Jesus Taught in Greek
How can we know that the Greek wasn't translated from Aramaic?
The article provides a brief outline for the evidence that Jesus taught in Greek not Aramaic. It discusses the arguments for and against Aramaic in detail, but let us start by listing the arguments for Greek:
- The evangelists record the few times when Jesus spoke Aramaic, then they translated the Aramaic into Greek. If ALL Jesus's words were originally Aramaic, why would these few examples exist? How could they exist in any Aramaic original?
- Jesus mixed a few Aramaic words with his Greek as with most "common" tongues. Why would these words not be translated if ALL the original words were in Aramaic. Why would the supposed translators choose not to translate one Aramaic word our of a sentence of Aramaic words? Isn't it more likely that an Aramaic word was used in a sentence of Greek by a bilingual speaker?
- Good evidence exists that the Judeans spoke Greek at the time. One such piece of evidence is that the books of the Macabees revolt against their Hellenistic rulers on (the basis for the holiday Hanukkah) is only available in the Greek. Also, almost half of the apostles carry Greek names. If the common people didn't speak Greek, why all the Greek names? Why are the Biblical books of the era in Greek?
- Jesus used an important "mystery" Greek word in the Lord's Prayer that could not be an artifact of translation because its Greek meaning is uncertain. I
- Jesus makes many plays on words that only work in Greek.
A Brief Summary of these Points
Jesus taught primarily in Greek with a few Aramaic words thrown in. We know that the Gospels sources we used today are Greek. There are many academics who make the claim that Jesus taught in Greek, but their claims is that the lost original sources that were Aramaic. However, looking at the text as a translator, this claim is not only unlikely but it seems impossible.
In terms of translation, the words recorded in the Gospels are not and cannot be a translation from the local language. The best evidence is that the Greek Gospels have places in the text where Christ is quoted speaking in an Aramaic phrase. Then, the evangelist translates the Aramaic into Greek. Why are those Aramaic phrases recorded as special if all of Jesus's words were Aramaic? Forget about, why but how could a translator possibly decide to keep the Aramaic for those few phrases? The Aramaic was recorded because it was different. Isn't it more reasonable to assume that Jesus was bilingual, usually speaking primarily Greek but on occasion, such as whe speaking to a child, using Aramaic?
Jesus's Greek was not standard Greek but a common tongue, primarily Greek with a few local words added to it. Jesus's words contain Aramaic words in Greek sentences that are not translated. Speaking as a translator, when translating a text from one language to another, no one leaves some words untranslated, unless those belong to a different language. Rarely, the words of another language are translated as well, but typically those "foreign" words are left untranslated so readers can know that the writer or speaker used a different language at that point in the text.
Jesus's Greek commonly contained untranslated Aramaic words ("satan", "mammon", etc.) If all of Christ's words were originally Aramaic, why would some be left untranslated? This includes words he used frequently ("pharisee", "amen"). None of these words are difficult to translate into Greek, but the same words are consistently not translated. This use of a few local words is a sign of a "common" tongue, that is, a shared language used in many areas with their own local languages. This is why the Greek of the Bible is called "koine," the Greek word that means "common." Doesn't it seem more likely that these untranslated words are in the Greek text because they are the Aramaic words that Jesus used while speaking Greek?
The OT books of the Maccabees does not exist in Hebrew. It only exists in Greek Septuagint. The fact that these books were never copied or circulated in Hebrew tells us a lot about the language of the Jewish people at the time. These books are not including in the Protestant Bible because they did not in the Hebrew one, but they were always part of the OT prior to the Protestant revolt and are still part of the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. These books tell the story about the Judean revolt against Greek rule. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah is based upon the story of the Maccabees.
More evidence that Greek was the region's common tongue comes from the names of the Apostles. Five of the twelve Apostles bore Greek names instead of Aramaic ones. There were two Simons, the name of a Greek demigod, Phillip, Alexander the Great's father, Andrew, from the Greek word for "manly," and Thaddeus, which means "gift from God" in Greek (as Matthew means "gift of God" in Aramaic). However, Latin was also appearing in Judean names during the time of Jesus, indicating its use was spreading. Luke and Mark are both Latin, from Lucius and Marcus, Roman heroes. The era of direct Roman administration had only begun in Judea about 30 years earlier.
From the beginning of the Hellenistic era in 332 BC, Greek forms of traditional Hebrew names begin to appear. So we see traditional Hebrew names and spelling like Matthew along side their Hellenized versions, like Mattathias. "Simon" is by far the most popular name in the NT. Twelve different men bearing that name. "Simon" actually means "flat-nosed" in Greek, and could have been a humorous reference to the size of the Judean people's nose. Prior to the Greek era, the traditional name Simeon was used. The name first appears with the founder of the Hasmodan dynasty, Simon Thassi of the Macabees who took control of the region about 200 years after the beginning of the Hellenistic era. This is, of course, the story told in the books of the Macabees.
