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Could Jesus and the Apostles read and speak Greek?

Muslims claim, without proof, that Jesus could only speak Hebrew or Aramaic and would not have known Greek. They feel this proves the New Testament being written in Greek is invalidated and cite outdated scholarship that once speculated that the Gospels must have been originally written in Hebrew.  Muslims, however, know very little history about the Scriptures used by Jews during Jesus’ time, as well as little about the languages of areas like Galilee, where Jesus was from. In this article we will be proving, from history, geography, and Biblical texts, that Jesus could speak Greek and maybe even Latin.

1. Jesus was a Galilean as were most of His Disciples

The fact that Jesus was a Galilean is proof that He would have spoken Aramaic as His primary language, but it’s very likely He would have known Greek as well. The reason being is that Galilee was an area that had significant Hellenistic influences. Greek is known to have been spoken in cities throughout Galilee including Beit She’an (Scythopolis) and the cities of the Decapolis as well as in Sepphoris, which was a city near Nazareth. According to Scholar, Stanley E. Porter, President of McMaster Divinity College, it is impossible that Jesus did not know Greek as it was spoken so widely in Galilee in general everyday living and trading:

“Regarding the influence of Greek in lower Galilee, evidence is increasing that it was the Palestinian area most heavily influenced by Greek language and culture. Referred to as the ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ in Matthew 4:15, lower Galilee was a center for trade among the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee and Decapolis regions. Galilee was completely surrounded by Hellenistic culture, with Acco—Ptolemais, Tyre and Sidon in the west and north-west, Panias—Caesarea Philippi, Hippos and Gadara in the north-east, east and south-east, and Scythopolis and Gaba in the south. Besides being connected by a number of waterways, there was a road system that utilized a series of valleys to interconnect the Galilaean region, tying together such important cities as Sepphoris and Tiberias, as well as tying the area to its surrounding regions. As a result, Galilee was a center for import and export as well as general trade, resulting in a genuinely cosmopolitan flavor.”

Jesus was from Nazareth, and spent a sizable portion of his career in lower Galilee around the cities of Nazareth, Nain, Cana and Capernaum. Although Nazareth was a small village of only 1600 to 2000 in population, and it relied upon agriculture for its economic base (see Jn. 1:46, which might well be supported by what we know of the physical remains), it is not legitimate to think of Jesus as growing up in linguistic and cultural isolation.” – Tyndale Bulletin 44.2 (1993) 199-235. , DID JESUS EVER TEACH IN GREEK?, Stanley E. Porter

What Dr. Porter is basically saying is that for Jesus not to have known Greek would isolate Him from His home and life around Him. This would be similar to saying a citizen born in the United States would grow up and yet be so isolated they never know English: Thus, it is historically and geographically inaccurate to insist that Jesus could not speak Greek. Greek was the universal language of the Roman Empire. Greeks had been in Israel as far back as the 8th century B.C.

2. Archaeology from Jesus’ time shows that the Jews/Israelites had to know Greek for daily business activities:

While Aramaic may have been Jesus’ primary language for daily usage in speaking to other Jews and Israelites, Greek was known as well by many if not the majority of Jews as it was needed in trading, doing business and buying goods. In Judea, for example, the common currency for all citizens was imprinted with the Greek language.

“Most city coins of ancient Israel carry Greek rather than Latin inscrip­tions, evidence that Greek was still spoken in the area at this time.” (Guide to Biblical Coins, David Hendin, 5th edition, p60, 2010 AD)

Thus, Israelites and Jews had to know Greek in order to function in daily life and business dealings”

“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 and among the rabbis in particular.”  – The Revolutionary Effects of Archaeology on the Study of Jewish History: The Case of the Ancient Synagogue, L. I. Levine

The Theodotus Inscription was discovered in Jerusalem in 1914 by a Jewish archaeologist, Raymond Weill. This inscription, found  in the southern part of the city of David dates to about 19 B.C.. It shows that Greek was in use in Jewish Synagogues, not only outside of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem as well, since the inscription is in Greek. The inscription is pictured below and reads:

Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and
an archisynagogos,* son of an archisynagogos
grandson of an archisynagogos, built
the synagogue for the reading of
Torah and for teaching the commandments;
furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water
installation for lodging
needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid
by his ancestors, the
elders, and Simonides

Even funerary inscriptions were mostly in before and during Jesus’ time:

“No less than 1,600 Jewish epitaphs—funerary inscriptions—are extant from ancient Palestine and the Diaspora dating to the Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine periods (300 B.C.E.–500 C.E.). … One of the most surprising facts about these funerary inscriptions is that most of them are in Greek—approximately 70 percent; about 12 percent are in Latin, and only 18 percent are in Hebrew or Aramaic. These figures are even more instructive if we break them down between Palestine and the Diaspora. Naturally in Palestine we would expect more Hebrew and Aramaic and less Greek. This is true but not to any great extent. Even in Palestine approximately two-thirds of these inscriptions are in Greek. Apparently for a great part of the Jewish population the daily language was Greek, even in Palestine. This is impressive testimony to the impact of Hellenistic culture on Jews in their mother country, to say nothing of the Diaspora. In Jerusalem itself about 40 percent of the Jewish inscriptions from the first-century period (before 70 C.E.) are in Greek. We may assume that most Jewish Jerusalemites who saw the inscriptions in situ were able to read them.” -Jewish Funerary Inscriptions-Most Are in Greek, Pieter W. van der Horst, BAR, Sept, 1992 AD

2. The Scriptures of the time had been translated into Greek by Rabbi’s around 250 – 300 B.C. It makes no sense to go from a Greek Universally accepted Old Testament to a Hebrew or Aramaic New Testament and a Jesus who could not speak the universal language of the time.

Scholars at one point speculated that the New Testament must have originally been written in Aramaic or Hebrew. However, the Old Testament of the era was written in Greek and widely used by most all Jews. This text, known as the Septuagint, was in wide usage in Synagogues and by Hellenized Jews/Israelites. In fact, the Septuagint had been approved by the Sanhedrin:

“The Septuagint was the first translation of the Hebrew Bible: and was made in the 3rd century B.C. by Jewish Scribes, who were direct descendants of those trained in Ezra’s Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. They were complete experts in the text, being very well versed in Hebrew and Greek.

“This translation became very popular among Jews in the first two centuries before Christ because many Jews in those days did not understand Hebrew. Their ancestors had left Israel centuries before, and generation after generation gradually lost the ability to read the Scriptures in Hebrew. Jesus and the Apostles: studied, memorized, used, quoted, and read most often from the Bible of their day, the Septuagint.”  – BibleStudyTools.com

While there are certain differences in New Testament usage, there is no doubt that of all Greek versions the LXX was employed predominantly and that it enjoyed independent existence in the period just prior to the time of Christ. – R. K. Harrison, “Introduction to the Old Testament”, pp. 231–232

It makes zero sense to speculate that Jesus would only be able to speak Aramaic or Hebrew and not know the language that the Old Testament Scriptures that were in dominate use at the time. Along with this, nearly all Old Testament quotes found in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. If Jesus quoted the Greek Septuagint, he knew Greek. Other Jews, such as Josephus and Philo wrote in Greek and like other Jews of their time, they quoted solely from the Septuagint as well. Jesus, being the Messiah, would surely know the language of the Scriptures as well.

On the other hand, the common Hebrew text we have today, the Masoretic Text, didn’t even exist until well after Jesus’ time. It was a deliberate reconstruction of the Old Testament text with a new language, Masoretic Hebrew, to pull away from the Christian and Messianic populations who were using the Septuagint. Prior to this time Israelites and Jews only had Paleo-Hebrew for their “Hebrew scrolls” and later Assyrian Script. Dr. G. Gleaves points this out in his book, Did Jesus Speak Greek?, citing Megillah 1:8 (2nd century A.D.) in showing that Rabbis allowed the use of Greek, and only Greek,  for the Scriptures:

There is no difference between sacred scrolls and phylacteries and mezuzot except that sacred scrolls may be written in any alphabet [‘language’], while phylacteries and mezuzot are written only in square [‘Assyrian’] letters. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says, ‘Also: in the case of sacred scrolls: they have been permitted to be written only in Greek’” (m.Megillah 1:8).

