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Code-Switching in the Gospel of Mark

February 5, 2018

I have just finished reading a valuable study of the use of various languages in the Gospel of Mark: Alfredo Delgado Gómez, “¡Levántate! ¡Ábrete! El Idiolecto de Marcos a la Luz de la Sociolingüística,” Estudios Eclesiásticos 93 (2018), 29-86.

Delgado Gómez first introduces some key concepts from linguistics, including particularly language “code-switching,” the deliberate use/incorporation of foreign words.  Then, in the main part of the article, he analyses this phenomenon in Mark.  But he also analyses the nature of Mark’s Greek, seeking to place it in the social register of the late first century CE.

In Mark, a narrative written in Koine Greek, we have the use of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin terms.  Why?  Delgado Gómez offers what seem to me sound, balanced, and considered answers that contribute to our understanding of the historical and social situation reflected in Mark.

Essentially, Delgado Gómez argues that the use of words/expressions from these various other languages was deliberate, not “linguistic interference” where a writer’s use of one language is affected by prior exposure to another.  The net effects include dramatic realism in the narrative (e.g., as in the instances where we have Semitic expressions on Jesus’ lips).

For readers able to handle Spanish sufficiently, I strong recommend this article.  And I wish that the author might make a translation available for a wider readership!

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  1. chriszeichmann permalink

    Ah, I published an article on the same topic just a few months before:

    I’ll have to check this one out!

  2. Mark Lamas Jr. permalink

    Hi Larry, thanks for this resource. I’ve just put in for a copy over ILL. Does Delgado Gómez name all instances of transliteration in Mark as “code-switches”? If so, does he make an account for the various uses of transliteration where a deliberate usage makes little sense (e.g. μόδιος or ξέστης)? Do these not just reflect the Koine register of c. 70CE? Mark’s use of the ὅ ἐστιν construction seems to me a legitimate use of the term “code-switch” in Mark since its clearly deliberate. Looking forward to reading this article and thanks again.


  3. Benjamin D Haupt permalink

    Thanks for treating this phenomenon in the Gospel of Mark. I am exploring this phenomenon in Tertullian when he uses Greek in his Latin writings and how it affected his biblical citations. Code-switching was common in Latin writers, especially Cicero. James Adams is the standard for Latin literature: Bilingualism and the Latin Language, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. In my research, I also came across this study which is relevant for your Markan research and a good English resource for your non-Spanish audience: Sang-Il Lee, Jesus And Gospel Traditions In Bilingual Context : A Study In The Interdirectionality Of Language. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012. One question for you: in my study of Tertullian, I have been amused and intrigued by the way copyists of Tertullian’s writings attempted to deal with his code-switching. Sometimes they copied what must have been Greek letters correctly, while at other times they attempted Greek letters but ended up writing nonsense. Yet other copyists just opted for transliteration. Have you looked at what the manuscript tradition did with this phenomenon in Mark? I found that critical apparati treated code-switchings inconsistently and so had to go back to individual manuscripts. Thanks again for your blog!

    • Benjamin: To my knowledge, the “foreign” words in Mark and other NT writings were, from the point of composition, transliterated into Greek letters, and then transmitted in this form thereafter.

  4. Jim permalink

    With the writer of GMark utilizing the code-switching technique (highlighted by Gomez), does this give any hint as to what kind of education/training this gospel writer may have had?

    • Jim: We have to keep in mind two interesting things: (1) “Mark” seems to have been skilled in some literary devices (such as code-switching), but (2) his level of Koine Greek was pretty vernacular, not high-status.

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