Did Jesus Speak Greek?
Contrary to contemporary scholarship, I find that Greek was more widely used in both written and oral form by Jesus, his disciples, and the Jews who inhabited first-century Palestine. Interestingly, the evidence reveals that Greek became the dominant language spoken among Jews and Gentiles in Galilee in the first century CE.
By G. Scott Gleaves
Dean and Associate Professor
Kearley Graduate School of Theology
Dean and Associate Professor
Kearley Graduate School of Theology
Since Roman Palestine was flanked by two dominant international languages—Greek and Latin—it naturally became a “linguistic border.” The linguistic situation in Roman Palestine was particularly influenced by its key geographical placement as the primary passageway for trade within the Fertile Crescent, thereby “attracting merchants who spoke foreign languages to an area already populated by various ethnic groups.” Among such linguistic diversity Greek emerged as the dominant medium to disseminate the Christian message in both oral and written form.
What languages were spoken in first century Palestine? Did Jesus and his disciples speak and teach in Greek? If so, do we have in the NT historical preservations of their actual communication? These questions have generated a rich debate through the years. It has been the general consensus among scholars that in order to recover the real Jesus of history it is necessary to uncover the Aramaic behind the Greek. For example, Maurice Casey makes this statement: “If therefore we wish to recover the Jesus of History, we must see whether we can reconstruct his sayings, and the earliest accounts of his doings, in their original Aramaic. This should help us to understand him within his own cultural background.”
Scholars have argued since the late nineteenth century that the sources behind the Gospels were Aramaic and that there might have been Aramaic originals of the Gospels themselves. Nigel Turner, however, suggested that though Aramaic might lie behind the Gospels, it is more likely that they were composed in Greek, mimicking in many ways a Semitic syntax and style.
Since the quality of New Testament Greek is decidedly Semitic in varying degrees, there may well have been a spoken language in common use among these trilingual Jews which would render superfluous the hypothesis of source-translation as an explanation of certain phenomena in New Testament Greek.
Greater recognition should be given to the fact that many languages were current in Palestine during the time of Jesus. While it is generally agreed that Aramaic and Hebrew were key languages of the period, I content that Greek was widespread and that Jesus not only spoke Greek but also taught in Greek. Consequently, the Gospels may contain the very words that Jesus spoke instead of translations into Greek of Jesus’ original words in Aramaic.
Aramaic, the sister language of Hebrew, was by necessity learned by Jews in Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE) because it was the lingua franca of the empire. Joseph Fitzmyer stated that “the use of Hebrew does not seem to have been widespread” as a spoken language after the Jews returned home. Hebrew was customarily translated orally into Aramaic by a person called the meturgeman (“translator”). These translations from Hebrew were eventually written in Aramaic and were called targumim (singular, targum).
Consequently, Fitzmyer argues that there are three important stages in the Gospel tradition. Stage one refers to the Aramaic period of the actual ministry and teachings of Jesus (1–33 C.E.), a period before the Gospels were written. Stage two represents the Apostolic period when the disciples and apostles taught and preached about the words and deeds of Jesus (33–66 C.E.). Stage three (66–95 C.E.) represents the canonical Gospel period reflecting a development of Greek writing. Fitzmyer’s point is to remind readers not to confuse later Greek tradition with the early Aramaic of stage one. To do so is to “fall into the danger of fundamentalism.”
I find Fitzmyer’s stages of gospel tradition unconvincing. They may reveal a bias toward a history-of-religions approach by incorrectly presupposing that Aramaic was the dominant language of Palestine and that the Greek compositions of the Gospels represent an advancement (stage three) in gospel tradition. If Jesus did indeed speak Greek, then we may have “direct access to the original utterances of our Lord and not only to a translation of them.” Consequently, much more than just a few Aramaic words and expressions can be connected to the Jesus of history. Porter’s observation is therefore insightful:
It is not possible to settle the various issues regarding the linguistic milieu of first-century Palestine, as Fitzmyer rightly notes, except to say that the archaeological, linguistic and sociological evidence seems to indicate that the region was multilingual, including at least Aramaic and Greek in widespread and frequent use . . . Therefore, the likelihood that Jesus, along with most Gentiles and Jews, was multilingual himself is strong.
