Skip to content

On Linguistic and Textual Complexity in First-Century Christianity

September 7, 2015

In responding to an excellent paper at the British New Testament Conference held here (3-5 September), I recalled the need to take account of the linguistic situation of first-century Judaea.  We are accustomed to refer to the everyday use of Aramaic as the principal native language of the time, but we should also note that, especially in urban centres such as Jerusalem, we’re really dealing with a rather heavily bi-lingual setting.  It is evident that Greek was (and for a long time had been) used quite a good deal, and that for many Jews Greek was their first language.  This is reflected in the portrayal of the Jerusalem church in Acts of the Apostles, with a strong contingent of Greek-speaking Jews alongside the Aramaic-speaking Jews making up the church.

These Greek-speaking Jews had likely relocated to Jerusalem from their birthplaces in various Diaspora locations, where they had grown up with Greek as their primary language.  The now-famous Theodotus Inscription reflects this.  It is a dedicatory inscription for a synagogue established in first-century Jerusalem for Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora.

Similarly, especially in light of the biblical manuscript finds in the Judaean desert (e.g., Qumran), we now know that the text of biblical (“Old Testament”) writings was more diverse than some earlier generations of scholars realized.  The familiar form of the Hebrew text (the “Masoretic” text) is attested, but so are other variant-forms, including Hebrew texts that seem to form the basis for some of the distinctive features of the Greek translation (sometimes referred to as the “Septuagint”).

All this means that earlier suppositions that a term or concept derived from Greek must reflect a secondary, later, perhaps Gentile circle of early Christianity are now shown to be simplistic.  If the earliest circle of Jerusalem-based believers included both Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking people engaged in active cooperation and fellowship, then the development of earliest beliefs, and the activity of earliest scriptural exegesis among the young Jesus-movement could well have drawn in terms and concepts from both languages . . . from the outset.  Moreover, the influences could well have gone in both directions, for we should not presume that in the Jerusalem church of that day Greek-speaking Jews deferred to Aramaic-speakers.  Instead, there was likely a very lively sharing of insights and discoveries.

And, given the textual diversity of that time as well, we should not imagine that their textual resources were confined to what we know as the Masoretic and Septuagint forms.  There was diversity in the text of the Hebrew biblical writings, and also some diversity in the text of the Greek translation of these writings. And any/all forms were likely regarded as “scripture,” giving a wealth of textual resources on which to draw as earliest Jesus-followers sought to understand their experiences and sought to frame ways to articulate and justify their beliefs.

From → Uncategorized

18 Comments
  1. Hmmm…this is a characteristically sharp and stimulating post. Thanks! I know a man in Christ, however, who just a few days ago delivered a paper on similar topics. I won’t go on boasting about all his points, but a few are worth mentioning. (1) The general point about the diversity of ‘text forms’, which is incontrovertible, doesn’t rebut the specific point that in the evidence we have the tetragram, even in Greek manuscripts, was reproduced in one archaic form or other and not as ‘kyrios’. Therefore, if one were to postulate that early Christians exploited the two ‘Lords’ of Psalm 110.1, s/he would not be assisted in turning from the Hebrew manuscripts to the Greek manuscripts because in BOTH there is a textual distinction between the two figures. Therefore, other historical forces and factors, and not just the ‘oralization’ of Psalm 110.1, must be brought forward to account for such a phenomenon. I suspect we agree about this…? (2) Your point about multi-linguilism in the earliest post-Pentecost community is well taken. I suppose, however, if one were to ground a Christological argument on the Aramaism marana tha in 1 Corinthians 16.22, much of the force depends upon how that Aramaism is perceived to function. Does Paul use the Aramaism simply to unite Greek-speaking Christians linguistically with Aramaic-speaking Christians? I know that neither of us takes this view. I think Paul has used the Aramaism NOT simply as a way of connecting his Greek-speaking congregants at Corinth with Aramaic-speaking Christians elsewhere, but, and growing out of the ‘tradition-discourse’ of 1 Cor. 15.3ff., Paul is re-grounding these Christians who are now historically, geographically, and linguistically removed from the very foundational gospel events in one of the earliest Christological prayers with which he is familiar. Therefore, because I perceive this to be the force of the Aramaism, an argument based upon it allows one, with much more ‘certainty’, to postulate a much earlier date than, I think, one could do with ‘Greek evidence’, about which it is so difficult to assign relative dates…..

    • Chris: My post didn’t refer to Psalm 110, and so I don’t see the point of your comments about it. As someone who has worked in manuscripts for a while (and written on the subject), I know fully well how the Tetragram was rendered, both in “pre-Christian” Hebrew and Greek copies of OT writings. The point of my posting was simply the fact that Jerusalem was a fully bi(or tri, if you prefer)-lingual city, and the Jerusalem church also. So, older approaches to positing something late if Greek are dubious. That’s all.

