There is a plethora of evidence that Hebrew was a living language in the Land at the time of Christ and used by the common people. It is called Mishnaic Hebrew in the grammars and encyclopedias. Mishnaic Hebrew was very well known in the first century and was distinguished from Aramaic in such works as the Letter of Aristeas and Josephus. See below for more details.
Mishnaic Hebrew as a Common Person's Language in the Land
Based on old research, some claim that Hebrew was not a living language in use among the common people of the Land. Instead, they claim it was a scholarly or liturgical language. While it is true that the later Amoraic Hebrew was a scholarly language, more and more evidence is coming to light that this is not so for Mishnaic Hebrew proper (also called Tannaitic Hebrew).
New Testament scholars have for years translated the Greek Ebraios into "Aramaic" when it appears in the NT instead of "Hebrew." They do this because the prevailing theory for many years was that Hebrew was only used by religious people and scholars. However, the weight of evidence says otherwise.
From the return from Exile onward, there was a concerted effort to restore Hebrew as the national language. It had been lost among most of the people during the Exile. Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are all written exclusively in Hebrew (Ezra has a few Aramaic sections, but these are correspondence with a foreign King). Daniel's middle section is in flawless, Imperial Aramaic (from 2:4a to the end of ch 7), but the rest of the book is in Biblical Hebrew (and it's good Hebrew). Those middle sections needed to be in Aramaic to reflect the original language of the decrees and events.
During the Hasmonean/Maccabean Revolt, even more emphasis was placed on Hebrew. Coins from this period (and other bilingual periods) are Greek/Hebrew and not Greek/Aramaic (with one exception in the middle of the period). Literature from the period and place is almost never Greek or Aramaic but Hebrew.
That literature includes: 1 Maccabees (originally in Hebrew), the Dead Sea Scrolls (almost exclusively Hebrew), all of the Palestinian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, all Palestinian rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, all the Midrash). The Midrash can be compared to sermon illustrations that would be used in a preaching environment. Note that they were to be told to the common people and were in Hebrew.
The only collections of rabbinic literature in Aramaic is the Babylonian Talmud. This should not be surprising because it was compiled in Babylon where Aramaic was spoken. However, even the Babylonian Talmud preserves its Mishnah portion in Hebrew. The commentary on the Mishnah (called Gemerah) is in Aramaic, but the Mishanh remains in Hebrew. In addition, whenever a later, Palestinian rabbi is quoted in the Gemerah, the quote will be in Hebrew while the discussion of the quote is in Aramaic. Parables are also preserved in the Babylonian Gemerah in Hebrew. Parables were intended to be taught to the common people. They were far from academic exercises. Even though thousands of parables have been found in Hebrew (or Greek as recorded in the New Testament), not one parable in the Talmud or anywhere else has been found in Aramaic.
The Targumim (Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible) date to the second and third centuries after Christ and came about because of an Aramaic-speaking Jewish immigration from Babylon to Israel.
The early rabbis forbade the teaching of Greek to one's sons and insisted that only Hebrew be used for religious instruction. The forbidden nature of Greek applied only to religious matters as commerce with the west required Greek.
The New Testament includes Hebrew idioms that do not exist in Aramaic and makes wordplays that only work when a Hebrew source is considered. A good example of this is the "son from stones" word play Jesus makes in Matthew 3:9. It also never uses the word Suristi to describe the language used. It only uses Ebraios.
Even though modern scholarship is admitting that Hebrew existed in the academies and temple, the rabbinic literature says that even children and women (who were not allowed to obtain formal, rabbinic instruction) spoke Hebrew.
- We should not allow a few Aramaisms to cloud the case of the many Hebraisms that appear in the New Testament. Levonah (Frankincense, Matt 2:11), mammon (Luke 16:9), Wai (Woe Matt 23:13), rabbi (Matthew 23:7,8), Beelzebub (Luke 11:15), corban (Mark 7:11), Satan, cammon (cumin Matthew 23:23), raca (Matthew 5:22), moreh (Matthew 5:22), mor (myrrh, Luke 7:37), sheekmah (sycamore, Luke 17:6), and amen which appears about 100x.
- Alongside the Aramaic names in the New Testament are many Hebrew names such as Judah (preserved as Jude and Judas), Jacob (preserved as James), Yehushua (preserved as Jesus), Saul, Mattithyahu (Matthew), Mary (comes from Miriam), Simeon, Joseph, Y'hochanan (John), and others. Drawing conclusions from personal and place names tells us very little about the language of the common people.
