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Questions on Jesus’ Language and on the Crucifixion


If Jesus could not speak Latin, he must have communicated with the Romans in Aramaic. Was it common for Romans, at least of a certain class, to speak Aramaic? If not, how could Jesus have communicated with, for example, Pontius Pilate? Perhaps through a translator?

Also, are there any sources I can consult regarding my question on the crucifixion? Wikipedia does not address this issue and you yourself have stated that you believe it was a small public ceremony which coincides with what I was taught. So I would appreciate any assistance you can render in this respect.



OK, two quick questions, and two quick answers.

You’re right, Jesus could certainly not speak Latin — unless you base your views of Jesus on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; the entire movie is filmed in Aramaic, until we get to the trial before Pilate, where Jesus shifts into completely fluent Latin. What a scream. In any event, it’s clear why the Gospel according to Mel wants Jesus to be able to speak Latin. Mel belongs to an ultra-conservative sect of Roman Catholicism that rejects the decisions of Vatican II in the 1960s which included, among other things, the decision that mass should be spoken in the vernacular languages (that is, the language that the worshipers could speak and understand) instead of only in the traditional Latin. In this sect’s view, Latin is the sacred language and so should be retained. And so *of course* Jesus could speak it fluently!

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  1. Avatar
    SJB  August 17, 2012

    This brings up a point I’ve wondered about.

    How likely is it that Jesus would have even had an interview with Pontius Pilate in the first place? Did the Roman governor have to sign off on every crucifixtion or have a personal interview with every poor Palestinian unfortunate who got crushed by the Roman legal system? The confrontation makes good drama and allows the gospel writers to make several polemical points but how historical is it really based on what we know about the Roman legal system?


    ps My understanding is that few of the rank and file soldiery were actually ethnic Romans and that they were drawn from all over the empire so how many of them spoke fluent latin either?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 19, 2012

      Great question. I’m not sure we really konw the answer. We do konw that Romans did not allow capital punishment among the locals; but whether one of Pilate’s underlings could, in theory, have ordered the execution is an interesing quesiton. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it raised before.

  2. Avatar
    ptalbot  August 17, 2012

    I’m interested that you make no mention of Greek. As I understand it the Roman elite could speak and write Greek as fluently as Latin, and it seems likely that – given his upbringing in hellenized, multi-cultural, multi-lingual Galillee – Jesus had at least conversational Koine Greek? Since Pilate had no Aramaic and Jesus had no Latin, isn’t Greek (and/or a translator) a reasonable suggestion for how they may have communicated at the trial?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 19, 2012

      Several have suggested this. I’ll show why I don’t think Jesus spoke Greek in a full post.

  3. Robertus
    Robertus  August 17, 2012

    Wouldn’t it be more likely that Pilate and the Roman soldiers and officials spoke Greek most of the time with each other rather than Latin? Do you think it likely that Jesus was actually granted a special trial befor Pilate? I don’t think we can know for sure but wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus had no official trial with a translator.

  4. Avatar
    jimmo  August 17, 2012

    How do we know “Pilate and the other Romans as a rule could not speak Aramaic”? It seems “logical” that they wouldn’t bother to learn, but historiographically I would say that is a pretty weak argument.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 19, 2012

      I’m not sure what you see as “weak” about it. Are you saying that you have evidence to suggest that governors of the various provinces throughout the empire learned the local languages?

      • Avatar
        jimmo  August 19, 2012

        I have no evidence either way, that’s why I am asking. I am simply saying that just because something appears “logical” to us 20 centuries later, it does not mean that this was actually the case in the 1st century. That we have no records Roman governers learned the local language or we have records that they always used translator or letters from various governors commenting on not knowing or not wanting to learn the language all would be “strong” evidence they did not. Simply saying it does seem logical they would learn the local language is, in my mind, a “weak” argument.

        • Avatar
          jimmo  August 20, 2012

          Correction: should be “does not seem logical”

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 20, 2012

          Yes, you’re absolutely right. Historians have to base their views on evidence, not on 21st century “common sense.”

  5. Avatar
    ZachET  August 17, 2012

    In Misquoting Jesus you say on that ‘..but Acts 2:38 indicates that he became the Lord at his resurrection’
    the thing is Acts 2:38 says

    ‘Peter replied, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’

    This does not mention a resurrection

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 19, 2012

      It’s a typo. I’m away from my books just now (in the middle of nowhere France) (and loving it); could it be 2:36? “this one you have crucified he has made both Lord and Christ”… or something like that.

