The Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? (Video)

As a Bible student, you have probably noticed that in some translations in Acts Paul is said to have spoken Hebrew while speaking to the crowd in the Temple and later Jesus is recorded as speaking Hebrew to Paul. However, in other translations the word Aramaic appears. Which version is correct, why the discrepancies and most importantly, which language did Jesus and his disciples speak?
Discovering the Language of Jesus Complete Package
(Book, DVD, MP3, e-book) 20% off

Discovering the Language of Jesus Lecture

Knowing what language Jesus spoke, helps us better understand the words, phrases and teachings that were used in the New Testament.  This lecture is taught by author Douglas Hamp at the campus of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, CA

Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachthani

From Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? Click here to listen: Discovering the Language of Jesus Douglas Hamp or El Lenguaje de Jesus

Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? Click to purchase

Mark 15:34 records some of the last words of Jesus as he was on the cross.  They have been used to support the claim that Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew.  “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” These words closely parallel the words in Psalm 22:1 in both the original Hebrew and in the Aramaic Targumim, though His words, as recorded in Mark 15:34 match neither exactly.  Many scholars have glossed over this utterance as Aramaic without even really taking the time to see if it indeed is.

The table below lists Jesus’ phrase according to Mark and Matthew and then gives the text from Psalm 22:1 in the Hebrew original, the Targum (Aramaic) and then the Christian Syriac version (Syriac and Aramaic are basically the same).  Notice that none of the aforementioned texts is exactly the same.  Matthew’s version is exactly the same for the first three words: Eli Eli, lama but then differs with sabachthani.  The Targum of Ps 22:1 has shabachtani like in Mark and Matthew but then differs on the following: Eli Elahi instead of Eli Eli, and metul ma instead of lama.  While these are similar in meaning, it must be conceded that they are significantly different to merit investigation.  The Syriac version is the closest but again, it is not an exact match since lama is written lamna.  It must not be overlooked, however, that the Syriac version was written as a translation to the New Testament and thus cannot be used conclusively to prove one way or the other the exact words of Jesus.  The rest of the table lists the different ways of saying God in Hebrew and Aramaic (Syriac).

Table 3 Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabaktani

Mark 15:34 ᾿Ελωΐ, ᾿Ελωΐ λαμὰ σαβαχθανι Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani
Matthew 27:46 ἠλι ἠλι, λαμὰ σαβαχθανί Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani
Psalm 22:1 Hebrew (original) אלי אלי למה עזבתני Eli eli lama azavtani
Psalm 22:1 Aramaic (Targum Psalms) אלי׳אלהי מטול מה שבקתני Eli elahi metul ma shabaktani
Syriac (Aramaic) Mark 15:34 ܐܠܗܝ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ Elahi elahi, lamna shabaktani
Syriac (Aramaic) Matthew 27:46 ܐܠܝ ܐܠܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ Eli eli, lamna shabaktani
Hebrew God אלהים /אלוה / אל Elohim / Eloah / El
Aramaic God אלה / אל Elah / El
Hebrew/Aramaic My God אלי Eli
Hebrew (only) My God אלהי elohai
Aramaic (only) My God אלהי Elahi
Septuagint Judges 5:5 my God Ελωι Eloi


We have some interesting evidence in the New Testament given that the original words of Jesus have been recorded by two of his disciples – Matthew and Mark (according to early church tradition, Mark received his Gospel from the testimony of Peter).  It is interesting to note that Matthew’s version is slightly different from Mark’s.  Matthew records, in 27:46 that Jesus said Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (resembling Psalm 22:1 in Hebrew eli, eli lama azavtani) while Mark’s account says Eloi Eloi.  I believe that we can safely assume that Jesus did not say it one way for Matthew and another for the writer of Mark while on the cross.  Matthew’s version – Eli Eli is what we would expect in Hebrew or even in Aramaic.  Eloi, however, is a mystery. Which way he said it has to do with the issue of transliteration and will be answered in the course of our search.

