The influence of Aramaic and Hebrew on Jewish life around the first-century.
The goal of any information gleaned from this inquiry is to find a possible connection with Hebrew being a part of the first-century Corinthian liturgy. A subsequent purpose is to confirm or deny an assertion by the fourth-century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, that the mystery tongues of Corinth had its roots in the Hebrew language.
We cannot assume any synagogue outside of Israel, let alone Corinth, used the Hebrew language as part of their religious service. So, it requires digging deeper into the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic to find answers.
This is a difficult investigation given that Aramaic was the standard language of the eastern shores of the Mediteranean all the way to the borders of Afghanistan, and maybe even further. Its influence was so great and its similarity to Hebrew quite close, that it is hard to find where Hebrew fit in.
The investigation unfolds how wide and expansive the Aramaic influence became. Secondly, one discovers about the Hebrew language from the most ancient times, its use and disuse throughout the centuries, and how it became a sacred language.
The Greek language and culture had a similar impact, but this is left for another article.
The topic is full of controversies between various scholars. Because of the large breadth of subject matter, this article tends to go on some interesting tangents. It is hoped the reader doesn’t mind, as this has been a fun research adventure.
The universal power of Aramaic, and later, Greek languages were important contributors to the Jewish faith. Both Aramaic and Greek were universal languages of law and commerce that dominated Jewish life and thought during different and often overlapping epochs. However, because of these influences, Hebrew was pushed aside as the mother tongue in Jewish life. On the other hand, it was still retained as a religious language. Small pockets in southern Israel may have used the language in everyday usage, but this was a minority.
Perhaps the assertion about Hebrew is too great. Scholars are all over the map about the use of Hebrew after 500 BC.
The important part of the Hebrew language narrative is this: the Hebrew language became a vital component in retaining a distinct Jewish identity under occupation and in foreign lands.
The use of Hebrew as the native tongue from 1200 to around 700 BC is considered an acceptable theory. The interchangeability of Hebrew and Aramaic throughout the 600 BC to around 400 AD is highly controversial that contains a variety, if not, opposite arguments. Once Alexander the Great arrived on the scene and conquered a great many regions, ethnic groups, and languages, this changed the linguistic story again. Greek overtook Aramaic as the universal language of commerce, law, and literature in the Middle East, but not entirely. The combination of these three make for a complex relationship.
The fall of Hebrew and the rise of Aramaic.
Hebrew and Aramaic are offshoots of Canaanite family of languages (which includes Phoenician). This fact is forwarded by the revered paleographer Joseph Naveh,1 the late influential philologist, linguist and member of the Israeli based Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher,2 and the current professor of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, at the Bar-Ilan University, Prof. Gad Sarfatti.3
Both Aramaic and Hebrew drew from Phoenician for their respective writing scripts. In fact, from the tenth to ninth-centuries BC, Phoenician held an international status.4 Phoenician is severely under-represented in historic coverage, but is one of the leading contributors to the writing systems we use today. The Aramaic language remained more closely aligned with the Phoenician writing system until the 700s, where it began to alter its letters.5 The Hebrew writing system began this morphosis much earlier.
The patriarch of the Israeli people, Jacob, was firstly called a wandering Aramean in the Book of Deuteronomy.6 This reference shows how close the Aramean and Hebrew cultures and languages are finely woven together.7
In fact, the influence of Aramaic is seen weaved throughout the Hebrew language history. After the fall of the Persians to the Greeks, the Jewish scribes adapted the Aramaic script exclusive to their culture and language which is called the Jewish Script. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are representative of this Jewish script. The ancient Hebrew script did continue, albeit in a minority position. This writing system is best represented today in the Samaritan Pentateuch.
Hebrew was supplanted by Aramaic as early as 740 BC when the Assyrians conquered and controlled Northern Israel. As a result, many Israelites were exiled as slaves throughout the Assyrian empire and those that remained were forced under Assyrian rule.8 This was the era where the idiom the lost ten tribes was established. These peoples were never allowed to return in any great quantity.
The Hebrew language likely died in northern Israel with all the Israelites who were deported.
