Epistles of Thomas

January 12, 2009

Did Jesus speak Greek?

Filed under: Greek,Jesus,New Testament,Translation — Thomas @ 23:25

We know that Jesus spoke Aramaic because the gospel writers quote some of the Aramaic phrases he used and translate them for their Greek readers (e.g. Mk 5:41). It has also been suggested by some that Jesus spoke Greek but there is no consensus concerning his fluency. In Mark for Everyone by Tom Wright which I recently reviewed Wright makes the startling statement: “It is virtually certain that, though Jesus and his followers would be able to speak and understand Greek, their normal everyday language would be Aramaic” (63). I say this is surprising because no one had previously suggested to me that some Galilean fishermen would be able to speak Greek. I could conceive of a tax collector speaking Greek but a fisherman? I had always been led to believe they were uneducated country bumpkins.

Although Google will provide a lot of results for the question “Did Jesus Speak Greek” there does not seem to be a lot of scholarly work done on the subject. Michael Wise in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels from IVP is not nearly as emphatic as Wright, stating “The question whether [Jesus] also knew Hebrew and Greek can only be answered on theoretical grounds” (442). I have come across two articles by Stanley Porter that assert Jesus could not only speak Greek but was fluent enough to teach in that language. Obviously this has implications for interpreting the gospel accounts of his public ministry. They would not just be second hand translations of his teaching but could be the actual words he spoke.

Stanley E. Porter, “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?” Tyndale Bulletin. 44:2 (1993): 199-235.
“…it is virtually certain that he used Greek at various times in his itinerant ministry” (235).

Stanley E. Porter, “Jesus and the Use of Greek: A Response to Maurice Casey.” Bulletin for Biblical Research. 10:1 (2000): 71-87.

As may be deduced from the title of the above article not everyone agrees with Porter’s conclusion, namely:

P. Maurice Casey, “In Which Language Did Jesus Teach?” Expository Times. 108:11 (1997) 326-28.

Casey argues for the use of Aramaic by Jesus in his teaching. No one is willing to argue that Jesus would not have known some Greek but the question is whether he was fluent enough to teach in that language. The consensus seems to be that it is likely that he spoke to some people in Greek because it is less likely that they knew Aramaic than that he would not have known Greek. In other words it is an argument based on probabilities and silence. Aren’t those the best kind? 🙂

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3 Comments »

  1. Jesus spoke Aramaic in his private prayer, his home, and other intimate situations. He spoke and taught in Greek in public and with his disciples. He spoke and taught in Hebrew in scholarly situations, and he probably used Latin with Roman soldiers and with Pilate at his trial.

    This theory, The Selby Hypothesis, is first launched by The Reverend G.R. Selby in a small book, Jesus, Aramaic and Greek, 1989, Brynmill Press, UK, and is available through Amazon.co.UK. It is expanded, updated, and strengthened in my upcoming book whose working title is Critiquing the Bible and Its Critics.

    Comment by JCW West — March 24, 2010 @ 18:46 | Reply

    • That sounds like quite a theory and one that is totally unprovable. Seeing as most of his disciples would not have been able to converse in Greek, being unlearned fishermen, it sounds unlikely right out of the gate. Good luck with that.

      Comment by Thomas — March 24, 2010 @ 19:08 | Reply

      • If you read Stanley Porter’s 2007 article carefully, you will see that there is no reason why fishermen wouldn’t speak Greek. On the contrary, trade and merchant people were obliged to deal with the larger economic community and would need to be able to express themselves in the lingua franca to stay successfully in business. The hypothesis that fishermen couldn’t speak Greek is unwarranted and contrary to the economic picture of Palestine assumed by Porter.
        All this is the more intriguing that we are discussing the psychological and social makeup of a character defined in the literary works of the NT and who could well remain what he was first described, a pure literary creation. Supposing that this character could speak Greek fits far better with the whole picture than the inventions of the above commenter (where suddenly Jesus is fluent in FOUR languages) or your own, which leads to a complex construction of multilingualism, with invented attributions of who spoke what, when, where and with whom. All this is satisfactory as a mind game, the Jesus linguistic puzzle, but it makes the whole picture complex and arbitrary.
        I find Porter’s denial of Casey’s theory much more convincing.

        Comment by ROO BOOKAROO — June 9, 2012 @ 7:34


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