The Gospels and Greek Culture, Part 2: The Language of the Gospels
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
This post is the second in a series that has been adapted from my MA thesis which I wrote over the summer of 2020.
This post focuses on the language of the Gospels: its socio-linguistic background; its literary character; and the way in which the Gospel writers used their Greek words very intentionally to communicate ideas that would not necessarily be possible to do in Aramaic or Latin. The meanings linked to these Greek words are integral to them and contain specific meanings which would have held specific connotations for the 1st-century Greek speaker. This exploration of language establishes a more detailed contextual basis for the rest of the series, and it will also show that the linguistic link between the Gospels and Greek culture is more than just the fact that these texts are written in Greek, but that there is active engagement with the language which leads to a parallel connection with Greek culture.
The linguistic landscape of ancient Palestine has been widely discussed amongst Biblical scholars and ancient historians over the years, often querying why the Gospels were written in Greek despite the first language of Jesus and [probably] all four of the authors being Aramaic. For a long time, it was generally agreed that the lingua franca (the main language used by basically everyone) of ancient Palestine was Aramaic, resulting from its continued use after the Jewish people’s time in exile in Babylon, but more recently this view has shifted to acknowledge the fact that there were actually four languages present there during the 1st century AD: Hebrew; Aramaic; Greek and Latin.
Of course, Hebrew and Latin had much more restricted uses. Hebrew seems to have stopped being used as a dominant language in the Jewish community by the 1st century AD, except in the domains of Jewish religion and religious education, becoming used only by the priestly classes in order to preserve Jewish heritage. Latin was not widely learned after the Roman conquest of the area and seems to have been reserved only for Roman circles and official inscriptions or documents.
Greek and Aramaic were the common languages, though Greek was undoubtedly the dominant of the two, and it has even been argued by some that the use of Aramaic had also declined a great deal by Jesus’ time, although its usage would have certainly been much more common in Jewish homes and exclusively Jewish circles. Most of Galilee (where Jesus spent the majority of his time in ministry) was quite diverse between Jews, Diaspora Jews and Gentiles, and so Greek was the natural main language of communication. However, it is vital to remember that the places these languages were used in ancient Palestine cannot be defined as too separate from one another, and they must be considered from a sociolinguistic perspective in order to provide us with a bigger picture of the linguistic landscape, meaning that we have to focus on each language in relation to its users.
The Greek that was spoken by those in Palestine was not classical Attic (Athenian) Greek but Koine Greek – a more common, vernacular form of Greek – which spread to Palestine as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great (about 350 years before Jesus was around). Of course, this was not the very first Greek contact with the region, linguistic or otherwise, but the impact of Alexander the Great’s conquest and later the rule of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties meant that the spread of Greek culture and language developed quickly and consistently in ancient Palestine and the surrounding area, enduring well after their rule, even through and after the Maccabean Revolt. The persistence of the Koine in this region and others conquered by Alexander meant that it came to be considered by the ancients as a ‘Panhellenic language’, meaning that it was spoken by everyone who was culturally Greek. Written Koine established a standard for formal works, although of course, it would have had varied spoken and everyday usage in different places. Evidence for spoken language is always difficult to define, but there is substantial reason to believe that both written and spoken Koine were in regular use across almost all social groups in Palestine at this time.
There is subsequently no doubt that Jesus and his disciples would have been at least bilingual, if not trilingual. It is almost certain that Jesus’ conversations with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), and Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:11-26) would have transpired in Greek, and given his profession as a carpenter before beginning his ministry it would have been difficult to trade without at least some conversational knowledge of Greek. It is therefore highly likely that Jesus taught in Greek, even if his first language and that of his disciples was Aramaic.
The Character of the Greek in the Gospels
The Greek of the Gospels has regularly been dismissed as ‘barbaric' in comparison to Classical Athenian Greek. Some have argued on the basis of the Greek used by ancient Jewish authors such as Josephus and Philo that Greek linguistic education was not widespread in ancient Palestine, supposedly hindered by the persistence of Aramaic in the Jewish community, as well as a general lack of respect in society for those who could speak Greek, and so the cause of the apparent ‘barbarisms' in the Gospel writers' Greek was the lack of a full education in the language itself.
