The dialect of Jesus

Posted by Travis Threats on

As in all areas Biblical, there are a large number of theological writings on the language of Jesus.  Most scholars say he spoke Aramaic.  Others say Hebrew.  Others said must have been able to speak in Greek to communicate to certain populations. He did live in Egypt as a young child because His parents left because King Herod had ordered the death of all boys under the age of 2.  He lived with his parents in Egypt for it is believed 3 years.  Thus, if Jesus was in Egypt from age 2 to 5, he may have picked up to some degree a language spoken there at the time. 

The region that Jesus lived, including Egypt, was under the Roman empire at the time. This broad range of the kingdom thus contained diverse cultures, languages, and dialects.   As I discussed in my blog entitled “Location, Location, Location: God as a wise realtor” this region of the world was the most international and multicultural at the time.  Those countries not under the Roman empire had trade and relationships with the neighboring areas such what is now called Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.  Thus, Jesus would have been exposed to many languages making him at some level multilingual and an understanding of other cultures.  Now, the culture he knew the best was Jewish culture and his native language of Aramaic.

Jesus earthly father was Joseph, who was a carpenter and Jesus was referred to in the Bible as an artisan, meaning in worked in many mediums including stone.  They were entrepreneurs who had to find clients, discuss what they wanted, negotiate, and make it.  They both would have to get products from others in order to do their crafts.  Someone who is an entrepreneur wants the broadest possible audience for their products.  Thus, even if Aramaic was his first language, and the one he used with family and friends, Jesus and His father most likely needed at least some working knowledge of other languages.  Thus, the argument that He knew some Greek follows since it was so dominant in the region during the Roman occupation, which itself did its official documents in Latin.  However, Greek was already spoken in this entire region before the Romans dominated due to the efforts of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC) from Greece who had conquered the area first.  Greek was thus often the language of commerce and exchange as well as the language to interact with different government officials.  Greek was thus the lingua franca. Even the Pharisees were often fluent in Greek.  The apostles Andrew and Peter were fisherman and owned their own business started by their father.  Thus, they had to do more than fish, they had to also buy supplies, employ others, and find markets and negotiate for their catches.  In addition, they had to keep books and had more complicated taxes than most. 

Even though Jesus may have spoken languages other than Aramaic, he would probably have had an accent in these other languages.  This is like how we in America could tell the difference between two people speaking English, one from India and the other from Mexico.  Persons’ specific accents will depend upon what are their native languages.

The religious texts He studied would be written in Hebrew, these books which are known to Christians as the Old Testament. Hebrew would have been a language known well by rabbis at the time, including fluency in reading and writing of holy texts.  There are indications that the Pharisees had translated works into Aramaic.  However, since it is estimated that only 5% of Jews at the time were able to read or write, the information from the holy texts had to be read to them and memorized. Thus, many of the stories were verbally presented and not in writing, except for the more educated such as the Pharisees.

All so far has just been set up for my main point in this blog.  Personally, I think the debate over which languages Jesus spoke and how proficient in each may not be the most important.  I would also include the many issues I came across researching this blog including “What language did Jesus talk to Nicodemus in, to Pontius Pilate, to the Samaritan woman at the well, to his disciplines, to the Pharisees?”.  The great thing about academic debates is that they can rarely be solved, but more importantly the academic they cannot be “proven” wrong! 

For purposes here, let’s assume that Jesus spoke mainly Aramaic.  I think we need to see a perhaps deeper message God is trying to tell us which is about his dialect.  Aramaic was spoken widely in the area across many different countries and social class levels.  Thus, they did not all “sound” the same, or have the same dialect.  If you looked at English speaking writers in the United States, you could not necessarily (unless used slang) tell what they sound like when speaking.  Thus, writers from California, Georgia, and New York would look the same on paper.

Dialects carry social meaning in all societies.  There are those who are high status or in power and their dialects are considered superior.  It is not that their speech is actually “better.”  On the flip side, those who are looked down on in society have their speech viewed as inferior.  As an example, US past president John Kennedy spoke with what is considered an upper crust Boston accent.  When you look at their speech, there are things which could be considered “errors” in the speech of someone not from there. However, they are viewed as sounding sophisticated and intelligent.  In short, we judge people by their dialects because we think it indicates their social status and education.

