I have been wondering recently what languages Jesus could speak. When Jesus read from Isaiah 61 in the Synagogue in Nazareth he would probably use Hebrew as that was the language Isaiah was written in. But the language used in Nazareth and the language Jesus spoke would have been Aramaic. Greek was widely spoken in Israel at this time and I guess Jesus at least would understand Greek, and probably spoke it. When Jesus was before Pilate the conversation may have taken place in Greek or Latin – but we don’t know.
When Jesus spoke at times of great gentleness or at times of extreme suffering he used Aramaic, the language he had learnt as a child on his mother knee:
When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, ‘Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.’ But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, (in Aramaic) ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
This was a private and very personal moment and it is emphasised by the Aramaic language Jesus uses. A similar thing happens later in Mark’s Gospel at chapter 7:32-35:
Some people brought to Jesus a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, (in Aramaic) ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means ‘Be opened!’). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosed and he began to speak plainly.
But the other extreme of emotion – the agony on the cross – causes Jesus to cry out, again in Aramaic:
And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
What can we learn from this?
I remember meeting a doctor from England who moved up to Skye to be the local GP. It didn’t take him long to realise that the elderly patients, who had not got long to live, much preferred to converse in Gaelic, rather than English. Gaelic was their mother tongue. So if he was to be able to respect the treasured moments of these dying patients he needed to speak to them in their heart language. So he learnt to understand and speak Gaelic.
The problem with many of us Brits is that we only speak one language – English – which we expect everyone else to learn and loads of people do, but for those whose preferred language is Gaelic or Aramaic or Cantonese or… (you name the language), it is very different. We can so easily forget how important it is for everyone to hear God speak. And when we need that word of encouragement whispered in our ears it has to be in our heart language. When we need to be able to express our agony or our pain – we shout in the language we learnt when young, and we know that God understands that language. We all need to hear God speaking (and listening) in our own language.
Church Partnership Manager