However, as scholarship has developed and more ancient papyri have been found, it has become clear that the Greek of the Gospels matches the Koine of the time; it is not just biblical sui generis (its own genre/type) as was previously thought, nor do the Gospel writers display a particular lack of education. We can see this parallel with the contemporary Koine through the frequent colloquialisms and occasional slang, for example, the frequent use of diminutives (i.e. suffixes that change 'words like 'girl' to 'little girl', etc.) and the use of toû, the Greek genitive pronoun, followed by an infinitive (not really used in formal writings). There is also a significant lack of the dual person, the final optative, and of Atticisms, all of which you would expect to find had these accounts been written in Classical Athenian Greek.
It has been pointed out that there is a high possibility that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John employed scribes, which may account for the Atticisms that are present such as the use of kago, (a combination of the words kaì and ego meaning 'and I...') for instance, as well as the correct use of 'a'/'the' before proper nouns and distinctions between the use of the perfect and aorist tenses (sometimes difficult for those of us who learn ancient Greek!). The Apostle Paul certainly used scribes to write his letters, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Gospel writers may also have done so. However, this theory cannot be confirmed in any way without explicit references to scribes in the texts and, as I said before, there is no reason to assume that the Gospel writers did not have sufficient education to write their accounts, so both possibilities are plausible.
It is also important to highlight that the Greek of the Gospels displays a great deal of Semitisms, including things such as using cardinals (i.e. 1, 2, 3) where Greek would use ordinals (i.e. first, second, third), frequent use of the construction egéneto dè...kaì (meaning 'it happened that/it came to pass...and') to mirror the use of the Hebrew construction ‘wayyehi…we…’, and use of feminine pronouns where Greek would use the neuter, to name but a few. Many of these are a product of bilingualism as mentioned above; an effect of having a Semitic linguistic background and working in one’s second language, but one of the main reasons for these Semitisms was the use of Hebrew and Aramaic sources, in particular the Old Testament. The Hebrew scriptures had been translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint or LXX) by the time of Jesus, and would certainly have been available to use as a source by the 1st century AD. It was translated by a group of Jewish scribes in the 2nd century BC, and although these scribes would have had an extremely high level of Greek in order to do this, it is possible that some Semitic sentence structures or styles still ended up coming through in it. The Semitisms present in the Gospels may partly result from this, and given the apparent lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language outside the priestly classes, it is probable that the Gospel writers would have worked with the Greek translation.
The presence of Semitisms in the Gospels has given rise to the theory of an Aramaic original of Matthew’s Gospel, but none of the Gospels seem to be the work of a translator. This is clear from things like wordplay, such as in Matthew 16:18: ''Sù eî Pétros, kaì epì taútei têi pétrai oikodoméso mou tèn ekklesían." - "You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church" - in the Greek, the words for 'Peter' and 'rock' have the same root, looking practically identical in the original text.
We also see some very specific linguistic techniques, such as those found in the Beatitudes in Matthew (Matthew 5:3-12), which are very careful and precise. The Beatitudes are divided into four pairs, each displaying a great deal of symmetry in various ways. Firstly, the phrase 'for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' occurs both in the first and last blessings. Then, in the second and seventh, the verb [para]kaléo (parakaléo means 'I comfort'; kaléo means 'I call' but both have the same root) appears. The third and sixth blessings both contain future active verbs (kleronoméo - 'I inherit'; horáo - 'I see'), and the fourth and fifth both contain future passives (chortázo - 'I am satisfied'; eleéo - 'I show mercy'). It is also important to highlight that each line has an even number of words – either 6, 8, 10, or 12 – and verses 3 and 10 have a symmetrical word count of 12 words each. This was clearly deliberate, especially when words have obviously been missed out such as the article before dikaiosúne - 'righteousness' - in verse 10 which would ordinarily be there; made even more apparent by the inclusion of the article before the same word in verse 6. There is also alliteration beginning with the letter ‘p' contained in the first four verses in reference to each group of people: "Blessed are the poor (ptochoì) in spirit...blessed are those who mourn (penthoûntes)...blessed are the meek (praeîs)...blessed are those who hunger (peinôntes) and thirst for righteousness...".
What all of this demonstrates is that the Greek of the Gospels, though perhaps unrefined in comparison to certain ideals of Classical Attic Greek, was very much in line with the everyday Koine Greek spoken in Roman Syria during the 1st century AD, and with what one can expect from authors from an Aramaic-speaking background who were working in Greek as their second language. Furthermore, the lack of a high-brow Athenian Greek style would have likely made these texts more accessible and appealing to a wider readership. Additionally, despite their Semitic backgrounds, the idea that there may have been an Aramaic original of any of the Gospels is questionable. Not only do none of the Greek texts seem to be the work of a translator, but given the linguistic style and techniques employed in them, it is highly unlikely that a translator would have taken the time to insert such detail as can be found in the Beatitudes or wordplay, which rarely comes through in translations from one language to another.
