Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Did Jesus Speak Greek?

I have had a number of conversations lately about whether or not Jesus spoke some Greek. In the past it was generally assumed that ancient Jews fell into two categories: Aramaic speaking Jews in Palestine and Jews in the Diaspora who spoke Greek. However the more this matter is examined the more it seems likely that some Jews in Palestine knew at least some Greek.

Jesus Speaking Aramaic
There is no doubt that Jesus likely spoke Aramaic and that this language was pretty common among Jews in his day. This is confirmed by passages like the following:

"Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” (Mark 5:39).

And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; 34 and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:33-34)

Of course, in these passages Mark makes it clear that though he is writing in Greek, the original words of Jesus were spoken in Aramaic.

Greek in Ancient Palestinian Judaism
But it also seems that Greek was known to ancient Jews. The influence of Greek culture in the first century is clear from the fact that the high priest in 37 A.D. had a strikingly Greek name--Theophilus. It is striking to me that he did not feel the need to change his name to a Semitic one--there was apparently no problem with this high priest being called Theophilus (Ant. 18.123).

Many sources could be cited here. Stanley Porter writes,

". . . Jesus would probably be best described as productively multilingual in Greek and Aramaic, and possibly Hebrew, though Aramaic would have been his first language and Greek and Hebrew being second or acquired languages. . . He may also have been passively multilingual in Latin, although if he had any knowledge of Latin at all it is likely that it was confined to recognition of a few common words. This depiction reflects the linguistic realities of the Mediterranean world of Roman times, including that of the eastern Mediterranean, and is supported by widespread and significant literary, epigraphic, and other evidence. As a result of the conquests of Alexander III ('the Great'), and the rule of the Hellenistic kings (the Diadochi and their successors), the Greco-Roman world was one in which Greek became the language of trade, commerce and communication among the now joined (if not always united) people groups. In other words, Greek was the lingua franca for the eastern Mediterranean world, displacing Aramaic. . . .

The arguments for the use of Greek in Palestine are based upon the role of Greek as the lingua franca of the Roman empire, the specific Hellenized linguistic and cultural character of lower Galilee surrounded by the cities of the Decapolis, and the linguistic fact that the New Testament has been transmitted in Greek from its earliest documents. There is also a range of incriptional evidence (e.g., Jewish funerary inscriptions), numerous Greek papyri, and significant literary evidence, including Jewish books being written in or translated into Greek in Palestine. From this range of evidence, the logical conclusion can be drawn that in fact a sizeable number of Jews in Palestine used Greek."--Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals (London: T & T Clark, 2000), 134-5, 140-141.

The evidence Porter cites is pretty convincing if you read his whole treatment which includes an impressive bibliographic material in footnotes (omitted here).

The Original Aramaic Substratum
I have no doubt that Jesus typically spoke Aramaic. However, scholars often get hung up trying to discover the "Aramaic substratum" behind the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' words. This seems problematic. It appears possible to me that there may have been no "original Aramaic" in some cases.

Your thoughts?


Jeremy Roth said...

I would think that as the son of a carpenter, he may have had little occasion to study the Greek language. Is it too much to assume that he may have even been illiterate?

Nick Norelli said...

Jeremy: As a carpenter he would have most likely engaged in commerce of some sort outside of his little village, and it's not unlikely that knowing some Greek would have aided him in his dealings since, as Porter notes, Greek was the language of commerce. Likewise, it's not unthinkable that he knew a little Latin in that the ruling authorities spoke Latin and he would have dealt with them at some point in his life. Assuming illiteracy runs contrary to the testimony of the Gospels (e.g., Luke 4:16ff.)

Anonymous said...

My Hebrew is not nearly good enough to confirm or deny this, but in his recent book Sin: A History Gary Anderson notes that recent Israeli scholarship has argued that Palestinian Jews of the first century would have spoken Hebrew, contrary to received scholarly wisdom.

Josh McManaway said...

I think it's guaranteed that 1st century Jews spoke Greek. Consider that Vespasian and Titus had their commemorative coins minted in Greek especially for those in Palestine so that they would get the message (because they wouldn't have been able to read the Latin coins).

Nick said...

Hellenization of Judaism was underway in Jesus' time. Check this article for more:

Anonymous said...

I think the question is "which languages" did they speak, not "which language." It was common for people to speak several languages.

It's hard to imagine that Greek and Aramaic weren't among the languages Jesus spoke.

Evidence from the development of Hebrew shows considerable Greek influence and little Latin influence; this accords with the widely accepted fact that Latin was not spoken as a lingua franca in Jerusalem. Still --- much the way eastern Europeans before the war were conversant in several non-local languages --- Jesus may have known enough Latin to talk to visitors.

