What Languages Did Jesus Speak?
But did Jesus really only speak one language?
Let's explore what we can learn from the words of the New Testament and from studies made by others.
We begin with the young Jesus, when His parents have discovered He is not with them in the caravan heading home. Instead they find Him at the Temple in Jerusalem. Hebrew was still spoken in 1st century Israel, of course, because this was Jewish land and had been for about 2,000 years. But the exile of the Jewish people had taken its toll on their choice of language, and Aramaic had spread throughout Israel to such an extent that Hebrew was now spoken, for the most part, only by the intellectually elite and the religious leadership.
But while many of His people could no longer speak Hebrew, the 12 year old Jesus most definitely did:
46 After three days, they found Him in the temple complex sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
47 And all those who heard Him were astounded at His understanding and His answers. Luke 2
This was the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Judaism's best and brightest held court. The discussions would have centered on the Torah, the prophets and the Psalms, known to the Jews as the Tanakh. Their debates would all have centered around the Biblical text which was in Hebrew. Jesus would have had to be more than just a little familiar with Hebrew, especially since the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus' answers and understanding of the Word of God "astounded" them. Jesus was only 12 years old at the time, and yet already His knowledge and grasp of the Scriptures amazed the Temple academia.
Many years later, in Luke 4:16-17, we read that, "As usual, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read." Jesus read them a portion from the Book of the prophet Isaiah. "As usual," the text says. Rendered "as was His custom," in other translations.
These are some of the proofs that Jesus spoke His native Hebrew fluently. But coming as He did from Nazareth and Capernaum, Jesus would also have spoken Aramaic as this was the language most common in those towns. Perhaps the best known example of this is when Jesus speaks Aramaic from the cross:
"About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Matthew 27:46
Jesus also uses other Aramaic words and phrases in the Gospels, such as "Talitha kum," when He raised a child from the dead, "mammon" in reference to money," and "Ephphatha," when He healed a deaf man.
Now we know that Jesus also spoke Aramaic aside from Hebrew, but the evidence also suggests that Jesus' ability to communicate was not limited to just two languages.
As we have already noted, this was 1st century Israel and Alexander the Great's conquests had brought the Hellenization of most of the region. Greek was now commonly spoken there as well.
Jesus would have known Greek because He hailed from Galilee of the Gentiles, so named because of the preponderance of non-Jews who lived there. These Gentiles spoke Greek, and since Jesus was a tradesman before going into ministry -- whether as a builder, a stonemason or carpenter we aren't sure -- but He would have needed to know Greek to do business with Gentiles.
We have proof of this in the Gospels. In Mark 7:24–30, we see Jesus in a discussion with the Greek-speaking Syrian Phoenician woman,
25 Instead, immediately after hearing about Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit came and fell at His feet.
26 Now the woman was Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus also spoke Greek when He avoided the snare set for Him by some religious leaders regarding the payment by Jews of taxes to Caesar in Mark 12:13–17. Before He replied, Jesus asked them for a coin:
16 So they brought one. “Whose image and inscription is this?” He asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they said.
17 Then Jesus told them, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.
We know He replied to them in Greek because, as Dr. Carsten Peter Thiede tells us, His answer used "a wordplay that works only in Greek" (see article linked to below). Jesus' brilliant response not only foiled an attempt to trap Him in a political controversy, but also proved that He was a Master Communicator.
This now brings Jesus' flawless grasp of languages to three, but we have yet one more to discuss.
Israel was occupied by Rome at the time, and the occupying Roman soldiers, who were well-known for their cruelty and brutality, would not have bothered to learn either Hebrew or Aramaic to speak to the colonized Israelites.
That meant that Israelites risked death if they didn't know Latin because, as Dr. James White points out, you would always want to understand exactly what orders an armed Roman soldier was barking at you because not knowing Latin could result in your untimely demise.
But the Gospel of Matthew 8:5-13 also shows us Jesus interacting with a Roman centurion:
5 When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him,
6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!”
7 “I will come and heal him,” He told him.
8 “Lord,” the centurion replied, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured."
John 18 also tells of Jesus' encounter with the Roman official Pontius Pilate, fifth prefect of the province of Judea (italics mine):
33 Then Pilate went back into the headquarters, summoned Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered, “Are you asking this on your own, or have others told you about Me?”
35 “I’m not a Jew, am I?” Pilate replied...”
Jesus and Pilate would have spoken in either Latin or Greek. Interestingly enough, it is Pilate who later orders which words will be placed on the sign that was to be affixed to Jesus' cross. The Apostle John records Pilate's choice for us:
19 Pilate also had a sign lettered and put on the cross. The inscription was:
JESUS THE NAZARENE
THE KING OF THE JEWS.
20 Many of the Jews read this sign, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.
Pilate posted that sign in at least three of the languages common to the people of Jerusalem at the time; Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
Since these languages were common in their day, why would Jesus not have known them?
A Testament Is Born, by Dr. Carsten Peter Thiede