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, one of the world's more prominent Aramaic scholars, admitted in 1975 in hindsight: "...the way in which claims are sometimes made for the Aramaic substratum of the sayings of Jesus, when the evidence is merely 'Semitic' in general, or, worse still, derived from some other Semitic language, e.g., Hebrew, should no longer be countenanced." [Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Study of the Aramaic Background of the New Testament” (1975), reprinted in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramaean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979): 5.]
- MH Segal in his Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (see pp. 5 and 9-10) demonstrates that this was a spoken language and not an artificial language of the academy.
- Writings from the time have been found that show us Hebrew was a living language. These include the Masada Fragments, which have 6 items that are definitely not biblical material written in Hebrew. (There are other pieces which are biblical [numbering 7] or unidentifiable [numbering 2].) Included in these documents are about 2/3 of Ben Sira in Hebrew. They date to the first century BC.
- Likewise, the huge cache of documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls (~250 BC - ~AD 50) shows that Hebrew was in use for centuries while it was thought unknown. While the Qumran caves uncovered copies of the Hebrew Bible and some apocryphal works, the vast majority was sectarian literature unique to the Qumran community. This material was written in Mishnaic Hebrew. The Dead Sea writings were not intended for use only by scholars but for all Jews willing to become an Essene.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls have also shown that many of the Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works were originally written in Hebrew. These works were intended for the common person to be able to read (the synagogues did not preach on them). As such, an understandable language was needed. That language was Hebrew.
- An example of the above is Tobit, the apocryphal work. For centuries, it was assumed that Tobit had been first written in Aramaic. However, both Aramaic and Hebrew versions have been discovered in the Dead Sea Scroll caves. It was further determined, based on comparisons between the two, that the Hebrew Tobit was the original.
- Other works from the second and third century BC are written in Hebrew: 1 Enoch, Jubilees, 1 Maccabees (tho preserved in greek, experts all agree that its original language of composition was Hebrew on the basis of internal evidence), Judith (ditto), Ben Sira (cf. prologue which states it was in Hebrew), and others.
- Documents from Nahal Hever are in Mishnaic Hebrew.
- There is also the Targum Neofiti and Hebrew fragments of Ben Sira.
- Even though Greek has a perfectly good word for Aramaic (Suristi), the Greek New Testament never once uses it. Instead, the Greek New Testament refers to Ebraios (or cases thereof) (Luke 23:38; John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; Rev. 9:11; 16:16).
- Suristi appears in the epilogue to the book of Job in the Septuagint. It also appears in the text of the Septuagint (2 King 18:26; Ezra 4:7; Isaiah 36:11; Daniel 2:4). Hence, it was known that Ebraios and Suristi were distinct languages.
- Josephus in Antiquities 10 1.2 says this: "When Rabshakeh had made this speech in the Hebrew tongue, for he was skillful in that language, Eliakim was afraid lest the multitude that heard him should be disturbed; so he desired him to speak in the Syrian tongue." Josephus clearly draws a line between Ebraios and Suristi. More on Josephus' use of Hebrew can be read here.
A very important piece of evidence here is the Letter of Aristeas 11, "The Jews are supposed to use Syrian [Aramaic] language, but this is not so, for it is another form [of language]." The author of the letter clearly states that the Jews do not use Aramaic. While some claim that he is speaking of the script used, this cannot be. Mishnaic Hebrew shared a script with Aramaic. Both languages used the Aramaic Square Script for writing. Paleo Hebrew writing had fallen into disuse during and after the Exile.
The Bar Cochva Letters proved conclusively that Hebrew was still a living language and was used as the primary means of communication among Jews in Israel a century after Jesus. Scholars do not divide the letters into Early and Late. They all came from the same period. There were 26 letters uncovered: 2 are in Greek, 8 are in Aramaic, 3 could be either Aramaic or Hebrew (the text is too short too conclude), and 13 are unambiguously Hebrew. These letters are not all religious (some discuss items needed for religious observance) but are of military conquests and other non-religious matters.
