Tongue-Tied

06.01.14

The History Behind Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis’s Awkward Jesus Moment

A tense exchange between the Israeli prime minister and the pope over Jesus’ language points to the complexity of the Middle East’s history—and suggests a way toward understanding.

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.”

Oh, dear. So what language, or languages, did Jesus speak? It’s more than just a small point of historical interest for linguists and historians. There is political content here.

Of course, Netanyahu made his point to emphasize that Jesus lived in the land of Israel over two thousand years ago, when no “Palestinians” were in view.  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. The Ottoman Empire (1517-1917) preferred this term for the area during their four centuries of control, and during the British Mandate in the mid-20th century it was always called Palestine. 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.”

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. That’s one of many closely related Semitic languages with deep roots in the past, related to Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Akkadian (the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians). Hebrew itself, in its written form, uses the original Aramaic script. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are many Aramaic texts from the time of Jesus, so one can get a pretty good idea of what the language of Jesus looked liked.

Aramaic had a wide currency among Jews at the time of Jesus, and in most gatherings for worship, scriptural readings occurred in Aramaic snippets in translation (called Targumim). It seems likely that Jesus, being a scholarly young man, learned some Hebrew, but that’s conjecture. It’s more likely that Jesus spoke some Greek, as this language dominated the region after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century.  Indeed, Alexander brought with him a tidal wave of language and philosophy, including the Platonic notions of body and soul, ideas that Jesus himself would assimilate.

Among the disciples of Jesus, it seems most likely that at least Philip was bilingual in Aramaic and Greek. We read in John 12:20: “Now among those who worshipped at the festival were some Greeks. They came from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’” Bethsaida was a Gentile area, Greek-speaking.  Peter and Andrew also spent time there in their early youths, so they probably spoke Greek, too. It’s also worth recalling that Jesus grew up within a short walking distance of Sepphoris, a magnificent Roman city with a great deal of Greek influence.

The stories about the life and teachings of Jesus were mainly told in Greek, the original language of the gospels. Indeed, the gospel writers often quote the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, known as the Septuagint, incorporating their mistranslations as well (and setting afloat a number of theological confusions, such as those surrounding the Hebrew word almah, or young woman, which in the Septuagint becomes parthenos, or virgin: a verbal sleight of tongue that led to notions about the Virgin Birth).

Needless to say, Palestine in the time of Jesus suffered under Roman rule, administered by local client kings such as Herod the Great or his son, Herod Antipas, who is said to have played a role in the executions of both John the Baptist and Jesus.  The gospels of John and Luke record that the caustic sign above the cross of Jesus was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. In fact, most legal documents that survive from the Roman period were written in Latin, and archaeological examples from this time, such as the famous Pilot Stone discovered near the ancient port of Caesarea Maritima in 1961, contain inscriptions in Latin. It stands to reason that Jesus might have picked up some Latin in the course of his travels.

In reality, both Netanyahu and the Pope probably made good points. Jesus was indeed a Jew at a time when Israel—or ancient Palestine—was under occupation by Romans who had a deep allegiance to Greek culture. He might well have learned some Hebrew, emphasizing his firm Jewish identity. Yet Aramaic flourished in Galilee, where he lived and taught through much of his life. It’s surely what Jesus “really” spoke.

It’s also worth recalling that Arabic and Hebrew, like Aramaic, are Semitic languages, closely allied in syntax, vocabularies, and grammar.  Jews and Arabs reach back, via philology as well as place of origin, to the same gene pool. Let’s pray—and I do mean pray—that they learn to accept their linguistic and cultural kinship, and to live as cousins—perhaps not kissing cousins, but closely related people.

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College.  His most recent book is Jesus:  The Human Face of God.  Follow him on Twitter@JayParini.