[b-hebrew] GDD (was not: Self-mutilation)

Harold R. Holmyard III hholmyard at ont.com
Mon Oct 11 17:19:58 EDT 2004

Dear Dave,

>I am not interested in lists of scholar names, I thought I already mentioned

HH: Here is an article that gives lots of varied 
evidence in favor on a widespread, ongoing spoken 
use of Hebrew in the first century. I cut out a 
bit of argumentation based on the NT that I 
thought was flawed. I start with the concluding 
words about Aramaic:

Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus

Shmuel Safrai

However, the role of Aramaic in everyday life 
should not be exaggerated. Many scholars who 
admit the widespread use of Hebrew in the last 
few generations of the Second Temple period claim 
that Temple services were conducted in Aramaic. 
While there were a number of Aramaic words and 
phrases associated with the administration of the 
Temple and Temple area, the vast majority of 
references relating to Temple life reflect the 
use of Hebrew there. The Mishnah preserves many 
descriptions of various aspects of everyday life 
in the Temple, including statements of Temple 
officials which almost always are in Hebrew. 
Moreover, to date all of the inscriptions found 
in the Temple area are written in Hebrew, except 
for two Greek inscriptions, originally part of a 
balustrade surrounding the inner Temple, which 
warned Gentiles not to go beyond that point.

Tannaic and amoraic sources state that it was 
customary in the synagogue to translate the 
readings from the Torah and the Prophets into 
Aramaic. Rendering the Scriptures into Aramaic 
offered an opportunity to introduce into the 
readings elements of the Oral Torah in popular 
form. This was done for the benefit of 
religiously uneducated people who may not have 
completely understood Biblical Hebrew. One 
rabbinic source explicitly states: "Šand he 
translates [into Aramaic] so that the rest of the 
people, and the women and children, will 
understand it" (Tractate Soferim 18:4).

However, the custom of translating the readings 
of the Torah and Prophets into Aramaic is not 
mentioned in any source before approximately 140 
C.E. Sources from the second Temple period and 
the era immediately following the destruction of 
the Temple do not reflect this custom. The 
phenomenon of sages understanding Biblical Hebrew 
while the rest of the population required a 
translation is the reality of a later period and 
was not the situation during the first century 

Mishnaic Hebrew

Either Hebrew or Aramaic was used in the 
synagogue or at other communal gatherings, but 
there are a number of questions concerning the 
relationship of these two languages in the land 
of Israel. The Torah and Prophets were 
undoubtedly read in Hebrew, as were prayers, but 
what was the language of Torah instruction in the 
synagogue? In what language did people speak in 
the marketplace and within the family circle? In 
which tongue did the sages address their 
students? Was there a difference between Judea 
and Galilee?

Most scholars since the beginning of the 
nineteenth century have concluded that Aramaic 
was the spoken language of the land of Israel 
during the Second Temple period. Even when 
scribes of that period or later attest that they 
wrote or transmitted traditions in Hebrew, 
scholars have persisted in claiming that this 
"Hebrew" was actually some type of Aramaic 
dialect then prevalent among the Jews of the 
land. It has even been claimed that the Hebrew in 
which the Mishnah was written was an artificial 
language of the bet midrash, house of study, 
which was a translation from Aramaic, or at the 
very least heavily influenced by Aramaic.

However, some seventy years ago a number of 
Jewish scholars in Palestine (later the State of 
Israel) began to see that the Hebrew of the 
Mishnah had been a living and vibrant language, 
spoken in the house of study, synagogue, on the 
street and at home. Mishnaic Hebrew does not deal 
only with matters of religion, but mentions, for 
instance, the names of dozens of implements used 
at the time, and records thousands of events and 
sayings about mundane, secular aspects of life.

Other studies have shown that Mishnaic Hebrew is 
significantly different from Biblical Hebrew in 
vocabulary, grammar and syntax. As the 
mid-third-century B.C.E. sage Rabbi Yochanan put 
it: "The language of the Torah unto itself, the 
language of the sages unto itself" (Babylonian 
Talmud, Avodah Zarah 58b). Mishnaic Hebrew was an 
independent dialect and existed together with 
Biblical Hebrew, the latter being the language in 
which the Torah was read, the former the language 
of conversation, prayer and the Oral Torah. 
Mishnaic Hebrew differs from Biblical Hebrew, but 
not because it was translated from Aramaic as 
some scholars have thought. Rather it is the 
result of independent linguistic and historical 
developments related to the Hebrew language 
itself in the Second Temple period.

