Would Jesus find anything familiar in a modern synagogue other than the Torah?

Do any of the rites or chanting or anything else go back to his time? I guess the question is would he feel at all at home?

Man, buckle in. Good question.

I’m not an expert obviously, but I did spend most of my childhood going to synagogue and still go occasionally. So I’ll tell what I know.

Most of the prayer service comes from the Siddur, which I believe is a middle ages publication, maybe as recent as the 19th century. About half of the prayers are directly from the Torah, prophets, or Psalms, including direct reading of psalms, so Jesus would recognize those. Conservative and Orthodox prayer is done mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew he probably knew, and Aramaic was his first language, so he’d definitely understand that. The Aramaic prayers are probably quite ancient, since I don’t believe anyone does any original new writing in Aramaic anymore. Most synagogues have the six candled menorahs in them, which I believe goes back to about Jesus’ time, actually a little further back, since menorahs were in the temple before the Maccabees, which was about 100 years before Jesus.

What he’d probably get mad at is that 2000 years later we still focus on the same things he told us weren’t nearly as important as loving your neighbor, helping the poor, etc. It’s not that Jews don’t believe in those things, but most Jewish services and sermons in my experience tend to focus on the spiritual, finer points of law, or issues affecting the Jewish community and Israel. He’d probably consider modern Jews similar to Pharisees, and I do believe most of our tradition comes primarily from that source, although Jews respect Sadduccees and Essenes as well. Rabbis from all three of those major lines of though around Jesus’ time are respected.

Hasn’t spoken Hebrew gone through huge changes after 2000 years? I doubt ha could understand what the rabbi was saying during a service He was attending at a 2018 synagogue.

I’ve often heard that Shakespeare wouldn’t even begin to understand a 2018 English conversation and that was only about 400 years ago.

I imagine even the written Hebrew language script has had significant changes made to it.

Since it’s spoken mainly directly from Biblical passages or is in the style of the Bible, it’s probably understandable to someone from that period. But sure, if Jesus walked the streets of Tel Aviv he’d probably have trouble understanding people.

Pretty sure the alphabet is unchanged from his time. I’ve seen the Dead Sea scrolls online and I can read them. Can’t translate them well, but reading Hebrew phonetically is no problem for me.

Also, Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. Maybe he could speak Hebrew or some Hebrew, but we don’t know for sure.

Indeed, Jews had been using the Aramaic alphabet for hundreds of years by Jesus’s time. It is still used for Hebrew today, albeit with some “spelling reform” and variations in handwriting style, not that those would affect classical texts.

As for spoken Hebrew, the vernacular tongue is also severely altered compared to the classical language thousands of years ago, but the same can be said for Greek, Arabic, Latin, Chinese, etc.

I don’t think there is such a thing as “vernacular Latin”, unless by that you mean Italian, Spanish, etc. Though then again, modern Italian is probably about as close to classical Latin as modern Greek is to classical Greek, and it’s just an accident of history that the latter is still called by the same name.

Those are apt comparisons. I don’t think Classical/Ancient Hebrew and Modern Hebrew are by any means different languages, but it has clearly been interfered with, if not its Semitism positively threatened. At the very least (correct me if I’m wrong!) the spoken accent and style differences would be like Shakespeare versus a modern TV show.

“The great vowel shift” that affected English 1300 ~ 1600 is unusual. Most languages didn’t have that. English is also unusual in being a fairly recent language, created as a mash-up.

A comparison might perhaps be Malay. I’d guess that someone speaking modern Malay or Indonesian would probably have difficulty communicating with anybody from 2000 years ago.

And there is no such language as “Chinese”, unless you are speaking of Mandarin. There are many languages spoken in China, and they are not all mutually intelligible.

There’s actually very little Aramaic in the prayers recited by Orthodox Jews today.

There’s a tune sung by Jews of German descent, used for one chapter of Psalms that is recited at the end of Shabbat, before the evening service on Saturday nights. I’ve heard it said that the tune dates back the the days of the first Temple. Obviously, there’s no way to prove that, as far as I know.

There is but it is called Vulgar Latin. It drifted from classical Latin and then turned into the various Romance languages.

Hebrew wasn’t used much as a spoken language for over 1,000 years before being revived. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that the revival matched the pronunciation of 2,000 years ago.

No question. I think we can say it definitely does not match, not just extraordinarily unlikely to. That is why I proposed, on a qualitative level, English with its wild vowel shifts. Your hypothetical listener would think, “Well, it’s definitely not Aramaic; it kind of sounds like Hebrew, but for some reason I can’t make out most of the words.”

At least not being spoken much for 1000 years fossilized the language enough so that modern Hebrew is still the same language, although there are minority opinions out there that it has been “Europeanized”.

Vulgar Latin used to be vernacular, but it isn’t any more.

How much of an expectation is there, in Hebrew, of consistent vowels? Given a written language that doesn’t record them, I’d expect it to be common for ancient Hebrew speakers from different regions to speak in accents that put the vowels in differently, and that a reasonably cosmopolitan Hebrew-speaker would be enough used to such accents that he’d be reasonably good at understanding them.

The prayer service is much older than that. The central prayer is the Amida, which dates from the first few centuries CE. The other most important part of the service is the Shema, which is biblical. Other parts of the service are from Psalms. Kaddish, said by mourners or the Chazan, is found between sections of prayer, and is in Aramaic, so presumably also quite ancient.

In general, the basic form of the Siddur as we have it now was formalized at least as early as the 9th century, not the 19th.


Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews have different pronunciations for one vowel and I believe on consonant. Given that the Ashkenazic produces the pronunciation of Sabbath as Shabbos, I say they are wrong.:smiley:

I vaguely recall some ancient synagogues (or, the first few feet of them) in assorted ruins in Israel and Palestine. IIRC there is something in Masada, at the Essenes’ community where the dead sea scrolls were found, and also one built by the rebels occupying the Herodium(?). They each seemed to be a small hall with seats along both sides. Another feature was the purification baths that were part of the ritual of the times. (IIRC Paul was “persuaded” to participate in a ritual cleansing bath when he visited the Temple during one of his “discussions” with the Christian sect there.) I assume the current synagogues and rituals are somewhat different from this.

How ancient are those pronunciations/accents, though? In any case, as the spoken use of the language was dying out, people did feel the need to invent diacritical and vowel marks, hence the Masoretic text, but that postdates Jesus by many centuries, and reflects a certain Palestinian pronunciation. What other far-flung accents were out there?

PS the change th (θ) -> s may or may not be ‘wrong’, but it is a good example of an accent.

Jesus, while speaking Aramaic colloquially, was almost certainly familiar with Hebrew from Bible studies and prayers. Hard to say what he’d recognize, pronunciation-wise - there are variations in pronunciation between Yemenites, Eastern Jews, Sephardic Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Hasidic Jews, who knows which of these come closest to the pronunciation used in Jesus-era Palestine?

Most of what we have in modern synagogue services existed in Jesus’s time - the Mishnah, committed to writing in about 150-200 CE, mentions most parts of the prayers. While the arranged prayer book, the Siddur, first appeared almost 900 years later, certainly the core of the daily prayers - the Shema, its surrounding blessings, and the Amidah, and the Torah readings on days when those occur - were almost certainly in a similar form way back then.