[b-hebrew] Fw: Aramaic to them?

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Wed Mar 3 14:03:59 EST 2004

Dear Peter:

On second thought, maybe Judah haNasi’s maid 
is a good story for evidence in this question 
after all: Judah haNasi himself did not expect 
that a common person had fluent knowledge of 
Hebrew. If there were a community of Jews for 
whom Hebrew was their mother tongue, Judah 
should have known about it and it would not 
have been a surprise that a maid from that 
community would know Hebrew. That Judah was 
surprised indicates that either Judah was 
ignorant of Jewish society (which I think is 
highly improbable) or that this is evidence 
that such a community did not exist. (If the 
maid knew Hebrew better than Judah haNasi, the 
question remains, where did she learn her 
Hebrew? But there are answers that do not 
require a living community of Hebrew speakers, 
such as being herself from an educated home.)

In Europe in 1300, virtually all legal 
documents, trade agreements, business 
contracts, church documents, high literature 
and so forth were written in Latin: is this 
evidence that there was a community of 
fullers, blacksmiths, fishmongers, weavers, 
farmers and others for whom Latin was their 
mother tongue? We know from history that that 
was not the case.

The same case existed in 1910 in China 
concerning an official Chinese language that 
no one outside of an educated elite spoke 

Similarly, the existence of the DSS, legal and 
religious documents do not in themselves 
indicate that there was at that time a 
community of Jews—bakers, farmers, fishers, 
potters, etc.—for whom Hebrew was their mother 
tongue. But we do have evidence from a variety 
of sources (you know them better than I) that 
indicate common people spoke Aramaic with a 
smaller group speaking Greek and apparently a 
very small group speaking Latin.

I leave the door open that Hebrew could have 
been the mother tongue of at least one group 
within Judea and Samaria in the first century,  
but I have yet to see such a group identified. 
All I have seen so far is evidence of an 
educated elite and those living and working 
with them.

Karl W. Randolph.

----- Original Message -----
From: Peter Kirk <peterkirk at qaya.org>

> On 02/03/2004 19:50, Karl Randolph wrote:
> >Peter:
> >
> >Judah haNasi’s maid is not a good example to 
> >this discussion—she worked in an environment 
> >where Hebrew was spoken, namely Judah haNasi’s 
> >house and school: if she had a head on her 
> >shoulders and any amount of linguistic 
> >ability, she could have picked up Hebrew from 
> >her surroundings. Just because she was a maid 
> >does not mean that she wasn’t smart nor able 
> >to learn Hebrew.
> >  
> >
> True - but if I remember correctly the point was that she knew Hebrew 
> BETTER than Judah haNasi, at least that she had a wider vocabulary. She 
> could hardly have learned that from Judah haNasi and his circle.
> >... The evidence I have 
> >seen indicates that a fluent knowledge of 
> >Hebrew was pretty much the realm of the elites 
> >by the first century, and for the common 
> >people, Aramaic was their primary language.
> >  
> >
> What evidence? There is evidence pointing the other way as well. The 
> most probable situation, it seems to me, is that Aramaic was primary in 
> some areas and social circles, and Hebrew in others (and perhaps Greek 
> in yet others, though rarely among Jews in Palestine).
> >Notice, nowhere do I claim that Hebrew was not 
> >spoken fluently by at least a minority elite, 
> >just that the evidence pointing to a possible 
> >majority of the people speaking Hebrew as 
> >their primary language is weak at best.
> >
> >  
> >
> The important question here is one you have left open. Do you accept 
> that there was a continuing community for which Hebrew was the mother 
> tongue? That is what the DSS evidence strongly suggests, at least for 
> the period before the destruction of the Temple. And if this did exist, 
> it is what makes the significant difference from Latin in the modern period.
> -- 
> Peter Kirk
> peter at qaya.org (personal)
> peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
> http://www.qaya.org/

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