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Ancient Names for Hebrew and Aramaic: A Case for Lexical Revision

  • Ken M. Penner (a1)


The view expressed in BDAG that Hebrais refers not to Hebrew but to ‘the Aramaic spoken at that time in Palestine’ derives from a century-old argument that because Hebrais could mean either Aramaic or Hebrew, and since the average person could not understand Hebrew, Hebrais must mean Aramaic. This article challenges the view that Hebrais(ti) could mean Aramaic (1) by using an exhaustive list of all instances to show that Aramaic was consistently distinguished from Hebrew, and (2) by explaining the evidence to the contrary: Aramaic-looking words in John, Josephus and Philo that are said to be Hebraisti.



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1 Danker, F. W., Bauer, W. and Arndt, W., A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 3) s.v. Ἑβραΐς.

2 Joosten, J., ‘Aramaic or Hebrew behind the Greek Gospels?’, Analecta Bruxellensia 9 (2004) 88102.

3 That is the argument of Birkeland, H., The Language of Jesus (Oslo: J. Dybwad, 1954).

4 Contrast Rosén, H. B., ‘Die Sprachsituation im römischen Palästina’, Die Sprachen im römischen Reich der Kaiserzeit (Cologne: Rheinland-Verlag, 1980) 225–6, at 225, arguing that Hebrais(ti) cannot mean Hebrew because Hebrew was not commonly spoken.

5 Dalman, G., Die Worte Jesu, vol. i: Einleitung und wichtige Begriffe (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1898) 510. English translation Dalman, G., The Words of Jesus Considered in the Light of Post-Biblical Jewish Writings and the Aramaic Language, vol. i: Introduction and Fundamental Ideas (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902). Also Dalman, G., Grammatik des jüdisch-palästinischen Aramäisch: Nach den Idiomen des palästinischen Talmud und Midrasch, des Onkelostargum (Cos. Socini 84) und der jerusalemischen Targume zum Pentateuch (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1894); Dalman, G., Jesus-Jeshua, die drei Sprachen Jesu, Jesus in der Synagoge, auf dem Berge, beim Passahmahl, am Kreuz (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1922); Dalman, G., Jesus-Jeshua: Studies in the Gospels (New York: Ktav, 1971).

6 Zahn, T., Einleitung in das Neue Testament, vol. i (Leipzig: Deichert, 1897 1) 1819. English translation Zahn, T., Introduction to the New Testament (trans. Trout, J. M., Jacobus, M. W. and Thayer, C. S.; translated from the 3rd German edn; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909).

7 Meyer, A., Jesu Muttersprache: Das galiläische Aramaisch in seiner Bedeutung für die Erklärung der Reden Jesu und der Evangelien überhaupt (Leipzig: Mohr, 1896).

8 Baltes, G., ‘The Origins of the “Exclusive Aramaic Model” in the Nineteenth Century: Methodological Fallacies and Subtle Motives’, The Language Environment of First Century Judaea (Leiden: Brill, 2014) 734.

9 y. Sot. 24b and y. Shek. v.3; vi.5.

10 Dalman, Words of Jesus, 1–7.

11 Fraade, S. D., ‘Rabbinic Views on the Practice of Targum, and Multilingualism in the Jewish Galilee of the Third–Sixth Centuries’, The Galilee in Late Antiquity (ed. Levine, L. I.; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992) 253–86; Tal, A., ‘Is There a Raison d’Être for an Aramaic Targum in a Hebrew-Speaking Society?’, Revue des Études Juives 160.3 (2001) 357–78.

12 Segal, M. H., ‘Mishnaic Hebrew and its Relation to Biblical Hebrew and to Aramaic’, JQR 20 (1908) 647737; Kutscher, E. Y., ‘Hebrew Language, Mishnaic’, Encyclopaedia Judaica 16 (1971) 15901607; Fassberg, S. E. and Bar-Asher, M., Studies in Mishnaic Hebrew (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1998).

