According to this post:

Both Aramaic and Hebrew were in use in the Land at the time of Jesus. However, while we cannot say one predominated, we can say that Mishnaic Hebrew was very much a living language used by people of all walks of life in Judea and Galilee.

So, maybe we are safe to assume that Jesus spoke these languages.

Yet, Pontius Pilate was a Roman, who would have spoken Latin. Would he have been able to speak Hebrew? And as such, in the Gospels' account of Pilate's encounter with Jesus, did they speak in Hebrew? Is there any evidence, or perhaps tradition on this?

  • 5
    Based on the meta culture of the Eastern Mediterranean region of the time, have you considered adding Greek into the possible languages being used in the area? In some ways it was a lingua franca of that region. (Good question). – KorvinStarmast Apr 21 '17 at 12:02
  • 1
    @KorvinStarmast Mmm, views seem to be contradictory on this. For example, this one against Greek (see comment about Greek), and this one in favour on Greek. It was probably likely that Pilate did know Greek. If Jesus knew a bit of Greek, then that might have been the language. Now, we can also say, from a Christian point of view, that the Holy Spirit could have given Jesus the knowledge of tongues. In this case, Greek or Latin would be the answer. – luchonacho Apr 21 '17 at 12:40

There is reason to believe that the language Pilate communicated with Jesus was Greek. After all it was the language of commerce at that time throughout the Mediterranean world. Let us not forget that Pilate's inscription on the Title of the Cross was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. "This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was near to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin." (John 19:20)

How do we know what languages people actually spoke in Roman Judaea? We have a lot of written evidence from the region that is contemporary with the era of Jesus: papyri, inscriptions, graffiti, and historical texts. From hundreds of examples surviving from Roman Judaea, we can easily document which languages people understood and used both in official transactions and in their daily lives. The ancient evidence is very clear on this point: the everyday language spoken by the Jewish and Samaritan populations of Palestine in the time of Jesus was Aramaic, while the official language for administrative communication was Greek.

While Roman soldiers and officials from Rome probably did speak Latin among themselves, they would have used Greek to communicate with members of the local ruling class, such as Herod’s family and the Jewish high priests. - Two Archaeologists Comment on The Passion of the Christ

Here is more along this line of thinking.

In which language did Pilate and Jesus likely converse during Jesus's trial?

Almost certainly in Greek.

The first language of almost all Palestinian Jews in the 1st century was Aramaic. However evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish pseudepigraphic writings, inscriptions on ossuaries (limestone bone burial boxes), etc. show that Greek was spoken there as well. In the Mediterranean world at that time, most people were bilingual (Greek + their native language) so that they could do business with all the other ethnic groups in the Empire.

Jesus grew up in tiny Nazareth where everyone spoke Aramaic, but lived just over the ridge from Sephoris, a large, well-to-do city where Greek was the common language. As a small-time carpenter (Gk., “tekton,” actually more like a craftsman) he would need to speak Greek to snag his share of the business there. Barring a miracle, it wouldn’t have been very cultured or even necessarily grammatically correct, but it would be understandable to another Greek speaker.

Pilate on the other hand, given what we know of him from the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo, most likely would not have put forth the effort to learn Aramaic, the language of a people he had no respect for. Latin was actually not widely spoken at all, being confined mainly to it’s original home Latium. Outside of Rome, it was mainly used for official inscriptions and, occasionally, military orders to fellow Romans.

But he too would have spoken Greek. So, as the scholar Joseph A. Fitzmeyer wrote:

“In what language did Jesus and Pilate converse? There is no mention of an interpreter. Since there is little likelihood that Pilate, a Roman, would have been able to speak either Aramaic or Hebrew, the obvious answer is that Jesus spoke Greek at his trial before Pilate.”

| improve this answer | |

The Wikipedia entry for Latin lists it's spread to Palestine/Judea in the late first and early second century A.D. Prior to that, Hellenization spread Greek culture and language throughout the Mediterranean beginning with Alexander the Great around 300 B.C.

It seems unlikely a Roman, either Pilate or Herod, would take the time to learn Hebrew or Aramaic, but we aren't told otherwise. I recently read an article stating there are 8 specific references to Hebrew in the Gospels but none of Aramaic. The same article states "Eloi! Eloi! (My God!) is Greek, and the rest of the quote makes sense in either Hebrew or Aramaic (El has idiomatic usage in Hebrew: God, of God, heaven, of the skies; it also appears to be a deity of Mesopotamian origin).

It's fair to say God can speak whatever language he wants. But as far as Pilate is concerned, the evidence points to Greek. Greek would be spoken as the second language to educated Jews in Jerusalem (behind Hebrew) and as the first language by the Roman inhabitants - at least for a few more generations.

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    There are numerous inaccuracies in this answer. Specifically, in Greek of that time, both Hebrew and Aramaic were referred to without distinction by the word Ἑβραΐς. Second, Eloi is a transcription of the Aramaic for "my God". Matthew 27 includes both the Aramaic transcription and the Greek translation. – sondra.kinsey Apr 21 '17 at 21:53

Assuming they spoke without a translator, they almost certainly used Greek (Koine or common version). The Romans greatly respected Greek culture from who they derived so much of their culture, all educated Romans knew Greek, and, most importantly, Greek was the administrative language of the Eastern part of the Roman empire (since the Romans knew Greek and were inheriting provinces governed by Greek speakers for over 300 years).

On the other side, since they had been ruled by various Greek-speaking regimes for 300 years, peoples throughout the Eastern Mediterranean spoke Greek to varying degrees, with the elite fluent. (Indeed, the Jewish community in Egypt was primarily Greek-speaking and left many Greek versions of parts of the Bible.) Note that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Latin and not the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament. A Roman governor would not have had to learn either Aramaic (well established throughout the region as the administrative language of several successive empires over 600 years until the coming of the Greeks/Macedonians in 331 BC) or the rarer Hebrew.

To clarify what some web sites have erroneously claimed - that Greek was the administrative language of the whole Roman empire - is demonstrably false as Latin was both the administrative and primary language throughout the Western part of the empire, which is why Latin's descendants remain in use as French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romansch, Italian, and even Romanian further East, as well as Latin itself in the Vatican today and among the scholars, the church, and the educated throughout the Middle Ages and even into modern times. But Greek was the most common shared language of the rulers and the governed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.