Pope Francis carried out a headline-grabbing three-day tour of the Holy Land, visiting refugees, hugging clerics and honoring the 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 Netanyahu nor the pope 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 which 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.