HEBREW — The Primary Language of Jesus in Israel in His Day – 2 June 2014

Why Jesus was a Hebrew-speaker

Hebrew, and not only Aramaic, was a spoken language at the time of Jesus, but PM Netanyahu’s exchange with the pope wasn’t only academic: It’s a debate with a clear religious and cultural subtext.

By | Jun. 2, 2014 | 10:28 AM  (HAARETZ)

Around the turn of the millennium, I received an email from a party looking to create a film script about a first century Jewish sage teaching in Aramaic. Since my PhD was in Aramaic, and Semitic languages are an area of expertise, would I be interested? It aroused my curiosity, so I wrote back with a question: Since Jewish teachers in the first century tended to use Hebrew, why would the filmmakers want an Aramaic script? I received a short response that this film script was about Jesus, as if that was enough said. I declined their offer.

Last week’s news controversy over Jesus’ language, sparked by the exchange between Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and the pope, brings to light how an Aramaic-only speaking Jesus has been enshrined within the academy and society at large. Elon Gilad’s Haaretz article “What language did Jesus speak?” is a prime example.

Gilad starts his case by quoting John 20:16 where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabbouni, “my master, my teacher.” Since the Hebrew word rabbi is widely known by specialists and the common reader alike, the assumption is made that rabbouni cannot be Hebrew and must be Aramaic. But the gospel writer called the word Hebrew, not Aramaic, and he was correct. Rabbouni is, in fact, excellent Mishnaic Hebrew. It is attested in Codex Kaufmann of Mishna Ta`anit 3.8. Mistaken conclusions like Gilad’s are perpetuated by wrong assumptions which lead to wrong expectations. A century of Israeli Mishnaic Hebrew scholarship has laid the foundation for a different perspective.

Three backdrops to the language situation of Judea and the Galilee in the first century should actually reverse the expectations regarding Jesus and his languages: The colloquial nature of Mishnaic Hebrew, the anachronistic and foreign character of the Aramaic Targum translations, and the exclusivity of Hebrew in story parables.

A common fallacy presents Hebrew usage in first century Judea and the Galilee as a strictly sacred, literary language, comparable to Latin in Medieval Europe. The notion that both Hebrew and Latin were monolithic is erroneous. During the Second Temple period, Hebrew had developed into two social dialects. The high register was a literary dialect used for prestigious communication, known today as “Late Biblical Hebrew,” the language of books like Ezra and Nehemia and much of the Qumran writings. The low register can be seen in works like the Copper Scroll from Qumran Cave 3, and in various papyri, graffiti, and inscriptions from the Second Temple period, as well as the tannaitic and amoraic writings of rabbinic literature. Already in 1908, M.H. Segal had pointed out to the scholarly world that Mishnaic Hebrew showed the marks of the internal development of a colloquial language – it was definitely not an artificial usage by a scholarly elite.

Secondly, it is argued that first century Judean and Galilean Jews needed a translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Aramaic Targums. The argument runs that the existence of the Aramaic Targums must mean that the people did not know Hebrew. However, the Targums served an interpretive interest beyond simple translation, a commentary that elucidated and expanded the plain text. Also, although many Aramaic writings are found among the Qumran community’s scrolls, except for the foreign (imported) Job and a potential text for a pilgrimage holiday, there is no Aramaic Bible. The Targum traditions that we have stem from the 2nd and 3rd century C.E. At this point in time, a widespread, first-century Aramaic Targum practice in Israel remains speculation and the evidence available, meager though it is, actually points away from such an assumption.

Parables are the third piece of the linguistic puzzle. Certain Jewish literary genres were always in Hebrew, one of which was the rabbinic story parable. In rabbinic literature, even within Aramaic contexts, the story parable was always given in Hebrew. The potential connection with Jesus is obvious, since Jesus, too, is frequently characterized as someone who taught the populace in parables. The parable genre was used for making a point that could be readily grasped by all levels of society. They were a popular literary genre, not “highbrow” or “elitist.”

Archaeology has also been heralded as decisive evidence in the Aramaic-only Jesus. According to Gilad: “In the Galilee, where Jesus lived, Aramaic had taken over by the time Jesus was born. In the south, in Judea, archaeological evidence shows that some pockets of Hebrew still remained during the first century C.E.” This is ironic. The real problem is that we have virtually no archaeological evidence for first century Semitic (Aramaic or Hebrew) languages in the Galilee. We do have Galilean names found in the south, and they are Hebrew!

