And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, "This Man is calling for Elijah!" (Matthew 27:46-47, NKJV)

According to a number of sites, including Wikipedia, the saying "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" (or in Mark's version "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani") was originally Aramaic:

אלהי אלהי למא שבקתני.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

However, according to some other sites it is Hebrew.

Regardless of which is right, I don't think it can be denied that the Jews mistook what he said. I used to take this to mean that he was speaking in a language they did not understand. However, as far as I know and have learned from our good friend Google, Jews at that time spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic (plus some Greek, and perhaps Latin).

How, then, did the Jews mistake his meaning?

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    Great question. My guess is that, having been beaten, lashed, had a crown of thorns pushed into His head, struck on the head more than once, crucified and left to hang there for a least three hours, with nails in His hands and feet, His speech was less than clear. Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 7:39
  • Excellent question. This might receive some answers maybe on the History.SE
    – Ovi
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 12:44
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    Just a guess here but ELIjah might have had something to do with it. Also, Elijah is invoked fairly regularly in Judaism. It's kind of like how Christians invoke the second coming of Christ. Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 13:18
  • I have a couple of interesting answers here, yet they are both so different it is hard to decide which one is the most accurate. I'm just not going to accept either for the moment, and will be looking forward to more answers, that is if anyone else thinks they can add anything to what has been said.
    – Byzantine
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 14:30
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    I think we also need to understand that nobody was at the foot of the cross as we often see. People were far from the cross while the execution was proceeding. Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:25

6 Answers 6


There are two basic theories here. The first is that the crowd misheard Jesus. The second is that they purposefully twisted his words to mock him. Commentators are fairly evenly split on which option is more probable.


In the first view, the crowd was at a significant enough distance that they could not hear Jesus clearly. Additionally, those in the crowd may have been poorly educated and/or Hellenists and therefore did not have a strong command over the Hebrew/Aramaic. Thus when Jesus said "Eloi" (Mark)/"Eli" (Matthew) their brains interpreted as "Elias" (=Elijah). In support of how this would be an easy mistake to make, Ellicott's Commentary cites Matthew 16:14 and Matthew 17:10 which show that it was a common expectation during Jesus' time that Elijah would return at the coming of the Messiah (in reference to Malachi 4:5).

The dominant expectation of the coming of Elijah would predispose men to fasten on the similarity of sound, and the strange unearthly darkness would intensify the feeling that looked for a supernatural manifestation of His presence.

A couple previous answers mention the idea that those who misheard were Roman soldiers. While it is probable there were Romans present, and some commentators have suggested the comment comes from Romans, that is not very likely. While the soldiers may have had some basic understanding of Aramaic, it is not likely they would have knowledge of Elijah, much less automatically thought of him when they heard someone crying out in anguish.

Purposely distorted

The other option is that the crowd heard Jesus alright but seized on the opportunity to mock Jesus. In this view, the crowd was referencing the same Messianic prophecy (Malachi 4:5), but were essentially saying "even Jesus realizes the prophecy was not fulfilled." Barnes' Notes writes:

The taunt would be more cutting, because it was the universal belief of the Jews, as well as the doctrine of Christ, that "Elias" would come before the Messiah. They derided him now, as calling upon "Elias" when God would not help him; still keeping up the pretensions to being the Messiah, and invoking "Elijah" to come from the dead to aid him.

The entire mock trial-crucifixion episode has been about demeaning Jesus, so it is certainly possible that it ends on one last note of mocking.


In my view, a simple misunderstanding is more likely. In Matthew, the episode continues:

And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” (Matthew 27:47-49, ESV)

It seems that the man offering up the sponge probably heard Jesus correctly and understood He was suffering and tried to help. The statement by the rest to "wait and see" could be read as further mocking, but to me more naturally suggests a initial misunderstanding, followed by doubt that Elijah would actually come without fully ruling out the possibility.

