How Did Jesus Say Agape

How Did Jesus Say Agape?

The following article is a response to a question that a friend asked me.  The question is as follows:


I have been thinking a lot about what language (s) Jesus spoke.  Do you think He spoke more than one language?  Do you believe that He spoke Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin??  Or a combination of those languages?
I have researched on the internet about this but there seems to be many theories.  What is your theory-if you have developed one to date-and what do you base your theory on?
I am very interested in this because I would like to know how Jesus would have said the word Agape.

What Language Did Jesus Speak – How Did Jesus Say Agape

I am glad that you used the word ‘theory’ because no one knows for sure just what language, or languages, that Jesus spoke.  As you say, there are many opinions.  My guess, not exactly an opinion, is that he spoke, for the most part, – that is when with his friends and disciples –  a patois of Aramaic.  By this I mean, that in much the same way as happens in regions of most countries of the world, there are dialects of languages.  Take Canada for example.  English is spoken from coast to coast to coast but we would be hard pressed to understand it as English sometimes!  But, these same people, when put into a situation that demands some polish in speech would be quite able to do so and would rise to the occasion.  But when they are relaxed they would revert back to colloquial language.  Most colloquial language is a compost of the languages of people who have settled in an area over a long period of time, put together with corrupt pronunciation.  These miss pronounced words become accepted words in that locale.  Why do I say all this?  Because humans are humans are humans no matter where or when they lived.  Isolated villages always spawn a dialect, even if only an insignificant one.  Some stick like glue.  So in Canada we have the colourful dialects of the various Maritime Provinces and their various regions.

This was also true of all the isolated towns and villages in Palestine in Jesus’ time.  The corruptions of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and the blends of them all, made for many patois languages in Palestine.  Of course those educated in any of the languages knew what was correct, and spoke the languages in an educated manner when situations demanded it.  But, education was not widespread and isolation, especially among the poor, was a way of life.  When one puts this together with the fact that the country was occupied by Romans whose main language was Greek at the time of Jesus – Greek words would creep into the vocabulary.  It was a matter of survival and commerce. The peoples of Palestine had a wonderful language stew of many dialects of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.  It was important to the Jews to remain as homogenous as possible to preserve their identity, so it would seem that Aramaic in various degrees of correctness and likewise Hebrew were the most used languages of those who had settled there for many generations. They were especially the languages of liturgy. But, it is important to remember that there were many Hellenistic Jews who had taken on the Greek language because of various Diasporas over many years.

Since we know of nothing that Jesus wrote – other than something he drew in the sand when being self righteously questioned by the Pharisees about the woman found in adultery – we do not know what his first language may have been.  Truthfully, we do not really know exactly what Jesus said at any time in his life!  It is necessary to remember that each one of his Apostles and disciples would remember slightly differently from the next. And this hearing and remembering depends on where one is within himself or herself at any particular time. So basically we only know what others were told, by still others, who heard from others, in the lived experience of belief in Jesus – (tradition).  Because what he said was passed on in so many different dialects and languages what becomes lasting is the general consistent message, which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit was committed to the written word (this too being dialectical and mostly written in some form of Greek). We call this written word ‘scripture’, the truth of which is constantly being revealed to us (revelation), through the Holy Spirit promised to his Church, by Jesus. Maybe it is divinely ordained that we do not know exactly what language Jesus spoke, or languages, so that no one can claim him as totally their own.  Again, my guess is that he spoke a number of dialects and probably even knew Greek.  But if I have a theory about what language he spoke it is that we are not meant to know. He is the universal man born in a time and place but belonging to all mankind.

So now to the word ‘agape’ – which is, in fact, Greek in origin – being absorbed into the Hebrew-Aramaic languages and dialects in various corrupt forms of Greek, over time.  It is of interest to note, that it is not in the Gospels, which are a record, in a sense, of “all that Jesus said and did”, as St. Luke puts it, – that this word ‘agape’ is predominant, – but, rather in the Letters of Paul, who never met Jesus in person, and whose main language was Greek.  Both Jesus and Paul were Jews who grew up in a Jewish culture, steeped in Jewish faith and traditions living its daily demands and rituals – all flowing from the Torah, the Law and the Prophets – especially the teachings of Moses. Their understanding of love would be from the perspective of faith and the challenging spirituality proclaimed by the prophets.  This, to my mind, is very important, because the prophets had very much to say about the living out of love –often commenting on the absence of love within the lives of the People of God.  Jesus, in his words and deeds, did the same!  Of course he was considered the Prophet! We learn this in the story of the Man Born Blind (Jn 9), and again when Jesus asks the Apostles what people have to say of him.  The first answer in both cases to the question of Jesus’ identity is that he is a prophet. The Greek culture on the other hand spoke of love from a far more intellectual, philosophical view rather than from a spiritual use of the word.  Because of  their approach to language they were far more exact in the use of words, having many precise words for one concept or emotion.  In this case the word is love.