Need a another argument? In the Gospels, Jesus's words contain a very mysterious Greek word (read this article about it). No one knows what this word means. This word doesn't only appear once, but twice in two different Gospels in a very important context, the Lord's Prayer. The word is unmistakably Greek with a Greek prefix and root. If Jesus spoke in Aramaic, why did the supposed translator make up a word in Gree, one that no one understands? If there was an unknown or untranslatable or even difficult Aramaic word, why wouldn't the translator simply use it directly as with the Aramaic words above? And this didn't happen once, but twice, possibly with two different translators. How likely does that seem to any reasonable person?
A final argument is Jesus's many, many play one words. He uses one word with several different meanings. For example, the word "to enter" also means "to come into mind," that is, an idea popping into our heads., There are many times when Jesus uses this word with both in the physical sense but clearly playing on its mental meaning. There are many, many example like this in Jesus's words. Hidden word play in Greek often ties together Jesus's words in ways that are impossible to see in translation because such word play does not translate easily.
The Three Main Arguments Against Christ Speaking Greek
Here are the arguments for Christ speaking Aramaic. This is the fashionable position at the current time. Most academics believe that the Jews and other people in the area spoke Aramaic during Christ's era. They claim that it was the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean before and after the Assyrian, Babylonian, and the Greek eras. They offer three main arguments, none of which holds up to close scrutiny. Why would they make these arguments? I would suggest the reasons are political and cultural, but not reasonable.
A Common Aramaic Heritage
This idea of a common Aramaic heritage would naturally result from the Arab conquest of the region in the eighth century. If any language biases arose from that conquest, it would be that Aramaic, a sister language to Arabic, was the historical, global language stretching from Africa to China. That claim is still made today by Arabs, of course. The other Aramaic people inhabiting that area today, including the Jews, would certainly share that prejudice. In doing your own research on this topic, you should know that you can identify the source of various articles on Christ's language depending on how Christ is referenced: Yeshua by Jews, Isa by Muslims.
However, we know that a number of other languages were also in use in the region. Of course, the Parsi language of Persia (Iran) was dominant in the region before the Greek conquest. This language survives today. This language has its roots in India not in Semitic. Other languages were Semitic, sharing roots with Aramaic, but not Aramaic. The Akkadian language of Babylon, the empire conquered by the Persians, is a good example. Before the Persian conquest, this language was spoken as far north as Mesopotamia. Of course, the Egyptian language was also spoken at the time. In Egypt today, Arabic is spoken, but the original Egyptian language survived among the Coptic people as late as the seventeen century, again as a family and community language where the common tongue, Arabic, is spoken in public.
The logic of this argument goes:
- The Greek common languages region spoke Aramaic in some communities then;
- Today, the common language of the region is Arabic Aramaic;
- Jesus spoke Aramaic.
In every common language area, we see local communities that use a traditional languages in their homes: the Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch are American examples. This does not mean that these people don't speak the common language in public.
The larger fact is that the Judea of the time was a crossroads of all of these languages. The common currency among all of these people's during this period was the Greek language.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
However, some of this prejudice toward Aramaic also arises from academics who study of the Dead Sea scrolls. They show a prejudice toward Aramaic. But how likely is it that those scrolls are representative of the common population? It is the work of a religious community, the Essenes, that prided itself on its separation from mainstream culture and especially from foreign influences. Such groups at the time would naturally have a prejudice toward the historical language of their people, rather than modern innovations.
The argument for Christ speaking Greek is not that the local people did not speak Aramaic, but that it was a "traditional" language, kept alive within families and communities, despite the dominant language being Greek. Indeed, we see Christ using it this way in the Gospels, speaking Aramaic to children in the homes and in times of stress. Think of the role of Spanish in areas such as California and New Mexico in America today. If they were addressing a crowd of any size, they would certainly speak English even though they might speak English at home. However, if they were at a site whose purpose was preserving Hispanic culture, which is what the Essenes were doing for the Judean people, they would almost certainly speak Spanish, not English.
The Writings of Flavius Josephus
Another piece of "evidence" for Aramaic comes from the writing of Josephus, the Jewish historian of the period. Almost every pro-Aramaic article will quote the following from is Antiquities of the Jews (XX XI):
- I have also taken many pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations, and so adorn their discourses with the smoothness of their periods; because they look upon this sort of accomplishment as common, not only to all sorts of free-men, but to as many of the servants as please to learn them. But they give him the testimony of being a wise man who is fully acquainted with our laws, and is able to interpret their meaning; on which account, as there have been many who have done their endeavors with great patience to obtain this learning, there have yet hardly been so many as two or three that have succeeded therein, who were immediately well rewarded for their pains.
There are a number of problems with this translation from the Greek, which I explore in detail in this article on the Greek of this quote. From my analysis, we cannot tell what Josephus was saying here about Greek language and the Jews here. He does not say "for our nation." The Greek says "for us." From the context, this seems to refer to the Jewish priestly class, whose knowledge he is passing on. He never even mentions the Jewish people as such in this discussion. He does use the word for "other nations" usually translated as "gentiles." But the entire translation used in this argument is far, far from what is said in the Greek. But let us imagine that the Greek doesn't matter and consider what the translators is saying that Josephus said in this translation of it.
