Jews in Judea Didn’t Speak Aramaic, They Spoke Judeo-Aramaic

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.


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I don’t know why this should even be a debate, but ridiculous articles like this don’t help.

Apart from when Pope Francis stopped to pray at the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, perhaps the most provocative moment in his whirlwind tour of the Holy Land happened during his interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” said Netanyahu firmly. The Pope looked unhappy, correcting the prime minister.  “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

If this seems complicated, think about the languages, and the dispute over what Jesus spoke. Indeed, he would have spoken Aramaic, as the Pope said.

I can’t vouch for what language he spoke, but Jews of the period used Judeo-Aramaic dialects.

These dialects had the same resemblance to what people think of as Aramaic as Yiddish does to German. The common language of the Jews in Judea was a hybrid of Aramaic and Hebrew… written using Hebrew script.

So Netanyahu and Pope Francis were both right.

Additionally there were plenty of Greek loanwords mixed in. And bits and pieces of other languages as well.

The educated also knew Hebrew. Those who were not, might not. The same situation obtained in Jewish life across much of history afterward as recently as a century ago where the average Jew might know Yiddish, but not Hebrew.

Much of this depended on location, rural vs cosmopolitan. Jews in more cosmopolitan areas knew a cross section of languages, some of which would have also been slangy.

The article goes on to conflate Philistines and Palestinians and to make plenty of other howlers.

Many Israelis today don’t like to think of this tiny region between the Mediterranean and Jordan as ever having been called Palestine, though the original word (peleshet) occurs at least 250 times in the Hebrew scriptures. This complex geographical area was certainly called Palestine (in Greek) at least as early as the fifth century B.C.E., when Herodotus used that term.  By the second century before Christ, the Romans widely called the region Palestine, probably in an attempt to undermine the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and neighboring states.

Region would be the key point. To the Greeks and the Romans, the Philistines were much more significant than the Jews. Herodotus, who was notoriously sloppy when it came to history, was reasonably typical of the period where accuracy on issues involving foreigners didn’t particularly matter.

But to suggest that the Greek or Roman name for the region somehow replaced Judea and Israel is foolish. That was a handy shorthand for foreign powers.

American Indians weren’t actually Indians. Turkeys don’t come Turkey. People visiting foreign shores often mislabel things. It doesn’t mean that those labels are accurate or binding.

Not until the Jewish state was restored in 1948 did the term Israel come back into active play, with native Arabs from the region demoted to “Palestinians.”

Actually the label Palestinians was used for both Jews and Arabs. But the Arabs did not really decide that they wanted to be Palestinians until later. Some Arab leaders denounced the name as a foreign intrusion.

Jews never wanted to be called Palestinians. Arab Christians have reopened the debate as to whether they are Arabs at all.

It’s also worth recalling that Arabic and Hebrew, like Aramaic, are Semitic languages, closely allied in syntax, vocabularies, and grammar.

Arabic and Hebrew are somewhat closer than Aramaic and Hebrew. Incidentally about the only people who still use Aramaic are Jews and Middle Eastern Christians. However what Jews use is still Judeo-Aramaic, though many don’t realize this.

Jews and Arabs reach back, via philology as well as place of origin, to the same gene pool.

We all do, ultimately. I’m just not sure that it matters. It sounds profound, but means very little.

  • mackykam

    Jews may have spoken Judeo-Aramaic but they always prayed in Hebrew. And understood what they were saying during prayers. Compulsory Jewish education, for both sexes, was instituted in the first century CE to keep Scriptures and religious identity alive during the diaspora, and basic knowledge of Hebrew was certainly an important part of education.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      it was, to those who were educated

      • mackykam

        Education was compulsory for all Jewish children and was communally supported. Ever since then Jews have had a leg up on others. In Europe, if a Christian child was educated the church quickly took possession of him/her and removed them from society.
        Thus, a generally educated society was delayed, giving the church more power and control.

    • Wolfthatknowsall

      Jesus was almost certainly educated. I don’t assign his ability to consistently foil the religious authorities of His time to anything supernatural, but to a sound religious education. He had an amazing ability to recite the Scriptures, by book and verse. It was a testament to the First Century Jews … oppressed as they were by the Roman conquest and ruled by appointed Arab kings … that people throughout Judea and Samaria were educated so well.

      Who was responsible for Jesus’ religious education? Of course, their rabbi had a part in it, but his father, Joseph, had the primary responsibility.

      • mackykam

        Foil religious authorities? How so? By entering Jerusalem waving a palm branch instead of bringing a paschal lamb to celebrate Passover? Every educated Jew knows palm fronds are brought to Jerusalem for the Succoth holiday in early fall. And palms used are not available in the early spring as they don’t grow in winter.
        If Jesus received his primary education from his father, a carpenter, well, no wonder he was confused. That’s why we have rabbis!

