18 June 2021


Dunno if you read, a couple of months ago, of some two-millennia-old Biblical fragments recently discovered in caves in the Judean deaert. One of them (Zechariah 8:16-17) was ... except for the Tetragrammaton ... written in Greek.

Greek was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world.  Rome was the lergest Greek-speaking city in that world. Non-Greek languages survived in circumstances of bilinguality. Think Palestine ... think Wales ...

But we know that Christ spoke Aramaic. This raises an interesting question. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain long passages which are more or less verbally identical. 


Now: if you ask three people to translate a single text into a different language, it is highly improbable that their three renderings will be verbally identical, even reproducing the same word-order. In a classroom, you will work out whose work was passed around and then plagiarised by the other "students". Time was when, at this point, the cane came out of the cupboard. Not that I ever used one. I relied on Mental Cruelty.

So, clearly, one needs an answer to the problem of the Three Synoptic Gospels. Who did the original translation of the words of the Lord from Aramaic into Greek? Mark is shorter and cruder, so he is clearly first. The other two borrowed from him. What about passages in Matthew and Luke which are not borrowed from Mark? It stands to reason that they were taken from a now-lost work which wiser men than me (or you) have called 'Q'.

Bingo! You have solved "the Synoptic Problem".

But do we know that Christ spoke Aramaic? Of course we do. Mark records him as using the Aramaic Talitha Coum(i) when raising Jairus' daughter. And Abba and Ephphatha. QED.

Um ...

But why does Mark only record a few odd Aramaic words? Modern Scientific Commentators go shifty at this point. Do these words safely record Christ as an Aramaic speaker ... or do they neatly record some rare occasions when a habitual Greek-speaker spoke Aramaic instead?

In conditions of bilinguality, the 'old' language ... Welsh or Aramaic ... may still be used round the hearth, in families, by women and children. The chaps will use the big, cosmopolitan language ... English, let us say, or Greek. But when turning to babies, young girls, the handicapped, they might well use the 'informal' local language. I have heard educated speakers of 'Establishment' English automatically using the Glottal Stop when they address children or minorities which they (perhaps unconsciously) despise.

I have a fair bit more to say on all this. But first let me dispose of the 'Priority of Mark' ...shorter, cruder, therefore clearly first of the Gospels to have been written.

A great Oxford papyrologist called Peter Parsons once gave a paper, not on any biblical subject, but on Classical Literature. Particularly the chronology of the plays of Aeschylus. Recent papyrological discoveries had revealed that the Supplices was quite late in the playwrite's oeuvre. But it had always been assumed that it was among his first plays ... because of its 'primitive' structure etc, etc..

Parsons adduced other examples of the dangers of facile a priori assumptions.

One of the problems about Modern Scientific Biblical Scholarship is that those involved in it are often much too proud to take any notice of those outside their own narrow, precious, speciality. Particularly of us Classicists! More on this later.

If Christ habitually spoke Greek, then the 'Synoptic Problem' disappears into thin air. Massive numbers of 'learned' books and articles are ... Crass. No; we do not need another imaginative reconstruction of 'Q'.

And the 'new' Judean manuscript makes clear (what we well knew already) that Christ would not have been the only faithful Jew to speak Greek. Indeed, consider the varied names recorded of His disciples. PHILIPPOS is not only a Greek name; it is redolent of the Macedonian North Greek culture which became part of the common hellenic currency of the regions which had been conquered by Alexander the Great and ruled by his 'Successors'. 'ANDREAS is Greek for ... no; I will leave to you the fun of speculating. You might enjoy including in your speculations the names of the hellenised Chief Priests mentioned in the Books of the Maccabees.

To continue.


Simon Cotton said...

'The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain long passages which are more or less verbally identical'. Now it is often assumed that John's Gospel was later than the others. But if, as John Robinson suggested, it was being written at the same time as the other Gospels, maybe it is no surprise that it has this independence. Or am I wrong?

El Codo said...

Father, your Welsh analogy reveals the weakness of your argumentt. In Welsh-speaking Wales, men speak Welsh as much to each other as to others. It is a common English mistake to assume that all educated and rational people would speak English, a bit like decent upright Jewish Christians would speak Greek. Our Lord and his disciples were clearly thinking in a Semitic language. Hence the grammatical mistake at the beginning of St John when the writer omits the definite article because in Semitic languages there is no definite article after a preposition. Any fool know that.

Tom said...

Only a week or two ago I finally finished reading John Robinson's "Redating the New Testament" (why didn't I read that years ago?). He arrived at pretty much that same conclusion as your good self, Father and wrote quite highly of classicists too.
In Ireland it is not at all unusual for people to include Gaelic words and phrases in everyday speech even though most people are not native speakers nor would they have more than a basic knowledge of the language. Then again I do live in North West Donegal surrounded by Gaeltacht and with at least one member of my community who is polylingual.

Arthur Gallagher said...

