By Keith Thompson
Could Jesus and his disciples read and write Koine Greek? The critic Murdock argued, “Despite the claims of apostolic authorship, the gospels were not mere translations of manuscripts written in Hebrew or Aramaic by Jewish apostles, because they were originally written in Greek” (Acharya S (1999), 34). Statements like this assume Aramaic speaking disciples from Galilee or broader Palestine would not have also known Greek, or been able to compose Greek gospels. But this idea is not supported by the evidence. Likewise, the critic Carrier also just assumes Jesus would not have known Greek and thus could not have been responsible for Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which relies on the Greek LXX translation of the OT (Carrier (2014), 465). Koine Greek was the common language spoken in most cities of the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus. Due to the fourth century B.C. conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek became the dominant language of the Eastern Mediterranean – conquests which helped result in the language penetrating even Palestine so that the region was multilingual by the time of Jesus (Koine Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew being the common languages). But Alexander’s influence was not the only one. The rulers of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty also contributed to Greek in Palestine. In the second century B.C. these kings took control of Palestine from Egypt and then encouraged the adoption of Greek language and other aspects of Hellenism (On Alexander’s Greek influence see Ferguson (2003), 135; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Languages of Palestine in the First Century AD,” in Stanley E. Porter (ed.), The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 127; Nigel Turner, “The Language of Jesus and His Disciples,” in Porter (ed.) (1991), 174; Robert Gundry, “The Language Milieu of First Century Palestine: Its Bearing on the Authenticity of the Gospel Tradition,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1964), p. 405. On the Seleucid Dynasty’s Greek influence see Metzger (2003), 22-23; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Languages of Palestine in the First Century AD,” in Stanley E. Porter (ed.), (1991), 134; 147-148, 162; Ferguson (2003), 404-405; Gleaves (2015), 8). Further, the late first century B.C. to early first century A.D. rule of Herod the Great (and his successors) also contributed to Greek speaking in Palestine. They left many Greek inscriptions and minted coins in Greek, etc (M. Graves, “Languages of Palestine,” in Green et al (eds.), (2013), 486). I will now provide a good body of evidence for Greek language in-and-around first century Palestine to refute critical claims. This will demonstrate their assumption the disciples could not have written Greek gospels is inaccurate.
Fitzmyer noted Greek personal names “bear witness to the widespread and living use of Greek among first-century Palestinian Jews” (Fitzmyer, “Languages,” in Porter (ed.), (1991), 141). One could think of Andrew, Philip, Nicodemus, Theophilus, Thaddaeus, Bartimaeus and probably Bartholomew, etc. Scholars have uncovered more than 87 Second Temple ossuaries in and around Jerusalem with Greek inscriptions on them (some are bilingual also containing Aramaic or Hebrew) (Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence?, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1998) p. 76). That the Jews wrote and read these inscriptions is crucial to note. There are also important public inscriptions written in Greek we have found such as the long Theodotus synagogue inscription, the Herodian Temple inscription, the hymn inscribed in the necropolis of Marisa, the edict of Augustus in Nazareth, and the Capernaum dedicatory inscription (Fitzmyer, “Languages,” in Porter (ed.), (1991), 140). It is also a fact coins had Greek minted on them in first century Palestine. G. Scott Gleaves astutely asks why the NT was written in Greek if Aramaic was the dominant language of the majority of its recipients and if the synoptic tradition was all or mostly Aramaic in origin (G. Scott Gleaves, Did Jesus Speak Greek? The Emerging Evidence of Greek Dominance in First Century Palestine, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), xxi-xxiv). Gleaves further notes as regards Palestine, “Numerous Greek papyri have been unearthed during this period. The discoveries include letters, marriage contracts, legal documents, literary texts, and some undeciphered Greek shorthand” (Gleaves (2015), 12). Indeed, estimates suggest around two-thirds of the papyri discovered in ancient Palestine were written in Greek. That is about four hundred materials (Keener (2013), 1256). One can also mention the Greek notes excavated in Masada, Palestine concerning barley supplies and Greek inscribed potsherds from the same location (Alan Millard, “Literacy in the Time of Jesus - Could His Words Have Been Recorded in His Lifetime?,” Biblical Archaeological Society, (July/August 2003)).
