramaic Targum known as the Samaritan Targum. It was translated from Hebrew into the Aramaic dialect used by the Samaritans.

Not only the Pentateuch was translated into Aramaic for the benefit of the Palestian Jews, there were other Aramaic translations also for the books of the Prophets. The official Targum on the Prophets is known as Targum Jonathan bar-Uzziel. It had its origin in Palestine. Aramaic translations are available for the Hebrew cannon of the Old Testament, known as Hagiographa (Heb. Ketubim)[25].[26]

No one doubts the extent to which Aramaic had spread throughout the Levant from the middle of the first millennium BC, until Arabic supplanted it, in the seventh century. A more difficult question, which has led to a significant disagreement among scholars, has to do with differences among, and classification of the various dialects of Aramaic.

The most extreme theory is that during the Exile, the Jews lost their Hebrew language for Aramaic. Reserving Hebrew, already a dead language, for literature. This was Saadiah’s view, and also, in different forms, by a number of nineteenth- and-twentieth century scholars, including A. Geiger, A. Meyer, G.H. Dalman, A. Dupont-Sommer, and F. Altheim and R. Stiehl.

Meyer[27] argued that Jesus’ mother tongue was Aramaic, and that most of the Testament writings were originally written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek. Dalman agrees with the fact that Aramaic was the spoken language of the Jews in New Testament time. He concluded that Jesus grew up in Aramaic environment, and that He had to use Aramaic in order to be understood by his disciples and the people[28].

More recently too, Dupont-Sommer argued that, Aramaic was the only language current among ordinary people at the time of Jesus, and that it was the language spoken by Jesus and the Apostles[29]. Similarly, Altheim and Stiehl[30]argued that from the beginning of the Hellenistic era, Aramaic had completely supplanted Hebrew as a spoken language.

A more sophisticated approach distinguishes Middle Aramaic (from 300 BC), and Late Aramaic dialects. In the first group, E.Y. Kutscher placed Targum Onkelos[31] and the Aramaic translations from the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as insciptions from around Jerusalem, and Aramaic expressions in the New Testament[32]. The later dialects, which belong to Western Aramaic, are classified as Galilaean, Samaritan, and Christian-Palestinian Aramaic. Of these, the Galilaean dialect is of particular interest, because, it was used, for example, in the Aramaic sections of the Palestinian Talmud[33], the Palestinian Targums[34], numerous midrashim[35], and various Synagogue inscriptions.

The evidence of the Aramaic language of Jesus is impossible to explain if Aramaic was not His spoken language. The Scriptures were provided with Targum for the Aramaic-speaking masses who could no longer understand Hebrew. In the Synagogue, following the Babylonian Exile, Palestinian Jews had their public reading of the Hebrew Scripture rendered in vernacular Aramaic. That tradition was necessary due to the growing number of Jews who were more familiar with Aramaic than with Hebrew (Neh.8:8). This oral interpretation began as a simple paraphrase, but later, it became more elaborate and the various explanations tended to become fixed and traditional, and finally, these Aramaic interpretations of the Scriptures were reduced to writing, known as Targums (or Targumim).

Targums exist for the Pentateuch[36]. The oldest appears to be the Palestininan Pentateuch Targum, which is available in its entirety through the Codex Neofiti I of the Vatican Library. It preserves the idiomatic Aramaic used in Palestine perhaps as early as the first centuries of the Christian era. The second is known as the Jerusalem Targums of the Pentateuch (I and II), also known as the Pseudo-Jonathan Targums.

Nowadays, there are few scholars who would disagree that in Galilee and Samaria, the spoken language of the time, was basically Aramaic. More controversial, though, is the extent of the use of Aramaic in Judea to the south.


  • [1] In the Peshito Bible the term “Leshono Canaanoyo” is used. In other Bible Books this is replaced by the term Hebrew. See the Good News Bible for example.

  • [2] See Ullendorff 1971

  • [3] See, for example, Birkeland 1940; Baumgartner 1959; R. Meyer (1966-72)

  • [4] For example, Beyer 1969

  • [5] See Theis 1912; Landersdorfer 1916; Zimmern 1917

  • [6] See Yahuda 1933 (originally published in German, 1929; also Lambdin 1953

  • [7] See Rabin 1963

  • [8] See Rabin 1962; see also Ellenbogen 1962

  • [9] See Morag 1980-81

  • [10] It should be noted that the designation Akkadu, “(language) of Agade,” which has been adopted by modern Assyriologists, was in ancient times used when referring to the Semitic versus the Sumerian version of text, while the Hittites referred to what we call Akkadian as “Babylonian,” and the Assyrians themselves called their language “Assyrian” when contrasting it with Aramaic.

  • [11] 3 vols. Otto Harrassow; Wiesbaden 1968, 1969, 1971

  • [12] See S. Cook, 1974

  • [13] Concordance of Aramaic Inscriptions, Scholars  Press, University of Montana

  • [14] Galilee’s most significant period was the thirty-year span of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and especially the short “active ministry” during which he proclaimed his gospel of salvation

  • [15] See G.A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land , 1894; see also D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible, 1957

  • [16] See Diez Macho 1963; Fitzmyer 1970.

  • [17] See Argyle 1955-56

  • [18] See the responses of J.K.Russel (1955-56); H.M. Draper (1955-56); and R.M. Eilson (1956-57)

  • [19] Fitzmyer 1970

  • [20] The Semitisms of Act

  • [21] “The Language of Jesus”, 1954

  • [22]

  • [23] The beginning of this tradition may be reflected in Neh 8:8, which refers to the explaining of obscure words and phrases in the Hebrew of the Pentateuch.

  • [24] The first five books of the Old Testament: (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). They are also known as the “Five Books of Moses” or the Torah.

  • [25] Including Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastics, Esther, Chronicles, a book of late prophecy (Daniel), and two books of postexilic history (Ezra-Nehemia).

  • [26]

  • [27] 1896

  • [28] See Dalman 1902 (originally published in German, 1898; 2nd German edition, 1930).

  • [29] Dupont-Sommer 1949

  • [30] 1966

  • [31] See J.W. Bowker, “The Targums and Rabbinic Literature, 1969; see also M. McNamara “Targum and Testament, 1972.

  • [32] See E.Y. Kutscher, 1970

  • [33] Often referred to as the Yerushalmi. Its dialect is that of Western Aramaic

  • [34] The Aramaic translation of scriptural books, especially the Pentateuch, as delivered orally in the Synagogue during the period of the 2nd temple and later.

  • [35] Its aim was to elucidate the meaning of the text of the Bible. See M. Mielziner, Introduction to the Talmud, 1925

  • [36] The first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah, or the “Five Books of Moses”. They include (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).

  • [37]