He says he struggled to learn "proper" Greek. Proper Greek is not the common tongue, Koine, which is the Greek he language in which the NT was written. Why say "proper" Greek if not distinguishing it from local Greek, the common language, the trade language. When he said his people spoke "our own tongue," what is he saying? He could be referring to Aramaic as his own tongue, but he could also be referring to the local Koine, which was the local hybrid, assumable pronounce with an Aramaic accent and mixing in a few Aramaic words, as Christ did in his speaking.
Such local dialects are frequently considered their own language, even though they are understandable to others. For example, see the many languages of India, where Punjab and Hindi are both their own languages, but understandable to speakers of each. In the West, Italians and Spanish can in do converse, each using their own tongue. Closer to the region, Egyptian Arabic is another example. As a hybrid of both Arabic and ancient Egyptian, it has not only its own words but also its own consonants and pronunciation. Though it has no official statue in Egypt, it is the common language of the people. Other Arabic speakers may have trouble understanding Egyptian Arabic speakers, but Egyptian speakers can understand Arabic.
Who is the "us" here? If it is the priestly class, what was their reason for speaking their own tongue? Josephus tells us that speaking the "language of many nations" was considered "common." So speaking "our own language" made the elites special. This is the same type of thinking that would guide the language of groups such as the Essenes. Josephus said that speaking the common tongue was something that free men and servants did. In other words, the regular, lower class people spoke the common tongue as a practical necessity in a world economy in a world dominated by the Greek language. Only the elites at the top (or apart) from mainstream Judean culture had the luxury of speaking their own special tongue. Consider the evidence in what was written. The story of the Maccabees only exists in Greek. It tells the story of the politics of the era. The Talmud, however, was put together by the priestly class after the fall of Jerusalem was in Hebrew and later in Aramaic.
If Josephus is correct. Jesus and the apostles, common free men all, spoke Greek Koine, at least in their public dealings with others, not their "own language." From the Gospels themselves, which quote Aramaic occasionally and translated it to Greek, it seems to be clear that some Jews spoke Aramaic at home, in their families, while they spoke Greek in public, especially in setting that involved large groups of people from different areas and backgrounds.
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Note the he describes Jesus as one who drew over many Jews and many "Gentiles." Only the word translated here as "gentiles" is not the normal word used in the Gospels that means something like "foreigner." It is the word that means specifically means "Greeks" (Ἑλληνικοῦ). He uses the same word to describe the number of Greeks as the number of Judeans, "many." So, if we rely on Josephus, we either have to assume that the many Greeks knew the local tongue, Aramaic well enough to be drawn to someone who taught in it, or that the Jesus taught in Greek. , Remember, the area for hundreds of years was run by Greek speakers, who had their own cities on the east side of the Galilee. Since Greek was the "common tongue" for hundreds of years, it is easier to assume the later.
This passage also has an interesting aspect in that it says that Jesus taught people "with pleasure." This seems to indicate that people enjoyed listening to him. The Greek word, edone (ἡδονῇí) is not one that Jesus every uses, but it means "pleasure,"delight,"and in some senses, "humor." The form of this word is dative, which means "for pleasure." This seems a lot like we would say "for fun." Note that this is one of the few words used to describe Jesus's teaching. At some future time, I will dissect this Greek more carefully since I have found the translations of Josephus more problem filled than those of the Gospels. The Greek is below, linked to the Perseus library.
 Γίνεται δὲ κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον Ἰησοῦς σοφὸς ἀνήρ, εἴγε ἄνδρα αὐτὸν λέγειν χρή: ἦν γὰρ παραδόξων ἔργων ποιητής, διδάσκαλος ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἡδονῇ τἀληθῆ δεχομένων, καὶ πολλοὺς μὲν Ἰουδαίους, πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ ἐπηγάγετο: ὁ χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν.  καὶ αὐτὸν ἐνδείξει τῶν πρώτων ἀνδρῶν παρ᾽ ἡμῖν σταυρῷ ἐπιτετιμηκότος Πιλάτου οὐκ ἐπαύσαντο οἱ τὸ πρῶτον ἀγαπήσαντες: ἐφάνη γὰρ αὐτοῖς τρίτην ἔχων ἡμέραν πάλιν ζῶν τῶν θείων προφητῶν ταῦτά τε καὶ ἄλλα μυρία περὶ αὐτοῦ θαυμάσια εἰρηκότων. εἰς ἔτι τε νῦν τῶν Χριστιανῶν ἀπὸ τοῦδε ὠνομασμένον οὐκ ἐπέλιπε τὸ φῦλον.