As the Pulpit Commentary points out, the fact that the insult theory relies on a Jewish audience purposefully distorting the name of God also creates a significant difficulty:

The time of ribaldry and abuse is now past; the supernatural darkness has had a calming and terrifying effect; and there is no spirit of mockery left in the awed bystanders. Besides this, it is not likely that Jews, who with all their errors and vices paid an outward respect to holy things, would have presumed to make a play on the sacred name of God.


"Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" is Greek transliteration of Aramaic words. If it was Hebrew, then azabthani would have been used instead of Aramaic word "Sabachthani."

Check this link for Hebrew NT of Matthew 27.


In Hebrew, "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" will become "Eliy ‘Eliy lamah `azab’taniy?"

Here is an explanation I found on why people thought Jesus was calling for Elijah.

"Jesus Christ was suffering horrendous pain for about SIX HOURS. He called out for “Eli”, His exhaustion and heavy breathing could have caused Him to add an “ah” on the end. Try talking when you have gone for a long run and you’ll see what I mean. “Eli-ah” sounds a lot like “Eliyah” does it not?" (Source - http://ellhn.e-e-e.gr/books/assets/NewTestament.pdf on Page. 52)

Eliya (also written as Eliyah in English) is Aramaic for "Elijah." (Source - Mark 15:35 of Aramaic Peshitta New Testament)

I also want to point out that the spoken language of first century Israel was Aramaic. Not Hebrew or Greek. This is confirmed by New Testament and Jewish Historian Josephus.

Jewish Historian Josephus states that Jews didn't speak Greek in first century Israel.

Jewish Historian Josephus wrote:

"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; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations, and so adorn their discourses with the smoothness of their periods; because they look upon this sort of accomplishment as common, not only to all sorts of free-men, but to as many of the servants as please to learn them. But they give him the testimony of being a wise man who is fully acquainted with our laws, and is able to interpret their meaning; on which account, as there have been many who have done their endeavors with great patience to obtain this learning, there have yet hardly been so many as two or three that have succeeded therein, who were immediately well rewarded for their pains." - Antiquities of Jews XX, XI

Jewish Wars (Book 1, Preface, Paragraph 1) -

"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, and sent to the Upper Barbarians. Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth a Hebrew, a priest also, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work]."

Also note the names in English Bible of New Testament - "Bar"tholomew, "Bar"abbas, "Bar"nabbas, "Bar"sabbas, "Bar" Jesus, Simon "Bar" Jonah, "Bar" Timaeus, etc.

Aramaic word Bar means Son. In Hebrew, Ben means Son. For example, Benjamin in Old Testament, and First Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion.

Acts 1:19

"And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood."

"Akel dama" is Greek transliteration of Aramaic words "Khqel Dama." "Khqel Dama" is also written as Hakel Dama in English.

We clearly see "Field of Blood" was called "Khqel Dama" by all the inhabitants of Jerusalem in their own language which is Aramaic.

If I translate aramaic words "Khqel Dama" into Hebrew, then "Khqel Dama" will become "Sh'deh Hadam."

Through this, we can read that all inhabitants of Jerusalem spoke in their own language in first century AD which was Aramaic. If Hebrew was used as spoken language in first century Israel, then "Sh'deh Hadam" would have been mentioned along with "Khqel Dama" (a.k.a akel dama in Greek and English NT) in Acts 1:19.

Here is the link to Acts Chapter 1 (Hebrew translation from Greek)


You will see "s'deh Hadam" at the end of Acts 1:19. To match the words, see S'deh (Green color) and Field (Green Color). Hadam (in purple color) and Blood (in purple color).

Josephus' Antiquities of Jews 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?

"Man" is Aramaic. In Hebrew, Aramaic word "Man" will become "Mah".

According to Dead Sea Scrolls archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, Aramaic was the language of Jews until Simon bar Kokhba tried to revive Hebrew and make Hebrew as the official language of Jews during Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 AD). Yigael Yadin noticed the shift from Aramaic to Hebrew during the time of Bar Kokhba revolt (132 - 135 AD). In Yigael Yadin's book "Bar Kokhba: The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the last Jewish Revolt Against Imperial Rome", Yadin notes,

"It is interesting that the earlier documents are written in Aramaic while the later ones are in Hebrew. Possibly the change was made by a special decree of Bar-Kokhba who wanted to restore Hebrew as the official language of the state" (page 181).

