How Many Languages Did Jesus Speak?
It is no secret that many, if not most, people in the first century were at least functionally illiterate. While the literacy rates may have varied based on a person's social class or location in the known world, the fact remains that there was a large population that was functionally illiterate. For this reason, some have claimed that Jesus MUST have been illiterate, since the population as a whole was largely illiterate. This is the argument used by individuals like Reza Aslan to support their reconstruction of the life of Jesus. However, there is a problem with this. The issue is that a general statement about people at large cannot be used to describe an individual. It is logically fallacious to claim otherwise. For example, I cannot claim that, since most pastors in Texas make approximately $40,000 per year, that therefore Joel Osteen must make approximately $40,000. This is false. Another example would be that, since most books that are written are not New York Times Bestsellers, that therefore any book written by a new author is not going to be a New York Times Bestseller. In fact, only about 0.5% of new books make it to the New York Times Bestseller list. Yet there have been several new authors who have made the New York Times Bestseller list. We see from these two examples how reasoning from general to specific is fallacious. Yet this does not stop individuals who wish to refashion Jesus into their own image from using fallacious reasoning to accomplish their goal.
Since I have elsewhere argued that we should trust the Gospels, I see no reason why we should not understand them as generally reliable from a historical standpoint. I will make a case that Jesus likely spoke at least three languages, and read at least one, or possibly more.
Aramaic was the common language of the Jewish people in the first century. Growing up in a Jewish context, this would have been the primary language spoken by Jesus. I don't think the idea that he spoke Aramaic is really something that can be challenged. Mark suggests that Jesus did, in fact, speak in Aramaic. In Mark 5:21-43, we see the story of Jesus raising the daughter of a man named Jairus. When Jesus commands the girl to rise, he uses the Aramaic phrase "Talitha cumi." This isn't the only example of Aramaic on the lips of Jesus. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus cried out "Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani," which means, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Both of these instances support the idea that Jesus did, in fact, speak Aramaic.
It is also likely that Jesus spoke Hebrew. When Jesus was at the Synagogue of Nazareth, we are told that he stood up to read the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:14-30). The scroll here would likely have been in Hebrew, since Hebrew was the primary religious language of the Jews in this area. Thus, Jesus would have been both reading and speaking Hebrew at this point. There is little reason to suggest that this account is not accurate. We also see Jesus teaching at the synagogue of Capernaum in the independent tradition in John's Gospel (John 6:59). This likely involved something similar to what we see in Nazareth. The weight of the evidence, then seems to be that Jesus at least spoke and read Hebrew.
Finally, it is probable that Jesus at least spoke Greek. The Gospel accounts record Jesus talking to Gentiles. For example, in Matthew 8:5-13, we read the account of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion. There is a dialogue back and forth between the two, meaning that there is some form of communication going on. It is highly unlikely that these Gentiles spoke Aramaic fluently. It is more likely that Jesus spoke to these Gentiles in Greek, since we know that Greek was somewhat of a universal language. Thus, it is more likely than not that Jesus spoke Greek.
Given all of these considerations, it is likely that Jesus was at least trilingual.
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