New Testament Studies

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.

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(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.

LXX Scholar Interview: Dr. W. Edward Glenny

It has become one of my favorite tasks for this site to put together a post for my Septuagint Scholar Interview series. It’s always a pleasure to learn more about others who have been active in the field for some time. We are now on the fourth installment, and if you pop over to the interview page using that link up there, you’ll see that I have a few others lined up that should be interesting reading.

Dr. W. Edward Glenny

Dr. W. Edward Glenny

But today we have a great interview with a real, live Septuagint scholar, Dr. W. Edward Glenny. I met Ed several years ago at an IOSCS session at the SBL national meeting, and we have gotten to know each other through that venue ever since. Ed and his wife also spent several months at Tyndale House, Cambridge, where I conduct my research, so he has become a good friend. He is also a fellow member of the steering committee for the brand new Septuagint Studies session at the annual ETS national conference.

For the past four years Ed has been the endowed professor of New Testament Studies and Greek at the University of Northwestern, St. Paul. He is one of those rare breeds that holds not one, but two doctoral degrees, both Th.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota (as you’ll read about below). As you can see by flipping over to his faculty page, Ed has a long list of academic publications, many of which are related to the Septuagint, especially his focus area, the Twelve.

The Interview

Without further delays, let’s hear from Ed.

1) Can you describe how you first became interested in LXX studies, and your training in the discipline?

My first contact with the LXX was through a class on the LXX with Allen Ross during my doctoral program at Dallas Seminary. I audited the course with Dr. Ross, and it was partly because of that course that I wanted to write a dissertation on the use of the OT in the NT for my doctoral program at Dallas. I began to use the LXX in my dissertation at Dallas on the use of the OT in 1 Peter. After I finished that project I felt like I wanted to learn more and improve my language skills further, so I enrolled in a graduate program in classics at the University of Minnesota. I majored in Greek, and my second ancient language was Hebrew. So, with my emphasis on those two languages the LXX was a natural topic for my dissertation at Minnesota, and I wrote on the translation technique in LXX-Amos. That dissertation was published in Brill’s Supplement to Vetus Testamentum series (Finding Meaning in the Text: Translation Technique and Theology in the Septuagint of Amos), and it was really my entry into LXX studies. I was able to spend time at Tyndale House at Cambridge University while I was researching and writing my dissertation on the LXX, and Robert Gordon and some of his students who were working in the LXX were a great encouragement and help to me in my work.

2) How have you participated in the discipline over the course of your teaching and writing career?

I have presented papers in the IOSCS section at the annual SBL meetings, and I have also presented at the triennial international meetings of the IOSCS. I have also had the privilege to write several book reviews, articles, and books on the LXX. In addition to my dissertation I have published three commentaries in Brill’s Septuagint Commentary series, the commentaries on Hosea, Amos, and Micah. Among other articles, I contributed the article on the Introduction to the Twelve in the LXX in Brill’s forthcoming work The Textual History of the Bible. In the days ahead I am looking forward to writing several other volumes for Brill’s Septuagint Commentary series, as well as a handbook on the LXX of Amos for Baylor University Press.

4) How has the field changed since you’ve been involved?

I think that I can give a general answer to this question. The field is becoming more sophisticated and complex, and scholars continue to build on the work of previous generations and go to greater levels of depth in the study of the LXX text. Continued study has resulted in more comparison of the LXX with other contemporary literature and with more detailed studies of the Septuagint itself.

5) For the benefit of graduate students who are potentially interested in

LXX studies in doctoral work, what in your opinion are underworked areas and topics in need of further research? I think that the area of translation technique is one of the most important areas of research that will continue to provide opportunities for work in the LXX for years to come. This is because the study of translation technique is wide-ranging and complex and can be applied to a LXX text in many different ways.

6) What current projects in Septuagint are you working on?

My main LXX project right now is a review of the T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint, edited by James K. Aitken. I published a commentary on LXX-Micah in early 2015, and now my main project is a New Testament commentary (1 Peter). But as I mentioned above I am looking forward to working in earnest on the LXX again in a year or so.