The language story is different with the kingdom of Judah. The tribe remained independent until about 600 BC when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and deported a great number of its citizens.
The Hebrew language still remained intact with the kingdom of Judah. A Biblical account about a Babylonian military buildup around Jerusalem showed vibrancy of the Hebrew language here. The Jerusalem leaders requested the Babylonians to only speak in Aramaic when shouting their demands. When the Babylonians openly shouted in Hebrew, the common person understood. If they spoke in Aramaic, only the elite of Jerusalem could comprehend.9
The Babylonian Empire was overtaken by the Persians, and a new ruler controlled the lands. Aramaic remained the principle language. Around 537 BC, the Persian King, Cyrus, granted exiled remnants of the tribe of Judah to return to Jerusalem. One of the important figures in this re-establishment was Ezra the Scribe.
Not much is known about Ezra, except that he comes from a priestly line and that he was born in Babylon. 10 He was a Levite, not from the tribe of Judah. His aims were to reconstitute the Hebrew faith throughout the Hebrew nation. The center for the Hebrew faith was Jerusalem, and any rebirth or restoration would have to be issued from here.
He came at a critical point of Hebrew history. The nation of Israel, along with the Temple and all its traditions, had collapsed. The people were dispersed and no longer masters of their own destinies. There was an identity crisis. How could a member of the tribe of Judah, or one of the ten tribes, retain their ancient identity? Ezra’s task was for the reconstruction of the ancient Hebrew faith.
The Babylonian influenced Israelites who lived in the more northern reaches of Israel for almost 283 years were totally acculturated. Aramaic customs and language were the norm. Their assimilation into the bigger culture was a great challenge to reverse.
The members of the tribe of Judah were under occupation for over 130 years—a little over three generations. If one uses current immigration stats as a measuring stick, the third generation usually loses the original language in favour of the larger one.11 Ezra himself discovered 50% of Jewish children did not know the language of Judah12 at all during this time. For those 50% that did know the language, Hebrew may have been a second language to them. He did not qualify whether this fluency was beginner or advanced.
Ezra was pragmatic and realized rebuilding the Israelite identity through education and reinstituting the language were two very different but important entities. The following narrative taken from the Book of Nehemiah demonstrates the new direction the Israelite identity was heading:
Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.
Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. . .
They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.13
Were the people listening in Aramaic or Hebrew?
The text described Ezra the Scribe reading from a podium along with what appears to be a third party explaining what he read in terms the audience could understand.
The word combinations emphasize instructing over translating in either the original or the modern Hebrew sense. The emphasis here was on education, not language.
A shift on understanding this Biblical text happens later on where it is understood more from a language perspective. This is particularly found in later Jewish Babylonian Aramaic writings. The traditional interpretation became this: Ezra read from the Law in the original Hebrew and a translator and/or translators stood by immediately explaining the reading in Aramaic.
The Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 21a and b have an interesting commentary on both the writing script and language employed by Ezra:
Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.14
The Talmud reference infers Ezra transformed the rite from Aramaic only (often referred to as Assyrian) to a new combination that included both Hebrew as a sacred language and Aramaic as the native tongue. The Hebrew script was dropped for an Aramaic one but the underlying text remained in Hebrew while the old Hebrew script was reserved for the Cutheans – otherwise known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans history is a clouded one. They were allegedly a group of Assyrians, either forced or voluntary, that came to northern Israel after the expulsion of the Israelites and mixed in with the northern Hebrew residents that were allowed to remain. The Samaritans believed (and still do) that they adhere to the true religion of the Israelites before the fall to Babylon. Their main literary source is the Samaritan Pentateuch whose script is in old Hebrew. Traditional historic Judaism has always been at arms-length with this group and often openly hostile.15
What is meant by the libuna’ah script? Rashi is alleged to have explained it as “Large characters as employed in amulets.”16 An amulet is a physical object usually worn by a person that is considered to have magical properties of protection. They were written mostly in Aramaic and sometimes in Hebrew.17
Sanhedrin 21a and b show the progression of Hebrew as a religious language and the cross-over into Aramaic. It is not a complete assimilation but a dual relationship.
