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Languages of First-Century Palestine

What scriptures and what languages would have been used in the first-century Palestine?

Qumran Rule of Community

Q. What scriptures and in what language would have been used in the first-century Palestine? I am particularly interested in Jesus’ use of Psalm 110:1 and how it is recorded in the gospels. The text recorded is Greek; would Jesus have used Hebrew, or would he have quoted in Greek?

A. The evidence we have falls into three main categories: (1) physical evidence such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and a variety of inscriptions; (2) linguistic evidence within the texts composed around the turn of the era, for example New Testament texts; and (3) references to or citations of scriptural texts as authoritative and normative.

It is clear from the evidence that while there was not yet a definitive version or list of scriptural texts—that is, the canonical process had not yet reached the point of a fixed text for any particular community—there were texts that were scriptural and authoritative. Some of these were especially popular, such as the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and Isaiah.

The mix of actively used languages in first-century C.E. Palestine included Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Latin—each used by different communities in different ways. But here another distinction is in order, namely the distinction between a spoken language and one used in a primarily textual way. To give a famous example: in Luke 4:18, it is plausible that the scripture read in the synagogue was in Hebrew, and that Jesus “translated” the scripture, along with an interpretation, into the spoken language of Aramaic (and yet the text of Luke is itself composed in Greek!).

The citations and understanding of Ps 110 in the New Testament are interesting. Of course, the questions of whether Ps 110 is “prophetic” and what it means to be “of the order of Melchizedek” are primarily theological ones—not linguistic or historical. Overall the evidence points in the direction of Jesus himself using either Hebrew or Aramaic scriptural texts, not Greek ones. And yet in the Synoptic Gospels the quotation of Ps 110 is from the Greek version and not the Hebrew, raising the question whether these were authentic words of Jesus or, more likely, the words of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

  • Samuel Thomas

    Samuel Thomas is associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University. He teaches and writes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and religion and ecology.