All of the above is to point out that there are strong evidences that support the prime minister’s comments on Jesus. Yes, in all probability Jesus did teach in Hebrew. Contra Gilad, Bibi’s father, a historian, could be proud of his son. However, the pope countered that Jesus spoke Aramaic. He, too, is partially correct. The Gospel of Mark records at least two utterances in Aramaic, both in private healing accounts, Mark 5:41 and 7:34.

The problem arises when people try to push the issue into exclusivity, either one language or the other. This reaches the most problematic point on the words of the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34). It is probable that Matthew’s transliteration reflects the original form of the story, and that Mark is the one who has edited the sounds. Matthew appears to have Jesus referring to Psalm 22 either in Mishnaic Hebrew, or a mixed language, while Mark has Jesus speaking fully in Aramaic, similarly to the two healing accounts mentioned above. In any case, a few statements in Aramaic do not prove its exclusivity.

It is no longer questioned nor considered a viable option that only Aramaic was a colloquial language in the land in the first century. Hebrew was also a colloquial language and a candidate for any teaching with Jewish audiences throughout the land, and may be the primary candidate for such teaching. As for a mother tongue, we simply do not know enough to speak about any particular family situation anywhere in the country.

Why is there such an emphasis on an Aramaic-only Jesus? What is the sub-text that unifies many of those who suggest that Jesus taught in Aramaic? If Jewish teachers tended to use Hebrew in the first century, then a Jesus that teaches in Aramaic can be portrayed as “non-Jewish” or “less-Jewish.” Some will be comfortable with that. Historically, many Christians have wanted to emphasize a universal (and non-Jewish) orientation for the Church and an Aramaic-teaching Jesus fit that role model. Ironically, the same motive might have been comforting within a Jewish context: Jesus is not one of “our Jewish teachers” and incidentally, he did not even teach in our language. Both sides could miss the real Jesus.

A Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jesus challenges long-held misconceptions. And even if we disagree, Netanyahu and the pope demonstrated that we can begin discussing these issues amicably.

Randall Buth, PhD, is Director of the Biblical Language Center and a member of the Jerusalem School for Synoptic Research, a consortium of Christian and Jewish scholars who collaborate in studying Jesus and the Gospels. He is a co-editor of the recent book, The Language Environment in First Century Judaea, (edited by Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley), Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Volume Two (Brill, 2014).

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Thanks to Randall Buth for responding to the opportunity afforded by the exchange between the Pope and the Israeli PM, Bibi Netanyahu, to give scholarly support for what the Scriptures have long indicated.

I (Howard) have always thought that Jesus spoke Hebrew as the primary spoken language of the Jewish people in His day.  If Nehemiah pulled out the hair because the returning Jews from Babylonian exile were speaking the language of Babylon (which I assume was Aramaic), and not the language of the Jewish people, then surely the Messiah Himself would be speaking the language of the Hebrew man.  (At the same time, I also believe that the language of the original texts of the New Testament was Greek, with many Hebraisms, given that nearly all of the writers were Israeli Hebrew speakers who could also communicate in Greek, the universal language of the day.  There are lots of Americanisms in my own Hebrew!)

Erasing Hebrew as the language of Jesus and of the Israelis in His day is similar to referring to Him living in Palestine, rather than in the Land of Israel, as mentioned in Matthew when His mother and foster father returned with Him from Egypt.  This is, on the one hand a form of anti-semitism; and on the other hand the righteousness of God:  Israel wants to blot out the name and memory of Yeshua; the nations want to blot out Israel from being a nation anymore.  Thanks and praise to God for our Redeemer and Savior to deliver us from the wrath to come!

TO BE A JEW – 7 Dec 2008

I was born to a Jewish father and a Jewish mother.  They were each born to a Jewish father and mother.  They brought us up with a Jewish identity through circumcision, observance of Jewish holy-days, Bar-Mitzva (‘Son of Commandment’).  We lived with an awareness of being Jewish in a Gentile society, and an even larger world.  We sought our acceptance by the Gentile Christians, hoping to prove ourselves worthy in their eyes, while also considering ourselves as much Jewish in our identity as Conservative Jews in comparison to Orthodox Judaism, and more Jewish in our identity and practice (praxis) in contrast to Reform Jews.  We are God’sChosen and Peculiar People, even if we did not personally know Him who chose us, nor understand why.  We are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel was our special nation and land, even if we did not want to live there.

I was born Jew-ish; I was born-again a Jew!