The Greek literary creations and translations from the late Second Temple period into the second century written by Palestinian Jews are very important to mention as regards Greek speaking among Jews at Jesus’ time. One can think of the numerous Greek compositions among the Dead Sea Scrolls (LXX fragments were also discovered in Qumran), as well as most of the twenty-seven NT documents, 1 Esdras, 2 Maccabees, The Testament of Judah, The Testament of Levi, the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll 8HevXIIgr, various books of the Septuagint like 1 Maccabees, Esther, Chronicles, 2 Esdras, Song of Songs, Lamentations and Qoheleh (Stanley E. Porter, “Jesus and the Use of Greek in Galilee,” in Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus, Evaluations of the State of Current Research, (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 1994), p. 140). There is also the Greek translation work of Theodotion and Aquila. Also important are the works of Josephus and Justus of Tiberias (those of the latter are now lost). We also have fragments of an anonymous Palestinian Samaritan historiographer, as well as fragments written by the Jewish historian Eupolemus written during this period. Both are preserved by Eusebius. Ben Sirah’s grandson learned Greek in Jerusalem and then translated his grandfather’s work (Martin Hengel, The “Hellenization” of Judea in the First Century After Christ, (Philadelphia, PA: Trinity Press International, 1989), p. 25). Other works are less certain but possible candidates for this time-frame and location category. These include Older Philo’s didactic poem on Jerusalem, the Samaritan Theodotus’s didactic poem on Shechem (Ibid., 26-27), the Testament of Moses, the Greek Apocalypse of Moses, and the original version of 2 (Syriac) Baruch. Although time, war, and ravages have no doubt led to the loss of many Palestinian Greek texts from this period, we still nevertheless possess and know of a large number of them. They help demonstrate how common Greek was among Palestinian Jews in-and-around Jesus’ time.
The gospels affirm Palestinian Jewish men knew Greek since they give evidence of Jesus engaging in long Greek discussions. Even if one chooses to erroneously reject these stories as ahistorical, it must still be granted these documents attest a certain language climate among first century Palestinian Jews. The following are places where Jesus spoke in Greek according to the context:
“(1) Matthew 8:5-13 par. John 4:46-54: Jesus’ conversation with the centurion or commander . . . (2) John 4:4-26: Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman; (3) Mark 2:13-14 par. Matthew 9:9; Luke 5:27-28: Jesus’ calling of Levi/Matthew; (4) Mark 7:25-30 par. Matthew 15:21-28: Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman; (5) Mark 12:13-17 par. Matthew 22:16-22; Luke 20:20-26: Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and Herodians over the Roman coin of Caesar; (6) Mark 8:27-30 par. Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21: Jesus’ conversation with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi; (7) Mark 15:2-5 par. Matthew 27:11-14; Luke 23:2-4; John 18:29-38: Jesus’ trial before Pilate” (Stanley E. Porter, “Greek of the New Testament,” in Evans, Craig A., and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 433-434).
Regarding Jesus’ disciples specifically, there is evidence they knew Greek. Stanley Porter notes a tax collector such as Matthew, and fishermen such as Peter, Andrew, James and John would all have needed to know Greek in order to conduct their business duties (Stanley E. Porter, “Jesus and the Use of Greek in Galilee,” in Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus, Evaluations of the State of Current Research, (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 1994), p. 136; J. A. L. Lee, ‘Some Features of the Speech of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel’, NovTT 27 (1985), pp. 1-36, esp. p. 6). In Peter’s speech in Acts 2:25-28 he quoted from the Greek LXX of Psalms 15:8-11. And in James’s speech in Acts 15:16-17 he cited the Greek LXX of Amos 9:11-12 (Gleaves (2015), 20-21).