When Peter was asked about knowing Jesus at His crucifixion, the person states know Peter by his dialect.  They knew where he was from by this, and it can be assumed that Peter had a dialect like Jesus.

A little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “You really are one of them as well, since even the way you talk gives you away. (Matthew 26: 73 NASB)

By being Jesus being an artisan and Peter being a fisherman, they are both what we now be referred to as “working class.”  Even though Peter was also a businessman as his father, his speech would still be of this group.  In addition, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not a major metropolitan area.  In the Bible it states that the people Jesus preached primarily to were those who were not in power, who worked in manual labor such as shepherds.  Think of popular movies and T.V. that display construction workers and such in mainly a negative light via how they talk, which corresponds supposedly to a certain behavioral traits and intelligence.  Students with high academic achievements are often initially viewed as less intelligent by their teachers because of their dialect.

There are other Bible verses relating to Jesus’ perceived social standing:

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:46 ESV)

This quote does a good job of putting this statement about where Jesus was raised in context and comes from Bible Reference -

“Nazareth was southwest of the Sea of Galilee, and a very small community, probably less than 500 people during Jesus' lifetime. It was located north of Jerusalem, well beyond Samaria. Being so small, and not adjacent to major cities, it was the last place one would expect anything interesting to happen. Calling someone a "Nazarene" would have been like referring to them as a "bumpkin," or even a "hillbilly." Nathanael's question is more than a little sarcastic. He assumes that Nazareth couldn't produce much of worth, let alone the Promised One. Philip's response is not to argue, but simply to invite. He knows already that talking about Jesus is nothing like meeting Him in person. Philip's invitation also echoes the one Jesus gave to Andrew and John in verse 39. Too many people want God to come to them—usually in some kind of miracle or overt message—but knowing Him is as simple as making a decision to draw closer to Him.”

Thus, not only was Jesus’ dialect that of the working class, but it was also that of someone from a small rural area. In the United States, it would be equivalent to someone from a very small town in rural Kansas.

Perhaps the Pharisees were also suspicious of what He was saying because a person who talks “like that” cannot be from God.  Look how we look to our ministers in our present-day churches.  Would a church hire a minister who has even a “mild” fluency or stuttering issue?  Would a church that caters to the wealthy in Boston hire a minister with a deep New Orleans accent?  Can we be more concerned with how a minister “sounds” than the quality of his or her message, his or her thorough understanding of scripture and God’s grace?

I have mentioned in a previous blog how movies distort the message of God as in Moses was not a grand speaker and an over 6-foot Irishman like Charlton Heston in the The Ten Commandments.   One of the most important lessons is that Moses was a stutterer, that God values all people regardless of their speech, but judges by what is in one’s heart and soul.  Speaking up to the Pharoah would be a challenging speech demand for anyone.  One of Moses’ arguments with God about not wanting to carry out his God designated given role is his speech.  So called “excellent” speech, like wealth and being physically attractive are on the outside, is how many people judge others. This so-called positive outside does not preclude also having a positive inside, but it does not predict it either.

Surely Jesus would speak in the today’s equivalent of a classically trained British stage performer paying Shakespeare.  If Jesus is grand, He must speak grand.  I think that one of the reasons that the King James version of the Bible has been so beloved is because everyone speaks in such “formal” language, so full of “majesty”.  This is on purpose as it was commissioned by King James in 1604 who assigned the leading Biblical scholars in England, thus those who spoke the “best” English as well as translated in accordance with the beliefs of the Church of England.  Now, the Bible is full of poetry as many were gifted writers.  However, some of the best poetry, rhymes, and word play are lost in English translations.

