What languages did Jesus speak?

Jack Collins (103063.42@compuserve.com)
07 May 96 11:41:00 EDT

Burgy's posting of 5/4/96, "Jesus spoke Greek fluently", has a list of arguments
for Jesus' ability to speak Greek. I do not have time before the end of this
semester to address them seriatim; I'll just have to point out that, from the
point of view of a philologist (that's me), they don't work, and are
exegetically misleading.

However, philological research has pretty well establshed that the linguistic
situation among first century Palestinian Jews was trilingual: Hebrew (not
exactly Biblical Hebrew, though), Aramaic, and Greek. These languages were used
in various social settings (e.g. Greek was for speaking with Hellenistic
Gentiles in commerce and govenrment).

There are valid and invalid conclusions to be drawn from this. The
interpretation of the Gospels needs to be based on the act of communication
between their authors and first readers; and the evidence that the Gospels were
composed in Greek is solid. This means they were meant to be read as Greek.
That doesn't rule out peculiarities and specialised word usages; but it does
rule out the practise of some who "back-translate" into a supposed Semitic
original, and make that back-translation the object of interpretation. Among
other problems with such an approach, there is the simple fact that the Greek
exists independently of us and is intelligible; the Semitic back-translation
only exists as a construct of someone's mind (however bright that mind may be).
Thus empirically-oriented people will go with the Greek.

For references on the linguistic situation, see Randall Buth, "Language use in
the first century: Spoken Hebrew in a trilingual society in the time of Jesus",
_Journal of translation and textlinguistics_ 5:4 (1992), 298-312 (an SIL
publication); and Stanley Porter, "Did Jesus ever teach in Greek?", _Tyndale
Bulletin_ 44:2 (November 1993), 199-235, and their bibliographies.

Jack Collins
Covenant Theological Seminary
St Louis, MO