Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO)

Hebreu i arameu a Palestina al començament de l'era cristiana

Chaim Rabin


In the first century C.E., Palestine was a country of many languages, as were
most contries of the Middle East. Owing to its chequered history, and being a
centre of transit trade, it was perhaps more so than in neighbouring countries.
In the literature produced and read in the firts century C.E., the Hebrew
language appears in several distinct forms, which are representatives of different
stages in the historical development of the language.
Late biblical Hebrew persisted in use for a period as long as that of its
predecessor, from ca. 500 until the latter part of the first century B.C.E., when
we find it used in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Late biblical Hebrew must have been
widely understood and read in circles close to nascent Christianity, as well as by
the early Christians themselves. As is well known, the Apocrypha and Pseudoepigrapha
were preserved by the Church alone, having been rejected by official
pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism.
Our earliest datable written documents in mishnaic Hebrew are some
letters of Bar Cochba written in the years 132-5 C.E. Probably a good deal earlier,
but not datable with any confidence, is the Copper Scroll from Qumran. If
mishnaic Hebrew was a spoken language in the first century C.E., we are entitled
to assume that it must have been spoken, in some form or other, for some
centuries previously, and can thus make it, and not Aramaic, the factor responsible
for some of the non-biblical- Hebrew features of the late biblical
Hebrew and the basic component of the mixed language. Needless to say, the
recognition that mishnaic Hebrew was a living language does not imply that
there was no Aramaic spoken in Palestine in the Second Temple period. The
oldest of the Jewish transitional dialects is biblical Aramaic, the language of the
Aramaic passages in Ezra and Daniel (as well as one verse in Jeremiah and two
words in Genesis 31,47).
Questions of spoken language are discussed in the article only in so far as
they throw light on the origins and character of a written form of language. It is
of course natural for anyone interested in the period to wish to know in which
language the personages mentioned in the literature of this period spoke and
taught, even without considering the importance the identification of that language
may have for the undrstanding of their thought in general and of certain
statements reported of them in particula. 'The language of Jesus' has proved to
be a problem which has generated much discussion and can be considered as
being unsolved. Historical sources rarely mention what language is spoken in a
certain place or milieu. However, if they do so, the information given may be
difficult to interpret. Moreover, a spoken language at a given time and place
may often be something quite different from the norm with which we associate
Regarding the relation between Hebrew and Aramaic at the time we are discussing,
we may assume that mishnaic Hebrew was a fully living spoken language
in Judaea at the time of the Maccabean revolt, and that it ceased to be
spoken sometime in the third century C.E. The first century C.E. is somewhere
upon that line. Mishnaic Hebrew was still spoken, but was already both displaced
to some extent by Aramaic as home language and Aramaicized to some
It may be assumed that immediately after the beginning of the Maccabean
revolt, Hebrew was in a very healthy state. Being an important symbol in the
struggle against Greek influence, it may possibly have made good some previous
losses. While we may assume that in Jerusalem and Judaea mishnaic
Hebrew was still the ruling language, and Aramaic took the second place, the
situation must have been reversed in areas such as the coastal plain and Galilee.
There Aramaic, and possibly Greek, were the dominant languages spoken by
people from all classes, while Hebrew mainly functioned as a literary language.
Those who, like Jesus, took part in the discussions in the synagogues (Mark
1,21) and in the Temple of Jerusalem (Mark 11,17) and disputed on Halakah
(Matthew 19,2) no doubt did so in mishnaic Hebrew. In other words, while in
Jerusalem mishnaic Hebrew was a home language and probably already also a
literary language, and Aramaic a lingua franca, in Galilee Aramaic was a home
lanuage and mishnaic Hebrew the upper language of a diglossia.
It emerges that, while the events described in the New Testament took place
in a time when Hebrew was still strong and dominant, the descriptions of those
events were finally formulated in circumstances where Aramaic had gained the
ascendancy, and speaking Hebrew outside halakic discussions or midrashic lectures
had become an anomaly. It is therefore quite likely that the authors and
redactors of the Gospels unwittingly described, in the few references to language
in their account, conditions of the post-70 period rather than those of
the time of the events.
[The article published here is a Catalan translation of the following work:
Chaim Rabin «Hebrew and Aramaic in the first century», published in: S.
SAFRAI and M. STERN [ed.], The Jewish people in the first century, Assen/Amsterdam,
Van Gorcum, 1976, vol. 2, p. 1007-1039]

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