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Languages in Roman-era Judaea: Let’s Stay on the Topic!

September 11, 2015

Comments to my previous posting illustrate the occasional frustration in blogging:  You raise an issue/topic, and commenters then take the discussion into other topics/issues.  My previous posting wasn’t about the comparative usage of Hebrew and Aramaic, for example, or about how scribes rendered the Tetragram, but about the usage of Greek alongside Semitic languages and in the Jerusalem church.  The point (which I, ah, thought should have been pretty clear) was therefore, that older notions that anything Greek must be secondary/later are dubious.  So, to reiterate relevant points and try to steer us back onto the topic:

  • The evidence shows Greek being used in Jewish Palestine from at least the 3rd century BCE onward.  It was one of the languages of Jewish Palestine of the earliest period of the Jesus-movement.
  • Textual evidence (e.g., Acts) posits a Jerusalem church comprised of Jewish believers whose first language was a Semitic one (I think most likely Aramaic, but that’s not the issue) and other Jewish believers whose first language was Greek.  So, it appears likely that the Jerusalem church was at least bi-lingual from the earliest moments.
  • So far as their scriptures were concerned, Jews appear to have treated copies written in Hebrew or Greek as scriptures, and a basis for exegesis.  Earliest Jesus-movement believers seem to have done the same.  So, in imagining those early moments of Jewish believers scouring their scriptures to try to understand their experiences (e.g., the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus experiences), we have to allow for rich interchange of those reading Greek and Hebrew versions of those scriptures.
  • Nevertheless, whether Greek-speaking or Aramaic-speaking (or Hebrew-speaking), all indications are that these Jewish believers were devout in their allegiance to their ancestral deity and to the exclusivist stance characteristic of second-temple Jewish tradition:  i.e., worship due solely to the one God of their tradition.  There is no indication that they (or most other Jews of the time), whether in the Jewish homeland or the diaspora, had assimilated to the larger “pagan” religious culture on the question of worshipping the many gods of the time, or in accepting the apotheosis of rulers, etc.  So, we can’t readily invoke their use of Greek to assert some sort of accompanying acceptance of these “pagan” notions/practices.

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14 Comments
  1. Hugh Scott permalink

    At the risk of seeming to introduce a different discussion, may I say that this discussion, ‘LANGUAGES in Roman-era Judaea’, must necessarily include a discussion of the ‘CONTENT OF THE LANGUAGES’ in Roman-era Judaea.

    Excuse a longish quote:
    “… the Judaism from which Christianity emerged was already Hellenized. …every book of the New Testament reflects to varying degrees an accommodation between Jewish religious and ethical values and traditions and Hellenistic forms of linguistic, literary, rhetorical and conceptual expression. The extent of the influence that Hellenistic literary culture had on first century Christianity is just now beginning to be recognized.” David Aune The New Testament In Its Literary Environment pgs 11-12.

    But an acceptable recognition of SOME Hellenization of the Jewish LITERARY world is being used by sceptical scholars to argue that the CONTENT of the New Testament, and its hero-figure, Jesus of Nazareth, are mythical inventions, totally devoid of any historical reality, based essentially on pagan gods/heroes. The source for all of the New Testament would be Homer, the Aeneid, Apolonius, Isis, etc., not the Old Testament.

    This view seems to me to be methodologically, historiographically untenable. But it is being widely published.

    • Hugh: In so far as anyone tries to argue that the use of Greek language and the influence of Hellenistic culture in Roman Palestine makes Jesus mythical, they’re simply showing that they know nothing about the matter, either methodologically or as to data.

  2. ounbbl permalink

    FYI – Lessons from the near-death of Aramaic http://theatln.tc/1QxshHj

  3. Brian Lopez permalink

    Yes, Larry. That Im aware. I guess I was aiming at asking you if my articulation of that idea was fair enough in respect to your last point. But, yes, of course. Geoffrey William’s (English lexicographer/dictionary builder) quote:
    “Words do not have meanings, meanings have words.”
    Of course, as Daniel B. Wallace explains in his resources, words do have basic meanings, but they must always be interpreted within their contexts and usages by particular authors.

    • Well, a senior professor of linguistics here told me once: “We have to work hard to get students to understand that there are no such things as ‘words’.” What she likely meant was that there are (in linguistics terminology) “lexemes”, whose meaning is particularized in usage.

      • Brian Lopez permalink

        Ok, understood, “lexemes”.

