I first arrived at Hebrew University bursting with excitement to study with the razor-sharp, gnomelike and blue-eyed Aramaist Jonas Greenfield and what felt like the last generation of great Israeli philologists. At our orientation lecture someone told us we’d be learning the very language King David spoke and my eyes narrowed. I was here to study precisely that fascinating evidence of historical diversity and change that proved this wasn’t true. I commented to a friend–or maybe just whoever was standing next to me–that if we could recover King David’s language it would sound like Arabic to us. I now realize this was my initiation into the tension between what we say and how we speak, the historical dialectic of language structure and linguistic ideology that makes every linguistic history also a social history.
I was asked to do a piece for Religion Dispatches on the recent brief exchange between the Pope and the Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu asserted Jesus’ language was Hebrew, but backpedaled when the Pope corrected him that it was Aramaic (“He spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew”). I argue that it reflects centuries of attempts to claim Jesus through speech, making his native language and original words into sacred linguistic relics. What is interesting about this isn’t Netanyahu’s use of language to claim territory, a function of the political reptilian brain stem (you could ask, what else has he ever done?) as his defenders. Until recently, the scholarly debate about ancient Hebrew’s lifespan had split along ethnic-religious lines. Most major studies of the continuing life of Hebrew have been by Jews, and the “Aramaic approach” to the original words of Jesus was the province of Christians. It seems the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction.
But any attempt to pin this early Jewish holy man down to one language ends up concealing him and his world from us–as Steven Fraade has argued it does for the early Rabbis in general and Willem Smelik has argued it does for their ideas of scripture.
Since their site is down, here is a footnoted version.