For twenty-three years…the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear. [Jeremiah 25:3a,4a (ESV)]
As the language of the Scriptures, Jesus spoke and read Hebrew and, as the language of the Roman Empire, He probably spoke some Greek, as well. His everyday spoken language, however, would have been Aramaic. A Semitic language widespread throughout the Middle East by the 7th century BC, Aramaic was adopted by the Jews during their Babylonian exile. By Jesus’ time, Hebrew (considered the “holy tongue”) was reserved for holy matters such as prayer but Aramaic was used for everyday speech. Jesus may have spoken Hebrew in the Temple but, as the common language of people throughout the Middle East, He spoke Aramaic, the rest of the time.
Even though Jesus spoke Aramaic, the words of the New Testament (probably composed between 50 and 100 AD) were written in Greek, the language of scholarship at the time. Since Jewish scholars had already translated much of what we call the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek, it made perfect sense for the New Testament’s authors to write in Greek, as well. As a result, when we read the Bible, we are reading English words translated from Greek but originally written or spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic. As happens with even the best translation, sometimes the nuance of a word is lost in translation.
For example, consider the Greek word akouό which simply means “to hear, to be endowed with the ability to hear, or to hear something” and usually is translated into English as “hear” or “listen.” This meaning is sufficient when Jesus heard the Centurion express his faith, Herod heard the Magi say the Messiah had come, Jesus heard that John was imprisoned, John heard about the deeds of Jesus, and Peter heard the rooster crow. Akouό, however, is not sufficient when both the prophets and Jesus spoke of having ears that hear. The words they used had the root word shema/shama and the words “hear” or “listen” don’t catch its full meaning.
In Greek and English, hearing or listening are mental activities but the Hebrew/Aramaic word shema/shama meant more than that. It was as much a physical activity as an intellectual one. Along with hearing, it meant to take heed, submit, obey, and do what is asked. We may hear the television but we expect our children to shema/shama us when we tell them to do their homework!
As an observant Jew, Jesus would have said what is known as the Shema every morning and evening. It begins with the word shema: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…” The Shema continues on to tell the Israelites the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. Shema/shama is the word prophets used when warning Israel and Jesus used when explaining His parables and the consequences of not “hearing” His words. While hearing is passive, shema/shama most definitely is not. The people of Israel failed to shema God’s words and warnings. Will we make the same mistake?