  4. Sue permalink

    While I appreciate your point about staying on topic, I wonder, isn’t the usage of Greek at the time of Jesus a given? Hasn’t it been drilled into everyone that Greek is the language of the NT? Doesn’t all exegesis of the NT begin and end with the Greek, the Greek, the Greek?

    In your original post you assert a bi-lingual setting for Jesus and his fellow Jews, and omit Hebrew as even a possibility. In fact, you only mention the literary presence of Hebrew. Speaking as one in the Christian world who deeply cares about what Jesus said — and actually meant — it is discouraging to see Hebrew routinely ignored /denied, and references to (and evidence of) Hebrew as a spoken language explained away by insisting that where Hebrew is attested to in the NT, it actually means Aramaic (I’m not claiming you did that).

    I think you had so many seemingly “off topic” remarks because your original post dismissed out of hand, in light of more recent information about spoken languages at the time of Jesus, the reality of Hebrew in first century Judea.

    • Well, Sue, I omit referring to Hebrew as the everyday language of Jews in Roman Palestine of the first century largely because that is still a minority view, most scholars (of various specialities) still judging that Aramaic was the more commonly used language of the time/place. I don’t “dismiss out of hand” evidence. I simply have yet to see the evidence that Hebrew was the dominant spoken language, especially in Galilee (since you mention Jesus). No one denies “the reality of Hebrew in first-century Judea.” The more specific question is whether Hebrew was the main everyday language spoken by Jews native to Roman Palestine. I’m open to the evidence, if it can be provided.

      • Sue permalink

        “The more specific question is whether Hebrew was the main everyday language spoken by Jews native to Roman Palestine. I’m open to the evidence, if it can be provided.”

        I’m not arguing that Hebrew was the dominate language of the first century Jews in Judea, although I do find those arguments compelling. I’m only commenting that (1) the NT claims Hebrew was spoken (for example Paul’s defense in Acts 22) and (2) in your original post you never considered any possibility of Hebrew as one of the 2 languages you believe we’re spoken by Judean Jews, dominant or otherwise.

      • Sue: As you’ll see if you check out scholarly resources (e.g., the Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich lexicon), scholars differ over whether in Acts 21:40; 22:2, etc. Hebraidi dialekto = Hebrew or “the language spoken by Hebrews” (i.e., Aramaic). You presume the one, but the other is also held by many scholars.

  5. Brian Lopez permalink

    Larry, on your last point: “So, we can’t readily invoke their use of Greek to assert some sort of accompanying acceptance of these “pagan” notions/practices.” Would it be accurate to say that, although Judeo-Christians might have used Greek words/idioms/phrases/expressions often used differently by pagan Greek writers, we should be careful to interpret them based on their Judeo-Christian contents, i.e., contexts and backgrounds? Im asking because I made this point in a recent email exchange with another student, and this is the way I expressed that idea–unless, Im mishandling something. Thanks.

    • Brian: A fundamental principle of linguistics is that what we call “words” (“lexemes”) acquire their specific meaning as they are used in sentences. Words don’t typically have fixed/static meaning (except for some rather basic/banal ones), but (as in any living language) are capable of being used flexibly by various language-users. So, e.g., the term “anathema” is a good Greek word that has a more general meaning (e.g., often “oath”) in general Greek usage, but acquired a more specific meaning in Jewish and so early Christian usage (at least in part by translating the Hebrew “herem”). So, we must always try to determine meanings in the specific contexts of usage. I pose no fixed “Greek words & Hebrew meanings” approach (of an older day), but simply the basic linguistic principle.

      • Griffin permalink

        Semanticists though might qualify that a bit. Suggesting that while often usages drift apart, by semantic drift, some circles of users however, might still remember the old origins, somewhat.

        Especially, those Jews who read Greek a lot, might tend to retain more of the original Greek sense of any given word… Over those who might only know the word and concept as just a single loan word found in say, Hebrew.

        So different people would read different things, into any given word. Those with a very heavy Greek background, would probably retain more of the earlier Greek sense.

      • No. “Griffin,” it’s not that simple, and I’m familiar with the field of semantics, from which the fundamental principle that I articulated derives. I repeat: The crucial indicator of a word’s “meaning” is its usage . . . in sentences. Oh, and social and ethnic groups tend often to develop their own meanings of words (“socio-linguistics”), and the origins of words isn’t a reliable indicator of meaning. That’s the old pre-scientific notion of meaning-from-etymology.

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