Q: In what language was the Bible Jesus read?

-Frederica Matthewes-Green
Baltimore, Maryland

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). To make matters more complicated, Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture (called Targums) have also been found. Because of these and other literary texts from late antiquity, scholars believe Aramaic was also widely spoken in Palestine. Aramaic words in Jesus' sayings, such as boanerges, ephphatha, talitha qumi, and eloi eloi lama sabachthani, have survived in the Greek Gospels.

Further evidence for this can be seen in the fact that when Jesus alludes to Scriptures in the Gospels, he usually does so in a manner that agrees with the Aramaic Targum, not the Greek or Hebrew versions. Some examples: In Mark 9:42 –50, Jesus warns of judgment by speaking of Gehenna and alluding to Isaiah 66:24, "where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." The word Gehenna does not appear in the Hebrew or Greek, but only in the Aramaic. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus commands his disciple to put away his sword, "for all those who take the sword, by the sword they will perish." These words, which aren't in our Hebrew-based Isaiah, probably allude to the Aramaic paraphrase of Isaiah 50:11: "all you who take a sword … go fall … on the sword which you have taken!" Jesus' well-known saying "Be merciful as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36) reflects the Aramaic expansion of Leviticus 22:28: "My people, children of Israel, as our Father is merciful in heaven, so shall you be merciful on earth." And Jesus' very proclamation of the gospel, namely, that the kingdom of God has come (Mark 1:14–15), probably reflects the Aramaic paraphrasing of passages such as Isaiah 40:9 and 52:7. In these Aramaic paraphrases we find the distinctive words "The kingdom of your God is revealed!"

Understanding the usage of Aramaic in Jesus' time explains another often puzzling passage. In the parable of the wicked vineyard tenants (Mark 12:1–12), Jesus alludes to Isaiah 5:1–7. In the Hebrew version of Isaiah (on which our English translations are based), the people of Judah as a whole (and not their leaders) are condemned as guilty of bloodshed. But when Jesus told the parable, the ruling priests understood that Jesus had told the parable "against them." This is because Jesus applies the passage in his parable in a way that reflects the Aramaic Targum's interpretation of it, in which God's judgment is directed primarily against the temple establishment. (The tower of Isaiah's parable is understood as the temple, and the wine vat is understood as the altar.)

What does the knowledge that Jesus used different versions of Scripture mean for us today? For one, it can be taken as an endorsement of Bible translations—we do not all have to learn Hebrew or Greek to read the Bible. It also points to a dynamic quality in God's revealed Word that allows it to invade every culture and tongue with the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. And what is just as important, it reminds us that we cannot truly hope to understand the New Testament without reading the same Scriptures Jesus did, and with the same expectation of encountering God in them.

By Craig A. Evans, professor of biblical studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada.

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