How come Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew?

I keep being told that Jesus spoke something called “Aramaic”. I thought the Jews in Judea or Israel or the Holy Land or whatever you want to call it spoke Hebrew. What is Aramaic, and where did it come from? Did the people Moses led out of Egypt speak Hebrew or Amaraic? What about Kind David? Are the Pslams not originally in Hebrew? When Jesus taught in the temple in Jerusalem or spoke to the Priests in that city, did he not speak Hebrew?

What happened?

Aramaic is related to Hebrew, but is not the “Holy Language.” Israelites used to use Hebrew only for prayer and Torah study, it was too holy to speak ordinary conversation with. That’s the reason why Jews developed Hebrew-(local language) hybrids such as Yiddish and Ladino over the centuries as well.

The resumption of Hebrew as a conversational language in 20th century Israel was implemented by non-religious Jews.

Thanks, nice succinct answer. I assume with a name like Keller you are a member of the Tribe? I am not Jewish myself but I have Jewish relatives and friends.

One more question. So Aramaic is kind of a “street Hebrew”? How close or far is it from proper Hebrew? To use an example from a language we both speak, is it about as wide a separation as between a standard, Harvard-educated English and say, Ebonics? Or maybe the difference between a thick Scottish accent with words like “Ah dinna ken” and say, a Deep South (Dixie) accent?

Hebrew appears to have been the vernacular language of the Israelites up until the Exile. Aramaic was the language spoken by the non-coastal peoples north and northeast of Israel.

The people who settled in Israel/Palestine during the Exile, by and large, spoke Aramaic, which spread across much of the Middle East during this period as a lingua franca. When the Jews returned from exile, they ended up as something of a minority in their own ancestral land, and adopted Aramaic as the vernacular, preserving Hebrew as the “official” and liturgical language, in much the same way as vernaculars and Latin coexisted in medieval Europe.

With respect to cmkeller, as far as we know, the ancient Israelites did use Hebrew. We find inscriptions in Hebrew about non-religious things in Canaanite and Israelite settlements. (And we also know from the bible that people spoke Hebrew. One of the kings of Judah talks to the Assyrian ambassador in Aramaic so that the people around them can’t understand the conversation).

However, starting with the rise of the Assyrians, Aramaic started to become more and more common as an international language, and, after the Persians took over the area, they made it the official language of the Persian Empire.

I believe linguists treat Aramaic as a separate language, although related to Hebrew, in the same way that Coptic and Arabic are separate languages related to Hebrew.

No, Aramaic is a language that’s in the same language family as Hebrew. It’s a little like Spanish and Portugese. They’re distinct languages, but related.

Non-religious, or non-Orthodox? There are plently of religious Jews who will speak Hebrew, and plenty of Orthodox Jews who still use Yiddish, English, or some other language for secular conversations and reserve Hebrew for prayer.

That makes it sound a bit like Esperanto. That is, modern Israelis didn’t speak it natively as a mother tongue, but at some point all agreed to switch to it. If that’s the case, does modern Hebrew sound anything like ancient Hebrew at all, or have younger more modern generations had their way with it? Is it more like if we all decided to start speaking Latin? Not knowing what it’s really supposed to sound like, we’d just wing it?

I imagine that due to the lack of written vowels in most Hebrew texts, the problem would be more pronounced.

Pun not intended.

Right you are. But there weren’t “modern Israelis” at the time it was retooled and introduced; there were “Jews living in Palestine.” Modern Hebrew is derived from Biblical or Classical Hebrew but has some differnt grammatical rules. Both derive new words from a consonantal shoresh (root), so even if you don’t know a word, you may be able to figure it out by looking at the root. So if you know the root LMD is “learn/teach,” a novel word with this root is likely to be related to this concept, and the structure of the word will tell you whether it’s active or passive, reflexive, etc. Contemporary Israeli Hebrew speakers don’t always follow all the grammatical rules, both because a) many are not native Hebrew speakers; and b) people always alter languages.

Contemporary Hebrew and Classical Hebrew are close enough that my Hebrew-speaking friends can read the Dead Sea Scrolls pretty easily.

Coptic isn’t closely related to Hebrew and Arabic, which are Semitic languages. Coptic is actually a direct descendent of Egyptian, converted into Greek letters by early Christian Egyptians. Sorry for the hijack.

Coptic and the Semitic languages are all part of the Afro-Asiatic language family, though… So Coptic is more closely related to Hebrew and Arabic than are, say, English and Chinese. Maybe as closely related as, say, English and Russian? That last is just an educated WAG.


