The New Testament was originally written in Greek, the universal language of the Eastern Mediterranean during the first century AD. The popular use of Greek was a legacy of the Greek-speaking empire established across the eastern half of the known world by Alexander the Great between 334 and 323BC. When Achaea (southern Greece) and Macedonia (northern Greece) became Roman provinces in 146BC, the Romans adopted Greek as their universal means of communication, although they retained Latin as their ‘official’ language. Consequently, all educated people in the Roman world spoke enough Greek to converse with other Romans, whatever their own native tongue.
The Plain of Philippi, Macedonia
Jesus of Nazareth and his first disciples from Galilee were not well educated (see Acts 4:13). They lived in a rural backwater over 60 miles / 100 km north of Jerusalem. Their native language was Aramaic, and as young people, they probably had only a few words of Greek. Aramaic was spoken widely in the Roman province of Syria, and was the common language used in Galilee and in Jerusalem. It originated in the Kingdom of Aram (Damascus) in Old Testament times (see 1 Kings19:15), and a modern version of Aramaic (called Syriac) is still spoken in Syria today.
Straight Street in Damascus, Syria (Bernard Gagnon)
As Jesus’s everyday language was Aramaic, we should be aware that the words attributed to him in the New Testament are usually a translation of what he was remembered to have said. His Aramaic words, as memorised by eye-witnesses, were first translated (by others) into Greek before being written down, and were then translated again into English or one of hundreds of other languages. It would hardly be surprising if some of the subleties and nuances of Jesus’s words were lost in the translation process.
Only rarely are Jesus’s precise words (or those of his disciples) recorded in the New Testament in Aramaic. Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from death with the words, ‘Talitha koum’ (Aramaic for ‘Little girl, get up’) (see Mark 5:41). As he was hanging on the cross, Jesus cried out, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’ (Aramaic for ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ – the opening verse of Psalm 22) (see Mark 15:34). When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to her, she called out ‘Rabboni’ (which is Aramaic for ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’) (see John 20:16).
As Jesus’s early disciples grew older and travelled more widely, their knowledge and use of Greek developed accordingly. Peter acknowledged openly that the polished Greek of his First Letter, written in c.67AD, owed much to the assistance of Silas, one of Paul’s fellow-workers from the church in Jerusalem, who was a well educated Roman citizen (see 1 Peter 5:12 & Acts 16:37). The more rough and ready Greek of his Second Letter perhaps betrays his true grasp of the Greek language.
In contrast to Peter, Paul was a highly educated Roman citizen from Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia. He spoke fluent Greek and had no difficulty discussing complex theology with Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem (see Acts 9:29) or with the Greek-speaking Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens (see Acts 17:16-18).
Temple of Hyphaestus, Athens
During the first century AD, the Romans retained Latin as their ‘official’ language while using Greek for everyday conversation. When Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judaea published the charge against Jesus above his cross, it was written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic (see John 19:20). Latin was the official Roman language, Greek was the widely spoken universal language, and Aramaic was the local language and Jesus’s own native tongue.
In addition to their native language spoken in everyday life, all Jewish men in Judaea and Galilee were taught to read the Jewish scriptures in their original Hebrew. When Jesus was asked to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, he would have read the verses aloud in Hebrew, even though his reading of the Old Testament scriptures is recorded in Greek in the New Testament (see Luke 4:16-21). When Paul addressed the Jewish crowds on being arrested in Jerusalem, he spoke to them in Hebrew or Aramaic, the languages they all understood (see Acts 21:37-40), even though his words are reported in Greek.