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Q:In what language was the Bible Jesus read?

A: If, as most scholars today believe, Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic, though he sometimes might have also used Greek and perhaps even Hebrew, what Bible was he likely to have read and heard read in the synagogue? The answer is that he likely heard Scripture read in Hebrew and occasionally in Greek, and then paraphrased and interpreted in Aramaic. How much of this paraphrase was actually written down in Jesus' day is difficult to tell. It is probably safer to assume that most of this Aramaic tradition circulated orally and only generations later was committed to writing.

The Dead Sea Scrolls—a collection of biblical and other texts from around the first century—have shown that our Old Testament existed in several forms at the time of Jesus. There could have been as many as four Hebrew-language versions: one that lies behind the Hebrew text of the Bible that Christians and Jews use today (the Masoretic Text); a second that lies behind the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is called the Septuagint, or LXX (and is the Old Testament of the Orthodox churches today); a third distinctive Hebrew version of the Pentateuch (the first five books of our Old Testament) used by the Samaritans; and a fourth version scholars did not know existed until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls 50 years ago.

In addition, the discovery of Greek manuscripts and inscriptions have also led scholars to believe not only that Greek translations of the Old Testament, such as the LXX, were available, but that Greek was widely spoken in Palestine, even among Jews. The one time we are told that Jesus himself read Scripture in the synagogue, the text he read followed the LXX (see Luke 4:16–19). ...

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In the Magazine

April 26, 1999

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