We know what Eloi means, due to the convenient translation in the text, that is my God.  The question of course, is whether it is Hebrew or Aramaic.  The truth is, as such, it is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic.  While it is close to the Hebrew form of אלהים elohim, it falls short.  Its form is not found even once in the Hebrew Bible and since elohim is such a common word, not finding it there forces us to conclude that it is not Hebrew. However, it is not Aramaic either.  If Eloi were Aramaic, as is assumed, then why don’t we see at least one example of its use in the OT since in both Daniel 4:5, and 6:22, which were plainly written in Aramaic, the words “my God” are not Eloi but אלהי elahi.  The form spoken by Jesus as recorded in Mark is conspicuously absent!  Furthermore, the Targumim translate my God as elahi just as the Aramaic does from the time of Daniel.  Targum Psalm 22:1, has אלי אלהי eli elahi (Targum Psalms). Moreover, the Syriac (Aramaic) version of the New Testament (written about 200 AD) actually translates the Greek text of Mark 15:34 (my God) ὁ Θεός μου  (ho Theos mou) as elahi and not Eloi!  Apparently the Aramaic speakers didn’t consider it to be Aramaic either since they wrote Elahi.  Considering that this text was written after the time of Jesus just further serves to demonstrate that Eloi is not Aramaic.

If Eloi is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic, then what is it?  There are three ways to say God in Hebrew:אלהים  Elohim (2605 times) only in Hebrew, used most often to refer to the God of Israel,  אל El (242 times), both Hebrew and Aramaic, more often used of foreign gods, though nevertheless, used in reference to the true God of Israel, and אלוה Eloah (56 times) used only in Hebrew texts (primarily in Job).  All of them have a general meaning of mighty one – really just a title, which can theoretically, be applied to any one who “is mighty”. [1] Elohim, unlike el and Eloah, is the plural form meaning gods.  Whenever used of the one true God of Israel, however, the verb related to it is always singular. [2] To say my God with el simply requires that one add the letter yud to the end of the word.  Thus, El becomes Eli.  To add my to plural masculine nouns like Elohim, however, basically requires adding the vowel a and dropping the mem (mem makes a masculine noun plural).  Elohim therefore, becomes Elohai.  To make the first person possessive of Eloah is similar, though, unfortunately, the first person singular my is not found in the pages of the Bible.  There is, however, one passage in Habbakuk 1:11 which does have the possessive pronoun suffix his אלהו – Eloho.  Thus, according to the conventions of Hebrew grammar, the way to say my God would be Elohi.  (Gallagher, personal correspondence)   Aramaic has two ways to say God, El, which is exactly the same as the Hebrew counterpart and the other way is אלה Elah. To say my God is Eli and Elahi similar to the Hebrew forms.

Thus in either Hebrew or Aramaic, we should see one of four forms: Elohai or Elohi (only Hebrew), Eli (both Hebrew and Aramaic) or Elahi (only Aramaic).  There are no other possibilities and Eloi is simply not one of the options.  In order to discover which language Jesus spoke, we will limit our discussion to Mark’s Eloi since Eli could be either Hebrew or Aramaic.  We will essentially address two questions:

  1. What happened to the letter he in the middle of the word (equivalent to the letter H)?
  2. Are there any occurrences of Eloi in the Septuagint?

Without Eli we have limited our focus to three candidates for the mysterious Eloi, the two Hebrew words Elohai, Elohi and the Aramaic Elahi.  We don’t have the actual Hebrew or Aramaic word written in the Hebrew/Aramaic [3] script but the Greek transliteration, which can sometimes be tricky.  Some languages don’t have the rough breathing sound that the letter H makes.  English, for example, can make the sound at the beginning and middle of words but not at the end (this seems normal to us; however, Hebrew can do all three!).  Greek is able to produce the H sound at the beginning of words, but not in the middle or end. [4] So, how would one transliterate any of the three from either Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek?  There is, in fact, no way to transliterate the words other than by transliterating them without the rough breathing sound, which would yield three different options: Eloai, Eloi and Elai.

To prove the theory, we will select words which we know have the letter ה (letter H) in the middle and then compare them to the Greek transliterations (in the Septuagint) where, if the theory is correct, there should be the absence of a rough breathing mark (like the letter H).  For example, Abraham in the Septuagint is Αβραάμ (Abraam).

