Fr. William G. Most
Languages of Palestine at time of Christ
1. Aramaic: There is no doubt it was the most common language. Many Jews had
taken to it during the Babylonian exile. When Ezra read the law (in Nehemiah
8) to the people, and had the Levites out in the crowd to explain, we are
not sure what they did. It may have been simply commentary. It may have been
the beginning of Targums, i.e., they translated into Aramaic.
2. Hebrew: It never died out in the outlying districts. An old conservative
form of Hebrew was used, parallel to the fact that in some places in SE U.S.
people still speak an antique form of English.
In any town large enough to have a school, boys learned to read using the
Hebrew Bible. Rabbinic schools used Hebrew for the study of Scripture.
There was a deliberate revival of Hebrew in Jerusalem at this time. It was
less conservative than that of the country districts. We do not know how
extensive it was. But St. Paul in Acts 21:40 Paul, before his two years in
prison in Caesarea, after which he was sent to the Emperor, spoke to the
crowd in Hebrew. Many commentators say that must mean Aramaic. But that is
not certain at all.
Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, c. 130 wrote: "Matthew collected the sayings
[of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as he could."
This Matthew is surely lost today, and its relation to our Greek Matthew is
completely uncertain. Some commentators again insist Matthew wrote in
Aramaic. Again, this is not at all clear.
3. Greek: Pieter van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs, in Contributions to
Biblical Exegesis and Theology 2 Kampen Kok Pharos, 1991. Reviewed in CBQ,
July 1993. A survey covering 700 BC to 300 AD. "Of all Hebrew inscriptions
from the Mediterranean world, 68 percent are in Greek, 18 percent in Hebrew
or Aramaic, 12 percent in Latin, and 2 percent are bilingual." If we omit
those from the Holy Land: 85 % Greek, 10% Latin, 5% in another language.