When I was at school, my crude and brief reports were the result of replacing homework with a quick reading of someone else's already completed (i.e., earlier) work on the assignment. Or, probably it was. I do not really remember. So, how can I be so sure about something 2,000 years old?

My real concern is that Fr. has used "which", when I am sure it should have been "whom" ("minorities which they....despise") Am I wrong in thinking that? Perhaps some latter day scholar will posit that this blog post was really written by an American, and receive a major prize from a German university?

Claudio Salvucci said...


Didn't Eusebius, quoting Papias if I remember right, tell us that Matthew wrote down "ta logia" of Jesus in Aramaic? I wonder how that would square here....

Following this discussion with great interest.

Claudio Salvucci said...

"But if, as John Robinson suggested, it was being written at the same time as the other Gospels, maybe it is no surprise that it has this independence. Or am I wrong?"

I can't comment on the dating of John, but purely on an impressionistic level, the Synoptics look to me like they are adhering to but then embellishing a standardized account, from which John consciously departs. My tentative working hypothesis is as follows:

* Matthew writes the sayings of Christ in Aramaic
* Mark records the teaching of St. Peter in Greek. Peter's account is recognized as the "gold standard" of the Gospel message.
* Matthew reintegrates the Sayings with Peter's teaching, creating his Gospel
* Luke grabs everything he can get his hands on, including the Sayings, Peter's teaching, and other sources. (Maybe he doesn't have Greek Matthew, or it is not written yet?)
* John has all of these, but wants to start from scratch and tell his own story somewhat independently.

The old saw of "why would the eyewitness Matthew use the account of a non-eyewitness like Mark?"...seems easily answered by the fact that Matthew knew Peter was behind it and approved it.

frjustin said...

Father, you are on a roll. Archeologically, from the Greek inscriptions, it can be shown that all the Jewish synagogues outside Judea not only used the Septuagint but likely didn't even know how to speak their native Hebrew. Even within Judea 80% were Greek:

"The evidence of Greco-Roman influence there is overwhelming—the architecture of many catacomb facades, the impressive funerary monuments, the extensive art remains, and especially the inscriptions, almost 80% of which are in Greek. Soon after these discoveries, and at least in part because of them, S. Lieberman published his seminal and monumental 'Greek in Jewish Palestine', a pioneering work demonstrating the degree of penetration of Greek language and culture into Jewish life generally." (The Revolutionary Effects of Archaeology on the Study of Jewish History: The Case of the Ancient Synagogue, L. I. Levine, The archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present, N. A. Silberman & D. Small, Vol. 237, p181, 1997)

Another study found that "Not only were the Scriptures read in Greek, but also the same language was used for the prayers and the confession of faith, i.e. the “Shema,” in the public worship of the synagogue. The sources testify to this fact in regard to Caesarea, the quasi-gentile capital of Palestine...Besides reading and prayer there were exegesis and preaching, of course in Greek."(Hans Lietzmann’s monumental four volume work:
'A History of the Early Church', Vol. I, The Beginnings of the Christian Church, translated by Bertram Lee Woolf, pg. 87-91, The World Publishing Company, New York, 1967)

Anonymous said...

may I suggest this
Matthew was a tax collector and had to keep provable records. The Romans with whom he dealt with would have been very likely to cut of his head without thinking if they thought they were being cheated. His records were kept on wax tablets. There is a fascinating discovery just lately. There are in existence many small wooden frames in roman artifact and just lately the claim has been made they were the frame for wax tablets. Mark was a young boy whom Peter had befriended and Matthew was friendly with. Mark probably had access to those recordings. As later did Luke

Cus said...

I am afraid your example is an oversimplification. The sociolinguistic rules of bilingualism are more complicated than to be discussed in detail here. Sex, social status, topic, media (written/oral) etc. - all these are variables in a complicated culture-dependent pattern. But it works both in Welsh and Aramic or any bi/multilingual community!

Frugifex said...

On the other hand, what is one to make of this?

I heard a voice say to me in Hebrew, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (Acts 26:14)


Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. A great hush came over the crowd, and he addressed them in Hebrew (Acts 21:40)

Pulex said...

Thank you. Very interesting about the finding of Greek Zechariah. Returning to the preceding posts, there are now also available witnesses of Biblical books in Hebrew from Dead Sea scrolls, i.e., pre-Yamnean and pre-Christian Hebrew. It should be possible now find out if they are significantly different from MT, and whether the differences can be attributed to anti-Christian editing or to simultaneous existence of different versions one of which was predecessor of MT.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Frugifex

I did my best to try to explain, in my piece, that "X spoke in Y-language", far from meaning "X ALWAYS spoke in X-language", most naturally implies that X's use of Y on this occasion was unusual or untypical or, at least, calls for an explanation.

When our news bulletins record the immortal words of poor Mr Biden, they do not commonly record that "he spoke in English". If he spoke in Spanish, on the other hand, they would probably say so because it would be untypical. There would be a reason for it which would probably be interesting ... ex.gr. that he was making a captatio benevolentiae to the Hispanic Electorate.