Table 4 Loss of the ה(H) Sound in Greek

Verse Hebrew Bible Transliteration of Hebrew Septuagint Transliteration of Greek
Genesis 17:5 אברהם Abraham Αβραάμ Abraam
Exodus 4:14 אהרן Aharon Ααρων Aaron
Judges 3:15 אהוד Ehud Αωδ Aod
I Sam 1:1 אליהוא Elihu Ηλιου Eliu
II Sam 8:16 יהושׁפט Jehoshaphat Ιωσαφατ Josaphat
I Kings 16:1 יהוא Jehu Ιου You
II Kings 23:34 יהויקים Jehoiakim Ιωακιμ Yoakim

Notice from the table that the Hebrew words lose the H in the Greek (and English transliteration).  As expected, the Greek version cannot reproduce the H and so it was left out in the transliteration.  Therefore, the word Eloi is not necessarily Aramaic simply based on the lack of the letter H. However it is too early to conclude that it is Hebrew.  Clearly, the Hebrew letter he or H was lost due to transliteration, but was the original Hebrew or Aramaic?  The loss of the letter he in the Greek transliteration leaves us with the following three possibilities: Eloai, Eloi, and Elai.

Clearly Eloi fits perfectly what Mark recorded and fortunately we have an example of this in the Septuagint.  Judges 5:5 “The mountains gushed before the LORD, this Sinai before the LORD God of Israel” κυρίου Ελωι, τοῦτο Σινα ἀπὸ προσώπου κυρίου θεοῦ Ισραηλ (kuriou Eloi touto Sina apo prosopou kuriou theou Israel).  Notice that they translated the word LORD (YHWH in Hebrew) into Greek as kuriou (Lord) and then added the word Eloi (my God), which is not in the Hebrew text.  There are two things that must not be missed here.  First of all, the mysterious word in Mark is attested in the Septuagint with exactly the same spelling.  Secondly, the Septuagint was translated into Greek from Hebrew and not Aramaic.  Thus when looking at Mark 15:34 we have solid evidence of how Elohi was transliterated from Hebrew (not Aramaic!) in to Greek.  If Mark had been transliterating from Aramaic, he would probably not have written Eloi ᾿Ελωΐ [5] with the letter omega (ω) since the Aramaic is distinctly elahi and would have better transliterated it as ᾿Ελaΐ with the letter alpha.

In summary, we see that there is no way to actually write the Hebrew Elohai, Elohi, or the Aramaic Elahi except by dropping the letter he.  Of the three, Elohi fits perfectly and is attested once in the Septuagint – ᾿Ελωΐ Eloi – the exact same spelling and meaning as what is in Mark 15:34.  Furthermore, if Mark had been transliterating Aramaic, it most likely would have appeared as Elai and not Eloi. Our findings may explain the difference between Matthew and Mark since Matthew records Eli, Eli – which has the same meaning but does not present any problems of transliteration. Perhaps knowing this, we might conclude that Matthew simply wrote Eli Eli and not Eloi knowing that Greek letters could not reproduce the word Elohi and since Eli, Eli is how the Hebrew text of Psalm 22:1 reads. And it would seem that Mark opted to write the specific literal words, even though they could not be written exactly in Greek.


Lama למה, meaning why, is an extremely common word and is used least 145 times in the Hebrew OT in almost every book. It is seen in every phase in Hebrew – from proto Hebrew to Standard Biblical Hebrew to Late Biblical Hebrew and numerous times in the Mishnah.  So, we should not be surprised to see it here in Jesus’ day as well.  The root letters lamed, mem and he are also found in Aramaic, though it should be noted that the vocalization (the vowels) are slightly different than what is recorded in Mark 15:34.  The Aramaic word is lema. [6] It is possible that Mark was transliterating the Aramaic lema as λαμα (lama) – although we cannot be dogmatic about the issue, he could have more accurately written it with the Greek letter epsilon (λεμα) if that were the case. [7] However, as the historical sources indicate, it would seem that Mark was simply writing in Hebrew. Moreover, the word lama does not appear in the (Aramaic) Targum of Psalm 22:1.  Even though lema exists in Aramaic, the translators of this Targum used two words metul ma, also meaning why.  Thus, not only does the Hebrew lama fit better than the Aramaic lema but even the Targum doesn’t use the word.  Only the Hebrew text has the word that Jesus used while enduring our sins on the cross.