  6. Avatar
    maxhirez  August 17, 2012

    For a really scary look into the minds of people who obsess on the subject of crucifixion, check out Simcha Jacobivici’s “The Naked Archeologist” episode on the subject. (Don’t worry-he never actually gets naked.) He not only shows you Yohanon’s heel bone, but then he goes and meets a retired judge who has crucified his son repeatedly for research purposes with a device that looks straight out of the samurai sword scene from “Pulp Fiction.” He’s reached some unique conclusions about how a person dies from crucifixion as well-neither blood loss nor suffocation but rather shock and neural trauma if I recall. I don’t know that he’s right, but fascinating none the less.

  7. Avatar
    Mikail78  August 18, 2012

    Bart, as always, great and informative post. One quick thing though, and I hope you don’t mind. Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, most definitely belongs to that ultra conservative Catholic sect of which you speak. I’m pretty sure this sect isn’t even recognized by the vatican. I hope I’m not being unkind by saying this, but Mel’s father, Hutton, is quite the nutcase. In addition to belonging to this ultra conservative sect, he is a holocaust denier and believes that Vatican II was the product of a Jewish conspiracy. So, yeah, Hutton, is quite the wingnut.

    As for Mel, I’m under the impression that it’s unclear if he belongs to the same sect as his father or if he adheres to traditional catholicism. Regardless, as you point out, the influence of his father’s sect was seen in “The passion of the Christ.”

    But again, as always, an awesome post.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 19, 2012

      There’s a lot written on the whole business. For starters you might take a look at the essays in: Jesus and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History [Paperback], Kathleen E. Corley (Editor), Robert L. Webb (Author)

  8. Avatar
    Mikail78  August 18, 2012

    OOPS!! I forgot to say one other thing. If you’re aware of a source of information that clearly indicates that Mel is an adherent of his father’s sect, could you please let me know? Thanks!

    • Avatar
      Rice  August 27, 2012

      Hi Mikail78,

      “My dad taught me my faith and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life,”

      I grew up in this crackpot sect. Have sat in the same pew as Mel at his chapel many years back. I have never heard once that there is a rift or (significant) difference between their religious views. In fact Mel was commissioning a writer to write a book about the “Siri Theory,” which was a favorite of the Sadevacantist at the time.

      I don’t think there is a reason to say he doesn’t. Do you have a source?

  9. Avatar
    lbehrendt  August 18, 2012

    Might Jesus’ Roman prosecutors have spoken in Greek? Wouldn’t it have been easier to find a Greek-Aramaic translator? Besides, Jesus might have spoken some Greek.

  10. Avatar
    gavriel  August 20, 2012

    Exactly who recorded the communication ( or the synoptic near lack of such) between Jesus and Pilate, so that it could appear 35-65 years later in the gospels?.
    Isn’t it more likely that these are theologically motivated reconstructions?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 20, 2012

      Yes, it really is hard to imagine Christians having access to trial records. If there were trial records. My guess is that hte story tellers made up the acccount as it stands.

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  August 22, 2012

        “Made up” the entire trial account? Does that mean invented out of whole cloth (Fergus Millar’s new 3 volume set has a chapter on the trial that may change this opinion) by writers who never saw Jerusalem and knew nothing of which they wrote, or does it mean distant authors relied on re-constructed memories of the trial from pieces of eyewitness testimony based on experiences of those with the Jesus movement plus common knowledge about such Roman public hearings and sight of the Annus’ residence (the larger and wealthy residence or one like it has been identified near the Temple mount) and sight of the place of the hearing outside the gate near Herod’s former palace and the place of incarceration (Shimon Gibson claims to have identified both sites)?

        “Made up” can mean many things, not all the same.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2012

          I think the writers were not eyewitnesses, did not know eyewitnesses, and were not basing their testimony on eyewitnesses. When I say “made up” I mean that they took their best guess at what had happened, but really had no way of knowing.

  11. Avatar
    timber84  August 20, 2012

    When Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, what type of education would a boy from his background typically receive? Was there a synagogue in Nazareth he would have attended regularly to learn about Judaism or did most of his understanding of his faith come from his parents?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 20, 2012

      The old view was that every boy went to synagogue school. The recent scholarship shows that that is not true, that such schools in fact did not exist for most places. I wish we know where Jesus got his education. His townspeople were themselves apparenty quite surprised by it. Was he a natural genius? if so, why wasn’t it known? Did he get private instruction from a local leader of the synagogue? I wish we knw…

