It is quite often argued that the Gospels could not have been written by the original disciples of Jesus since the earliest copies are written in Greek, not Aramaic. As is noted, “The first issue is related to the nature of the Greek language of the New Testament, and the second one is concerned with the languages used or spoken in ancient Palestine, and consequently, by Jesus (14).” So why is the New Testament written in Greek and not Aramaic? If we look at Hypothesis Q, it is very plausible that oral tradition or the originals documents were written in Aramaic then Greek.
Either way, it is not an argument against the authorship of the Gospels by any means. “This means that the historical and social situation during the time the Gospel writers penned their accounts of the Jesus story is different from that of Jesus and his disciples when the actual events took place, even though the hiatus between the event stage and the Gospel composition stage may have been only a few decades (14).” Therefore, we must not conclude that just because the language spoken by Jesus or the disciples must be the same as the written accounts.
What was Jesus’ language?
Many do conclude that Jesus’ native tongue was Hebrew, however this most likely is not linguistically the case. “Hebrew perhaps was not a vernacular variety anymore during the first century CE, having been replaced by Aramaic (16).” Vernacular meaning, “an uncodified and unstandardized language, which can refer either the native tongue or the first language acquired at home, an unofficial language of a country or state, or a language used for relatively circumscribed and informal functions (15).” It is probably the case that Jesus spoke Aramaic as the tongue he grew up with in his household and learned Greek for official or state purposes. His first language would have been Greek, but his tongue would be Aramaic meaning that he learned from Joseph and Mary.
Standard Language on First Century Palestine:
“Any of the four languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin can be considered as a standard language, since all of them have been standardized and codified (16).” Latin most likely would not have been in Palestine since that was mostly a west speaking language, while Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew are Eastern languages. Aramaic would have been the vernacular language, while Greek most likely the standardized language of the State.
“It is most likely that during Jesus’ time, Greek would have been more prestigious variety of the community, as it is the language used in the government administration, higher education (e.g., grammar, classics, and rhetoric and philosophy), and the trade and industry of the time (16-17).” Greek most certainly would have been present in first century Palestine since officials of Rome and of Israel would need this lingua franca (contact language) for official purposes.
Herod the Great most likely would know Greek and his predecessors would, or at least have translators. Higher scribes and officials like the Pharisees would have known Greek, like Saul of Tarsus. Hence, those of religious status would probably know Greek, including tax collectors like Matthew. Greek was the most common Gentile language of the day, so we would expect Luke and Acts to be written in Greek. The Hellenistic program of Alexander the great set the road for Greco Roman world Koine Greek to be spoken during Jesus’s time and the entire empire. “The expansion of Greek in the ancient world would also entail the waning or weakening of other living languages that simultaneously existed with it (23).” The language that Jesus’ followers would have translated these documents into would be the lingua franca of the period, since all languages spoken only in specific groups would die out with its people.
Greek of the New Testament:
Scholars debate whether the New Testament was written in a Holy Ghost, Classical (attic), Semitic, or Hellenistic Greek. As discussed before, the main concern for scholars is why the New Testament was written in Greek vs. Aramaic. As was pointed out earlier, the lingua franca was Greek, so to make the New Testament a standard document and to get the message out to more people (gentiles), it would be best suitable for the New Testament to be written in Greek. Plenty of means to accomplish this task.
It is believed by some Scholars like Henry Gehman, “that Semitic languages spoken in Galilee influenced the kind of Greek that Jesus and his disciples used (24)”. Another possible view is that Jesus spoke on type of Jewish Greek spoken in synagogues. “Walser argues the Greek of the LXX evinces the polyglossic(more voices or languages) nature of the Greek in the Hellenistic period (26).” However, it is most likely the case that the New Testament was written in non-literary Greek of the Hellenistic Greek period due to Alexander the Great’s Hellenization program of the Mediterranean. This was the contact language in both the speech and writing language of first century Palestine due to Hellenization. The discovery of Egyptian papyri and Greek inscriptions in the 19th & 20th centuries prove that this Greek was a vernacular language spoken by people.
Usage of Hebrew, Aramaic:
The most common language spoken in first century Palestine would be Aramaic and would be a native tongue. “The prevailing view of the nineteenth century was that Aramaic had totally replaced Hebrew shortly after the Babylonian captivity (ca. 586-536 BCE) (37).” Hebrew would have only been spoken by high authorities like priests during the exile. Hebrew survived but would have been used for liturgical and educational contexts by Pharisees and other high sects of Judaism.
When Papias says that Matthew wrote to the Hebrews, he is most likely referring to Hebraic people instead of those who literally speak Hebrew. Hence, why it is not necessary for the Gospel of Matthew to be written in Hebrew because most were speaking Aramaic or Greek. There are also uses of Hebrew on ossuaries, which are bone boxes. It could be the case that the Hebrew inscripted boxes could have been bone boxes for priests, like the Caiaphas ossuary.
The Dead Sea scrolls also preserved multiple Hebrew documents; however, this is not proof that it was spoken during the time they were preserved. Josephus uses both Hebrew and Aramaic words in his historical accounts, but this shows that those highly educated would have known Hebrew for writing purposes. Ultimately, it must be concluded that Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the native tongues for the Jews and Greek was the lingua franca.
There are two main arguments defined the Aramaic Hypothesis: “(1) the weight of inscriptional and documentary evidence, and (2) the practice of translating Scripture into Aramaic (the targums) for the benefit of synagogue congregations (50).” There are hundreds of inscribed ossuaries in Aramaic that support the first point. We also find many translations of targum in the dead sea scrolls like the book of Job, which are translated from Hebrew to Aramaic. Suggesting that they were being translated to a universally used language for possible usage of those who did not know Hebrew. Aramaic copies would have been needed for synagogues, which if this is the case, then Hebrew was clearly not the vernacular language.
We must conclude therefore, that first century Palestine was a multilingual speaking place. Aramaic as the vernacular language, Greek as the lingua franca, and Hebrew used by high priests and those in higher education.
BibliographyOng, H. T. (2015). The Multilingual Jesus: An Analysis of the Sociolinguistic Situation of Ancient Palestine With Special Reference To The Gospel of Matthew. Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster Divinity College.