Shabachtani[8] שׁבקתני appears to be a word of Aramaic origin.  It means to leave, leave alone, entrust, bequeath, divorce, permit, forgive, abandon and forsake.  It is used a total of five times in the Old Testament, all of which are found in the Aramaic portions of Daniel and Ezra.  However, given that there was a limited amount of Aramaic influence exerted on the Hebrew language after the return from the Babylonian captivity, we later see the root shabak [9] שׁבק attested in Jewish writings such as the Jerusalem Talmud, which is where the Mishna is found.

Of the seven occurrences of shabak in the Mishnah, four are clearly couched in Hebrew prose.  A passage from the Jerusalem Talmud (31:5:1), is an especially good example of the words surrounding shabak. The text contains certain grammatical structures and vocabulary which occur only in Hebrew and not Aramaic.  A few examples are the use of the letter ה he found at the beginning of words which means the (Aramaic has א – aleph at the end of words).  Also the word שׁ Shay, that, (used only Hebrew) versus די di [10] (used only in Aramaic).  Thus the word shabak, which Jesus spoke on the cross, we find situated in the midst of Mishnaic Hebrew words and grammar, and therefore, we can safely conclude that while this was originally a loan word from Aramaic, by Jesus’ day, it had become common place in the Hebrew language.  We should actually expect there to be some loan words in the language.

Consider for example, if you live in France and you hear someone say that he intends to do “le jogging” you should not conclude that he is actually speaking English!  Likewise, consider the dramatic influence French had on English – we use without any thought words such as pork and beef not knowing that these words are not originally English.  This does not lead us to the conclusion that Americans are speaking French, though it does imply that there was some French influence upon the English language.  In fact, pork and beef have become so common that we are often surprised to learn that they are French.  Nevertheless, though pork and beef are clearly French, the way they are spelled (vs. porc and boeuf) shows that they have been completely assimilated into the English language. [11] And so it is with Shabaktani – the word seems to have come originally from Aramaic but was completely assimilated into (Mishnaic) Hebrew as attested by its usage in the writings of the Mishnah, which as pointed out already, was the final stage of ancient Hebrew before its demise around 200 AD [12].  Also, the ending of the word “ta+ni” is exactly what we would expect in Biblical Hebrew [13] viz. shabakta=you forsook +ni=me.

[1] Jesus makes reference to this word in John 10:34 of the leaders and judges of Israel.

[2] A beautiful example of the Trinity in the Old Testament (first occurring in Genesis 1:26).

[3] Both Hebrew and Aramaic were written in what was known as Aramaic script just like how English is written using Latin letters.

[4] My lovely wife, Anna, pointed this out to me!

[5] Mark includes the breathing marks and accents making it even clearer that it is to be pronounced Elo-i demonstrating that the Hebrew letter he has been dropped.

[6] The e is written with a shewa which is a very short sound.

[7] Some manuscripts do contain the variants λεμα lema, λιμα lima, –  see The Robinson/Pierpont Byzantine Greek New Testament.  However, the Textus Receptus and the Vulgate have λαμμα lamma or λαμα lama respectively.

[8] The Aramaic word is actually Shabachtani – Greek does not have the “sh” sound which is why the NT text has transliterated it as Sabachtani.

[9] The last root letter is like the letter K as in kite.  Again this is a matter of transliteration.

[10] The other uses are: זאת zot, בן ben, אני ani, את et – these words are specifically Hebrew.  The Aramaic counterpart is different enough so that we can conclude that these words are Hebrew and not Aramaic.  Ben and bar (in a later chapter), however, are often interchangeable.

[11] Perhaps even more surprising is discovering that the word sack is in fact a Hebrew word – it is found 17 times in the Old Testament.  It has been so completely assimilated that few people ever give it a second thought.  It is indeed English, but was originally (and still is!) Hebrew.

[12] Hebrew essentially died as a spoken language but was still in use in Jewish life up until the establishment of Modern Hebrew.

[13] The form, though, is the same in Aramaic.


Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic?