While much of the research on Christ speaking Aramaic is interesting (see some here), much of it is also difficult to accept. For example, some claim that the entire NT, including the Epistles, was originally written in Aramaic and translated to Greek. This claim is driven by the same prejudices that cause academics to claim that Christ spoke Aramaic. For example, the examples cited at this other Internet site's research are taken from the Epistles, written to various Christian communities. Should we take these evidence seriously when we know those communities were mostly in Asia Minor and all spoke Greek, with other local languages, and not Aramaic? If any native language was used as a local language, it was more likely to be Parsi or even Akkadian, from the previous empires of the area. Again, Aramaic wasn't widespread in the area until the Islamic era over six hundred years later. It is hard to believe that the those who clearly spoke Greek, such as Paul, a citizen of Rome, would have written to communities that spoke Greek, communities of both Jews and Gentiles, in Aramaic.
The Simplest Argument for Greek
The simplest argument for Christ having spoken in Greek is the occurrence of Aramaic in the Greek of the Gospels. Many of this words are not translated in English versions of the Bible either. They can appear as single words such as "mammon", or as complete phrases such as "Talitha cumi" or "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?". In the later two cases, not only to the untranslated Aramaic phrases appear, but they are followed by a translation in the Greek of the Gospels. Again, it all of Christ's words were originally Aramaic and translated to the Greek, why would these words appear untranslated followed by their Greek translation? Why call attention to them as different unless they were different when they were spoken? These verses are:
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? meaning "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)
Talitha cum meaning “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41)
Ephphatha meaning “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34)
Raca meaning “fool” (Matthew 5:22) [NOTE: "Raca" could also be the Greek "rags", which seems more likely since no translation is provided for Greek speakers.]
Let us look at the most common Aramaic word Christ uses. One of Christ's catchphrases, translated in the KJV as "verily I say to you," contains an untranslated Aramaic word, "amen", which is translated into "verily". Of course, we are now familiar with this word because it has made its way into the English language for a special purpose, the ending of a prayer. But, why would a translator, translating all of Christ's words from Aramaic to Greek, skip this one word, not translating it, and then translate all the other Aramaic words of the phrase into Greek? In the case of "amen," there is a Greek word that has a very similar meaning, men, that also means "truly." Why not use it? Because Christ didn't. He spoke the words "amen lego humin" ("truly I say to you") mixing the Aramaic with the Greek. Why would he to this? Because it is a play on a couple of Greek words. For more on "amen", read this article on this phrase.
The Gospels themselves give us a good example of when words that are not translated from the source language. Some of the words used in English translation, for example, "synagogue" and "hypocrite", are Greek words, that are untranslated in English. What makes these words different from the Aramaic in the Greek Gospels? These words had already been adopted into the English language when the first Bible translation was made, likely from their original use in the Bible. In these two examples, the English word has a different meaning than the original Greek meaning. Synagogue doesn't mean a "Jewish church." In Greek, it means a "meeting place" generally, but it came to mean the meeting place for Jews in English, probably because that is how it is used in the Bible. Similarly, "hypocrite" means "actor" in Greek, but its meaning in English of a person who says one thing and does another comes from how Christ describes people as "actors" in the Bible. While using these English words may not be the most accurate form of translation, their use makes sense.
This is very different from the Aramaic words left untranslated in the Greek. A few Aramaic words perhaps had become common enough in the Greek used in the area to be used in translation. This could be true, for example, for "satanas" from the Aramaic/Hebrew "satan", which means "adversary". Like "hypocrite" and "synagogue", "satan" is used several times, as though it was a commonly used term. However, this is clearly not true for other words.
How do we know this for certain? Because two phrases are actually translated into Greek after their use in Aramaic. When Christ is quoted in Aramaic, for example, in Mar 5:41, saying, "Talitha cumi;" it is translated into Greek as "Damsel, I say unto you, arise." (KJV). Again, in Matthew 27:56, Christ is quoted as saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" This is then translated into "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" If all the Gospels were originally in Aramaic, this "translation" had to have been added when it was translated into Greek, but why? Why leave the original Aramaic in these two phrases if everything else was translated from Greek? There is nothing special about them. The only logical explanation for their appearing in the Greek Gospels as Aramaic is that there was something special about them: Christ said these words in Aramaic instead of the Greek he usually spoke.
There is even a stronger technical case for the "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" phrase because it is a quote from the Old Testament. Christ quotes the OT a lot in the Gospels, but in Greek. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, of course, but it was translated into Greek in the Septuagint. When Christ quotes it, he usually uses the wording from the Septuagint Greek or a close approximation. However, here, the Greek translation of this phrase is not the Septuagint version any more than the Aramaic is the Hebrew version. The Greek is clearly an original translation from the Aramaic by that the Gospel writer as the Aramaic was a local version of the OT.
This quote demonstrates three important things that we should know about translation and Christ from common sense. First, actual translations do not create the same exact words in one version to another. All the different version of English Gospels demonstrates this. Second, the Aramaic version Christ speaks here was influenced more by the version of the Bible than the Hebrew Bible. The Aramaic is closer, word-for-word to the Greek than the Hebrew version. Finally, this verse in the Greek must be ignored by those claiming there was once an Aramaic source for the Greek. Indeed, on-line Aramaic-to-English bibles do not include all of this verse, just the translation (see this example) nor, suspiciously, do academic articles on this topic (see this example) because explaining the complete version logically is impossible.
