Bible Study: New Testament
Languages in New Testament Palestine
Some Common Misconceptions Addressed
I. Hebrew : Aramaic : Greek : Latin.
IT is too commonly supposed that Nehemiah 8:8 indicates that on the return from the Captivity the Hebrew language was lost to the common people. But when it is said that they read in the Book of the Law of God distinctly and plainly to be understood, and they understood when it was read, it seems clear that the Law was read to the people in Hebrew and that they understood the Hebrew language without the need of an interpreter. And when it is added that Nehemiah and Esdras interpreted to all the people, this can only mean that they made a running commentary, not that they translated it into Aramaic as is so often supposed. Thus it is expressly stated in Nehemiah 13:24 that the offspring of some of the mixed marriages spoke half in the speech of Azotas, and could not speak the Jews' language, thus implying that want of familiarity with the Jewish language was an uncommon thing.
At the same time the ancient Hebrew was speedily modernized; this is clear from the earliest forms of the Mishna which date from the second century B.C. The same appears from the Maccabean coins the inscriptions on which are in Hebrew, not in Aramaic.
Side by side with this modernized Hebrew existed the Aramaic dialect of the west which was different from that in use in the east at Babylon. This must have been the ordinary language of the people as distinct from the more literary modernized Hebrew language. This, too, was presumably the "language of the people" which in N.T. is referred to as "Hebrew," John 5:2, Acts 21:40, Acts 22:2, 26:14; cf. 2 Maccabees 7:21, 7:27, 12:37. That this language was Aramaic and not Hebrew properly so-called is proved by the number of Aramaic words quoted in N.T., see the list below. The same is proved by Josephus statement that he originally wrote his Wars of the Jews in "the language of our own country and sent it to the upper Barbarians," by whom he presumably means the Jews resident in Parthia, Babylonia and Arabia; these Jews would speak Aramaic rather than Hebrew, though Josephus himself repeatedly refers to this language as "Hebrew." The Galileans used a dialect of their own, though it seems probable that it was rather a patois than a dialect; this patois was apparently more remarkable for the way in which certain letters were pronounced or run together than for any strictly dialectical peculiarities.
The use of Greek in Palestine must have been very general. The Paschal visitors, the near neighborhood of Grecian Egypt, the presence of Greek-speaking Roman officials, the mania on the part of the Herods for all things Hellenistic, all combine to render it probable that there were few who could not speak Greek. Greek names are frequent, e.g. Andrew, Peter, Stephen, etc. The title of the Cross was in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Josephus also tells us that the notices in the Temple forbidding Gentiles to enter the Inner Court were in Greek, Roman and Hebrew characters. At the same time the centurion seems to express surprise that St. Paul can speak Greek, though his surprise may simply be due to the fact that he had made up his mind that Paul was "that Egyptian."
There is no proof of the use of Latin in the New Testament, but the title of the Cross, the use of Latin in the Temple notices just referred to, and the presence of so many Roman officials, make it antecedently probable that many knew at least a smattering of Latin. Josephus tells us that Julius Caesar's inscriptions at Tyre, Sidon, and Ascalon, as also those of Mark Antony at Tyre, were in Greek and Latin.
II. Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) Words occurring in the New Testament.
3. Armageddon, Revelation 16:16 (Har Magedon in R.V.); St. Jerome renders it mons globosus, in Onomast. LXXX. xi.
4. Barabbas, Matthew 27:16, etc., "son of the teacher."
5. Barjesu, Acts 13:6, "son of Josue."
7. Barnabas, Acts 4:36, "son of consolation."
8. Barsabas, Acts 1:23, "son of Saba" which name may mean "oath."
9. Bartholomew, Matthew 10:3, "son of Tolmai."
10. Bartimaeus, Mark 10:46, "son of Timaeus."
12. Bethesda (Bethsaida, Vg.), John 5:2, perhaps "house of the stream."
13. Boanerges, Mark 3:17, "sons of thunder."
17. Ephpheta (Ephphatha), Mark 7:34, "be thou opened!"
18. Gabbatha, John 19:13, derivation unknown, in Greek Lithostrotos.
20. Golgotha, Matthew 27:33, "skull."
21. Haceldama (Akeldama), Acts 1:19, "the field of blood."
22. Hosanna, Matthew 21:9, perhaps a corruption of the Hebrew words in Psalm 117:25 since ver. 26 is immediately quoted by St. Matthew; so says St. Jerome, Ep. XX. 2; but St. Augustine, Tract. LI. 2, in Joan, says: "Those who know Hebrew say that Hosanna is a sound expressive of obsecration rather significative of our affections than meaning any particular thing;" cf. De Doct. Christ. II. xi.
24. Maran-atha, 1 Cor. 16:22, "The Lord hath come," or "Our Lord hath come."
25. Messiah, John 4:25, "the anointed"; in Greek "Christ."
26. Pasch, Matthew 26:2, from the Hebrew word meaning "to pass over."
27. Pharisee, Matthew 3:7, "separated."
28. Rabbi, Matthew 23:7, "my master," though the pronoun had ceased to be effective.
30. Raca, Matthew 5:22, "empty" and so "fool."
31. Satan, Matthew 4:10, the "adversary."
33. Tabitha, Acts 9:36, "a gazelle."
34. Talitha cumi, Mark 5:41, "Maiden, (I say to thee) arise."
1 Wars, Prologue, 12.
2 Ant. XVIII. vi. 10; cf. Wars, V. ix. 2, VI. ii. i, 5.
3 Matt. 26:69; Mark 14:70; Luke 22:59; Acts 2:7. For further information see Neubauer, On the Dialects spoken in Palestine in the Time of Christ, Studia Biblica, vol. i.
4 Luke 23:38; John 19:19-20.
5 Wars, V. v. 2; VI. ii. 4.
6 Acts 21:37.
7 Ant. XIV. x. 2-3, xii. 5.
By Hugh Pope, O.P., S.T.M., D.S.ScR.
Professor of New Testament Exegesis
The Collegio Angelico, Rome
F. Thomas Bergh, O.S.B.,
Edm. Can. Surmont,