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24 see also Luke 16:9,11,13)

The word mammon[1] has long been assumed to be Aramaic.  In fact, every Greek lexicon I checked said unambiguously that it is of Aramaic origin.[2] Many lexicons simply relegate the word to Aramaic a priori based on the fact that it is not Greek.  The word, in fact, comes from an old Hebrew root המון hamon meaning a number of different things making it somewhat difficult to translate.  But essentially, it means many, a lot.  Among the meanings [3] are riches and abundance.  It might seem to be somewhat of a stretch to say that hamon could become mammon.  However, considering that it was quite common for the letter mem to be added to the front of words to make them into other classes of words, it is not a stretch at all.  Consider the following examples:

  • targum (translation), becomes translator by adding the letter mem to the front of the word – meturgeman
  • melech (king), becomes kingdom by adding a mem to the beginning – mamlacha,
  • zamar (to sing) becomes melody, psalmmizmor
  • yesha (salvation) – (from which comes the name Yeshua – Jesus) becomes with the memsavior moshia
  • hamon (a lot) becomes (money) mammon

Equally important is the fact that the word mammon is actually attested outside of the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.  We find it nine times in the Mishna.  The passages in which mammon is found are in Hebrew (not Aramaic!) and are in reference to money and terms of payment.  One says, “If they give you a lot of money [mammon], you will enter…” Seder Nizikin 3:4 [4].  Another says, that if certain services are not performed, then a fine of money [mammon] will be paid (Seder Nizikin 4:8 [5]. And lastly, Seder Nashim Ktuvot 3:2 says in unambiguous terms that if so and so undertakes or commits to do something and then doesn’t pay then he will be fined as it says in Exodus 21:22:

  • (Mishna Nashim Ktuvot 3:2)וכל המתחייב בנפשו–אינו משלם ממון, שנאמר “ולא יהיה, אסון–ענוש ייענש (שמות כא,כב) …Vkol hamitchayev benafsho – eino meshalem mammon, sheneamar velo yihiye, ason – yenosh yeanash (shmot 21:22).
  • (Hebrew Bible, Exodus 21:22) – וכי־ינצו אנשׁים ונגפו אשׁה הרה ויצאו ילדיה ולא יהיה אסון ענושׁ יענשׁ כאשׁר ישׁית עליו בעל האשׁה ונתן בפללים) – …he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

There are two things in this text that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that mamon is a Hebrew word for money.  First of all, the Hebrew word “pay” (meshalem) appears before mammon (money) and secondly is the reference given to Exodus 21:22b which says “yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay (natan, literally give) as the judges determine.”  We see that the Mishnaic text actually uses some of the same words but updates pay (natan in Exodus 21:22b) with the up-to-date term pay money (meshalem mammon).  Since they use it in conjunction with that verse, which we know means pay and then update it with meshalem mammon, which, by the way, are in a 100% Hebrew context, we can definitively conclude that mammon was Hebrew.  While we cannot say that this was not an Aramaic word, it is worth noting that Targum Onkelos translates the word in the Exodus passage, which is related to the above Mishnaic passage, as natangive. Moreover in places where the Hebrew Bible writes money as kesef (literally silver), Targum Onkelos follows suite with כַספָא kaspa.  If mammon were such a common Aramaic word then why is it not used in this of all verses when the Mishna does use it?

[1] The Textus Receptus has the spelling mamon, which agrees with Luke in every manuscript.  However, for sake of the accepted convention mammon will be used in this book.

[2] See in situ Thayers Greek Lexicon, Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Lexicon, Friberg Green Lexicon, UBS Greek Dictionary and Louw-Nida Lexicon

[3] The meaning of hamon: cry aloud, mourn, rage, roar, sound; make noise, tumult; be clamorous, disquieted, loud, moved, troubled, in an uproarAbundance, company, many, multitude, noise, riches, rumbling, sounding, store, tumult.  (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament hamon entry).

[4] Seder Nizikin 3:4 (im notnin lecha mammon harbe, ata niknas) אם נותנין לך ממון הרבה, אתה נכנס

[5] Seder Nizikin 4:8 (she-ein chayavin ela al tviat mammon kfiqudin)שאין חייבין אלא על תביעת ממון כפיקדון

Introduction to Discovering the Language of Jesus

Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? Click to purchase

What was the language that Jesus communicated in as he taught and interacted with the people of Israel?  Some say it was Greek since that is the language of the New Testament.  Some say Aramaic, picked up by the children of Israel during their seventy-year captivity in Babylon, since they suppose that Hebrew was a dead language at the time of Jesus. Finally, the minority view holds that Jesus spoke Hebrew, the language of his people, of Moses, David and the prophets.  Nevertheless, Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew, couldn’t he have spoken all three?  While it is entirely possible that he spoke all three, the issue that our discussion will focus on is what language he most often communicated in.  After all, the creator of the universe would obviously be able to speak whatever language he desired, but of course speaking a language is only useful if those around you can understand what you are saying.  So our question quickly becomes limited to what language the disciples and followers of Jesus spoke.  That is not to say what they were capable of speaking, but rather, what language they spoke in the markets, their homes and in their inner circles when sharing their thoughts.