As for the claims about an "uneducated carpenter," I would point out that to this day, "uneducated" merchants in Jerusalem speak several languages.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, for thirty years I worked in a business that was largely made up of Hasidic Jews. Across the board, they were all trilingual. Speaking English, Hebrew and Yiddish, with some also being conversant in the regional languages of their backgrounds. From my observational experience, I have no problem with the notion that Jesus also knew Greek, Hebrew and possibly a little Latin.


Gary said...

Interesting question. Do we have any evidence as to whether the Septuagint was in usage in Israel at this time? And to what extent it was used?
And on the question of how much Latin Jesus knew, it is worth asking how much would we expect him to come in contact with the Romans occupying Israel.

Bruce said...

Um, Jesus is God.

He speaks everything, does He not?

I like the part of the movie The Passion of the Christ when Pilate pulls Jesus inside to question Him and Jesus slips into speaking Latin and Pilate gives Him this surprised look.

Yes, indeed, whether or not we can find it in the scriptures, He speaks Greek.

Victor said...

What about paronomasia such as the one found in John 3? It is evidence that suggests that "Jesus spoke [also] Greek".

In the dialogue with Nicodemus, the Greek word anothen is used in the form of a wordplay ("again"/"from above"). This would only make sense if the conversation took place in Greek. ;-)

Skysaw said...

Assuming that Jesus spoke Greek blows the "Aramaic argument," the one that has led virtually every Scripture scholar on the planet to agree with the Catholic interpretation of Mt 16:18, out of the water.

That said, I think a decent Greek argument can still be made to support the Catholic (in this matter, anti-Augustinian) view, but it wouldn't be persuasive to non-Catholic scholars. Jesus *did* build His Church on the *person* of St. Peter; it's just a matter of what works to convince others of that.

Josh McManaway said...

Skysaw: That Jesus spoke Greek doesn't damage the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16 at all. There's nothing that dictates that because Jesus spoke Greek, He always did so (particularly with His disciples). In conversation, they would probably revert back to a language with which they were most comfortable. I have a friend who is from Cote D'Ivoire who speaks English perfectly, though when he's with friends/family that know French, he speaks French.

Rudy said...

1. Helenization of Palestine and the interaction of Greek and Hebrew cultures had been taking place since at least 300 years before the birth of Jesus so that by his time Greek was the "lingua franca" of the region, much like English is today.

2. Jesus was taught, like most Jews of his day, to read passages of the Scriptures; in the New Testament we see that he read out loud from Scripture passages; he was clearly not illiterate.

3. His profession, learned from his father, was that of a "tekton", more than just a "carpenter", a highly skilled craftsman who would roughly be equivalent to a modern American "contractor", a profession that would be highly priced, fairly paid and that needed good language, mathematic, geometrical and management skills. His family business would have to deal with contracts, money and ability to talk to clients.

4. When Jesus talked to the centurion he most probably did either in Greek or Latin. People like Josephus were conversant in at least Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. We can safely assume that Jesus spoke some if not all of these languages.

5. By any standard, Jesus was a highly gifted individual. He was a religious genius that just in purely human terms created a movement that transformed the world. We can safely assume that he had the intelligence to converse in more than his mother tongue.

Unknown said...

Many biblical quotes mentioned by Jesus were taken strictly from the Septuagint, leaving no doubt that Christ spoke Greek. One might say His mother tongue was Aramaic, but He certainly spoke Greek.

David Sloan said...

Perhaps I'm a little late entering into this conversation, but I find it interesting that at the end of Acts 21 the centurion is surprised that Paul speaks Greek. This suggests to me that speaking Greek in Palestine is not as common as Porter argues, but I have yet to read Porter on this. On the other hand, as a carpenter who lived 5 miles from the city of Sepphoris, where a major building project was taking place, I wonder if Jesus would have been doing work for (and interacting in Greek with?) those building up the city, but I have not researched this enough for that to be more than a hunch.

Anonymous said...

In John 19:30, Jesus cries out
"Tetelesta", Greek for it is finished. Also used by greek merchants in that time to state a debt had been paid in full.
Why would Jesus use this one word as his last?
I propose what many to believe, Jesus had paid the price for sin; past, present and future by his death on the cross.
The debt had been paid, it was finished.
Again, why a Greek word. He was a Jew and came first to save the Jewish people. He did indeed give his gift of eternal life to Gentiles throughout his time of ministry on earth. This is fact.
After he had risen from the dead, he commanded his disciples to share the good news first with the Jews And with the Gentiles, all of mankind.
Therefore, I propose that he spoke this Greek word, the last word uttered from his lips before he died, with great intention; To be the first link to the second covenant; the good news for all mankind.

dinos said...

What language heard the apostles wrote this down and we know that the new testament is in Greek(When Jesus spoke in few occasions aramaic it is there i.e eloi eloi lama sabahthani... or talitha kumi) So Jesus used Greek when he taught.