Samaritan commentaries and translations of the 
Scriptures have preserved traces of Mishnaic 
Hebrew. The language of Christians in the land of 
Israel, particularly those living in the southern 
part of the land, also shows the impact of 
Mishnaic Hebrew. These Christians continued to 
write in Aramaic until at least the sixth 
century, and their Aramaic was greatly influenced 
by Mishnaic Hebrew, but not at all by Biblical 

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the 
documents from the period of the Bar-Kochba 
revolt (132-135 C.E.) conclusively settled the 
question of whether Mishnaic Hebrew had been an 
artificial or a living language. Hymns, prayers 
and biblical works written in Hebrew were 
discovered, as well as documents composed in the 
Mishnaic Hebrew dialect. Among them were letters 
containing Hebrew slang and abbreviated Hebrew 
forms characteristic of everyday speech. These 
discoveries prompted the biblical scholar J.T. 
Milik to conclude:

"The thesis of such scholars as Segal, Ben-Yehuda 
and Klausner that Mishnaic Hebrew was a language 
spoken by the population of Judea in the Persian 
and Græco-Roman periods can no longer be 
considered an assumption, but rather an 
established fact" (Discoveries in the Judaean 
Desert [Oxford University Press, 1961], 2:70).

Rabbinic Literature

When the Jewish writers of the Second Temple 
period referred to Hebrew, they meant Hebrew and 
not Aramaic. They did not confuse the two 
languages, but distinguished quite clearly 
between Hebrew and Aramaic, referring to the 
latter either as "Aramaic," "targum" or "Syriac" 

The sages also clearly differentiated between the 
Hebrew and Aramaic sections of the Bible. The 
Mishnah states:

The Aramaic passages in Ezra and Daniel render 
the hands unclean. If any of these passages were 
written in Hebrew, or if passages from the Hebrew 
Scriptures were written in Aramaic Š they do not 
render the hands unclean. (Mishnah, Yadayim 4:5)

Rabbi Yochanan of Beth Guvrin is likewise quite 
clear in distinguishing among different languages:

There are four languages which are fitting to be 
used by all. And they are: Greek for song, Latin 
for combat, Aramaic for dirges and Hebrew for 
conversation. (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 71b)

The Tosefta gives a further rabbinic ruling:

One cannot fulfill the obligation of reading from 
the Torah scroll unless the text is written in 
square script in Hebrew and in a book [some 
manuscripts read "on parchment"] and in ink. 
(Tosefta, Megillah 2:6)

In other words, the Torah scroll must be written 
in square Hebrew script and not in the old 
archaic Hebrew script, nor in Aramaic.

In Midrash Tanhuma we again find an example of 
the distinction the sages made between Hebrew and 

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi son of Shalom [said]: "In 
Hebrew it is called yayin, wine and in Aramaic 
hamar, wine." (Shemini 5 [ed. Buber, p. 13b])

The Writings of Josephus

Josephus' references to the "language of the 
Hebrews" also indicates the Hebrew language. In 
his introduction to The Jewish Antiquities he 
states: "For it [his book] will embrace our 
entire ancient history and political 
constitution, translated from the Hebrew records" 
(Antiquities 1:5). The Hebrew records he refers 
to are the Bible.

In his discussion of creation and the Sabbath he 
states: "For which reason we also pass this day 
in repose from toil and call it Sabbath, a word 
which in the Hebrew language means 'rest'" 
(Antiquities 1:33). This makes sense only if 
Hebrew and not Aramaic is intended because in 
Aramaic the root n-u-h, rather than sh-b-t, is 
used for "to rest."

II Kings 18 tells of the Assyrian general 
Rabshakeh's advance on Jerusalem and his attempt 
to persuade the beleaguered inhabitants of the 
city to surrender. The leaders of Jerusalem 
requested that he speak Aramaic and "not the 
language of Judea" so that the rest of the city's 
inhabitants would not understand (v. 26). 
Josephus relates the story in the following 

As Rabshakeh spoke these words in Hebrew, with 
which language he was familiar, Eliakim was 
afraid that the people might overhear them and be 
thrown into consternation, and he asked him to 
speak in suristi, [Syriac, i.e., Aramaic]. 
(Antiquities 10:8)

The language of the Jews and of the Bible is 
clearly Hebrew according to Josephus, while 
Aramaic is called Syriac, as is often the case in 
rabbinic literature.

