Izzy here. My friend Michael Millier - a professor of Biblical Hebrew - recently made this post in the Holy Language Facebook group. It was so excellent I asked him if I could share it with you here...and he said yes! Thanks Michael.
HEBREW AS A SPOKEN LANGUAGE IN CHRIST’S DAY
It is commonly asserted by well-meaning (but ill-informed) Christian pastors, Sunday School teachers, and even some professors of Bible Colleges and seminaries that Hebrew was no longer a spoken language by Jesus' day, having made way during the Babylonian Exile for Aramaic as the sole Semitic language spoken by common people in second-temple Israel. But overwhelming evidence to the contrary has been in the Talmud for centuries ... only Christians rarely read, much less trust what's written in the Talmud. However, since the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, plus other documentary evidence, it may no longer be claimed that Hebrew was in Jesus' time a "dead language," used only in prayer and Bible reading, etc.
The following is an as-brief-as-I-can-make-it survey of the evidence I know of that Hebrew flourished among Jews as a spoken language during the second temple period. It is basically lifted from a few main sources (there is a bibliography at the end of my survey, but most of the info comes directly from Buth’s, Lundy’s, and Wise’s work). I will start with the general and suggestive, then move to the more specific. It is the cumulative effect of the data that I trust will persuade those still harboring doubts that Hebrew was indeed alive and well--and spoken in Judea and the Galilee--until sometime in the late 2nd century C.E.:
1. While LBH (Late Biblical Hebrew) continued as a written language, the usual signals for the “death” of a language were conspicuously absent (e.g. vastly increased numbers of loan words, loss of morphological integrity, etc.). 2. Literary evidence of the times (200 B.C.E.-135 C.E.) suggests that authors continued to shape the classical idiom to serve new needs, coining neologisms and developing obviously new varieties of the written language. 3. “Slips” in the written form of the language at this time signal that the spoken language of the authors was developing into a form different than LBH and approaching MH (Mishnaic Hebrew). 4. The vast majority of the DSS were written in LBH. Of particular interest are the Copper Scroll (i.e. a list of temple treasures) and 4QMMT, the latter being what appears to be a personal letter written in LBH. 5. Ben Sira and 1 Maccabees, as well as a substantial percentage of the “apocryphal” and “pseudepigraphic” literature were all preserved in LBH. 6. The finds at Masada (c. 66-74 C.E.), including jar handles, and an ostracon used as a receipt reading MIYRUSHALAYIM (“from Jerusalem”), plus numerous other ostraca inscribed in paleo-script and serving unknown functions, were all written in Hebrew. 7. Items discovered in the “Cave of Letters” and in some neighboring caves in nearby wadis, yielded three MH contracts from En Gedi and five letters in MH written to Bar Kokhba by subordinates during the second uprising against the Romans (c. 132-135 C.E.). 8. The burial ostracon from the “Cave of Horrors” read: SHAUL BEN SHAUL, SHALOM (“Saul son of Saul, Peace”). (A promissory note and four other ostraca used as receipts, likewise discovered in the Judean Wilderness are too fragmentary for us to be certain whether or not they are MH or Aramaic). 9. The finds from Murabba’at, all either undated or dated to the time of the second uprising (132-135 C.E.), included six contracts in MH, seven legible MH letters to Bar Kokhba, and four more poorly preserved letters that may very well be MH also. 10. Two sepulchral inscriptions from near Jerusalem (i.e. the Ben Khezir inscription and the famous “L’BEIT DAVID” [“to/for the House of David”] inscriptions) were both written in MH. Added to this is the so-called “Trumpet inscription” that apparently came from the southwest corner of the Herodian temple. Even several of the Aramaic tomb inscriptions contained Hebrew titles for the deceased (e.g. COHEN HA-GADOL [“The High Priest”]; NAZIR [“Nazirite”]). 11. Numismatic (coin) evidence, from the time of John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.E.) and running down to the time of Antigonus (40-37 B.C.E.), supports at least an official usage of Hebrew. After both the first (66-70 C.E.) and second (132-135 C.E.) revolts against the Romans, Jewish coins were minted with Hebrew mottos, using paleo-Hebrew script.
BRIEF SUMMARY THUS FAR:
Formal written materials and virtually all literary texts utilized LBH. This seems to witness a learned-class Hebrew, with the Murabba’at contracts and their subscribers, although coming from Judean villages, nevertheless handling large amounts of money, thus probably pointing once more to upper classes such as village elders or propertied families. Likewise this can be said about the sepulcher inscriptions since the wealthy were the ones who could afford such eternal monuments. Hebrew was used for letters and contracts, as well as for HALAKHIC discussions (E.g. MISHNA), where the topic was sacred. Furthermore, matters related to the temple and national identity tended to be written in Hebrew, with Aramaic influences often apparent.
