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Pope and Israeli Prime Minister Trade Words Over Christ's Native Language

During a public meeting in Jerusalem on Monday, May 26, Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred a bit over the language actually spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago. Netanyahu was speaking about the strong link between Judaism and Chistianity when he mentioned to the pope that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Pope Francis corrected him, saying Jesus spoke Aramaic.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu replied.

Many on social media sided with the pope’s correction, including Dr. Reza Aslan, professor at UC Riverside and author of a recent popular history of Christ. “And no. Jesus didn’t speak Hebrew. He may have understood it but it wasn’t primary spoken language. He spoke Aramaic,” he tweeted Monday.

A Washington Post blog stated that “Netanyahu’s desire to link Jesus to Hebrew carries with it a very modern concern.”

“It’s a gesture attempting to bridge Jesus to the modern Israeli state, where Hebrew has been made the dominant language, superseding the polyglot dialects of the Jewish diaspora,” wrote Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger. “It also echoes a competing strain of rhetoric from some Arabs who claim that Jesus was a Palestinian, born in what is now the occupied West Bank.”

Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters that both Netanyahu, son of a distinguished Jewish historian, and the pope, the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, had a point. “Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” he said. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”