Click here to listen: Discovering the Language of Jesus Douglas Hamp or El Lenguaje de Jesus

Even if we can determine what language Jesus most often communicated in, does it really matter?  Yes, it does matter!  The language of Jesus is important to our understanding of the Jewish culture and world in which Jesus lived, taught and interacted.  So much of a culture is wrapped up in its language that it is often difficult to separate the two.  Knowing what language Jesus and the Jewish people living in Israel [1] in his day spoke, helps us better understand the words, phrases and teachings that were used in the New Testament

Perhaps even more significant to why this is important is that the Bible says that he spoke Hebrew!  The idea that Jesus spoke only Aramaic and not Hebrew is neither historical nor Biblical.  The New Testament clearly and unambiguously says that Jesus spoke Hebrew and that Hebrew was used in his day; it never refers to Aramaic.  In spite of this, most Biblical scholars have taught that Hebrew was a dead language at the time of Jesus.  They claim that when the New Testament says Hebrew, it really means Aramaic; in other words, they say that the phrase Hebrew language really means Aramaic. Just as the phrase American language means English, so they say that the Hebrew language in the New Testament actually means Aramaic.

Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew

Perhaps Greek?

We see evidence in the New Testament that Greek was indeed spoken in first century Israel.  A number of Greek inscriptions have also been found in the land from this period (a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC).  Greek for centuries had been the international language of the Ancient Near East including Israel.  Moreover, Josephus reports that there were signs in the Jerusalem Temple “…declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that ‘no foreigner should go within that sanctuary’ for that second [court of the] temple was called ‘the Sanctuary,’…” (Wars 5,5,2) Also one of the languages of the sign on Jesus’ cross [2] was Greek (John 19:20) – thus there can be no doubt that Greek was used in Jesus’ day.  In fact, this is an issue which hardly needs to be mentioned.  After all, the entire New Testament has come down to us in Koine Greek, a dialect of Jesus’ day. However, almost all scholars agree that the mother tongue of the Jews in Israel was not Greek.  As we will see, the New Testament records various words written in the spoken language and then transliterated and translated into Greek.

Aramaic or Hebrew

So, if not Greek, then we are left with two options: Aramaic or Hebrew.  This is truly where opinions differ.  Admittedly, nearly all scholars have argued and still maintain the position that the common language of Jesus’ day was Aramaic.  The theory is so prevalent that it is taught in seminaries as fact that Hebrew was a dead language by the time of Jesus.

Barbara Grimes, in her book, Language Choice in First Century Christianity, unambiguously declares, “In the homeland of the Jewish people in the first Century AD, Aramaic was the mother tongue and principal language of most of the people, including virtually all of the women.” (Grimes 1987:20-21)  Alfred Edersheim, an expert on the life of Jesus, suggests that Hebrew was nothing more than a language used in the Temple and synagogues and the messages had to be translated into Aramaic for the commoners (Edersheim 1993:91). Edersheim and Grimes are not alone; perhaps the majority of scholars have had a mistaken view of Mishnaic Hebrew, the Hebrew of Jesus’ day.  Probably typical of the prevailing opinion was Abraham Geiger’s suggestion, given in 1845, that Mishnaic Hebrew was an artificial creation of Rabbis whose native tongue was Aramaic (Buth 1987:25). One of the most frequently cited scholars is Matthew Black, an expert of Aramaic and proponent of the idea that Hebrew was a dead language in the time of Jesus.  He says

…the Aramaic speaking masses…could no longer understand Hebrew.  The use of the term ‘Hebrew’ to refer to Aramaic is readily explicable, since it described the peculiar dialect of Aramaic which had grown up in Palestine since the days of Nehemiah and which was distinctively Jewish … (Black 1967:48)

