WHAT LANGUAGE DID CHRIST SPEAK? article in the Literary Digest 1897
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THIS much-discussed question has a deeper interest than that of mere curiosity. It has practical bearings on problems of biblical interpretation, and the verbal inspiration of Scriptures. It is an old question, but one that is constantly new in its interests, as is seen from the repeated discussions it has elicited in recent years. The latest and possibly the best of these is found in a small volume by Dr. Arnold Meyer, of the University of Bonn, entitled “Jesu Muttersprache" (Jesus's mother-tongue).
which is rich in historical and other data, and from which we condense the following facts:
The question as to the language spoken by Jesus did not particularly interest the earliest Church fathers. They confined themselves in this regard to the question as to the original language employed by Matthew in the preparation of his gospel, which, Papias declares, was “Hebrew." The current opinion was that the Lord had employed the “Syriac" as his vernacular, which term was used interchangeably with “Hebrew" and “Chaldee.” This became the settled tradition of the Church down to the Reformation and later, and when in 1555 Widmanstadt published the first edition of the New Testament in Syriac, this work was greeted with a warm welcome on the ground that now the Church possessed the very words of the Lord as He had spoken them. Only a few skeptical minds, such as Scaliger and Grotius, doubted the correctness of this conclusion, and claimed that the Savior had spoken a mixed dialect then current in Palestine. Among the Jesuits the idea early gained ground that the Lord's vernacular must have been the Latin, as this was the language spoken by the saints in heaven. This view was first promulgated by the Pater Inchofer in 1648. A century later another Jesuit scholar, Hardouin, assigned as a new reason for this view the fact that the Vulgate, or official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, was also written in the Latin language. On the other hand Protestant scholars began to maintain that Jesus spoke Greek, the language of the New Testament. So good an authority as the late Professor Delitzsch believed that Christ spoke a relatively pure Hebrew, the study of this language having been rigidly taught in the schools of Palestine.
The facts in the case, especially as seen in the words of the New Testament other than Greek, show that the Lord spoke an Aramaic language, and of this language again a Galilean dialect. The Aramaic is a branch of the north Semitic and as such a sister tongue of the Hebrew. Long before the close of the Old Testament canon the Aramaic had supplanted Hebrew in popular use in Israel and had become the language of trade and business between the peoples of Syria and countries farther East. Already a Jeremiah and an Ezekiel show the influence of this tongue; the same is true of the later Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and especially Ezra and Daniel, both of which contain portions written in this dialect. During the Maccabean period the Aramaic had virtually supplanted Hebrew in Israel. It is used in the Talmud. and its general use is reported by Philo, a contemporary of St. Paul, and by the historian Josephus, who calls it the "language of the fatherland."
Only in one respect the old Hebrew maintained its hold. It was the language of the sacred writings of Israel and the official tongue of their Scriptures. In the synagogues these books were read in the original Hebrew. but were interpreted to the people through Aramaic paraphrases called Targumim. Testimonies abound and agree that such was the case regularly, so that the common people could no longer understand the sacred tongue of their fathers and of their Scriptures. The current language of the day was accordingly the Aramaic, and this language beyond any reasonable doubt was the tongue employed by Christ in His discourses with His disciples and with the people. The Hebrew as such was known well only to the learned, but was not understood thoroughly by the common people.
The correctness of this conclusion is attested by the words cited in the New Testament. The names of persons taken from other sources than the Greek are Aramaic in form and sound, as are also the terms found in I Cor. xvi. 22, and the citation from the Psalms spoken by Christ on the cross; also Mark iii. 17; vii. 34; v. 41, and others.
It is accordingly only fair to conclude that Christ spoke the language of His people. In fact it is even probable that we can conclude that of this Aramaic He spoke the Galilean dialect. At that time three dialects of this tongue were used in Palestine, namely, the Jerusalem, the Samaritan, and the Galilean. Peter, in the night when Christ was before Pilate, was betrayed by the fact that he spoke the "Galilean" tongue. It is well known that the Galilean was the mother-tongue of Jesus. Just what the exact form of this dialect was we know from the so-called "Jerusalem Talmud," written in the third and fourth centuries after Christ in the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. This work is written in the popular tongue of Galilee, and is the only work extant in the exact dialect spoken by our Lord during His career on earth. -Translated and Condensed for THE LITERARY DIGEST.
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