Historic Jesus

First-century Palestine was an intercontinental melting pot of peoples and languages. It was the place where trade routes of Egypt met those from Europe and Asia. If you had listened to the speech of traders, caravan drivers, or soldiers, you would have detected dozens of languages. There were, however, four languages that affected Jesus directly: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.

Hebrew, a Semitic language, was the ancient language used by the Israelites, and the language in which the Old Testament was written. Although in the first century it was no longer in common use among the people, it was still the language of religious instruction and liturgy.

Even though Hebrew never passed entirely out of use, it was largely superseded by Aramaic, a related Semitic language that had become the official language of the Persian Empire. Aramaic inscriptions have been found in Palestinian synagogues; parts of the Old Testament (Dan. 2.4-728, for instance) and probably parts of the Deuterocanonical books (the Apocrypha) were originally written in Aramaic. The Gospels record three instances in which Jesus spoke in Aramaic.

Greek was widely spoken in Palestine, as well as throughout the Mediterranean Basin and as far east as India. This was brought about by a number of inter related factors. Greek traders spread their language to the Mediterranean shores of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as along the overland trade routes to Babylon and beyond. Along with their goods, they introduced the Greek way of thought and art. Armies from Greece followed, which in turn sponsored colonies for military veterans and their families. The Greek way of life became universally admired and copied, a process that scholars call Hellenization (from Hellas, Greece). Greek became the standard language of trade, scholarship, and culture. Jewish scholars in Alexandria, for instance, translated the Old Testament into Greek, and thus it was more widely read than if it had been written in Hebrew only.

The fourth significant language in Palestine during the time of Jesus was Latin, only because it was the official language of the Roman government. There are some Latin loanwords in Greek that appear in the New Testament, such as "census," "centurion," "denarius," and "practorium," but generally they are technical terms related to government.

When Pilate ordered a sign placed on the cross to describe Jesus' "offense," he had the sign written in three languages: Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Everyone, therefore, knew that the one hanging there was JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.