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  August 22, 2012

        One vague clue about Jesus’ education is found at Migdal’s synagogue. Next to this 1st century synagogue is what is a Bet Midrash, or an early version of the Study House.” The room is parallel to the synagogue structure, having make-shift benches around a central seat, lacking columns, frescoes or mosaics as does the contiguous worship building. The arrangement is very much like the (pre-70) synagogue campus at Gamla. And, given that Enoch scholars connect the composition of portions of 1 Enoch to the Galilee, and given the prominence of Enochic themes in the gospels, (not to mention “Q”) it is hard to believe the Galilee in Jesus’ time lacked some form of instruction and literacy available to Jesus. Like you, I do wish we knew more, but the vibrant commerce in Migdal and Tiberias (and Zippori) render study and literacy more plausible in Jesus’ time.

        It seems Fergus Millar and other Roman historians (Sherwin-White, possibly?) would support the appearance of Jesus before Pontius Pilate himself. This was Pilate’s job.

        Charlesworth’s more up-to-date book, Jesus and Archaeology, has an updated chapter on the 1st century crucifixion of Yehohanan based on anthropological study of his heel bone, the bent nail and the tiny fragment of olive wood. Also, if memory serves me well enough today, former Israel Museum anthropologist Joe Zias has an updated article on http://www.bibleinterp.com about crucifixion.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2012

          How are you dating the Migdal synagogue to the first century? Or Gamla? It’s true that later rabbinic tradition talks about the eduction of Jewish boys. But I don’t know of any evidence about this from the first century? I wish we had some solid archaeological evidence!

          On the other points you make, I agree!

          • Avatar
            Jim Joyner  September 2, 2012

            I’m surprised you asked where the syngagogue date comes from, but I assume you are serious and not jesting with me.

            I have no expertise to date the Migdal synagogue. IAA archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorney dates the Migdal synagogue to the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE (public comments and on-site communication .. and Jodi has said she respects Dina [but awaits her formal report]). Before his death, Ehud Netzer agreed and believed this synagogue supports his classification of the Herodian-Jericho synagogue (contra-Lee Levine) (private communication). Galilean archaeologist Motti Aviam agrees with 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. And, Dr. Ehrman, YOU endorsed a new book by Eric Meyers and Mark Chancey that reports the 1st century date for Migdal’s synagogue without dispute!!!

            Published archaeological information on Gamla assigns a date of late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE (the original excavation mis-dated it to the time of Alexander Jannaeus but recent excavations by Danny Syon do not support this, original, early date). How could it be later than 1st century since Gamla was destroyed by the Roman legions commanded by Vespasian and Titus (67 CE) during the 1st revolt?

            Both synagogues sites have an unadorned room(s) adjoining the synagogue, smaller than the worship area of the synagogue, lacking columns but having benched-seating around the walls. At this moment I cannot remember more details about Gamla, but Migdal’s seats in the parallel building were, unlike the synagogue seats, seats made from re-used stone pieces. My understanding of the benched seating was that the seats seem to focus on a center seat (not a bema), presumably occupied by a teacher or leader, but I am less center about this central focus and would need to consult my notes. I cannot at this minute cite the MIshnah references to a Bet Midrash, and these study rooms may not be precisely a Bet Midrash, but Dina and Motti and others seems pretty confident these rooms functioned for study by groups that were smaller than the synagogue gatherings.

            I’m not suggesting anything that you cannot confirm with ease.

            Have I succeeded in persuading you?

            Now, to the bigger point: if there were study rooms, can we allow for the possibility of Jesus and others devoting time to study in the Galilee?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2012

            I’d have to see the reports, and I haven’t studied them. But what makes you think these were rooms where boys were learning how to read?

          • Avatar
            Jim Joyner  September 3, 2012

            OK so you’re NOT persuaded.

            Sadly, Dina’s formal report on Migdal is not out yet, but the Meyers-Chancey book is a good example of what is available: Dina’s public presentations and personal communications. I cannot find any archaeologists who doubt her dating of the synagogue. The site has been open to any archaeologist or NT scholar who wants to see it and DIna has personally been accessible to discuss coins and pottery as well as the structures (a close-by residential area was also found).

            C’mon, I didn’t say these were rooms where little boys learned how to read. It’s probably where young men studied Torah. Unadorned room, benches, scrolls (the decorated base of the Torah reading table found there) mishnaic tradition, etc. Galilean archaeologist Motti Aviam will be visiting in two weeks, I’ll ask him to help me post more detail.

            Back to the original question … if this is a 1st century study room wouldn’t that imply something important about literacy in the Galilee? And, what about the base of the Torah reading table found there?

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