Polycarp and Captain Amazing:

I should have been more specific. You are correct, during the days of the first Temple and the Davidic dynasty, Hebrew was spoken all the time. Jewish tradition says that the reason for this was that when the Holy Ark was in its proper place, prophets were the religious leaders of the time, and the Holy Spirit dwelled in the Temple, Israel was by nature holy and therefore it was not inappropriate to use the Holy Language in everyday conversation.

By contrast, after the destruction of the first Temple, and the “departure” of the Divine Presence (as prophetically witnesses by Ezekiel), Israel’s capacity for holiness was diminished - note the end of prophecy at around that time. It was the leaders of those times who felt that Hebrew was no longer appropriate for inter-personal conversation, and should only be used when engaged in specifically holy works. The OP specifically asked about the time of the founder of Christianity, and I therefore responded appropriately for that period. Perhaps I should have used the term “Judeans” rather than “Israelites.”


They weren’t affiliated with the Reform or Conservative movement, if that’s what you mean by this question. As a matter of fact, until the founding of the state of Israel, the Reform movement, at least, (not sure about the Conservative) was extremely anti-Zionist in ideology.


Correct. I think it was at one of the early Zionist Congresses that the Zionists decided that modern Hebrew, as described by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, would be the official language of the Zionist State.

It’s very much like Biblical Hebrew; the grammatical structure and most words are taken from the existing language of prayer and Torah. Sure, modern inventions required the coining of new words and idioms that have no Biblical precedent have been developed, but by and large a Yeshiva student could probably read an Israeli newspaper with little difficulty.

So if I understand, the average Jew at the time of Jesus did not speak Hebrew, but Aramaic, in his everyday life? Would that have included the Jews of Alexandria and Rome, for example, who were considerable in numbers even before the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora?

This is not a perfect analogy, but is it roughly like residents of Rome in 8th-Century Italy? They spoke a language closely related to Latin but different enough to be called another language. They were genetically (for the most part) descended from Latin-speaking Romans. And Latin was still used and understood and read and written on a dail basis by their priestly and educated classes and in worship. Was Aramaic in 1st-Century Judea sort of like that?

Finally, is it true that Hebrew is the only recorded case in history of a “dead” “priestly” language coming back to life as an everyday vernacular?


I think so, since those communities would have had their source amongst the Aramaic-conversationally-speaking Jews of Judea rather than having been separated since the Hebrew-speaking days of the first Temple. Though I can’t be 100% certain.

So far. That said, there’s seldom a reason to bring a language back to life.

Are you saying that Yiddish was created on purpose? I’ve never heard that before. I think it much more likely that Jews in that area picked up the vernacular language and mixed in some of their ancestral words just like any immigrant group would.

Probably closer, though I don’t know much about Coptic to guess for certain. Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Coptic are all Semitic languages, which means they’re all confined to the same branch of the Afro-Asiatic tree. So far as I know, the makeup of the Semitic languages is not in any doubt - it’s known with a pretty good degree of certainty which languages are Semitic (as opposed to more far-flung members of the Afro-Asiatic language family) and how they’re historically related to one another. To my knowledge, all of the languages in the Semitic subfamily are fairly closely related.

No doubt it has changed some in pronunciation, just as it’s changed in other ways - obviously, new words have been invented; I think the grammar is not identical to liturgical Hebrew either, though it’s not terribly different. And my understanding is that liturgical Hebrew was not pronounced identically in different Jewish communities; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those pronunciations have made it into modern Israeli Hebrew. But it has been continuously spoken all this time. It’s not as though it was reconstructed based on writings. No, it’s not exactly the same as ancient Hebrew but it isn’t terribly different either.

Incidentally, there’s not really any serious uncertainty as to how Latin was pronounced. Exactly how it was pronounced in specific places and at specific times might not be certain - we don’t know precisely when some of the pronunciation changes that affected the language occurred - but overall the pronounciation of Classical Latin isn’t in any real doubt. There’s lots of evidence that can be examined to piece it together; it’s not necessary to guess at it.

Hebrew was a scriptural and liturgical language in Palestine somewhat analogous to Church Latin in the middle ages. The vernacular in Palestine would have been Aramaic. Diaspora Jews spoke Greek and used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. (This translation was called the Septuagint, which means “seventy” and it’s often abbreviated as the LXX)

That would be very analogous.

Good question. As far as I know, the answer is yes.

Except the difference with your comparison is that the residents of Rome in 8th Century Italy spoke a language descended from Latin. Aramaic isn’t descended from Hebrew. Instead, they both have a common ancestor.