Jesus spoke Greek

By Deirdre Good

Did Jesus speak Greek? Yes. It’s well known that Jesus spoke Aramaic in certain situations: when healing a young woman and a blind man, when praying in Gethsemane and dying in agony on the cross. In each case, a gospel writer provides a translation into Greek, presumably for an audience to whom Greek was familiar. Paul also knows and transmits Aramaic words: “Abba” and “Maranatha.” Sometimes he uses them alongside their Greek equivalents: “Abba, Father” and other times he simply writes “Maranatha!” preserved by the KJV but translated by the NRSV, “Our Lord, come!” Of course Paul spoke and wrote in Greek. But it’s less well known that Jesus spoke Greek. What’s the evidence? And why might we find it interesting?

Here are four passages as evidence. In Mark 7:24-30, a Syrophoenician woman seeks out Jesus, who is in the region of Tyre. Mark specifically identifies her as Greek, “a Syrophoenician by birth.” She asks Jesus for healing for her daughter and he responds in Greek, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” They continue to dialogue until Jesus declares that her daughter is healed. The woman returns to her house to find her daughter healed. No translation is given and no translator mentioned. Jesus and a Greek woman speak Greek together. There’s a version of this encounter in Matthew and the same argument could be made of that passage although the woman is identified differently and she and Jesus have a longer dialogue.

In John 12:20 some Greeks came to Philip asking to see Jesus. Philip tells Andrew and they both tell Jesus. The text doesn’t report Jesus’ refusal to see or speak with them. So presumably he meets and speaks with them in Greek.

Both Matthew and Luke report an encounter of Jesus with a centurion who asks Jesus to help his paralyzed servant. They have a dialogue and the end result is that the servant is healed. Jesus describes the centurion as a Gentile: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” (Matthew 8:10).

In Mark’s trial narrative, Jesus is handed over to Pilate. Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus answers, “You say so.” Pontius Pilate is the Roman procurator of Judea and would not have known a Semitic language. No translation of their exchange is given or interpreter mentioned. Jesus’ words are reported in Greek. Of course Pilate spoke Latin but Jesus did not.

In each of these four cases when the gospels report that Jesus speaks Greek he does so in response to requests. None of the requesters spoke a Semitic language, and no interpreter is present for their exchange.

These four cases indicate that all the New Testament gospels report that Jesus speaks Greek on different occasions and with different people. In Jesus’ world, Greek was the common language uniting disparate peoples. People spoke other languages as well as Greek, but speaking a little Greek would be practical, even good for business. There are many examples of Jewish ossuaries with Greek inscriptions. Of course, the gospels are transmitted in Greek so preserving Jesus’ words in Greek is easy. But Mark’s audience only knows Greek so Mark translates Jesus’ Aramaic words for their benefit. Indeed, scholars have noted that Jesus’ Greek speech in Mark is more formal than the Greek of the narrative. Jesus’ Greek has been “improved” by transmitters of his speech.

Now Jesus doesn’t have long conversations or exchange many words with Greeks. But Jesus hears and responds to Greek speaking people in their own language. Jesus met people where they were. Jesus didn’t force people to conform to his smaller linguistic comfort zone of Aramaic. He learnt the lingua franca. Jesus doesn’t use his knowledge of Greek to proselytize. He uses Greek to enter the world of others so as to consider and respond to their requests.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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12 Comments
  1. Many thanks for your post. I am sharing it with my students here at St. Catherine’s.

    I am glad you continue to share some interesting parts of your scholarship in a way that even non NT scholars can comprehend!

    Have a great day!

    Peter Carey+

    http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com

  2. Deirdre Good

    Peter,

    You will find a link to a few pages from a chapter by Stanley E. Porter “Language and Translation of the New Testament,” on my blog from a 2006 book, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies (Eds. John William Rogerson & Judith Lieu, Published by Oxford University Press) which situates my tiny piece in a larger discussion.

    All I am doing here is trying to draw out some implications. I’m glad you find them accessible. Your students will contribute more interpretations!

  3. Derek Olsen

    Great topic! …And one that has occasioned no little controversy through the years. (Though you’ll get no disagreement from me on this one!)

    For me it raises two other fascinating questions: 1) what does his knowledge of Greek say about his social status and standing, if anything, and 2)–speaking of languages–did he read Hebrew? (Certainly Luke thought so…)

  4. Donald Schell

    Deirdre, do we have any idea whether there were Jews in Galilee who spoke Aramaic as their second language? How far from Jerusalem did you have to travel before finding Jewish communities that knew no Hebrew at all?

    And Derek, I think I remember learning that there were Aramaic-speaking synagogues in Galilee. Don’t know it their scriptures would have been in Hebrew or Aramaic, though, as I recall promoting a universal practice of reading the scriptures in Hebrew didn’t come to synagogues until the early second century.

