Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin: Languages of New Testament Judea

A trilingual inscription placed by Pontius Pilate upon the cross proclaimed “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.” This titulus was able to be read by many of the Jews, John says, not only because of Golgatha’s proximity to the city, but also because the text was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Pilate’s declaration addressed the multilingual population of Jerusalem, both its residents and also its visitors, who were filling the city during the Passover. Weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter and some Apostles addressed Jews, residents of Jerusalem who had gathered from every nation, and for a moment the polyglot assembly communicated in one language. Miraculously, “every man heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). It was cause for amazement that these Galileans were able to be understood by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Cyrenians, Cretans, Arabians, and proselytes and Jews from Rome (Acts 2:1–13).

Not only the Jerusalem of these anecdotes, but all of Roman Judea in the first century A.D. was a place of tremendous linguistic diversity. Centuries of political and religious change had resulted in the establishment of a culture in which Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin were written, read, and especially spoken by a multilingual group. This included governors and subjects, scholars and laymen, missionaries and proselytes, buyers and sellers, clients and kings. The rock of Masada, having yielded from its rubble Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew texts, exemplifies the societal internexus of New Testament Palestine.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 36:3
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