The Gospel Authors’ Use of Greek
It is clear that the Gospel authors chose their words quite intentionally and engaged with the Greek language in very specific ways in order to get across key ideas about the Christian message to their audience; ideas whose significance is clear in the Greek but cannot be identified in translation.
Firstly, the Gospel authors wanted to communicate that the Christian message was relevant to the Gentiles. This is demonstrated by two words in particular, the first of which is euangélion. Of course, the biblical and most commonly known meaning of this word is ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’, yet in the ancient world, it meant something much more. Often used in a Roman context, particularly regarding the cult of the emperor, it signified good news for the whole empire and was used on occasions such as victory in battle, salvation, or the birth of an heir. Those who heard the news were expected to respond with great joy and celebration, often by sending gifts to the emperor. By using this word in their accounts, Matthew and Mark would have evoked this kind of connotation in the mind of their early readers; especially Mark by placing it at the very start of his prologue. The message was that the news of Jesus’ arrival and the salvation he brought was relevant to the whole world, not just a select few, and that joy should be the natural response to him, ideas which all four writers discuss in various ways. It is also important to note that three of the four times that euangélion occurs in Matthew’s Gospel, it is followed by the words tés basileías – ‘of the kingdom’ – further underlining the idea of ‘news for all people' for the reader.
The other word that particularly implies that this message was relevant to the Gentiles is lógos – ‘the word' – as used by John in his prologue. Though this passage has regularly bewildered the modern reader, to an ancient reader John’s prologue was an extremely bold statement, which both aligned his message with Greek philosophy and the beginning of the book of Genesis, signalling that what he had to say was both for Jews and Greeks. The parallels with Genesis 1:1 are of course clear – 'In the beginning...' - but this, combined with the use of lógos also had a wider significance for those who had knowledge of Greek philosophy. From Heraclitus of Ephesus onwards, the lógos was the way in which the rational principle of the universe, the thing from which all things came and to which all returned, was described by Greek philosophers. It was believed to be various things by various people, such as water, air, or fire, so by stating that Jesus was the lógos, John was making a huge claim from the offset, not only by asserting that he knew what the lógos was, but also by bringing this previously abstract and impersonal concept into the realm of the personal, as far as becoming human – 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us'. If that was not enough to convince his reader, by starting with 'In the beginning', John confirms even more that he really is discussing ‘The First Principle’ and ‘Prime Mover’ of the universe that had been discussed by philosophers for centuries beforehand. For John, Jesus was not only the long-awaited Jewish Messiah but the one that the Greeks had also been searching for over multiple centuries.
Secondly, the Gospel authors also wanted to make it clear that their message was aligned with the Jewish faith, which they mostly did through drawing very specific parallels with the Old Testament. One particularly notable example can be found in Matthew 14:13 with the word éremos, meaning ‘desert' or ‘wilderness', and it is mentioned in relation to the place where Jesus feeds the five thousand. This word recalls a great deal of passages from the Old Testament concerning major episodes in Jewish history, particularly the Exodus (when the Hebrew people left slavery in Egypt), and in its context within Matthew 14, éremos is a reminder of Exodus 16 where this word also occurs in the Greek Old Testament. Exodus 16 describes the first time that the Hebrews receive manna from heaven after several weeks in the desert, and for any Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel, this would have sent a clear message – that the message about Jesus was in line with their faith and with their history, and that he was also aware of and able to satisfy their needs, both for food and spiritually.
Furthermore, John’s Gospel contains a poignant reference to the book of Jeremiah. In John 15:1, Jesus refers to himself as he ámpelos he alethiné - ‘the true vine’. Again, the vocabulary of this phrase is paralleled in the Septuagint quite closely, reminding the Jewish readership specifically of Jeremiah 2:21: Egò dè ephúteusá se ámpelon karpophóron pâsan alethinén. Pôs estráphes eis pikrían, he ámpelos he allotría? - "I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?". The book of Jeremiah is one of prophecy, history, and poetry, containing narratives about the fall of Jerusalem, the exile of the people of Israel to Babylon, and God’s anguish over these events, among other things. Jeremiah 2:21 is part of a passage in which God addresses Israel and grieves for how she has turned away from him. By including the statement about Jesus being the true vine, John once more signals to his Jewish readership that his message aligns with their history, and that in Jesus, there is a direct contrast to be found to Israel’s unfaithfulness and wrongdoing.