In Acts 21, we are missing an important narrative point being made by S Luke if we fail to ask ourselves why, ON THIS OCCASION, S Paul decided to speak in Hebrew (or Aramaic).

Frugifex said...

Fr. Hunwicke:

Thank you for clarifying that. Not to contradict, but to add something, allow me to quote, out of a much longer discussion, a few sentences dealing with the same subject: (pace eorum qui textus latinos non legunt):

Apostolici viri Scripturis utuntur Hebraicis: ipsos apostolos et evangelistas hoc fecisse perspicuum est. Dominus atque Salvator ubicumque veteris Scripturae meminit, de Hebraicis voluminibus ponit exempla, ut est illud: "Qui credit in me, sicut Scriptura dicit: Flumina de ventre ejus fluent aquae vivae." [...] Non hoc dicimus quod Septuaginta interpretes sugillemus, sed quod apostolorum et Christi major sit auctoritas, et ubicumque Septuaginta ab Hebraeo non discordant, ibi apostolos de interpretatione eorum exempla sumpsisse; ubi vero discrepant, id posuisse in Graeco, quod apud Hebraeos didicerant. Sicut ergo ego ostendo multa in Novo Testamento posita de veteribus libris, quae in Septuagina non habentur, et haec scripta in Hebraico doceo, sic accusator ostendat, aliquid scriptum esse in Novo Testamento de Septuaginta interpretibus, quod in Hebraico non habetur et finita contentio est. (S. Hieronymus, Contra Rufinum Lib. II - juxta finem).

Finally, in the end of the Second Book, he states:

Ex quibus omnibus approbatur, et Septuaginta interpretum editionem, quae legentium vetustate firmata est, utilem esse Ecclesiis, dum ante gentes audiunt Christum venturum esse quam veniat, et caeteros interpretes non reprobandos, quia non sua, sed divina volumina transtulerunt.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

Re El Codo - just because Our Lord and the apostles thought in a Semitic language, it doesn't follow from that that such thought (if your supposition was universally true, which I doubt) cannot have been expressed through the medium of Greek.

On another topic, some time ago, the late Dom Bernard Orchard OSB, argued in favour of the priority of Matthew. But I can't remember his argument.


PM said...

Richard Burridge, one of a generation of scholars questioning the settled assumptions of the 1960s and 1970s which held inter alia that the Gospels are 'not biographies', has argued that they do conform to the expectations of bioi in the ancient world, if not the modern. He makes some illuminating comparisons to Plutarch and other ancient authors and even cites some classicists.

rick allen said...

Though the larger consensus is against it, I have always liked to think that perhaps Jesus did speak primarily in Greek and that the Gospels record his very words. My liking to think something does not of course make it so, or even make it one whit more probable. On the other hand, I am at least in some good company, i.e. that of Mr. Oscar Wilde, who noted in his long prison letter, later called "de Profundis,":

“ It was always supposed that Christ talked in Aramaic. Even Renan thought so. But now we know that the Galilean peasants, like the Irish peasants of our own day, were bilingual, and that Greek was the ordinary language of intercourse all over Palestine, as indeed all over the Eastern world. I never liked the idea that we knew of Christ’s own words only through a translation of a translation. It is a delight to me to think that as far as his conversation was concerned, Charmides might have listened to him, and Socrates reasoned with him, and Plato understood him: that he really said εyω ειμι ο ποιμην ο καλος, that when he thought of the lilies of the field and how they neither toil nor spin, his absolute expression was καταyαθετε τα κρίνα του αγρου τως αυξανει ου κοπιυ ουδε νηθει, and that his last word when he cried out ‘my life has been completed, has reached its fulfilment, has been perfected,’ was exactly as St. John tells us it was: τετέλεσται—no more.”

E sapelion said...

I found it illuminating to discover that τετέλεσται is what people wrote on bills that had been redeemed, as we would stamp PAID.

rick allen said...

Oops, sorry, looks like I was beaten to the punch re our friend Wilde unthread.

Banshee said...

Well, obviously it's talking about a later time... but there's a bit in the Talmud that talks about how funny it is that Galileans speak Hebrew, while learned rabbis speak Aramaic. And there's this bit about the rabbi who married a nice Galilean Jewish girl who asked her to get candles, and she got carrots. Or something like that.

I can't remember where this came up. Maybe it was the law of divorce, or something like that? Something about whether or not the girl was really trying to obey her husband, and misunderstanding wasn't disobeying?

My search terms aren't working, but I'm pretty sure I read that. Because it was so counter-intuitive, maybe because the rabbis came from families that had moved away from Israel and then had come back.

frjustin said...

Banshee: could you be thinking of the compiler of the Mishnah, Yeudah ha-Nasi: "His father presumably gave him the same education that he himself had received, including the Greek language. This knowledge of Greek enabled him to become the Jews' intermediary with the Roman authorities. He favored Greek as the language of the country over Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. In Judah's house, only the Hebrew language was spoken, and the maids of the house became known for their use of obscure Hebrew terminology." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judah_ha-Nasi