Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Did Jesus Speak Greek?

posted by Mark D. Roberts

So far in this series, I’ve presented the case that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language and in a substantial portion of his teaching, especially when he was speaking with average people in Galilee, where Aramaic was the common language of the day. I have also suggested that it’s likely that Jesus spoke Hebrew, which he learned as a Jewish boy in a faithful family. His facility with Hebrew enabled him to read the biblical text in the synagogue and to engage in respectable debate with other Jewish teachers of the day (the Pharisees, the scribes, etc.).

But could Jesus have known Greek as well? Might he have used Greek at times in his teaching, or at least in some of his conversations?

Because the manuscripts of the Gospels are in Greek, we do not have the advantage such as we have in the case of Aramaic, where Aramaic words and phrases are actually transliterated and included in the Greek text of the Gospels. Quotations of a Greek-speaking Jesus would not stand out, and would simply flow with the Greek text.

Every now and then, I have run into commentators who argue that some of the sayings of Jesus imply that he knew Greek. If, for example, there is a play on words that works in Greek but not in Aramaic or Hebrew, this points to a Greek original. At this moment I can’t remember any specific examples. Perhaps a commenter can fill us in. But, to this point, I have not been convinced that any of the sayings must have had a Greek origin. I have been more convinced by those who propose a Semitic (Aramaic or Hebrew) original for the sayings of Jesus.

So, the evidence for Jesus’ speaking Greek will be circumstantial only. But this evidence is not insignificant.

The fact that the Gospels are written in Greek bears shows that many if not most of the earliest Christians, including some who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry, knew Greek and used it often, perhaps as their first language. Many Jewish writings from the era of Jesus were written in Greek, including works such as 2 Maccabees and 1 Esdras. Other Hebrew writings were being translated into Greek in Jerusalem (the book of Esther, for example, in 114 B.C.). Speaking of Jerusalem, scholars have found some ninety Greek inscriptions on ossuaries (boxes for bones) that date to around the time of Jesus and were found in or around Jerusalem.

Ever since Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 332 B.C., Greek had been the language of government and, increasingly, commerce and scholarship. Though Aramaic continued to be spoken by many, Greek grew in its popularity and influence. In the time of Jesus, well-educated Jews, mainly those of the upper classes, would have known and used Greek. So would those who were involved in trade or government. But many other Jews would have had at least a rudimentary knowledge of Greek which they used in their business and travels to the larger cities.

manuscript-hab-nahal-hever-5.jpgThe presence and pervasiveness of Greek in Palestine is demonstrated by a discovery in the Nahal Hever region of the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. In a cave, a scroll was found that contains substantial portions of the minor prophets in Greek. The so-called Nahal Hever Minor Prophets Scroll, dated around the time of Jesus, shows the influence and popularity of Greek, even among highly religious Jews. (Photo: A portion of the scroll found at Nahal Hever. This shows a passage from Habakkuk 2-3. Notice that the letters are all capitals and there are no spaces between words. That was commonplace in the first century.)

Though the New Testament Gospels do not tell us whether Jesus spoke Greek or not, they do describe situations in which it’s likely that Greek was used. In Matthew 8:5-13, for example, Jesus entered into dialogue with a Roman centurion. The centurion almost certainly spoke in Greek. And, as Matthew tells the story, he and Jesus spoke directly, without a translator. Of course it’s always possible that a translator was used and simply not mentioned by Matthew. Still, the sense of the story suggests more immediate communication, which would have been in Greek.

The same could be said about Jesus’ conversation with Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion (Matthew 27:11-14; John 18:33-38). Once again, there is the possibility of an unmentioned translator. But the telling of the story points to a Greek-speaking Jesus. (Pilate would have used Greek, not Latin, as imagined by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ. And it’s unlikely that he would have known or used Aramaic. Pilate was not the sort of man who would stoop to use the language of common Jews.)

If Jesus knew enough Greek to converse with a Roman centurion and a Roman governor, where did he learn it? Some have suggested that he might have learned it during his early years in Egypt. A more likely explanation points to his location in Galilee. Though Aramaic was the first language of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown was a short walk from Sepphoris, which was a major city and one in which Greek was spoken. Jesus quite probably had clients in Sepphoris who utilized his carpentry services, and he would have spoken with them in Greek.

