JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded words Monday over the language spoken by Jesus two millennia ago.
"Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew," Netanyahu told Francis, at a public meeting in Jerusalem in which the Israeli leader cited a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity.
"Aramaic," the pope interjected.
"He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew," Netanyahu shot back.
Like many things in the Middle East, where the pope is on the last leg of a three-day visit, modern-day discourse about Jesus is complicated and often political.
A Jew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the Roman-ruled region of Judea, now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He grew up in Nazareth and ministered in Galilee, both now in northern Israel, and died in Jerusalem, a city revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and to which Israelis and Palestinians alike lay claim.
Palestinians sometimes describe Jesus as a Palestinian. Israelis object to that.
Israeli linguistics professor Gilad 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 about the nearly extinct Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. "But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew."
Zuckermann said that during Jesus' time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes - "the kind of people he ministered to."
On the final day of his Middle East pilgrimage, the pontiff navigated the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and humbly bowed to kiss the hands of Holocaust survivors.
"Never again, Lord. Never again!" Francis said in the dimly lit Hall of Remembrance in the Yad Vashem Museum which commemorates the 6 million Jews killed by the Germans in World War II.
The fourth pope to visit Israel, Francis had earlier became the first to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism that led to Israel's foundation. At the request of Netanyahu, he also made an unannounced stop at Israel's Memorial to the Victims of Terror, the day after unexpectedly praying at a towering Israeli security wall on the West Bank that is despised by Palestinians.
In a mirror image of the halt at the graffiti-smeared wall, Francis put both hands on the neat stone and marble monument and bowed his head - an image that pleased his Israeli hosts who had smarted in silence over Sunday's impromptu stop.
"I pray for all the victims of terrorism. Please, no more terrorism," the softly spoken pope said at the memorial, which is engraved with the names of Israeli civilians killed mainly in attacks by Palestinian militants.
Netanyahu, standing at his side, thanked him for his words.
"We don't teach our children to plant bombs. We teach them peace, but we have to build a wall for those who teach the other side," he said, accusing Palestinian leaders of incitement.
A day packed with political and religious encounters began at the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, the pope taking off his shoes before walking into the Jerusalem shrine from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed climbed to heaven.
Francis then went to pray at the adjacent Western Wall, the Jews' most revered shrine and the sole remnant of their sacred Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. There, he, a rabbi, and an Islamic leader -- both friends from his native Argentina he invited to make the trip with him -- embraced in a sign of the inter-religious dialogue that Francis is convinced can be a catalyst for peace in the region.
At Yad Vashem, the pope displayed the type of humility that has become his custom since being elected pontiff in 2013.
As he was introduced to six survivors of Nazi concentration camps and told of their stories of struggle and near-starvation, he bent slowly to kiss the hand of each elderly person.
The pope made one of his boldest political gestures on Sunday when he unexpectedly intervened in flailing diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, inviting the presidents from the two sides to his Vatican residence to pray for peace. The meeting is expected to take place on June 6.
The pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said Francis had a strictly religious mission and "has no political agenda or proposals to make," but hoped the meeting could build trust.
"We hope it will encourage the revival of the process of peace, to give new courage, new inspiration to the people engaged in this process," he told reporters, adding that the pope wanted "to help in his own way."
Both Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres, who plays no decision-making role in Israeli diplomacy and leaves office in July, accepted the offer, which came just a month after U.S.-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter, mutual recrimination.