By Dr Peter J Williams
Apart from on a few occasions where Jesus’s words are given in Aramaic (for example Mark 5:41; 7:34; 15:34) all four Gospels report Jesus’s words in Greek. So did Jesus speak Greek, or do we only have his speech in translation?
Many scholars still maintain that Jesus spoke only Aramaic, but discoveries since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 demonstrate the use of both Hebrew and Greek alongside Aramaic in Roman Palestine.
It may seem strange to ask whether Jesus, whom the Bible describes as the Word incarnate and creator of all things (John 1:1–14), could speak Greek. After all, given that the Bible claims he created language, couldn’t he speak any way he liked? Perhaps, but the character of Jesus’s divine knowledge is also mysterious: all four Gospels present Jesus as able to predict the future, and yet Jesus himself says that the Son does not know the day of his return (Mark 13:32), and Luke tells us that as a child Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52).
The Gospels leave us wondering: did Jesus know absolutely everything, except for specific things like the time of his return, which he chose not to be actively conscious of? Or did he know most of what he knew through ordinary human learning, except for some particular things specially revealed to him by the Holy Spirit?
We may not be able to resolve these questions, but we can at least ask what a typical person with Jesus’s life experience would have known, while bearing in mind that Jesus was very much not a typical person.
According to Matthew 2:13–21, Joseph took Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod. There Mary and Joseph would have needed to communicate in Greek for some time. They returned to Nazareth where Joseph was a “carpenter” (Greek tektōn, τέκτων), which can mean someone who works with wood or stone. But if, as scholars often suggest, Nazareth was a tiny hamlet, then clearly Joseph did not restrict his business merely to servicing the hamlet, but undertook work for those further afield.
One place nearby where we know there was lots of construction work was Sepphoris, Galilee’s capital until AD 19. The absence of mention of Sepphoris in the Gospels is hardly surprising since they relate so little about the area where Jesus grew up. There are, however, plenty of reasons to think that Jesus would have gone there. It was:
- Less than four miles away
- Visible from Nazareth
- On the main road north of Nazareth on the way to Cana, where Jesus had connections
- The traditional hometown of Mary (according to the sixth-century account of the Piacenza Pilgrim)
So Mary, Joseph and Jesus may have had extensive exposure to Greek in that city. It’s also interesting to note that Sepphoris had a theatre. Does Jesus’s use of the word “hypocrite” (Greek hypokrites, ὑποκριτής, meaning “actor”) stem from the fact that Greek plays would have been regularly performed just over an hour’s walk from his house?
John 7:3 and 7:10 present Jesus’s brothers as regarding attendance in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles as usual. Luke 2:42 presents Joseph, Mary and their wider family as customary attendees at a festival in Jerusalem, while Matthew and Luke present Jesus as one who had visited Jerusalem often (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). Greek speaking is well attested in Jerusalem, and during festival time the proportion of Greek speakers would rise considerably because of the presence of Diaspora Jews on pilgrimage. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Jesus would have interacted with Greek speakers on these occasions.
In Galilee, Jesus is presented as an itinerant teacher who went through a wide range of towns and villages (Matthew 9:35; Mark 6:6, 56; Luke 8:1, 13:22), including the villages of Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27), which was dominated by Greek culture. He also sent his disciples into different towns and villages (Matthew 10:11; Luke 9:6). If he really sent 70 (or 72) in pairs to “every city and place where he was about to come” (Luke 10:1), then presumably the teams went to several villages or towns each and we should not assume that they only talked to Aramaic speakers. Itinerant teachers by their very nature must adapt to the languages of their audiences.
Jesus had two disciples with Greek names: Andrew and Philip. In fact, Andrew, whose parents gave him a relatively rare Greek name, was one of the four men in a common fishing business from which Jesus selected his three innermost disciples, with whom Andrew could sometimes tag along (Mark 13:3).
The likelihood that Jesus had Greek-speaking disciples is highlighted in John 12:20–23, where a group of Greeks specifically approach Philip who then in turn approaches Andrew. Philip and Andrew then together approach Jesus about the Greeks.
In John 7:35 the crowd even speculates that Jesus might leave them and go and teach Greeks, which presumably means they thought he could speak Greek.