Jesus and the Use of Greek: A Response to Maurice Casey -- By: Stanley E. Porter

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 10:1 (NA 2000)
Article: Jesus and the Use of Greek: A Response to Maurice Casey
Author: Stanley E. Porter


Jesus and the Use of Greek:
A Response to Maurice Casey

Stanley E. Porter

University Of Surrey Roehampton, U.K.

My recent proposal that Greek may well have been one of the languages of Jesus has struck at least one scholar as being a position difficult to defend. In responding to arguments against my position, I restate the gist of my argument, as well as cite relevant evidence, that Jesus not only spoke Aramaic, but also spoke and perhaps even taught in Greek. This position finds support in both recent discussion of the linguistic milieu of Palestine and the conclusions of other researchers on this topic.

Key Words: Greek, Jesus, Aramaic, language

The linguistic picture for first-century Roman Palestine is certainly far more complex than has often been appreciated in recent research and writing. Jesus, as well as many of his closest followers, who also came from Galilee, was probably multilingual, speaking Aramaic to be sure, and Greek to be almost as sure, and possibly even Hebrew.1 (There is no significant evidence of Jesus’ ability to speak Latin, the official language of the empire.) In discussing multilingualism, it is often useful to differentiate levels of linguistic competence. This is closely linked to the issue of literacy. According to recent estimates, probably only twenty to thirty percent of the males in a given Hellenistic community at the most would have been able to read and write, with a much lower percentage among those in the country. Literacy in the ancient world was directly related to levels of education, the resources for which were primarily focused upon the city, and

Author’s note: An expanded form of this article appears in chapter 4 of my The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals (JSNTSup 191; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

tended to favor males, especially those with economic resources.2 Multilingualism is a complex subject, for which there are many fuzzy boundaries to the categories.3 One way of characterizing multilingualism is in terms of diachronic categories, such as first language versus second or acquired languages, along with the age of acquisition and possible attrition of the first language. Another way is to describe one’s ability in synchronic terms, distinguishing between active or productive and passive or receptive multilingualism, while realizing that the scale is a cline or continuum, rather than a disjunction. Active multilingualism involve...

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