These observations apply only to the region of Judea, however. The Galilee area is more difficult to assess, due in part to less literary evidence and because settlement patterns were substantially different there, particularly after the Bar Kokhba revolt. At that time, Judea was essentially depopulated and many Jews moved north to the Galilee, bringing with them (no doubt) their linguistic habits. Thus it is difficult to determine what the Hebrew usage was like there before then.
CONTINUING WITH THE SURVEY:
1. In Aristea’s letter (200-100 B.C.E.) Demetrius is quoted speaking to the king thus:
“Translation is needed [for the Hebrew Scriptures]…. They [Jews] are assumed to use Aramaic [SYRIAKE], but such is not the case; it [the language of the Jews] is a different [ETEROS] kind [of language]”
We know that Demetrius, and hence the writer of Aristea’s letter, refer to Hebrew and not Aramaic because the books in question were from the Hebrew Bible. 2. In the countryside of Judea decrees of marriage were written in Hebrew while in more cosmopolitan Jerusalem they were composed in Aramaic (Ketubot 4:12). 3. Traders and Babylonians wanting to communicate better with Jerusalemites learned Hebrew (Yoma 6:4, B Pesakhim 116). Presumably they already knew Aramaic. 4. In one telling recorded instance, some students of Yehudah Ha Nasi, the compiler of the MISHNA who lived in the city of Tziporri in the Galilee (c. 200 C.E.), could not figure out the meaning of a few Hebrew words so they asked the maid, who explained the words to them (B. Megillah 18). This lends evidence that Hebrew was still alive among at least some of the more common people in the Galilee region at this time. 5. Targumim were not so much translations of the Bible to explain the “lesser-known” Hebrew, but repositories of exegetical traditions. Because of this they had value to Hebrew speakers (also fluent in Aramaic), but were always distinguished from the biblical text itself. The congregational “translator” of a targum (itself a kind of translation) reading was called a METURGEMAN, but the sermons following the Scripture readings were, in the second temple period, given in Hebrew. To the common people. 6. The Pharisees utilized Hebrew (not Aramaic) for their oral transmissions of their traditions. They found popularity (except for details on tithing and a few other minutia) among the common people—and were apparently understood. 7. The structure of the Magnificat (Luk. 1:46-55) shows that it came from a Hebrew, not Aramaic, source, and that it is not merely a Lukan composition based on the LXX. If it came from Mary’s own mouth then she could spontaneously compose beautiful Hebrew poetry. If it came from a later Christian community, then they too were capable of producing exceptional poetry in Hebrew. Evidence of a living language. 8. The evidence of Aramaic in the Gospels does not prove that Hebrew was no longer widely used. In fact, some words attributed to Aramaic are just as likely to have been good MH (e.g. ABBA). Furthermore, Matthew and Mark’s propensity to translate Jesus’ known Aramaic expressions lends suggests that these instances were unusual; i.e. that Jesus’ did not usually speak Aramaic, or that Matthew’s and Mark’s audiences needed help to comprehend Aramaic. 9. Jesus’ many references to someone (himself?) as “the son of man,” an obvious allusion to the enigmatic BAR ENOSH figure in Dan. 7, does not necessarily signal that he was communicating to the masses in Aramaic, since he just as easily could have been teaching in Hebrew (standard rabbinic practice of the time) and speaking the “son of man” title in Aramaic. 10. Luke’s portrayal of Paul as speaking EBRAIDI no longer poses a problem if one accepts that Hebrew was indeed spoken at the time in Judea (Act. 22:2). In fact, SYRISTI would be the most common way in Greek to refer to Aramaic.
1) Hebrew certainly was vibrantly alive as a literary language during the second temple period, particularly in Judea.
2) Hebrew was also certainly utilized by some among the scholarly and upper classes, and even among the less-learned as a spoken language. Again, particularly in Judea.
3) In the Galilee, Aramaic was probably the most common tongue to converse in, except when religious discourse was going on.
Bendavid, Abba. 1967. Leshon miqra ulshon hakhmim, 2nd ed. Tel Aviv:Dvir.
Black, Matthew. 1967. An Aramaic approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Buth, Randall. 1984. “Hebrew poetic tenses and the Magnificat.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 21.67-83.