This verse may well give us insight into Christ's childhood language, his internal prayers, and the way he first learned the scriptures. For the evidence of all these points, see the article here on Matthew 27:46. This article about the verse, simply focusing on the words, is perhaps as important as the other common sense evidence presented here.
Other Arguments For Greek
Our main argument for Christ speaking Greek is the meaning hidden in the Greek itself. Much of that meaning doesn't translate easily to English. Much of it was lost specifically in the creation of the KJV, which is the historical source for many problems. More recent translations are getting better, but they cling to bad ideas set forth in the KJV because that is how Christianity has always been taught in English. We address this topic of hidden meaning in almost every post about the verses analyzed on this site. We give examples below, but there are too many extremely good examples to list here. This article is designed only to get you interested in exploring the posts here further.
References to the Septuagint
A strong secondary argument is based on Christ's references to what we call the Old Testament. If Christ was quoting the Hebrew or an Aramaic version (was there one?), his references would have been translated differently. In most cases, they are the close quotes of someone who had memorized the Greek version.
For a general example, the word "Beelzebub" was not used in the Hebrew Bible but it was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible. Christ, of course, uses the word in the Gospels. Exact quotes from the Septuagint are repeated in the Gospels in generally the same Greek. For example, in Matthew 13:14, Christ quotes the Septuagint's Isaiah 6:9 about people nearing but not understanding and seeing and not perceiving. The Greek in the Gospel is basically the same as the Greek of the Septuagint. In examining the Hebrew, this seems very unlikely if the original quote was in Hebrew or Aramaic because there are are many different common Greek words that mean "hear", "understand", "see," and "perceive." Translators of the Gospels would not by chance use the same terms by accident, at least not consistently. But we say the same Greek whenever Christ quotes the Old Testament.
Some may suggest that the Greek translators referred to the Septuagint to create the Gospel's language for Old Testament quotes. However, if this were true, it seems the wording would be exactly the same instead of basically the same. For example, in Matthew 15:4, Christ quotes two different sections of Exodus: Exo 20:12 and Exo 21:17. Both use the same Greek vocabulary, but in both the phrasing is different, dropping some pronouns and using different verb forms. Just as a person quoting something from memory would do. To believe we are reading a translation of Aramaic into Greek, we must believe that the Gospel translators went back to the Septuagint when quoting Christ Aramaic to get the Greek for it and then changed that Greek for some reason. Why wouldn't they just translate the Aramaic into Greek using the vocabulary they usually used or simply insert the appropriate quote from the Septuagint?
Another good example comes from Matthew 11:10 (click to see the article on it). In this verse, Christ quotes Malachi 1:3, but we can know for certain that he quotes the Greek, not the Hebrew. The Greek verse starts with a word meaning "look" or "behold", as does Christ's quote. The original Hebrew does not include such a word in it anywhere. It is a rhetorical flourish added by the Jewish translators. We can also know that this Greek is not an artifact, created by a translator, going back to the Septuagint to simplify translation, because the words are not the same words as those of Greek in the Septuagint. It is rather a paraphrasing or restatement of the verse.
Another instructive set of verses are in Matthew 15:8 and Matthew 15:9, (click to see the articles on these verses) which quote Isaiah 29:13. In Matthew 15:8, we see that the translators of the Vulgate (the Latin version of the Bible) went back to the Septuagint to get the complete quote from Isaiah and use it. Since the KJV translators worked from a Greek translation of the Latin, the complete quote appears in their version (as it does in several other translations). However, today's more historically accurate sources do not include the complete quote and so more modern translations do not include it. So historically, translators referred to the Septuagint and used it. However, in Matthew 15:9, we see the historical translators ignore the precise wording of the Septuagint in order to preserve a play on words, an alliteration, created by Jesus from the quote. To those translators, and anyone who studies Christ in the Greek, such wordplay is so typical of Christ, even when dealing with sacred Scripture, that they believed that it captured Christ's original words. Of course, none of this attention to detail makes sense and the wordplay is a just byproduct of translation is Christ really taught in Aramaic because then all the Greek is just an approximation of the original.
Some Historical Background
The area in which Christ lived had been under Greek domination for over three hundred years when Christ was born. Whatever language was dominant there before the rise of the Greeks (and it could well have been Persian Parsi or Babylonian-Akkadian), Greek was certainly the official language of the era and had been for many lifetimes. The question is: what was the common, everyday language?
First, let us start with what we know personally, not academic knowledge. What is our experience today concerning the language of indigenous people after a long period of occupation?
Simply ask yourself what language people speak in Latin America? Even though the vast majority of people in Latin America are of Indian descent, do they speak their original Indian languages or Spanish? What language did they speak 300 years after Spanish occupation, before modern schooling and communication? In even shorter periods of time, what language do people of Hispanic descent born in America speak? Spanish or English?
We could try to claim that the official language becoming the common language is a modern by-product of education, but the reality is that it is a historical by-product of economics and government. People speak the language of commerce and trade, where ever they are. Isolated tribes still trade and learn the common trade tongue.
