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Pilgrimage or Visit, Aramaic or Hebrew, Francis or Bibi? Jesus, the Languages of His Times, and the Politics of the Media

It was disappointing and dispiriting to see that the American media largely chose to ignore the participation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Apostolic Pilgrimage of Brothers that took place in the Holy Land in May.  The meetings between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis, during the May 23-27 pilgrimage—marking the fiftieth anniversary of the first meeting between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, the historic audience that initiated the modern dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, formally separated since the schism of 1054—represented one of the most important ecclesiastical summits to have taken place in the Christian world in the last half century.  Yet, the Orthodox Church was largely written out of the popular media’s narrative, as was the actual purpose, of the joint Papal-Patriarchal pilgrimage—an official reaffirmation and renewal of the ecumenical dialogue between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. 

The media widely packaged the pilgrimage as “the Pope’s Trip to the Middle East” or “the Pope’s Visit to the Holy Land,” a unilateral junket rather than a bilateral ecclesiastical summit, and a decidedly political, more than a religious, journey.  Indeed, the mainstream media’s approach left the public with the impression that Pope Francis’ counterpart and partner during the pilgrimage was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) rather than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  Most of the American reportage from Jerusalem overlooked entirely the ecclesiastical dimensions of the pilgrimage, to focus on Francis’ show of support for the Palestinian cause, his calls for resolution of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts through peace, and Netanyahu’s irritation with the Pope’s pronouncements and actions.

The strain between Francis and Netanyahu came out into the open during a tense public exchange between the Israeli prime minister and the Pope over the language spoken by Jesus.  Despite efforts to reframe the incident as good natured, the very undiplomatic verbal sparring was immediately seized upon by the media as the most provocative moment of the pilgrimage, even perhaps eclipsing Francis’ apparent impromptu stop to pray at the controversial Israeli-built wall that isolates and cuts into the occupied West Bank. 

During a seated discussion between Francis and Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 26, the Pope listened through a translator to Israel’s Prime Minister as he began speaking on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.  Francis listened intently until the point when Netanyahu said, “Jesus was here, in this land.  He spoke Hebrew.”  Francis looked displeased, interrupted Netanyahu, and corrected the Prime Minister with a curt response: “He spoke Aramaic.”  Flustered, but with a firm retort, Netanyahu insisted, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

On its surface, the edgy disagreement over what language Jesus spoke may have seemed pedantic, the stuff of endless debate and speculative interest for historians and linguists.  In reality, for Francis and Netanyahu, their passionate responses to this question were not the product of some sort of arcane academic squabble.  Instead, both men reacted as they did because they understand this issue is a gravely serious and consequential matter loaded with political import. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertions about Jesus’ language were driven by a political agenda.  Specifically, Netanyahu made his comment to emphasize the point that the historic Jesus was a Jew who lived in the land of Israel centuries before the appearance of modern Arab Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s statement was meant to implicitly promote his view that Palestinians—Christian and Muslim alike—are interlopers in all of the lands west of the Jordan River, with no compelling historical link or right to such territory.  Francis reacted strongly to Netanyahu’s claims about Jesus’ spoken language, not merely because Netanyahu was factually incorrect.  Francis abruptly interrupted Netanyahu’s soliloquy because he discerned, and was upset by, Netanyahu’s effort to distort and exploit the historical Jesus and his language for political purposes.  In short, the Pope’s reaction was not simply a nit-picking correction of an historical mistake.  It was an act of political defiance, with Francis breaking polite diplomatic convention in order to communicate clearly to Netanyahu that he would not tolerate such manipulation of Christ in history.    

As to the question of Jesus’ language, the historical evidence and the scholarly consensus are clear.  Centuries before the time of Christ, Aramaic—a Semitic language closely related to both Arabic and Hebrew, surviving today as Syriac, a dialect of the ancient language spoken by many Eastern Christians in the Levant—had flourished, becoming the most common language in the Near East, outside Egypt.  That Jesus spoke Aramaic as his native language is virtually indisputable.  That Jesus may have had more than a superficial knowledge of Hebrew is possible, but uncertain. 

Although some Jews continued to speak Hebrew as their vernacular language during the time of Christ, most probably in parts of Judea, the language had dramatically receded to a largely liturgical role in Jewish society by the first century AD.  Indeed, by the first century, more Jews, especially in Jesus’ native Galilee, spoke Greek than Hebrew.  This fact did not find its way into the disagreement between Pope Francis and Prime Minister Netanyahu, neither, not surprisingly, was it something recalled by the media.  This blog’s next posting will focus on the Greek spoken by Jesus.   

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.