13 Milik, J. T., ‘Le rouleau de cuivre provenant de la grotte 3Q (3Q15): commentaire et texte’, Les ‘petites grottes’ de Qumran: exploration de la falaise, les grottes 2Q,3Q,5Q,6Q,7Q à 10Q, le rouleau de cuivre (ed. Baillet, M., Milik, J. T. and de Vaux, R.; Discoveries in the Judaean Desert iii; Oxford: Clarendon, 1962) 211302; Qimron, E., The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Atlanta: Scholars, 1986); Qimron, E., ‘The Language’, Qumran Cave 4, v: Miqṣat Maʿaśê ha-Torah (ed. Qimron, E. and Strugnell, J.; Discoveries in the Judaean Desert 10; Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 65108.

14 Eskhult, M. and Eskhult, J., ‘The Language of Jesus and Related Questions: A Historical Survey’, KUSATU: Kleine Untersuchungen zur Sprache des Alten Testaments und seiner Umwelt, utgiven av Reinhard G. Lehmann och Johannes F. Diehl 15 (2013) 315–73; Baltes, ‘Origins of the “Exclusive Aramaic Model”’.

15 Nepper-Christensen, P., Das Matthäusevangelium, ein judenchristliches Evangelium? (Aarhus: Universitetsforlaget, 1958) 101–35; Grintz, J. M., ‘Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple’, JBL 79 1 (1960) 3247; Emerton, J. A., ‘Did Jesus Speak Hebrew?’, JTS 12 (1961) 189202; Poirier, J. C., ‘The Narrative Role of Semitic Languages in the Book of Acts’, Filología Neotestamentaria 16 (2003) 107–16; Fassberg, S. E., ‘Which Semitic Language Did Jesus and Other Contemporary Jews speak?’, SBQ 74.2 (2012) 263–80; R. Buth and C. Pierce, ‘Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does Ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean “Aramaic”?’, The Language Environment of First Century Judaea, 66–109.

16 Fitzmyer, J. A., ‘Presidential Address: The Languages of Palestine in the First Century ad’, CBQ 32.4 (1970) 501–31; Emerton, J. A., ‘The Problem of Vernacular Hebrew in the First Century ad and the Language of Jesus’, JTS 24.1 (1973) 123; Fitzmyer, J. A., ‘The Study of the Aramaic Background of the New Testament’, The Semitic Background of the New Testament: Combined Edition of Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament and a Wandering Aramean. Collected Aramaic Essays (Grand Rapids: Livonia/Eerdmans/Dove Booksellers, 1997) 127; Millard, A. R., Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000); Beattie, D. R. G. and Davies, P. R., ‘What Does “Hebrew” Mean?’, JSS 56.1 (2011) 7183.

17 Segal, ‘Mishnaic Hebrew’; Fraade, ‘Rabbinic Views’; Schwartz, S., ‘Language, Power and Identity in Ancient Palestine’, Past & Present 148 (1995) 347; K. M. Penner, ‘What Language Did Paul speak in Acts 21–22? Ancient Names for Hebrew and Aramaic’ (paper presented at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies Annual Meeting, Halifax, May 2003); Fraade, S. D., ‘Language Mix and Multilingualism in Ancient Palestine: Literary and Inscriptional Evidence’, Jewish Studies 48 (2012) 140.

18 The reading בית {א}אשדׄתׄין in 3Q15 xi, 12 would favour Bethesda as the toponym (Metzger, B. M., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) 178 para. John 5:2), but this reading has been improved since Milik first suggested it, to בית א\האשוחין ‘house of waterworks’ so that it no longer matches βηθεσδα (Ceulemans, R., ‘The Name of the Pool in Joh 5,2: A Text-Critical Note concerning 3Q15’, ZNW 99 (2007) 112–15. Buth and Pierce suggest Hebrew or Aramaic (בית ציד(א) (‘house of fishing/hunting’; 101) or (בית זית(א) (‘house of an olive tree/orchard’) or (בית חדס(א) (‘house of grace’) or בית אסטין (‘house of the colonnade/portico’), supported by 3Q15 ix, 2 האסטאן (Buth and Pierce, ‘Hebraisti’, 100–4.)

