It is a commonly held belief (repeated in almost every grammar of New Testament Greek) that following the conquests of Alexander the Great, by the first century Greek had became the lingua franca, or common language, everywhere across the known world from Greece, throughout the Middle East, as far as India. We are told that Jesus spoke Greek, that Greek was the spoken language in Israel, and that was why the New Testament was written in Greek.
This is simply untrue. This is proved by reading Josephus, the foremost Jewish historian at the time. His works are preserved in Greek, but he is at pains to point out that they were originally written in Aramaic, and later translated into Greek. He says that he could not pronounce Greek well even after years of learning it, that only a few people could speak Greek, and that Greek learning was frowned upon by Jews.
Let us examine the evidence presented by Josephus. First, Antiquities of the Jews:
1:7 but because this work surrounded a great deal… in process of time, as usually happens to such as undertake great things, I grew weary and went on slowly, it being a large subject, and a difficult thing to translate our history into a foreign, and to us unaccustomed, language.
Here, Josephus clearly states that Greek (into which he was translating his history) was, to Jews, a foreign language that they were unaccustomed to. Ouch! Why, then, do people say that Greek was the common language for Jews at this time?!
1:129 for such names are pronounced here after the manner of the Greeks, to please my readers; for our own country language does not so pronounce them;
Again, Josephus emphasises that neither he nor his countrymen speak Greek. He is translating names purely for the benefit of his Greek readers.
3:32 Now the Hebrews call this food manna; for the particle man, in our language, is the asking of a question, What is this?
Interesting verse. Man (meaning what?) is actually Aramaic; the equivalent in Hebrew is ma. But this demonstrates that Aramaic at the time is associated with the Hebrew people, i.e. Jews.
20:262 And I am so bold as to say, now I have so completely perfected the work I proposed to myself to do, that no other person, whether he were a Jew or foreigner, had he ever so great an inclination to it, could so accurately deliver these accounts to the Greeks as is done in these books.
Josephus, somewhat immodestly, says that he is the only person (Jew or foreigner) who could translate his history into Greek so accurately. Clearly, then, there weren’t many other Greek speakers, whether Jews or foreigners!
20:263 For those of my own nation freely acknowledge that I far exceed them in the learning belonging to Jews: 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;
Ouch again! Josephus says that, even though he is the only person who could translate into Greek accurately, even he does not speak Greek well, and had to go to great pains to learn it, and is so used to speaking his own language (Aramaic) that he can hardly even pronounce Greek. So much for Greek being the lingua franca of the Middle East!
20:264 for our nation does not encourage those who learn the languages of many nations,
Ouch again! Josephus says that Jews discourage speaking foreign languages such as Greek. This is because Jews did not want assimilation. The Maccabean revolt was still fresh in their minds, when Greek language and culture was forced upon them by Antiochus and the Temple was desecrated. Ever since the Maccabean victory, Jews largely rejected Greek philosophy and the Greek language, and discouraged the speaking of Greek. Despite this, some Jews had succumbed to Greek learning and had allowed Greek philosophical ideas of heaven and hell to enter Judaism. They had started to Hellenize Judaism, and were despised for it. They are known in the New Testament as Grecian Jews:
Acts 6:1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
As further proof of the importance of Aramaic rather than Greek, here are some quotes from Josephus’ Wars of the Jews:
1:3 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.
Again, we see that Josephus originally wrote in Aramaic, but then translated into Greek later. The Romans destroyed all Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts in the destruction of A.D. 70, leaving only a few scattered remaining copies in Greek.
1:17 Many Jews before me have composed the histories of our ancestors very exactly; as have some of the Greeks done it also, and have translated our histories into their own tongue, and have not much mistaken the truth in their histories.
Here, Josephus again emphasises the differences between histories written by Jews (i.e. in Aramaic) and Greeks (i.e. written in their own tongue, Greek!)
In Against Apion, Josephus continues along the same theme:
1:1 My books of the “Antiquity of the Jews” … Those Antiquities contain the history of five thousand years, and are taken out of our sacred books; but are translated by me into the Greek tongue.
Again, Josephus did not originally write in Greek, but wrote first in Aramaic.