      • Yes, I found the initial post, as well as the restatement of it, enormously helpful, clear and stimulating. Apologies for engaging it in such a way which might have suggested that I found it wanting, pressing it with questions which it was not designed to answer.

      • CHris,
        OK. I guess I simply triggered your own questions.

  2. Randall Buth permalink

    Yes, Greek was widely used, as Sevenster reminded us several decades ago. Half of Gamliel’s students (probably including Paul acc. to NT) studied Greek wisdom.
    A couple of clarifications and blurred edges might be in order:
    quote: “In any case, I really don’t see that we need to play off Hebrew and Aramaic against each other. Roman-era Judea/Palestine was a multi-lingual setting, with Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek in particular all used in various settings. Note, e.g., Paul’s use of Aramaic liturgical expressions (“Abba,” “Maran atha”) as links with the worship practices of Judean-based ekklesias (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 16:22), and the use of Aramaic in several sayings ascribed to Jesus in Mark. These suggest that Aramaic was in use and that early writers such as Paul knew of it as a feature of Judean circles of the Jesus movement.”

    A lot of shorlarly publication on the subject of NT languages is still being built on assumptions that are no longer true, e.g., NT scholars tend to talk about ‘bilingualism’ instead of ‘trilingualism’ so that Greek εβραιστι is read as if it were συριστι. Careful reflection reveals that Acts 21 was almost certainly a trilingual incident (see the Ebraisti article in Buth&Notley, cited above). And the interpenetration of Aramaic in Hebrew and Hebrew in Aramaic is showing up in sometimes surprising new texts. Paul’s letters and Aramaic quote (marana tha) were to congregations outside Israel and within the context of the wider NearEast. Mark’s language use turns out to be quite special, see the article on the cry from the cross in Buth&Notley. The point here being that texts are interpreted against particular backgrounds and if the background is painted in different colors the salience and points of a text may change as well. (Classic example related to culture rather than language: Mark 7 in a Jewish context is about whether or not a person can eat a fig or bread with unwashed hands, not about eating reptiles or pork as many in church history have read the text.)

    • Randall: My posting wasn’t about the relative usage of Hebrew and Aramaic, and so you’re introducing a new/different issue. I’m not taking it up. My posting was about Greek being used in Jewish Palestine from at least the 3rd century BCE onward, and the Jerusalem church being comprised of Semitic and Greek speakers.

  3. I wonder how much we think we know about the background of the bible is speculation. Seems like scholarship may have a bias towards favoring scholarly theories rather than sort of taking the text at face value. Face value isn’t going to sell as many books or get you published as easily I imagine. Face value meaning being true means that scholars have less to do and are less needed. What do you think? I am not even an inerrantist

    • Er, whoever you are (we use real names on this site, please): You’re confusing the devotional application of the Bible as “scripture” with the investigation of it as historical texts. Both are in principle valid, but they involve different questions. And the historical investigation can even furnish resources for a more intelligent devotional use of the Bible. So, don’t get so defensive.

  4. fellowsrichard permalink

    James quotes the Septuagint in Acts 15:16-18, and many scholars find this unhistorical. They seem to cast James in their own image as someone who worked with the original Hebrew and worked alone. However, if the Septuagint was used by (part of) the Jerusalem church, as you suggest, then is it so implausible that James should quote from it? The Greek speakers in the church could have found this Septuagint passage and brought it to James’s attention. This might be an example of the “lively sharing of insights and discoveries” that you suggest occurred.

    Or, to put the argument the other way around, James’s use of the Septuagint in Acts 15:16-18 supports your view that the Septuagint was used by at least some of the Christians in Jerusalem.

    • Well, Richard, the potential problem in your argument that the Acts report about James is that the reliability of Acts is always in need to examination. One can’t simply invoke Acts. But, in the light of the external linguistic evidence, yes, it is plausible that James could well have drawn upon the Greek of the biblical text he is portrayed as citing.

  5. Sue permalink

    “The spoken languages among the Jews of that period were Hebrew, Aramaic, and to an extent Greek. Until recently, it was believed by numerous scholars that the language spoken by Jesus’ disciples was Aramaic. It is possible that Jesus did, from time to time, make use of the Aramaic language. But during that period Hebrew was both the daily language and the language of study. The Gospel of Mark contains a few Aramaic words words, and this was what misled scholars. Today, after the discovery of the Hebrew Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of the Bar Kochba Letters, and in light of more profound studies of the language of the Jewish Sages, it is accepted that most people were fluent in Hebrew…. “

    It’s interesting that you don’t mention Hebrew. What do you make of David Flusser (quoted above) and other scholars who believe it was the main language of Jesus?

