In our quest to determine the language(s) of Yeshua we have examined the explicit mentions of “Aramaic” or ”Hebrew” in the New Testament, as well as several instances where Matthew and Mark transliterated words or phrases into Greek from Hebrew. Now we will change gears a bit and survey some of the other witnesses from first century Palestine to see what they can tell us about the linguistic situation of that time. This is a bit of a departure from the previous three articles, which dealt primarily with Biblical language. Here we are looking at the context; at the linguistic world of Yeshua as conveyed to us by writers outside the New Testament.
The discoveries at Qumran, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, offer an enormous cornucopia of information that we may return to later for a more thorough study. Over 812+ scrolls were discovered at the ruins of Qumran and in the nearby caves. These were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and dated between 300 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., forty years after the crucifixion of Yeshua. These scrolls include many original compositions, as well as every book of the Old Testament/Tanach except Esther and Nehemiah.
Of the Biblical scrolls found at Qumran the vast majority were in Hebrew. Exceptions are two copies of Job and a piece of Leviticus 16, written in Aramaic. Also, four copies of Tobit in Aramaic were found from among the books now commonly referred to as the Apocrypha. Interestingly no evidence of the books of Maccabees was found, despite the fact that they presumably would have matched the religiously zealous ideology of the Qumran sect reasonably well. Fragments of the Old Testament/Tanach in Greek were found in one of the caves, as well as a number of letters, which we will discuss below.
The first big observation is to note the remarkable lack of Aramaic Biblical scrolls at Qumran, particularly in contrast with the enormous collection of Hebrew Biblical scrolls found there. Jews in Palestine were evidently using the Bible in Hebrew, without an Aramaic targum (translation). In point of fact, these Jews at Qumran were using the Bible almost exclusively in Hebrew.
Among the non-Biblical texts found at Qumran about 120 are in Aramaic. All of the hundreds of remaining non-Biblical texts are in Hebrew. This came as a big surprise for scholars who presumed that Hebrew was not a living language by that time in history. Furthermore, this Qumran Hebrew is not exclusively the Classical Biblical Hebrew style of the Bible. On the contrary, these scrolls are mostly original Hebrew compositions showcasing later stages of Hebrew, including scrolls like the Copper Scroll, which exemplifies Mishnaic Hebrew. This wide array of previously unknown literature reveals that Hebrew was clearly a vibrant living language in the first century C.E. The mention of the quite modest number of Greek texts found at Qumran brings us to a closely related bit of evidence – The Bar Kosiba/Kochba Letters.
The Bar Kosiba/Kochba Letters
Several decades ago Yigal Yadin discovered 15 letters written between Shimon Bar Kochba and his officers. These date from 132-135 C.E., when Bar Kochba led the final Jewish rebellion against the Romans, more than sixty years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the time of Yadin’s excavation additional Bar Kochba letters have been found by others. Yadin himself also led a follow-up dig and found more documents such as contracts, receipts etc. These letters and other documents were written in Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. On a personal note, a good friend of mine working on a archeological survey team had the good fortune to unearth a Greek Bar Kochba letter as recently as several years ago in a cave south of Ein Gedi.
Josephus, born Yosef Ben Matityahu, lived from 37 C.E. until at least 100 C.E. His biography is colorful. As an historian and apologist of priestly and royal ancestry who survived the destruction of Jerusalem, and who wrote a great deal, giving us a remarkable window into first century Palestine, particularly Judea (the southern portion). While it is true that Josephus refers to a number of nouns with Aramaic morphologies (spellings) as “Hebrew,” these were predominantly place names, just as was the case in the New Testament. In addition, Josephus explains a number of words or etymologies to his reader that can only have been based on Hebrew. These include:
1. Antiquitates Judaicae Proem. 2.5 : μελλει γαρ περιεξειν απασαν την παρ’ ημιν αρχαιολογιαν και [την] διαταξιν του πολιτευματος εκ των Εβραικων μεθηρμηνευμεμην γραμματων”For it will embrace our entire ancient history and political constitution, translated from the Hebrew records.” These Hebrew records are naturally the Bible.
2. Ant.1.1& 33: οθεν και ημεις σχολην απο των πονων κατα ταυτην αγομεν την ημεραν προσαγορευοντες αυτην σαββατα. δηλοι δε αναπαυσιν κατα την εβραιων διαλεκτον τουνομα”For which reason we also pass this day in repose from toil and call it the sabbath, a word which in the Hebrew language means ‘rest.’” Josephus derives, as had the Bible, the word sabbath from the Hebrew שבת(shabbat). In Aramaic the verb שבת does not exist. Aramaic translators use instead: נח (nach).
3. Ant.1.2 & 34: ο δ’ανθρωπος ουτος Αδαμος εκληθη. σημαινει δε τουτο κατα γλωτταν την εβραιων πυρρον”Now this man was called Adam which in Hebrew signifies ‘red.’ ” Thus Josephus derives אדם(adam) from אדם (adom) ‘red.’ In Aramaic “red” is expressed by סומקא (sumka); there is no root אדםin this language.
