Re: What Language(s) Did Jesus Speak?

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Wed Mar 05 1997 - 09:21:10 EST

None of those posting to this thread would (if I read their comments aright)
deny that Jesus spoke Aramaic. At issue is whether he spoke, and taught in,

A pioneer of modern scholarship about this issue was Alexander Roberts, who
published a detailed examination of the evidence for this in a series of
related books, notably in "Greek The Language of Christ and His Apostles"
(1888). Another major treatment of this question is the book "Do You Know
Greek?" by Professor J N Sevenster (Brill, Leiden, 1968).

To summarize the most significant evidence that Jesus did know, and teach
in, Greek:

(a) Mediterranean world: "The koine was a world speech and meant to be
understood by merchants, travellers, statesmen, soldiers all over the
Graeco-Roman world ... So Paul wrote to the church in Rome in Greek ...
Christianity arose in the very century when the koine reached its height as
a world speech." (A T Robertson, "A New Short Grammar of the Greek New
Testament", Harper/Baker, pp.13-14). We may also note that the Letter to the
Hebrews was written in Greek, not Aramaic.
(b) Galilee: Galilee was referred to as "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Matthew
4:15). The inhabitants of this territory had readily and extensively adopted
Hellenistic culture and language - so much so that the Jews of Judea
deplored the enthusiasm with which they embraced it. As other comments on
the list have noted, it is quite unrealistic and contrary to the evidence to
affirm that Jesus could have grown up and then travelled and ministered so
widely in Galilee without having a thorough familiarity with Greek.
(c) Judea: Yet even here the Greek tongue had made significant inroads.
Earlier postings to the list have drawn attention to the huge proportion of
funerary inscriptions in Israel which wre in Greek. I myself used to own
Jewish coins from the NT era on which the inscriptions were in Greek. The
inscription on the cross was in Latin, Aramaic, and Greek (John 19:20). In
the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple there was a notice in Greek warning
Gentiles about proceeding further.

(a) We have not grounds for believing that Pilate spoke Aramaic, or that
Jesus spoke Latin; when therefore in the Passion narratives we have a record
of them engaging in conversation this is clear evidence that they were using
the language they held in common, Greek.
(b) In 7:26 Mark expressly mentions the woman who was a Syrophoenician by
race, and a Greek, i.e. whose language and culture was Greek. It would thus
be in this language that she conversed with Jesus - there is no point in
Mark drawing attention to her being an "Hellenis" if the subsequent
conversation took place in Aramaic.
(c) Comments on the list have referred to some other places where the
balance of probability is that the conversation took place in Greek: e.g.,
with the Greeks who had wanted to see Jesus (John 12:20-22).

(a) The evidence for arguing that Hebrew was a living language in Jesus's
day, and that he spoke it, is less clearcut, and it would seem to me we can
be much less dogmatic in making any pronouncements about it, one way or the
(b) Edward Hobbs has drawn our attention to the opinion of J P Meier, who
concludes that Jesus's Greek was of a practical and business type,
rudimentary at best, and not a vehicle for his teaching. But the total
weight of evidence leads many (myself included) to come to a very different
conclusion, that Jesus was completely at home in Greek, and that some of
Jesus's teaching and conversaqtino would have been in ARamaic and some in
Greek. The determining factors of course would have been (i) what was the
most appropriate language to employ in speaking to his audience of a
particular occasion, and (ii) what would best express the meaning he wished
to convey upon a given occasion. For example, some of the wordplay in Greek,
including what we find in John 21:15-19, which is the root whence this
discussion arose, may well go back to Jesus's choice of Greek as the
language in which to speak on a given occasion.
(c) Thus sometimes in the Gospels we have a translation of what Jesus said
in Aramaic, and at other times we have a record of the actual words of Jesus
in Greek.
(d) The difficulty, of course, is deciding which is which in any given
instance. But this conclusion gives fresh interest to the examination of the
record of what Jesus said, to see what may be detectable as to whether it
was something originally said in Greek. I enjoy looking at the record of
Jesus's words in Greek from the perspective of these considerations.

Ward Powers

Rev Dr B. Ward Powers			Email:
10 Grosvenor Crescent			International Tel: +61-2-9799-7501
SUMMER HILL  NSW  2130			Australian Tel:     (02) 9799-7501

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