When I was saved by the grace of God – repenting, and believing in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God who died and rose from the dead – I immediately and instinctively wanted to begin keeping the Sabbath (Saturday), observing the Jewish holidays, and keeping ‘kosher’ (adhering to the Jewish dietary regulations).  I reacted to coming to believe in God by thinking it natural and right to live as a Jew who would be ‘religious’ from a [Conservative] Jewish point of view.  I heard the voice of God say to me, “I didn’t tell you to do that.”  And so I didn’t, and I haven’t – at least not in the way of the Jewish religion.  My approval of being a ‘good Jew’ is no longer determined by men, but from the very Creator and Redeemer God who chose us for Himself!

The Lord and Messiah Jesus Himself, and His apostles to whom He gave authority to write the New Testament by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, all spoke plainly regarding our true identity and expression as born-again believers.  The Jewish or Hebraic roots of the Messianic/Christian faith are found in the Word of God – the Bible – not in commentaries, nor in the teachings and doctrines of men (or of demons); not in the wisdom of Jewish sages, nor of Church fathers.  Jesus/Yeshua is the Root and Offspring of David, and before Abraham was, HE IS!  The olive tree which grows out from God’s chosen shoot (the netzer) – who is the Son of David, the Lord Jesus – is a qualitatively different tree than the natural tree whose trunk is Israel and whose roots are located in this land (of Israel) and in the earth.  The new tree, which is all of Messiah – taken out from among His humanly natural Israeli Jewish heritage root – includes all born-again Jews grafted in again for what is a natural ‘transplant’, and also born-again Gentiles grafted in contrary to nature.  The older tree continues by God’s sovereign power and grace, but the new tree lives uniquely as a testimony of God’s eternal redemption through a better covenant, based upon a better sacrifice, with greater promises, and a better hope.  This tree is rooted in Heaven as an anchor for our soul, being a so much greater and pre-eminent plant (tzemach) which the Father has ordained.

That Gentile Christian forms and expressions of the faith will not be overtly Jewish is evident when we consider the implications of Yeshua speaking in parable to tell the Jewish Israeli religious and political leaders that He would take the Kingdomof Godaway from them and give it to a nation bearing the fruits of it.  This judgment falls upon Israel and the natural Jewish custodians of God’s purposes as a consequence of their mistreating all of the servants God sent to them, including, and especially, the very Heir, the Son of the Owner of the vineyard, which is the whole House of Israel.  We, the Jewish people, chosen of God, have thrown Yeshua out of His vineyard, and He is still outside the camp, bearing the reproach of the people as the Scapegoat for all our sins, transgressions, and iniquities, and for their consequences to ourselves and others.  He is calling a mixed multitude of people out to Himself there, who are willing to identify with Him in His current rejection, patiently obeying Him with faith until the set time for His Kingdom comes.  The tabernacle of David is being re-built as we go out to Yeshua – YHVH’s anointed King — and leave ‘Saul’ – the king like those of the gentiles, whomIsrael prefers.

Gentiles were not brought up with the Law and the Prophets.  They are not natural branches; yet God would take them and purify their hearts through faith from their idolatries.  Most of what the Gentile church has done historically has not ‘looked or sounded Jewish’; yet all the while, the Holy Spirit is fulfilling what YHVH spoke through Moses and the Prophets and the Writings.  Thus the apostle Paul could honestly write that he did nothing against Moses and the traditions of the fathers, for the things pertaining to Jewish people under the New Covenant in the blood of Messiah were written beforehand for our (believers’) learning and admonition.

The Gospel is neither Jewish nor Greek.  The Gentiles would be brought into the tents of Shem through faith in the truth of the one true God; and born-again Jews would be enlarged in their understanding of YHVH God of Shem as they paid attention and appreciated His work of salvation amongst the Gentiles.  The good news of God in sending His only-begotten Son to die for sinners is unnatural to the mindset of both Jew and Greek:  the gospel is entirely from God in Heaven in Christ.  No flesh will glory in His holy presence!  Pride, which sets itself against the goodness and grace of God, will be abased!  The meek and humble will be exalted!  The world has been turned upside down!

The New Testament is written by Israeli Jews, with the exception of Luke.  Similarly, the Old Testament (which will not pass away until every jot and tittle are fulfilled, and which can only be so with the literal restoration of the Kingdom of God to Israel and the world during the Millennial Kingdom upon Yeshua’s return) is written by Israelis, with the exception of Job.  Why is it that we who are Jewish believers in Yeshua have such difficulty with what the New Testament says about the very things which we consider so Jewish?  It is proof that the gospel is not Jewish and does not appeal to the Jewish mind or flesh!  The glad tidings come out of a thoroughly Israeli, Jewish, monotheistic grounding, but the revelation of the mystery waited for the appointed time.  We find ourselves resisting the Holy Spirit even now as our forefathers did before us!  

