Language in First Century Israel

Last night I reread an essay I read years ago about the use of language in First Century Israel by Joseph Fitzmyer. It is entitled "The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D." It was originally published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970): 501-31.

Last night I reread an essay I read years ago about the use of language in First Century Israel by Joseph Fitzmyer. It is entitled "The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D." It was originally published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970): 501-31.

In it he notes that the use of Latin was rare, although a Latin inscription naming Pontius Pilate as prefect found at Caesarea Maritima in 1961 is among the most famous archeological finds in that period. This is the one ancient find we have that names him.

Most importantly, Fitzmyer notes how widespread Greek was. Our oldest inscription is from 277 BC, observes that Esdras, 2 Maccabees, and additions to Esther and Daniel were composed in Greek. Josephus and Justus of Tiberius wrote in Greek, but Josephus needed some help of assistants to do it. Epigraphic materials come in a variety of forms: the prohibition of Gentiels to enter the Holy Place and the Theodotus inscription of a synagogue dedication being the most famous of these. Many ossuaries (burial boxes) show up with Greek inscriptions. Materials from Murabba'at and Wadi Habra also show use of Greek. He thinks it likely Jesus spoke Greek, fitting its "widespread" use in the region, including towns with use by farmers and tradesmen.

Aramaic was the most widely used language, and there was some evidence of usage of Hebrew. The presence of targums (Aramaic translations of Scripture) shows that Hebrew was not as widespread.

This means that there is a likelihood as well that the merchant disciples (fishermen, tex collectors, etc)  would likely have had some knowledge of Greek. The picture of these followers of Jesus as illiterate (as Bart Ehrman argues, for example)  is not so likely. 


  • Brian LePort

    It seems evident in the

    It seems evident in the Gospels that Jesus and others spoke Aramaic because we have little bits here and there where the Evangelists mention the Aramaic words. How would this change our understanding of Jesus' sayings if it is possible he said some things in Greek when we've assumed for a while that everything written in the Gospels has an Aramaic source? 

  • Darrell L. Bock

    Jesus Speaking Greek

    Brian: It actually would likely have little impact. The scenarios where Jesus would have spoken Greek would be few and far between. The mikely context would have been in interaction with Gentiles– and there are not that many such scenes.

  • Magnus Nordlund

    difference between speaking and writing greek

    Didnt Barth say in the conversation with you that there was a difference between speaking in greek and de facto being able to write in greek? 

    Sincerely Magnus Nordlund, Sweden  

  • Izzi Johnson

    hebrew v greek

    Jesus example to the Hellenists would not have been tolerated amongst the Jews. It is likewise not adhered to by many who claim to be followering Him.

    His gospel is radical do it my way….which causes demons to be exposed and repositioned in this instance in the pigs all four thousand of them. No wonder the Greeks asked him to leave…he had challenged their hog industry. Deliverance from error means dropping whatever especially if it has become a way of life.

    He left his convert there to deal with the confusion..The result is the saved man returned to his Hellinistic city friends and neighbours   …look pig eaters I am now free no more loving to run around with the idols I love among you tombstone theologians who don't want to be obedient to the Jesus diet as written in Leviticus. Sound mental and physical health advice that …..

    Just before you try to refute this observation note I was healed from Pancreatic cancer twenty eight years ago by seeing this…and delivered from death weighing 67kg by His presence and revelation of John 10 v 10.


    Blessings Brian Johnson +27 737213570



    Talk about a clash of culture or common sense returning when getting back to His way of doing things.

  • Sony Cherian

    On Language of First Century Israel

    I believe that Language of First Century Israel was only Aramaic.  This is confirmed by New Testament and Jewish Historian Josephus.


    Jewish Historian Josephus wrote: "I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations, and so adorn their discourses with the smoothness of their periods; because they look upon this sort of accomplishment as common, not only to all sorts of free-men, but to as many of the servants as please to learn them. But they give him the testimony of being a wise man who is fully acquainted with our laws, and is able to interpret their meaning; on which account, as there have been many who have done their endeavors with great patience to obtain this learning, there have yet hardly been so many as two or three that have succeeded therein, who were immediately well rewarded for their pains." – Antiquities of Jews Book XX, Chapter XI.
    Jewish Wars (Book 1, Preface, Paragraph 1) – "I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians. Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth a Hebrew, a priest also, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work]."
    In Antiquities of Jews Book 3, Josephus points out that Hebrews called Pentecost "Asartha." Asartha is Aramaic, because "tha" in "Asartha" is Aramaic definite article on a feminine noun in an emphatic state.  If Hebrew was used as a spoken language, then Josephus would have written that Jews called Pentecost "Ha Atzeret" (translation of Asartha) or the common Hebrew word for Pentecost – Shavuot.

    In Acts 1:19, it says "And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood."


    "Akel dama" is Greek transliteration of Aramaic words "Khqel Dama."
    "Field of Blood" was called "Khqel Dama" by all the inhabitants of Jerusalem in their own language which is Aramaic.
    If Aramaic words "Khqel Dama" are translated into Hebrew, then "Khqel Dama" will become "Sh'deh Hadam." (Source –
    Through this, it is confirmed that all the inhabitants of Jerusalem spoke in their own language in first century AD which was Aramaic.

    Also notice the names – "Bar"tholomew, "Bar"abbas, "Bar"nabbas, "Bar"sabbas, Simon "Bar" Jonah, "Bar" Jesus, etc.

    The language that represents Jesus Christ is Aramaic. Galatians 4:6 (NIV) – But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!.”

    Abba is Aramaic for "Father." If Aramaic word is translated into Hebrew, then it will become "Ha Ab."

    Aramaic was the only spoken language of Jews till 130 AD. From 131 AD through the rise of Bar Kokhba and Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 AD), the beginning process of reverting back to Hebrew occured.

    According to Israeli Archaeologist Yigael Yadin, it was Simon Bar Kokhba who tried to restore Hebrew as the official language of the state during Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 AD). Yigael Yadin also noticed the shift from Aramaic to Hebrew during Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 AD). In Book "Bar Kokhba: The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the last Jewish Revolt Against Imperial Rome" Yigael Yadin notes, "It is interesting that the earlier documents are in Aramaic while the later ones are in Hebrew. Possibly the change was made by a special decree of Bar-Kokhba who wanted to restore Hebrew as the official language of the state" (Page 181).

  • Darrell L. Bock

    Predominantly Aramaic

    You only cite some of the evidence here. Joseph Fitzmyer long ago discussed various archeological finds from the region and period that show Aramaic as the dominant language but evidence also existed for Greek for some (as Josephus learned and wrote in Greek) and Hebrew for others. His article can be found in his book called A Wandering Aramean. It is a later version of the article I note in the blog entry.