Early in my academic studies I assumed that the dominant language in first-century CE Palestine was Aramaic and that Jesus and his disciples, therefore, taught and spoke in Aramaic. The problem I encountered in accepting the dominance of Aramaic related to my understanding of the relationship between the GNT and the teachings of Jesus. Did the gospel accounts represent accurately what Jesus taught, or were they misrepresentations of the historical Jesus? Was the Jesus of history different from the Christ of Scripture?
There is no doubt that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Jesus would have spoken a form of Middle Aramaic called Palestinian Aramaic. Fitzmyer indicates that there were five dialects of Middle Aramaic: (1) Palestinian, (2) Nabatean (around Petra in modern Jordan), (3) Palmyrene (central Syria), (4) Hatran (eastern Syria and Iraq), and (5) Syriac (northern Syria and southern Turkey). Prior to 1947 C.E., the date when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, Palestinian Aramaic was supported only by a meager number of inscriptions on tombstones and ossuaries. Consequently, Gustaf Dalman argued that though Jesus may have known Hebrew and more than likely spoke Greek, he nonetheless certainly taught in Aramaic.
However, since 1947 CE, many literary texts have been discovered that shed light on the dialect of Aramaic spoken by Palestinian Jews prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. The DSS reveal that Aramaic may have been the dominant language, but the evidence reveals that it was not the only language spoken. Therefore one cannot conclusively argue that Jesus spoke only Aramaic. Palestine was multilingual in the first and second century CE Hebrew was the language employed by the Essenes who settled at Qumran (adjacent to the caves where the DSS were found) in order to preserve the sacred law (i.e., the Torah) of the Jews. Hebrew by this time had become the language associated with temple rituals and worship in synagogues where the Law and Prophets (the Torah and the Nevi’im) were read. The majority of the Jews no longer understood Hebrew.
The Aramaic Hypothesis is an inadequate solution for many of my questions: (1) If Aramaic was the dominant language in first-century CE Palestine (and throughout the Roman Empire), why were all the NT documents written in Greek? (2) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why was Greek the common language (koinē) of the period? (3) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why was Greek so prevalent in the literature, the architecture, and the culture of both Galilee and Judea in the first century CE? (4) If Aramaic was the source behind the Gospels (and the NT), why do the documents of the GNT show signs of being original compositions rather than translations? (5) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why would the Jews be bilingual (some even trilingual)? (6) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why were many cities (e.g., Ptolemais and Scythopolis) and regions (e.g., Decapolis and Idumea) called by Greek names? (7) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why did many Jews adopt Greek names (e.g., Andrew, Philip, Nicodemus, and Theophilus)? (8) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why were Greek customs and practices adopted by the culture (e.g., measurements, pottery, and Greek loanwords)? (9) If Aramaic was the dominant language, why would Jews inscribe words in Greek on ossuaries?
These questions lead me to reconsider the validity of Aramaic’s dominance as a language in the first century CE. Contrary to contemporary scholarship, I find that Greek was more widely used in both written and oral form by Jesus, his disciples, and the Jews who inhabited first-century Palestine. Interestingly, the evidence reveals that Greek became the dominant language spoken among Jews and Gentiles in Galilee in the first century CE. Fitzmyer’s statement below admits more than he may have intended:
If asked what was the language commonly spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, most people with some acquaintance of that era and area would almost spontaneously answer Aramaic. To my way of thinking, the defense of this thesis must reckon with the growing mass of evidence that both Greek and Hebrew were being used as well. I would, however, hesitate to say with M. Smith that “at least as much Greek as Aramaic was spoken in Palestine.” In any case, the evidence for the use of Aramaic has also been growing in recent years.
The “growing mass of evidence” has now become a convincing witness to the wide use of Greek in Palestine even among the members of the inner circle of disciples who followed Jesus.
 See Smelik, “The Languages of Roman Palestine,” 122.
 Ibid., 122.
 See Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1.
 Wise, “Languages of Palestine,” 443.
 Turner, Style, 5–10.
 Ibid., 7.
 Michael O. Wise notes that since the late 19th century scholars have held two basic assumptions regarding the influence of Aramaic upon the NT. First, scholars have assumed that Jesus spoke only in Aramaic. Second, they have also assumed that since Jesus spoke only in Aramaic his disciples preserved a record of sayings in Aramaic. See Michael O. Wise, “Languages of Palestine,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 434–44.