Wisdom is passed on to the common people in Hebrew. Shmuel Safrai writes:
The parable was one of the most common tools of rabbinic instruction from the second century B.C.E. until the close of the amoraic period at the end of the fifth century C.E. Thousands of parables have been preserved in complete or fragmentary form, and are found in all types of literary compositions of the rabbinic period, both halachic and aggadic, early and late. All of the parables are in Hebrew. Amoraic literature often contains stories in Aramaic, and a parable may be woven into the story; however the parable itself is always in Hebrew (b. Baba Qam. 60b; or b. Sotah 40a). There are instances of popular sayings in Aramaic, but every single parable is in Hebrew.
“Spoken and Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. 1 [ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005], 238; see also Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week, 58, n. 17. Emphasis added.
Epigraphical material from the Second Temple Period is more often in Hebrew than Aramaic. A recent sarcophagus contained these words: ben hacohen hagadol, that is, "son of the high priest." While some may say that this shows it was a religious language (being on a priest's son's tomb), it should be noted that this was on a tomb and meant for the common person to know who was interred within.
Josephus (War 5:269-272) points out that Jewish soldiers used a play on words that only makes sense in Hebrew. In 272, whenever a stone was on its way (being thrown from ballistea), the watchmen would shout "in their native language, 'The Son Cometh!'" While translators are confused by the Greek text, the answer makes sense in Hebrew. The translator even admits how the words could be confused in Hebrew but not Aramaic. The watchmen would have shouted, in Hebrew, Ha-even ba’ah ("the stone is coming!"). However, because of urgency, the words would be clipped to ben ba ("son comes!"). They reduced the syllables due to time constraints. This pun is known in Hebrew and even appears in the NT (Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8) "God is able from these avanim [stones] to raise up banim [sons] to Abraham."
This wordplay is unambiguously Hebrew. In Aramaic, the phrase would be kefa ate ("the stone is coming") or the more literary avna ata. Neither sounds like bara ate ("the son is coming"). Another option for Aramaic would be to use the word aven, which is related to the Hebrew. However, aven would change the gender of the verb and still not work to make a pun on "son," bar/a.
Obviously, a warning of dire straits needs to be quick and in the common language. (American soldiers would yell, "INCOMING!" to warn of mortar fire.) That the pun works in Hebrew but not Aramaic means the soldiers (who were not scholars or priests) spoke in Hebrew.
Josephus also refers to words that exist in Hebrew but not Aramaic as Ebraion. For example, in * Antiquities of the Jews* I 33, he states:
For which reason we also pass this day in repose from toil and call it the Sabbata, a word which in the Hebrew language means "rest."
The verb SHBT does not exist in Aramaic. Aramaic translations, such as the targums, use NCH.
Likewise, in Antiquities I 34
Now this man was called Adam which in the Hebrew tongue signifies "red."
Josephus derives adam from adom (red). In Aramaic "red" is expressed by sumka, there is no root ADM in Aramaic.
Coins from the period are in Hebrew. They did not have Aramaic writing on them with one exception. As money requires a common language of the people, Hebrew must have been known.
During the Hasmonean period, Alexander Jannai (78 BC) minted one set of coins that had Aramaic on them (oddly enough, in the Paleo Hebrew script). However, at other times (before and after) he minted coins in Hebrew.
The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan were once thought to reflect the language used in the time of Jesus. However, we now know these targums are centuries later than Jesus.
- Most of the inscriptions around Jerusalem dating from the first century have been in Hebrew.
- A tomb inscription from the second century BC has Aramaic that translates and incorporates spoken Hebrew idioms also found in the Mishnah.
- A recent, in-progress cataloging of inscriptions from archeological finds shows that from the Second Temple Period (the time we are discussing), there were 116 clearly Aramaic inscriptions and 137 clearly Hebrew. There were many that overlap in the languages due to common words and the common script used for both. Also, personal names are not included in this tabulation as they are inconclusive.
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.
David Biven, Hebrew as a Spoken Language in First-century Israel, posted November 18, 2008.
_______, Roy Blizzard, Jr., Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insight from a Hebraic Perspective (Revised Edition), Destiny Image Publishers: Shippensburg, PA.
Waverly Nunnally, Hebrew as the Primary Language of Jesus, an email exchange.
________. Peshitta Primacy, an email exchange.
Baltes, Guido. "Hebrew or Aramaic? Some Evidence from Inscriptions," Jerusalem Perspective Online, November 28, 2008.