Of course, also in accord with the New Testament, we have liberty to worship on a day most suitable for the people we live among; we have liberty not to eat certain meats; we are always at liberty to love our brethren, so as not to be a cause of stumbling to them, by willingly and humbly giving up our freedoms for the sake of the gospel and the well-being of a “weaker” brother.  But we do not have the liberty to use these liberties at the expense of the truth of what the gospel has accomplished.  We are not free to forbid what God has [now] allowed, nor to teach or speak against what He now says is revealed truth.

We have been called to be witnesses of the risen Lord and Savior, who is now seated at the right hand of the Father.  Messiah has come, and the apostles teach, reprove, correct, and instruct us in the way of righteousness in light of this reality.  There are changes and differences in the New Covenant, which is not like the Old.  The new brings us to maturity, and is written to the royal priesthood whom God is preparing to rule in the world to come with Messiah.  Moses is no longer ‘our Rabbi’.  The one of whom he prophesied has come, and we are to listen to Him.  Moses was a faithful servant in the house, but the Son is the builder of the house!  We are called out by Yeshua to become His disciples.

All born-again believers in Yeshua/Jesus are priests unto God.  It is no longer only for the family of Levi and Aaron; nor is it for men only.  Our priesthood in Messiah transcends the Levitical priesthood.  That is temporal, and will eventually come to an end at the close of theMillennialKingdom.  Our priesthood in Christ is an everlasting one, after the order of Melchizedek.  The Bride of Messiah will rule and reign with King Yeshua overIsrael and the nations, rather than be ruled over during His reign on Earth.  We already now as priests have the privilege of eating the “Showbread”/the Lord’s Supper; we work on the Sabbath in God’s on-going work of redemption.  These are privileges and services not allowed to others of our nation who do not now know their Savior God.  Just as God separated the tribe of Levi out from their brethren, not reckoning them in their number or inheritance of land even though being their mediators, so now are we who are priests in Messiah are not reckoned with those whose inheritance is anything less than the Lord Yeshua Himself.

There are numerous passages which show that Biblical kashrut has been altered so as to enable us to eat not only with our Gentile brothers and sisters in the Lord, but also what they eat to whom we may be sent to carry the glad tidings from Zion!  If God can make a sinner such as me kosher by the blood of the Lamb, He can certainly declare foods clean which had previously been labeled as unclean.  After all, they go in and out of the body, but what is in our hearts may be wholly unaffected.  Keeping “Biblically kosher” includes what is taught in that part of the Bible called the New Testament!

Marriage under the Torah was to have been not only between Israelis, but preferably even within each tribe.  Priests could marry only daughters of other priests.  These laws helped ensure the preservation of the Jewish people and nation, even while in exile, but most importantly they were intended to strengthen                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

the faithfulness of the covenantal relationship to YHVH God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob within  Israel.  YHVH always made room for the Ruths, who joined herself to both the people and the God of

Israel; yet she was always referred to afterwards as Ruth the Moabitess.  The New Testament teaching goes back to these same roots:  marriage is a covenant relationship, and believers are to marry those whose faith is in the same God and Father, and in His Messiah.  The key issue is [new] covenantal faithfulness to Him, not to traditions of man, nor to those things from the Law of Moses which have already now been superseded by the grace and truth through Yeshua Messiah.  This includes not only marriage and foods, but also to the priesthood.

Moses wrote of Sunday – the day after the Sabbath – in two significant passages when he is given the order and description of YHVH God’s appointed feast times.  These two places correspond to the first of the First Fruits/Resurrection Day of Messiah, and to Shavuot/Pentecost, when God called for a new thing in Israel:  a meal offering containing leaven in two loaves of bread, signifying that God had opened the way to Him for both Jews and Gentiles equally through the death and resurrection of His Son.  This marked a new day which YHVH had made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

The prophet Isaiah received a word from YHVH God that He would call His servants by another name, implying that the term ‘Jew’ or ‘Israeli’ would no longer be enough to describe who His true servants were.  We see in the New Testament that those who walked in The Way – firstly being Jews – were called Nazarenes (Notzrim) after the name applied to Yeshua, the Nazarene (the Messianic netzer of God from the root of Jesse, father of King David, and also the notzer brit, covenant-keeper), and they were called Christians (Meshichi’im) – whether Jew or Gentile believers in the Christ/Messiah/Anointed One.  The Lord calls to all of us to be His disciples by denying ourselves, picking up our cross daily, and following Him.  Just as YHVH placed His name upon the children ofIsrael through the Aaronic blessing, so now He has placed the name of Messiah/Christ upon those who are in New Covenant relationship with God the Father through His Son.  What love that we should be called the children of God!