A graphic example showing the Aramaic influence on the Hebrew writing system.
The above image demonstrates the influence of Aramaic on the Hebrew writing system. The verse is a portion of Deuteronomy 31:24.
The Israelites around King David’s time used paleo-Hebrew as its writing system. The sample here is from the Samaritan Pentetauch which has traditionally maintained the paleo-Hebrew script even until today.18
This Dead Sea Scroll example comes from a fragment.19 It is written in Aramaic script but has a distinct Judaic influence. Some call it the Jewish Script, while others call it the Square Script. The image has been colourized by me from the black and white original for aesthetic purposes.
This sample is from the Aleppo Codex (10th century AD, copied in Tiberius, Israel).20 Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this was one of the oldest Biblical Hebrew texts available. This style and period is called the Masoretic text. It is an advancement of the earlier Aramaic influenced Jewish Script. This has become the standard Hebrew religious script in use today.
Public Reading in Hebrew. Interpreting in the local language.
The references found in Talmud Megillah 9a to 24b, probably written around the fourth-century, have scattered references to the rite of reading the Scripture in the original language of Hebrew and simultaneously being translated into Aramaic. The amount of readers, and the number of interpreters varied according to the sacredness of the text. The Megillah references demonstrate the tensions between the use of Hebrew and its adaptation to the Aramaic Jewish community. In addition, the resolutions are uneven in application but do show some general evolution.
More information on the Jewish custom of reading in Hebrew with an interpreter(s) can be found at The Jewish Reader in the Ancient Liturgy
Instructing in Hebrew. Interpreting in the local language.
An ancient Jewish custom was created about religious instruction outside of Israel. The instructor teaches in Hebrew while a third party simultaneously translates it Aramaic. This custom was expanded to mean instruction in Hebrew while a third party simultaneously translated it in Greek, Latin, or whatever the local language.
For more information see The Language of Instruction in the Corinthian Church
How invasive was the Aramaic language in the Middle East?
One can see a shift from Biblical Hebrew to Aramaic in many, but not all, pieces of literature after 600 BC. Part of the Book of Daniel was written in Aramaic. The non-canonical books; Tobit, Jubilees, Enoch, the Greek Esther, and the second book of Maccabees were written in Aramaic21
Josephus wrote his War of the Jews originally in what is understood to be Aramaic and later translated it into Greek.22 However, Aramaic may be a leap in thought. He stated that his book, the Wars of the Jews, was originally written in his native language (τῇ πατρίῳ and sent to the upper Barbarians. He did not define his native tongue, which could have been Aramaic, or a cross between Aramaic and Hebrew (Galilean). However, Aramaic is strengthened by the statement about upper Barbarians. The upper Barbarians were likely the eastern reaches of the Middle-East who spoke Aramaic.
There are numerous transliterated Semitisms found in the Greek New Testament that are labelled Aramaic. On first glance, this appears correct. On the other hand, some researchers, especially David Bivin and Joshua Tilton, have found this type of conclusion too simplistic. David Bivin has spent most of his adult life studying the intersection of languages in first-century Judea, and he, along with Joshua Tilton manage a website, jerusalemperspective.com, that is focused on better understanding Jesus’ life and teachings. They have constructed a page devoted to the Transliterations of Hebrew, Aramaic and Hebrew/Aramaic Words in the Synoptic Gospels whereby they caution against any quick conclusions. They find that it is hard to distinguish between Aramaic and Hebrew transliterations found in the Greek. Firstly, because Hebrew and Aramaic are close relatives linguistically. Secondly, because there were Greek transliteration traditions borrowed from earlier texts that don’t reflect the current language. Therefore, one should not use transliterations as a tool for discovering what language was spoken during the first-century.
Aramaic is blamed in a Latin church document called the Ambrosiaster text on the problem in the early church of Corinth — Hebrew women speaking Aramaic in the Corinthian assembly unannounced.23 This too could be the solution to the Corinthian tongues controversy, but Epiphanius’ account of it being the problem of instructing in Hebrew and a dispute between different Greek ethnic groups appears a more viable one.
