By January 17, 2016 Read More →

Joseph A. Fitzmyer. “Did Jesus Speak Greek?” Biblical Archaeology Review 18, 5 (1992).

FishersThat Jesus spoke Aramaic there is no doubt.

By Jesus’ time numerous local dialects of Aramaic had emerged. Jesus, like other Palestinian Jews, would have spoken a local form of Middle Aramaic1 called Palestinian Aramaic. Palestinian Aramaic developed along with Nabatean Aramaic (in the area around Petra in modern Jordan), Palmyrene Aramaic (in central Syria), Hatran Aramaic (in the eastern part of Syria and Iraq) and early Syriac (in northern Syria and southern Turkey). Together, these five dialects make up Middle Aramaic.

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning in 1947), Palestinian Aramaic was attested in only a few paltry inscriptions, on tombstones and on ossuaries (bone boxes). But with the discovery of those scrolls, more than a score of fragmentary texts written in Palestinian Aramaic came to light, giving us for the first time a corpus of literary texts from which we can learn something about the form of Aramaic spoken by Palestinian Jews in the centuries prior to Jesus and contemporaneously with him.2

Though Aramaic was the dominant language, it was not the only language spoken in Palestine at that time. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that a bilingualism existed in Palestine in the first and second century of the Christian era.3 In addition to Aramaic, some Jews also spoke Hebrew or Greek—or both.4 Different levels of Jewish society, different kinds of religious training and other factors may have determined who spoke what.

Hebrew was used in the sectarian literature of the Essenes, those Jews who settled at Qumran adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. They apparently wanted to restore to primary usage what had come to be known as “the sacred language,” because it was the language of the Torah. During the Babylonian captivity (sixth century B.C.) many Jews had been cut off from their homeland; in Babylonia, they had come to use the dominant lingua franca, Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew. After their return, some of the returnees probably used Hebrew, but the use of Hebrew does not seem to have been widespread.5 Groups like the Essenes, however, seem to have tried to resurrect the use of “the sacred language.” Hebrew would, of course, have continued in use in the Temple and in the emerging synagogues; the Law and the Prophets (the Torah and the Nevi’im) were read in Hebrew. But the majority of the people apparently no longer understood Hebrew, as we know from the custom that gradually developed of having an Aramaic translation of the scriptural reading given after the reading in Hebrew. This translation into Aramaic was done orally by a person called the meturgeman, the “translator.” In time such translations into Aramaic were written down. They are called targumim (singular, targum). Three examples of early targumim were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.6

Greek, of course, was in widespread use in the Roman empire at this time. Even the Romans spoke Greek,7 as inscriptions in Rome and elsewhere attest. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Greek was also in common use among the Jews of Palestine.a The Hellenization of Palestine began even before the fourth-century B.C. conquest by Alexander the Great.8 Hellenistic culture among the Jews of Palestine spread more quickly after Alexander’s conquest, especially when the country was ruled by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes (second century B.C.), and later under certain Jewish Hasmonean and Herodian kings.

The earliest Greek text found in Palestine is the bilingual Edomite-Greek ostracon dated to the sixth year of Ptolemy II Philadephus (277 B.C.).9 The Greek names of three musical instruments are recorded in an Aramaicized form in Daniel 3:5, probably imported along with the instruments themselves. But the instances of Greek words that have turned up in Aramaic documents of the first or second century A.D. can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.10 Oddly enough, it is in the rabbinic writings of the third and fourth centuries A.D. where we find widespread use of Greek words in Aramaic or Hebrew texts; by that time Greek had made heavy inroads into the Semitic languages of Palestine.11

A host of early Jewish littérateurs, however, chiefly historians and poets, wrote in Greek.12 The most important Palestinian Jews in this group were Flavius Josephus (37/38–100 A.D.) and Justus of Tiberias. The latter was Josephus’ bitter opponent during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 A.D.). Justus had received a thorough Hellenistic education, and after the revolt he wrote his “History of the Jewish War against Vespasian.”13 Josephus composed his own Jewish War to counteract the version of Justus.

Josephus comments on his own knowledge of Greek at the end of his Antiquities of the Jews:

“My compatriots admit that in our Jewish learning I far excel them. But I labored hard to steep myself in Greek prose [and poetic learning], after having gained a knowledge of Greek grammar; but the constant use of my native tongue hindered my achieving precision in pronunciation. For our people do not welcome those who have mastered the speech of many nations or adorn their style with smoothness of diction, because they consider that such skill is not only common to ordinary freedmen, but that even slaves acquire it, if they so choose. Rather, they give credit for wisdom to those who acquire an exact knowledge of the Law and can interpret Holy Scriptures. Consequently, though many have laboriously undertaken this study, scarcely two or three have succeeded (in it) and reaped the fruit of their labors.”14

Josephus thus gives the impression that few Palestinian Jews of his day could speak Greek well. That does not mean, however, that they could not carry on an ordinary conversation in perhaps a broken form of Greek.

