Saturday, April 15, 2017

Did Christ and Pontius Pilate Need an Interpreter?

This is an Easter digression from the usual topics of this blog.

One of the lesser mysteries of Easter is the language in which Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate conversed during their famous confrontation as reported in the New Testament. It's an old question and there's an ample literature about it both in the form of publications and of blog comments -- and controversy (see Sources below). I was unaware of how much controversy until I came to do the research for this post. But let's take a quick look at it in the perspective of this blog.

People assume that because Jesus was Jewish he must have known Hebrew, and because Pilate was a Roman he must have spoken Latin. That's no doubt true but it's a misleading simplification. Because both of them were bilingual (or multilingual) like most of the people in their respective communities. The problem is that on the face of it their languages didn't coincide.

First Pilate. As a Roman 'equestrian' from Italy and prefect of the Roman province of Judea, he had to know Latin, the official language of the Empire. Yet it may well not have been his first language. Because by his time Latin had been overtaken for conversation in everyday life by Greek. Not Classical Greek but the dialect that had permeated the Middle East and even Rome since Alexander the Great's conquests in the fourth century BCE: Koine. On the other hand, he is known not to have been sympathetic to his Jewish subjects; according to the Jewish historian Joesphus, he repeatedly caused trouble because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs. So it's unlikely he took the trouble to learn their language.

As for Jesus and all the native inhabitants of Judea, their everyday language wasn't Hebrew. Since the time of the exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE it had been overtaken by another much more widespread Semitic language, Aramaic. There are still pockets of Aramaic speakers in Syria, or there were until the current conflict. I support the consensus view that as the child of humble parents, he spoke it as his mother tongue, and he continued to use it. Hebrew, however, was by no means out of the picture. Above all it had remained the religious language of the Jews, as it still is. It was the liturgical language, the language of the Old Testament and the language of disputation among the scribes and rabbis. As an orthodox Jewish male, Jesus would have been taken by his father to the synagogue from an early age and given a thorough grounding in it. Later he would need it for disputations.

As for the controversy over which was his dominant language, it need not detain us: the fact is he was bilingual. There's sometimes an element of chauvinism in the controversy. One scholar writes: "I was stunned by the extent to which some people get worked up about the language(s) of Christ." In 2014,
"Benjamin Netenyahu and Pope Francis appeared to have a momentary disagreement. 'Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,' Netenyahu told the Pope at a public meeting in Jerusalem. 'Aramaic,' interjected the Pope. 'He spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew,' Netenyahu shot back." 
Thus far we seem to have two bilinguals confronting one another without a common language. But there remains one more possibility. Did Jesus, like Pilate, speak Greek? Koine Greek was widely used in the Palestine of Christ's time. There were Greek-speaking communities in Galilee, including one not far from Jesus' home town of Nazareth, and there's evidence in the New Testament that he spoke it on occasion. This, then, is the likely solution: the interrogation probably took place in Greek.

According to the Gospel of Luke, members of the Sanhedrin, a council of learned men, accompanied Jesus to Pilate, so it can't be ruled out that one of them might have acted as interpreter. However, there's no mention of an interpreter in the Gospels and the recourse to Greek would have made it unnecessary.

Even if you're one of the many who don't believe Jesus Christ existed (see Gathercole below), you can read the above as an exercise in historical sociolingistics.

Koine Greek. Wikipedia,  2017.

Pontius Pilate. Wikipedia, 2017.

Who, what, why: What language would Jesus have spoken? BBC Magazine Monitor, 27 May 2014. Click [here] or go to

Mark D. Roberts. What language did Jesus speak? Why does it matter?  Patheos, 2010. Click [here] or go to

Mark Ward. Did Jesus speak Greek? theLab, 9 December 2015. Click [here] or go to

Simon Gathercole. What is the historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died? Guardian Unlimited, 13 April 2017. Click [here] or go to


  1. Interesting article.

    But just because the Gospels don't mention an interpreter doesn't mean that there wasn't one.

    Perhaps that whole crucifiction thing was just the result of a misunderstanding ?

    1. Thank you. Yes, you're right about the interpreter. I've changed the wording to make it slightly less dogmatic. The truth is, this whole post is built up on circumstantial evidence.

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