It is inconceivable to believe that the Jewish faith existed without the Hebrew language. The first century Jewish writer, Josephus, related that Hebrew literacy was up again in the first century, “and it is ordered to bring the children up (in) the letters concerning the Laws and to place upon (them) the works of the ancestors.”24 This may have been restricted to reading by rote. It does not infer written or spoken fluency.
The picture being developed through all this is one of Aramaic being the dominant language of home and civil affairs, and Hebrew, having pockets of localized usage, and emphasized for religious instruction.
Any savvy reader knowledgeable of Aramaic will realize that the references to Aramaic are general terms. Aramaic, like any international language, had many dialects and localisms which should be noted. For those interested in finding out exactly what the important ones relative to this narrative are, go to Israel’s Dead Sea Scroll website. For a later history of the Aramaic language go to peshitta.org’s website for information. Another good historical reference that includes the state of the Aramaic language today is the article Where Do Languages Go to Die?
The rise of Jewish literature
Jewish-Aramaic literature began to slowly grow in prominence after the destruction of the Temple by Vespasian and Titus in 70 AD. The center of Judaism moved from Jerusalem to a central Israel city called Yavneh. This was directly influenced by the Romans. Yavneh was one of many cities whom the Romans moved those who had surrendered.25 This city was of particular interest because this is the place where Johanan Ben Zakkai was placed and began his leadership to rebuild the Jewish identity. His influence was felt both in the Jewish Middle-East and abroad.
Jewish-Greek literature did not follow the same pattern. Publication and distribution of Jewish-Greek literature was hardly existent. Neither is there any indication of a formal Jewish-Greek structure of religious life or leadership hierarchy. This never developed. It is also remarkable that there are so few pieces of Jewish-Greek poetry or literature about the loss of the Temple from the first or second-century.
Why is there so little? It is hard to find substantiated information on this subject from open access sites or books. Perhaps most Jews that lived in the diaspora were slaves from the various revolts against Rome and were not granted privileges or luxuries such as the art of writing – a process usually reserved for the wealthy. Or, as a conquered entity, the diasporan Jews were treated as a third-class residents such as Irish-Catholics in the 1800s under Protestant rule, the Incas under Spanish supervision, natives in North America by colonialists, or the African slaves in U.S. by plantation owners. Life and conditions were so harsh with these groups that no leadership, social, or literary culture was allowed to thrive. These thoughts are just speculations. There has been no documentation found so far that conclusively explains this lack of Jewish-Greek documentation around the first-century.
Did Hebrew completely die as a mother-tongue?
This is a highly-disputed question among academics concerned in these matters. The following shows just how divided scholars are.
Bernard Spolsky, Professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who is well-regarded for his expertise in applied linguistics, looked into the matter of the use of Hebrew in post-deportation Israel and concluded that Hebrew was utilized more in southern than northern Israel.
It does seem however that Hebrew was better maintained, or at least less influenced by Aramaic and other languages in Judea than in Galilee, an area where a great number of other peoples had been settled during the Babylonian exile.”26
Spolsky argues that one should not rule out the use of Hebrew entirely. The Dead Sea Scrolls show Hebrew progressing as a language. He rightly points out the Mishnah was written in a Hebrew form. It could easily have been written in Aramaic if the loss of Hebrew was so dramatic, but it was not. He also does not believe that Hebrew was relegated entirely to the language of academies and rabbis.27
The learned professor from the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher, if he was still alive today, would have argued a slight emendation to Spolsky’s reference to the Mishhah being in Hebrew form. He believed that Mishnaic Hebrew was an evolving form of literature. Mishnaic Hebrew died out somewhere in the second-century AD, and was used only as a literary medium after that period.28 In fact, the first movement that first composited the Mishnah in written form around 200 AD, did not fully understand the Hebrew words.29
Catherine Hezser, in her book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, believed that prior to 165 BC, Hebrew was restricted only to the priestly class. After 165 BC (The Maccabean period where Israel became an independent state), Hebrew expanded to a greater mass of people.30 As for education, Greek was preferred because of the economic and business advantages.31 Only a passive knowledge of Hebrew was required by elementary school Aramaic students.32
The book, Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda edited by William Horbury contests that the cultural elite only knew Aramaic, and the peasantry conversed in Hebrew.33
The late Gedaliah Alon, a very well studied professor at the Hebrew University, contended that Hebrew and Aramaic were well documented and coexisted throughout the Greek diaspora. However, he simply teased the reader and stated that he would not dwell on this in any detail.34
Julio Trebolle Barrera, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, also finds that Hebrew continued.
