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What Would Jesus Speak?

Probably no film in history has been written about as much before its public debut as Mel Gibson’s new movie about the last days of Jesus. Many of the critics and scholars who have seen it screened in advance have accused it of both antisemitism and historical ignorance — an ignorance all the more appalling in light of its pretensions to be cinema verité.

One commonly cited illustration of this is the movie’s choice of Aramaic and Latin as the two languages spoken by its characters — the former by Jesus, his disciples and other Jews, and the latter by non-Jews. In fact, as has been pointed out, the language of most non-Jews in the Palestine of Jesus’ time was Greek and not Latin, which would have been spoken only by Roman officials and soldiers conversing among themselves. And to Jews like Jesus, such men, too, would have spoken in Greek, since this was the lingua franca of the country.

In the early centuries C.E., Greek and Aramaic were indeed the two languages most widely spoken throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean world; Latin, though the official language of the Roman Empire, was rarely used east of Italy. It was a newcomer to the Levant, having arrived only with the Roman military occupation of the region in the first century B.C.E. Greek, on the other hand, had been around since the fourth century, when it was spread as far east as Persia and Afghanistan by Alexander the Great’s conquering army, which left behind ruling elites that Hellenized vast stretches of territory — especially along the Mediterranean littoral from Syria to Egypt, where it was, by the time of Jesus, the language of the educated and urbanized classes. Aramaic — a more ancient Middle-Eastern lingua franca originally disseminated by the expansion of the Assyrian Empire hundreds of years before Alexander — remained the tongue of the uneducated, the peasantry and minority groups like the Jews that refused to be Hellenized. (Apart, that is, from the large Jewish community of Egypt, which went over to Greek entirely, perhaps because the language of the Egyptian countryside was not Aramaic but Coptic.)

And yet, even among the Jews of Palestine, who knew no Latin at all, a knowledge of Greek was widespread in Jesus’ day. Anyone wishing to know just how widespread it was can do no better than to consult Saul Lieberman’s classic Greek And Hellenism In Jewish Palestine, which, though published over 40 years ago, remains the definitive work on the subject.

Lieberman was by training a Talmudist, a great one, and he approached the subject by analyzing many Greek words and calque expressions found in the Hebrew and Aramaic rabbinic literature of the Hellenistic period. (A calque expression is an idiom or construction translated literally from one language into another, as when, for instance, the German Weltanschauung becomes the English “world-view.”) He found an enormous amount of these, enough to convince him that even members of the rabbinical establishment, which led the opposition to Greek culture, often knew Greek well.

Lieberman didn’t bother with the hundreds of well-known Greek words in Hebrew that entered it in this period, many of them still everyday Hebrew terms, such as prozdor, a corridor, from the Greek prothyron, “vestibule”; delpek, a counter, from delphikhe, “three-legged table”; sanegor, a defense counsel, from synegoros, “attorney”; kumkum, a kettle, from khoukhoumion; or apotropos, a legal guardian or court-appointed administrator, from epitropos. Rather, he concentrated on instances where a rabbinic knowledge of Greek is less obvious yet is the clue to understanding the meaning of a rabbinic text.

Here is one example. There is a Talmudic legend about a pious Jew who, hearing of a famous courtesan in Italy who charged the astronomical sum of 400 gold coins to spend a night with her, could not control his curiosity and traveled to her with the money to find out what she charged so much for. Yet his religious inhibitions got the better of him and at the crucial moment he was impotent — which made the courtesan, no less curious herself, react by saying, “By the limb of Rome [gapa shel Romi, in Hebrew], I will not let you go until you tell me what is wrong with me.”

What is “the limb of Rome”? Lieberman convincingly shows that the Hebrew word gapa, “limb of,” is actually a later corruption by scribes who no longer understood Greek of the Greek word agape, “love,” and that in the original story, as told and understood by Jews in Palestine, the courtesan swore by “the love of Rome.”


p>There is no evidence that Jesus himself understood Greek, and his few statements in the New Testament that purportedly appear in the language in which they were originally spoken are all in Aramaic. Still, he may have known enough Greek to use it in his contact with non-Jews, or with Roman officials like Pontius Pilate, and if he didn’t, there would always have been someone available to translate. As for Latin, viewers of Mel Gibson’s movie will probably hear more of it than Jesus did.


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