1:50 Afterward I got leisure at Rome; and when all my materials were prepared for that work, I made use of some persons to assist me in learning the Greek tongue.
Wow! Read that again! When Josephus started to translate his works into Greek, he could not at that time even speak Greek. He had to go to Rome to learn Greek, before he could begin his work of translation! That tells you everything you need to know: Jews did not speak Greek in Israel, even Josephus did not speak Greek but had to learn it, and he had to go as far as Rome to do so! Ouch! So much for Greek being the lingua franca of the Middle East!
1:73 I shall begin with the writings of the Egyptians… But Manetho was a man who was by birth an Egyptian, yet had he made himself master of the Greek learning, as is very evident: for he wrote the history of his own country in the Greek tongue.
We have seen above that Greek was not the language of Israel. See our lesson Aramaic: Language of Egypt, in which we show that, contrary to popular belief, Greek was not the language of Egypt either! Here, Manetho is Egyptian, yet (like Josephus) he also has had to learn Greek. Greek, therefore, was certainly not the lingua franca of the Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East.
You might think that when Josephus talks about “our own language” or “our own tongue” or “the language of our country”, he means Hebrew rather than Aramaic. But no. Josephus is very precise in identifying when he means Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic (his own language). We have seen above that Josephus clearly states Greek when he means Greek. He also clearly states Hebrew when he means Hebrew (as opposed to Aramaic).
Thus, if you do a search for “Hebrew tongue” you find that Josephus frequently describes words from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as being in the “Hebrew tongue” (as opposed to Aramaic). Here are a few examples from The Antiquities of the Jews to make the point:
“and call it the Sabbath; which word denotes rest in the Hebrew tongue.”
“This man was called Adam, which in the Hebrew tongue signifies one that is Red.”
“Now a woman is called in the Hebrew tongue Issa.”
“He also commanded him to be called Israel, which in the Hebrew tongue signifies one that struggled with the divine angel.”
“Now the former of those names, Gershom, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies that he was in a strange land;”
“Adonibezek, which name denotes the Lord of Bezek, for Adoni, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies Lord.”
“Deborah, a certain prophetess among them, (whose name in the Hebrew tongue signifies a Bee,)”
“Now Barak, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies Lightning.”
“Now Naomi signifies in the Hebrew tongue happiness, and Mara, sorrow.”
“to a certain city called Mizpeh, which, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies a watch tower;”
“Now Nabal, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies folly.”
Thus, when Josephus means Hebrew, he uses the phrase the Hebrew tongue. By contrast, when he means Aramaic, he says the “language of our country” or “our own language” or similar phrase. Here are some examples:
“He also placed a partition around the temple, which in our tongue we call Gison, but it is called Thrigeos by the Greeks”
“although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek.”
“to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country.”
But did Josephus really mean Aramaic when he says, “the language of our own country”? As we have seen, he clearly did not mean Greek. Some will argue that he meant Hebrew rather than Aramaic. No! The following verse from Acts conclusively proves that Aramaic was the language spoken in Israel:
Act 1:19 And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.
Thus, the field is called by the inhabitants of Jerusalem in their own tongue (the same phrase that Josephus keeps using!), Aceldama. This is from the Aramaic hakel meaning field, and dama meaning the blood. (The field of blood is in the construct state, where the word “the” goes with the second noun, i.e. literally in Aramaic it is field of the blood whereas in English we would say the field of blood. But, critically, this phrase cannot be Hebrew. It can only be Aramaic. In Hebrew, field is sadeh. In Hebrew, the whole phrase would be sadeh haDam.
Thus, Josephus and the New Testament are in conclusive agreement that the language normally spoken in Israel in the first century was emphatically not Greek. It had to be Aramaic. Jews frowned upon Greek due to the earlier problems with the desecration of the Temple by the Greeks. Josephus admits few others knew Greek, and even he had to learn it to translate his works.
No, the language normally spoken in Israel by Jews had to be Aramaic, not Hebrew. Hebrew would still have been known and spoken for liturgical purposes and for reading the Tanakh, but was no longer the language commonly heard and spoken. Many religious Jews would still cling to Hebrew, however, as demonstrated by the Community Scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls being written in Hebrew.