Thus, there is no rule from the Jews during or just after Jesus’ time that a Hebrew text was to be used or written by scribes, nor an Aramaic one. However, Greek, which had been in use for centuries was still the choice for Scripture.  Rabbi Akiva is the first to have a new text created around 120. A.D to replace the Septuagint, however this text was still in Greek. As far as the later creation of Masoretic Hebrew, Jews did not even have this text until the 5th century A.D. at the earliest. At this time, Jews created a whole other language and text ,coming centuries after the Church was established to further pull away from Christianity and Messianics:

The Masorets were the most extensive Jewish commentators which that nation could ever boast. The system of punctuation, probably invented by them, is a continual gloss on the Law and the Prophets; their vowel points, and prosaic and metrical accents, &c., give every word to which they are affixed a peculiar kind of meaning, which in their simple state, multitudes of them can by no means bear. The vowel points alone add whole conjugations to the language. This system is one of the most artificial, particular, and extensive comments ever written on the Word of God; for there is not one word in the Bible that is not the subject of a particular gloss through its influence. -Adam Clarke

As a Hebrew scholar, he [Louis Cappell] concluded that the vowel points and accents were not an original part of Hebrew, but were inserted by the Masorete Jews of Tiberias, not earlier then the 5th Century AD, and that the primitive Hebrew characters are Aramaic and were substituted for the more ancient at the time of the captivity. . . The various readings in the Old Testament Text and the differences between the ancient versions and the Masoretic Text convinced him that the integrity of the Hebrew text as held by Protestants, was untenable. -1948 Encyclopedia Britannica article on Hebrew Scholar Louis Cappell

If Rabbis new and approved of the Scriptures being in Greek and if Hebrew did not even exist during Jesus’ time as it stands today, we can be sure the Messiah knew these Greek Scriptures as well, being able to read them and speak the language. Thus there is no evidence to the contrary that He would not have been able to speak or read Greek.

3. Jesus and the Apostles speak Greek in the New Testament, when speaking to others and when quoting the Old Testament

Further evidence is found in Jesus’ own words in the New Testament in Old Testament Scriptures He and the Apostles quote as well as Greek speaking people they converse with. Thus, claiming that Jesus and the Apostles could not speak Greek or that the New Testament must have had an underlying Hebrew base is proven false.

For example, the Isaiah scroll Jesus reads from in Luke 4 is the best proof that Jesus could read and speak Greek. His quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah is identical to that found in the Septuagint:

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. 17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, 18 The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, 19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. 20 And he closed the book, and he gave [it] again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. (Luke 4:16-20)

Compare this with the text of Isaiah:

LXXE Greek Isaiah 61:1:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind;

CJB Masoretic (Hebrew) Isaiah 61:1:
The Spirit of Adonai ELOHIM is upon me, because ADONAI has anointed me to announce good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted; to proclaim freedom to the captives, to let out into light those bound in the dark;

KJV Masoretic (Hebrew) Isaiah 61:1:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD [is] upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to [them that are] bound

There are many other quotations found in the New Testament that are directly from the Greek Septuagint Old Testament. Muslims claim that either the Old Testament is corrupt or the New Testament, based on quotes sometimes not matching. However, this is only found typically when the Greek New Testament is compared to quotes from of the Masoretic Text. As noted previously in number 2 above, this text was corrupted centuries after Jesus’ time, by Pharisee Jews, to point the Old Testament away from Him (For more see, The Fallibility of the Hebrew Masoretic Text ). If Jesus knew and quoted the Scriptures from the Septuagint, He as well as the Apostles obviously could speak Greek.

