Ancient Palestine was not monolingual. Rather, it was a “multi-lingual speech community” (Ong 2016). Aramaic had deep roots in everyday life in Palestine. However, Liturgy and literature were probably read in Hebrew.

Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew. But Greek was the ‘Lingua Franca’ across the Roman Empire. Given the context of multi-lingual first-century Galilee, one could ask, “Did Jesus know Greek?”

I think, there are enough reasons to believe that Jesus knew Greek, or at least had a working knowledge of it.

The Social acceptance of Greek Culture

The Greek influence, of course, is directly related to Alexander’s invasion (4th BCE). Since then, Hellenism continued to have a deep impact in the Region.

Interestingly, Greek life found social acceptance in Galilee. Many aspects of Greek culture (Hellenism) were carefully imbibed without compromising ethnic identity and religious practice (cf Freyne).

The local populace adopted Greek due to the Greek rule (334/331-63 BCE), much like they had earlier adopted the languages of Imperial powers such as Babylon (597 – 539 BCE) and Persia (539 – 331 BCE).

Recent archaeological findings in Galilee provide valuable insight into the extent and nature of the impact of the spread of Greek culture in the Region.

Was Greek spoken in Galilee?

There exists a considerable differences of opinion among biblical scholars on how much Greek was in use at the time. In any case, Greek was the administrative language of the Region, even during the Roman Rule. Root notes, “All epigraphy in the region were written in Greek”.

However, popular usage depends on language users, social interaction and societal memberships. Scholarly opinions are divided between a Gentile Galilee and a Jewish Galilee.

The traditional view is that of a mixed Galilean population – a strong Gentile community alongside a small Jewish population. However, this traditional view has been challenged (Mark Chancey, Sean Freyne, Richard Horsley, and Eric Meyers). Chancey contends, “The overwhelming majority of first-century Galileans were Jews”.

Was Greek prevalent in Jewish Galilee? Interestingly, recent scholarship does not deny the prevalence of Greek among the Galilean Jews. Moreover, Greek was spoken in the settlements by the Sea of Galilee, which had a sizeable minority gentile population (cf. Root).

Ong suggests a bi-lingual model wherein most inhabitants speak Greek as their primary language and either Aramaic (for the Jews) or Latin? / Greek (for the Romans) as the native language.

Greek – the language of the marketplace

Galilee had flourishing trade possibilities due to the lake and rich fertile soil surrounding it. Numerous International trade routes traversed through Galilee. Besides, Galilee also had the advantage of access to inter-regional Trade (Cf. Horsley).

Fish was picked and salted at Tarichaea (Magdala) and exported to Jerusalem and other regions, even to Rome. Tarichea also housed other businesses such as ceramic-making, boat building and repairing, sail making.

Evidence suggests that Trade and commerce in and around Galilee were conducted mostly in Greek. Many merchants and artisans, then, could use trade opportunities to learn the language from Greek speakers.

So, Greek was probably understood, if not used by most Jews of the time of Jesus. Even otherwise, a significant portion of Galilean Jews would have had at least functional knowledge of Greek.

Greek – The language of Prestige

The flourishing fishing trade brought wealth to the Region. Josephus’ picture of Galilee is one of prosperity. The wealthier Galileans in urban Centers may have preferred its use since Greek was a kind of “prestige language” (Cf. Ong).

Besides, Roman officials may have used Greek for other social events.  

Jesus’ disciples used Greek

Popular understanding of Jesus (and his disciples) are influenced by the myth of ‘the ignorant Galilean fishermen’ (cf. Acts 4.13). We have assumed the disciples to be naïve, ignorant and illiterate.

However, Jesus’s disciples were engaged in a thriving fishing trade. The Gospel texts seem to suggest that they were running a successful commercial venture rather than a subsistence occupation (Freyne).

Peter, Andrew, James and John owned ‘boats’, ‘nets’ and ‘hired servants’ (Mk 1:20). Their fishing trade would have necessitated a working knowledge of Greek.

As a Tax collector, Matthew should have known Greek, beyond a rudimentary level, to fulfil his duties. Interestingly, Moulton even makes a far-fetched suggestion that Peter’s Greek may have been better than his Aramaic.

Interestingly, some disciples of Jesus had Greek names. For example, Andrew is a Greek name. And so is Philip.