7) What is the future of Septuagint studies?

The future of Septuagint studies is very bright! There are many young scholars working in this area, and previous generations of scholars have provided them with some excellent tools to use in their studies and more LXX resources and studies are being published every year. I anticipate that the field will continue to grow and flourish.

Wrapping Up

Thanks to Ed for being willing to answer these questions! As I mentioned, stay tuned for further interviews in the near future. If you have a suggestion for a later interviewee, or a question you’d like to see added, please let me know in the comments.

A Review of Comfort’s “A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament”

While it may seem a little bit out of my usual strike zone on this blog, I was interested in having a look at the newest edition of Philip Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament (Kregel Academic, 2015), pp. 448, hardback. My work and research interests are grounded in all things Old Testament, however much of my daily grind involves a fair bit of heavy-duty textual-criticism in the Greek versions of the Bible. Doing research in the Septuagint version of Judges requires that I dive into the manuscript evidence for that Greek translation, and one of the side-effects of doing so is that I am interested in New Testament textual-criticism as well.

This handy volume is billed as “an up-to-date commentary on all the significant manuscripts and textual variants of the New Testament,” and it certainly lives up to its description. It’s cleverly shaped just like your NA27 (or if you’re cutting-edge and nit-picky, your NA28), and so it sits nicely next to your Greek New Testament and, of course, your Rahlfs-Hanhart Septuaginta.

The essential purpose of this book is to provide a passage-by-passage guide to textual reliability, the variants, and specific translation issues that arise in the New Testament. Additionally, Comfort has commented upon the qualities of the manuscripts that make up the textual evidence for the New Testament in order to help the scholar and exegete evaluate significant textual issues. When you come across a variant in the NT text, deciding between readings must be based upon a number of factors. As the famous NT scholars Westcott and Hort stated, knowledge of the documents where the variants are found must precede decisions about the textual variants themselves. These external factors that influence text-critical decisions include the tendencies of the scribe of a particular manuscript (including scribal reception), textual purity (i.e., number of variants compared to other witnesses and/or the supposed autograph), approximate date, region of discovery, and so on. In turn, the internal factors for text-criticism rely upon the so-called “Canons” of the discipline, such as proclivi scriptoni praestat ardua (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). These are briefly but helpfully explained by Comfort on pp. 29-31.

If you have ever undertaken serious NT textual criticism – or even had to write a graduate paper that wades through this area of scholarship – then you already know how useful a tool like this book will be for doing much of this spadework for you and getting huge amounts of data into concise and centralized format.

What’s in the Book

Comfort spends the first two chapters of the book dealing with various textual issues in the NT, and providing his annotated list of NT manuscripts. In chapters 3-9, he then walks through the NT books in chunks as follows:

  • Ch. 3 – Synoptic Gospels
  • Ch. 4 – Gospel of John
  • Ch. 5 – Acts
  • Ch. 6 – Pauline Epistles
  • Ch. 7 – Hebrews
  • Ch. 8 – General Epistles
  • Ch. 9 – Revelation

I was quite pleased and surprised to find that Comfort has also included some interesting and useful material on the Nomina Sacra, and their relevance to textual-criticism (see pp. 31-41, Appendix II). Best of all is that this material is directed towards NT text-criticism and also aspects of the Greek Old Testament where the divine names are also a prominent textual issue.

Reflections

Not specializing in New Testament textual criticism per se, I do not have much negative feedback. However, from that perspective I must say that I found myself wishing there was a Glossary of Terms in this volume. No doubt, Old Testament and New Testament textual criticism operate on similar principles in some ways, but in other ways these tasks are quite different. I think the average reader would likely benefit from a clarification of terms used throughout a book like this. Nevertheless, this book is a must-have for students of New Testament, and considering the fair price it is a worthwhile investment.

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Thanks to Kregel Publications for the complimentary review copy, which has not influenced my opinions.