This belief became so commonplace that the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible followed suit with the assumption by systematically translating the words ῾Εβραΐδι Hebraidi and ῾Εβραϊστὶ Hebraisti (both mean Hebrew) as Aramaic.  For example in John 5:2 the NIV translates “…near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda…” instead of the literal translation Hebrew (though “or Hebrew” is in the footnotes).  Obviously, the rationale for doing so stems from the belief that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew.  Is this justifiable when the word is clearly Hebrew?  When Paul, in Philippians 3:5, describes himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” the NIV correctly retains Hebrew instead of Aramaic or Aramean.  They translate the same word ῾Εβραῖος (Hebraios – related to the two variations above) as Hebrew in Philippians; why not retain the translation in the other passages which are talking about the language?  It is unfortunate that the belief that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew is so strong that Bible translators feel justified in changing the text of the New Testament instead of simply faithfully translating what it says even if it is in contradiction to current scholarship.

Though the prevalent theory of Aramaic as the mother tongue of Jesus is overwhelming, the view is in need of a revision that more accurately represents the language situation in Jesus’ day. Once we begin investigating, we discover that there is a great deal of evidence from the New Testament, as well as a plethora of external evidence showing that Jesus spoke Hebrew (not Aramaic) as his mother tongue and in his daily life and ministry.


This is not to say that Aramaic was not spoken.  The amount of evidence is irrefutable that Aramaic was one of the languages of his day.  However, the historical and biblical evidence attests to the fact that he was speaking Hebrew.  Again, this is important since to say otherwise does not accurately represent Jesus.  Also, recognizing his language as Hebrew demonstrates the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God, and provides a continuum of teaching from the Old Testament up to and through the life and ministry of the Messiah.

A Road Map

In order to resolve the question of just what Jesus was speaking as his day-to-day language of communication, we will first of all look at the historical evidence coupled with the testimony of the New Testament in order to see what ancient authors had to say about the language of the day.  After reviewing what history has to tell us, we will then examine, from a linguistic point of view, the actual words of Jesus (plus a few others), as recorded in the New Testament.  This is necessary since words and phrases, such as talitha kumi have so often been used to “prove” that he really spoke Aramaic.  Our linguistic examination will reveal that he was speaking Hebrew, just like the New Testament says.

[1] Israel at the time of Jesus refers generally to the areas of Judea, Galilee and perhaps Samaria as well.

[2] See appendix for the discussion of the supposed hidden message on the sign on the cross.

Discovering the Language of Jesus

language of jesus

Discovering the Language of Jesus Complete Package (Book, DVD, MP3, e-book) 20% off

For the last 150 years, both popular and academic views have asserted that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language of communication since supposedly Hebrew died out after the children of Israel were taken into Babylonian captivity. This view, however, is not based on the testimony of the Old Testament, the New Testament, historical sources, or Jesus’ actual words. Just which language did Jesus and his disciples speak?

As a Bible student, you have probably noticed that in some translations in Acts Paul is said to have spoken Hebrew while speaking to the crowd in the Temple and later Jesus is recorded as speaking Hebrew to Paul. However, in other translations the word Aramaic appears. Which version is correct, why the discrepancies and most importantly, which language did Jesus and his disciples speak?


 Pastor and teacher Douglas Hamp takes you on a journey through history, Scripture and linguistics to solve the puzzle. By Discovering the Language of Jesus, you will gain a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and culture and will be fully convinced that every detail in God’s Word is accurate, reliable and worthy of your trust.”

Calvary Chapel Magazine Book Review Fall 2005

A persuasive book that presents compelling evidence that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the primary language of Jesus and the disciples. In light of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, this is an issue that every Bible student should consider.”

Chuck Smith, Senior Pastor Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa

I am convinced that the language of Jesus and the apostles was indeed Hebrew rather than Aramaic.”

Brian Brodersen, Associate Pastor Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa

A mind-changing book. The serious Bible student, wanting to teach accurately, should weigh Doug Hamp’s evidence, rather than parroting tradition.”

Carl Westerlund, Th.M, Director Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa School of Ministry and Graduate School

…this is a great work that challenges many incorrect assumptions about the use of Hebrew in the time of Yeshua. Definitely check it out.”

Albert Cerussi, Congregational Coleader of Ben David Messianic Congregation