In his The Jewish War, Josephus states that in 
order to deliver Titus' message and persuade the 
inhabitants of Jerusalem to surrender, he 
approached the walls of Jerusalem. Since Josephus 
wanted not only John of Gischala to understand, 
but also the entire population, he delivered the 
message in Hebrew (War 6:96). It would seem, 
therefore, that Hebrew was commonly spoken and 
understood in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Josephus sometimes discusses the etymology of an 
Aramaic word without explicitly saying that it is 
Aramaic. For instance, he remarks about one 
Aramaic word that "we learned it from the 
Babylonians" (Antiquities 3:156). He never once 
states that an Aramaic word was Hebrew. On the 
other hand, when speaking of the year of Jubilee, 
Josephus mentions that "the fiftieth year is 
called by the Hebrews iobelos" (Antiquities 
3:282). Iobelos is a Greek transliteration of the 
Hebrew word yovel.

Galilee and Judea

There is an oft-repeated claim in scholarly 
literature that a high percentage of the Galilean 
population was religiously uneducated, and that 
the people consequently knew and used less 
Hebrew. Literary sources, however, provide no 
indication that this claim is correct.

There are a number of "anti-Galilee" statements 
in rabbinic literature, but one can find similar 
barbs directed against residents of other regions 
of the land. What the sources do indicate is that 
Galilee belonged to the accepted cultural milieu 
of Judaism at that time, including the world of 
Torah study, and that culturally and spiritually 
Galilee may have been closer to Jerusalem than 

There is a statement in rabbinic literature that 
the Judeans retained the teachings of their Torah 
scholars because they were careful in the use of 
their language, while the Galileans, who were not 
so careful with their speech, did not retain 
their learning (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 53a-b; 
Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4d, et al.). While 
this saying is sometimes considered to be 
evidence for the dominance of Aramaic over Hebrew 
in the Galilee because some of the examples 
discussed are in Aramaic, it actually only refers 
to the Judeans' feeling that Galileans 
mispronounced the guttural letters het and 'ayin 
and dropped the weak letters 'alef and hey. This 
in no way reflects on the cultural status of 
Galilee, nor does it show that the use of Hebrew 
was less common there than in Judea or Jerusalem.

The New Testament

When Paul spoke to the Roman commander, he used 
Greek (Acts 21:37). When he addressed the people, 
however, he spoke to them "in the Hebrew 
language" (Acts 21:40).

Hebrew-speakers commonly referred to Jews as 
yisrael, Israel, in contrast to Ioudaioi, Jews 
used by Greek speakers and yehuda'in, Jews used 
by Aramaic-speakers. In literary works written in 
Hebrew, Jews refer to themselves as yisrael, 
Israel or bene yisrael, sons of Israel, while 
non-Jews refer to Jews using the Aramaicized 
yehuda'in, Jews.

When the author of the Book of Acts refers to 
Jews he normally uses the term Ioudaioi, Jews. 
However, when he relates the words of Jesus or of 
Peter and his companions, he has them refer to 
Jews as yisrael, Israel (Acts 1:6; 2:22; 2:36; 
3:12; 4:10; 9:15). The author of the Book of Acts 
also relates that Rabban Gamaliel addressed the 
Sanhedrin as "Men of Israel" (5:35).

Jesus probably spoke Hebrew within the circle of 
his disciples, and since the thousands of 
parables which have survived in rabbinic 
literature are all in Hebrew, no doubt he 
likewise told his parables in Hebrew.

The view that Aramaic was the language of 
conversation in first-century Israel seems to be 
supported by the Aramaic words found in the New 
Testament. Many scholars have seen Jesus' words 
to Jairus' twelve-year-old daughter, "Talitha 
kumi" (Mk. 5:41), as proof that he spoke Aramaic. 
Yet, even if Jesus spoke to her in Hebrew, he 
could have said "Talitha kumi." One must not 
forget that many Aramaic words in various forms 
found their way into Hebrew in the Second Temple 
period. The command to "get up" kumi is the same 
word in Hebrew and Aramaic.


Hebrew was certainly the language of instruction 
in schools, as well as the language of prayer and 
Torah reading. The language of instruction in the 
house of study also most certainly was Hebrew, 
and this was likely the case regarding 
instruction in the synagogue. It would seem that 
Hebrew was spoken in the marketplaces of 
Jerusalem (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 37d), but 
there is not enough information to determine 
whether this also was the case in other cities. 
It is not impossible that there were religiously 
uneducated people who did not understand Hebrew 
and were conversant only in Aramaic. There is 
some evidence for this linguistic phenomenon 
beginning in the second century C.E., but it is 
unlikely that such was the case in the first 

Although the Jewish inhabitants of the land of 
Israel in the time of Jesus knew Aramaic and used 
it in their contacts with the ordinary, 
non-Jewish residents, Hebrew was their first or 
native language. It is especially clear that in 
enlightened circles such as those of Jesus and 
his disciples, Hebrew was the dominant spoken 

				Harold Holmyard

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