19 For etymology, Buth and Pierce prefer a Latin loanword gabata (‘platter’) rather than Dalman's original גבתא, revised to גבחתא ‘bald spot’, or to Hebrew גבה ‘eyebrow = ridge’ with directive ‘he’, גבתה (Buth and Pierce, ‘Hebraisti’, 104–7.)

20 Buth and Pierce note that Golgotha is both Hebrew and Aramaic for ‘skull’, גלגלת (‘Hebraisti’, 107).

21 The pronunciation Rabbouni reflects the Western vocalisation in Hebrew and Aramaic, as shown by the Cairo Genizah fragments of the Palestinian Targum, and Codex Kaufmann 3.10 (m. Ta‘an. 3.8). The pronunciation Ribboni reflects the Eastern (Babylonian) vocalisation as given in the printed editions of the Targums and Mishnah. Buth and Pierce point to Kutscher, E. Y., ‘Mishnaic Hebrew’, Meḥḳarim beʻIvrit u-ve-ʼaramit (ed. Ben-Ḥayyim, Z., Dotan, A. and Sarfatti, G. B.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1977) 73107.

22 This is the position of Beattie and Davies, ‘What Does Hebrew Mean?’

23 Porten, B. and Yardeni, A., Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt: Literature, Accounts, Lists (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989) sec. B2: SUB 3 side 1 l. 2.

24 Although the forms of speech used in various parts of Levant in the Assyrian period is an interesting question, my argument does not depend on whether Hebrew was a distinct language in the eighth century when this story is set. On this question, see Knauf, E. A., ‘War “Biblisch-Hebräisch” eine Sprache?’, ZAH 3 (1990):1123. My argument is restricted to whether Hebrais(ti) ever referred to (a form of) Aramaic.

25 The partially extant Hebrew text of Ben Sira confirms that the original language was Hebrew rather than Aramaic. Note also that the epilogue to Greek Job 42.17b refers to a Συριακῇ ‘Syriac’ book about Job.

26 Augustine, Tract. Ev. Jo. 15, 27, PL 35.302.

27 Origen, Homiliae in Job (Pitra, J. B., Analecta sacra spicilegio Solesmensi parata, vol. ii (Paris: Tusculum, 1884) 390–1); trans. mine.

28 For example, καββᾶ γὰρ ἑρμηνεύεται πορνεία κατὰ τὴν Συριακὴν διάλεκτον, φονοκτονία δὲ κατὰ τὴν Ἑβραϊκήν (Pan. 26.2.3)

29 τοῦ τῆς Πύρρας ὀνόματος, Νωρίαν ταύτην ὀνομάζοντες. ἐπειδὴ γὰρ νοῦρα ἐν τῇ ̔Εβραΐδι πῦρ οὐ κατὰ τὴν βαθεῖαν γλῶσσαν ἑρμηνεύεται ἀλλὰ Συριακῇ διαλέκτῳ (ἡσὰθ γὰρ τὸ πῦρ παρὰ  ̔Εβραίοις καλεῖται κατὰ τὴν βαθεῖαν γλῶσσαν). The evidence of Epiphanius is significant because he was probably one of the few Christian authors who knew Aramaic and Hebrew. See J. Wilder, ‘Epiphanius as a Hebraist: A Study of the Hebrew Learning of Epiphanius of Salamis’ (PhD diss., Toronto: University of St. Michael's College, 2017). Other relevant statements by Epiphanius include his explanation of Jesus’ last words on the cross, in which he distinguished Aramaic from Hebrew (Pan. 69.19.5). He said that Jesus prophesied in Hebrew from the cross (κατὰ τὴν Ἑβραϊκὴν διάλεκτον ‘ἠλί, ἠλί, λημᾶ  σαβαχθανί’), but noted that although ‘ἠλί, ἠλί’ is Hebrew (Ἑβραϊκῇ τῇ λέξει), the rest (‘λημᾶ σαβαχθανί’) is Aramaic (Συριακῇ διαλέκτῳ).

30 I am indebted to James David Audlin for this observation.

31 Danker, Bauer and Arndt, A Greek–English Lexicon, s.v. Ἑβραΐς.

32 Buth and Pierce, ‘Hebraisti', 66–109.

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New Testament Studies
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