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DID JESUS SPEAK GREEK?

 

My great uncle was an Archbishop in the Greek Orthodox church in New York, and he was a scholar of much notability. I was told that he wrote a thesis on whether Jesus spoke Greek, and this in turn, led to him to write a book on the subject. Therefore, it would not be right for me to simply wish for Jesus to speak Greek because that would make me feel safer, but rather to dig deeper. As a result I was happy to find one of the premier New Testament scholars of the day directly taking up this question: Stanley Porter, in “Did Jesus Ever Teach In Greek?” (Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 1 [1993]: 199–235).

I’ve decided not to do any original research for this article as Porter’s command of the primary sources far exceeds my own. But I’m going to list in detail the major reasons why Porter’s answer to his own ostensible question was “Yes.” Jesus did most likely, at least on occasion, teach in Greek. Porter says that “evidence is increasing that [lower Galilee] was the Palestinian area most heavily influenced by Greek language and culture.” Porter cites several books, as well as an interesting commentary by eminent Roman Catholic Joseph Fitzmyer (who writes, “There are some indications that Palestinian Jews in some areas may have used nothing else but Greek”), but Porter also points to evidence within the text of Scripture. Hence we can start there:

Biblical Evidence

1.       “One indication of the pervasive influence of Greek [is that] in Acts 6:1 (cf. 9:29) a distinction is made between Ἐλληνισταί and Ἑβραῖοι, probably a linguistic distinction made between Jews who spoke mainly Greek and those who spoke mainly Aramaic or who also spoke Aramaic. Before the third century A.D. these terms were virtually exclusively linguistic terms referring to language competence. To distinguish those outside Palestine as Greek speakers would not have been necessary (it would have been assumed), but apparently there was a significant part of the population that spoke mostly Greek even of those resident in Jerusalem.”

2.       “The seven men appointed in Acts 6:5 to serve the Greek-speaking constituency all have Greek names.”

3.    “Referred to as the ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ in Matthew 4:15, lower Galilee was a centre for trade among the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee and Decapolis regions. Galilee was completely surrounded by Hellenistic culture.”

4.    “Matthew (Mt. 9:9; Lk. 5:27-28) or Levi (Mk. 2:13-14), the tax collector in Capernaum, would probably have known Greek in order to conduct his duties with the local taxpayers and the tetrarch Herod Antipas’s officials. Many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen who worked the Sea of Galilee, including Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. They almost assuredly would have needed to conduct in Greek much of their business of selling fish.”

Porter gives several examples of literary evidence for the use of Greek:


1.    “There have been a number of papyrus texts (including a number of fragments) found in Palestine written in Greek by Jews. The papyri of the Judaean Desert include a wide range and variety of artefacts, such as commercial transactions, fiduciary notes, contracts of marriage, and fragments of philosophical and literary texts, among others.”

2.    “So far as Jewish literature is concerned, there is also significant evidence of composition being done in Greek in Palestine by Jews for Jewish audiences. For example, the book of Daniel, besides using Greek names to refer in 3:5 to three musical instruments (lyre, harp and pipes [NIV]), and being composed in Hebrew and Aramaic, in its deuterocanonical form includes additional sections composed in Greek (Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).”

3.    “Worth noting as well is the fact that, although 2 Esdras and Judith were written in Hebrew, they survive virtually entirely or at least in significant part in Greek versions, quite possibly reflecting Jewish linguistic priorities for preservation of religious texts.”

Evidence from the Recorded Speech of Jesus

Porter thinks so. He offers this evidence from within Jesus’ own words in the New Testament:

1.    “The first and most important example, and the one that sets the tenor for the subsequent treatment of passages, is Jesus’ trial before Pilate (Mk. 15:2-5; Mt. 27:11-14; Lk. 23:2-5; Jn. 18:29- 38; cf. 1 Tim. 6:13). It is highly unlikely that Pilate, the prefect assigned to this remote posting in the Roman empire, would have known any Semitic language. No translator or interpreter is mentioned for the conversation that occurs between Jesus and Pilate, making it unlikely that Latin or Aramaic was used. In fact, the pace of the narrative, in which conversation is held between not only Pilate and Jesus but Pilate and the Jewish leaders, Pilate and the crowd, and the Jewish leaders and the crowd, argues against an interpreter intervening. It is most likely, therefore, that Jesus spoke to Pilate in Greek.”

And that brings us back to the diminutive κυνάριον and Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman. Porter actually cites this very passage as a reason to believe that Jesus spoke Greek:

1.    “The first example of a passage in which Jesus may well have spoken Greek is Mark 7:25-30, when Jesus travels to the area of Tyre. A woman with a daughter possessed by an evil spirit hears of his presence there and begs for Jesus’ help. The woman is called in Mark’s Gospel a Ἑλληνίς, a Συροφοινίκισσα by birth, i.e. a gentile (7:26). Even though the indigenous language of the area was Semitic, this area had long been under hellenistic influence (and antagonistic to the Jews; see Josephus, Ag. Ap. 1.69-72) and evidenced widespread use of Greek, as has been noted above. The description of the woman in the Gospel makes sure that the reader knows that the woman was a Greek-speaker despite her birth. Otherwise the reference is gratuitous. There is no indication of an interpreter being present.”

Did Jesus speak Greek? The New Testament doesn’t directly answer all the questions we like to ask it. But when combined with archaeological evidence, Porter concludes that;

“In the light of this accumulated evidence, which is overwhelming when compared to the equivalent Aramaic evidence, it is surprising that many scholars have not given more consideration to the hypothesis that

Jesus spoke and even possibly taught in Greek.”

“….the evidence regarding what is known about the use of Greek in ancient Palestine, including the cosmopolitan Hellenistic character of lower Galilee, the epigraphic and literary evidence, including coins, papyri, literary writers, inscriptions and funerary texts, but most of all several significant contexts in the Gospels, all points in one direction: whereas it is not always known how much and on which occasions Jesus spoke Greek,

it is virtually certain that he used Greek at various times in his itinerant ministry.”

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