Jesus’s dialect was not that of the educated class.  We have no way of knowing exactly how he sounded, but we can predict that His speech, by itself, did not instantly impress people as someone who should be listen to in matters of faith, or perhaps anything of importance other the labor they do for our service.  Some no doubt judged Him negatively because of it.  But it was the power of His message that was important, not the dialect that he said these words. To those who cannot see past the outside, they miss so much they could learn from others.

As with all things of God, Jesus’ birth, who His earthly parents were, his work as a laborer, and his resulting dialect were chosen by God.  God could have placed the Messiah anywhere, but He is trying to prove a point, the inherent value of all people, that He loves us all the same. Yes, He disapproves of our behavior often, but loves us just the same.  His very circumstances were a lesson in God’s grace. He came for those who felt unappreciated, looked down upon, and even persecuted.  This did not exclude those from privileged backgrounds, but it does say they have no more place in God’s heart as those from different backgrounds.

The New Testament is written in Koine Greek and some classical and Bible scholars say that it was not in the tradition of the great Greek writers such as Plato and Aristotle.  So, even the Greek of the New Testament is looked down upon by some as not good writing originally, not as “pure” and that is why the translations read better than the original.  There is no overstating the level of snobbery and elitism in the world regarding use of language.

So why did Jesus not write his own books, stories?  I do not know.  Maybe it was as stated before that only 5% of the population, especially the population He was trying to reach, could read or write.  He did not want a distance between He and them.  I think He also knew it has more power to say something to someone’s face than to give them something to read, even if they can read.

Then, it needed to be spread.  Perhaps Jesus was not the best writer, we will never know or is it important. Did He carefully write out the words of the Sermon on the Mount and then memorize and then speak it before the crowds?  If writing was not what God called Jesus to do, then that is why He did not do it.  But Jesus had others that He choose such as Matthew as an apostle who was obviously literate to write down his words, as well as others. Luke was a physician. Paul was highly educated and thus was able to write many of the books of the New Testament to spread the Word we still read to this day.  Paul was also shrewd and manipulated the political and legal systems of the day.  They ALL have their place, we all have our place, our mission to spread the Word.  We have different spiritual gifts to spread the message.  That is the plan, the grand plan, which is why Jesus did not pick 12 of the exact same kind of people to spread His message initially.  We should not judge HOW we spread the Gospel, that our way is better than others.  We each have a place, no matter what dialect, what language, what socioeconomic level, what job, what region, what country, what education level, or what ability level we have which includes those with disabilities.

Since Christianity is now (at least nominally) practiced by over 2.5 billion people and continuing to grow to an estimated 3.3 billion people by 2050, God obviously has the best communication dissemination plan!  And to think, it started in a small region spoken by a man from humble working labor beginnings, who did not talk the speech of the powerful, who was raised and spoke in unremarkable places, and who talked at first to a group that was out of power and oppressed. 

In the movie “My Fair Lady” Professor Higgins is tutoring Eliza Doolittle on the “proper way” to speak.  This play is based on the book Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and is based on real professors of phonetics and English at universities in England.  One line in the movie has Professor Higgins give advice to Eliza about her prayers “You will get further with the Lord if you do not offend His ears.”  This reflects the at the time British aristocratic view that their upper crust language represented the very best in the world in every way.  They were the best people and thus spoke the best language and dialect.  This, by the way, is what the Romans who occupied the lands at the time of Jesus thought about Latin.  Again, those in power believe that everything about themselves, including their speech and dialect, is superior to all others.

Perhaps God is testing all of us via who we listen to for life advice as well as the messages of the Bible.  Are seeking to be more as God wants us to be or are we twisting religion and God in our own image, in our own prejudices?  One test is to send a prophet who speaks with a Chinese accent to someone who dislikes Asian people.   Another for someone who speaks one of the many forms of African American dialect to preach to someone who is a racist.   For a person from the rural South who distrusts anyone from the Northeast, what about if the prophet appears and sounds like a person from Brooklyn?  If Satan appeared in human form and talked as the well-off British actor extraordinaire Rex Harrison and a prophet from God appeared and talked to us in Cockney English from an impoverished background as Audrey Hepburn did in the movie, which would you more likely believe???

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