Jesus and the Apostles speak to Greek people:

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” – John 12:20-23

Jesus spoke to Greek speaking people with no indications of a translator:

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” 7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” 8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 8:5-15

Jesus speaks to the Greek woman:

24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Mark 7:24-30

Jesus spoke directly with Pilate who would have not known Aramaic or Hebrew:

10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” – John 19:10-11

The Sign placed above Jesus’ heard on the cross was written in all the languages people of the Roman Empire spoke:

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek  – John 19:19-20

The Apostles could speak Greek as well:

“New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham notes that “Peter was surely able to speak Greek,” adding, “In light of Peter’s early life in the dominantly Gentile context of Bethsaida, Markus Bockmuehl speaks of ‘a very strong likelihood that Peter grew up fully bilingual in a Jewish minority setting.’” Bauckham also notes, “On the other hand, it is worth noting that Philip, also from Bethsaida, and Peter’s brother Andrew, rather than Peter himself, are regarded as the disciples most proficient in Greek in John 12:21-22,” where it is recorded, beginning in John 12:20, that some Greek speaking Jews wanted to see Jesus: “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request,” indicating that he was known to them or referred to them as a Greek speaker. Many scholars also believe that Peter preached in Greek in Acts 2, which would have been the most widely understood language by the Jews from many different countries.” – What Language Did Jesus and the Apostles Speak? Ask Dr.Brown

If Jesus and the Apostles could not speak Greek and the New Testament scriptures even were originally written in Aramaic, why does the New Testament not translate words that could have been easily translated from Aramaic?

“The key argument is simple: Christ words in Greek contain untranslated Aramaic words (“amen”, “mammon”, etc.) If all of Christ’s words were originally Aramaic, why would some be left untranslated? This includes both words he uses frequently (“amen” “satan”) and words he uses only once such as “mammon”. None of these words are difficult to translate into Greek. More damning, is that fact that there are places in the text where Christ is quoted speaking in Aramaic and, in one of them, the evangelist translates the Aramaic into Greek. It would be impossible for such a verse to appear in an “Aramaic” source. The only explanation that makes sense is that Christ spoke Greek publicly, mixing in a little Greek, but was raised speaking Aramaic, speaking it to children and in times of stress. ” – ChristWords.com

There is a growing consensus among Scholarship that Jesus and the Apostles did speak Greek and spoke it well:

I find that Greek was more widely used in both written and oral form by Jesus, his disciples, and the Jews who inhabited first-century Palestine. Interestingly, the evidence reveals that Greek became the dominant language spoken among Jews and Gentiles in Galilee in the first century CE. –G. Scott Gleaves
Dean and Associate Professor,  Kearley Graduate School of Theology, Faulkner University.

4. The Holy Spirit allows people with the gift of tongues to speak any language.

The Holy Spirit allows some people with the gift of tongues to speak with people of other languages. Since Jesus was the Messiah and the son of God, we can be sure that He had ALL the gifts of the Holy Spirit in His humanity. We read of Jesus healing, walking on water, doing many other miracles. So it would be ignorant to speculate that He would not speak to people of various foreign languages as well. However, as already shown, Jesus would have been able to speak Greek anyway since it was the dominate and universal language of the time. But even so, showing that He would have known all languages anyway via the Holy Spirit is something we felt should be mentioned.

Grace in the New Testament is the Holy Spirit in most cases as shown below:

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

2 Timothy 2:1: You therefore, my child, be empowered by the grace which is in Christ Jesus.

Jesus was the very image of God the father on Earth as well as fully empowered by the Holy Spirit from His time in the womb.

At Pentecost we see that the ability to speak other languages and understand them comes to the believers in the upper room via the Holy Spirit:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’ They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:1-12)

Jesus being through whom we receive the Holy Spirit and being empowered with it in His humanity surely would have already had this power in his ministry on Earth. For anyone to assert otherwise and claim that Jesus could have only known one language is to deny the power of the Holy Spirit, the importance of the Messiah and His relationship to God the father.

Conclusion

Based on all historical and geographical evidence along with the New Testament and Old Testament Septuagint, it is proven to be speculation and myth that Jesus and even the Apostles could not speak Greek. Furthermore, since Jesus was the Messiah and the son of God it is ignorant to say that He could not speak any language since God is the creator of all languages and Jesus would have certainly know how to speak with people from all the languages of the world.

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