What a tantalizing question, particularly for a non-theologian! Respected biblical scholars such as Geeza Vermes, an esteemed Oxford-based biographer of Jesus leaves us in no doubt that Jesus was essentially an Aramaic speaker, with a good grasp of Hebrew.
However, what is exciting is that the evidence points to the fact that Jesus was familiar with the Greek language, at least in a rudimentary fashion, given Nazareth’s position as a multi-lingual thoroughfare and trading town.
Alexander the Great had conquered the entire Israel and Palestine region at the time of his death 323BCE – although what is often overlooked is that Cyprus was never captured by Alexander, and the Ptolemaic empire (270BCE) essentially retained the region of the Holy Land, although at the expense of a small portion of borderland between modern day Syria and Turkey. Ptolemy, however, did eventually capture Cyprus.
With the crushing ascendancy of the Roman Empire of the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom (165- 63BCE) in 63 BCE, one notes that Hellenic cities such as Skythopolis and Apollonia continued to thrive. Of particular interest is Sepphoris, which was situated in the north-western pocket of Israel, located at a reachable distance to the north of a town called Pella that was situated right on the Jordan river.
Sepphoris was a thriving commercial city throughout the majority of Roman rule during Jesus’ lifetime and one would comfortably surmise that, with Nazareth a short distance to the south of Sepphoris, Jesus would have conversed, in part, in the Greek idiom with passing Hellenic traders.
The Biblical scholar, Mark Roberts, points out Jesus was not at all fluent in the Roman language and that the verbal encounter between Jesus and a Roman centurion, as depicted in Matthew 8:5-13 is likely to have taken place in Greek.
Similarly, Roberts speculates that Pontius Pilate was somewhat of a lazy linguist, essentially unfamiliar with Aramaic, or Hebrew.
If one speculates that there was an absence of a linguistic interpreter, it is possible that Jesus and Pontius Pilate conversed in Greek. Roberts, for his part, does not discount the possibility that Jesus told Pontius Pilate, in Greek, that “My kingdom is not from this world (John 18:36).
With cities such as Skythopolis and Sepphoris in close proximity to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was not simply an isolated carpenter who emerged from obscurity. Rather, Jesus clearly absorbed the multi-lingual hive of commercial and social activity that constantly encircled his hometown.
Ultimately, we are left with a very distinct impression of a fiery, Aramaic speaking radical. Geeza Vermes, in his The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, notes that Jesus bellowed the religious exclamation, “Why, Oh, Why hast thou forsaken me?” in his Galilean dialect of Aramaic.
Even if the New Testament is essentially a second-hand Greek reconstruction of the original Aramaic version, it is tantalizing and exciting to realize that in all probability, that Jesus, the unsurpassable pietist, was at least partially familiar with Hellenic customs and phrases.