googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Did Jesus Speak Greek?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Did Jesus Speak Greek?

Jesus, of course, is able to speak any language. But the question arises sometimes, “What language did Jesus speak to His disciples.” I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus actually spoke Greek while on earth. I came across an article online many years ago that really had me going for a while. I don’t have a link to it anymore but I remember a couple of points made by the author who argued that Jesus spoke Greek to His disciples.

The first point raised was from the book of Revelation where Jesus said to John, ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Revelation 1:8). This begs the question – why did Jesus refer to Himself with these Greek letters?

The author went on to cite Matthew 5:18:

ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ οὐρανὸς καὶ γῆ ἰῶτα ἓν μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.

In the KJV, this passage is translated as: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

The word translated as “jot” in the KJV is the word, ἰῶτα, iota, which, of course, is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. Iota can also be subscripted (as in ῃ) making it a very small letter indeed. The word translated as “tittle” is the Greek word, κεραία, keraia, which is a reference to a stroke of a letter. I have also heard it applied to accents and the breathing marks over beginning Greek vowels. Of course, at the time I read this, wasn’t aware that the original Greek writers did not use accents, breathing marks, or subscripts so these points sound less persuasive in retrospect.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek was the common language of nearly the entire world. Koine, of course, means “common.” This is the reason why, when Jesus was crucified, the plate nailed above his head was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. And certainly the books of the New Testament were written in Greek. It was the language understood by everyone.

But did Jesus really speak Greek while on earth? While reading the gospels, I noticed a peculiar habit of the gospel writers that might shed light on the question.

Consider John 1:42:

ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν· σὺ εἶ Σίμων υἱὸς Ἰωάννου, σὺ κληθήσῃ Κηφᾶς, ἑρμηνεύεται Πέτρος.

He led him to Jesus. When Jesus saw him he said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas,” which is translated, “Rock.”

I thought that was very interesting. John is recording the very words Jesus used upon seeing Peter. Jesus called him, “Cephas.” “Cephas” is an Aramaic word. But for the sake of his readers who might not understand Aramaic, John inserts a translation right into the gospel – Cephas means “Rock” (Πέτρος).

We see a similar example only a few verses earlier. In John 1:38, the disciples following Jesus call Him, “Rabbi.” John again supplies a translation – Rabbi means “teacher” (διδάσκαλος).

This interesting phenomenon, which occurs many times in the Gospels, argues very persuasively that Jesus did not speak Greek while on earth. He most likely spoke Hebrew or Aramaic.

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