    • Sue: From my knowledge of scholarly work on the subject, I’d say that it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that Hebrew was “the main language of Jesus.” From the actual texts that we have from around 1st century CE Judaea/Palestine, the situation is complex. But it seems that Hebrew was used more than thought earlier, especially among educated classes, and scribal circles. In the homes and marketplaces, however, especially in villages, Aramaic seems to have been the main language. But Greek was used, and those in educated/upper levels of Jewish society likely had some facility in Greek. Here are some recent studies:
      –Porter, Stanley E. “The Functional Distribution of Koine Greek in First-Century Palestine,” in Diglossia and Other Topics in New Testament Linguistics, edited by Stanley E. Porter, 53-89. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
      –Cotton, Hannah M. “The Languages of the Legal and Administrative Documents From the Judaean Desert,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 125 (1999): 219-31.
      –Watt, Jonathan M. “Language Pragmatism in a Multilingual Religious Community,” in The Ancient Synagogue: From Its Origins Until 200 C.E., edited by Birger Olsson and Magnus Zetterholm, 277-97. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2003.
      –Buth, Randall and R. Steven Notley, eds. The Language Environment of First Century Judaea. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

      • Thank you for opening the door to this important subject. The question of language is not incidental. Language is the doorway to any culture. One can not seriously engage the cultural setting of Jesus and ignore its language(s). Let me state clearly that I believe first-century Judaea was fully a trilingual environment (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). I belong to a small (but growing) group of NT scholars who have come to the conclusion that Hebrew played a far more important role in daily Jewish life in Judaea than is generally assumed by NT scholarship. While this may seem a remarkable statement, it receives barely a shrug among scholars who work with an intimate familiarity with all three languages in their first-century setting.

        ************************************************
        In this very limited forum, let me offer a few points that are at odds with the notion that Hebrew in first-century Judaea was non-existent or limited only to an educated elite.

        1. Inscriptional Evidence: The recent publication of the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae (Berlin/New York, 2010, 2011) demonstrates that all three languages are represented in descending order of usage in first-century Judaea: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek. Without other evidence to the contrary, this broadly points to a fully trilingual environment.

        2. Hebrew vs. Aramaic in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Paralleling the data of the inscriptional evidence, all three languages are to be found in the Qumran library in descending order of usage: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek. But this does not tell the whole tale. Scholarship is agreed that those documents which were penned at Qumran were all in Hebrew (ca. 90%). The Aramaic documents were not of Qumran origin but brought from elsewhere – the style of Aramaic points to the East (i.e. not Judaea). Most of the Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls is literary (late biblical) Hebrew; but we do find also colloquial Hebrew similar to that found among the Bar Kokhba documents (132-135 CE) which closely resembles colloquial Mishnahic Hebrew. The Qumran evidence points to a first-century Hebrew language setting of high (literary) and low (colloquial) Hebrew. Among Hebraists this comes as no surprise and corresponds to evidence from other quarters.

        3. Hebrew Bible. While we have Hebrew texts of virtually every book of the Hebrew Scriptures, we only possess a fragmentary Aramaic translation (Targum) of Job (4Q157; 11Q10). Job’s Hebrew is famously difficult and translations of it were already known from historical references. However, the predominance of Hebrew Bible in the Qumran library is important for at least two reasons: First, it informs us that the Qumran Congregation could read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew. They did not need translation. Second, the virtual absence of the Aramaic Bible corresponds to what we knew already about the state of the Aramaic Targums (translations of the Hebrew Bible). In spite of their free use by New Testamet scholars to read the first-century Gospels, Aramaic Targums are almost non-existent in first-century Judaea. Use of Targums in the synagogues of Judaea finds no mention in the historical sources until the mid-second century CE and coincides with the population exchange by the Romans in the wake of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Hebrew speaking Jews were uprooted and sent into the dispersion and replaced by Aramaic speaking Jews from the Babylonia. So it comes as no surprise that we witness the sudden appearance of Aramaic Targums in Judaea at this time. The problem is the unsubstantiated assumption that Aramaic Targums were already widely present and in use in Judaea a century earlier – in the days of Jesus. There issimply not a single bit of evidence to suggest this.

        4. Jesus and the Hebrew Bible. What we find presented in the Gospels is exactly what we find in the historical witnesses about Jewish life in first-century Judaea. We have not a single example of a Palestinian Jewish sage, teacher, or rabbi exegeting any other version of the Hebrew Scriptures than in Hebrew. Not one. To suggest that Jesus taught from an Aramaic or Greek translation puts him at odds with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. By the way, note that in Luke 4:16-21 we find no reference to a translation of Isa 61:1-2 (pace Fitzmyer). The omission may be coincidental, but then again maybe not. In one of my articles in the above mentioned collection I demonstrate that the manner in which Jesus exegetes Scripture assumes both rabbinic hermeneutical techniques and use of the Hebrew Bible. Jewish exegesis is verbal. It takes advantage of the collocation of Hebrew words in unrelated verses that often (and as is the case in Luke 4:16-21) are missing in translation into other languages. On this occasion Jesus took advantage of the rare phrase “ratzon l’Adonai” (the Lord’s favor) which in the entire Hebrew Bible only occurs in Isa 58 and 61 to combine these two passages, giving us a wonderful example of ingenious exegesis. As an aside, it should not be overlooked that the episode tells us something about Jesus’ knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the contemporary methods to interpret them. In any event, the important link words in Isa 58 and 61 disappear in the Aramaic and Greek translations – further strengthening the argument that he is presented by Luke using the Hebrew Bible.