The gospels of Mark and John contain the simplest Greek of the NT (Jones (2007), 118; Witherington (2001), 18-19; Edwards (2002), 10-11). In fact, the internal evidence shows Greek was not even Mark’s primary language (Witherington (2001), 18). What is more, the epistles of John are also very simple in style (W. Hall Harris, 1, 2, 3, John: Comfort and Counsel for a Church in Crisis, (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2003), p. 7: “The three letters in the New Testament ascribed to the Apostle John have long been recognized for their simple Greek style—so much so that beginning students of Koiné Greek often do their first translation work in 1 John”). So, there is no meaningful reason to deny Christians like Mark and John could have penned the rough Greek gospels and letters attributed to them. Although Luke-Acts contains more advanced Greek, it is not difficult to imagine an educated doctor being able to write good Greek. It is possible he may have had some help from a scribe for advanced editorial polishing though. As for Matthew, his Greek is more advanced than Mark and seems to be a deliberate improvement on it (Blomberg (2016), 31; Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel According to Matthew, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 3). One may doubt if a Galilean tax collector like Matthew would have been able to pen such an advanced work by himself. Therefore, we need to discern weather scribes/secretaries were available to assist in the editing and polishing of these kinds of advanced literary creations. The same must be asked as regards the letters of Peter, Paul and James. Alan Millard’s summary of the evidence concerning scribes doing this kind of work in-and-around the time of Jesus’ disciples is critical:
“. . . scribes continued to do most of the writing and that was still the case in the first century. . . . By the New Testament times most scribes still earned their living through clerical tasks, in administrative offices or on the street. The letters and legal deeds from the ‘Bar Kochba Caves’, which are often signed by the scribe, illustrate their work. . . . Outside official circles, commerce, legal matters and family affairs all called for secretarial skills, providing a livelihood for a multitude of scribes in Palestine. . . . There are references to private letters in various sources from 1 Maccabees onwards, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 11b) recalling how Rabbi Gamaliel II, about AD 100, dictated them to an amanuensis (cf. Paul’s use of Tertius, Rom. 16. 22). Actual examples of papyrus survive in Palestine from the early second century, and there are short notes in Hebrew and Greek from Masada. The Bar Kochba caves have also yielded legal deeds in Greek and Aramaic. . . . In one case the scribe was the husband of the woman involved in the deed and signed on her behalf, she, it is said, ‘borrowed the writing’. For the Greek documents, their editor stated ‘The quality of writing in these subscriptions differ [sic].’ One man’s ‘hand may be described as that of a practised, experienced writer’. . . . While the majority of these deeds date from the beginning of the second century, they continue a type current earlier. The deed dated in Nero’s second year bears the name of the scribe with the preserved names of two witnesses and a fragmentary Aramaic deed in a ‘late Herodian’ hand has the name of five . . . in the first century” (Millard (2001), 168, 176, 178).
We also have first century evidence scribes/secretaries 1) transcribed letters from dictation; and 2) edited basic literary creations as contributors thereby adding style and vocabulary (E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 65-77; much of the remaining discussion depends on this work). On the first point (i.e., doing shorthand), there are numerous references from Cicero stating his secretary Tiro often did this for him (Richards (2004), 72 n. 67; e.g. Att. 2.23.1; 4.16.1; QFr. 2.2.1; 3.1.19, etc.). In the first century, Quintilian also mentioned this practice being common (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, 10.3.19). On the second point (i.e., polishing up a basic work), Cicero stated his secretary Tiro was “the rule” of his writings (Cicero, Letters to Friends, 16.4.3). This refers to a correcting editor. Moreover, Richards notes, “Papyri also are filled with examples of well-formed letters, with all the appropriate language and phraseology; being sent by an illiterate writer who could scarcely scratch a closing farewell. Obviously, the secretary took quite a bit of license in shaping those letters” (Richards (2004), 76). This is just a sample of the evidence Richards provides for these two scribal categories.
Therefore, if some of Jesus’ disciples were not able to compose NT documents by themselves, they would have been able to conform to these evidenced practices of making sure their works were nevertheless produced with the help of scribes/secretaries. Financial costs would not have been a problem as Christian communities were fond pooling and donating money (Mark 10:29-30; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 1 Corinthians 9:9-14; 2 Corinthians 11:8; Philippians 4:15-16; Acts 2:44-45; 5:1; 4:32). There could have also easily been converted scribes who would have helped with important apostolic writings for little-to-no charge.