Our Lord’s ‘Other’ Language

What language did Jesus speak with Pilate?

With the Roman centurion?

How about the Magi? What language did they speak with Our Lady and Saint Joseph?

With the Jews of course Our Lord spoke Aramaic. Not only in Judea but also with the Jews in Galilee. But what about the Gentiles in Galilee?

There are numerous examples from the New Testament of intercourse of Jews with Gentiles, especially in Galilee. I need only cite a few.

This question came to my mind while watching Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ. Not really a question, as I already did  know that Pilate spoke with Our Lord in Greek, not Latin, as the movie had it.

Greek was the universal language, the lingua franca, of the eastern empire after the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC. That is because the language was already known by the Romans in addition to their own Italic Latin. Three hundred years before that the Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered Palestine on their way to Egypt. East of Palestine, Syriac was spoken during these centuries and Syriac was derived from Aramaic. So the Jews were not the only ones who spoke Aramaic, Syrians also knew the language. 

What about Persia and Mesopotamia? What was the language spoken there in Our Lord’s time? The native language of Persia is Farsi. But, as I just learned, Aramaic was also spoken there. In fact, Aramaic, even in written form, is 3100 years old.  Wow!

Be assured, I am quite ignorant when it comes to ancient languages. I know a little Koine Greek, that is also Gospel Greek, and I know some Latin. Koine ia a Greek word meaning common or shared. It spead across the Middle East after the time of Alexander’s conquests and lasted until the time of Justinian in the seventh century AD. Perhaps it compares to modern Greek as Latin does to Italian and the other Romance Languages. 

Be that as it may, Our Lord most likely spoke in Greek to the centurion whose servant He healed  near Capharnaum in Galilee. The good Roman’s answer made its way into our holy Mass: “Lord I am not worthy that Thou should come under my roof, speak but the word and my servant [soul] shall be healed.” Whether the centurion himself spoke with Jesus (Matthew) or delegated his servants to do so (as in Luke) is irrelevant. The fact is that they “spoke” and the language used was Greek. 

Galilee was called by the Jews “Galilee of the Gentiles.” And the reason was because the province was the center for Greek (and later Roman) commerce. The ten major cities of Galilee were called the Decapolis, a Greek word meaning “ten cities.”

Now I have an even more interesting question. What language did the Magi speak to Our Lady and Saint Joseph in? 

I believe it was Aramaic. Why? Because if they came from Persia, as Melchior is believed to have come from, the Persians knew Aramaic. How about Gaspar? He is believed to have come from India. If so, the Aramaic language had actually reached the Indus River valley sometime before Christ. And, Balthasar? Well, he is believed to have come from Arabia. And, at its height, Aramaic was spoken in eastern and northern Arabia.

Could the Magi have spoken to Our Lady and Saint Joseph in Greek? Perhaps. Saint Joseph, being a Galilean carpenter, no doubt knew Greek. But Our Lady was educated by the holy women in the temple from the age of three until she was fourteen. It would seem that there was no occasion or reason for her to learn Greek. It is mainly for this reason that I believe that the Magi used the language common to them all, that being Aramaic.