 “[A]lthough Imperial Aramaic was the lingua franca and served for many official purposes, the Jews continued to use Hebrew in connection with the government and Temple.” See Wise, “Languages of Palestine,” 435. Dalman noted that “the spread of Aramaic in the originally Hebrew Palestine must already have begun in the year 721 B.C., when Samaria was peopled by Mesopotamian colonists. Through the influence of the Babylonian and, later, the Persian Governments it continued to spread: finally reaching Southern Palestine, when the leading classes were deported from there and supplanted by the alien element” (Jesus–Jeshua, 9).
 Fitzmyer, “Did Jesus Speak Greek?” 58; see also John A. Emerton, “The Problem of Vernacular Hebrew in the First Century A. D. and the Language of Jesus,” JTS 24 (1973): 1–23. It is the assumption of many scholars that “the ‘Hebrew’–speaking Jews of Palestine actually spoke Aramaic, and not Hebrew. Hence it is assumed that, wherever mention is made of the Hebrew language … in the New Testament …, Aramaic is what is actually meant.” See Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? 34.
 Three targumim were discovered among the DSS—the targum of Job from cave 11 and the targumim of Leviticus and Job from cave 4.
 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Did Jesus Speak Greek?” BAR 18/5 (1992): 5877.
 A. W. Argyle, “Did Jesus Speak Greek?” ExpTim 67 (1955): 92–93.
 Stanley E. Porter, The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 27.
 See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Phases of the Aramaic Language,” in A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (SBLMS 25; Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1979), 57–84.
 This observation is from Stanley E. Porter, “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?” TynBul 44 (1993): 199, who relied upon the work of Gustav Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua: Studies in the Gospels (trans. P. P. Levertoff; London: SPCK, 1929).
 Interestingly, Greek documents were also found at Qumran. Millard states that “while these Greek texts are very much in the minority among the Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls, they indicate an awareness of Greek and, presumably, the presence of people who could read them, even if they were not copied in the Qumran region but had been brought into the country from outside.” See Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Washington Square, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2000), 113.
 Willem Smelik observes that “Aramaic is widely held to have been the vernacular most commonly used by Jews throughout the Roman period. That Aramaic was widespread in Hellenistic and Roman Palestine seemed obvious to scholars even before the Qumran discoveries because of the Aramaic texts, quotations, loanwords, and names referred to above.” See Willem Smelik, “The Languages of Roman Palestine,” in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine (ed. Catherine Hezser; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 126. Wise also states that “it would seem that Aramaic was the best–known and most widely used language among Jews of all classes in Galilee and in Judea also, at least in the larger urban areas” (“Languages of Palestine,” 439).
 “Given modern analogies, it is likely that Palestine in Jesus’ day was a welter of dialects and languages, many of which have left no written record at all” (Ibid., 434).
 See G. R. Selby, Jesus, Aramaic & Greek (Doncaster, England: The Brynmill Press Ltd, 1989), 4. J. N. Sevenster wrote that “it has become practically a generally accepted tradition that the mother tongue of Jesus, the language he knew best and therefore usually spoke, was Aramaic.” See J. N. Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? How much Greek could the first Jewish Christians have known? (trans. J. de Bruin; Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968), 33.
 This chapter does not give an overview of Latin because it seems to have been “used primarily by the Romans in political and administrative matters.” See Porter, The Language of the New Testament, 27.
 Opinions among scholars vary as to the identity of those who authored the DSS. In addition to the Essenes, connections have also been made to both Pharisaic and Sadducean sects. See G. W. Buchanan, “Essenes,” ISBE 2:152.
 There is the belief, however, from more recent evidence, that Hebrew was not as scarce among the spoken languages as many scholars had previously argued. See Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? 34. However, Dalman argued that “Aramaic became the language of the Jews to such an extent that the Gospel of St John as well as Josephus found it possible to designate such Aramaic words as beza’ta, golgolta, gabbeta, asarta, rabbuni … as Hebrew.” See Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, 15.
 The designation “Aramaic Hypothesis” has become a technical term often connected to studies relating to the historical Jesus and to studies relating to Gospel/NT origins.
 Fitzmyer, “Languages of Palestine,” 501–31.