In the case of the Jews in Galilee and Judea, the Jewish people did not even have the advantage of continuous occupation of their homeland. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC and was dominated as a kingdom first by Assyria and then Babylon. In 589 BC, Israel as a state was completely destroyed by Babylon. Its people were sent into exile in Babylon (modern Iraq). After the conquest of Babylon by Persia (modern Iran), they began returning to their homeland a generation and a half later, that Jews were allowed to return to Judea from Babylon. For hundreds of years, they were slaves of a people that spoke another language. Did the masters learn Hebrew and Aramaic or did the slave learn Akkadian, the language of Babylon and later Parsi, the language of Persia? The
It was about 539 BC when the Jews started returning to Judea, but that reentry took another four more generations. The Torah wasn't brought back to Jerusalem from Babylon until 428 BC. This is considered the starting point of the modern Jewish religion. Alexander conquered Persia, winning control of Judea, in 332 BC, only four generations after the return of the majority of Jews. The Greeks also conquered every other major kingdom in the region, most importantly, Egypt. After 332 BC, Greek became the official language of the region. This remained true after Roman conquest in 53 BC since Greek was the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Evidence of Greek Use Among Jewish People
What evidence do we have of Jews speaking Greek during this period? The Greek-language version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, is the strongest evidence. This work was begun in the third century BC, perhaps only a generation after Greek conquest. Was there an earlier Akkadian or Parsi Bible lost to time? We will never know. We do know that the Greek Old Testament was needed. Why was it necessary? Especially if all Jews learned Hebrew?
Supposedly, Ptolemy II, the Greek ruler of Egypt, paid for the Septuagint translation because the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, could no longer read Hebrew but could read Greek Koine. (The story sounds questionable. Why would Ptolemy, as a Greek ruler of an Egyptian people, care about preserving the holy book of the Jewish people? However, we do know that the translation work was performed in Alexandria. This means that a non-indigenous people in Egypt were not speaking Egyptian. This means that the local people, at least in Alexandria, were not speaking Egyptian. The Jews didn't choose Greek over the local language. They were speaking the local language because Alexandria was a city built by the Greek. The people Egypt in the country may have still spoken Egyptian, but the people of the cities were speaking Greek. What does that say about the likely popularity of Greek in Egypt and all of the Middle East several hundred years later?
We do know that the Septuagint was popular. It is the book quoted by the authors of the New Testament. The Gospel writers quoted the Greek Bible as did Paul in is letters. It seems to have been a well-known book both among Jews and Gentiles.
Double Meanings and Wordplay
However, as we have said, the most persuasive argument for Christ speaking Greek comes from the Greek source itself. Spending time with the Greek of Christ's words will gradually convince any serious student that the work couldn't be a translation. There is so much in it, especially double meanings and other wordplay, the makes sense only in the Greek. There are many to many examples to cite, but you can go through all the posts discussing them here. These posts currently show with the most recent first, even though that work doesn't follow the order of the Gospels themselves.
Scholars claim wordplay in Aramaic translation. They claim this proves that the Aramaic is the source. For example, in the parable of the mustard seed (Matt 13 31-32) has some wordplay in Aramaic, “It is smaller ( zearoya, in Aramaic) than all the seeds (zeraona). But when it grows (rabbath) it is greater (rabba) than all the herbs.”
While the similarity between rabbath (grows) and rabba (greater) sounds like a choice of words from the same root. This is a choice of the translator working from Greek into Aramaic. There are always many word choices in any language for general ideas such as "greater" and "growth." Think of all the synonyms in English. The similarity between zearoya (smaller) and zeraona (seeds) could easily be a coincidence or, again, the choice of the translator. We cannot know what words were actually in the "original" Aramaic if there ever was such a thing. All Aramaic Bibles today are translations from Greek. I suspect that the best of them are not the older translations, but the most recent since our Greek sources have gotten better over the years.
As far as any double meanings in any Aramaic Bible, it can only be an artifact of translation. Again, we have no original Aramaic Biblical sources from the era. All such Bibles are created by translators as the English versions are created by translators. As you can see from studying the posts on this site, much is lost in translation from Greek to English. This must also be true in translation to Aramaic. Certainly, nothing authentic can be gained because the source of the Aramaic is the Greek.
We see such constructed wordplay in English, for example, the poetic phrase, "Your kingdom come; you will be done." This rhyme doesn't exist in the original Greek and, for sake of the rhyme, the translation actually changes the meaning of Christ's words in a small but meaningful way.
However, in both the Aramaic and English wordplay cited above, the focus in the similarity or rhyming of words. This type of wordplay adds no new meaning. It cannot, since translation cannot add more meaning if the goal is to accurately translate the original.
