I just finished a fairly interesting book by J. Sevenster called
"Do You Know Greek" (Brill 1968), although the title should really have
been more like "Did They Know Greek", since the object of his investigation
was determining the extent to which 1st Century Palestinian Jews
could speak or write Greek.
Sevenster addresses that question motivated not only by pure historical
curiosity, which was the source of my interest, but also by certain
authorship questions, particularly regarding the Epistle of James,
on which the Greek competence of a purported author bears significantly.
The relatively high quality of the Greek prose in the Epistle of James,
both in vocabulary, large-scale structures, etc, makes some wonder
whether an unpolished Galilean could have written it. Sevenster begins
by reviewing the opinions of rows of pillars who pronounce emphatically
on both sides of this question, and he comes to the meta-conclusion that
most commentators decide on other grounds who wrote this Epistle
and then rate the Greek competence of James and his contemporaries
correspondingly high or low. Next, Sevenster casts doubt on the hypothesis
that James provided the well-known name and the basic material,
to which a Hellenistic Jew added polish. He reviews some of the
pervasive literary structure in the Epistle that would be difficult to
impose on top of a rough sermon, and he compares this hypothesis with
what we know of contemporary secretarial practice.
The main body of the book is an apparently thorough examination of the
historical evidence regarding Jews speaking Greek in 1st Century
Palestine. This includes the direct statements of Josephus and other
ancients, the sayings in the Mishnah regarding learning Greek and the
usage in the Mishnah of terms and ideas from the Greek, the language
and usage of inscriptions in the catacombs and ossuaries, the language
and usage of legal edicts, legal documents, synagogue inscriptions,
etc. in Palestine, the letters of bar Kochba to his underlings,
the pervasive influence of the Diaspora Jews who used Greek as their
primary language, etc, etc. While the evidence is ambiguous enough
that one cannot definitely say James was good at Greek, Sevenster did
convince me that some command of Greek was a very common accomplishment
for a Jew of Galilee or Judea. I compare its currency in a modern
setting to that of English in Quebec or Amsterdam, or that of Russian
in Dantzig, perhaps.
This book was very readable and I learned a fair amount from it.
If your knowledge of Hebrew/Aramaic is as slight as mine (very slight)
you might miss a few points, because little is translated.
...Recommended if the topic grabs you.
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