Tuesday 25 December 2012

What was Nazareth like? Part 2

Okay, so now we've seen Nazareth at the time of Christ was actually a small village on the outskirts of a brand new cosmopolitan city, but how does that affect us? Well, one of the big biblical debates around at the moment is just what language did Jesus speak - a question that is generally given a simple answer, but one that is a bit more complicated when we can see Nazareans learning or working in Sepphoris were doing so in a multilingual environment.

It's generally accepted that Christ spoke Aramaic, although there's a big push in biblical circles for him to have spoken Hebrew instead. For a quick breakdown on Middle Eastern languages; Hebrew, Arabic, Punic and Aramaic are all related - belonging to the Northwest Semitic family, which is a bit like having a modern day argument about someone speaking French versus Spanish. In the end, there's ample justification to believe he could have spoken Aramaic and Hebrew - after all, he was able to give sermons throughout Judea, and just like modern multilingual Europeans, speaking more than one language would have been almost a necessity in an area where many languages and dialects were spoken.

Oddly, the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth never seems to factor into the 'Language' argument. Most scholars dismiss the possibility Nazareans had a reason to speak anything but their native Aramaic, but this is a bit like saying First Americans hadn't learnt any European languages three hundred years after 'foreign' settlers arrived in the Americas. And this was just the case for a village like Nazareth. The area had been controlled by Greeks, or at least influenced by them for more than three hundred years before Christ was born. Meanwhile Sepphoris had been inhabited by Roman-supported Judeans for 150-years. Greek and Latin, both spoken and written, would have been pervasive within Sepphoris' wealthier society - and those employed by them. For a carpenter like Joseph, doing business in the city would have necessitated a broader understanding of languages than he and his family have so far been given credit for. And as Christ has proved himself to be the most able of communicators, I think we can say with some reasonable logic, his time living near Sepphoris must have equipped him for speaking to a wider audience than those who only understood Aramaic. His world was just as multicultural and multilingual as ours is today, something that seems to get lost in arguments that will never be adequately answered anyway.        

Find out if Calvus could speak more than one language

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