Jesus's Speaking Style

Jesus has a very interesting style of speaking. Certainly humor is one central aspect of his speaking style that is lost in translation (see this article), but many of the other interesting elements of his Greek that point to the fact that he was a bilingual speaker. His mother tongue was the local Aramaic, but he went to Egypt at an early age, which was probably where he started learning Greek. In this article, we will discuss some of those aspects that are not covered in the article on humor such as the way he creates drama, surprise and makes ideas memorable. These aspects of his speaking style are often lost in translation.

Word Order and the Lord's Prayer

Jesus generally uses word order to increase the drama in what he is saying. Generally speaking, there are three common forms of word order among different languages. The most common, 46% of languages,  is subject-object-verb (ancient Greek, Latin, Hindi). The nearly as common, 42%, is subject-verb-object (English, Chinese, French), and the least common (9%) is  verb-subject-object (Aramaic, Biblical Hebrew, Irish). The Greek of today and of Jesus's era is considered "free form" with the most important words first.  Jesus  word order is certainly "free form, but he arranges words to make them interesting and to create suspense. This often means that the most important word is last in the sentence, the exact opposite of the "normal" Greek of his time.

One common technique is to put the verb first in the sentence while the subject is held back as a surprise. Those promoting the Aramaic Hypothesis (see this article) take this as evidence of Jesus's original words being in Aramaic, but Aramaic doesn't put the subject last as Jesus does.  We see this technique in the first half of the Lord's Prayer. A series of third-party commands are used, "let it be sanctified," let it show up," and "let it happen."  In each case, the listener must wait to learn what "it" is.  In each case, the subject phrase engs the verse in the same structure: "that name," "that realm," and "that desire." In this translation the "that" is actually the article "the," but the Greek article is closer to demonstrative ("this," "that") than the English article. And again, those the article highlights to word, the listener must wait to learn what name, realm, and desire Jesus is talking about. That answer for all three is the same, "of yours." 

In English, the possessive phrase "of yours" works fine after the noun, especially with a "this" or "that" before it. It works essentially like the Greek phrase does, creating more suspense in the phrase. This structure of putting the possessive pronoun after the noun is the most common in Greek, but Jesus does not always use it. Sometimes here will put the possessive before the noun, with or without the article, depending on what he wants to emphasize.

This entire structure is almost always lost in translation despite the fact that it can be easily captured in English. There is nothing difficult to understand about the sentence, "Let it be sanctified, this name of yours." It is especially difficult for translators to write "this name of yours," when they want to write "your name." However, Jesus could put the "my" before the word "name" without the article and he does in some places, but, especially at the end of a phrase, he prefers the word structure that creates suspense.

However, Jesus does not hold to the structure when another word order makes his point better. The next phrase is the Lord's prayer, give us our daily bread," is a good example. It follows the order object-verb/subject, "bread"-"give/you". The object, the bread, comes first in the sentence along with all the words describing it. Then comes the verb/subject, a verb where the subject is in the ending of the verb. It follows the verb, but it is also part of it. Note that this word order is not used in any common language, occurring only in a couple of South American Cariban languages spoken by a few hundred people and, of course, Klingon.

This is followed by the line "Forgive us our debts," which changes the word order again to verb/subject-object. The Greek in this case along follows the common English translation, "forgive/ you" followed by the indirect object, "for us," ending with the phrase "those debts of ours." This order is used here because the object is the punch line of the verse. As the verse continues, it uses the same root verb and object, but it changes the word order to subject-verb-object. The subject is first, the plural "we," then the "forgive" followed by "those debtors of ours."  The forgiving of our own debtors was the "punch" at the end of the idea.

The Contrasts of Opposite

Jesus uses contrasts almost automatically. In the previous example, he uses the same root word, "debt" and "debtors" to create one type of contrast, but many of these contrasts are simple, such as contrasting positive and negative. For example, in Matthew 10:13 contrasting the house that is worthy where your peace falls on it with house that is not worthy where your peace returns to yourself.  These contrasts tend to make even simple ideas more memorable and dramatic.