Josephus mentions that he acted as an interpreter for the Roman general Titus, who spoke to the Jewish populace toward the end of the war.15 Josephus also tells us that he composed his Jewish War “in his native tongue.”16 This must mean Aramaic, although no copies have survived in this language. Subsequently he translated this history into Greek17 to provide people of the Roman empire with a record of the Jewish revolt. This was not easy for him, and he used “some assistants for the sake of the Greek.”18 He tells how he still looked on Greek as “foreign and unfamiliar.”19

Other evidence of the use of Greek in Palestine includes inscriptions. A good number of these indicate that Greek was used for public announcements. Others found on ossuaries—inscribed in Greek and Hebrew (or Aramaic), or in Greek alone20—from the vicinity of Jerusalem21 testify to the widespread use of Greek among first-century Palestinian Jews at all levels of society.22

The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple in 70 A.D. Despite their defeat, the Jews again revolted against Rome in 132 A.D.—the Second Jewish Revolt, also called the Bar-Kokhba revolt after its military leader. By 135 A.D., they were again defeated, ending Jewish nationhood for nearly 2,000 years. From the period between the two revolts, numerous papyri written in Greek have come to light: letters, marriage contracts, legal documents, literary texts and some in a Greek shorthand (not yet deciphered).23 Among these texts are even some letters from the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt, Bar-Kokhba himself—written to his lieutenants, surprisingly enough, in Greek.24 One is remarkable, because it bears the name Soumaios, which the editor, Baruch Lifshitz, thinks is a way of writing in Greek the name of Sðim‘ôn. Together with the remainder of the name, ben Koµsibaµh, this indicates that Bar-Kokhba’s real name was Simon ben Kosiba. In this letter, he orders his lieutenants to send wooden beams and citrons for the celebration of Succoth, and he admits that this “has been written in Greek because a [de]sire has not be[en] found to w[ri]te in Hebrew.”25 Thus, at a time when nationalist fever must have been running high among the Jews, the leader of the revolt—or someone close to him—frankly preferred to write in Greek. He did not find the horma, “impulse, desire,” to write hebraisti.

In Acts 6:1, early Jewish Christians of Jerusalem are spoken of as Hebraioi and Helleµnistai, “Hebrews” and “Hellenists.” Who are these “Hellenists”? Up to this point, Acts is concerned only with converts from Jerusalem; they must all have been Jewish Christians. Helleµnistai also occurs in Acts 9:29, clearly referring to Jews. Some commentators have tried to explain Helleµnistai, as “those who lived like Greeks”; I believe the better explanation is that it refers to “those who spoke Greek,” or, more precisely, “those who habitually spoke only Greek.” Such Helleµnistai may have spoken very little, if any, Hebrew or Aramaic. This is suggested by a reference in Philippians 3:5, where Paul stoutly refers to himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Paul also spoke Greek. Thus Helleµnistai, as C. F. D. Moule has suggested, probably is the designation of those Jerusalem Jews or Jewish Christians who habitually spoke only Greek (and for that reason were more affected by Hellenistic culture), whereas Hebraioi designated those Greek-speaking Jews and Jewish Christians who also spoke a Semitic language, probably Aramaic, which they normally used.26

Did Jesus himself speak Greek?

The answer is almost certainly yes. The more difficult question, however, is whether he taught in Greek. Are any of the sayings of Jesus that are preserved for us only in Greek nevertheless in the original language in which he uttered them?

That Aramaic was the language Jesus normally used for both conversation and teaching seems clear. Most New Testament scholars would agree with this.27 But did he also speak Greek? The evidence already recounted for the use of Greek in first-century Palestine provides the background for an answer to this question. But there are more specific indications in the Gospels themselves.

All four Gospels depict Jesus conversing with Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, at the time of his trial (Mark 15:2–5; Matthew 27:11–14; Luke 23:3; John 18:33–38). Even if we allow for obvious literary embellishment of these accounts, there can be little doubt that Jesus and Pilate did engage in some kind of conversation (compare the independent testimony in 1 Timothy 6:13, which speaks of Jesus’ “testimony” before Pilate). In what language did Jesus and Pilate converse? There is no mention of an interpreter. Since there is little likelihood that Pilate, a Roman, would have been able to speak either Aramaic or Hebrew, the obvious answer is that Jesus spoke Greek at his trial before Pilate.

The same might be suggested by Jesus’ encounter with the centurion (Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:2–10; John 4:46–53). Luke gives him the title hekatontarchos, which might well indicate that he was a Roman centurion, or at least in charge of a troop of Roman mercenaries in the service of Herod Antipas (perhaps that is why he is called basiliskos, “royal official,” in John 4:46). In any event, Luke 7:9 implies he is a gentile. In what language did Jesus speak to this first gentile convert? Most probably in Greek.