I believe that there is only one way to answer the question – “How did Jesus say ‘agape’?”  – and that is from a spiritual perspective.  That is, from a perspective nourished by the Scriptures and prayer, which leads to a deep relationship with Jesus.  To know him is to love him, and to love is to love with his love, as he loves and loved. He loved everyone as brother and sister and mother and father and friend. John in his Gospel and in his Letters makes this very clear in what I call a poetic, mystical way.  The other Gospels spell it out in his day to day relationship with each person and group that he meets. One thing we know for sure is that this love was not just so much mush and gush and pap.  But it does ooze with compassion, genuine caring -expressed as righteous anger at times, healings, resurrections, and tears at other times. This love is true mercy, true compassion, that is a caring enough, loving enough the whole person, so that at all times it offers new life.  He taught us that in living out love, we at times need painfully speak the truth for the good of the person or persons to whom we are speaking.

This is a side of love from which we shy away.  In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) we have a wonderful description of God’s love expressed about Jesus then ‘invitro’, soon to be seen in the flesh. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  And again in Luke (4) Jesus reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” This love of brother and sister was to be proved fearless in front of powers and authorities, whether religious or political – the political often being religious.

His love lead him to use every moment as a teachable moment.  The epitome of this agape teaching, that is other than his death, is found in the Sermon on the Mount,(Mt.5,6,7), and in the Last Judgement discourse found in Matthew Chapter 25.  We know that his love radiated from him, moving people to flock to him.  His love puzzled the most hardened of hearts; caused people to divide into factions, to lash out in anger and indignation, and eventually lead to his death, his ultimate act of love. For me, his life and his teachings say ‘agape’ – his person says ‘agape’.  He is agape!  He identified himself as our brother with a common Father – “Abba” – Daddy.  We need only look at the prayer he taught his disciple to know that this is true.  He did not say “Father, in heaven”, but “Our Father”.  He identifies with us as brothers and sisters with one father.  This is agape.  One cannot help but be moved to tears by this love of a brother for a sister, when he says to Mary Magdalene at the tomb – the one word “Mary!”  And then he goes on to tell her to go “go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 22:17) What a fraternal, inclusive love. This is what ‘agape’ sounds like when issuing from Jesus!

When thinking about this answer to your question I was lead to read an article by Fr. Barnabas Ahern – written many years ago.  It is so good that I have read it at least three times in last few days!  It is called ‘The Charity of Christ’.  I wish I could send it to you but it is in an old book that I have.  I want to give you his closing lines.

“His love for all men is a light which enables us to see each one as a brother.  His love is a power which strengthens us to deal with each as someone who  belongs to the family of God; who therefore has a right to love which is “patient and kind, thinks no evil, bears with all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

The spontaneity, realism and completeness of Christ’s charity in us makes life not only liveable but loveable.  It turns every meeting into a family gathering; it makes every service and every deed of kindness the helping hand of a brother assisting a brother along the way to God. … Those who seek God spread peace and Joy around them, for they know only one rule of life:  “The charity of Christ impels us.”(2Cor 5:14)”

So this is my answer to your query.  I hope it sheds some light on your ponderings.  His very life breathed and breathes ‘agape’ and at the same time impels us to ‘agape’ – brotherly love.

In closing I am going to exercise a certain sense of license using some of John’s words at the Last Supper discourse, taken from chapters 14, 15, 16, 17. By juxtaposing them it will hopefully highlight what this agape is for me.

“Having loved his own who were in the world,

He loved them to the end.”

He said “I call you friend.

Because that is what you are”.

“You call me Teacher and Lord

–          And you are right,

–          For that is what I am.”

If I your teacher and Lord,

Have washed your feet,

You also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

“I give you a new commandment

Love one another

As I have loved you!”

“If you love me,

You will keep my commandments

And I will ask the Father,

And he will give you another Advocate

To be with you forever!”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled!

Do not be afraid!”

“No one has greater love

Than this:

To lay down one’s life for one’s


“You are my friends

I have made known to you

Everything I have heard from My Father!”

“Love one another!”

“Father, I pray for all those who will believe

Because of their words.

As you, Father, are in me

And I am in you,

May they also be one in us.”

“I have made known

Your name to them

So that the love

With which you have loved me

May be in them,

And I in them.”

“I call you friends.”

“Love one another.”

Sept 24th, 2013