Jesus ministered in Greek-only areas

Greek was widely spoken in many towns as well. However, in some areas, people may have used nothing else but Greek (cf. Fitzmeyer)

Jesus visited many towns and villages (Matt. 9:35; Mk 6:6; Lk 8:1, Lk 13:22), including the villages of Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27). Interestingly, Greek culture and language dominated many of these villages.

The Decapolis – an urban conglomeration of 10 cities – generally spoke Greek. Jesus had many followers at Decapolis (cf. Mk 5:9 – 10; 7:31 -35; Mt 4:24 – 25). So if Jesus ministered in “Greek-alone” places, then it is likely that he spoke a little Greek.

Jesus’ engagement with the Greeks

Jesus was hugely popular in Galilee and beyond. John 12: 20 – 23 suggests Jesus had Greek disciples.

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks”. 

The Greeks had approached Philip (who was from Bethsaida in Galilee) with a request to meet Jesus. In another instance (John 7:35), the response of the Jewish crowd seems to suggest Jesus could be conversant in Greek.

“Where does this man intend to go that we shall not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?

To “teach the Greeks”, Jesus needs to have a fairly reasonable level of Greek. So the question is, Did he?!

Jesus’ exposure at Sepphoris

The New Testament does not mention Sepphoris, which was an ‘intensive-Romanization’ project undertaken by Herod Antipas to win the favour of Rome. Sepphoris was a flourishing large city and the excavations done there is of crucial importance to our understanding of Galilee.

Interestingly, Sepphoris was barely four miles away from Nazareth, where Jesus lived and worked. Sepphoris would have offered Jesus more employment opportunities than Nazareth, which was nothing more than a tiny hamlet.

Jesus, then, would have been exposed to the Greek language and culture through his interactions at Sepphoris. For example, Jesus’ use of the word Hypocrite (meaning actor in Greek) stems from Greek theatre. Sepphoris housed a famous theatre.

It is possible that the Gospel writers did not mention Sepphoris simply because it did not relate to Jesus’ ministry. Further, Freyne (2010) believes that Jesus most likely avoided Sepphoris to avoid confrontation with the Herodians or show his disapproval of the politics of urbanization.

Conclusion

Greek was widely used and understood by most Jews during the time of Jesus. Scott Gleaves (2015) points out, “The growing mass of evidence has now become a convincing witness to the wide use of Greek in Palestine, even among the members of the inner circle of disciples who followed Jesus”.

Recent findings attest to the widespread use of Greek at the time of Jesus. Interestingly, the Greek usage was not limited to Hellenized towns. Besides epigraphical and epistolary evidence, the use of Greek in Palestine and significant contexts in the Gospels give credence to Jesus’ use of Greek. Porter concludes:

“Whereas it is not always known how much and on which occasions Jesus spoke Greek, it is virtually certain that he used Greek at various times in his itinerant ministry.”

The available evidence suggests that Jesus knew Greek (cf. Fitzmeyer). Jesus spoke Aramaic and (read) Hebrew. While at the same time, he may have spoken Greek (perhaps a little). Therefore, to conclude that Jesus used Greek seems a reasonably “well-informed” guess. However, the evidence at hand is largely circumstantial and, therefore, cannot be stretched beyond its elastic limits.

But the possibility of Jesus speaking an international language, besides a regional and ethnic language, does alter the picture of Jesus in our heads.

Further Reading

Buth, R., & Notley, R. S. (2014). The Language Environment Of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies In The Synoptic Gospels.

Fiensy, D. A., & Hawkins, R. K. (2013). The Galilean Economy In The Time Of Jesus.

Fitzmyer, J. A. (1979). A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays.

Freyne, Sean. (2010). Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus-Story

Gleaves, G. S., & Cloud, R. E. (2015). Did Jesus speak Greek?: The emerging evidence of Greek dominance in first-century Palestine.

Ong, H. T. (2016). The Multilingual Jesus And The Sociolinguistic World Of The New Testament.

Porter, S. E., & Pitts, A. W. (2013). Christian Origins And Greco-Roman Culture: Social And Literary Contexts For The New Testament.


www.LumoProject.com / LUMO Photo taken from www.freebibleimages.org

Samuel Thambusamy is a PhD candidate with the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.