For a translator, Jesus's use of contrasting opposites makes it easy to better understand his meaning. For example, the contrast of "body" and "soul" in Matthew 10:28, not fearing those who can kill the body but fearing the one who can kill the "soul" or, better, "self." However, several different words can have the same opposite. For example, Jesus uses two different Greek words, based on two different ideas, that are translated as "love." One of these means "care for" and the other "prefer,"  but both words are used by Jesus as the opposite of the singular Greek word for "hate." See this article for more.

Sometimes the contrast of opposites also clarifies the metaphorical or symbolic meanings of words. For example, we would not normally think of "sand" and "rock" as opposites. They are very similar substances. However, they are clearly opposites in relationship to how solid they are. This is the point Jesus makes when he contrasts a house built on rock with a house built on sand in Matthew 7:26.

Other times, Jesus uses word play to make these contrasts, For example, in Matthew 16:18 "That thou art Peter," Jesus uses two similar words, petros, which is a masculine noun and works like our name, "Rocky" and petra, which means "rock" but is a feminine word that means "rock" as a building material and "cliff" and "rocky" ground.

Inverting Phrases

Related to contrasting opposites, especially in terms of making ideas memorable,  is another common rhetorical device that Jesus uses:  inverting phrases. He does this simply by turning the phrase's words around. A typical example is the reversal of the subject and object in a phrase like  "you agree with me" and "I will agree with you" in Matthew 10:32.  This idea is reversed again with the use of an opposite verb along with reversing the subject and object in the next verse, Matthew 10:33, where Jesus says "you deny me" and "I will deny you." We see the same pattern in Matthew 10:39, "the one finding his life loses it" and "the one losing his life finds it."

In these inversions, Jesus like to keep the same structure as much as possible between the two versions. This is often lost in translation where various words are dropped as "unnecessary" because the repeated ideas can be assumed in the second version. However, the destroys the symmetry of Jesus's words, where repetition is largely the point he is making.  His main message was the we must "turn things around" to see the realm of the divine.

Extending Concepts by Repeating Phrases

Jesus also repeats phrases in order to extend a concept incrementally. For example, in Matthew 10:40 he starts with "the one welcoming you, welcomes me." He then extends that idea to "the welcoming me, welcomes my Father." We see a similar progression of ideas in Matthew 10:24, "the student is not above the teacher, nor the slave above the master" into Matthew 10:25 "the student is like the teacher and the slave like the master."

Singulars and Plurals

One aspect of Jesus's speaking style that is always hidden in English is his switching between the plural and singular "you" when speaking. The problem is that English uses the same word, "you," for both singular and plural. All the verbs uses with it are plural. However, in Greek, the singular you and plural you are two different pronouns and singular and plural verbs are used with them. In reading Jesus in the Greek, we easily see when he is addressing a group versus an individual.

This switching back and forth between talking to a group and talking to an individual is hidden in English. In reading, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, we can mistakenly think that Jesus is always talking to the crowd, but he clearly isn't. Sometimes, he is addressing individuals in the crowd. This fact drives a lot of the action in the book, We Saw His Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus calls people up from the audience to talk to them.

However, even when Jesus is addressing a group of people, he still personalizes his message by using the singular. For example, in , a singular head is referenced as belonging to a group of apostles. Jesus does this commonly when referring to body parts. Another example is in Mark 8:17 where a  singular heart is also shared by all the apostles. This style may be Jesus's way of making statements addressed to groups feel more personal since both our heads and our hearts are the most personal things we have.

Common Rhetorical Patterns

Jesus use a number of standard rhetorical devices.

One example is the pattern of "three plus one," which he uses in at least a dozen verses (see the list here). This pattern gives three examples of a standard idea in one form and then it finished it with a fourth idea that is a little different in form and substance. The effect can be a humorous exaggeration. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if the goal is humor or just suspense and drama. Initially, I thought is was more symbolic, but now I think of it as more stylistic.  One example is Matthew 5:11 (Blessed are you, when [men] shall revile you... )  in which Jesus tells his audience that they are lucky when they are abused in a variety of ways. You can see other examples and an explanation of possible symbolic connections at this link.