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Odd Gospel Greek: or is it Hebrew? or Latin?

June 5, 2012

Thanks again to Theophrastus for directing us all to Yair Furstenberg’s review of Daniel Sperber’s new book Greek in Talmudic Palestine.  In his introduction, Sperber takes us directly to a tale in the “Mishna in Avoda Zarah 3:4”; after presenting the text to us, Sperber concludes that it “reflects second-century sitz im leben, in which Jews and Gentiles, even most distinguished Jewish individuals, could bathe together naked in a Romano-pagan bathhouse, which apparently constituted a meeting place for the social intercourse of people from radically different walks of life.”  The intercourse, of course, was mediated by the people’s language(s), and so Sperber concludes rather playfully with this rhetorical question:

“And presumably they could converse together in Greek; or was it in Hebrew or Aramaic?”

When one reads the odd gospel Greek of the a-syn-optic account of the life of Jesus, then there comes this sense of word-playfulness.

For example, John in the 12th chapter presumes to let his readers hear the voice of God.  His readers are listening to an agonizing prayer by Jesus to his heavenly father (reading in Greek), in which he concludes, exclaiming publicly:  “Father, glorify thy name.”  The response, John writes, is this:

καὶ ἐδόξασα καὶ πάλιν δοξάσω.

John’s Greek readers hear it but he tells them that Jesus’s and his father’s eavesdroppers don’t.  They hear βροντή, or so they think:  βροντή, thunder.  Did it sound like Hebrew or Aramaic, or Greek?  Or some understand the voice to be an ἄγγελος, an angel.  What language do the angels speak?  Greek like the voice one reads does sound like an angel?  Does it sound like Hellene poetics, with Hebraic repetitions retained?  Would it only sound like thunder to barbarians?  How does God sound?  When he speaks audibly to a human, what does he speak, and what if one uses Greek to translate that?

καὶ ἐδόξασαai

καὶ πάλιν


John chapter 19 especially gives the feeling of multi-lingual social intercourse.  Now the conversation is not to and from heaven, but it’s all on the ground, between humans.  And this comes all in the context of the gospel’s narrating (in Greek alone) speech between Jews and Romans and Greek speakers all.  What languages are they speaking all to one another when they speak?  John writes to his readers in Greek, so we can’t always be sure.  Imperial Greek talk?  Official Latin perhaps?  Common Greek (koine)?  Holy Hebrew?  More casual Aramaic?

One is reading Greek sure enough, but there’s odd gospel Greek in chapters 18 and 19.  There’s transliterated (i.e., Greek-lettered) Hebrew Aramaic perhaps, as if Greek is the translation.

The character βαρ αββᾶς is introduced to the Greek readers as a thief, and probably those reading aloud knowing Aramaic would get this name as meaning “Daddy’s Son.”  (In a variant text of Matthew 27:17, this same character is identified as another “Jesus,” so the emphasis on the Son-Father relationship is somehow implicit, perhaps?)  The day of σάββατον is approaching, and all Greek readers get the alpha-beta spelling of that week end.

In this a-syn-optic gospel, these are Greek author notes, Greek reader asides. John writes sometimes directly (verses 13 and 19) to those who read Greek but who can also hear Hebrew Aramaic, as if spelling things out more explicitly:

Ἑβραϊστὶ δὲ Γαββαθᾶ· /in “Hebrew” however is Gabbatha /

λέγεται Ἑβραϊστὶ Γολγοθᾶ· /it’s called in “Hebrew” Golgotha /

And for those who hear Latin, the Greek writer does something similar.  Writing in Greek the narrator gives in Greek letters what sounds like Latin names:

τὸ πραιτώριον is the Praetorium (where, starting in chapter 18, the trial begins)

Καῖσαρ, of course, is for Caesar.

Πιλᾶτος presumably is for Pilatus.


τίτλος is something else surely as recognizable to most Greek readers in this mutilingual milieu.  Maybe it’s a borrowing, something like my milieu in the previous sentence.  This is not Greek, or if it is we have to say it’s odd gospel Greek, then we must understand it as Greek-sounded-out Latin.  The Greek writer only goes so far as to explain what is on this Roman Latin τίτλον; he only writes it for his readers in Greek.

At this point, the Greek readers have no trouble believing that what he has written only in Greek Pilatus has had written in Ἑβραϊστί, Ἑλληνιστί, Ῥωμαϊστί /in Hebrew or Aramaic, in Hellene, and in the Latin of Rome /.

The Greek writer’s biggest challenge seems to be to get his multi-lingual readers of his Greek to πιστεύω, or to follow and to be persuaded by his Greek rhetorical proof.  Right here as Jesus is finally dead on the cross, the writer insists (in verse 35) that his Greek argument is alive, that readers conversing together in Greek, or was that in Latin?, or Hebrew?, or Aramaic?, must get it.  Perhaps it’s first-century near-Palestinian sitz im leben.  Surely by our twenty-first-century standards it’s some odd gospel Greek.

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