In Mark 7:25–30 Jesus, having journeyed to the pagan area of Tyre and Sidon, converses with a Syro-Phoenician woman. Though the indigenous population of that area undoubtedly spoke some Semitic language, either Phoenician or Aramaic (sister languages), the Marcan account goes out of its way to identify the woman as Helleµnis, “a Greek” (Mark 7:26). This too suggests that Jesus spoke to her in Greek.

Moreover, if there is any historicity to the incident in John 12:20–22 where “Greeks” (Helleµnes) come and want to see Jesus, and if he conversed with them, it must have been in Greek. The same might be suggested by John 7:35, where Jesus says that he plans to “go off” to him who sent him, and the Jews wonder whether he intends to go to “the Diaspora among the Greeks and teach the Greeks.” The evangelist presumably thought that Jesus would teach the Greeks in Greek.

Such hints in these stories about Jesus’ ministry suggest that he did on occasion speak Greek.

Moreover, these specific instances in which Jesus apparently spoke Greek are consistent with his Galilean background. In Matthew 4:15, this area is referred to as “Galilee of the gentiles.”28 Growing up and living in this area, Jesus would have had to speak some Greek. Nazareth was a mere hour’s walk to Sepphorisb and in the vicinity of other cities of the Decapolis. Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, was built by Herod Antipas; the population there, too, was far more bilingual than in Jerusalem.29

Coming from such an area, Jesus would no doubt have shared this double linguistic heritage. Reared in an area where many inhabitants were Greek-speaking gentiles, Jesus, the “carpenter” (tektoµn, Mark 6:3), like Joseph, his foster-father (Matthew 13:55), would have had to deal with them in Greek. Jesus was not an illiterate peasant and did not come from the lowest stratum of Palestinian society; he was a skilled craftsman. He is said to have had a house in Capernaum (Mark 2:15). He would naturally have conducted business in Greek with gentiles in Nazareth and neighboring Sepphoris. His parables reveal that he was familiar with Palestinian trade and government. His followers, especially the fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John, would also have had to conduct their fishmongering in Greek with gentile customers.30 So Jesus almost certainly spoke some Greek.

The more difficult question is whether Jesus at times taught the people in Greek.

This question is especially important because, if the answer is yes, this opens the possibility that, in the words of A. W. Argyle, “We may have direct access to the original utterances of our Lord and not only to a translation of them.”31
Although Jesus probably did speak at least some Greek, it is unlikely that any of his preserved teaching has come down to us directly in that language.

Those who argue otherwise often begin by pointing out that no Christian documents are extant in Aramaic. Papias, a second-century bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, maintained that Matthew had put together the logia, “sayings,” of Jesus “in the Hebrew dialect” (= Aramaic),32 but no one has ever seen them. More important, all four Gospels were composed in eastern Mediterranean areas outside of Palestine. That is why they are in Greek; they are the immediate products of a non-Palestinian Christian tradition, which has, however, many marks of its Palestinian, Semitic (especially Aramaic) roots.

Another point sometimes made by those who contend that Jesus taught in Greek is that a number of Jesus’ disciples had Greek names: Andrew, Philip and even Simon (a Grecized form of Hebrew Sðim‘ôn). Levi/Matthew, a toil-collector would have had to deal with people in Greek (Luke 5:27). Similarly, technical Greek names have crept into the Hebrew or Aramaic used by the upper classes—for example, sanhedrin, from Greek synedrion, for the Jewish judicial and legislative council. In addition, it is claimed that Greek terms used in the Gospels were supposedly retained because they were uttered in Greek. One example is epiousios, the bread for which Christians pray in the “Our Father,” which is usually rendered “daily” for want of a better analysis, but which even Origen recognized was a neologism.33 A second example is ho huios tou anthropou, usually rendered “Son of Man,” but which is a Greek barbarism. All of these features reveal only the influence of Greek language and culture on Palestinian Jewish life. They do not prove that Andrew, Philip or Levi normally spoke to Jesus only in Greek. As for the word epiousios, it creates such a problem that no one knows how to analyze it or translate it.

No little part of the problem in maintaining that Jesus’ utterances, preserved for us in the Greek Gospels, are in the language in which he uttered them is that they are not in word-for-word agreement in the Gospels themselves. How then are we to determine which form is original? Did Jesus recite the Our Father prayer with five petitions, as It is preserved in Luke 11:2–4, or with seven petitions, as it is preserved in Matthew 6:9–13? One could naively maintain that he uttered it both ways. But is such a solution, which is always possible, really convincing? The same would have to be said about the different forms of the words of eucharistic institution (Mark 14:22–24; Matthew 26:26–28; Luke 22:17–20). In all three Gospels, Jesus says of the bread that this is his body, but the words are not the same. In Matthew, he says, “Take, eat; this is my body”; in Mark, “Take; this is my body”; in Luke, simply, “This is my body.” In Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells those at the Last Supper to drink of the wine, which is his blood, but the precise words are different. If these utterances of Jesus were preserved in the original language, the first problem would be to decide which of the Greek forms of the sayings were original.

