Did Jesus Speak Greek? by G. Scott Gleaves (A Response Essay)

Sometimes I forget where books come from. But recently I received a book that I must have requested somewhere along the way – G. Scott Gleaves, Did Jesus Speak Greek? The Emerging Evidence of Greek Dominance in First-Century Palestine (Wipf and Stock: 2015). I have been fascinated by this question for some time, so I was keen to read this volume and see where it went. The author G. Scott Gleaves is the Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Ministry of V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies and Kearley Graduate School of Theology at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. After reading the book, I felt the existential pang to write up a response.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Rodney Eugene Cloud
  • Ch. 1 – Did Jesus and Hist Disciples Speak Greek?
  • Ch. 2 – The Emerging Dominance of Greek in First-Century CE Palestine
  • Ch. 3 – The Linguistic Proficiency in Greek of Some of the Primary Disciples of Jesus
  • Ch. 4 – Aramaic and Portions of the Greek New Testament
  • Conclusion & Backmatter

The Presence of Greek in Palestine

Gleaves opens by noting how the so-called Aramaic Hypothesis is problematic. To say that some kind of Aramaic source(s) lie behind the Gospels is questionable in Gleaves’ opinion, owing to the prevalence of Greek in the world of 1st c. Palestine. Gleaves proposes rather sweepingly that “within the region of Galilee in Roman Palestine in the first century CE, Greek became the dominant language spoken among Jews and Gentiles” (xxiv, emphasis original). No one doubts Jesus spoke Aramaic, as Palestine was distinctly multilingual in general. But to Gleaves, the Babylonian lingua franca had given way to Koine Greek, so the question he aims to address in the volume is whether Jesus also or even primarily spoke Greek (or other languages).

To answer this, he draws on a variety of sources. Here’s a small sample:

First, rabbinic literature seems to presume Greek was spoken among Jews in general, such as m. Meg. 1:8, which, although dated to the 2nd c. CE, may reflect earlier tradition:

Rabban Simion b. Gamaliel says, ‘Also: in the case of sacred scrolls: they have been permitted to be written only in Greek’

Secondly, diaspora Jews had spoken Greek for centuries by the time of Christ and long written in Greek (e.g., Philo). Moreover, NT authors often (if not mostly) cited “Scripture” (i.e., the OT) from its Greek version, the Septuagint. Specific to Palestinian Jews, Hengel has shown decisively the influence of Hellenistic culture in the region, and archaeological realia confirm that Greek was present in Palestine as early as the 3rd c. BCE, even if it was not the primary spoken language. Josephus too comments that he “labored hard” to learn Greek, though his “native tongue” prevented him from pronouncing it properly (Ant. 20.12). Moreover, nonliterary documentary evidence from the early 2nd c. CE has been found in Palestine, written in Greek and, moreover, even from a “Jewish nationalist perspective” that ordinarily eschewed things Hellenistic (13). Jewish signage from the mid-1st c. communicated with Gentiles in Greek also, demonstrating Jewish capability in the language at the time of Jesus (if also cultural-linguistic resistance).

Third, though the extrabiblical evidence is not conclusive, it is weighty and, says Gleaves, more convincing still when paired with biblical evidence (see 14-24). Most of his examples here deal with Jesus interacting with Romans, arguing that their linguistic common denominator would have been Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew (see John 7:35). But Gleaves argues also that Jesus would have “by necessity” learned Greek and used it in his home town of Galilee, likely close to Sepphoris in the Hellenistic Decapolis (18). And Jesus appears familiar with the Greek OT in Matt. 4, as do some NT authors (e.g., Acts 2). Also, Jesus’ use of certain Aramaic phrases in Mark (e.g., talitha cumi in 5:41) seems to indicate that Jesus accommodated to those who could only speak Aramaic, which suggests that Greek was the commoner language (23). Futher, Mark’s translation of these transliterated phrases into Greek indicates his audience did not understand Aramaic phrases well, if at all.

A Problematic Conclusion

This is all well and good (and generally persuasive). But I wish to focus on one major point that Gleaves makes. Having argued extensively for the predominance of Greek in 1st c. Palestine, Gleaves acknowledges the distinctly Semitic characteristics of NT Greek. In order to explain this phenomenon, he argues that in the period of transition between Aramaic and Greek in Palestinian Jewish communities, their Greek would have had a “Semitic flair,” (164) equivalent to a “hybrid” Palestinian dialect (quoting Robertson, 185). I will discuss this problematic claim in more detail below.