But given the multi-lingual context in which Jesus lived, it’s not surprising that he would have been reasonably fluent in Greek and Hebrew, in addition to Aramaic. People in the United States often have a hard time understanding this. But if you’ve known people who have grown up in Europe, for example, they often can get by in several languages, including English, German, Spanish, and French, even if their first language is Italian. 

Can we know for sure that Jesus spoke Greek? No. Is it reasonable to assume that he could speak Greek and did upon occasion? Yes, I believe so. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the variations in the Gospels among the sayings of Jesus reflect that fact that he said more or less the same things in Aramaic, Hebrew, and/or Greek. 

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll suggest some reasons why I think the language of Jesus matters . . . or, better, why the languages of Jesus matter. 



  • cdlasqm

    I’m enjoying this series very much. But why do you summarily dismiss the possiblity that Jesus spoke Latin? One could make the case that Pilate, as an educated patrician, would prefer Greek over his own language – that is common enough among aristocracies. But would the same be true of the centurion? A noncommissioned officer, most likely a plebeian? If there is circumstantial evidence that Jesus spoke Greek, then that same evidence suggests, equally circumstantially, that he may also have spoken Latin.
    In any case, the idea that languages exist in watertight compartments is a bit of an academic conceit. In real life, wherever two or more langauges co-exist you will find creolisation, words and concepts from one language creeping into the other and vice versa. Multilingual people don’t necessarily switch entire languages, they switch from “French with a lot of English influence” to “English with a lot of French influence”. No doubt the same would have been true in Palestine.

  • Goodguyex

    Greek was more common than Latin in the Eastern Mediterranean area, but there was no doubt some Latin spoken in areas. Pilate no doubt spoke Latin and no doubt spoke Latin to his wife Claudilia who was a favorite or adopted daughter of the emperor Tiberius.
    No doubt some Latin was spoken in Caesuria, and was not the sing put over Jesus on the Cross written in Hebrew Greek and LATIN; mockigly reading “Jesus of Nazarath King of the Jews”?

  • Kimball

    Two very insightful comments above. Not only PIlate but also the Centurian in Matthew 8 may have decided that they were going to deal with the local populace in Latin. If you have ever noted, when a conquering Army enters a subject land, the soldiers generally use their native language and the local residents normall learn at least some of it. In 1969 most Vietnamese shopkeepers, “business women”, taxi drivers, etc. at least learned English numbers in order to make financial transations with the GIs. Of course, Vietnam was hardly unique.

  • http://amzn.to/9CZaz2 Aaron

    For what it’s worth, Geza Vermes writes in The Changing Faces of Jesus,
    As far as the culture of Galilee is concerned, although commerce with neighboring regions obviously entailed the importation of Hellenistic industrial products, it should be emphasized that Hellenization as such, apart from the Greek cities, was very superficial in Galilean peasant society and that in the countryside the Greek language had made little inroads. The idea that the Galileans were bilingual, speaking both Greek and Aramaic, is not based on any factual evidence. It should be borne in mind that according to the famous church historian Eusebius, even in the third century A.D. the rural Gentile-Christian population of the environs of the south Galilean Greek city of Scythopolis required a translator to render into Aramaic a sermon preached in Greek in the church. Over the first few centuries of the Christian era, Greek loanwords, especially relating to administration and material culture, were progressively creeping into the Aramaic vernacular of Galilee, but this is a far cry from the theory of bilingualism. As for Jesus himself being a Greek speaker, this is a wild flight of fancy.

  • jestrfyl

    I appreciate these pieces you have been posting. They help me as I prepare for our Bible Study each week. Part of my task is to guide the people in the study to think about how Jesus is presented and what the four gospel writers were trying to convey. Having this aspect of jesus’ character to work with help understand his life situation as well as the writers who presented his story. I am anxiously awaiting your next portion on why all this matters.

  • Percival

    What about Jesus’s quotations of scripture? Is there any indication whether he was quoting from the Septuagint or Hebrew scriptures?