Wordplay that seems to add new dimensions of meaning is common in Greek. So common that just today, before rewriting this article, the days post examined the phrase, "the Teacher and Master" in Jhn 13:13 that Christ reverses in Jhn 13:14 to "Master and Teacher." There seems to be no reason for this in English, but in Greek, the "and" is from kai which also means "as". So the first verse Christ his followers call him the "Teacher as Master." In English, we might call a great teacher a "master" as well. However, in the following verse, Christ describes himself as a "Master as Teacher," a Superior who is also teaching them. This makes perfect sense if you read the contents of Jhn 13:14 If I then, your Lord and Master. The topic is what he is teaching. His reversal of these words is clever, funny, and says something important about Christ's role. And it only works in Greek where an "and" is also an "as."
However, this raises the question, is the wordplay in the source Greek Gospels the creation of a translator or many translators?
The problem here is that many and perhaps most of Christ’s verses in the Gospel have double-meanings in Greek that are lost in English translation. While this could have arisen from the cleverness of the Gospel writers, it seems unlikely because we don’t find these plays on words commonly in the narrative. In Christ’s words, which are written in the most straightforward style possible, it abounds. In the narrative, it is largely absent. If the writers were such clever people, its seems we might find plays on words throughout the work.
There are so many double meanings in Greek that are lost in English that the work here, in general, might be described as uncovering them, but we should a couple that stand out. This list here is created from most recent posts because we added a special "field" in which we note wordplay. Wordplay seems much more common in Matthew and Mark that it is in John. Unfortunately, these are the oldest posts on the site, many written before we included the Greek and called out items of wordplay. This may be, as some believe, because Matthew and the other synoptic Gospels were taken from written notes (the "Q" document) quoting Christ. John seems to be much more likely to be written from memory. However, John still has plenty, as the example above illustrates. If nothing else, such wordplay is memorable, at least in Greek.
However, here are a few examples.
In Mat 18:8 (discussed here), for example, Christ says something that sounds pretty harsh: that you should cut off your arm or leg if it offends you. While that is the literal meaning of the statement, it is considerably softened in the Greek, where the word for “cutting off” (ekkoptô) also means “to bring to a stop.” And the word used for “crippled” (kullos) with a slightly different accent also means “bitter” or “angry.” So in Greek alone, we get a less grisly image, one with a double meaning. Instead of just lopping off limbs and becoming a cripple, Christ was also saying that is better to stop a part of your body and feel frustrated about it, than continue doing something that will destroy you. Given the context, we can imagine what "member" is frustrated.
As a somewhat simpler example is found in Mat 26:29 (discussed here), where, after he has consecrated the wine as his blood, Christ says that he will not drink “fruit of the vine” until he is in his Father’s kingdom. In this verse, the give away to a double meaning is use of gennêma to mean fruit. almost everywhere else in the Gospels, the Greek word used for fruit is karpos. Gennêma means “offspring” rather than “fruit.” So this brings in the double meaning “children of the vine” as well as “fruit of the vine.” These children of the vine are obviously his followers. He is the vine. The second meaning in Greek, that he will be with his followers again only in his Father’s kingdom, is a lot more significant than the only meaning in English, which seems trivial that Christ won’t be having any more spirits except in heaven.
Often, Jesus's word play unites seemingly separate ideas in separate versions, Just one example is the word translated as "look up" in Luke 21:28 And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up. This word offers word play, not only in the same verse with the following phrase, but with an earlier verse. All of these word plays are funny and complex, but could not happen by accident or design by a translator. They cannot be translated into English, only explained. See above link for details.
This type of wordplay and double meanings can happen by chance because there is a certain convergence in language. For example, using to the “cutting off” as “stop” example above, we see something similar in English when we ask someone to “cut it out” meaning to “stop it.” It happens so often that the translation format we use has a special place to call out such double meanings.
However, as I said, so many of verses of Christ’s words have a deeper and often a double meaning in Greek, it less likely an artifact of chance.
Christ Own History
First, we must remember that Christ was not raised in Nazareth, Galilee, or Judea. He was raised in Egypt. As we noted in the beginning of this essay, Alexandria in Egypt home of the Septuagint. It was also the primary source of the greatest Greek influence on Jewish history and culture. If Christ grew up in Egypt during this period, he not only almost certainly knew Greek, but his boyhood study of Judaism would have been heavily influenced by the Greek language and ideas.
This is not to say that the use of Greek by Jews was limited to Egypt. During the Roman era, Greek, not Aramaic and not Latin, was the cultural language of the Jewish people outside of Judea. According to this article by Jona Lendering, the breakdown of language among Jews in Rome was 76% percent Greek, 23% Latin, and only 5% Hebrew (Aramaic). In other words, most Jews in Rome spoke Greek, not Roman. This was likely true of all the Jewish communities of the Roman empire, where Christianity first arose. This is one of the reasons it is unlikely that the letters sent to the Christian communities would have been written in anything except Greek and why the New Testament itself was likely originally written in Greek. From its beginning, Greek was the language of Christianity because it was what the Jews outside of Judea all spoke.
So, Jesus almost certainly spoke Greek. Did he teach in it?
