May 30, 2014 | Now Lebanon

Semitic Semantics

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis engaged in a brief, cordial exchange over the language spoken by Jesus. “Jesus was here, in this land,” Netanyahu said. “He spoke Hebrew.” A smiling Pope Francis corrected him: “Aramaic.” In return, Netanyahu replied that indeed Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, but also would have known Hebrew.

The exchange spurred interest in the media, as news outlets scurried to find scholars to comment on the issue, while spicing up the encounter as a confrontational sparring match. The consensus that emerged in the various media reports held that Aramaic was the spoken language at the time of Jesus, whereas Hebrew was no longer spoken and had become the preserve of a clerical class, used only in ritual. However, this assertion glosses over several decades of archaeological discovery and changes in scholarly understanding of the language environment in Palestine of the first century C.E..

That environment was essentially trilingual, including Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. And while it is indisputable that Jesus would’ve spoken Aramaic, it’s also quite likely that he would’ve spoken a Hebrew vernacular as well. Textual evidence that came to light in the last century has shown that Hebrew was still used in the first century, not just as an inaccessible high register restricted to scholars and clerics, but also in colloquial form.

The view voiced in the media stories suggesting that Aramaic was the only Semitic language spoken in Palestine at the time, while Hebrew was dead or ossified, rehashes old misconceptions in European Christian scholarship of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To be sure, scholars of that period did not have access to the evidence that was unearthed beginning in the mid-20thcentury. Nevertheless, their views were often undergirded by problematic ideas and theological as well as political premises, some having to do with their position on Judaism, with others reflecting inter-Christian (Protestant and Catholic) issues. It would seem that the popular discussion today suffers from similar shortcomings.

For example, by the 18th century, the assertion in European scholarship that Aramaic was the language of Jesus was, as one scholar put it, “based solely on the ‘rediscovery’ of the Syriac language and the claim of the Eastern churches that their language was the ‘language of Jesus.’” One cannot help but wonder if this sentiment is mirrored today, on the popular level, by the media’s “re-rediscovery” of Christian communities in the Middle East that speak Neo-Aramaic dialects. Few will have failed to notice the proliferation of articles on this subject over the past couple of years, especially on those communities in Syria.

Although Neo-Aramaic is far removed from the Aramaic of Jesus’ time, and thus cannot in any real way be dubbed the “language of Jesus,” the association has stuck. This renewed encounter with an “ancient community” offered access to local authenticity that is simultaneously non-Jewish. The newly-rediscovered minority now features prominently in news stories on the war in Syria, and more often than not, the headlines of the stories included some reference to the “language of Jesus.”

An identity narrative – promoted by some leaders of the Eastern Christian churches – has been crafted around these communities, which has helped shape views of the conflict among Christians in the West. In turn, this has led to problematic positions on the conflict in Syria. In addition, this angle has colored the Vatican’s interest in Syria. One suspects that the Pope’s corrective to Netanyahu was in part motivated by the Vatican’s revived focus on the region’s Christians, and the meaning that’s being attached to them.

Judging from the reactions of some Palestinian Christian journalists, this identity narrative seems to be the primary concern. Netanyahu’s remark was viewed not as a statement on a historical matter, but as an attempt to “claim Jesus,” and thereby undermine the constructed identity of Christians in the Middle East.

One could add here that a tendency persists in the Eastern churches (especially in the Levant) to approach Judaism through the prism of replacement theology, which holds that the Jewish people have been superseded by the Christian Church, which in turn replaces God's covenant with Israel. Needless to say, this is a position that lends itself well to political polemic. As it happens, replacement theology was one of the problematic ideas that colored the views of 19th and early 20th century European Christian scholarship on the question of Aramaic vs. Hebrew. Hebrew was viewed as the language of Jewish particularism, whereas Aramaic offered a way out to a more universal outlook.

At the heart of the interest in the story are these modern identities and concerns, and less so the historical question of which languages Jesus spoke. In fact, the popular discussion of the issue, as reflected in the media, glossed over discoveries and advancements in the field. But more importantly, the debate seems to have revived problematic ideas of previous centuries, partaking in what is essentially political polemics.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.