The linguistic map of Palestine around the turn of the era and at the moment when Christianity was born is marked by great differences in language. In Jerusalem and Judaea, Hebrew was spoken for preference, with Aramaic as a second language. Hebrew underwent a period of renaissance starting from the nationalistic revolt by the Maccabess (mid-2nd cent. BCE). At the same time there was also a true renaissance of Hebrew literature (Ben Sira, Tobit, Jubiless, Testament of Naphtali, writing of the Qumran Community, etc.). The coining of money with Hebrew inscription is further proof of the revival of Hebrew and of its official importance. Jesus of Nazareth definitely spoke Aramaic, but it cannot be excluded that he also used Hebrew and even Greek. In the Mediterranean coastal area and in the Galilee region they preferred to speak Aramaic somewhat more than Greek. In this area Hebrew was only a literary language.35
According to Irenaeous, Eusebius, and Jerome, the Book of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.36 This is a discounted theory today, but it shows that the ancient writers appealed to source Hebrew literature for credibility of the faith.
See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more info on Hebrew considered as a divine language of religion.
A reference from the Sefer Haggada demonstrates how far Aramaic was encroaching on the Hebrew language and there was resistance to it. “And the Lord spoke from Sinai. This is the Hebrew language.”37 There was a concerted effort to resist the inclusion of foreign languages in their liturgy and prayers. “For R. Johanan declared: if anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic [ie. a foreign tongue] the ministering Angels do not pay attention to him because they do not understand that language.”38
However, not everything was to be done in Hebrew. This was especially noted with the language of prayer. Whatever language the prayer was originally produced in, was allowed to remain in that language. For example, Talmud Babli Megillah established that whatever prayers were originally written in Aramaic, were to remain in Aramaic throughout the diaspora.39
By the ninth-century AD, Hebrew definitely had been dead for many centuries. The writing system continued to lack vowels. Greek, along with Latin, with their vowels and punctuation, became much easier vehicles for the expansion of literacy. The only way to know how to pronounce a Hebrew or Aramaic word properly was passed on through generations by oral traditions which was easily influenced by localisms. The pressures to adapt the Jewish script had yet another motivation – the transmission of Jewish thought in life was becoming increasingly wrapped in the knowledge of three dead languages – Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic. This skill was very technical and fewer people had this ability as each generation passed. The loss of pronunciation naturally led to ambiguity of interpretation.
A Jewish group of scholars and Karaite scribes in Tiberius and Jerusalem, called the Masoretes, laboured to retain the ancient pronunciation and speech that existed in the ancient Hebrew text. The tradition set-forth by Ben Asher standardized these additions, called niqqud, in the tenth century. The creation of the niqqud system inserted vowels and alternative vocalizations of consonants in the text. This system became common in the eleventh-century and afterwards as part of the Hebrew text. These were placed above and below the consonants.
For more information see A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible
What does this all mean?
In general terms, with a few exceptions, we can conclude the following. Hebrew was spoken as a native language in and around Jerusalem during the first-century, but it did not extend much further. Aramaic was the language for the majority of Jews who lived east of the Mediteranean to the borders of modern day Afghanistan. Jewish leadership after the destruction of the Temple moved to Aramaic as the central language of communication but Hebrew still held the role of a sacred language in religious worship and instruction.
The Aramaic language was so influential in Jewish life, it is conceivable that those Jews who immigrated to Greek-dominated lands brought Aramaic with them: Greek for commerce and civil affairs, Aramaic for family life, and Hebrew for religious needs.
The findings show it is plausible that the role of Hebrew as a sacred language was potentially the cause of Paul’s address about tongues in I Corinthians.