The Father William Most Collection
Languages of Palestine at time of Christ
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
1. Aramaic: There is no doubt it was the most common language. Many Jews had taken to it during the Babylonian exile. When Ezra read the law (in Nehemiah 8) to the people, and had the Levites out in the crowd to explain, we are not sure what they did. It may have been simply commentary. It may have been the beginning of Targums, i.e., they translated into Aramaic.
2. Hebrew: It never died out in the outlying districts. An old conservative form of Hebrew was used, parallel to the fact that in some places in SE U. S. people still speak an antique form of English.
In any town large enough to have a school, boys learned to read using the Hebrew Bible. Rabbinic schools used Hebrew for the study of Scripture.
There was a deliberate revival of Hebrew in Jerusalem at this time. It was less conservative than that of the country districts. We do not know how extensive it was. But St. Paul in Acts 21:40 Paul, before his two years in prison in Caesarea, after which he was sent to the Emperor, spoke to the crowd in Hebrew. Many commentators say that must mean Aramaic. But that is not certain at all.
Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, c. 130 wrote: "Matthew collected the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as he could." This Matthew is surely lost today, and its relation to our Greek Matthew is completely uncertain. Some commentators again insist Matthew wrote in Aramaic. Again, this is not at all clear.
3. Greek: Pieter van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs, in Contributions to Bibical Exegesis and Theology 2, Kampen Kok Pharos, 1991. Reviewed in CBQ, July 1993. A survey covering 700 BC to 300 AD: "of all Hebrew inscriptions from the Mediterranean world, 68 percent are in Greek, 18 percent in Hebrew or Aramaic, 12 percent in Latin, and 2 percent are bilingual." If we omit those from the Holy Land: 85 % Greek, 10% Latin, 5% in another language.