--1987. “Language use in the first century: the place of spoken Hebrew in a trilingual society.” Notes on Scripture in Use, Special Issue 1.25-42. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
--1990. “Jesus’ most important title.” Jerusalem Perspective, 3(2). 11 15.
Cook, Edward. 1986. “Sociolinguistics and the languages of Jesus.” Paper read at the 19th national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Grintz, J.M. 1960. “Hebrew as a spoken and written language in the last days of the second temple period.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 79.32-47.
Lund, Jerome A. “The language of Jesus.” 1993. Mishkan, 17/18. 139-55.
Meyers, Eric M., and James F. Strange. 1981. Archaeology, the Rabbis, and early Christianity. Nashville: Abingdon.
Morag, Shlomo. 1966. “Ad matay dibbru ivrit?” Leshonenu le-am, 67/68:3-10.
Rabin, Chaim. 1976. “Hebrew and Aramaic in the first century.” In The Jewish people in the First Century, vol. 2, 1007-39. Ed. By S. Safrai and M. Stern. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Safrai, Shmuel. 1990. “The Jewish cultural nature of Galilee in the first century.” Immanuel, 24/25.147-86.
--1991a. “The spoken languages in the time of Jesus.” Jerusalem Perspective, 4/1.3-8, 13.
--1991b. “The literary languages in the time of Jesus.” Jerusalem Perspective, 4/2.3-8.
Safrai, Ze’ev. 1990. “The origins of reading the Aramaic targum in synagogue.” Immanuel, 24/25.187-93.
Wise, Michael O. 1992. “Languages of Palestine.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed. By J. Green and S. McKnight. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Christine is following Yeshua in a Hebrew way! Here's her story.
My walk with Yeshua started with a “premonition” when I was in high school where I began having recurring dreams of being involved in a car wreck to which I repeatedly rationalized. Fast forward to my freshman year of college, I was driving from school to my home in Mobile, AL for our Spring Break when this fear really started to become overwhelming. I started crying and pleading with God that He would spare me, because I wanted to live a full life and have family someday. One week later, on April 1st, what I feared came to pass.
We were driving in my friend’s Explorer SUV when a gold van merged into our lane causing my friend who was driving to cut her wheel off the road to avoid hitting them. When she tried to regain control, the van clipped the back end of the SUV which caused us to flip four times and land upside down on the interstate going about 80 mph. I was in the passenger side seat, wearing no seatbelt, was ejected from the passenger side window, bounced off the pavement with my knees, and landed in the middle of the median that was about 40 yards from the car when it landed. This is what the police report stated as I was knocked unconscious and don’t remember much of it. Oh, and I was also on the phone with my mom while this happened. She heard everything. Somehow my phone managed to stay right beside me when I was found in the grass to which a paramedic was able to call my mother back and let me speak to her when I awoke. I had some minor injuries but did not suffer from any broken bones. About 3 months later during my recovery, the realization that my dream had happened and I somehow managed, by the Grace of Adonai, to survive this accident without any major injuries hit me like a ton of bricks. I shared my story with my mother when she started sobbing and then expressed to me that a week before I had the accident, she prayed to see a miracle one day.
Needless to say, this was a huge wake up call for us which in turn motivated us to start seeking God. We were involved in a small nondenominational church for a short period of time, but then God led us to a Messianic congregation. Learning Hebrew roots was very foreign to us and did not seem like the “typical” path to take.
That’s when I had another dream.
I remember it so vividly, and it has been stuck in my mind for years now. I’m just now understanding what it means, because at the time it did not make much sense.
I was walking up to a group of people trying to be involved in their conversation, but they kept on ignoring me. I remember walking away crying and feeling rejected when I walked up to a hillside with a fork in the road. The path to my left looked like the obvious way to go as it was paved, and the landscaping was quite pristine. To my right, however, the path looked as if it were under construction with caution tape. I began to take the left when I heard a voice to my right say “Christine, come this way.” I looked over and saw a man dressed in pure white with long white hair. His eyes looked like they were pure white, as well. I took the right without hesitation when all of a sudden the entire foundation lifted up off of the ground, then a huge tsunami wiped away everything underneath me. Then I woke up.
Since my accident and the revelation of following Yeshua, I have been on a journey of transformation. For now, I am learning to keep and observe Shabbat. I definitely don’t practice everything perfectly as I am still trying to grasp all of the information that He gives me, but I am beyond grateful for His mercy and grace. I will never understand it. I will never comprehend it fully, but I’ve learned that each day, each moment, truly is a precious gift. I hope that my story brings Him all of the glory that He so undoubtedly deserves!
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Shavua tov - have a good week!
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