4. Ant. 1.2 & 36: εσσα δε καθ’Εβραιων δαλεκτον καλειται γυνη “In the Hebrew tongue woman is called essa.” Josephus is here transliterating the Hebrew אשהIn Aramaic “woman” is א[נ]תתא
5. Ant. V.2.2 & 121: Αδωνιζεβεκω…το δε ονομα τουτο σημαινει Ζεβεκηνων κυριοσ’ αδωνι γαρ τη Εβραιων διαλεκτω κυριος γινεται”Adonizebek -this name signifies ‘Lord of the Zebekenians,’” for adοni in the speech of the Hebrews means ‘lord.'” In Aramaic “lord” is מרא
6. Bellum Judaicum VI.2.1 &96: about a speech he delivered by the command of the emperor in Hebrew: Ιωσηπος ως αν ειη μη τω Ιωαννη μονον αλλα και τοις πολλοις εν επηκοω στας τα τε του Καισαρος διηγγελλεν εβραιζων, “Josephus, standing so that his words might reach the ears not only of John but also of the multitude, (he) delivered Caesar’s message in Hebrew.” (Josephus writes about himself in the third person here.)
There are more examples, but these should be adequate to make the point that when Josephus refers to Εβραιων (Hebrew) he, just like the New Testament authors, is referring to Hebrew – not Aramaic – in his explanations. There is another outstanding example from Josephus that gives us a beautiful view of Hebrew as a living language at the time of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple.
In Josephus’s The Jewish War, Book 5, Chapter 6, (as translated by William Whiston) he tells us:
“…Now, the stones that were cast [by the Roman catapults during the siege of Jerusalem] were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and farther. …As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness; accordingly the watchmen that sat upon the towers gave them [the Jewish rebels] notice when the engine was let go, and the stone came from it, and cried aloud in their own country language, “THE SON COMETH!” so those that were in its way stood off, and threw themselves down upon the ground, by which means, and by their thus guarding themselves, the stone fell down and did them no harm. But the Romans contrived how to prevent that by blacking the stone [an effective action by the Romans], who then could aim at them with success, when the stone was not discerned beforehand, as it had been till then; and so they destroyed many of them at one blow.”
The phrase, “the son cometh” is clearly a play on words, and has puzzled some scholars, convinced that Aramaic was the vernacular spoken in Jerusalem at the time of the siege. In Aramaic there is no conceivable play on words that can be constructed to explain this phrase. The understanding that Hebrew was a vernacular in Judea at this time, however, makes the solution clear. The watchmen on the walls were shouting האבן בא (“ha’even/ha’eben ba”) meaning “the stone is coming”; the letter ב had either a “b” or a “v” sound depending on where it appeared in a word. Thus, when said in a hurry the phrase sounded just like the phrase הבן בא (habben ba), “the son cometh.” Remarkable scenes like this give vivid evidence of Hebrew being used in everyday life in Jerusalem 40 years after the crucifixion of Yeshua.
Ossuaries are stone boxes that bones of the dead are placed in for burial. Many ossuaries have been found in Palestine, with the majority being in the Jerusalem area. The Rahmani Catalogue (which includes most of the ossuary finds) contains 895 ossuaries of which 233 have inscriptions. The catalogue states that 143 of these are in square script (either Hebrew or Aramaic, but it does not specify), 73 in Greek, 14 in Greek-Aramaic or Greek-Hebrew bilinguals, two in Latin, and one in Palmyrene script. So the question is how much is in Hebrew and how much is in Aramaic? The information itemizing the breakdown of these proportions is scattered throughout academic literature, but taken all together and sifted, it seems that Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic appear in roughly equal proportions on the ossuaries.
To look at a few specific finds:
These examples provide only a rough overview, but they show us that there is considerable evidence for the use of Hebrew during the period we are studying. Recent articles have likewise observed the roughly equal proportions in which these three languages appear during archeology of this period. In fact, in light of Jerusalem’s role as a pilgrimage center it is remarkable that there aren’t more tombs of foreigners written in foreign tongues rather than in the Hebrew language, which had no geographic base besides Judea.
As we survey the overwhelming evidence for living Hebrew provided by our sources, I hope an interesting picture is beginning to crystallize. We have seen that when Josephus referred to Hebrew he really meant Hebrew, not Aramaic as many scholars have supposed. Likewise Josephus explicitly shows us that Hebrew was common, was used for giving speeches, and was even implicitly necessary for understanding the humor in one of his historical accounts.
We have already seen these same points demonstrated from the New Testament. The Bar Kochba Letters, backed up by the archeological evidence of the ossuaries, offer considerable corroborating evidence that first century Palestine, and Judea in particular, was in fact a trilingual world. Further, the enormous library found at Qumran offers overwhelming evidence for a thriving Jewish community that read the Bible almost exclusively in Hebrew and wrote their own original literature, all in Hebrew.
Author: E. A. Knapp