Pope Francis has been traipsing around in the general vicinity of the birthplace of his religion, praying here and there and doing his best to promote peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. This won’t go anywhere (you heard it here first!) but seems like a relatively harmless way for Francis to Do Something about the problems in the region. It’s certainly better than launching a crusade and probably even better than demanding a return to Italian jurisdiction over what was once the Roman province of Judaea, although perhaps a few weeks of having to put up with Grillo, Berlusconi, Mussolini and the rest of them would bring Israelis and Palestinians together like never before.
In the course of his adventures, Francis got into a slightly pedantic discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
The conversation turned awkward after Netanyahu told the Pope that Jesus spoke Hebrew.
“He was speaking Aramaic,” the Pope replied with a smile.
“He spoke Aramaic and he also knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu said.
Someone called Tom de Castella dutifully analysed the disagreement for the BBC, based on the expert opinions of a couple of Oxford men, and suggested that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic on day-to-day basis whereas “Hebrew was the language of the scholars and the scriptures”. Jesus probably didn’t know Latin, but might have been able to handle a bit of Greek. De Castella also addressed the question of literacy:
There’s no clear evidence that Jesus could write in any language, says Brock. In John’s gospel he writes in the dust, but that is only one account. And we don’t know what language it was in. Jesus might even have been drawing rather than writing, Brock says.
Look, there’s no clear evidence that Jesus even existed. Accounts of his life are similar to Arthurian legends or Beowulf in being, at best, tall tales about a living, breathing man who has been transformed almost beyond recognition by the human imagination. A first century story about Jesus scribbling in the dust has only a tiny pinch of evidential value. Asking whether Jesus could write in Aramaic isn’t quite like asking whether Captain Picard could write in Klingon, but it’s rather like asking whether Sir Gawain knew his Ogham. We’re so far removed from anything that can be addressed with reliable evidence that we might as well be talking about Captain Picard, and I wish news stories about Jesus would routinely acknowledge this tenuousness.
I have to admit, though, that I learned something worthwhile from De Castella’s piece:
It’s unlikely Jesus would have known Latin beyond a few words, says Jonathan Katz, stipendiary lecturer in Classics at Oxford University. It was the language of law and the Roman military and Jesus was unlikely to be familiar with the vocabulary of these worlds. Greek is a little more likely. It was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire – used by the civilian administrators. And there were the cities of the Decapolis, mostly in Jordan, where Greek language and culture dominated.
That’s genuinely interesting. I would have guessed that the lingua franca of the Roman Empire was Latin.