In Book "A Roadmap to the Heavens: An Anthropological Study of Hegemony among Priests, Sages, and Laymen (Judaism and Jewish Life)" by Sigalit Ben-Zion (Page 155), Yadin remarked: "it seems that this change came as a result of the order that was given by Bar Kokhba, who wanted to revive the Hebrew language and make it the official language of the state."

According to Book "Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World" written by Kimberly B. Stratton (p. 232), Yadin suggests that Bar Kokhba was trying to revive Hebrew by decree as part of his messianic ideology.

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    Very convincing answer. However I noticed that you dealt mostly with trying to prove that Aramaic was the actual spoken language. While that is great, and I appreciated that, could you try to explain a little more on the actual question? I see you said "Here is an explanation I found"... Where did you find it? It is nice if you add references for everything you quote.
    – Byzantine
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 0:26
  • Sure. I am going to add a link.
    – konwayk
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 19:50

If the narrative is followed from verse 35, one will note that the Roman soldiers were present throughout, they “sitting down they watched him”. Note not all but “some of them that stood there…said, this man calleth for Elias”. Spoken by a Roman soldiers that did not know Aramaic.

Matthew 27:35 And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. And sitting down they watched him there;

27:46…And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias.And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.

27:54..Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.

The comment came from the ones that "took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar", a non-Jew!

Luke 23:36 "And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar"

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    Would the centurions have known of Elijah (or expected him to come)?
    – Ryan Frame
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 13:55
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    Romans were aware of many belief systems, this was a big event. They likely knew enough to make an uninformed comment.
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 13:58
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    Only "some" thought he was calling for Elijah--not all.
    – Narnian
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 18:11
  • @Narnian, Yes that makes sense to me
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 18:41
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    @warren, Note Luke 23:36 "And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar"
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 15:06

As already mentioned, there were Romans who were present at the Crucifixion, so its possible that the phrase "Some of those who stood there..." in v. 47 is referring to the Romans. Also, it could refer to Hellenized Jews. These are the Jews who lived outside of Palestine in other parts of the Roman Empire. They usually did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic. Instead, they spoke Greek. But most still visited Palestine for the Pilgrimage feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and The Festival of Tabernacles) as required by the Law of Moses (Torah).

So the phrase "Some of those who stood there" in verse 47 who misunderstood what Jesus was saying is probably referring to the Romans and the Hellenized Jews who were present and not the Palestinian Jews who lived in Palestine at the time and spoke both Aramaic and Hebrew.

Although some may deny the existence of Hellenized Jews in the ancient world (I only know of one person!), their existence is affirmed in the New Testament in Acts 2 (all the Jews in Pentecost heard the Apostles in their own languages, meaning they didn't all speak Hebrew and Aramaic) and in Acts 6 (where there is a dispute between the Hellenized Jews and the Palestinian Jews). The Septuagint (A Greek translation of the Old Testament) was translated a few hundred years before Christ because most of the Jews outside of Palestine no longer spoke Hebrew. This ancient translation also serves to indicate the existence of Hellenized Jews well before the time of Christ.