God has broken down the wall of enmity within the Law of commandments which separated the Children of Israel from Gentiles.  This separation will continue to be somewhat evident during the 1000-year Kingdom of God on this Earth when the full remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel will receive the inheritance promised them with an oath by God for an everlasting (till the end of time) possession, along with other non-Israelis dwelling among them.  The center of Messiah’s kingdom will be inIsraelas He rules over His chosen people and over the remnant of the other sheep nations fromJerusalem.  The Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHVH as the waters cover the seas!  Rabbinic Judaism will not be the religion of the Messianic Kingdom, but rather the faith and religion which honors the Son of God, the King of [all] Israel, who was crucified for them.

But now, in Messiah, God has completely broken down the middle wall of separation between born-again believers from among the children ofIsrael and from among the Gentile nations.  Through the cross God has reconciled us to Himself and made of us two people groups one new man, into one body, thus making peace.  We are called to be reconciled to God on matters which offend us in the way of truth.

As a Jew, my destiny and identity is hid with Messiah in God.  The New Testament scriptures tell me both what it is, and how, to be a Jew.  There is an honor attached to being a Jew in the flesh.  But there is a greater honor to be also a Jew whose heart has been circumcised and whose past life has been forgiven.  I have received far more as a Ben-Hesed (‘Son of Grace’) who believes the truth of the New Testament for us who believe now in Yeshua/Jesus, and my conscience is clear before God and man.  You can call me by whatever name you want, as long as you mean that I believe in, belong to, and follow Messiah the Lord, Yeshua/Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.  By God’s power and grace, may I give the good confession, give thanks to my Lord and Savior, and forever praise Him who has had such mercy on me.

Let us fear God and keep our proper domain as New Testament believers, not shrinking back to a pre-born-again position.  Let us love the brethren.  Let us love the Lord Yeshua with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, living for Him who died for us and rose again!

CIRCUMCISION OF T Shimon – 13 Oct 1992

Some of you were with us for E’s circumcision, and it is good to have another occasion to celebrate together the LORD our God, both during this week of Succot (the Feast of Booths, or of Ingathering), and also in remembering His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the circumcising of our second son, T Shimon.  (T’s means ‘dew’, and his middle name, Shimon, is a testimony of our faith that the promised inheritance to Simeon, Jacob’s son and the Tribe of Israel, will be fulfilled:  he will inherit Beer Sheva in the apportionment of the Land of Israel after Yeshua returns to set up His kingdom.  Our prayer is that T will have a better inheritance in Christ by being born-again before the Lord returns.)

The circumcision of the flesh of every male Jew is a symbol both of God’s covenant and also of His ways of fulfilling His promises and purposes for His treasured people Israel.  Succot is a testimony of a people at peace with their God – a people whose heart has been circumcised – whose soul has been afflicted, and then refreshed and revived through God’s gracious atonement for sin – and among whom YHVH is pleased to dwell in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Randi and I are circumcising T as his parents in willing obedience to the LORD and to His honor and glory.  But it will amount to nothing if either we or T should place any confidence in the flesh and unless T should circumcise himself to the only wise God and Savior through personal faith and in a spirit of meekness.

Jacob will know the blessings of the covenant when, as Israel, he becomes a true son of Abraham, being justified through personal faith in God Almighty, Who can raise the dead to life in order to fulfill His Word.  As it is written, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” (Gen 21:12; Rom 9:7)  “He (Jesus Christ) shall see His seed and the travail of His soul, and be satisfied.” (Is 53:10-11“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise.” (Ps 51:19 Heb.)


Gen 17:1,7,10-14 – Establishment of the covenant by YHVH with Abram (Abraham); identification with and relationship to the people, the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
            John 7:22 – The circumcision is not of Moses, but of the fathers.

Deut 10:15-19 – Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked.

Deut 30:1-6 — The LORD will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love YHVH thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

Jer 4:1-4 – Circumcise yourselves to YHVH.

Jer 9:22-25 – Glory in the LORD; there is no difference –in themselves—between the circumcised and uncircumcised.

Rom 2:28 – 3:2 – For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly [only]; neither is it circumcision which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart – in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.  What advantage then has the Jew?  Or what profit is there in circumcision?  Much every way:  chiefly, because unto them (us) were committed the oracles of God.

1Cor 7:19 – Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but rather the keeping of the commandments of God.  (E Haim means “stone of life”; our prayer is that he will become a “living stone” — e chaya — through spiritual new birth by repentance and faith in the gospel at an early age.)

Gal 5:6 – For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

Philp 3:3 – For we are the circumcision which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.