Earlier this week, a good friend, Rabbi Loren Jacobs of the Christian-Jewish synagogue Shema Israel, asked me about the language(s) of Jesus. He noted that in the various English versions of the New Testament, some used the word “Aramaic” and some the word “Hebrew”. A case in point is the difference between the NASB and the NIV, the former using the word “Hebrew” and the latter the word “Aramaic”. Rabbi Jacobs was under the impression that Hebrew rather than Aramaic was the lingua franca of 1st century Jews, and indeed, in the texts of the New Testament, the word that is always used is (hebrais = Hebrew). He specifically asked about John 19:17 where the word Golgotha is said to be in Hebrew (NASB) or Aramaic (NIV). Highly reputable linguistic sources (such as BADG) indicate that this word should be understood as Aramaic. So what was it, Hebrew or Aramaic?
The answer to this question about Jesus’ spoken language is somewhat vexing, though we may be getting a better handle on it now than a few decades ago. First, there is plenty of evidence that biblical Hebrew was not "dead" if for no other reason than that the Hebrew Scriptures were still retained and in use in their original tongue. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were in Hebrew, and these texts from the Judean desert included not only Scripture, but also sectarian documents of the community. It would be one thing for the Qumran community to have Scriptures in Hebrew, but where their own sectarian documents, such as, the Manual of Discipline, etc., are in Hebrew, obviously it suggests that Hebrew is not "dead". There also is plenty of evidence that both Aramaic and Greek were widely used, even in Jewish communities, the former in Syria Palestina (the Roman name for Syria, Galilee and Judea), where the Jewish community produced Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures (more-or-less along the lines of paraphrases) and the latter among the Diaspora (which presumably used the Greek Septuagint and perhaps Hebrew scrolls as well). That Aramaic was a common vernacular is attested by these Targums (why else translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic except that it was widely used). Much earlier, when Ezra came back from Babylon several centuries before and publicly read the Torah, many of the newly arrived returnees no longer could easily understand the Hebrew Scriptures, since Aramaic was the lingua franca of the larger Mesopotamia world, a language they had now adopted. They needed assistance with either translation or interpretation or both (Neh. 8:7-8). As is well-known, portions of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah are also in Aramaic.
When one then addresses the spoken language of Jesus, it is entirely possible that Jesus was conversant in all three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek (Latin is much less likely). However, the direct quotations of Jesus' words outside Greek, mostly in Mark's Gospel, appear to be in Aramaic, which is why many scholars have concluded that Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic. Whether Jesus' vernacular was Hebrew or Aramaic (or both) is not entirely clear, as is the question of whether or not he ever taught in Greek, or the wider question of whether the current vernacular of the Jewish community was Hebrew or Aramaic (with Greek as a second language for business purposes). The answer to the one question bears upon the answer to the other. If the wider language of the Jewish community was Aramaic, then it seems most reasonable that Jesus would have addressed them in that language. If the wider language of the Jewish community was Hebrew, then Jesus would have addressed them in Hebrew. Most scholars have concluded that Aramaic was the conversational language of the Galilean and Judean Jewish community, and therefore, that Jesus’ primarily language was Aramaic. He may have used Hebrew on occasion, but most likely those who would understand Hebrew were not the common people to whom he regularly taught, but the rabbis, scribes and priests.
Related to this issue is the fact that there is a difference between language and script. In America, for instance, our language is English but our script is Latin. We can use the term "English" to refer to both, even though they are not the same thing. (The script of most European languages is also Latin, the language differences notwithstanding, which is to say that whether one is working in English, French or German, the working alphabet is the same.) The same thing was true of Hebrew and Aramaic. Both languages used the same script, even though the two languages were distinct (albeit there were quite a number of common words between them). Hence, when the New Testament uses the word Hebrais ("Hebrew"), which it certainly does in describing various circumstances, it still is possible that this is a loose usage that could be applied to Aramaic, since Aramaic used the same 22 alphabetic letters as did Hebrew. That Jesus used Aramaic at least sometimes seem clear enough from Mark's Gospel. Also, certain Aramaic words retained their usage in the later non-Jewish church, even among Greek-speakers, since almost certainly they were the original words of Jesus (words like "Abba" and "Maranatha".) Could Jesus also have spoken Hebrew? Certainly. However, if one is to conclude that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the lingua franca of the Jewish community in Galilee, I think the burden of proof is on them, for one must also then explain why the Jews even translated their Scriptures into Aramaic in the Targums and why what snippets of original language we have from Jesus are in Aramaic. It also is possible that Jesus spoke Greek. Certainly he was reared in the proximity of a Greek-speaking city, since Sepphoris was only 4 miles from Nazareth, and Joseph, being a laborer (either mason or carpenter), would in all likelihood have found some work there. When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth, the passage he read was Isaiah 61:1-2, and at least as quoted in Luke’s Gospel, it seems not to have been an Aramaic Targum. Actually, the citation seems to be from the Greek Septuagint, probably because Luke’s non-Jewish audience would have been more familiar with this version. Still, it is unlikely that the synagogue in Nazareth used a Septuagint and much more likely that Jesus was reading from a Hebrew text.
When it comes to Paul, he seems fluent in both Hebrew and Greek. He quotes both from the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint in his letters, though he uses the Septuagint more frequently, possibly because, as with Luke, his audience was largely Greek-speaking. Having spent a significant amount of time in Jerusalem studying under Gamaliel, I would suppose that Paul was fluent in Aramaic as well, though his speech at his arrest in the temple is described as being in "Hebrew" in Acts 21:40. What is not clear is whether Luke is using the term "Hebrew" in the sense of script or in the sense of language. Most modern English versions opt for Aramaic as the language Paul used on this occasion.
One more facet of this issue concerns the terms Helleniston and Hebraious in Acts 6:1. The distinction here seems primarily to be one of culture and language, but both within the Jewish community. Most scholars argue that while the one term applies to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem who had adopted a Hellenistic culture and probably spoke Greek, and the other refers to Jews native to Palestine who did not use Greek as their lingua franca. How strong a case can be made of "Hebrew" over "Aramaic" in this instance is unclear, since the primary linguistic distinction may be between scripts (Greek uses an entirely different script than either Hebrew or Aramaic, while Hebrew and Aramaic use the same script).
Now, to Rabbi Jacob’s specific question about John 19:17: was it "Hebrew" or "Aramaic"? There is no doubt that the Greek text of this verse uses the word "Hebrew"; however, what is not clear is whether this is a description of script or language. In John 19:20, just a couple verses later, the inscription over the cross was written in three distinct lines, and it specifies Hebrew, Greek and Latin, which are three different languages, to be sure, but three different scripts as well. In John 19:20, I'm inclined to think that the three designations of Hebrew, Greek and Latin refer to scripts, but this is certainly not an opinion I'd die for.