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    I already know there were Hellenized Jews in the first Century, so why should I ask it? The book of Acts in the Bible records a dispute between the Palestinian Jews and the Hellenized Jews within the early church (Acts 6). If the Jews didn't use the Septuagint, why would 72 rabbis have translated it? The gentiles didn't consider the Hebrew Scriptures to have been of value. As mentioned before, Josephus didn't consider Hellenistic Jews to be true Jews, so you have to filter his comments in that regard.
    – ByronArn
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 16:08
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    Yes there have been "tamperings" with the New Testament manuscripts. But when this happens, it is easily detectable because of the thousands of other Greek Manuscripts of the NT. ALL Greek Manuscripts of the book of Acts affirms the existence of Hellenists. I will choose to believe the Holy Bible over a Jewish priest who betrayed the Jewish soldiers under his command in order to gain a Roman pardon for his part in the Jewish Revolt. You can choose who to believe of course.
    – ByronArn
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 16:21
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    The Aramaic New Testament is a translation of the Greek New Testament. Greek manuscripts outdate the Aramaic New Testament. If you read anything from the earkly Church fathers, they always quote the Greek New Testament, never quote the Aramaic. This is because the Aramaic NT had not been translated yet!
    – ByronArn
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 16:35
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    I have heard all of it before. My former pastor believes the Aramaic is the original. However, all the historical facts point to the Greek NT being the original. Even the Syriac Church, which uses the Peshitta as its standard Bible, acknowledges that the Peshitta is a translation. Only a fringe group of Messianics and Hebraic roots Christians hold the view that the Peshitta is the original.
    – ByronArn
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 16:44
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    I'm done with this conversation. All the historical facts prove both that the Greek NT is the original and that there Hellenistic Jews in the first century. These are off topic of this question anyways. End of discussion, Have a good day, and may Theos (Greek: "God") bless you.
    – ByronArn
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 16:50

An alternative, and somewhat simpler, explanation is that many of those present knew very well that Jesus was quoting the opening line of the 22nd Psalm; but through their willful blindness, determined to avoid seeing that Psalm's fulfillment manifested in the tableau in front of them, they allowed Satan to fill their heads with a suitably distracting (though somewhat illogical) interpretation of why Jesus was quoting it.


When interpreting the Word of God it is important to remember that, although it reflects the traditions and customs of the time, it serves a spiritual purpose. The "anecdote" in question is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark. Moreover, the narrative is nearly identical in both, which should warn us that its inclusion is purposeful and not merely anecdotal. Therefore, it is more likely not a naturalist/medical observation, neither a reflection of the beliefs of the time. (Although, the belief in the intercessory power of Elijah is not called into question).

In order to fully understand why did the bystanders mishear Jesus, St Jerome and St John Chrysostom teach that it is important to understand what Jesus is doing. According to them, Jesus is not only "quoting" the psalm, but applying the psalm as a fulfilled prophecy in himself.

For a Christian, it is obvious that Psalm 22 refers to the passion of Christ; especially considering that it narrates some events of the passion in astonishing detail. However, back in the first century this interpretation was not obvious. The traditional Jewish interpretations is a Davidic prophecy of the exile to come (See Rashi's commentary). Other Jewish interpreations say that Psalm 22 refers to the plight of Queen Esther before appearing to King Ahasuers (See Dr. Berkowitz's article in Torah.com). As Jerome mentions, some of these interpretations date back to his time! Therefore, what Jesus is doing is introducing a "novelty": He is applying the psalm to Himself.

With this in mind, the "mishearing" of the bystanders is purposeful, as other answers have mentioned. But purposeful not in the sense of referring to Elijah specifically, but in the sense that they are denying the messianic interpretation of the psalm; and therefore denying that Jesus is the Messiah.

Here are the passages from the commentaries on the gospel of Matthew from St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom:

Jesus has taken the beginning of psalm 21 (21 in vulgate numbering, 22 in ours) [...] The Hebrew text reads: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?". In consequence, impious people think this psalm was said for David, or for Esther or Mordecai. On the contrary, the evangelists judge the arguments from the psalm and apply it to our savior: for example, "they parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots."; and this other one "they have dug my hands and feet". (St Jerome, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina: 77, 274. Spanish Translation is my own.)

He says, "Eli Eli, etc.", so that they may see that He honors the Father until His last breath, and He is not an adversary of God. That is why, at His last hour, he send forth a prophetic word, a testimony of the Old Testament, not only a prophetic word, but also in Hebrew, so that it was evident to them. In how many ways does Jesus shows that He is in agreement with the Father! Behold their arrogance and offense! They thought Jesus was calling Elijah and they gave him vinegar to drink. (St. John Chrysostom, Patrologia Graeca: 58, 776. Translation from Latin is my own).

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