        • Wolfthatknowsall

          I certainly don’t want to get into a debate about 1st Century Judaism with someone who is Jewish!

          However, I do know my own religious faith, and Jesus did not wave a palm branch when He entered Jerusalem, thousands of His Jewish countrymen waved the palm branch, as they once did to King David. We keep palm branches for one year after Palm Sunday. Do you mean to say at Passover, every palm branch has rotted away?

          As for not bringing the Paschal Lamb to celebrate Passover, indeed, He did. He brought Himself.

          As to His father, Joseph, was it not the primary duty of a Jewish father to make sure that his son received a proper religious education? And please note that there was a synagogue in Nazareth, so a Rabbi was always present during the childhood of Jesus.

          Once again, I sincerely don’t wish to debate or argue about our respective faiths. I have the utmost respect both for Judaism and for Israel.

          • tickletik

            Macky is just trolling you, so ignore him.

            On the other hand, I don’t know much about your religion, or the source for the palm branch incident, but the palm branches would have only been waved on succoth. Even from what you are describing, it is very very clear that this you are talking about succoth. It’s not an ignorant vs. educated thing, even the most ignorant would only do this at the beginning part of the year.

            Again, I don’t know the source of your information, it could be if I was willing to read it, I could resolve the discrepancy. On the other hand, I do know that there was a council a while back which established certain sources as canon (Nicea?), so it could be that saying that the source you are relying on is inaccurate would not be heresy. ::shrugs::, no offense meant in any case.

          • Wolfthatknowsall

            No offense taken!

            Just so you know, I’m a member of a independent community church, having grown up in the Church of the Nazarene.

          • mackykam

            The very short answer to your question about palm branches: When Jews finish cleaning their houses for Passover, and have removed all the leavened goods as these are forbidden for use on Passover, they do a ritual search for leaven. Afterwards ( the next day) they assemble the leaven for burning and use the palm branches as kindling for the fire. So, in short, there are no fresh palms around in the springtime in Israel.

    • De Doc

      Unfortunately there are no precise records for literacy in the Roman Syrian-Judean areas at the time of Jesus. It was likely very low, since the idea of compulsory education akin to Hebrew Schul of today was absent. Catherine Heszer wrote about this in her work from 2001, ‘Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine” and estimated that no more than 3% of the Jewish population had any degree of literacy. The chances of literacy for a lower class tradesman from the Galilean countryside was very remote at best.

      The Lukan Gospel story of Jesus wowing the scribes and Pharisees at the Temple with his erudite knowledge of the scriptures at age 12 should be viewed as a miraculous youth motif, rather than any real life education given his humble origins. Various non-canonical Infancy Gospels add other miracle stories to the young Jesus’ resume.

      • Chavi Beck

        Actually there was compulsory education at many times and I believe that includes the Roman era.

        • De Doc

          Amongst the privileged for sure. Josephus is certainly evidence of that. My view from my readings is that lower classed Jews of the time just didn’t have access to this kind of education. Unfortunately there are a lot of anachronistic views regarding Jewish education in Antiquity with many making the mistake of assuming that the Hebrew Schul model that has existed for hundreds of years to present was also present then. It wasn’t at least not for Jews outside the elite classes.

      • mackykam

        Given that there were no newspapers or novels to read the only reading done was for religious purposes. The Torah (5 books of Moses) was read in its entirety, and in public, from beginning to end every 3 1/2 years. But the oral traditions remained oral, memorized and passed from teacher to student. And as people would sometimes forget to remember, oral arguments over the laws became more frequent. These oral, legal arguments were then transcribed, compiled, studied and applied to ever new situations. Therefore there was a greater need for scribes to transcribe and people to read the transcriptions, furthering public education. This led to the compilation of the Talmud, the oral laws written down. Thus Jews were exposed to legal polemics, verbal jousting and all around education.
        Jesus’ erudite knowledge of scriptures is called into question if he truly brought palms to celebrate Passover. More likely is some early church elder heard about palms in Jerusalem and tossed this all together and made a mash up of Jewish religious traditions and laws. Therefore there is no basis for an Easter Sunday. And let’s not discuss the Sanhedrin, which did not meet, ever, during the month in which Passover took place.

  • Habbgun

    The Talmud was written in Aramaic. Kaddish is in Aramaic. It was the language of the Babylonian exile. How this suddenly diminishes Jewish antiquity and enhances a people that suddenly emerged from PLO propaganda spouted from hijacked planes is beyond me. Then again global warming is a settled science so you never know.

    • mackykam

      Replacement theology is rooted in diminishing Jewish antiquity, Jewish validity as God’s own and the Jewish Testament. The church lies behind acceptance of arabs as Palestinians, another attack against the validity of Judaism. Even as I write this the church in Scotland denies Jewish claims to the holy land, claiming Jews are no longer the chosen, Christians are, LOL.

