The Language of Jesus

I have, on occasion, been taken to task by someone who claims that the King James Version of the Bible is the only valid Bible; that the modern language translations are, at best, erroneous and, at worst, heresy.  They claim that the KJV is written as Jesus spoke, we HAVE to stay with that version.  To which I must reply, “Are you nuts?”  Here is why I must ask that:

Jesus Was Hebrew

Jesus was born and raised Hebrew.  The Hebrew people held tightly to their heritage and traditions.  They most certainly used their own native language when among their own people.  Jesus would have known and used Hebrew whenever possible.

The Common Language

The Mediterranean Rim encompassed the area where Jesus and His followers would teach, preach and work miracles as they set up the first century church.  Travelers and merchants from all around this region (and beyond) used Aramaic as a common language that allowed all of them to communicate with each other.  Aramaic originated from southern Syria and was closely allied to Hebrew.  Because the Hebrew people did not live in cloistered groups but dealt with a wide mix of peoples, Aramaic would need to be known to deal with them.

The Language of Privilege

Greek Koine was spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.  Businessmen and politicians who needed to communicate with members of the Roman Empire used Greek to do so.  As a Palestinian Jew, Jesus might have known some Greek as well.  Many of the original letters that became the New Testament were written in Greek, but it is not known how much use of this language Jesus made in his dissertations.

Speaking To the Audience

When Jesus taught in the Temple and synagogues of Judea, it is safe to assume Jesus spoke Hebrew.  When he pushed out into areas like Samaria and Galilee, He would have used a language commonly spoken there, which would be Aramaic.  When speaking with the Roman soldier whose servant was sick, and when questioned by Pontius Pilot Jesus may have used Aramaic or Greek.

I feel quite confident in stating that one language Jesus did NOT use was Old English (or what we call Old English, which is actually the oldest modern English.  Actual Old English is now almost unintelligible even to English speaking persons).  When people state that Jesus spoke in terms like “ye”, “thee”, “thou”, “didst”, and “triest” that are particular to Old English, I point out that Jesus was not born in Sussex, but Bethlehem.  These terms are brought into play because they are what translators used  in the 1500’s and 1600’s as they attempted to produce a translation for the common people of Europe.

KJV Not the First

The King James version of the Bible was not the first translation.  Before that was the Vulgate, which was written in Latin and was used by the priests of the Catholic church for centuries.  And the King James Version we hold in our hands today was not even the second (or third!) translation.

The first translation of the New Testament into English was printed by William Tyndale in 1526 — and you may recall that he was executed by The Church for his efforts.

The first translation authorized by the English church authorities was the Great Bible, commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII (1535), and the second was the Bishops’ Bible of 1568.  The Authorized King James Version (or Pure Cambridge Version) was published in 1611 by the King’s Printer Robert Barker and was the fourth translation into English.  It included all 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament, but no Apocrypha.   The New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic.  The English of the original 1611 published version is noticeably different from the 1769 revision, as the English and fonts have been updated for modern readers.  People who are unfamiliar with the English language of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era can easily mistake the 1611 King James Version writing style for spelling errors.

old english language
The 1611 version used Jacobean English typography. Does your KJV look like this?

That history is interesting, but I’m getting a little off track.  The point I was making is that Jesus did not speak Old English.  Many people love the flowing language and prose rhythm of the KJV, others prefer more contemporary verbiage.  As long as the translation of God’s Word you read was translated directly from the original texts (not interpreted from some previous translation) and is complete, it should be accurate.  Beware, however, of those interpretive translations that twist the Word of God to support some sociopolitical point of view.

But, please, do not tell me that if Jesus showed up on my front porch, he would say, “Wilt thou behest me enter thine abode and sup with thee?”

3 thoughts on “The Language of Jesus”

  1. Hi Doug,
    you were right that Jesus spoke Hebrew.I live in Israel,learned 4 languages and read the bible in those.I have to say that no English translation,neither the French or German express exactly what the Hebrew bible does.If you have one word in English to express something,there are maybe 5 different ones in Hebrew,with each time a different meaning.One example:an eye for an eye does not mean at all that if someone blinds you you take revenge;it rather means you have to give that person someone who can be their eyes,or replace the damage with money.After living here for 18 years I understand the meaning behind the word because of the culture and life,and much of it can`t even be translated into another language and portray the same meaning.Another thing I realized,that every translater puts his own understanding into it.But people who truly seek God,will receive the right understanding,and He still speaks to us today if we are willing to listen.Best wishes & blessings

    1. Thank you for your insights, Roth. I’ve encountered many instances where the English language struggles with the multiple meanings and word pictures of Hebrew. I’ve often thought that it would be an amazing language to learn.

  2. Bring back mandatory christian prayer and required KJV bible and the mass school shooting will stop. Back when mandatory christian prayer and required KJV bible, you never heard of mass school shootings. A servey was done by some christian conservatives, 98% wants mandatory christian prayer and required KJV bible brought back into our public schools across the nation and made into a federal law.

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Whitewashed Tombs
When Led Into the Wilderness