Finally, the Gospel writers wanted to emphasise that social status should not be a barrier to anyone who wished to follow Jesus. As the early church was beginning to grow, many of their contemporaries criticized them based on the social status of its members; this was a movement of fishermen, tax collectors, beggars, and many other groups who were of low social standing at that time. By associating with these groups of people, Jesus breaks countless social boundaries. However, the contemporary critiques of the early church’s social standing also led to critiques of their texts. As the Gospels and other early Christian texts were being published, the disciples and early church received increasing criticism with regards to their social status and improper use of the Greek language; Athenian was the only acceptable dialect in which to write, and at this point in time there was special attention being paid to the quality and specifics of written language, so the Koine of the Gospels was not widely appreciated by the upper classes.
Luke is perhaps the most explicit in attempting to come back at these criticisms, and he shows this in several ways. He frequently includes Jesus’ reproaches of the Pharisees and the rich, places a significant emphasis on Jesus’ compassion for the poor, and deliberately improves on the language of previous accounts (it can be assumed that Mark and Matthew’s Gospels were available to him). Luke’s vocabulary has a wide range and is much more orientated towards literary as opposed to everyday Koine; combined with an obvious Greek education, his Gospel is clearly aimed at the upper classes in an attempt show that the message of Jesus was as much for the educated and wealthy as it was for the poor. His account is a defence against the presentation of the Gospel against those who criticized its form without considering the message, with full awareness that how he used his Greek would have an impact on how his message was received. For example, he is the only Gospel writer to use the optative (a linguistic mood used to express wishes/hypotheticals), and overall his sentence structures and narrative style are much more refined than Matthew’s and Mark’s. It is also important to note that the words of his preface seem to have been very carefully selected: diégesis (‘narrative’); parekolouthó (‘I investigate’); akribõs (‘accurately’); kathexês (‘orderly’); and aspháleia (‘reliability’) all immediately display to the reader that this account came from an educated author who had thoroughly researched what he was writing.
John also seems to be aware of these criticisms: 'The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”(John 7:15). Jesus’ response to this in verse 16 - “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me." - is both a refute to the Jews asking this question, and to those questioning the education of the disciples – the message is from God, regardless of the one delivering it. This would have conveyed a very clear point to the educated Greek reader: that the Greek ideals of education which were so highly valued in Greek and Hellenized societies was of no consequence when it came to Christianity, especially if Christ himself was ‘uneducated’ by the standards of the day.
Although the language of the Gospels has been widely criticized by both the ancients and by modern scholars, it is now clear that the vocabulary and styles used by the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was not ‘barbaric’, but very much in line with the Greek spoken in Roman Syria during the 1st century AD. Not only this, however, but the vocabulary they used show that the Greek composition of the Gospels was very much deliberate. Through the use of specific words and phrases, the writers of the Gospels communicated some very precise messages to their contemporary readership, many of which are lost when these accounts are read in translation. These ideas all ultimately relate back to the inclusivity of the Gospel message: Jews and non-Jews alike are all welcome, regardless of their background, education, or social class.
When analysing the Greek of the Gospels, it is important that we keep in mind the multilingual nature of ancient Palestine and Roman Syria, which was in no way the same everywhere. The presence of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin to varying degrees, as well as engagement with Greek culture varying in different locations, meant that each Gospel writer was working with a distinct cultural background from the others, despite all [probably] coming from the same Roman province. The effects of their bilingualism therefore present differently in each text, coming through primarily in Semitic sentence structures and uses of certain Semitic styles. However, it is also important to remember that each writer worked with the Old Testament as a source, which seems to have played a significant part in producing Semitisms in the Gospels, even if the authors were using the Greek Septuagint as opposed to the Hebrew scriptures. Despite these Semitisms, the idea of an Aramaic original is very much dispelled by the obvious intentionality of the Gospel writers in their use of the Greek language which, although mostly vernacular in nature, displays clever linguistic techniques as well as carefully selected vocabulary which convey specific ideas to the Greek-speaking reader.
Now that we have explored the language of the Gospels and the socio-linguistic backgrounds of the authors, we have a basis from which to explore other engagements with Greek culture in these texts through looking at representations of Jesus; themes and motifs; as well as structural types and how we might categorize them into a genre as we will do in the other three chapters respectively.
Read Part 3: Representations of Jesus here.
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