By Helen King (Regular Contributor)
I’m fascinated by the automatic fill-ins which search engines provide. For ‘Am I still…’ ‘Am I still a virgin?’ is a classic, along with ‘Am I still pregnant?’ and ‘Am I still in love?’ In all these cases I suspect that, if you need to ask, the answer is probably ‘No’. I was recently doing a little research into bilingualism in the ancient world, and typed in ‘What language did…’ in order to get a quick and dirty overview of ‘What language did Jesus speak?’ However, a suggested auto-fill was ‘What language did God speak?’
I’d never thought about that – I’m not at all sure that it’s worth asking the question – but I decided to spend a few minutes on it. Well, Hebrew comes out as a front runner, not surprisingly. Then there’s the ‘It’s God we’re talking about, he’s omniscient, so that must include knowing all languages’.
Let’s leave that question aside for a moment and consider Jesus, around whose language competence there’s a rather more useful debate, although scholars remain divided as to which language, or languages, he would have spoken. I’m not sure who first came up with the line about the King James Bible, ‘If it was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me’, but one certainty is that he didn’t speak English, for the very good reason that the English language didn’t even exist at his time!
In the first century AD, in the area around Lake Galilee, Aramaic was spoken. How do we know that? Well, we can’t know for sure – there are no documents or inscriptions from Nazareth, and even if they were they’d show us the language or languages used for documents and inscriptions, rather than what people used for chatting to each other. The gospels are written in ancient Greek, but there were both Greek and Aramaic traditions about Jesus in circulation before the gospels we have were written down. In Mark 5:41, Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus from her apparent death with the Aramaic words ‘Talitha cumi’ meaning ‘Little girl, stand up’. Despite the occasional devout person trying to make out these words are from some special spiritual language, or even (worryingly) advising ‘Rely on the spirit of God for revelation, not on what you can find out by research’, it’s Aramaic. This young girl is the daughter of the leader of the synagogue, who would have been fine with Hebrew – so, is Jesus tailoring his language to his audience, or is this evidence that Aramaic was his first language? Or is the notion of a ‘first’ language entirely inadequate when we look at the multilingualism of the ancient world? Furthermore, embedded Aramaic words like these in the Greek text may not be ‘closer’ to the original words of Jesus, but simply show that the gospel-writer is using an Aramaic source here. And there was more than one form of Aramaic: Biblical Aramaic is not the same as Galilean or Palmyrene or Natataean. There were seven different Western Aramaic dialects at the time of Jesus.
And then there’s Greek, or at least the koine or ‘common language’ that was a simplified form of classical ancient Greek. The entire Greek Bible is now online for those who’d like to drill down into the meaning of the various translations. When Jesus talks to a Roman centurion, or to Pontius Pilate, this seems the most obvious language to use.
And what about Hebrew? It’s the language of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, although some were written in Aramaic, but the community which produced the Scrolls wasn’t a mainstream group. However, in the gospels (Luke 4:16), Jesus ‘as was his custom’ attends the local synagogue and reads from the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). So he was fine with reading it. When Jesus was crucified, the notice on his cross – ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ – was written in Greek, Latin: and Hebrew (John 19:20). Some modern translations give instead ‘Aramaic’ but the word used is hebraisti. There’s not much point writing it in Hebrew unless someone could read it. But no Aramaic, then? No language of the ordinary people? Should we read this as all Highly Symbolic – some Bible commentaries go for Latin as the language of politics, Greek as the language of the intellect and Hebrew as the language of religion – or as further evidence that Hebrew, or a version of it, was commonly understood in this part of the world?
But back to God. An anecdote told about the sixteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V goes like this:
The Castilian language is the finest of all Spain. Charles the Fifth said, that if he were to speak to God, he would speak in the Spanish tongue, by reason of its Gravity; to men, in French; to ladies, in Italian; to horses, in the German. Some Castilians have dared to say, either through a gayness of spirit, or as a Rodomontado, that God spake Castilian to Moses on Mount Sinai.
This comes from A New Survey of the Present State of Europe … by Gideon Pontier, done into English by J.B. Doctor of Physick, (London: W. Crooke, 1684, p.297); a rodomontado is a boast. As for French for men and Italian for women, presumably this reflects the language of the meetings the emperor attended (French) versus that of the social events which he also enjoyed (salons, literary events in which women could take part, used Italian).
So there you have it. God speaks the best language; of course!
Sang-Il Lee, Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context (de Gruyter, 2012)
Jim Adams et al. (eds), Bilingualism in Ancient Society (Oxford University Press, 2002)