      • Habbgun

        The differences in the belief of who really is the messiah is nothing new and really not important for the pope’s visit. What is important is that he seems to be endorsing a Leftist, Jihadist viewpoint that has nothing to do with a religious question for anyone. In some sense Netanyahu was simply wrong in his comment. Maybe Netanyahu didn’t want to outright attack the pope but he actually made it worse. Simply stating that certain things are political others are religious and the pope had no standing to make security policy for Israel or to engage with the Palestinians. Pope would actually have more standing if he stood up for ME Christians but maybe he doesn’t want to get involved with non-Catholics. In which case we’re back to why does he need to get involved with Jews and Moslems.

        • mackykam

          Anything to further the Christian view that God has forsaken His people and replaced them with others. If not, there is no theological basis for Christianity. And muslims seem to be a handy stick with which to beat the Jew. The Vatican cannot reconcile itself to the fact of Jews returning to their homeland after two thousand years of exile. It is a poke in the eye.

      • Wolfthatknowsall

        I come from a religious background in which we celebrate the chosen status of Jews. This doesn’t diminish our faith in Jesus, as Messiah. Although we don’t generally practice Jewish religious laws and beliefs … except for the obvious … we don’t believe that we have “replaced” the Jews as God’s chosen people. We do believe that God has added us, as Gentiles, to His all-consuming Grace.

        Whether we observe Jewish festivals, laws, and practices was … in our faith … settled at the first ecumenical counsel in Jerusalem, in the First Century.

        • mackykam

          As a Jew I can honestly say I do not know what “all-consuming Grace” means. Does it have anything to do with original sin? That is a concept totally foreign to Judaism. I do know the Jewish religion believes that all non-Jews who practice and observe the 7 Noah-ide laws are entitled to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, no intercessor needed. God does not discriminate in favor of Jews. Just that Jews ‘chose’ to be representative of God’s word and morality ( tomorrow is the anniversary of the Jews receiving the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Shavuoth holiday). And even if one only worships a rock (think the Kaaba stone in Mecca) it is the first step in realizing one is not the center of the universe, but that there is a God who controls the destiny of man.

          • Wolfthatknowsall

            Most Christians would believe that “all-consuming Grace” is a positive thing. I have warned other Christians that persecutions and murder-in-the-mass might be part of the divine Plan, and I hold up the Jewish people as an example.

            I completely agree with you that the Jews chose to be representatives of God’s Word and morality. If Christians want to be part of God’s Plan, then they must accept the potential consequences, and also understand that Christianity is not about them … meeting loved ones in Heaven, strolling unicorns, and singing in the Heavenly choir.

            As “they” say, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

            Is it correct to say, “Happy Shavuoth”?

          • mackykam

            Yes, and thank you for your kind wishes.

  • De Doc

    While we are being pedantic, the common script for Biblical/Liturgical Hebrew at the time of Jesus would have been Paleo-Hebrew (very similar to the original Phoenician alphabet) or Assyrian Block script (a predecessor of the more familiar Hebrew Square script used from early Medieval times onward). Ancient Hebrew itself was already a liturgical language by the time of Jesus, though the priestly cast, religious teachers, and scribes would have had extensive familiarity with it.

    • Raymond_in_DC

      Hebrew had already evolved by the first century beyond Paleo-Hebrew to something recognizable to a Hebrew reader today. This is evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls, much of which are in recognizable Hebrew.

      And while Aramaic was a common spoken language among most Judeans, they had plenty of exposure to Hebrew: in the prayer/study houses where the Torah was read (in Hebrew) then translated into Aramaic, and in their Temple practice where they had to recite prayers in Hebrew. The Gospels, in relating Jesus’ parables, would frequently quote Scriptural passages – in Hebrew – and the populace, apparently, understood the references.

  • mozart1216

    His name was not Jesus but Joshua, actually Ye-ho-shu-a, the Hebrew version. The Latin-speaking Romans adopted Christianity in the fourth century, subsequently the Latinization of the original Hebrew name occurred. Of course, everything to obfuscate the Jews…”Replacement Theology”

    • Wolfthatknowsall

      The strongest supporters of Jews and Israel, among Christians, are those who have rejected replacement theology. When God makes a promise, it is sure and forever. He will not abandon His people, Jew or Gentile.

  • darnellecheri

    This is very interesting. I pondered all day the last sentence in this piece. I know that I am not on the same level as the author, (my intelligence doesn’t reach that high); however, I thought of my small family pool of which I am aware of. My heritage is a cacophony of Ashkenazi Jews to anti-Semites (English), to atheists to completely pious, to bona fide narcissists to selfless devotion, from uneducated to educated. Our spirituality and quest for truth is not only a war of words, but a brutal war of the mind, soul, and spirit.