Pope Francis carried out a headline-grabbing three-day tour of the Holy Land that ended Monday, visiting refugees, hugging clerics and honoring victims of the Holocaust. But perhaps the most interesting moment of the trip came during an exchange with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in Jerusalem. The Israeli premier and the pope found occasion for a slight historical quibble.
"Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew," Netanyahu told the pope, through an interpreter. "Aramaic," the pontiff immediately corrected. "He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew," offered Netanyahu.
Neither was wrong, but the question is a matter of emphasis. There's scholarly consensus that the historical Jesus principally spoke Aramaic, the ancient Semitic language that was the everyday tongue in the lands of the Levant and Mesopotamia. Hebrew was more the preserve of clerics and religious scholars, a written language for holy Scriptures.
Even so, certain portions of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic, a sign of its prevalence in Jewish antiquity. (There remain those, particularly devout Christians, who dispute Aramaic's primacy at the time.)
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Aramaic and Hebrew are from the same family; the former's script likely informed written Hebrew and Arabic. Like most languages, Aramaic spread through centuries of conquest, spurred by invasions of the Assyrian and later Persian empires. A version of it is spoken by communities of Chaldaean Christians in Iraq and Syria. Last year, when a historic Christian town near Damascus fell to Syrian rebels, Western media warned of Islamists planting their flag among those who still speak the language of Jesus.
In the age of the historical Jesus, Aramaic was confronted by new imperial realities: The whole of the Levant, including Judaea, the ancient province that contains Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was part of the Roman empire. The historical Jesus probably did not speak Latin. The lingua franca through much of the eastern Roman world was Greek, and he could have picked up a few words of that Mediterranean tongue from traders plying its caravan routes. The gospels carried down by tradition were written in Greek — a crucial link that cemented Christianity's place in the Western world, via the eastern Roman empire.
Netanyahu's desire to link Jesus to Hebrew carries with it a very modern concern. It's a gesture attempting to bridge Jesus to the modern Israeli state, where Hebrew has been made the dominant language, superseding the polyglot dialects of the Jewish diaspora. It also echoes a competing strain of rhetoric from some Arabs who claim Jesus was a Palestinian, born in what is now the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu likes to make historical allusions. In speeches, he frequently mentions his possession of a near 3,000-year-old golden signet ring, found by archaeologists near the Western Wall. It is inscribed "Netanyahu" — "That's my last name," he reminded everyone at a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in 2011. Invoked this way, the Israeli premier was explaining his (and Israel's) unbreakable bond to the city of Jerusalem, whose geographic east is contested by the Palestinians. But Netanyahu's father was born in Warsaw with the last name Mileikowsky and adopted Netanyahu upon moving to Israel. Identities, like languages, are malleable things.