Some scholars have attempted to analyze some of the Greek words in which the sayings of Jesus have been preserved to show that this was indeed their original language. For example, the word hypokriteµs, “hypocrite,” is a compound Greek word (= Greek preposition Hypo, “under,” + the root krin-, “judge”), a form which is wholly lacking in Semitic languages. Hypokriteµs basically means “one who answers,” but it came to mean in classical and Hellenistic Greek not only “interpreter, expounder,” but also “orator,” and even an “actor” on a stage,34 one who spoke from behind a dramatic mask. From this use for a play-actor it came to mean “dissembler, pretender.” But Greek hypokriteµs has no counterpart in either Hebrew or Aramaic.35 However, this does not mean that Jesus’ original utterance was in Greek. Actually, the word hypokriteµs appears in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint (Job 34:30, 36:13), translating a Hebrew word h\aµneµph, which means a “godless or impious” person; so it already had some currency among Jewish speakers. Among Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, hypokrisis, “hypocrisy,” has also been listed with terms for lying and deceit.36

Moreover, the word hypokriteµs never appears in John’s Gospel. In Luke it is used for “disciples” and other people, “the crowds” (Luke 6:17, 12:56). It appears frequently in the other two Gospels for the Pharisees (Matthew 7:5 = Luke 6:42; Mark 7:6 = Matthew 15:7; Luke 13:15; Matthew 6:2, 5, 16, 22:18, 23:13, 14, 15). Mark and Matthew have undoubtedly put on the lips of Jesus an opprobrious Greek term that they and their contemporaries had already begun to use of their Jewish opponents. We cannot conclude from such evidence that Jesus himself actually used the Greek term “hypocrite(s)” for the Pharisees or for anyone else.

A trenchant analysis by G. H. R. Horsley has convincingly shown that the Greek of the Gospels is not “Jewish Greek”;37 and yet it is Semitized enough to reflect a Palestinian matrix of the tradition that it enshrines.38 But there is no real evidence that it enshrines any didactic utterances of Jesus that he addressed to the crowds or to his followers in Greek. As Barnabas Lindars has remarked, “Careful analysis of the sayings shows again and again that the hypothesis of an Aramaic original leads to the most convincing and illuminating results.”39

Just as some scholars have attempted to show that some of Jesus’ teachings were uttered in Greek, others have tried to show—equally unconvincingly—that beneath his utterances is a Hebrew Vorlage (source).40 That Jesus at times used Hebrew is suggested by the Lucan version of his visit to the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–19), where he is portrayed opening a scroll of Isaiah and finding a certain passage (Isaiah 61:1–2) and reading it. If that detail is considered historical, and not merely part of Luke’s programmatic scene, then Jesus would have read Isaiah in Hebrew.41 There is no mention of an Aramaic targum in this passage. So Jesus may be an example of a trilingual Palestinian Jew, capable of reading at least some Hebrew and of speaking some Greek, who normally used Aramaic as his dominant language.

It is important to keep in mind the three stages of the Gospel tradition. Stage I consists of what Jesus of Nazareth said and did during the approximate period between 1 and 33 A.D.; stage II consists of what the disciples and apostles taught and preached about him and his words and his deeds during the approximate period between 33 and 66 A.D. Stage III consists of what the evangelists sifted from that preaching and teaching and then redacted, each in his own way and each with his own evangelical purpose and literary and rhetorical style. This last stage occurred sometime between about 66 and 95 A.D. The canonical Gospels reflect stage III of the gospel tradition much more than stage I.

If we fail to keep this in mind, we fall into the danger of fundamentalism, of equating the Greek of stage III of the gospel tradition with its Aramaic stage I.

In short, what has come down to us about Jesus’ words and deeds comes in a Christian tradition that is in Greek. But Greek was not the form in which that tradition was originally conceived or formulated. None of the Gospels even purports to be a stenographic report or cinematographic reproduction of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The only thing that we are told that Jesus himself wrote, he wrote on the ground John 8:6–8)—and the evangelist took no pains to record it.

So the answer to the question, “Did Jesus speak Greek?” is yes, on some occasions, but we have no real record of it. Did Jesus teach and preach in Greek? That is unlikely; but if he did, there is no way to sort out what he might have taught in Greek from what we have inherited in the Greek tradition of the Gospels.

Comments are closed.