I have recently been converted, not from unbelief to faith, but in my understanding of the languages Jesus spoke. Until recently I had believed that the lingua franca Jesus spoke was Aramaic, the language of the Persian Empire, of which Israel had been a part. I knew that Alexander’s conquests had spread Greek in numerous cities in the Middle-East, but somehow I didn’t factor that into my perception of current languages in Judea, Samaria and Galilee.
Scott Gleaves’ Did Jesus Speak Greek? (2015) convinced me that not only the principalities surrounding and within Israel were Greek-speaking, but also that Greek was outstripping Aramaic within the holy land itself. Such is the intensity of Greek inscriptions in Jerusalem, for example, that Martin Hengel went so far as to describe Jerusalem as a ‘Greek city’.[i]
Gleaves’s book persuaded me that in the time of Jesus, Greek was eclipsing Aramaic, although there were doubtless pockets where the latter was current.
I had been researching The Making of the Gospels and focusing on the sources of Matthew and Luke, namely, an early version of Mark and the collections known as Q, L and M. I was concentrating on the appearance of these sources in the letters of Paul, James and (First) Peter, which were written in the few years between Jesus and the writing of Matthew and Luke. The striking thing is that these gospel fragments embedded in the letters are Greek and do not back translate into Aramaic.
I was struck, too, by the fact that only three Aramaic words are found in Paul’s letters, our earliest Christian texts (abba, Maran atha, amen). Of the thousands of gospel manuscripts going back to the early second century, not one is written in Aramaic.
I concluded that we can push these sources (early Mark, Q, L, M) back to Jesus himself and conclude that the sources in Greek were actually being collected by his disciples in the three years before the first Easter. Likewise, significant is the fact that almost all the Gospels’ quotations of the Old Testament are Greek (the Septuagint) not Hebrew.
I had understood correctly that Jesus would have spoken Greek with the Syrophoenician woman, with the centurion in Capernaum and with Pontius Pilate. But now it appears we can think of Jesus speaking Greek with about a dozen people. Nor should we forget that three of the disciples had Greek names—Simon, Andrew, and Philip.
The Gospels tell us that large numbers from Greek speaking regions outside and within Galilee came to hear Jesus. They did this because they knew Jesus would be speaking their language. It is reasonable to believe that Jesus spoke Greek to Greek speaking audiences, Aramaic to Aramaic speaking audiences, and in both languages to mixed audiences.
For me this has been a radical change of understanding, for which the ramifications are considerable. If indeed Jesus spoke mainly Greek, with some surviving usages of Aramaic (mainly in the Gospel of Mark), it means that we can draw very much closer to the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth than would otherwise be the case.
The Rt Rev Paul Barnett is a New Testament scholar and ancient historian. He is an Emeritus Faculty member at Moore College, an Honorary Fellow at Macquarie University, and a Teaching Fellow at Regent College, Vancouver. Paul has written numerous books and articles on the history of the New Testament and early church, including the classic Is the New Testament History?
[i] Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul (SCM, 1991), p54.
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