  5. Deirdre Good

    Derek,

    Thanks for your comment which I do appreciate!

    I agree with you about Luke’s view of Jesus, namely, that he did read Hebrew (Luke 4:16). And he read it in public. Reading and speaking in public indicates a different linguistic register, in this case a more formal use. To Luke’s portrait of Jesus’ use of Hebrew in public we could link Luke’s record of Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate in Greek (Luke 23:3). And Luke’s Jesus is comfortable in public settings, enough to advocate not sitting in places of honor (14:8). All this speaks to Luke’s view of Jesus’ social status.

    Donald,

    Thanks for your comments. We do have the first century example of Philo of Alexandria who appears to know no Hebrew at all. But that’s Alexandria not Galilee.

    The mother-tongue of Josephus is Aramaic (and he probably knew Hebrew) but Josephus writes in Greek because it is the international language and has prestige. No traces of Aramaic subsist in his Greek.

    Here’s another fascinating question: Did Jesus speak Greek with an accent?

  6. Derek Olsen

    Donald,

    Yes, I ‘m assuming that the *first* language of Jesus and his contemporaries was Aramaic, not Hebrew. Recent biblical scholars using social scientific methodologies have suggested that Hebrew was relatively rare and existed primarily as a written rather than spoken language.

    What language was being read in the synagogues is an open question; we do have Aramaic translations of the Scriptures (the Targumim) but scholars have been rolling the date back on them in recent years. None survive that we can date with certainty before AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem.

  7. David Austin Allen

    So what would have been the everyday language of the conversations of Jesus during the final days of his life in Jerusalem while speaking in the Temple, conversing on the street, dining in folk’s homes? Aramaic? Hebrew?

    It is apparent from the Matthean account regarding his denial of association with Jesus, that one of the things that gave Peter away as a disciple was his accent! (Perhaps, also his manner of dress?) But accent in which language?

  8. Kris Lewis

    I’ve been fascinated by the notion that Jesus spoke Greek ever since I first encountered it in seminary. I wonder, with regards to a previous comment, what the chances are that Jesus actually read from the LXX in the Luke passage? One commentary I read indicated that even some synagogues in Jerusalem would’ve been using the LXX during the 1st century.

    I’ll point this piece out to my bible study group. Thanks!

  9. Donald Schell

    One thing I’m enjoying about this thread is remembering (from reviews – didn’t see the film) that Greek doesn’t appear in Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Were there people in Jesus’ Galilee and Jerusalem speaking Latin? Deirdre, wasn’t Greek was the (odd term here) Linga Franca of the empire?

    donald

    Donald

  10. Deirdre Good

    Donald,

    The Chicago Tribune in March 2004 ran an article by Nathan Bierma, “The Jesuit scholar who translated ‘The Passion'” namely, Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fulco translated the Fitzgerald-Gibson script.

    “The use of multiple languages in the film reflects the linguistic diversity of Palestine during Jesus’ life. Most people spoke Aramaic, which the Jews adopted while exiled in Babylon in the 6th Century before Jesus’ birth. Hebrew, their language before the exile, was retained in religious writings and liturgy (and is spoken by Jesus in prayer in “The Passion”). Latin was spoken by the Roman soldiers occupying the region. Greek was spoken throughout the Roman Empire, thanks to Alexander the Great, but was seen as a sign of secularization and thus resisted by many Jews.”

    Fulco left Greek out of “The Passion,” substituting Latin in occasional cases where Greek might have been used. He also made mostly imperceptible distinctions between the elegant Latin of Pilate and the crude Latin of soldiers, thanks to an X-rated source he found on his shelf.

    “I tracked down some obscene graffiti from Roman army camps,” Fulco said. “Somebody who knows Latin really well, their ears will fall off. We didn’t subtitle those words.”

    (End of snippet).

    In the movie, Pontius Pilate speaks to Jews and Jesus in Aramaic and Jesus responds in Latin. This is an exercise in imagination!

  11. Derek Olsen

    Heh–yeah, I caught some of that dialogue. You’d be amazed what you find in the old teaching literature: there’s a 10th century English monastic dialogue that teaches its students how to swear fluently… 🙂

  12. Deirdre Good

    David Austin Allen,

    Thanks for the post. If Peter was speaking to Jewish servants in a Jewish High Priest’s Courtyard, then he was probably speaking Aramaic with a Galilean dialect.

    But what were the features of this dialect? Peter’s words are transmitted in Greek. If it was phonetic or lexical it would be hard to detect. After all, phonetic or lexical variations are not evident in written speech of a Brit vs. an American.

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