By Joe Bartling
Sometimes things are so obvious that we miss them. Biblical scholars, theologians, and historians generally agree that Jesus and his disciples spoke “Aramaic”, a language that was popular in the Galilee region during the Second Temple period. But where did this language come from, and WHY did he speak Aramaic?
Aramaic is the language of Arameans who settled in the ancient region of Aram (Hebrew: ארם). The word “aram” in the Hebrew/Aramaic is from the root verb “rum” (Hebrew: רום) which means to rise, be high, piled up, or tall.
Ancient Aram borders Northern Israel, East of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, and is comprised of the Golan region, and also what is now Syria. Aram is typically synonymous with Syria, as Aramaic is synonymous with Syriac, and the linguistic world of the Aramaic language is centered in the area we know now as Syria.
In Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Galileans was Aramaic. The major trade route to Damascus and beyond went just north of the Sea of Galilee and through this region. This is the region that Jesus lived and taught, and included the Galilean towns of Bethsaida and Capernaum, from where most of his disciples came from. As I have discussed in a previous article, “Jesus’ Boyhood Hometown: Rediscovered after 2,000 Years?“, evidence is mounting that Jesus’ boyhood home was in Gamla, in this very region of ancient Aram and typically associated with the Golan Heights and Syria. “Gamla” is actually the Aramaic word for “camel”, and is the city’s original Aramaic name from over 2,000 years ago, as recorded by Josephus. So if Jesus was actually raised here, he would have spoke Aramaic in a town that had an Aramaic name in the region of ancient Aram.
Traditional views of Jesus’ boyhood home in a town called Nazareth some 40 miles to the west of this location, and one mile from the heavily Roman-influenced Sepphoris, leads one to the understanding that Jesus was raised in a community of rich, cosmopolitan and Greek-culture, where many Jews were happy to live as Herodians, and enjoy the fruits of Hellenistic life in a multi-cultural, diverse, and even Greek-speaking community. Members of this Nazareth community were happy to take jobs in the construction projects at Sepphoris, where Herod Antipas was building his “Ornament of the Galilee”, and residents pledged allegiance and servitude to Roman.
Some have even suggested Jesus, as a “carpenter” (Greek: “tekton”), but more accurately translated as “builder or contractor”, even worked on these building projects in Sepphoris, and even spoke Greek, the “language of the people”.
But Sepphoris and this region around the traditional site of Nazareth couldn’t be farther culturally from the upbringing of Jesus in the Northern Galilee, particularly if he was raised in Gamla as we suggest. Gamla was the center of the Galilean-based Jewish resistance movement, of which its members were called “zealots” (Hebrew; “kana’im), “sicarii” (dagger-men and bandits). Its inhabitants carefully followed Jewish laws, and resolutely rebelled against Hellenistic and pagan influence, as evidenced in the archaeological findings of the synagogue, ritual baths (mikvaot), oil presses, coins and pottery found there. (Reference Danny Syon and Andrea Berlin).
In 4 BCE, Judas of Gamla, who, according to Josephus, founded the “Fourth Sect” of Judaism, and son of Hezekiah the Zealot, led a successful raid against the weapons stockpile at Sepphoris and used these weapons in their revolutionary efforts against the Romans. The zealots used Gamla, just 5 miles east of the Sea of Galilee, and in the ancient region known as Aram, as their home base, until it was destroyed in a Roman siege in 67 CE.
Jesus derisively remarked about Antipas and his garish buildings at Sepphoris, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.”. (Luke 9:38). Jesus refers to Antipas as a “fox” in Luke 13:32, and Sepphoris in Hebrew is Tzipori (צִפּוֹרִי) meaning “bird”. In my view, Jesus would never had worked on a Roman or Greek building project, touched a coin with a pagan image on it, or spoken in an unholy language such as Greek.
So, in my view, Jesus spoke Aramaic, because he was raised in the town of Gamla, a city in the ancient region of Aram, and because the local language was Aramaic.