Nature of Koine-Fitzmyer summary

The following summary from Porter's book was prepared by Robert A. Lillo, 
one of my doctoral classmates in a course in Advanced [Koine] Greek Grammar. 
He may be contacted c/o me if anyone desires to do so. Rod Decker 

Joseph Fitzmyer, "The Languages of Palestine in the First Century AD," 
In _The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays._ JSNT supp. 
series # 60. Edited by Stanley E. Porter. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991.

I.  Overview of the Article

The major point of the article is to show that Aramaic was the most 
commonly spoken language in Palestine during the first century A.D.  Many 
Palestinian Jews, however, also spoke Greek and Hebrew, and Latin was used 
mostly by Romans for official uses.

II. Outline and Summary of the Article

    A. Introduction

    This section contains a brief historical sketch of how four languages 
(Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin) came into use in first century Palestine.
The Babylonian exile was primarily responsible for Aramaic supplanting 
classic Hebrew as the common language of the Jewish people in Palestine. 
Even written post-exilic written Hebrew shows an Aramaic influence.

    B. The Four languages of Palestine in the First Century

         1.  Latin

    Latin was introduced into the palestinian area with the conquest of 
Rome in 63 B.C. Consequently Latin was used for official purposes such as 
official documents and monument dedications.  With the secular examples, the 
"titilus" nailed to Christ's cross is cited, having been written in Roman, 
Greek, and Hebrew script (John 19:30).  There is little evidence of spoken 
latin during this period because Greek was the primary language of dialog 
among the various nationalities in the land at that time.

         2.  Greek

    The first major intrusion of Greek into the palestinian area is seen in 
the formation of the cities of the Decapolis which began several centuries 
before the first century.  Fitzmyer claims that 3 musical instruments in the 
Hebrew text of Dan. 3:5 are "slightly aramaicized forms of clearly Greek 
names" (favors a late date for Daniel?).  However, he adds a footnote that 
other alleged instances of this in Daniel have been shown to be words of 
Persian rather than Greek origin (page 136).  Some of the apocryphal books and 
the LXX itself are other forms of early Greek influence, though the article 
does not mention when these Greek works were introduced into Palestine (137).

    Fitzmyer disagrees with the view that a passage in Josephus argues 
against a widespread use of Greek among the Jews of first century Palestine 
(137-38).  His reasons are: 1) the abundance of Greek inscriptions in the 
temple area, buildings, and in cemeteries (but how does this indicate that 
Greek was widely used among "common" people?); 2) grain deals, marriage 
contracts, Greek shorthand notes, and Bar Cochba (?) letters found in the 
caves of Murabba`at were written in Greek (some of which is not very good 
Greek, 143)<1> the likelihood that Jesus spoke to Roman officials, such as 
Pilate, in Greek (145).<2> By the third and fourth centuries it is possible 
that Palestinian Jews spoke Greek more widely and frequently than Aramaic.

         3.  Aramaic

    Fitzmyer holds that Aramaic was the most commonly spoken language of the 
first century.  Qumran has many Aramaic texts.  Fitzmyer sees literary texts 
as an indication of common spoken language.  He also cites the testimony of 
bilingual texts dated between 125 and 132 A.D. (in Greek and Aramaic, 151).

    As to whether or not Greek was "taking over" the common Aramaic of first 
century Palestine, the answer so far is in the negative.  If that was the 
case, the first line of evidence would be a Greek influence on Aramaic 
vocabulary (loan words, spellings, transliterations, etc.), but there is not 
enough to show that it was occurring then (154).  Brief comments are included 
on the influence of Hebrew on Aramaic.<3>  Does "Gabbatha" point to an Aramaic 
word, a Hebrew word, or a Hebrew word influenced by Aramaic?<4>

         4.  Hebrew

    It is clear that Hebrew was still used in first century Palestine, but 
the evidence for its use is not as abundant as it is for Aramaic, but almost 
all of the evidence is from Qumran (159).  Take note of Jesus reading from the 
Hebrew scroll in Luke 4, Paul in Acts 21:40, and Jesus in Acts 26:14.<5>
Fitzmyer mentions some Aramaic influence on the Hebrew of the first century.


    The most commonly used language of first century Palestine was Aramaic.
Many Jews of this area, even those who lived in less Hellenized areas, also 
spoke Greek as a second language.<6>  Pockets of Jews in Palestine spoke

but its use was not widespread.  Not many conclusions can be derived from the 
influence of Greek on Aramaic, or Aramaic on Hebrew, the latter being the 
principle biblical problem.

III. Evaluation

    Fitzmyer's conclusion is not surprising, but some of his comments on 
biblical issues call for further investigation.  Does the word "Ebraisti" in 
John mean "in Hebrew" or "in Aramaic" and is there a difference  in meaning 
between that word and "Ebraidi" 1in Acts 21:40 and 26:14?


<1> On page 144 Fitzmyer approved of Moule's suggestion that in Acts 6:1 the 
Hellenists were Greek speaking Jews rather than Gentiles who had converted 
first to Judaism and then to Christ.  Also, he says that the "Hebrews"
mentioned in the same verse are not racial Jews as distinct from Gentile 
Hellenists, but are simply Jews who spoke Hebrew rather than Greek.,

<2> But Fitzmyer would not see this as proof that the Gospel writers are 
quoting Jesus directly--without translation.  It doesn't settle whether Jesus 
usually spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew.

<3> E.g., "the conjunction "im" (if) instead of "hr" or "an" (156).

<4> In his recent commentary on John, D. A. Carson says it is Aramaic (_The 
Gospel According to John_ [Erdmans, 1991], 603).  On page 242, Carson says
in each of John's five occurrences "Ebraisti" refers to the Aramaic language 
(John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16).  He cites Paul Ellingworth in BT 37, 1986 

<5> Though this would only be asserted by "literalists" (161).

<6> But this was not taken for granted as the soldier's comment to Paul 
reveals, "Do you speak Greek?" (NIV, Acts 21:40).

Posted by:
Rodney J. Decker
Assistant Professor of Greek and Theology
Calvary Theological Seminary, Kansas City
(94-95 sabbatical explains the Univ. of Wisc. address!)