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The Torah was written Hebrew, and most of the old testament was written in Hebrew, although parts of Daniel were written in Aramaic. By the time of the 1st century, Aramaic was the common language for the people living in Palestine.

At what point in time, or what period of time, did the Jewish people living in the region stop speaking Hebrew as common language and start speaking Aramaic and why?

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A century ago, the overwhelming view of scholars was that Aramaic had entirely displaced Hebrew as a vernacular language well before the Roman conquest, probably around the Hellenistic Period of the 4th century BCE, or not long after.

However, these views have changed substantially in the 20th century, in large part due to archaeological indicating showing that Hebrew must have been widely understood and used for vernacular purposes in the 1st century CE.

I'll quote some relevant snippets from the excellent Wikipedia article on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_language#Displacement_by_Aramaic

In bold, I'm emphasizing opinions about when and where Hebrew survived longest as a vernacular language.

While there is no doubt that at a certain point, Hebrew was displaced as the everyday spoken language of most Jews, and that its chief successor in the Middle East was the closely related Aramaic language, then Greek, scholarly opinions on the exact dating of that shift have changed very much.

… The Qumran scrolls indicate that Hebrew texts were readily understandable to the average Israelite, and that the language had evolved since Biblical times as spoken languages do. Recent scholarship recognizes that reports of Jews speaking in Aramaic indicates a multilingual society, not necessarily the primary language spoken. Alongside Aramaic, Hebrew co-existed within Israel as a spoken language. Most scholars now date the demise of Hebrew as a spoken language to the end of the Roman Period, or about 200 CE.

The exact roles of Aramaic and Hebrew remain hotly debated. A trilingual scenario has been proposed for the land of Israel. Hebrew functioned as the local mother tongue with powerful ties to Israel's history, origins, and golden age and as the language of Israel's religion; Aramaic functioned as the international language with the rest of the Middle East; and eventually Greek functioned as another international language with the eastern areas of the Roman Empire.[citation needed] According to another summary, Greek was the language of government, Hebrew the language of prayer, study and religious texts, and Aramaic was the language of legal contracts and trade. There was also a geographic pattern: according to Spolsky, by the beginning of the Common Era, "Judeo-Aramaic was mainly used in Galilee in the north, Greek was concentrated in the former colonies and around governmental centers, and Hebrew monolingualism continued mainly in the southern villages of Judea." In other words, "in terms of dialect geography, at the time of the tannaim [1st and 2nd centuries CE] Palestine could be divided into the Aramaic-speaking regions of Galilee and Samaria and a smaller area, Judaea, in which Rabbinic Hebrew was used among the descendants of returning exiles." In addition, it has been surmised that Koine Greek was the primary vehicle of communication in coastal cities and among the upper class of Jerusalem, while Aramaic was prevalent in the lower class of Jerusalem, but not in the surrounding countryside. After the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 2nd century CE, Judaeans were forced to disperse. Many relocated to Galilee, so most remaining native speakers of Hebrew at that last stage would have been found in the north.

In a 2006 paper, William Schniedewind concludes:

When we survey the use of Hebrew in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, most scholars feel that spoken Hebrew did survive — at least in some isolated communities — as a vernacular language in Palestine until the second century A.D. (Fitzmyer 1970; Rabin 1976; Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 112–201; and Alexander 1999). Although there were major demographic changes in the Babylonian and Persian periods, a small number of villages and towns survived and presumably Hebrew would have continued to be spoken in such places. One expression of the reassertions of Jewish autonomy in the fourth, third, and second centuries [BCE] would be the revival of Hebrew scribal institutions, which would have drawn on the continuation of a vernacular Hebrew as well as the deeply entrenched Persian scribal chancellery.

Still, the shift from Hebrew to Aramaic on every level was profound and irreversible. Hebrew was revived as a literary language reflecting the political and religious aspirations of Jewish groups in the Hellenistic period. Still, the shift from Hebrew toward Aramaic was not halted by the ebb and flow of Jewish autonomy in the Persian through Roman periods. By the third century AD, the language shift from Hebrew to Aramaic was complete and Hebrew had essentially disappeared as a vernacular language in Roman Palestine. Even while Hebrew language was receding as the vernacular and written language, it was being preserved as a liturgical language, a sacred tongue, and an icon of political legitimacy and national identity.

To summarize recent scholarship:

  1. Hebrew existed alongside Aramaic and Greek as a vernacular language in the 1st century CE.
  2. By this time, Aramaic and Greek dominated the coastal areas and the Galilee, and probably the upper classes of Jerusalem as well. Hebrew remained the vernacular language of rural southern Judea (the hilly agricultural region south of Jerusalem, including what is today the southern lobe of the West Bank).
  3. However, the last remaining native speakers of Hebrew probably lived in the north in the 2nd century CE, since many fled from Judea to Galilee after the Bar Kokhba revolt.
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    Nice answer. What I'd like to see added would be a differentiation as to "who and where" for the initial Hebrew speakers, as the question calls them "Hebrews". Those "Hebrews" in Alexandria or Babylon were often really bad with that language and as with many people in that general area had at least in urban areas more than one tongue working. Secondly, why is this the "scholarly consensus"? (Meaning: can you prove that "consensus" with sources closer to scholars than WP?) – LаngLаngС Jan 6 at 14:11
  • @LangLangC, I changed it to say "recent scholarship", because you're right that "scholarly consensus" is too strong. I'm no expert in the area, and certainly don't know of a recent conference where all the leading Semiticists and archaeologists specializing in Roman-area Judea got together and generally agreed on these points. – Dan Lenski Jan 8 at 1:42
  • The refs in that section of the WP article end in the late '90s. Here's a fascinating 2006 paper arguing that Hebrew may have been intentionally revived as a spoken language, post-exile: "When we survey the use of Hebrew in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, most scholars feel that spoken Hebrew did survive — at least in some isolated communities — as a vernacular language in Palestine until the second century A.D. (Fitzmyer 1970; Rabin 1976; Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 112–201; and Alexander 1999)" – Dan Lenski Jan 8 at 1:50
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    To support this, here's an excellent article from 2012 by Steven Fassberg (Hebrew U): "Which Semitic language did Jesus and other contemporary Jews speak?". He examines possible language distributions in Palestine and argues that the likelihood of Hebrew having been spoken then is much higher than previously thought in light of new finds such as letters in Hebrew from the period (among other clues, such as Eusebius distinguishing "Σύρον φωνή", taken to be Aramaic, and "Έβραΐδι διαλέκτω", possibly but not conclusively Hebrew, in the 4th century AD). – Luke Sawczak Jan 21 at 18:29
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Aramaic was the language of the Assyrian Elite, around 700 BC they invaded Judea and displaced Hebrew as the language of the everyday people. Further damage was done by the Babylonian invasions. This topic is thoroughly discussed in Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler.

  • And now they speak hebrew again? – user4951 Apr 23 '12 at 7:07
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    @JimThio, that's correct. Hebrew was revived as a language (with some changes) during the lead up to the reestablishment of Israel. – Joe May 11 '12 at 17:33

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