Reflections and Response

Weighing in at just shy of 190 pages, this monograph is on the shorter side when you consider the subject matter and universe of literature potentially involved. Still, a fair range of primary evidence is employed throughout aside from Scripture, such as Jewish literature, ostraca, papyri, inscriptions and so on. Overall, Gleaves has done a good job building his case for early-1st c. CE Jewish fluency in Greek and general Hellenization. It was, however, unclear to me that this case was based on much more than a synthesis of secondary literature. Where primary evidence is cited, in many (not all) cases the conclusion drawn from it is a block quote from another scholar who presumably cited the same evidence in her or his own work (e.g., 36, 39, 42, 45, 47, 48, 57, 60). There is a huge amount unexplored, nonliterary documentary evidence that is awaiting fresh investigation with Gleaves’ question in mind (e.g., here and here), however, and I was hoping to see some of that in this volume.

A “Palestinian Greek Dialect”

Furthermore, while Gleaves has a good grasp upon much of the relevant secondary literature, it seems that certain key resources on linguistics and the nature of Greek were overlooked, with unfortunate results. This pertains mostly to Gleaves’ conclusions about the nature of NT Greek, mentioned above. Gleaves has found an ally for his conclusion in Nigel Turner, who believed that the New Testament reflected a kind of Jewish Greek, a dialect that was “decidedly Semitic” and thus unique (5). From this claim Gleaves reasons that the NT, with its Semitic elements, reflects “a Palestinian Greek” (5, emphasis original). This conclusion is put most expressly in the final sentence of the book:

[A] distinctive dialect emerged within koinē Greek that characterized the way Jews utilized the Greek language. Therefore, what we have in the GNT is a hybrid Palestinian Greek –  koinē Greek with a Semitic flair – containing an admixture of Aramaic words used in private and semiprivate contexts along with Semitic linguistic peculiarities as spoken by Jesus, his disciples, and the Jews in Palestine during the first century CE (186, emphasis original).

There are a number of serious problems here, as this conclusion basically resurrects the old notion of a “Christian Greek” although now with a kind of geopolitical spin.

Firstly, Gleaves seems to be collapsing (or perhaps confusing) some linguistic categories, particularly dialect and register. For instance, he explains tersely in a footnote that the so-called “Palestinian dialect” was “contained” in the “lower form of koinē Greek” (5 n 22). But elsewhere he says that “the common language of Palestine was koinē Greek, of which the GNT is a perfect example of the dialect in written form” (185, emphasis added). This last statement seems to imply that the Koine itself is a dialect, which it is not, at least not without significant qualification. Koine was a (diverse) historical-linguistic phase of Greek as a language. Even if we grant the concept of a Jewish-Greek or Palestinian dialect, it is linguistically unsound to speak in terms of dialects being “contained” within register. Rather, register exists within dialect.

Secondly, Gleaves seems to diminish the linguistic importance of the Septuagint in his (brief) discussion of Semitic elements in his supposed Palestinian dialect. Though Gleaves does discuss the LXX on 54- 60, it is unfortunately not from a linguistic perspective, and he leaves out virtually every major scholar in the field. Jews had been speaking Greek in the diaspora for centuries by the time Jesus was born, and this produced a rich and variegated body of Jewish literature whose style and character the NT authors received. All this Gleaves seems to acknowledge in some form. But Jewish authors like Ezekiel the Tragedian and compositions like Wisdom of Solomon show how more educated Greek could be combined with the Semitic elements common in the Septuagint (1). This is where distinguishing grammar from register becomes so critical. The LXX is important not only for the new developments in the Koine that it produces within the Jewish religious milieu, but also for the natural linguistic developments that it encapsulates. Distinguishing the two is complicated business. More scholars are recognizing the need to carefully nuance discussion of how the LXX reflects natural or non-natural Greek, which is tied directly into questions of semantics, grammar, and register.

Finally, and much more detrimentally, Turner’s view of “Biblical Greek” as a “Jewish-Greek dialect” has been thoroughly disproved for at least fifty years now. The absence of seminal figures like Deismann, Thumb, Moulton, Shipp, and Lee, for example, from this volume is conspicuous at best. It certainly presents major obstacles – to put it mildly – for Gleaves’ conclusion. A brief but firm rebuttal to Gleaves’ whole conclusion on NT Greek can be found, for example, in G. H. R. Horsley’s article in the recent Encyclopedia of Greek Language and Linguistics (Leiden: Brill, 2014): 280-83. Also see footnote (2).