  • http://evangelical.patheos.com T. Dalrymple

    Really enjoyed this, Mark. I love when you write on this stuff.

  • Inferer

    “The fact that the Gospels are written in Greek bears shows that many if not most of the earliest Christians, including some who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry, knew Greek and used it often, perhaps as their first language.”
    Mark was written, most scholars say, two generations after Jesus’s death. Matthew (from which Luke drew heavily) came along possibly another generation later.
    The very earliest followers of Jesus numbered in the dozens and were Galilean (spoke Aramaic). By the time the gospels were written, Jesus’s followers numbered in the hundreds or thousands and many spoke Greek.
    It seems to me the language of the Gospels tells us nothing as to Jesus’s language or that of his followers during his lifetime.

  • TRIALNERROR

    There is a misunderstanding between Jesus and Nicodemus(John 3:3) which would not have happened unless they were speaking Greek. Jesus is talking about being born “from above”, which Nicodemus takes to mean “again” because of the ambiguity of the word “anothen” – it has either meaning in Greek. Unfortunately, this is probably more the gospeller’s fancy than anything that actually took place, as the original conversation would have been in Aramaic, where there would have been no such ambiguity.

  • TRIALNERROR

    On further reflection, I think I’ll qualify the above post. I suppose there is really no realistic objection to the notion that Jesus may have been able to preach at length in Koino Greek. However, in view of the fact that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, I find it extremely unlikely that this particular conversation was conducted in Greek, and dismiss it as the gospeller’s fancy on these grounds.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Princeofpoland

    One example that suggests that Christ spoke Greek is found in King James version of Matthew 16:17-18. In response to Peter saying that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus calls him by his actual name, Simon and goes on to say “That thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church”. We gain more insight when we refer to the Greek version of this passage. Christ calls him “Petra” or rock; and upon this “petras” or large rock will I build my church. It’s a poetic reference that signifies that something larger than Peter himself is to be the foundation of His church. If you go back to the previous verses it becomes clear that the foundation of the church was the mechanism that allowed Peter to declare “though art the Christ”, namely revelation from God.

  • http://www.gospelanswers1.com Arthur

    I disagree with the conclusion that we cannot know for sure Jesus spoke Greek. To me that’s like saying we cannot know for sure that the Romans spoke Greek or if Josephus knew or spoke Greek. I mean, the Jews were writing and speaking in Greek long before Jesus was born. That’s how we got the Septuagint. Jesus regularly quoted the Septuagint version insteaad of the Hebrew. You can’t quote in a language you don’t know. It’s basic logic. So I believe the case here was grossly understated.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lewis Sellers

    The Christ was God in human form therefore He was omnicompetent and could speak any and all languages as He pleased. You greatly underestimate the abilities of God.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment What ?

    “where did he learn it? Some have suggested that he might have learned it during his early years in Egypt”

    I thought God knows everything .

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ashley

    I’m curious, if he knew some Greek, did he ever say his own name in Greek? Or did he hear how they said it?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment duece

    the fact that first apposle of Jesus was Peter and in Bible Jesus changes peters original name to Peter (The Rock) is an interesting concept. also I may have found the Jesus connection to his comments about (my fathers kingdom is not of this earth, or my father in heaven, or most important of them all KING OF KINGS) which was given to Alexander the great by defeating the king of Persia 332 years before. this is just a theory and is ongoing. I think when Jesus spoke of his father in heaven he realy meant Alexander, or his revolutionary ideas to create world harmony. lets not forget that Jesus also quoted from Aristatle which coinccidentally was Alexanders teacher for 16 years.
    please send me your comments.

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  • http://Yes,IbelievethattheMasteralsospokeGreek Ted Dornan

    Absolutely I believe that the Master Yahushua spoke and understood all three, Aramaic, Hebrew,and Greek, for all the reasons you stated, plus that He is the one whom our Abba / Father Yahuwah sent down to confuse the tongues of those who were building the Tower of Babel. He is the Creator, as John 1:1-18 makes clear,and as such knows all languages, and could have used any one of them that He chose to, whichever would serve the purpose of doing Abba’s work, amein.

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