        5. Jesus and Hebrew Story-Parables. A final compelling argument for Jesus use of Hebrew is his story-parables. We have not a single story-parable of the type identified with Jesus in Aramaic. All story-parables are in Hebrew (outside of those remembered in the Gospels, of course). I realize this contradicts a century of parable scholarship (Dahlman, Black, Vermes), but their work assumed a point of Jewish custom that has not a single example to support it. In certain cultures, agreed upon activities by custom are carried out in an agreed upon vernacular. [As a modern-day example: My English-speaking Mennonite in-laws grew up with church services in high-German but conversation among each other in low-German. They still tell jokes in the low-German of their ancestors, because the jokes take advantage of word-plays that do not work in any other language.] Jesus’ use of Hebrew parables demonstrates what I noted earlier about high (literary) and low (oral) Hebrew coexisting in first-century Judaea. Parables were popular stories (probably told in low, colloquial Hebrew) intended to illustrate sublime ideas to wider (and often less-educated) audiences. Note that in the Gospels with a single exception the setting of Jesus’ telling parables is not in the synagogue (the house of study and place of erudition). They are told in informal settings at dinners and/or in other public events.

        **************************************
        I could go on but I am pretty sure I have already overstayed my welcome. I apologize for the length. It is just that the subject is an important one and so often the conversation overlooks important evidence that should give us pause to think about the assumptions by NT scholarship concerning what language(s) Jesus spoke.

        R. Steven Notley
        New York, New York

      • Steven: I’ve edited down your still-very-long comment, trying to retain your main points. You (and others working on the topic) should also now see the following publication:
        Ameling, Walter. “Epigraphy and the Greek Language in Hellenistic Palestine.” Scripta Classica Israelica 34 (2015): 1-18. Ameling notes that Greek inscriptions are in fact quite common. So, I’m not sure that your first point about Hebrew being predominant is correct. But I’d have to check the publication that you cite.
        In any case, I really don’t see that we need to play off Hebrew and Aramaic against each other. Roman-era Judea/Palestine was a multi-lingual setting, with Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek in particular all used in various settings. Note, e.g., Paul’s use of Aramaic liturgical expressions (“Abba,” “Maran atha”) as links with the worship practices of Judean-based ekklesias (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 16:22), and the use of Aramaic in several sayings ascribed to Jesus in Mark. These suggest that Aramaic was in use and that early writers such as Paul knew of it as a feature of Judean circles of the Jesus movement.

  6. In terms of the contemporary exegete studying the biblical texts (as well as other ancient Greek and Jewish texts), what are some of the consequences of this inter-linguistic reality of the first century when we come to these texts? That we cannot just say,”this is how a Greek read/heard this concept,” or “this is how a Jew would have read/heard this concept,” but instead it is much more nuanced than that?

    • Conor: I was thinking primarily of how we approach questions about earliest Christian developments in beliefs, concepts, and use of their scriptures. For example, the use of Isaiah 45:22-23 in Philippians 2:9-11 seems more likely to draw upon the phrasing of the Greek than the Hebrew. But, if the earliest Jerusalem community was bi-lingual, then the particular reading of the Isaiah passage reflected in Philippians could go back as early as that. In short, “Greek” doesn’t necessary = “late/secondary.”

  7. Brian Lopez permalink

    Larry, what are the textual witnesses or families (or whatever term would be more appropriate in this discussion) that show this diversity besides the “Septuagint” and its three or four versions (Theodotion’s, Symmachus, etc), the DSS, and the MT? Maybe my question is wrong-headed, but Im asking for specific textual “families” besides the ones we usually reference by name (DSS, LXX, MT). Thanks.

    • Brian, The key work perhaps is Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress; Assen/Maasstrict: Van Gorcum, 1992). Specifically on the textual evidence from Qumran (which shows a variety of Hebrew text-forms), see, e.g., George J. Brooke, “E Pluribus Unum: Textual Variety and Definitive Interpretation in the Qumran Scrolls,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls in their Historical Context, eds. T. H. Lim et al. (Edinburgh/London: T&T Clark, 2000), 107-19. The Qumran biblical manuscripts evidence “pre-Masoretic,” “proto-Samaritan,” and “pre-Septuagintal” Hebrew text-forms.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: