[b-hebrew] Hebrew as a Spoken Language vs. Aramaic

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Fri Oct 26 17:23:08 EDT 2007

Dear Bryant, Yishmor:

Contrary to what some people claim, I have never said that Hebrew was
not spoken during this late period, rather my question is, to what
extent was Hebrew spoken? And there I think the picture is less clear.

To the extent that Hebrew was the Lashon HaQodesh, and that the temple
was also the center of Jewish civic life, all Jewish youth, the males
at least, were expected to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of
Hebrew. Those who had civic posts, such as tax collectors, were
expected to be able to give their reports both orally and in writing,
in Hebrew. Official place names were recorded in Hebrew. Of course,
the religious leaders were expected to know Hebrew. Paul's address was
in Hebrew to emphasize that he was a learned Jew. But what was the
language used in the market, in the kitchen and in the bedroom? There
the picture is not so clear.

I have not studied Mishnaic Hebrew, nor the evidences pro or con their
uses of Hebrew, so I can't give a definitive answer to this question.
Though I notice that some of the arguments proffered on the pro side
can also be understood as arguments on the con side, depending on how
they are taken.

But what I have noticed is the language development in Tanakh pre- and
post Exile. Pre-Exile, particularly the later writings, tended towards
more and more complex stylisms. Then after the Exile, the writing,
with few exceptions, was starkly simple. This follows the pattern seen
today among immigrants: their children may have learned their parents'
language, but are more at home in the dominant language of the
society. The simple usage is consistent with that of a second, learned
language that is not used in every area of one's life. Thus, already
in late Biblical times, i.e. pre-400 BCE, there is evidence (not
proof) that Hebrew had ceased to be the everyday speech of the Jewish

The mechanism by which Aramaic may have become ascendant among Jews is
quite simple and easy to understand. If Jews were scattered as a
minority population even in the towns and villages where the
Babylonians settled them, then they would have had to learn Aramaic to
deal with the majority populations, to buy groceries, trade, get work.
By the second generation, many, if not the majority, Jews would have
been more at home in Aramaic than in Hebrew. By the return after 70
years, ca. 2.5 generations, how many Jews still had Hebrew as their
primary language? Both Daniel and later Ezra wrote half their books in
Aramaic because they expected that their audiences knew Aramaic.

With this being evidence from late Biblical Hebrew, what is the
probability that Hebrew was the primary language of the majority after
that time? There's no question that Hebrew continued to be spoken, but
by how much? Where? And by whom?

Karl W. Randolph.

On 10/26/07, Bryant J. Williams III <bjwvmw at com-pair.net> wrote:
> Dear Dave,
> K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, Chapter 7, "Principles of
> Linguistic Studies," III: (c), "The Question of Aramaisms," pp. 145-146. See
> also page 108, footnote 84.
> In this section of the book he cites or quotes the following: Eissfeldt, R.D.
> Wilson, BASOR 89 (1943), C.H. Gordon, C. Viirolleaud, E.J. Young, J.
> Aistleitner, M. Dahood, A. Dupont-Sommer, Wiseman, W.F. Albright, E. Forrer, E.
> Ebeling, B. Meissner, etc. just to list a few. He further uses the Amarna
> Letters and Assyrian texts from Tiglath-Pileser I of the prove the point.
> What I think is happening is that when Aramaic became the official language of
> most of the Levant Hebrew was still spoken and used through to the Rabbinic
> period by the people. The references to "Hebrew" in the New Testament is
> commonly understood to refer to Aramaic. I think this is wrong. The
> interpretation of the Aramaic phrases are  mentioned. The references to Hebrew
> being spoken, e.g., Paul in the Temple precincts during his arrest, is actually
> Hebrew. The Sanhedrin meeting for Jesus' trial would have used Hebrew. An
> example of one language being used but another used at the same time would be
> Koine Greek during the ascendancy of the Roman Empire from roughly 200 BC to 200
> AD. Greek was the official language of the Roman Empire, while Latin was still
> used. By 200 AD, if not earlier, the situation reversing itself, at least in the
> West, while Greek was still used by the Byzantine Greek East. From a closer time
> period, after the Battle of Hastings, Norman French was used in England by the
> nobility, but it was the Saxon English that was used by the common people.
> Eventually, although Latin was still used in churches, official decrees, etc.,
> it was English that was understood by almost everyone. Thus, I can still see
> very much of Hebrew being understood by all classes of people through the
> Rabbinic period especially considering that Latin, Greek, Hebrew was used on the
> indictment of Jesus.
> Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

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