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.