Part of my pastoral training involved studying the languages used to write the bible, including Greek and Hebrew. I enjoy incorporating these into bible studies and sermons to give depth and context to scripture. One Sunday, a congregant asked me, “Is it possible to spot the verses originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic?” I found this question insightful, and it got me thinking about having a good old-fashioned Hebrew vs. Aramaic showdown.
Hebrew is the language of the Jews. It has evolved from its origins in the bible to what we have today. Conversely, Aramaic was the language of the Syrians and Babylonians. Through mass deportations and exile, Aramaic spread across the ancient world. For centuries, it was spoken in Babylon, Persia, and Israel. Today, Hebrew is the national language of Israel, yet Aramaic is relegated to a second language in parts of the Middle East.
For this showdown, I’d like to explore the differences and similarities between these two languages. I’ll also explore its use today and whether Jesus spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?
Hebrew vs. Aramaic: Difference in the definition
The word ‘Hebrew’ is an adjective derived from Eber, one of Abraham’s ancestors mentioned in Genesis 10:21. Based on its Semitic root, scholars have interpreted Hebrew to mean ‘from the other side,’ signifying the migration of the Jews into Canaan. Conversely, Aramaic originated from Aram in Syria. The word is believed to mean ‘highland’ or ‘to be high.’ Aramaic was the language of the Assyrian and Persian Empires.
What’s the Difference between Hebrew and Aramaic?
Hebrew and Aramaic were distinct in their history and structure.
There are four eras in the history of the Hebrew language: Classical Hebrew, used in the old testament until the 3rd century BCE; Rabbinic Hebrew, used in the Talmud and Mishna in 200 CE; Medieval Hebrew in the 6th to 13th century, and modern Hebrew revived in the 19th and 20th century.
In Contrast, Aramaic first appeared among the Arameans in the 11th century BCE. By the 8th century BCE, it was a dominant language in the Assyrian Empire. Between the 7th and 6th century BCE, Aramaic spread throughout the ancient world because of the deportations by the Babylonians and Assyrians. Later, it became the lingua franca of Persia between 559 and 330 BCE.
When studying Hebrew and Aramaic, you’ll notice a consonant shift for some words. For instance, in Hebrew, ‘the bread’ is ha’lekhem, while in Aramaic, it’s lekhm’ah. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the word for bread in both languages- lekhem and lekhm are very similar. However, did you observe the consonant shift for the word ‘the’ (ha/ah)? Sometimes this shift occurs in sounds such as sheqel (Hebrew) and teqel (Aramaic); or shum (Hebrew) and tum (Aramaic). These subtle differences exist because these languages have much in common, as we shall see.
What are the similarities between Hebrew and Aramaic?
Although separate in their origins and structure, Hebrew and Aramaic bear striking similarities. For instance, they belong to the Northwestern Semitic subfamily, which dominated the Middle East. These languages shared certain words, which allowed speakers to understand each other to a certain extent. For instance, the Hebrew word for ‘mother’ was ima, while the Aramaic version was Emma.
Furthermore, both languages were present in the bible. In Genesis 31:47, as Jacob and Laban made a covenant, Laban called the pillar Jegar Sahadutha, which Jacob translated to Galeed in Hebrew. Ezra 4:8-22, Daniel 2:4(b) -7:28, and Jeremiah 10:11 are also written in Aramaic.
Can Hebrews understand Aramaic?
It’s unclear whether all Jews understand Aramaic. However, many scholars and those practicing the Jewish religion understand Aramaic since it was used in the Talmud. This would be vital in their studies and interpretation of the law. Moreover, the Jewish people were historically scattered worldwide, and they picked up new languages and dialects. In particular, Jews living in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey speak a blend of Hebrew and Aramaic.
Did Jesus speak Hebrew or Aramaic?
Yes. Jesus was able to speak Hebrew and Aramaic. During his time, Aramaic and Greek were the most common languages. We see the Gospel writers translate some Aramaic words and phrases that Jesus uttered, proving that he primarily spoke in Aramaic to the crowds. We find these phrases in Mark 5:41, 7:34, 14:36, and 15:34. Hebrew was reserved for the synagogues and the temple. In Luke 4:16-18, Jesus went into the Synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah, which was in Hebrew.
As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.