For unto you a multilingual son is born

As Christians begin the celebration of Advent, the time when we remember the birth of Jesus, few of us (except us language geeks) are prone to pause to think about what languages were used for all of the words--announcements, responses to those announcements, proclamations, praises, threats, and curses--that accompanied that event.

The language ecology of Palestine, and of Mesopotamia more broadly if we include the Magi in our calculations, was as varied as any that we might encounter today.  Within the environs of Israel, ancient Hebrew [hbo], something akin to Jewish Babylonian Aramaic [tmr] and other spoken varieties of Aramaic such as Samaritan Aramaic [sam] and Western Neo-Aramaic [amw], were in wide use.  Add to that the languages commonly used by the Romans who had conquered Palestine, Latin [lat]  and Greek [grc] (both classical and koine), and you have a multi-layered linguistic repertoire.  The Magi, whose actual origin isn't entirely clear, may have been speakers of some variety of Persian [fas], a macrolanguage with individual languages ranging across a wide geographical area from Afghanistan (Dari [prs] to Iran (Iranian Persian [pes] and with dialects shading into Tajiki [tgk] in Tajikistan.

Though the traditonal manger scenes we see often include the Magi, it isn't likely that they appeared in Bethlehem.  Given the context of a universal taxation which required massive migration of people back to their places of origin, it is likely that the population of Bethlehem on that night was about as diverse as one could imagine. However within the humble setting of the stable of an inn, it is likely that the shepherds were speakers of Aramaic while the keeper of the inn and others residing there that night were multilingual in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, at least. Those who were educated probably also used Latin for literary purposes.

Recall too that the young child Jesus was taken by his parents to Egypt for a time where, if it is accurate that they resided for several years, he may have had some exposure to Coptic [cop], though probably much of daily life would have been carried out using Greek [grc], even there.

The world into which Jesus was born was (and is still) a multilingual one. Jesus, no doubt, grew up navigating a language ecology that included at least four languages:  Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The Bible tells us that he read from the Hebrew scriptures and it is probable that his conversation with Pontius Pilate at his trial was at least partially conducted in Latin.

Christians believe that in Jesus,  God took on human form.  That He became a multilingual man is only one of the ways, but an important way, in which that identification with humanity is fully demonstrated. From all of us who work on the Ethnologue, to all of you, in any and all of the languages you know, use or study, Merry Christmas and may the Peace of the Christ Child be with you.


Submitted by John Cowan on Tue, 2014-12-02 07:22
Surely it's more intrinsically probable that Jesus and Pilate would have spoken together in Greek. Granted that the sign on the cross was in Latin as well as Greek and Hebrew letters, Latin was after all the official language of the Empire even if not much used in the East. In addition, there is other evidence that Jesus spoke Greek: when he preached in the Decapolis and encountered the Gadarene swine, he must surely have used the language of the country there. ("Universal taxation" is a bit misleading: "Empire-wide census" would be better.)