This has more to do with the makeup of Judea in the time of Christ and who his audiences were. The Bible specifically mentions people coming to him from Decapolis (Matthew 4:25) and Christ teaching on the shores of Galilee in Decapolis (Mar 7:31). The Decapolis was the Greek area of Judea. It was a federation of ten Greek cities and the center of Greek/Roman culture as opposed to Semitic culture during this time.
The people of this area, like the Jews outside of Judea, spoke Greek. Nazareth is of particular interest. The town called Nazareth today is a small, primarily Arab town, but in Christ’s time, Nazareth seems to have been the location of an important Roman bathhouse and garrison. As a mason, Joseph and Jesus probably both worked in the nearby palace of Sephori, which had a Greek theater. This may have been one of the reasons that Joseph and Mary, originally from Nazareth, chose to flee Bethlehem to the Greek-speaking Jewish people of Egypt rather than to other Jewish enclaves in the area. The Decapolis of Galilee and the Jews of Alexandria were culturally more Greek than other Jewish communities in the region.
So, if Christ was raised learning Greek, lived in a Greek-speaking area, and the Bible says that people from Greek cities came to hear him teach, what are the chances that he didn’t teach, at least some of the time, in Greek?
We might also factor in the fact that Christ was God. As God, he had foreknowledge that the Gospels would be spread in Greek. Knowing this, why wouldn’t he speak in Greek, at least some of the time, to make certain that his words were captured in the New Testament accurately. Of course, he could have put the job onto the Holy Spirit to make sure that the Gospel writers did a good job of translation (more of that later), but as the “word’ himself, he may well have taken a personal interest the language used. Why else was he put where he was and given the childhood exposure to Greek that he was?
This is not to say that he didn’t also teach in Aramaic. We know for certain that he spoke Aramaic because many of the words in the Gospels such as “satan” come from Aramaic, not Greek, sources. They do not appear in Greek until after Christ.
When a "foreign" language is quoted in the Gospels, that language is Aramaic. So Aramaic was certainly spoken in the region and spoke by Jesus. However, in reading the Gospel, this seems to be the exception, not the rule. It was exceptional enough to be noted when it happens.
The Consistency of the Greek of Christ’s Words
There is a final issue here. Christ’s Greek words in the Gospels are surprisingly consistent. Ancient Greek has a large vocabulary and flexible structure. Even Koine, or the “common” Greek of the Gospels, has a rich vocabulary. It seems likely that, if the Gospel writers were individually translating from the Aramaic, Christ’s words would come to us in a variety of flavors. However, they don’t.
Of course, there is a strong similarity in the language in all the Synoptic Gospels, even outside of quoting Christ’s words. However, Christ’s words, as expressed in Greek, are surprisingly consistent throughout the Gospels, even in John, which is so different from the other three Gospels in most respects. When a verse of Christ’s words appears in more than one Gospels, it almost always has the same words and same vocabulary. A verse of Christ’s words appears in John and one of the other Gospels more rarely, but when it does, the Greek is essentially the same. There are differences, but surprisingly little for texts that have completely different histories.
Idiosyncratic Word Order
For example, let us consider is the order of words. Greek has a more flexible word order than English. While English typically follows a pattern of subject-verb-object, Greek word order doesn't follow a strict pattern. Subjects can begin a sentence or end it. Verbs can begin a sentence or end it. Adjectives can appear before a verb or after it. Generally, the word order is described as "most important words first". However, this flexibility allows speakers to develop their own characteristic patterns. Christ has many idiosyncratic patterns. The most obvious pattern is putting keywords at the end of a phrase rather than the beginning. Of course, this is necessary for humor (see this article).
However, there are many minor characteristics in his speech that are distinctive. For example, he prefers the possessive pronouns after the nouns, "the kingdom of yours" rather than "your kingdom." We see these patterns in both the Synoptic and John's Gospels. Christ seemed well aware of his own special phrasing here. We can know this because, when he assumes the voices of other people (for example, Matt 7:22), he uses the more common way of saying this, putting the "your" adjective in front of the word instead of the possessive pronoun after the word. And again, this pattern is impossible to explain as an artifact of translation from Aramaic where no such patterns would exist.
Of course, the usual explanation for the similarities among the Synoptic Gospels, at least is that there is a single source for them, either Mark alone or Mark plus the Q document. Interestingly enough, one of the reasons Mark is seen as the source is because he more often quotes Aramaic, which is presumed to be the original language. There is also the idea that there was a separate lost “sayings gospel.” Fragments of such a sayings gospel have been found going back to 200 B.C. and may or may not have been the source for the non-biblical Gospel of Thomas. An older view is the Augustinian Hypothesis, that is, that Matthew was the original source, but with a twist. The modern preference for more recent theories comes both from our desire for novelty and our desire to think we are smarter than our forefathers.
It is harder to explain why such similarities in phrasing would be consistent between the Synoptic and John's Gospels. These Greek words in the Synoptic Gospels were most likely written down at the time rather remembered by those who heard Christ speak. Just as the Greek of Paul's letters are not a translation, but what he actually wrote and meant to say to the Greek-speaking churches to whom he wrote.