Deconstructing the Aramaic Hypothesis

For the record, I wholeheartedly support Gleaves in his endeavors against the Aramaic Hypothesis, which I find spurious. Gleaves’ case for the prevalence of Greek in Palestine by the 1st c. CE certainly persuasive. But the evidence that Gleaves successfully provides against the Aramaic Hypothesis on the one hand does not lead to the flawed concept of a Palestinian “dialect” on the other. Further, although this is perhaps unrelated, I had a niggling feeling throughout the book that there was an agenda involved. This comes out at the end of the introduction, where Gleaves says that he “will show that in many respects the GNT contains the very words that Jesus and his disciples spoke in Greek” (xxvi, cf. 1, 15). But this is problematic, and somewhat vague. Although the two are related, the question of whether or not Jesus spoke Greek is completely different from the question of whether the New Testament records his very words. Once we establish that Jesus spoke Greek, we must go on to ask the questions of whether and why that Greek is or is not identical to the Greek recorded in the NT. Gleaves seems occasionally to get sidetracked from the former in his concern for the latter.

Final Point

In conclusion, to my mind the most conspicuous and least understood factor in scholarly accounts of the “language” of the NT is the Septuagint, and by extension the under-studied corpus of nonliterary Koine Greek. Although many will point to the NT authors’ familiarity with the Greek OT per se, few will account for the massive socio-religious influence that it was on balance with the natural linguistic developments that it preserves. It is in the current scholarly discussion of the Greek of the LXX that one finds so much helpful material on the development and nature of the Koine in general. There is cutting-edge work going on here (e.g., Lee, Joosten, Aitken) that needs to be related to study of the Greek of the NT in the future.

_________________

(1) James K. Aitken, “The Language of the Septuagint and Jewish-Greek Identity”, in  James K. Aitken and James C. Padget (eds.), The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 120-34 (134).

(2) On this topic see, e.g., G. H. R. Horsley, “Res Bibliographicae: Divergent Views on the Nature of Greek of the Bible,” Bib 65 (1984): 393-403; Gregory H. R. Horsley, “The Fiction of ‘Jewish Greek’,” in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity (ed. G. H. R. Horsley; NewDocs 5: Linguistic Essays; North Ryde: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1989), 5-40. For a survey of the debate, see John A. L. Lee, A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch (SCS 14; Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), 11-30; J. W. Voelz, “The Language of the New Testament,” in Geschichte und Kultur Roms im spiegel der Neueren Forschung (eds. Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase; ANRW 2; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 25: 894-930. For a discussion of understanding the Greek of the Septuagint as part of the development of the language, see James K. Aitken, “Outlook,” in The Reception of Septuagint Words in Jewish-Hellenistic and Christian Literature (eds. Eberhard Bons, Ralph Brucker, and Jan Joosten; WUNTII 367; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 183-94.

11 comments

  1. Thank you for this helpful review. I appreciated each point made in your insightful critique. FYI: The first initial of the author’s name in the title of this blog post should be corrected to “G” rather than “R.”

  2. I would include the following as “…relevant secondary literature,” “key resources on linguistics and the nature of Greek,” and “seminal figures”:

    G. Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies: Contributions Chiefly from Papyri and Inscriptions to the History of the Language, the Literature, and the Religion of Hellenistic Judaism and Primitive Christianity, trans. Alexander Grieve (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, n.d.; 1979 ed., reprint of Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1923, combining both Bibelstudien and Neue Bibelstudien), esp. pp. 77, 80, also pp. 61-169, “Contributions to the Language of the Greek Bible.”

    Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, 4th rev. ed. of Licht vom Osten (Tübingen, 1909, 1923), trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.; 1978 ed.), pp. 62-69.

    Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974; 2003 reprint by Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR), pg. 58.

    C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953, 1959), pp. 1-4.

    James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, 4 vols., Vol. I: Prolegomena, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1978), I:1-32, esp. pp. 4-8, and 30-32.

    James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyrii and other Non-Literary Sources (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.; 1930 ed.), pp. vii-xx, esp. xi-xii.

    A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), pp. 49-51, 53-56, 66.

    1. Thanks! I agree with these recommendations. Some of these Gleaves does cite in his work (e.g., Hengel, Robertson), which is why I did not include them. But they are worth having here.

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